When I first moved to the United States back in August 2009, I had to confront a surprising and rather unsettling situation. I found that many Americans and students from Europe were asking me eerily similar questions about where I was from. These were not questions about how I was coping in a new country, or how I was handling the culture shock. Instead these were questions along the lines of “Is it true that there are no toilets in India?”, or “Do you guys have banks in India?”, or “Is it very dangerous to live in a big city in India? How about the rural areas?”, or “Do you have cars and other technology over there?”.
When I was first asked these questions, I had no clue how to respond to them. I didn’t even have a clue as to WHY this person I had just met was asking such denigrating questions about my home country. But the truth was that none of these questions were ever asked in a condescending manner at all. On the contrary, the people asking me this always showed a genuine sense of curiosity. When I eventually found out the reason why so many Americans and Europeans were asking me these questions, I was flabbergasted. The reason why these questions came up was Danny Boyle’s 2008 movie Slumdog Millionaire.
In case you haven’t seen this movie, Slumdog Millionaire is about a kid from the Mumbai slums who grows up being the victim of almost every aspect of India’s dark underbelly. It documents what he went through and culminates with him winning a million dollars in a game show. It was marketed as a rags to riches story, but in reality that theme was just a vehicle to reinforce every single pre-existing stereotype the Western world has about the third world in general – and specifically India. Some of the things shown in the movie include child prostitution, forced begging, open toilets, religious riots, rape, blinding of children, call centers, etc.
After the movie won the Best Movie at the Oscars, it predictably got a lot of additional publicity and a lot more people made the effort to watch it – especially in the western world. And so whenever I met an American or a European who had watched the movie, I was typically asked questions like the ones above. And it was not just me. Most of my fellow Indian friends have gone through this same experience.
Yes these are not appropriate or even the correct questions to ask someone. What I realized though, was that I was being asked these questions by Americans not out of condescension, but out of an actual lack of knowledge about India. Essentially, Slumdog Millionaire was the ONLY mainstream representation these people had about India. Predictably, those whose opinion about India was only based on this movie were the ones asking those questions – and they were doing so out of pure curiosity and fascination.
Needless to say, Slumdog Millionaire is not at all representative of India as a country. Make no mistake – all those things shown in the movie do exist and they do impact a lot of people. But by deliberately showing ONLY the dark underbelly of a country, there is a conscious building of a narrative – one which dictates that the dark underbelly IS the country. And THAT is not at all acceptable. Imagine if a movie is made about America focusing ONLY on the school shootings, opioid crisis, police brutality, crime in low income neighborhoods, racism in the deep south, widespread obesity, big corporations controlling the population and the elections, and an extremely divided country with one set of people hating the other. And if this movie is the ONLY mainstream representation of America in a foreign country, would Americans consider it fair? Probably not. Such a movie would again just take the dark underbelly of a country and portray it to be EVERYTHING there is to know about the country. And that is simply an incorrect portrayal.
And that right there is what I call the “Slumdog Millionaire Effect”. This is a classic manifestation of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. This is what happens when the spotlight is put on a select few aspects of a situation and the audience’s understanding of the entire situation is thus limited to just what is shown in the spotlight. It is a dangerous technique but one that is widely used in today’s society – especially in the media.
Which brings me to Hasan Minhaj and his Patriot Act episode about the upcoming Indian Elections on Netflix. In a nutshell, Hasan Minhaj has used the same techniques that Danny Boyle used to portray India. But just labeling it as an example of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy would hide all the other (more important) deep seated issues that the episode is symptomatic of. And that will be the focus of the next post.
In 1999, the Kannada movie director and actor Upendra released what is probably the most intriguing Kannada movie ever made. The movie was literally named after him (Upendra) – because why the fuck not? After all, the movie was largely about a self-obsessed man (named ‘Naanu’ – which literally means ‘I’) entangled in the human condition, with the 3 female actors portraying the ideas of fame, happiness and responsibilities. I can talk for hours on end about all the insights I have gained from that movie. In fact, every time I watch it, I gain a new profound insight into the human condition. But this post is not about that movie.
