Sunday, January 29, 2017

Neerja―Amazing Courage

I always remember Baradwaj Rangan Sir's piece on Aisha, which is one of my favorite pieces of writing in cinema, and I go back to it every few months. In his post on the film, he writes, "Even the way Aisha sips from a spoon has a calculated daintiness, just this side of precious, and it‘s only fitting that she reveals she’s in love by mumbling through a mouthful of gaajar halwa, as if alleviating the bitter onset of a grown-up emotion." It is such a wonderful interpretation of the sweetness of gaajar halwa. While watching Ram Madhvani's Neerja, I remembered the aforementioned scene when Neerja (Sonam Kapoor) reads the letter from Jaideep (Shekhar Ravjiani) and eats a chocolate cookie that he had given her. It is a heartbreaking scene when she reads the lines from Anand that life should be big and not long. In Before Sunrise, Céline had said, "I’m so scared of those few seconds of consciousness before you are going to die." Perhaps, Neerja had some own premonition of hers that her life is going to end, which is why she read Jaideep's letter to her before her birthday. She was proposed for marriage, and the sweetness of the chocolate brings her a momentary comfort from the proceedings happening around her.
Neerja is the story of Neerja Bhanot, a purser of the airline Pan American World Airways. She was shot and killed when she was on Pan Am Flight 73, which was hijacked by some terrorists belonging to Abu Nidal Organization. However, it was due to Neerja's sheer courage that she was able to save the lives of 359 out of 379 people on the flight. Ram Madhvani brings to life her story in his film, with Sonam Kapoor playing the eponymous role of Neerja brilliantly.

The film is meticulously researched with a lot of detailing. At one point, Neerja's mother switches on the geyser before waking her up. Neerja gets a polythene bag from under the mattress of her bed (like my home). We see that she reads a book by Mills & Boon. She picks video cassettes of the movies of Rajesh Khanna for her radio engineer friend in Karachi. We see a bunch of dholwalas in the background when Neerja comes to the airport. Since this was the eighties, anyone coming from or going to foreign was greeted with dholwalas at the airport. In the plane, a grandmother asks the airhostess if she is single so that she can fix her up with her single grandson, like all parents are fixated with marriage of their children. 
The film creates some really eerie moments that point to Neerja's impending death. In the first few scenes, a taxi driver blesses her with a long life, which will not be true. Later, her brother refuses to give her the Stardust magazine that she wanted to read, and he says, "Tu mar nahi jayegi agar nahi padegi toh." And, she did die without reading it. Neerja keeps repeating the line from Rajesh Khanna's Anand that life should be big, not long. Neerja's mother asks about a ring, which Neerja lost, as her mother thinks the ring was going to protect her. Neerja wants a dress for her birthday, which is in two days, and we know that she is going to die before her birthday. When she is getting ready to go to work, the terrorists are also ready getting ready. Her scenes are juxtaposed with those of terrorists as if both of them are preparing for some war. If she prays to the gods, they terrorists also do the same. At some other point, Neerja tells Jaideep that if he misses her, he can come and look at the billboard of her advertisement for a bridal dress. Jaideep will have to eventually come to that place. Initially, on the TV at Neerja's place, they are playing advertisements in which Neerja acted as a model. Later, when the plane is hijacked, the TV is playing the colorful lines of the rainbow that meant rukavat ke liye khed hai, as if signifying the interruption in Neerja's life. In the beginning moments of the film, a bunch of kids burst balloons continuously, making noise of a blast. Fascinatingly, a similar sound is made by another bunch of ill-prepared terrorists, but this time with guns. All these bring a slight chill to the proceedings in the film. 
 
