On Melancholy and Poetic Prose

Sometimes twitter throws at you something which suddenly makes all the garbage there inconsequential (including garbage one contributes to), even an okay price to pay for sublimity.

Melancholy, the rethinking of the disaster we are in, shares nothing with the desire for death. It is a form of resistance. And this is emphatically so on the level of art, where its function is far from merely reactive or reactionary. When, with a fixed gaze, melancholy again reconsiders just how things could have gone this far, it becomes clear that the dynamics of inconsolability and of knowledge are identical in function. In the description of the disaster lies the possibility of overcoming it.

From W. G. Sebald, Die Beschreibung des Unglucks (1985), trans. Louis Klee.

I found this thanks to a tweet by  (strong recommendation to follow if you are in love with words), and have reread it a few times. Recently, thanks to couple of excellent twitter feeds, I’ve been reunited with poetry — in the sense of reading poetry to be precise. Although I’ve scribbled a few bad to okay poems (most of those posted to this blog), I’ve never been into poetry that much. Read a few urdu shaayari, in the adolescent years, when everyone reads it. Tried to read Wasteland multiple times, always got lost in its labyrinths, and gave up eventually. Read bit of Neruda, a bit of Anna Akhmatova, bit of Wisława Szymborska, bit of this and that, took a few random trails down the Wandering Minstrels (wasn’t there a poetry site with this name — one with random poetry hopping function for a serendipitous meeting with a poem, a tinder for poetry really?). But I’ve never read the classics, nor can I claim to be a good reader of poetry.

And yet, I’ve yearned for the poetic writing, the kind that comes naturally to some writers. It’s more common among the fiction writing, but sometimes even non-fiction surprises you with that fluidity, that poetic flow of prose, that innate rhythm, that poignant dance of thoughts. It blurs the borders between prose and poetry. And what remains is an almost visceral understanding of thoughts. It’s to that aim that I keep on dabbling with writing, despite all the evidence to the contrary. And it’s because of that, that when I see it, I pause and marvel, and cannot help but share it. God knows there is enough there already that even unearthing some of it might be worthy enough use of a lifetime.


PS: Wandering Minstrels is still there, only as a blog now, with all the archives too! You can check it out at : http://wonderingminstrels.blogspot.com/. Oh, yes, there is still the random hop button, too.

PS2: Melancholy, the subject of the excerpts, is really the rarefied essence of most great art, isn’t it? I mean, to use Tolstoy’s take on happy/unhappy families, in this context, all happy art seems to be same, but there are a thousand shades of the melancholy that make art that dabbles in melancholy so different, almost every time.

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Minting Words

I am reading Junot Díaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” (a fascinating book, at least what I’ve read so far — I’m about half done). Actually I’m not reading reading it, but rather listening to the audio-book, but these days I call it reading, without any loss of generalization, as we say in mathematical proofs. Anyways, the point is, I came across this interesting bit:

So furious and so unrelenting, in fact, was La Inca’s pace that more than a few women suffered shetaat (spiritual burnout) and collapsed, never again to feel the divine breath of the Todopoderoso on their neck.

I was struck by this concept of spiritual burnout, and was impressed that there is a word in some language for such a concept. And so I searched a bit. Only to find that most links are throwing me back to Junot Díaz’s use. So very likely he just made it up. Not that I’m complaining.

Thing is, if there can be physical burnout, why can’t there be a spiritual one? Yes, spirit is supposed to be indestructible, and all that, but it’s only in the context of a living being, with physical body, and brain, that spiritual really means anything. Right?

As for the word itself, maybe that is a not made up by the author. And language scholars may actually dig it up, and I could see it’s etymology. Freshly minted or not, some words are worth a rendezvous.

 

Notes on Ijaazat (1987)

Growing up, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to good Hindi films beyond the usual masala mix. I remember watching Shabana’s superlative performance in Arth, on a bad VHS tape on a borrowed VCR/VCP (it was a rage those days, to borrow it from the Video store for 12 hours, mostly night hours, and watch 3-4 films back to back, and return it all early morning). I remember Nasir’s nuanced portrayal of a visually impaired man in Sparsh. I remember Anupam Kher’s stinging rage in Saaransh. All these films I watched for the first time with not a lot of understanding of films, but their almost visceral quality meant I didn’t need a lot of it. It was almost instinctive. Then there were a bunch of light but meaningful, semi-realistic movies directed by one of the three talented directors : Sai Paranjape (Chashme baddor, Katha), Basu Chatterjee (Rajneegandha, Piya ka ghar, Choti si Baat, Baaton baaton mein),  Hrishikesh Mukherjee (too many to name). And so on.