In 2015, 16 years after the first one, Upendra finally released the sequel to Upendra. It was titled ‘Uppi 2’ – possibly a play on the popular breakfast item ‘Uppittu’ (Upma), or not. The general premise of this movie was that the same character – now going by the name of ‘Neenu’ (meaning ‘you’) – is now living life completely in the present moment. The movie compares and contrasts this with other characters who live in the past or in the future.
The general principle of ‘living in the now’ is not at all new. There have been many many books written about that idea. It has also been represented well through characters in the movies (think of ‘The Big Lebowski’: “Is this a… what day is this?”). So it is not something totally earth shattering what Upendra explored in his sequel. But what stands out in Uppi 2 are the scenes that show the different specific manifestations of the main character’s ability to live completely in the present. There are many to list here so I will stick to the one that made a big impression on me and has stayed with me ever since.
In this scene, ‘Neenu’ and his friend visit his home where he finds his entire family apparently massacred – with corpses in pools of blood all over the place. It is a rather gruesome scene which is made even more strange by Neenu’s continued calm and smiling nature even as he examines the massacre in his own home. Rather alarmed by his lack of response or shock, his friend asks him if he does not feel shocked, sad or angry looking at the tragedy in front of him. To this, Neenu responds by explaining (and I am paraphrasing here):
After a tragedy like this, most people take years or even decades to accept what has happened and to come to terms with it. After that, they are able to lead a normal life without the pain or sadness. I just accepted all this immediately and have already come to terms with it. So where is the need to feel sad or angry anymore?
Of course, it later turns out that his entire family was acting all of it to expose Neenu’s apparent apathy towards his own family members.
But the message was very revealing to me. Of course, we don’t need to go through a tragedy of the magnitude that his character did in order to make us realize the utility of the idea. Instead, we can just look at the daily frustrations and struggles we face that are beyond our control: a delayed flight, a trivial argument with the spouse, bad traffic, your sports team losing a game, you name it. We typically see many such incidents every single day of our lives stretching as far back as we can remember. We probably got frustrated, angry or sad at that time and likely stayed that way for a while depending on how severe the incident was. But over time, we almost always move on. That incident loses its significance and impact on our mood and its impressions go away.
So if we can confidently state that most of these daily frustrations eventually lose their hold over our state of mind, then we have to ask ourselves why get angry or frustrated in the first place? It is a legitimate question, and one I have formulated in a slightly more specific manner:
Say I have a frustrating experience today, what would my general thoughts be 5 years down the line:
Will I still get frustrated, angry or sad thinking about it?
Will I feel like exacting some kind of revenge or retaliation towards anyone or anything?
Will I even give a shit about it?
Come to think of it, will I even remember the damn thing?
If the answer to these above questions is a NO, then I simply have to ask myself why would I get frustrated, sad or angry in the first place? There is just no point in doing so if I know that it will eventually pass. So, much like how Vincent Vega responded after shooting Marvin in the face, Uppi 2 taught me how to immediately come to terms with and let go of the daily frustrations in life.
Of course, it takes a little practice to incorporate this into our daily life, but it is actually pretty easy. And once we are able to remind ourselves to ask this question every time something goes wrong, it becomes that much easier to come to terms with all the daily frustrations.
In this age where information comes from media stories featuring selective quotes and needless commentary, it is very easy to miss out on the beauty, elegance, significance, and sometimes the necessity, of reading or listening to a full speech or an interview AS IS. It helps us get the proper context for the words, compels us to decide for ourselves what the highlights of the speech/interview are, and most importantly, it allows us to frame our own opinion about the content and the person.
Whenever there is an interview or a speech given by some personality I am interested in, I typically just google the full transcript of it. Yes, it takes a little more time to get through it, but it is always very rewarding. The flow of the content is very important to me, as is the overall tone and content.
