When I finished all four seasons of Netflix’s Money Heist (La Casa de Papel) in less than a week’s time, there were two things that I realised:
- I am an incorrigible binge-watcher with pitiful self-control,
- Money Heist is more than just well-made television.
Needless to say, the former was not new knowledge, but with ample time at my disposal, courtesy of the lockdown, I got to examining what exactly about the show drew the attention of 65 million pairs of eyes hypnotically to their screens. Of course there’s the viewer’s undeniable thrill of being taken into confidence in the intricate planning of a robbery, alongside being witness to the brooding Professor’s ingenious ripostes to every compromising adversity. To add to that the narrative is rife with plot twists, unforeseen yet convincing character arcs, compelling backstories, and stunning visuals that make the audience engage with every character in all their complexity, despite (and in some cases, especially for) their moral ambivalence. However, the appeal of the show is embedded in something bigger than itself- a connection that makes one root for the (anti)heroes in red overalls, a resonance that transforms ‘Bella Ciao’ from a war cry to an anthem.
The Arsenal of Resistance
The Professor justifies his crime on several occasions by assigning to it a symbolic value. According to him, the heist is not so much for personal gain as it is an act of resistance against a society dictated by capitalistic forces. A global citizen, who is acutely familiar with the evils of political conservatism and concomitant capitalism from their own zeitgeist, is immediately seduced by this idea.
With the characters donning Dali masks, the facade of political righteousness is parallely ripped off the bureaucracy, thereby disturbing the complacency of a somnolent nation. As a result, the Professor’s intransigence is not met with derision but empathy from the common person, both within and without the television set, who cheers him on at every step.
This support was not unanticipated by the genius and, therefore, strategically utilised to propel his pursuit at critical points. The same holds equally true for Netflix, which bought streaming rights from the creators, having predicted the show’s potential to garner unanimous favour from an international audience. The charm of the heists, however, is not merely in their motivation but also in the beauty of their execution. More than the pedantics of operational facilities, the show displays an eye for aesthetic perfection even while waging war on the system.
Action as Spectacle
In seasons one and two, it literally uses state machinery in the form of the Royal Mint of Spain, to churn out the preferred tool of combat i.e. money, which in turn represents state corruption. This intelligent subversion is once again observed when the Professor uses ideological state apparatuses like the media to negotiate with agents of a repressive state apparatus, the police. He orchestrates every move of both parties, all the while invoking an almost Aristotelian opulence of opsis (spectacle), as his henchmen rain money over Madrid or print bills worth billions of euros musically to the beats of “Boom Chiki Boom”. Even the characterisation of Berlin, a core member of the group, has been imbued with the artistic sensibility of a dandy, be it in his choice of clothing, lifestyle, or philosophy- he exhibits qualities that largely undercut his tenuous morality, brazen misogyny, and tragic fate. In that, Money Heist takes the sweaty, injured dissident off the streets and makes resistance look beautiful, noble, even aspirational.
An easy explanation for the audience’s predilection to glorify these characters can be found in the Robin Hood trope that the narrative faintly evokes- an allegory inscribed in various forms in both Western and Eastern imaginations. Consumed by the characters’ emotionally charged interpersonal conflicts and adrenaline-inducing action sequences, the unassuming viewer can be susceptible to falling into the trap of their cultural memory, not realising that the criminals over here betray Robin Hood’s altruism. There are echoes of him in certain ground rules that the Professor lays down, such as “no bloodshed”, but his troupe is quite willing to defile these for the sake of their plan. Certainly, they have been bestowed with other redeeming qualities, but the primary intention of most is to escape the law and live a life of luxury with the returns of the heist.
In season three, a new mission is planned as a trade off for their incarcerated compatriot. Hence these heists, by no means, stage the conventional conflict between the haves and the have-nots that a regular consumer of modern art is trained to detect. Nor have these characters been tragically wronged by society, who therefore must be vindicated. What is it then that we’re applauding in their dramatic entrances and exits? Why are we celebrating their success? On a purely artistic level, it is the mastery of the craftsman that beckons such whole-hearted investment from the viewer. But on a deeper, psychological level, it could be the vicarious pleasure of watching the hollow institutions of authority being exposed and collapsing within themselves.
The Forms of Fetishisation
In recent cinematic productions, the motif of resistance has recurred in different forms- some violent, others more understated. Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019), which earned Joaquin Phoenix the Academy Award for Best Actor, locates the dissident in the marginalised figure of Arthur Fleck. His resistance has been well-founded in a history of psychological trauma and social denial. The crimes he commits are almost involuntary: a bodily response, like his psychosomatic laughter, as opposed to a retaliation.