All this was a backlog, mostly, that I cleared up before moving on to more contemporary movies. Meaning, these were the movies already released before I started watching movies (before I was 10 years old, as well). Then there were directors I grew up with, who made meaningful cinema, that I had started to understand more and more, thanks to a lot of decent movies already consumed — people like Govind Nihlani, Tapan Sinha, Ketan Mehta, Shyam Benegal, Jabbar Patel (Marathi, mainly). And of course, there was Gulzar. A poet/writer turned director, who gave us a bunch of fine films. But for some reason, his one movie that has really stayed with me was Ijaazat.

I don’t recall when I watched it first. Definitely not when it came out in theaters. I was 11 then, and the movie wouldn’t have made sense. But few years down the line, I caught it on another marathon VCR session, when some of my elder cousins were visiting. And the timing was just right for me. Given the times, and the place, the movie seemed progressive to me, with two female characters who were strong in their own ways, and with non-conventional relationships, and open discussions about love, an almost poetic portrayal of love, longing, acceptance, and limits of it all. (If you haven’t watched Ijaazat, stop right now. For one, you should be watching it. Plus, there will be enough spoilers, and enough assumptions)

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I will not even say that Ijaazat was Gulzar’s best film, but for young people in that era trying to get a sense of love, it was a fascinating movie, for it’s time, at least. And yet, when I look back at it now, I’m tempted to re-examine/deconstruct the movie (always a bad idea).

One of the questions that has bothered me all these years is – why is the character played by Anuradha Patel named Maya? I mean, a free-spirited girl has to have a name that signifies unreal/illusory? Is it a subconscious belief of the writer that such a girl has to be illusory? Contrast it with the names of the other two main characters: Mahender and Sudha. More earthly, not philosophical.

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Ijaazat, if you look at it from this angle, is a story of a typical Indian man (because make no mistake about it: while Maya is atypical Indian women, Mahender is a typical Indian man) who wants exotic girlfriend and settles down for homely wife, due to social factors. I know that’s very reductive. Because, Mahender wanted to marry Maya, but at the moment of decision, she is nowhere to be traced. But consider this, for five years, he has stretched the engagement with Sudha, and it’s clear to everyone she’s not his first choice. And still, when his grandfather picks up a wedding date like rabbit out of a hat, he goes ahead with the marriage because he can’t trace Maya. Now let me get this straight, if he could have traced Maya, she still wouldn’t have married him, being a free-spirited crazy feminist. What then? Was he just waiting for her ijaazat to get married to Sudha?

Its clear to both Mahender and Sudha, and also to viewers, that it’s a marriage of convenience.  And still they go through it, and try to make best of it. But it’s no wonder that it cannot survive the return of Maya. And when she does return, cracks do start appearing, especially as her presence is there even in her absence. And Mahender is not content with the convenience. He wants it all. The homely wife and the exotic girlfriend. And so he is even ready to impress on his wife what Maya is, and what she means to him. Trouble is, the relationship is not at that level of maturity to really survive that. And Mahender has made no real visible efforts to insure that level is reached, or even attempted. For him, it’s something that just has to be.

Another scene I want to deconstruct is the one before the climax, when Mahender is updating Sudha about what happened after she left him, about Maya’s death. I wonder if Maya’s end is symbolic of something? Free-spirited girl, riding a bullet, being killed by a scarf getting into the spokes? Just accident as usual? Or something more? I leave it to you to decide for yourself, but I smell a big rat. Besides, what was the need to kill Maya? To get sympathy for Mahender, who couldn’t choose between contradictory wishes (Grandfather’s wishes, his vow to his wife, his love for Maya), needed a redemption, I guess. But why? Because, and that’s where we come to the climax, Sudha needed to be able to ask him his “blessing” for her new life, and to be able to touch his feet (seriously, in the same film that has Mahender living with his girlfriend, an ultra feminist?) while doing that. For her to ask his Ijaazat, she had to forgive him first, and what better way than portraying poor Mahender who lost it all to accidents and misunderstandings?