I am specifically reminded of an interview Kanye West gave to Surface Mag. It is one of the best interviews I have ever read, and after reading it, I have to grudgingly accept that this man is one of the most fascinating human beings on this planet. At the risk of going against the very point I am trying to make here, I am going to pull out a couple of quotes from what Kanye says in the interview (You will see why this is justified!):
This is turning into a 12-minute freestyle. Which is good. When I talk it’s like a painting.
I think you should just run this interview clean. You gotta let the painting be open with this let-me-just-zone-out-with-Ye-for-a-second thing.
Just gotta admire the man! He knows exactly what he is saying and how people should hear what he is saying!
In all honesty, I am sure all powerful people who have ever given an interview or a speech – only to have the media cherry pick the most controversial statements and reduce the whole interview to just that one soundbite – will agree with Kanye on this one!
But there is another side to this story. It is the part where we, as common people, MISS OUT on something beautiful, elegant and sometimes absolutely necessary information or advice simply because we do not have the patience or the desire to read through a whole interview or speech. Let us face it. Today, we get our perspectives from Memes, our opinions from Facebook updates, and our news from a headline. We also watch videos only when the information or situation to be conveyed is done so in a compressed manner and is under 30 seconds.
Amidst all this cacophony of piece-meal consumption of information, it is easy to spot and observe what we do see. But it is hard to realize what it is that we do not see, especially when we do not know what to expect.
In essence, what we are missing out on is a deeper insight into some idea, a better appreciation (good or bad) of the person who is making the speech, or simply some crucial facts about an issue. When we finish reading a full speech without interruption (such as commentary/ads, etc), we even have the opportunity to pause for a second and just meditate on the words of the person. Anyone who has actually done that – say after reading a book or watching a full movie – will be acutely aware of its rewards. And the more people do that, the better the debate will be on any given topic.
John McCain has been dominating the news cycles for his No vote to repeal Obamacare and defeating the Republicans’ attempt to dismantle the law. Media outlets have also been showing clips of his speech prior to the No vote where he urged bipartisan attempts to rework the healthcare law and all bills in general. But what most folks missed out on is the full speech he gave. I read the full speech yesterday, and I was extremely moved by every word that he said. There was such an important message with so many details in what he said. The flow of the speech and the ultimate plea it makes resonated with me long after I had finished reading it. It was a speech that showed there is still some hope left for this Congress to work the way it was intended to. And for all the problems plaguing this administration and the Republican party, this speech showed there may still be some sane men left who know their duties and responsibilities. It is a speech every single American – liberal or conservative – should read/watch in its entirety. There is so much truth in what McCain says that one really needs to spend a few minutes just contemplating after reading it. Ultimately, it is what every American NEEDS to hear in this day of partisanship and great divide.
It is easily one of the best political speeches I have ever read. In fact, if this man was running for President, and gave this speech, I would tell all my friends to vote for him. (And that is a big deal coming from a guy like me).
So yes, please go ahead and read his full speech or watch it below in full.
I started writing this post as just a small Facebook update when it began to take a life of its own. But this is something I feel very strongly about in general and so I had to do justice to it, and hence this longer post.
Reporting of selective quotes or providing needless commentary or background in a media story frustrates me to no end. And so, I offer the following general approach to bypass such unnecessary and/or incomplete articles:
If you read a headline you find interesting, first observe if the headline itself is a quote or a statement. If it is, and you already know the background of that story, then simply skip all the ‘reporting’ in the article and go straight to the quotes. Read the quotes and be done with it.
If you are not familiar with the story, then read the full article.
If the article quotes what Trump said on Twitter, close the news article, open Trump’s Twitter account and read all his tweets from the previous day or two up until his latest tweet. Then be done with it. There is really nothing more to know.
The above approach most commonly applies to all developing stories where there has been some incremental development. True journalism instead can be found in articles that are NOT developing stories and where there has actually been some investigation involved.