Rukavat ke liye khed hai
Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear." It was not that Neerja did not have any fear. She got scared but she remembers her father's message to not tolerate any kind of wrong-doing. She believed her duty towards other passengers to be far more important. Even in the end, she goes to search the plane for the kids who were left behind, though she could have easily got out from the plane. I always wonder from where people get such exceptional courage in themselves. During the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, we heard such brave stories of Taj Hotel's staffers putting their life in danger to save their patrons. At many times in Neerja, I was reminded of the quotes from the Mahabharata. At one point, Neerja starts giving water to the passengers. The hijacker threatens her with a gun, and asks her what she is doing. She says that she is just doing her duty. Like Krishna had said to Arjun, to do your duty without caring about the consequences. Her father tells her to not only to do anything that is wrong, but also do not tolerate anything that is wrong. Again, like Krishna said that if it is wrong to do adharma, it is a bigger wrong to tolerate adharma. Adharma karne se bada paap adharma sehna hai. Neerja took the advice from her father, and gathered the courage to stand-up to the terrorists in her own way. She tolerated her abusive husband earlier, but this time, she will not tolerate any injustice. She had no weapons, and the only weapon she had was her immense presence of mind, and she used it to save the life of the people on the flight. 
Neerja also shows how some people react when they have fear. It's the fear of unknown that scares us all. Neerja's mother tries to convince herself that nothing will happen to her. She gives assurance to others that everything will be all right. Neerja's brothers start crying. The first passenger, in fear, blurted out that he is an American and not an Indian, without realizing that the terrorists were actually looking for American citizens. One of the younger terrorists, too, felt fear initially when all of them were stopped for checking at the entry of the airport. In the plane, he sees a young kid wanting to go to the toilet and tells his leader that he should let him go as he is only a kid, as if he understands that because he is young, too. One of the main terrorists took out his fear in the form of anger by hitting his younger accomplice. In the end, the terrorists start shooting everyone as they got scared and panicked. And, then, there is Neerja, who managed to overcome her fear to do the impossible. As the film's tagline says, "Fear gave her courage." 
One of the reasons that I delayed watching realistic films, such as Neerja and Aligarh, is that the tragedy of the real-life incident guts me. All the while, I was hoping that somehow Neerja manages to escape. The moment she slides down the door after getting shot was so moving. The film underplays some of its finest moments, but at the same time, it hits you emotionally. After that, Neerja's mother gave such a beautiful speech that I almost bawled. Really, there is no greater pain than losing your own child. Shabani Azmi delivers the speech with empathy and humanism, without a single false note. 
Neerja's life went through two different phases of claustrophobia. She was trapped in a loveless and an abusive marriage. She wanted to get out, and she managed to do it the first time. Perhaps, that might have driven her to follow the profession where she keeps on flying. The second time, she again got trapped in a claustrophobic space, that reminded her of her marriage. She manages to get out, but this time unable to fly again forever. In the beginning moments of the film, Neerja says that she has seen Rajesh Khanna's Anand seven times in the theaters and remembers every line from the film. She often repeated, "Zindagi badi honi chahiye, lambi nahin." Her life is a shining example of a life lived larger in her deeds than in years, which is why years later, she continues to inspire people who are her lifelong mureeds
Dialogue of the Day:
"Hamare me bhaiyon ko Veer bulate hain. Veer ko raakhi baandti hai behenein. Behnon se toh koi nahi kehta hamari raksha karna." 
―Rama Bhanot, Neerja

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

What’s in a Name? A Sense of History

Sometime ago, I happened to read an article in The Wall Street Journal. It talked about the measures being adopted by the ‘federal government of India’ to rescue the stranded people. Somehow, the word ‘federal’ associated with the Indian government struck me. It appeared to be a misfit, almost erroneous. I thought it might be because the Indian government is typically called the ‘Central Government’, the ‘Centre’, the ‘Union Government’, or simply the ‘Government of India’. The usage of the word federal is more common in the US. Even if we look at the judgment in the court cases, the Indian government is called as the ‘Union of India’. Although, India has a federal system of governance, where there is devolution of powers between the central government and the state governments, why is that we do not hear this term more often? Is usage of the term ‘federal government of India’, then, incorrect?

In order to understand more about it, we need to go back to our history and civics lessons. There are records of a riveting debate, regarding the naming of our country, among the members of the Constituent Assembly. There are two full sessions dedicated only to the amendments to the Draft Constitution, as prepared by Dr. Ambedkar, regarding this subject. Article 1 of the Constitution of India says India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States. During the debate session on November 15, 1948, Prof. K.T. Shah moved an amendment where he wanted India to be called as a Secular, Federal, Socialist Union of States. He opined that the term ‘Union’ might erroneously give an impression that India is a unitary state, where the central government has complete authority over running the country. "Lest the term ‘Union’ should lead any one to imagine that it is a unitary government I should like to make it clear, in the very first article, that it is a `federal union'. By its very nature the term `federal' implies an agreed association on equal terms of the states forming part of the Federation."

Mehboob Ali Baig Sahib Bahadur also supported the amendment by Prof. Shah as he believed that adding the word ‘federal’ would make it difficult in the future for any political power-seeking party to convert India into a unitary form of government, that might lead the country to turn into a fascist and a totalitarian state. Maulana Hasrat Mohani went to extent of saying that Dr.Ambedkar had some personal motive in naming the country as per his whims and he wanted to establish a ‘Union’ similar to one as proposed by Adolf Hitler. “You may take it from me; he wants this Union to be something like the Union proposed by Prince Bismarck in Germany, and after him adopted by Kaiser William and after him by Adolf Hitler.”

It is then H.V. Kamath brought to the attention of the members, a footnote in the Draft Constitution where Dr. Ambedkar explains the use of word ‘Union’. The term ‘Union’ has been adopted from the British North America Act, 1867. The Act says, “Whereas the provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, have expressed a desire to be federally united". Subsequently in the Act, the word ‘federal’ was dropped, and only the word ‘Union’ was retained. Similarly, he felt that there should be an emphasis on the unity of India. There has always been a tendency to disintegrate given the bloody history of our country and to prevent any further tendency of the states to get out of India, the word ‘federal’ should be omitted from the article. As the features of a federation have already been included in the Constitution, there is no further reason to add this word.