Ah, that’s a load off, that I’ve been carrying with me for god knows how long? Because, while I completely loved the movie, the multiple times that I have watched it, some things have always nagged me. And now I realize that I had fallen for a stylized patriarchy. You guessed it, this was targeted for 8th March, but lazy me couldn’t finish it in time. But while I call out its latent patriarchy, I must applaud Gulzar for creating one of the most fascinating female characters of the era, even if named Maya. So, let’s raise a toast to this conflicted film, and to all Mayas, and Sudhas, and to a world where Mahenders would be strong enough to make their decisions without being constricted by their umbilical chords.

 

No Man’s Land

We’ve shrunk
the no man’s land
now it looks like
a thin red line
and both sides
want you to redraw it
fresh, with your blood
as a token
of your membership,
and there are lines
long, tiring lines
on both sides
of people out to prove
their allegiance
to their one truth,
unquestionable,
timeless, even self-evident,
with a drop of their blood
drawn out with
a sterilized syringe
bravely enduring
the harmless little prick,
and intent to paint
the line red
again, and again
lest we forget
the wrongs,
of the other side,
and the line
doesn’t ever dry out
or change color,
because
on both sides,
the color of blood,
and the color of rage,
is the same red.

We’ve raised
our fences
made them formidable
tall, and strong,
with spikes on them,
electricity flowing
through them,
and menacing reminders —
the skulls,
of erstwhile fence-sitters,
naive idiots,
who couldn’t take sides,
adorning them,
and there are watchers
on both sides, watching
intently, your every step,
weapons ready,
just in case,
you climbed the fence
but they needn’t bother,
because no one,
wants to sit on the fence
anymore.


Featured Image: Church Behind a Fence by Atul Sabnis

Boys Do Cry

The Australian Open tennis championship just concluded over the weekend with Roger Federer claiming his 18th grand slam title, adding to his tally after a wait for five long years, when he made to a handful of finals. Incidentally this was his first victory over Nadal since 2007 in a grand slam. A match loaded with memories of 2009 epic which anti-climaxed in the fifth set, which Nadal won 6-2, ending Federer’s hard court dominance. Till then, except for the 2008 Wimbledon, Federer was the king of everything but the clay. After losing Wimbledon 2008 in 5 epic sets, and then again Australian in similar fashion, Federer was distraught. He cried uncontrollably during the presentation.

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Roger “Crying” Federer

In a career that has spanned twenty years, and as illustrious as any in any contemporary sports, this is still seen as a blemish.

He cried! Cry baby. Rotlu …

Cut back to previous era. 1993. Wimbledon Ladies Finals. Steffi Graf was struggling in the final set, down 1-4, and Jana Novotna, who had yet to taste Grand Slam success, playing the finest grass court game, dominating the multiple times Wimbledon champion like never seen on that Center Court, one points away from cementing a double break, and going up 5-1 in the decider.  She double faulted. Missed another two relatively simple shots she was making all day long. And she lost it 6-4 in the end. Never winning a game there after. In the post match ceremony, she couldn’t hold back the tears and found the shoulders of the Duchess of Kent to comfort her. They called her choker. No one ever questioned her crying.

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A Royal Shoulder to Cry On

Girls cry. Boys don’t cry. Especially not the sportsmen.

Another time jump.  Two years ahead. Another Australian Open. Not a final though, a quarter final. Pete Sampras Vs Jim Courier. Courier had taken first two sets on tie-breaks, and Sampras had equalized by taking the next two. The fifth set, at a changeover at 1-0, we watched with disbelief, as Sampras started crying out of the blue. He just sat their and cried. A guy, known for his emotionless, precise, almost mechanical game play, who’d shrug off breaks, and lost sets, and restart the machine the next point. Sampras, it transpired later (this wasn’t the twitter/facebook era, after all, with access to all information) had a mini breakdown, thinking about his ailing coach Tim Gullikson. It was a surreal moment. Almost proving to the rest of the world that Sampras was, after all, a human being.

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The Human Touch: Crying for the Couch

Another jump. Wimbledon again. 2012. Final. Federer,  who had just joined the 30 something club, was struggling to find answer to an in form, local hope, Andy Murray, who was still looking for his first Grand Slam title. Murray took the first set and was going strong in second, when the roof closed due to the rains, and Federer  found that something extra that champions seem to snatch from thin air, and took the first half opportunity to equalize the set score, and then pressed and pressed the now hapless Murray and never really look back to claim his 17th at his favorite venue. In the post match presentations, Murray cried. A scot, too.