One of the most, if not the most, memorable scenes in the history of movie making is the shooting of Marvin in Pulp Fiction. It is a scene that completely turns the movie on its head, generates a shock value unparalleled in its nature, and leads the movie down paths that turn out to be future reference points in movie making. But I am not here to sing praise of the movie or the scene. I am here to point out something rather subtle that I observed in the scene and which has taught me a valuable lesson.
So let’s revisit the scene, shall we? Here it is, in all its glory:
Wow. Talk about shock value! Nothing hits you in the head (pun intended) more like this scene!
At about 55 seconds in, Vincent (John Travolta) shoots Marvin in the face that results in a blood and gut drenched car driving on the interstate in broad daylight, with two men in blood soaked suits in the front, and a dead, headless Marvin in the backseat! Now I am going to ask you to completely set aside the dark comic nature of the scene (no, really) and focus objectively on the way Vincent Vega reacts to the ‘incident’. Here is the transcript:
Jules: What the fuck's happening, man? Ah, shit man!
Vincent: Oh man, I shot Marvin in the face.
Jules: Why the fuck did you do that!
Vincent: Well, I didn't mean to do it, it was an accident!
Jules: Oh man I've seen some crazy ass shit in my time...
Vincent: Chill out, man. I told you it was an accident. You probably went over
a bump or something.
Jules: Hey, the car didn't hit no motherfucking bump!
Vincent: Hey, look man, I didn't mean to shoot the son of a bitch. The gun
went off. I don't know why.
Jules: Well look at this fucking mess, man. We're on a city street in broad
Vincent: I don't believe it.
Jules: Well believe it now, motherfucker! We gotta get this car off the road!
You know cops tend to notice shit like you're driving a car drenched in fucking
Vincent: Just take it to a friendly place, that's all.
Now Vincent’s first reaction to the shooting is significant. What he says is as important as the way he says it. What he says is “Oh man! I shot Marvin in the face!”. And the tone that he uses is completely out of sync with the nature of the situation at hand. Instead of completely freaking out (much like Jules does), the tone he uses is perhaps something more appropriate for far lesser ‘crimes’. Something along the lines of the following everyday oversights:
Oh man! I forgot to add sugar to your coffee!
Oh man! I forgot to charge my cell phone before heading out.
Oh man! I still haven’t renewed my drivers license.
Oh man! I spilled some milk on the floor.
Oh man! I locked myself out of my car.
Oh man! I left my debit card at the ATM machine.
Oh man! I missed my exit on the interstate.
You get the idea.
Now use Vincent’s tone and expressions in any of the above reactions to every day oversights, and it will seem to be rather fitting for a ‘crime’ of that significance. So how or why would Vincent use that tone after he shot a seemingly innocent kid in the backseat who just ‘didn’t even have an opinion’ about ‘divine intervention’?
The answer to that is Vincent instantly acknowledged his ‘mistake’, accepted the situation, AND forgave himself for it. And with his ‘mistake’ forgiven and firmly in hindsight (within a few seconds), he proceeds to describe the situation as such – something wrong he did in the past that he doesn’t feel attached to anymore, and having come to terms with it completely. He even proceeds to clarify that it was indeed an accident and that he had no intention to shoot Marvin.
Now make no mistake. There was a marked carelessness that preceded the shooting – Vincent holding his gun in his hand, finger in trigger, AND pointing it straight at Marvin while talking to him. It is a carelessness that could have been easily avoided, thus sparing Marvin’s life*. But our man Vincent Vega chooses not to dwell on those aspects. He perhaps acknowledged those actions of his and ensures that he doesn’t repeat them in the future. And he does so instantaneously, thereby also ensuring that he doesn’t live with the guilt and blame for the rest of his life.
*But, seriously, why on earth would anyone want to be in a world where Marvin is still alive?!?
Now let us just ask ourselves some questions here.
How do WE react when we or other people make mistakes?
How long do WE dwell on our or others’ past mistakes and situations?
How long do WE hold our guilt and regret over something that happened in the past?
What does it take for us to accept the situation for what it is and move on in our lives – free of baggage?