Dr. Ambedkar, then, said that all the changes to the name were completely unnecessary as the people, all along, have wanted that this country should be known as India without giving any indication as to what are the relations of the component parts of the Indian Union in the very title of the name of the country. He said, “India has been known as India throughout history. Personally I think the name of the country should not in any sense give any indication as to what are the subordinate divisions it is composed of.” 

Consequently, the amendment regarding the addition of the word ‘federal’, which does not occur anywhere else in the Constitution, was defeated, although the debate continued on the other names India could have. Therefore, the usage of the term ‘federal government of India’ is not incorrect per se but given the historical context where it was specially dropped after a debate, its usage should be avoided.

Reading the debates of the founding fathers of our Constitution, I am amazed by the diversity of their thought process. My personal favorite anecdote in the entire debate is when B.M. Gupte argues that although India might be a federal state but its character is more of a decentralized unitary government and there are many characteristics of subordination of the states. If the constitution were of a federal character there would be no provision in it for the constitutions of the units; in a proper federal constitution, the constitution of the units is not given at all. Here we are providing for the constitution of the States. The Governor is appointed by the Centre. Indeed, our government is federal but with a strong unitary character.

These debates reemphasize how far ahead our founders were in their thinking. There is also an enriching conversation on the coinage of word India in the debate that could be a subject of another article. Anyone who is interested in understanding more about policy must read these debates and get fascinated by their sheer brilliance.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Dear Zindagi—Of Jug And Chairs