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Even the Scots Cry

He cried!

And of course, two years down the line, Warwinka defeated Nadal in Australian Open. 2014. Men’s final. Rafa, the gladiator, was struggling with injury. It looked liked he was going to forfeit that match sometime during second set. But he hung around. Even got a set out of Wawrinka, who was unsure what to do with an opponent on the verge of passing out on court. It was then, post match, that Rafa — the guy whose career is a symphony of pain and grit, a tribute to what mind can do even when body is not willing, even capable by all estimates; the guy who on court personifies the male aggression, control, power, strength, stamina — let out a few tears.

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Rare Tears of a Modern Day Gladiator

Yes. Boys do cry.

Even some of the toughest and strongest do. Those tears are the dues that need to be paid, sometimes. After bottling it all in. Playing a match, and a persona at the same time.

Incidentally, each and every story here has a part two.

  • Sampras did win that match. He lost to Agassi in the final, but went on the win Wimbledon and US Open that year. And more after that.
  • Novotna came back to Wimbledon finals in 1997 to lose to another star, Martina Hingis. But came back again in 1998 to win on the same ground where she mysteriously self-destructed five years back.
  • Murray went on to break his finals jinx in the US Open the same year, defeated Federer on the same home court, in a five setter, for Olympics Gold, and came back to win two more titles there.
  • Nadal went on to win French Open the very next grand slam the same year.
  • Federer went on to complete his career grand slam, and get multiple slams. Even defeat Nadal on the same ground full eight years later.

No the moral of the story isn’t that crying guarantees success. Or anything that simplistic. But I want to underline the fact that these are champions, before and after those tears. Those moments just took their dues.

Buy why just sportsmen? Crying is such a human activity that to keep half of humanity away from it through strong social conditioning seems harsh. A culture that calls boys sissy for crying (not that anything is wrong with being a girl, but why can’t one be a boy who cried?). A culture that frowns on grown up men crying. A culture, where even the ladies frown on men crying. Maybe, back in the days of hunter-gatherers and warriors, it made sense. But in the post-feminist, post-modern age, where we see equality being rightfully promoted everywhere, men still aren’t allowed to cry in public.

I am no stranger to tears. And yet, when I’m watching a movie in a theater, and something moves me to tears, the next moment, my inner thoughts are, can someone see me cry? Will there be an interval now, and it will be too short a time to wipe my tears, and hope for the redness in the eyes to go away? And I lose the moment, the beautiful moment, when the filmmaker had managed to connect to the innermost me, and move me. From there, I’m suddenly in another world, of cultural stereotypes, and mass bullying. Still, I routinely cry at the movies. And risk the red eyes, and stuffy nose at interval or the curtains. Even otherwise, sometimes. It’s not easy, but then years of conditioning is always harder to fight.

So boys (and men), do cry (yes, notice the comma). Rebel. Claim the territory that has been kept away from you purposefully. Making you a little less human, for the sake of a gender stereotype. Let it out sometimes. Some moments deserve the tears. You don’t become bigger by denying them those dues.

 

 

Reflections – 2017, 24th Jan

There is a poignancy to the expression: “succumbed to her own melancholy”. I came across it in “Love, Terror, and Cigarettes” (a New Yorker piece  about German writer Gregor Hens’ Memoir, Nicotine). In the book, Gregor uses it to describe the demise of his mother, possibly a suicide brought on by depression. It got me thinking. So much of us, despite our glorious civilization and its pinnacles of achievement, is the chemical lotcha in our brain. The melancholy is just an aspect of it. We succumb to so much — to our fears, our joys, our pride, our ambitions, our dreams. And that is all within us. There is a universe floating in those chemicals that define us, despite our best efforts. Our longing to break free and travel to other worlds is probably just an extension of our longing to break free of the universe that we’re trapped in, inside our heads. And the harmony that we sometimes see in the external world is just our hormones making us believe it’s alright. That, it all fits; it all has a rhythm — accidental or otherwise.  