We all make unintended mistakes – many of them arising out of our own carelessness or indiscipline. And then we typically spend months, years (and maybe even the rest of our lives) blaming ourselves or others for them and holding varying amounts of guilt/resentment and/or living in despair. Our lives and the lives of people around us are adversely affected because of our guilt and resentment. But what if we could simply forgive ourselves the way Vincent Vega did after accidentally shooting Marvin? It doesn’t have to be instantaneous, surely. But what if we at least genuinely considered that forgiveness was an option? Wouldn’t that be a far better option than living the rest of our lives with a ‘What if’ of ‘If only’ preceding our every thought?
So let’s run by a few such situations where we shall substitute our typical reactions with what Vincent Vega would say in a similar situation:
Oh man! I got badly drunk the night before the <insert name of important exam> and screwed up my chances of going to college.
Oh man! My alcoholic mom totally screwed up my childhood.
Oh man! My ex cheated on me big time.
Oh man! My dog got run over when I was distracted on my phone.
Oh man! I wish I was around more often with my kids when they were growing up.
There is absolutely no attempt at humor with what I have written in the list above. I write this only to put across the point that even things mentioned in the list above (and similar) merit our acceptance and forgiveness. The path forward would lie in accepting the situation for what it is, recognizing our mistakes and role in the situation, forgiving ourselves for it, and ensuring that we do not repeat them in the future. And the first 3 are necessary to accomplish the last one because it is that much harder to not repeat the mistakes when we are still beating ourselves up over what we did in the past.
So please, whenever it is you find you are blaming yourself for something that you did or that happened in the past, just stop and ask yourself the following question:
PS: It should be pointed out that this post was written sitting in a coffee shop and watching Vincent Vega blow Marvin’s head off on a loop! Try doing that and still having a straight face to write a post about acceptance and forgiveness.
In the entire history of mankind, the pursuit of the dark and depressing has never been actively encouraged or even accepted. Yet, the most beautiful art ever produced has been the product of artists expressing loss, pain, solitude, anger and a sense of longing. This apparent contradiction between the source of inspiration and the acceptance of its products by society has diminished steadily for me over the past few years. The dark arts have moved from the fringes of what mankind has to offer to being the very lens through which I now view society itself. I feel no attraction or emotion every time I see a Claude Monet painting, but my whole world came to a standstill when I first saw ‘Masks Confronting Death’ by James Ensor.
Art that convey themes of gloom, doom, mortality, depression and that explore the human condition permeate my inner consciousness to connect with me on a very fundamental platform. I could make a case that the dark arts would connect with all of us in the same way, with the end result depending on whether we choose to fight it or embrace it.
As a consequence of my active pursuit of the dark arts, I have been fortunate to discover and experience a few moments of extreme intensity and fulfillment. Most moved me to tears at that moment in time. And all have stayed with me till today (and very likely for good). These are moments I have to think twice about experiencing again – not because I don’t want to, but because I am not sure I am ready to experience that intensity all the time.
It is important to emphasize that a lack of anticipation of what was coming next was critical to these intense experiences moving me to tears. There were no expectations and all I made sure was to not offer any resistance. And I strongly believe that is why they generated such intensity.