Gauri Shinde's Dear Zindagi is a lighthearted but an important film. It is the story of Kaira (Alia Bhatt) who is an extremely talented cinematographer based out of Mumbai. Due to some issues in her childhood, she is struggling to maintain long-term relationships with her suitors. She hears a therapist Dr. Jehangir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), speaking at a conference, and decides to have therapy sessions with him. Jug, as he was called, tries to make her accept her past, and move on so that she can build a future for herself. He imparts some life lessons to help bring a new perspective to her issues. In the end, she moves away from singing "Just Go To Hell" and embraces life by singing, "Love You, Zindagi."
Gauri Shinde's first film English Vinglish was a delightful movie on the struggle of Shashi who wanted to learn to speak English. Shashi's daughter Sapna mocked and disparaged her because she did not know English. Sapna was an unlikable character, and the way she treated her mother was disturbing. Dear Zindagi follows similar contours as that of English Vinglish, with the difficult daughter of Sapna growing up into someone like Kaira. Kaira, like Sapna, is a character who is hard to like. She has a fraught relationship with her parents, especially, with her mother, though she has reasons for that. In English Vinglish, Shashi travels to New York, and incidentally, sees a bus with an English-speaking course ad, and enrolls herself in the course. She makes a great group of friends from different countries in her class. One of her classmates, Udumbke, and her teacher David are gay. At one point, Shashi chides her other classmates for calling gays as promiscuous, and states that homosexuality is normal. Likewise, Kaira incidentally overhears Jug at a conference when she had come to the restaurant for some work, and after hearing him, she decides to meet him. Kaira, like Shashi, has a similar group of friends, who form her support system. She, too, has a gay friend, Raunaq, who is coming to terms with his sexuality. Dear Zindagi talks about acceptance of homosexuality, and says that there are more gay people in the film industry because there is more acceptance there. Though Zohra Sehgal did a much funnier lesbian as I-thought-she-was-a-Pisces in Bend It Like Beckham, than lesbian as Lebanese here.
In English Vinglish, Shashi develops a special relationship with her friend Laurent. He makes her see the beauty in her. In the end, Shashi thanks Laurent for teaching her to love herself. Laurent's feelings towards her are romantic, though Shashi's are platonic (perhaps, Shashi's are romantic, too, but she did not show them). In Dear Zindagi, Kaira develops a special relationship with Jug and starts liking him. Kaira thanks Jug for making her feel free, and helping her embrace the beauty of life. Jug does not reciprocate her feelings due to professional ethics, even if he would have wanted to. Thus, the relationships of Shashi-Laurent, and Kaira-Jug are quite similar in the sense that they are forbidden and will likely be frowned upon—a French man in love with a married Indian woman, and a patient in love with her therapist. Not only is there the similarity of the themes in the two films, but there is also a repeating motif of food as well in both the films. In English Vinglish, Shashi prepared delicious food, and made excellent ladoos, of which she also ran a small business and sold them to other people. As she was not respected at her home, she used to get that respect from outsiders. Dear Zindagi, too, is full of food throughout, from pasta to vada paav to junk food. Kaira's mother kept asking her what she wanted to eat as if to compensate for Kaira's abandonment during her childhood. Kaira hated that her mother was always trying to feed her. And, if these references were not enough, Dear Zindagi's background score at many times is reminiscent of English Vinglish.
Kaira hears Jug speaking at a conference on mental health awareness, and she decides to meet him. At the conference, Dr. Jehangir talks about wearing torn jeans, and says that some people might think his wearing of those jeans to be crazy, but it might also be the case that he needs a good stylist. This also explains why whenever Kaira is dressed in jeans, those are torn (popularly called as boyfriend jeans). It is because she needs a stylist, a metonym for a psychiatrist. Kaira goes for a session with Dr. Jehangir Khan, where he tells her that he is called Jug, and then, he offers her a glass of water from the jug lying on the table. His name Jug is a representation of that jug. Like the jug that gives water, Jug offers advice and counselling to those who come to him. 
Torn Jeans
Jug is like the jug 
At some point in the film, Kaira's friend Raunaq quotes William Faulkner, "The past is never dead, in fact, it’s not even the past." It means that our past memories affect our present. Our past experiences are a significant part of how we turn out to be now. So, our past is not really dead. It is very much alive in our thoughts, in our actions, and in our personality. Think about it, this quote is also the premise of Dear Zindagi. Kaira's memories of her childhood have affected the way she is right now. She cannot form long-term relationships with her suitors because she is afraid they will leave her, like her parents left her when she was a six-year old girl. Her abandonment issues affect how she is kind to children, like the time, when she gave her plate of noodles to the street kid. Her past is an important part of her present, hence, the quote by Faulkner rings true.
One of the recurring things in the film is the use of analogies. As Jug says, the purpose of therapy is to help the person figure out answers on their own. Hence, the use of analogies makes sense. A prominent one is that of the chair. When Kaira talks about how she is labelled a slut for having many boyfriends, Jug tells her the analogy of purchasing a chair. When we go to buy a chair, we try different chairs, and choose the one that is more comfortable, so, what is wrong in having different relationships till you find the one with whom you fit the best. Kaira's suitors were all accomplished men—a restaurateur, a producer, a musician. There was nothing wrong with them, it's just Kaira did not get along with them due to her issues. After she learns to accept her past and moves on, she meets a furniture designer, who makes chairs, a signal that he is the chair that Kaira was looking for and with whom she can have a relationship with. When she meets him, both of them are dressed in the same color of black, giving another indication that he is her chair. In another analogy, we see Raghu as a jar of pasta sauce. Kaira breaks the bottle of Raguu pasta sauce after she learns that he got engaged with someone else in New York.
In Kal Ho Naa Ho, Shah Rukh Khan played Aman, who taught Naina that she is the not the only one in life who has problems. She took so much burden that she had forgotten to even smile. Aman helps her to find happiness in life. Ishwar ki prarthana karne ka kya fayda, agar uski di hui zindagi ki kadar karna na jaano. In Main Hoon Na, Shah Rukh Khan played Major Ram, who is sent to protect his superior's daughter Sanjana, who, like Kaira, has childhood abandonment issues, and has a precarious relationship with her father. Ram convinces her to speak to her father, "Zindagi nikalti jaati hai aur hum sab pyaar ke bina jeena seekh lete hai, kyun pyaar ko mauka nahi dete, kyun apno par vishvas nahi karte. Yeh zindagi nafrat ke liye bahut choti hai." In Dear Zindagi, he officially dons the mantle of a counsellor who advices on life and love. It is entirely befitting that someone known for his romantic roles becomes the guru of love and life. Jug also repairs cycles, and fixes them, like he fixes broken people. Like Rizwan Khan of My Name Is Khan, who carried a placard saying he could repair almost anything, Jug repairs things, and people. Har tooti hui cheez jodi ja sakti hai. He heals broken people. He is truly an artist, and Shah Rukh plays him perfectly. He suits the role, and looks fabulous, and that everyone will want to have a counsellor like him.