 

The Annus Horribilis

The thing about years is that we tend to make a big deal out of their starting and ending. When those markers are actually just conventions. So we’re really celebrating conventions. This time around, we’re actually cursing an almost arbitrarily demarcated time period because a lot of bad things happened in that period. Like Brexit. Trump. Parting of David Bowie and many more singers, artists. We all know the list,  and there are a lot of things that don’t make it to the list, depending upon where you are, who you are. In areas of the world, every year for last few years has been a annus horribilis. Countries are losing battles with internal strife, religious orthodoxy, even secular statist ideologies, economic crisis and so on. If you’re celebrating on the eve of a beckoning  new year, you’re probably already luckier than a lot of people in the world.

So let’s just let 2016 breath its final breaths, and lets also acknowledge all good that  the year may have given us,  too. I’m sure there will be a list of that too, if we just think a little.

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The Last Sunset of 2016

Personally, this year has been not significantly different than last few years. And it’s a good thing. I was able to read a few good books. Discovered a few new authors worth following. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for instance. Or Ursula K. Le Guin (unbelievable that I waited all these years), Claire King, Eli Shafak, N. S. Madhavan, Thomas Mann (again, all these years!). I had a conservative goodreads reading challenge of 18 books for the year. I did 24. This year, the good thing is I actually read a few more than last year when I mostly heard them as audiobooks. I got back into reading long-form articles, and non-fiction. I reviewed a decent number of books, movies on my blog.

Which brings me to this blog of mine, which definitely did better this year, although the most important category for me remains a concern — not a single fiction piece. But reviews, poems, and a few rambling pieces on random subjects. Still a good year. I’m still floating after all these years. That’s not at all bad, is it?

I discovered (in the sense that I finally started getting them) a ton of Jazz artists (still, mostly, those from the classic era — like Jaki Byard, Joe Henderson,  Horace Silver, Roy Brooks, Nat Adderley). It was a good musical year, especially with Apple Music coming to India at a very affordable rate. Also, rediscovered the penchant for old hindi songs of the golden era, as my six year old got interested in them. Memories of generations now passed on the second time – a testimony to the timeless quality of the era. Also, a bridge across generations, as my father and my son have a common musical memory.

In all fairness, I’m going to think of 2016 as another year that gave some, and took some. Like any year really. See you in the next arbitrary time slice. With more fiction, hopefully. For what we make of an year, is partly up to us.

 

The Problems with Dangal

It’s probably useless to attempt to review Dangal. Everyone knows what it’s about. It’s doing well. It’s a movie that I enjoyed watching. It’s a good movie. But I’d like to add — and this might be necessary, because the momentum like that sometimes makes people believe that a movie is lot more that it is — it’s not great, or near perfect, as some reviewers may like you to believe. Not that it has to be. Not that it was even intended to be. Which is fine, really. Neither were Lagaan, or Titanic, or Three Idiots, or umpteen other celebrated movies in Bollywood/Hollywood.

Dangal has a few things going for it, yes. Good acting (nope, not great, good). Decent story-line. Excellent pace. A dose of desh-prem. A somewhat progressive take on gender equality (although not, if you look closely, and we will). Decent music. Shot well, especially the wrestling training and matches — it all looks very real.

But once the euphoria is over, a few hours after the credits roll up, one starts to ruminate (can there be a better word to describe it — because it’s exactly what bovine species does with food, eat first, chew later) over the film, and those things that jarred when you were watching it, but you couldn’t put your finger on (or even wanted to, then), start raising their not-so-pretty heads.

So here are some problems with Dangal:

The generic biopic problem of Bollywood

Bollywood is terrible when it comes to biopics. It trades nuances for punches, and uncomfortable facts for pulp. Unfortunately, Dangal doesn’t buck that trend (I have not seen Mary Kom, so not sure if it does). While it makes for an overall interesting viewing, I think a more nuanced portrayal might have made it a more honest, and generally a better movie.

Weak Characterization

Except for Mahavir Singh Phogat’s character, most other characters are placeholders to bend against his will as required. Even the two girls, who end up winning International Golds are basically puppets at the hands of Mahavir, all through the movie. Its only two times that Geeta is seen showing some agency. Out of this, when she chooses to  reject her father’s authority on life and coaching, she is a spectacular failure. Predictably, it’s when she chooses to take advice from her father in the crowd as opposed to her coach, does she do well. The father is always right. The international level (caricature of an) coach is always wrong. There is no scope for nuances or gray shades.