So here goes:
1.ROUTINE (LIVE)by Steven Wilson: When I listened to Steven Wilson’s latest album Hand.Cannot.Erase, I already knew ROUTINE was the standout song. The story was perhaps the most depressing Steven Wilson has ever come up with (even comparing it to Drive Home or The Raven That Refused to Sing). The sadness and absolute despair in the voice of Ninet Tayeb is perhaps what pushed this song beyond the realms of normal consciousness. But that was until I watched the video. The CD/DVD that I had purchased did not have the video to the song and it was not released online either. The place I saw it first was when I saw the band Live in Madison. Steven Wilson introduced the song by stating that he had received feedback from numerous people that this was the most depressing song he had ever made (with his response being “As opposed to what?!”). He made no mention of the video on the screen that was to accompany the song. And then this is what I saw on the screen while Steven Wilson and his band played it live:
To say that I was moved by the video would be a gross understatement. I was very much in tears by the end of it. And so was the entire crowd at the show. I will even go to the extent of saying that my inability to completely break down and cry at that point (largely because I was very self conscious there) will remain as something of an unfulfilled void. The video, the live performance of the song and the entire crowd feeling the same emotions – it was the perfect combination of factors that led to this being one of the most intense moments I have ever felt. And this is what Steven Wilson has to say about the video and how he felt about playing it live:
Amongst the hundreds of songs I have written over the years, ‘Routine’ has a very special place. It’s a deeply sad story of loss and denial, but at its conclusion the clouds lift and there is acceptance at least. Having worked with her on 3 previous videos, I knew as soon as I wrote it that it was perfect for Jess to do something amazing with. Even then nothing prepared me for the organic beauty and power of the film she made, a painstaking labour of love that took her months to produce. When we play the song live I look out into the audience and see people swept away with emotion at the combination of music and animation. To find poetry and beauty in sadness is a wonderful thing I think.
The last sentence ties everything together for me. And I urge everyone to listen to the song, read the lyrics and then watch the video. It will give you a sense of fulfillment that is unavailable in the day to day life that we all lead. (On a side note, the video was not released online till late last year, which preserved the significance of the whole experience for me. And I have still not watched it. In fact, my 2nd viewing of the video will likely be when I see Steven Wilson again this March).
2. Roger Waters The Wall (Movie): Roger Waters did The Wall tour between 2010 and 2013 and took the larger than life production all over the world. It is the closest a Pink Floyd fan today will get to experience the tour from how it was in the 70’s. Of course I can always make an argument that it is even better – what with all the new technology available now. I was fortunate enough to watch it Live at Wrigley Field in Chicago in 2012. To this day, it remains the gold standard in terms of a show production. And I highly doubt anyone will ever surpass that.
Roger Waters The Wall movie was part concert footage, and part road trip of the artist driving from his home in England to the beaches of Italy where his father was killed in World War 2. They show the entire concert from The Wall tour with scenes from the ‘road trip’ portion being embedded every few songs. Since I had been to the show myself, I knew what to expect out of the concert portion of the movie. However, I was not aware of what to expect from the road trip portion. I will not spoil a whole lot of the movie here. But will just recall that one specific sequence of scenes that led to me being moved to tears.
In the beginning of the movie, Roger Waters is seen reading a letter (probably for the 1000th time) that his mother received during the war. It is the letter communicating the presumed death of his father in battle. The place of death is specified to be the beaches of Anzio, Italy. He embarks on a road trip to visit the beach and the nearby memorial. Once he reaches the beach, there is a quiet, melancholic moment when Roger Waters just stands on the beach and stares at the sea, the same letter in hand, and with tears flowing down his eyes. The peacefulness of the moment is punctuated with the sounds of the waves washing up on to the shores, and of the birds calling in the sky. One can sense a feeling of acceptance and closure wash over him as he stands there and tries to imagine what happened 70 odd years ago, how he never knew his father, and how that has come to define who he is today. A very moving scene about loss, the futility of war, and a contemplation of all that could have been, but never was.
And then the scene faded into the start of Comfortably Numb.
What can I say? That moment when the scene showing Roger Waters at the beach faded out and Comfortably Numb started playing – that is what I live for. That is the kind of fulfillment that keeps me looking forward to the next day in my life. That transition could not have been planned better. I have listened to that song thousands of time in my life. I know every note, every pause and every word of that song. And I also know exactly where it comes on the album. And I am so glad that the previous scene swept me away so much that I forgot that this song was coming up next. Needless to say, I was moved to tears right at that moment and through the song. I remember that night in Chicago when Roger Waters played that song Live. Everybody just shut the fuck up and just watched in awe. Nobody sang along. And Dave Kilimister played the guitar lead to perfection – without improvising. I suppose there are some songs you don’t sing along to and some guitar leads you do not improvise. Comfortably Numb is one of them.
