Narratives i.e. stories, tales and fables have been one of the most potent tools used by institutions (religions, schools etc) to pass down and inculcate beliefs and values among its practitioners. The persistent prevalence of such narratives in the popular vis-à-vis collective conscience further stands testimony their power in conditioning and reinforcing behaviour.
Remember Pinocchio, Snow White, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel? Remember the Ant who toiled and the Grasshopper who rollicked in summers, only to see their fortunes reverse in winters? Remember the monkey who lived on the jamun tree, who left his heart on the tree and had to go back to retrieve it to save himself from becoming his fiendish friend, the crocodile’s feast? Remember Hansel and Gratel and their trysts with the archetypal evil old woman – yes, most of these seemingly ordinary fables are endowed with a psychological complexity that runs deeper than the superficial action of the plot, but more importantly, it is the power of this latent complexity that used to and still does capture our attention and leaves an indelible mark on our psyches.
‘Does the same hold true when the idea is extended to cinema – another story telling medium like literature, only umpteen times more potent and effective’, was the question I asked myself while re-structuring the syllabus at my institution, a leadership and ethics training and research organization.
As an OB and Ethics Instructor, I had been very curious to see how effective is the employment of narratives, especially cinema, in training individuals and initiating important discussions around key aspect of individual and organizational behaviour. After all, in my experience, as a trainee and a trainer in the subject, theory in itself could be pretty boring, and effectively serves as an antidote to insomnia.
I began with the obvious. I made a class of 22 – 26 year old junior managers watch 12 Angry Men (1957) – the standard fare at most business and management schools – which covers or effectively illustrates most aspects of organizational vis-à-vis group behaviour such as the operation of prejudices in value judgment, attribution errors, moral awareness and moral fortitude, group think and ways to countermand it, negotiation tactics, approaches to conflict management and the like.
Thereafter, I went about initiated discussions and invited trainees to critically analyse various covert and overt issues related to group dynamics and behaviour, including, but not limited to styles of negotiation, stages of conflict and styles and approaches to leadership.
Doing this over and over, I also realized that there were other films/narratives that could also be used to similar ends. I have briefly discussed some of these for the benefit of trainers, practitioners and for the general reader.
Jungle Book. My favourite since 1991. I went back to reading Rudyard Kipling’s masterpiece before taking over as Directing Staff. I realized it can very well serve as a counterpoint to 12 Angry Men. While 12 Angry Men charts the trajectory of a disjointed, disorganized group to a somewhat ordered one, Jungle Book is all about seeing how a group comes together and where it can go. Baloo, Bagheera, Ka, Leela, Mowgli’s wolf-siblings – all are part of an ideal team where role specificity is defined, each character is endowed with responsibility without the limitations of hierarchy or echelon, and the overarching vision/emotion is to work in the best interest of the group and attainment of group objectives – primary among which is to bring up Mowgli and keep him from harms’ way. Kipling’s story also foregrounds a deep-rooted conflict faced by most of us, including naval officers – conflict in identity as an individual and as part of a group – something that Mowgli faces after he encounters other human beings.
Moreover, for interested students, I also inject questions around what really forms our identity – perceived superficial similarities with a group or a deeper sense of affiliation one feels because of emotional and other affiliation-oriented ties. Inevitably, this leads to discussions on leadership practices that go beyond relying on uniformity as a bonding factor and rather recognise unique characteristics among all individuals to understand each individual’s competencies, strengths and weaknesses; in short, what really bring them together. Hence, this becomes the starting point to initiate discussions around team work, role specificity, identity and leadership approaches.
Mahabharata and Groupthink. One advantage of discussing the classic Indian epic Mahabharata is that it needs no formal introduction. Most trainees, owing to their upbringing and social background, are aware of the broader aspects of the plot. And even though the text is rich in both moral complexity and ‘food for thought’, one needs to be focused in order to have a meaningful discussion and provide concrete take-aways. From that standpoint, I like discussing two important instances highlighting two critical aspects of behavior:-
- Disrobing of Draupadi and Groupthink. This one scene becomes a site of polyphonic reflections. Say, firstly, I draw attention to the fact that here, in this court, sit, not individuals who are morally depraved, or morally blind, but some of the most learned men of their times. There is Bhishma, Dronacharya, Kripacharya and the rest. But none of them, literally none of them get up to stop, or even interrupt the disrobing of Draupadi (the moral nadir of the story). I ask trainees to reflect on what does such behavior tell us about the limits of knowledge, and its (somewhat) questionable capacity to truly influence behavior? Secondly, I draw attention to the fact that they are all aware that what is happening is reprehensible – and yet, since it falls within the purview of legal sanction, it is acceptable. This is where the difference between legality and ethics, the ‘letter of the law’ versus ‘the spirit of the law’ become most pertinent – they are made aware, slowly, through the slow peeling of each layer of meaning, that they might at one time be legally right, but morally wrong and vice versa. And after all of this, I distribute a simplified version of Irving Janus’s 1972 paper on Groupthink and ask the class to place the occurrences and decision-making debacles of the Kaurava court in context of various aspects of groupthink.