Gender equality without agency

Yes, the movie has an  explicit message of treating your daughters no less than sons, and Mahavir seems to mouth the same near the end, mansplaining it to the girls. But even that is almost accidental. One is supposed to feel for Mahavir early on when he is cursed with a daughter after daughter. It’s only when he realizes that they can fulfill his dream, that Mahavir actually starts looking at them as, well, to put it mildly surrogates for boys. In fact no women in the film has any agency (and when they seem to have it, they’re wrong — like Geeta’s friend at the institute who spoils her). The girls have to do what Mahavir tells them. The mother has zero say in the business.

Melodrama

Another obsession of Bollywood that Dangal doesn’t manage to free itself from is the ubiquitous melodrama. Some of the scenes are absolutely ridiculous. Like Mahavir showing the album of the girl’s prize money and pleading with the officials at National Institute of Sports when they are about to expel the girls. What the coach does near the end is so atrociously melodramatic. Or the scene where Geeta calls her father on insistence of Babita, after realizing that it’s not working out for her. Nowhere is there a visible effort to make it subtle, more nuanced. Nowhere is the conflict genuine, and answers complicated.

Implications on Parenting

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We live in crazy times where as it is parents are pushing their kids to the limits — for their own good, obviously, if you ask them. What the film seems to be glorifying Mahavir’s bullheaded pursuit of vicarious excellence (a friend of the girls says she’d rather have a father like Mahavir, when the girls are complaining of their plight, because at least he treats them as someone who could be something, but it’s a very specific something that he wants — more for himself — and it’s not negotiable, and in that sense the girls are as much instruments in the hands of a single person, as the friend is in the hands of a patriarchal system). There are no seeds of doubt sown anywhere. Excellence comes at a cost, and the cost has to be paid by the children, because a parent knows the best. I’m so worried that a lot of Indian parents will just take the movie as a validation of their, sometimes excessive, pushing of children towards a statistically unlikely glory in real life.

So yes, Dangal has its moments. It’s fun. It’s even temporarily uplifting. But as the hangover recedes, I could not help but feel sad at an opportunity lost, of a honest, nuanced biopic. Then again, 100s Cr club membership requires you to abandon nuances. Not even Amir Khan will that price (no don’t tell me Taare Zameen Par was nuanced).

The Good Within

At the end of the yoga session today, my instructor, an elderly lady, had this to say, as we were getting up from the shavasan.

“आपल्या आतल्या परमेश्वराला नमस्कार करा, दुसऱ्यांच्या आतल्या परमेश्वराचा आदर करा”

(Pray to the god in you, and respect the god in others)

Let’s keep aside for a moment the duality (unwittingly?) implied here — for the God in each one of us is supposed to be the same — because that wasn’t the point, just a convenience. After all it’s easier to see a God in ourselves, but so much harder to see one in others. So let’s just gloss over that for a moment. Let’s also gloss over the, almost radical (as Douglas Adams first put it), atheism of yours truly, and the irony of someone like that quoting this. But this simple advise carries such a deep wisdom.

So let’s peel away the religious layer, because however it may make it easy for most (religious) people to grasp/follow, they are not needed to make sense of this (and may even distract from groking [1] the underlying thought). For what exactly is a God within us? Isn’t it that innate frame of reference with which we judge our actions? Our moral compass — something as unprovable as God? Or to put it very simply, with an extra ‘o’, the good within us?

What better way than to remind oneself of the good within us and other, every now and then, and see beyond the petty vices? If I could just ask myself, “If you do this, would you think better of yourself, or worse?”, every time before I did something, and only did that (with obvious exceptions where mortal danger forbids it, or in general, one is not courageous enough to risk something) which made me think better of myself, I know I’d be a lot happier, lot saner, lot calmer person. And yet, I don’t. Not even half as frequently as I’d like.

Similarly, if we just kept the “best within the other” in our mind as we interact with them (again, there are trade-offs I agree, especially with a lot of zero-sum games and dove strategies not being optimal in iterated prisoner’s dilemmas [2] that life throws at us in heaps), we’d be all that, and more (happier, saner, calmer, …). And yet I don’t. I let the petty distract me, take me over, enrage me, blind me, make me just a reflexive automaton.

We don’t need Gods within to make us better people. We need to trust the good within us.


[1] Grok: A word coined by Robert A. Heinlein for his 1961 science-fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land. (from Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grok)

[2] Highly recommend Richard Dawkin’s Selfish Gene for a detailed discussion of Prisoner’s Dilemma and Hawk/Dove strategies.