And sitting in that theater, I felt an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction – of having experienced something truly wonderful and fulfilling.
3. The Line of The Horizon (poem) by Maria Petrovykh: Poems have never been my go-to medium to explore art. Largely because of my aversion to popular poetry themes of nature, beauty, love and social/historical commentary. This aversion unfortunately shielded me from the poems that did deal with themes that I connect with. And it was last winter – in the middle of working outside in the fields of rural Iowa – that I found this poem about old age and death. Mortality is a theme that has led me to numerous bouts of contemplation. And this poem touched a chord in me that I still feel every time I read it.
The Line of the Horizon
Maria Sergeyevna Petrovykh
It’s just how it is, it’s the way of the ages;
years pass away, and friends pass away
and you suddenly realise the world is changing
and the fire of your heart is fading away.
Once the horizon was sharp as a knife,
a clear frontier between different states,
but now low mist hangs over the earth
—and this gentle cloud is the mercy of fate.
Age, I suppose, with its losses and fears,
age that silently saps our strength,
has blurred with the mist of unspilt tears
that clear divide between life and death.
So many you loved are no longer with you,
yet you chat to them as you always did.
You forget they’re no longer among the living;
that clear frontier is now shrouded in mist.
The same sort of woodland, same sort of field—
You probably won’t even notice the day
you chance to wander across the border,
chatting to someone long passed away.
I still vividly recollect my reaction to reading it the first time. Everything around me came to a halt. I forgot where I was and what I was doing there. And all my attention was focused on the words of the poem. And it felt like the last four lines took me across the horizon to give me a glimpse of what lay beyond, before gently bringing me back – wiser and in awe. It was then that I truly understood what Ian McEwan had written about poetry in his book Saturday.
But to do its noticing and judging, poetry balances itself on the pinprick of the moment. Slowing down, stopping yourself completely, to read and understand a poem is like trying to acquire an old-fashioned skill….
Reading a poem that gave me a glimpse of the world beyond, and being able to truly appreciate Ian McEwan’s words in the process, generated an experience that felt like a piece of jigsaw falling into its place. It was like a new perspective gained, or reaching a vantage point that offers a bird’s eye view of the vagaries of life – and watching the horizon get increasingly blurry with the passing of time.
I do not recollect how long I was in that state of mind. But I have gone back to this poem a few times over the past year every time I wanted to get a glimpse of the world beyond. And every time, I have come back wiser and with a newer perspective. But as time passes, I know that some day my trip beyond that horizon will not include a return journey.
I can only hope that in the months and years to come, I have the opportunity to discover and experience an intensity and fulfillment such as the ones I have outlined here. I do believe that as long as I continue to seek, I shall be rewarded. And as this world progresses to an uncertain future, I do hope that society works to break down the perception of the dark arts, and that more and more people gain a sense of wonder and awe that is unavailable in their otherwise routine lives.
5 seasons and a lot of intense and memorable hours later, Breaking Bad’s finale is finally upon us. I got on to the bandwagon very late – in fact only after the first 6 episodes of the last season had been aired. Fresh off completing all 5 seasons of The Wire for the second time, I had decided to not watch any more TV shows. It was just not worth it – all the time spent (wasted??), the lack of any productivity, a desire to do something more useful and constructive with my time, etc. got me very hesitant to embark on another massive investment of my time and ….., well, nothing else really. But ultimately it was the lack of sufficient returns with regard to the quality of the shows available that I decided to take a break.
I do not know who finally tipped the scales in favor of this show, but I got started on Breaking Bad. And that was all it took – getting started – and I had committed ALL my non-working time to complete watching all available episodes. Thanks Netflix. Within a few weeks I was done. 41 episodes of drama of the highest quality – a quality matched only by very few TV shows. Only 2 come to my mind – The Wire and the first 3 seasons of Damages.