There are some things which when added to a film make us think of their significance, for instance, eye drops. There are two times when Jug is seen putting eye drops in his eyes. The first time is when Kaira tells him her story of writing letters to her mom when she was a kid. The second time, he is seen putting eye drops when Kaira and Jug have their last session. I think that the first time, it was normal, but the second time, he was crying and did not want to show his tears. He seemed to have started liking Kaira, too, but his professional ethics do not allow him to say that. Enough has been speculated on other possible reasons of Jug putting eye drops in his eyes (link). I have another line of thought related to it. Jug had personal issues where he seemed sad by the state of things in his life. He was divorced, and missed his son and was worried that he will not leave happy memories for him. Perhaps, that is why young kids came to him with their problems as they reminded him of his son. I think Jug was also going for some kind of therapy. Or, something else was going on with him, like some medical issue. For instance, he cancelled one of the sessions with Kaira, and he did not tell her where he was. We never get to know where he was. He also seemed a little lost that day. It was that day he said to Kaira that their last session was soon approaching. All this points to some event in his life, and possibly, he too had started liking her, and was trying to avoid her. Eventually, in the end, the chair also creaked. At an earlier point, he told Kaira that the chair only creaked when you liked someone but could not do anything about it. The chair did not creak earlier when he used to sit, but after Kaira leaves, it creaks when he sits on it, almost confirming that he had started liking her. Perhaps, his own therapist advised him to get out of it. I am speculating but the chair creaking was a sign of his liking of Kaira. And after all, he is a jug, not a chair, so he really won't fit with Kaira.
Chair creaks
Eye Drops
It is always wonderful to see Alia Bhatt in any film. She has always been a pleasure to watch. She is excellent throughout the film. With no disrespect to hard work, I think some people are truly gifted. When she has a near meltdown in front of her parents, it is quite reminiscent of her breakdown in Highway. When she cries and tells her childhood story, the scene was again quite similar to the one in Highway where she tells Mahabir her story. When she narrates the story of her unread letters, she breaks down, and even the country's biggest superstar is moved. She is a cinematographer, a rare profession for women. I thought about it a lot if her profession has something to do with creating memories. In the beginning, Kaira shoots the scene of a woman who is looking at some other boy, while hugging her boyfriend, inspired from Kaira's own life. She has a lot of pictures, and in fact, Alka refers to her boyfriends using pictures. She remembers her shy doll Shaira, and Kiddo's Tinkle comics. She collects interesting stuff like a cotton candy maker. In her dream as well, she talks about her camera. She struggles to come up with happy memories of her childhood, perhaps, that drove her to her profession.
There is an interesting scene when she is eating vada paav with Fattie, who tells her that Raghu got engaged. She seems to be crying, so, she eats a lot of chillies, and says that her tears are due to chillies. It is later that Jug tells, "Rona, gussa, nafrat kuch bhi khul kar express nahi karne diya. Ab pyaar kaise express karein?" and we get to know how she had struggled to express her emotions during the chilli scene. The film also touches upon Kaira's obsessive compulsive disorder of putting things in the wrong position, like the cushion, the little auto rickshaw in her house, or the refrigerator magnets. She used to always put them in a disorderly way, though it is unclear to me if that was a problem due to her psychological issues or just another quirk. Also, she had a habit of breaking and running into things, while Jug had the habit of fixing things.
The film's subject and its star power would help in a little more acceptance of therapy, though taboos will remain. At one point, Alka tells Kaira if a brain doctor can solve our problems, then, everyone should go to a brain doctor for help. Kaira asks Raunaq whether he goes to his dimaag ka doctor so that he can tell everyone that he is gay. He says he goes not to tell others but to tell it to him, "Taaki main khud ko bata sakun ki main gay hun." In an earlier moment, he had said, "Pagal kaun nahi hai," like the Cheshire Cat from Alice In Wonderland, who had said, "We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad." Kaira has her own 'down the rabbit hole' fall in her dream. At some point earlier, she tells Raghu that she drinks only on two occasions, when she is in love, and when she is not, as if she is in some kind of a fantasy wonderland, where this time paradox could be possible. It should be normal to ask for help if the most important organ in the body that controls everything else is not functioning properly. Interestingly, the film also has a version of Aye Zindagi Gale Laga La from Sadma, which was also based on a mental disorder. The film also touches briefly on parenting, career choices, marriage, and relationships.
In recent years, there have been many films, where the focus has been more on the internal struggle of the characters. On the outside, it seems they have everything, but they are deeply troubled from inside. We live in an age where the nearest competitor of a potential suitor is our own smartphone. The longest relationship that Kaira has is with her old jacket. We avoid difficult conversations and find succor in food, and shopping. After Kaira started healing, the eBay customer service calls her to check if everything is normal as she had not ordered anything for a long time. We celebrate breakups. Dear Zindagi is the second film this year that has a breakup song. There is a lack of patience in us. Kaira wears zero number spectacles to look older. Raghu says she does not have patience, and Jug tells her that genius is the one who has the patience to reach the answer. Kaira's film in the end talks about the two struggles—external and internal—that Donna Maria had to face, like her own life. In the beginning of the film, Kaira orders a copy of the book No Easy Day by Matt Bissonnette that details the external and the internal struggles of the US Navy SEAL who was part of the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. As we look more toward our inward struggles, we fill face challenges; thus, the attempt to talk about therapy as something normal is an important one. At some point, Raghu asks Kaira as to why is she so complicated, and Jug tries to answer her problems in a simplistic manner, perhaps, that was also a message in itself. We make situations complicated, while they could be solved simply.
No Easy Day 
While watching Dear Zindagi, I mentally started answering the questions Jug asks Kaira. He tells her the study based on the size of the human brain, which actually, is a well-researched theory (link). Kaira names her five closest people, and I loved it that she included Alka. Fattie and Jackie are also such great friends of Kaira. They, really, form her support system. So, I started thinking about my support system. At some other point, Jug asks Kaira about her happiest childhood memory, and I thought about my own childhood memory. And, we all have done the same thing that Kaira does; she writes a text, hesitates to send it, instead sends another text to someone (her ex-boyfriend) instead of the person she wanted to text in the first place.
Twenty one years earlier in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, a young man named Raj, who was, perhaps, of the same age as Kaira, told us that in our life, we will run into two paths—the right one and the wrong one. The wrong one will be an easier one and will try to attract us to it, while the right one will be tortuous, with many an obstacle, but in the end, it is the one that will lead us to victory. Raj refuses to run away with his lover Simran, because he says that he does not want to snatch her away. He wants to get Simran with the explicit approval of her father. There is an exalted status of Simran's bauji as if his decision is the supreme and is all that matters. Years later, a much older Jug, played by the same man, tells us a different view, almost a turnaround of what Raj said to us. In his first session with Kaira, Jug tells her the story of Pyaarelal Ji and the snow leopard. He, then, tells her that in life, we often choose the tougher path, because we feel that to achieve what we want we have to follow the tougher path. We feel we need to punish ourselves. Why cannot we choose the easier path? What is wrong if we take the easy way out, especially, if one is not prepared for the tougher path? In one of the subsequent sessions, he tells her that she should try to look at her parents, not from a pedestal of their exalted status, but as two people who make mistakes, like everyone else. They are not to be treated as God, again a difference of opinion of what Raj told us. While Raj was in love, Jug is divorced, and is no longer together with his wife. Perhaps, Raj might also have a similar view today; who knows. But as Jug says, "We are all our own teachers in the school of life," and we need to find our own way to complete this puzzle of life.