Therefore, Fleck in his painted avatar, wreaking havoc across the city is vastly different from the Professor’s masked accomplices. However, the similarity is in their treatment- the fetishisation. At this point, a distinction must be made between the glorification of the standard larger-than-life Hollywood villain fighting the hero, and the fetishisation of the antihero, who’s a commoner suddenly discovering their agency.
This fetishisation is reflected in the theatricality that is lent to the antihero, especially when they are enacting the resistance. Arthur Fleck plans to hunt, not in the cover of darkness, but under the spotlight of prime-time reality television (once again recalling the strategy of art itself, finding sympathists for a movement in the average viewer consuming mainstream content). More importantly, he does not commit the murder, he performs it in front of an audience, much like the Professor’s self-declaration to the townsmen before the second heist. The supporters of both dissidents respond in the same way- by taking to the streets in the uniform of protest- the face on their masks, Dali or Joker, quite immaterial.
Contrarily, Bong Joon-ho in his Academy Award winning movie Parasite, contextualises resistance more pronouncedly in class conflict. Hence, it must begin with the have-nots acceding to their economic depravity followed by sharply appropriating only the cerebral arsenal available to them. The Kim family’s resistance, which was designed to hoodwink the Parks into employing them so that they may feed off their capital, was triggered by a primal struggle for survival, distinct from the premeditated assault on victims that the Professor or the Joker engineered. But somehow even in their desperation, their bodies, smell, and clothes are inadvertently morphed into a rich man’s sexual fantasy. Juxtaposed to the easy access to identifiable antagonists embodying institutions of capitalism or the state in previously discussed works, Joon-Ho’s world is more nuanced, but at the same, time, unforgiving. The rich aren’t demonised. The poor aren’t helpless. While the lines between good and bad are blurred, class divisions remain carved in stone.
Despite their tireless attempts, Parasite doesn’t allow its characters to change sides, as is seamlessly done by Money Heist’s Raquel Murrilo and Monica Gaztambide. But even as the audience accepts the sinister order of a man-eat-man society presented by Joon-ho, they are compelled to pause and congratulate the Kims on the ingenuity of their deception. By the end of the movie, Parasite transfers the Kim family’s desire for liberation onto the viewer, so much so, the penultimate scene becomes a brief interlude of wish fulfillment granted to all, those on screen and off it.
The Voice of the People
Yet what is intriguing in all these productions is the portrayal of dissent as the popular voice. The resistance, whether confined within a single household, city, or even when it takes a larger, international shape, is not always for a subaltern cause. Instead, it speaks the hearts of myriad souls, silenced under authoritarian regimes. Thus the success of such resistance is not in the realisation of its dream but in the numbers that dream it. The irony, however, lies in the platform upon which the ideals of dissenting philosophy are mounted for it to find its believers. To witness Joker speaking to the citizens of Gotham through popular media, or the Professor addressing the masses from advertisement display LED screens, is kind of a meta-theatrical moment to experience on a commercial medium like Netflix or Hollywood. The irony heightens as we realise that anti-capitalist art depends on capitalistic institutions for its distribution. But does that undermine the vigour of the movement, or the message it seeks to convey?
Closer home, director Zoya Akhtar was confronted with a similar question when she borrowed former JNUSU President, Kanhaiya Kumar’s iconic Azadi speech as a refrain for a song in her 2019 film, Gully Boy. While she explained her decision by extrapolating the essence of the speech from its context, she maintained that the movie did not share the political stance of her inspiration. This leads us to inquire into the extent to which the canvas influences the politics of art. A movie, with the singular intention to promote independent artists and tell the story of underdogs, had to fall back upon the glamorous framing of commercial cinema, to ensure viewership. Even within the screenplay, Murad’s (Ranveer Singh) talent is legitimised only after being recognised by a commercial label. His song about passion, birthed in the slums of Dharavi, gets the loudest applause from an upper-class audience in a slinky nightclub. The reality of this representation is not up for debate, as fiction boastfully holds the license to reimagine its own outcomes; but in the subliminal desire to seek the sanction of established bodies, the credibility of activism is often diluted.
Perhaps these celebrated antiheroes, painted with dark but rich hues of tragic beauty, are fleshed to lure the connoisseur, not the comrade.
About the author: Dibyangee Saha is a 22-year-old Master’s student of English literature. A published poet and French enthusiast, she is the happiest around music, stories, and red velvet cheesecakes.