- Krishna/Arjun and the Best in Counselling. I start my sessions on Counselling and Mentoring with Arjun and Kirshna’s pre-Kurukshetra battle dialogues. Not exactly the dialogues, but the manner in which Krishna counsels Arjuna out of his moral dilemmas to fight or to not fight – its peculiar how this dilemma finds resonance in the beginning of Hamlets’ famous ‘To be or Not to be’ soliloquy. Although I am keenly aware of conjectures made by Wendy Doniger and other scholars about the position of Krishna as a war-monger, I like to keep that aspect/interpretation for my seminar on Role Morality. For the Counselling and Mentoring session, Krishna’s ability to empower Arjuna to re-think and re-interpret his own dilemmas and thereby coming to a better level of self-awareness becomes the primary idea meriting much attention.
Hamlet and Haider. Vishal Bharadwaj’s 2014 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet has been my favourite for many reasons than one. Apart from its cinematography, the fine acting of its main characters and the highly charged and relevant political setting (Kashmir), what took the cake for me was how the film makes a wild departure from the play in the way it ends. Until then, it follows the moods, themes and twists and turns of the plot, faithfully. This includes even the minor characters/scenes such as that of the grave diggers, and even the ‘soliloquy with the skull’ scene.
Coming back, I play the end again and again to drive home a simple, but difficult to grasp truth: in that blood soaked scene, when Haider (Hamlet/Shahid Khan) has the will, chance, opportunity and weapon to finally slay his adversary Khurram Meer(Claudius/KK Menon), he doesn’t do it! Yes, that’s right, he doesn’t do it! That close-up shot is one of the most intense ones I have seen in Hindi cinema (the other one of equivalent moral stature being that of Reema Lagoo’s in Vaastav(1999), wherein she does kill her simpleton-turned gangster son by shooting him in the head and relieving him of his guilt, fear and power-drunk narcissism.
Haider, unlike Hamlet, doesn’t kill Khurram Meer/Claudius – and therein lies the finest illustration of Kohlberg’s post-conventional level of morality vis-à-vis James’s Rest’s moral awareness giving rise to moral action. Furthermore, the scene also aids me in driving home the futility of the ‘eye for an eye’ thought-process, especially when it comes to the employment and counteracting to violence, shall that be Kashmir, Assam or Afghanistan. Of course, I restrict myself to the arguments around moral action, lest my class turn into a political battleground which it has on many occasions.
Paths of Glory. Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 masterpiece has been one of my favourites ever since I saw it sneaking-up into a final year FTII class in 2008. It has also one been one of the most difficult films to discuss in class – primarily because it an anti-war film like no other – not only does it question, again and again, the whole premise of war, patriotism and nationalism – but it convincingly proves its futility and inevitability simultaneously. During a WWI campaign against the Germans, after the French General Mireau orders an impossible attack on a German post which is convincingly repelled, he is hell-bent on ‘setting examples’. He orders the court martial of three retreating French soldiers, and their own superior must defend them. Certainly, the three soldiers are put in front of a firing squad, but General Mireau doesn’t go unscathed. Please read more about it here. The important points I like to drive home are these; firstly, in the real world, the idealism of individuals always goes hand-in-hand with the imperfections of systems – and it is incumbent on the individual as to how well he/she may navigate these imperfections, secondly, power has much deeper influences on the psyches of those in power than we can imagine or gauge, thirdly, organizational norms must be questioned at all times by the ones following and implementing those norms and lastly, ethics is as much about making choices between two wrongs, as it is about making choices at all.
A still from the trenches
I have many more to share and discuss, including the Lord of the Flies and Munnabhai MBBS, which I shall be doing in my next post. I hope you found this insightful and enriching.