Trivia:
Wonderful to see the film giving credits to the cast of its deleted scenes
Ki And Ka
Jug reads Ha Ha Therapy and Sigmund Freud

Other Reading:
On HighwayLink

Dialogue of the Day:
"Don't let the past blackmail your present into ruining a beautiful future."
—Dr. Jehangir Khan, Dear Zindagi

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Before Sunrise—Of Death, Leaking Life, And Time

Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise is a classic film. Released in 1995, the film is the first of the trilogy which tells the story of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy). Jesse, an American, meets Céline, a European, in a train in Europe. Jesse asks her to come and spend the day with him in Vienna. The two talk and walk around Vienna, and share their perspectives and experiences on life and love. They get to know each other, and promise to meet six months later at the same place. Before Sunrise is inspired from Richard's own real-life experience where he met a woman in a toy shop. Later, he would go on to make two more films chronicling the life of Jesse and Céline.
One of the recurring themes that is quite pervasive in the film is that of death and mortality. From the early moments in the film till the ending scenes, there are frequent conversations on death between Jesse and Céline. After every few minutes, something related to death comes up. Jesse talks about the ambiguity of death when he narrates the first time, his mother told him about death, and he saw his dead great-grandmother standing in the clouds. Céline replies that she is afraid of death twenty-four hours a day, and it is the fear of death that has forced her to take a train instead of a flight. She says she cannot stop thinking of the feeling of the consciousness before one dies when it is sure that death is coming. Céline hates that there is a war three-hundred kilometers away and people are dying and no one cares about them. Then, Céline takes Jesse to the Cemetery of No Name, where anonymous people who died in the river Danube are buried. She says, "When I was a little girl, I thought that if none of your family or friends knew you were dead, then, it's like not really being dead. People can invent the best and the worst for you.
Later, Jesse talks about his theory of reincarnation, again related to death, where he wonders if modern souls are a fraction of the original souls, which is why, people today are scattered and specialized. When they visit the church, Céline tells him that she always has this strange this feeling that she is an old woman who is about to die, and that her life is the memories of that old woman. During the scene where they play pinball, Céline recalls her meeting with her psychiatrist after a difficult breakup, when she had written a story in which a woman kills her boyfriend. She adds that she got over her boyfriend but she is now obsessed that he is going to die in an accident and she is going to be accused of causing his death. While walking around the city, Jesse talks about two islands, one with one man and ninety-nine women, and the other with one woman and ninety-nine men. Céline says that the island in which there are ninety-nine women, the women would have eaten the man alive, while on the other island with ninety-nine men, the men would kill each other to sleep with the woman. Jesse remarks that at some level, women don't mind the idea of destroying a man. Their conversation on death continues when they see a belly dancer performing. Céline says that the dance is a birth dance, which is still done in some parts of the world during childbirth. The women in the tribe dance in celebration. Then, on being questioned by Jesse, as to where are the men, she replies that they should be lucky as women don't kill the men, unlike in certain insect species, such as spiders, where the woman kills the man after mating. During their imaginary phone call scene, Céline again remarks that Jesse must be scared to death. At some point, Jesse remarks, "I’d rather die knowing that I was really good at something, that I was special or had excelled in some way, than to have only been in a really nice, caring relationship." In fact, his own life, he says, is his own making because he found out his parents did not want to have him, so, he has earned his place in this world in some way. He even says his dream is to become a ghost, and wants to be completely anonymous. 
Later, when they go to the boat restaurant, Jesse tells her the story of his friend who became a father. At that profound moment when his friend's son was being born, all his friend could think was that he was looking at something that is going to die someday. In the garden scene during the night time, Jesse tells Céline that people are 'sick to death' of themselves. He wants to have sex with her, but she says they should not. He, then, responds, "We are going to die in the morning, right?", again, referring to death, and that their time is finite, hence, they should make the most of it. Death is present in their conversations ubiquitously, especially, in Céline's, who seems so obsessed with it that even the book that she is reading in the train is related to death and is titled Madame Edwarda, Le Mort (The Dead Man), and Histoire de L’Oeil (The Story of the Eye). In The Cinema of Richard Linklater: Walk, Don't Run, Rob Stone calls Before Sunrise a morbid film, and writes, "For all its reputation as a romance, therefore, Before Sunrise is almost unremittingly morbid.
A book related to death
 