La La Land: The Glorious Mess We Make

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land begins on a freeway, in the middle of a massive traffic jam, and suddenly people are out on the road dancing. A few minutes later, the song over, everyone’s back into their cars, frustrated/honking, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is in a car behind Mia’s (Emma Stone), honking at her as the jam opens up, but she’s busy reading her audition script, and they give each other middle fingers, as they go there own way.

For the next two hours or so, La La Land takes us back and forth into those two worlds — of dreams and reality, effortlessly moving from one to the other, blurring the borders. It’s been described as a musical, and it is, in a way, but not in the traditional sense. Chazelle who gave us a extremely tightly woven Whiplash has taken all sort of liberties here. Songs linger a bit longer than one is used to. Closeups last longer than is strictly necessary, but richly paid off, thanks to the two lead performers. Side cast is side cast, with no effort made to develop any other character, and it really doesn’t matter (just like Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost In Translation needed no one around them, really).

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The story is simple love story between two struggling artists — Mia an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop (yes, very cliched but works), and Sebastian, an aspiring Jazz pianist — both trying to find out if they have it in them. As they inevitably fall in love, it all merges, professional dreams and life. They change each other, grow with each other, just to find that all of that comes with a bill (or a check, as the Americans would say).

Dialogues are absorbing, so are the lyrics. The colors are terrific. You savor frame after frame, assuming this can’t be bettered, but just as the two characters keep on saying about view of a lovely valley, “I have seen better”, another frame comes and proves it possible. Cinematography is exquisite, continuing with the recent Hollywood trend of using movies as a way to express love of a city (like Begin Again’s love affair with New York). And the chemistry is intoxicating.

Mia: It’s pretty strange that we keep running into each other.
Sebastian: Maybe it means something.
Mia: I doubt it.
Sebastian: Yeah, I don’t think so.

In a scene early on Mia tells Sebastian, “I hate Jazz”, hoping to get that out of the door, because she knows what it means to Sebastian, a Jazz purist of sorts (she doesn’t know it, but earlier on, when his sister suggests him to meet a girl, he asks if she like Jazz, and when the answer is negative, he goes: “but what will we talk about”?)

“What do you mean you hate Jazz?”, he wants to know, and proceeds to initiate her (and the audience, in case they share the feeling) into it. He doesn’t, as she is expecting, fly off the handle, but just wouldn’t accept the it’s true (how could she?) But as he tells her about it, he also tells her regretfully that his beloved Jazz is dying, “but not on my watch”, he boasts. What Jazz is to Sebastian, the musical seems to be for Chazelle – a dying art form that he wouldn’t let die on his watch (even Sebastian’s words for to Mia when she wonders if it’s just a pipe dream she’s chasing – “It’s conflict, and it’s compromise,  and it’s very exciting”, seem to be said to himself, as much as to Mia) .

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La La Land is about Jazz, about magic of films, about arts, drama, and such dreams of the ones stepped in in performance arts, but what it is really about is underlined by Mia, in one of her auditions, when given a free hand, as she breaks into a song, that goes:

Here’s to the ones who dream,
foolish as they may seem.
Here’s to the hearts that ache.
Here’s to the mess we make.

That in nutshell, is La La Land — a story of dreams, and costs we pay to achieve them.

“Where are we”, Mia asks Sebastian,  later on.

The emphasis is on we, not where. There are  no easy answers here. Even as La La Land keeps on giving us glimpses of dreams, it stays rooted to reality. And in that sense, it isn’t a musical of 40s or 50s. Just like Whiplash, where excellence is never detached from the price of achieving it, there are no easy resolutions here either. But by the time the end credits roll, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the glorious mess we make, those of us who dream.


PS: A note on the lead actors. Emma Stone, who impressed in Birdman is  fabulous here. Mia is meant for her. Ryan Gosling is more than competent — given the meatier role. And the music is fabulous, Jazz and all – what lovely theme that by Justin Hurwitz, something right up there with the best. What more can one ask of a movie? I watched it in a theater with 15 odd people, mostly bored, and disappointed. Maybe for those of us who have grown up on the Bollywood flavor of magic, this is underwhelming. But if you’re ready to step out of your comfort zone, do watch this love affair with dreams. Maybe, it’ll rekindle some lost one of yours too.