The references to death continue in the poem that Jesse recites. He sings some lines from the poem As I Walked Out One Evening by W.H. Auden. The poem talks about a narrator who sees a lover singing that he will love his lover forever; however, the clocks tell him that time cannot be captured, and inevitably, death will come to them. The clocks add that even though death and time are more powerful than love, life remains a blessing. and that everyone should do their utmost to live to the fullest. 

The years shall run like rabbits,
But all the clocks in the city, 
Began to whirr and chime,
O let not Time deceive you, 
You cannot conquer Time. 
In headaches and in worry, 
Vaguely life leaks away, 
And Time will have his fancy.
Tomorrow or today. 

If one reads the full poem, it is almost like Before Sunrise is an enactment of that poem. Death occurs in the conversations of Jesse and Céline frequently, like the poem is full of references to death. They have only one night to spend with each other, and they know that their time is finite. At one point, Jesse remarks, "And I think that's so true. Everything is so finite. But don't you think that's what makes our time and specific moments so important?" They will make the best use of the one night, and make it a great night of their lives, in spite of the limited time. Life remains a blessing, although you cannot bless. The poem's title is As I Walked Out One Evening. In the film, walking plays an important part, as the two of them keep on walking. There in a line in the poem that Jesse remembers and sings, "The years shall run like rabbits." Interestingly, when Jesse and Céline had visited the cemetery earlier, Céline says, "Look there's a rabbit," when they see one running, like it happens in the poem. The films ends with Jesse and Céline going away, and we see shots of all the places they visited earlier, again, signifying, that time continues to go on, while life leaks away. There is an old woman who crosses the garden where they were sitting. All these refer to the eternity of Time. The poem also ends, similarly, with the following lines:

It was late, late in the evening, 
The lovers they were gone,
The clocks had ceased their chiming, 
And the deep river ran on. 
At some other point in the film, Jesse and Céline see posters of an exhibition of the work of Georges Seurat. He is one of the most renowned painters known for his work on impressionism and pointillism. Céline looks at the drawings of Seurat that formed early part of his oeuvre. She says that she once visited a museum and looked at Seaurat's work for over forty-five minutes. She loves La Voie Ferrée. The painting La Voie Ferrée is of railway tracks, and voie ferrée means railway tracks in French. The film's first scene is also that of railway tracks. While looking at another painting La Nourrice (the nurse), she says, "I love the way people seem to be dissolving in the background. It's like the environments are stronger than the people. His human figures are always so transitory." She emphasizes the word transitory. The film also focuses on this theme where Jesse and Céline are in transition. They have to travel to different places, and they are only passing through. The film also shows the importance of environment and how it shapes the thinking of Jesse and Céline. Then, they see another painting of Seurat titled Anaïs Faivre Haumonté sur son lit de mort (Anaïs Faivre Haumonté on her deathbed), another reference to death. All these paintings have elements of time, transition, and death. These paintings point to the message of Auden's poem with its focus on the finite time of human life, and to make the most of our limited time in this world. Interestingly, the film's title Before Sunrise is also a measurement of time. Thus, more than romantic elements, the film is replete with subtexts of time and death.

In Translation and Translating in German Studies, Professor Raleigh Whitinger has another take on Seurat and Linklater. He writes, "What makes these drawings immediately identifiable as his creations, and no one else's, is the way their stately, simple shapes arise from an interlace of light and dark from which they cannot be separated. Insofar as something similar could be maintained of Linklater's films—they are logically situated within the major currents of American independent film making yet with a unique approach to perspective—one could speculate that Seurat was something of a role model for Linklater. One can understand Linklater appreciating the work of an artist whose theory is characterized by the harmony of contrasts finding it appropriate for his love story about transatlantic opposites who attract.
 
Apart from being transatlantic opposites, the contrast between Jesse and Céline is highlighted at some other places, too. Céline thinks she is an old woman, while Jesse says he feels he is like a thirteen-year old boy who does not know how to be an adult. "I always feel like I’m still this thirteen-year-old boy who doesn’t really know how to be an adult. So it’s like I’m pretending to live a life, taking notes for when I’ll really have to do it." At one point they visit the music shop that is named Alt & Neu meaning Old and New. The old and new could very well be the two of them. Céline feels like an old woman. She was even visiting her old grandmother, and brings her story into the conversation with Jesse. He, on the other hand, is a kid. Céline even mentions that he kisses like an adolescent. Céline cannot stand the passive aggressive nature of her parents who never approved of her choices, while Jesse remembers being a kid as a magical time. Céline is fascinated by exotic cultures, while Jesse is fascinated by the poetry of day-to-day life. Céline seems stuck in past, while Jesse often talks about the future. He convinces Céline to come with him by helping her picture her life twenty years later. Céline talks about death as an end, while Jesse is futuristic in the sense where he talks about his theory of reincarnation, and even wants to be a ghost. In an early part of the film, there is a couple fighting in the train. We see another older couple in the train who are quiet and not talking to each other. After twenty years, Jesse and Céline could be having that same argument with their spouses. Before Sunrise is like the meeting of the past, the present, and the future. 

Related to above subtexts, there is another time-related pattern in the film. This relates to the time spent by Jesse and Céline as some kind of a time-travel fantasy. At one point, Jesse remarks, "I feel like this is some dream world we’re walking through." She replies, "It’s so weird. It’s like our time together is just ours, it’s our own creation. It’s like, I’m in your dream and you’re in mine." And, then, there is a Cinderella reference where she says when the morning comes, they turn into pumpkins, as if this is a kind of a midnight dream world that they are traveling in. Céline also mentions time is abstract, and that this night seems like a male fantasy of Jesse, where he meets a French girl on a train, sleeps with her, and never sees her again. At another point, Jesse says that the time they spent together has been completely out of time. Being with Céline made him feel like his is someone else. She is his Botticelli angel, waiting for him at the gate back to life. The only other way to lose yourself like this is with drugs, or alcohol, dancing, and other such stuff. In the morning, Jesse says, "Oh, shit, we’re back in real time," underscoring the fantastical elements of their meeting. In the film's script, there is a section that is not present in the film where Céline says, "How come every time you want me to do something, you start talking about time travel?" It is very clear how time is an important theme in the film. They are trying to capture this time, but it moves faster. 
While watching Before Sunrise, I could not help but think of the film's influence in some of the Hindi films. In an interview, Shakun Batra says, "If you pick a film like Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, the plot is wafer thin. But it’s just the conversations of two people that makes that film tick. Which is why I rank films like Lost In Translation, Before Sunrise and Annie Hall above others." I was thinking about the character of Tia (Alia Bhatt) in Shakun's recent film Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921). Tia plays a character who is afraid of flying, like Céline is scared of flying. Tia and Arjun go on a date to a graveyard, like Jesse and Céline go to cemetery and have profound conversations on life and death there. Baradwaj Rangan wrote in his review of Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, "When Dev and Maya finally admit to their spouses that they are in love, Rishi flies into a rage and begins to break things around the house, while Ria remains calm and collected. Rishi wants to know if Maya enjoyed sleeping with Dev, but Ria asks Dev if he’s in love with Maya; the man is more concerned with the sexual aspect of the betrayal while Ria, all woman, tries to come to grips with the emotional implications." Similarly, in Before Sunrise, the first question that Jesse asks Céline is about her first sexual encounter, while she asks him if he has ever been in love. But the most visible influence of the film is seen in Imtiaz Ali's Tamasha. Before Sunrise is one of Imtiaz's favorite films, and all his movies have the central theme of journey spanning across time and space. The first half of Tamasha is particularly influenced by Before Sunrise. Richard's movies also span across time zones,
One of the most beautiful scenes in the film is the one at the music shop where Jesse and Céline listen to Come Here by Kath Bloom. The lyrics of the song describe the feelings of both of them, but what is lovely is the sequence where they both try to look at each other when the other is not looking. It is such a poetic scene that one can't help but smile during it. Later, during their imaginary phone call conversation, Céline says, "I like to feel his eyes on me when I look away." This was exactly what was happening in the scene earlier.  

Lastly, there is a lot of focus on the film's environment. We see frequent shots of trains turning, and crossing each other. Both Jesse and Céline are lucky to meet all the interesting people, such as the palm reader, and the homeless poet; each enriches their experience in some ways.  The film focuses on deep conversations, and equally meaningful silences. Before Sunrise is a fascinating and thoughtful film that gets better on every viewing. In one of my favorite lines from the film, that should also be the guiding principle for all of us, Céline says, "I believe if there's any kind of God, it wouldn't be in any of us. Not you, or me, but just this little space in between. If there's any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something. I know, it‘s almost impossible to succeed, but who cares, really? The answer must be in the attempt." There is a lot to learn from the film, and I am not sure if I fully got it, but as Céline says, the answer must be in the attempt, and I would attempt again to understand it better. 

Books In Movies:
Madame Edwarda, Le Mort, Histoire de L’Oeil by Georges Bataille
 
All I Need Is Love by Klaus Kinski

Dialogue of the Day:
"People always talk about how love is this totally unselfish, giving thing, but if you think about it, there's nothing more selfish."
Jesse, Before Sunrise