The story line and the plot was what kept most people hooked on to the show. Admittedly original, the premise of the show opened up a range of possibilities for the story to develop and take shape. But the writers stood grounded – all the time. No outrageous plot developments, no fabricated coincidences, no cliche situations, no Deus ex Machinas to save the day, and for once we did not see the inevitable game of institution politics being shoved down our throats in the name of reality. None of the painful cliches holding up plot and/or character development – something any seasoned TV show viewer will attest to.
However, the real strength of the show lay not in the successful absence of the cliche, but in the development of plot and characters. Fact is these two were never separate entities. Most story lines (TV shows or movies) have scripts where the development in character follows the development in plot. That is something happens to the character and then the character begins to think and act differently. Breaking Bad, for the most part, did this in reverse. They defined an initial sketch and history for all the characters and created initial situations (Walter White diagnosed with cancer and his meeting with Jesse). After this, the characters’ own natural responses and weaknesses were allowed to dictate the direction in which the story and the plot developed.
Walter White’s persistence with ‘providing for his family’ on his own terms, Jesse’s inability to cope with the impacts his actions have had on those he loved, Skylar’s disapproval of Walter’s choices and her initial fear of her family coming under harm, Hank’s single minded obsession to nail Heisenberg – and all the things that led to and resulted from these formed an intricate web of action and consequence involving every single character in the show. It is really a beautiful thing if you meditate on it.
Think of it. A set of people with a certain initial characters/personalities and tendencies living through different times in their lives. An initial set of circumstances are thrust on them and thus begins the indefinite and incremental loop of response, consequence and further stimulus. But every time the response is going to be incrementally different because of the characters’ previous experience and newer set of circumstances to respond to. All this happening with minimal to no external interference or involvement. It is almost like an elegantly crafted genetic algorithm.
Maybe it is. (Or maybe it is an allegory for free market economics).
But to me, personally, Breaking Bad was a celebration of the human condition. A celebration of how everyday people respond when subjected to stress, loss, unexpected wealth, getting caught, uncertainty, guilt, cancer, and ultimately just plain old fear. Everything – Walter White deciding to embark on his meth making venture, Jesse helping the cops to capture Walter, Skylar cheating on Walter, Marie returning to her kleptomania, Walter revealing the location of the money in the desert – was all just the perfect portrayal of what a normal person under extreme stress and uncertainty would do.
There is an inevitable viewer disillusionment that comes with the vicarious experience of watching the plot unfold on a Television screen. It leads the viewer to having a false sense of superiority over the character for ‘knowing’ what the correct choice the character ‘should have’ made for his/her own good (which is usually nothing more than just the viewer’s preference). But the question to ask yourself is this: If you were really in that character’s shoes with that much stress, fear and uncertainty looming around you all the time, would you be reacting any differently? Once you answer that question honestly, Breaking Bad begins to transcend to a whole new level of TV drama.
The show will be missed. All the characters will be missed – everyone from Walter White to the most adorable Saul Goodman and Huell. But most of all, I would sincerely hope that the series finale does not go overboard just to create a happy ending. I would be at complete peace if Walter never gets to see his family, Jesse commits suicide and Skylar gets hold of part of Walt’s money. But that’s just me. I have a feeling I won’t be disappointed.
So there is this movie that was released in 1994. It went on to win the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and brought to limelight a certain Quentin Tarantino. The movie goes by the name of Pulp Fiction. You may have heard of it. If you have watched it, you probably worship it. If you haven’t watched it, you WILL watch it….. and THEN you will worship it.
I classify in the former. I can probably justify the worshiping aspect with the small fact that I have watched it at least 50 times (That is to say I lost count after 50). And perhaps the reason why I revisit the movie every now and then is because every time I watch it, I find something new – something I hadn’t noticed earlier. It is usually something very subtle, but profound. These moments usually get lost in the build up to a more memorable piece of dialogue which we generally look forward to on every repeat viewing. One such moment came to my attention a few weeks ago.
This takes place during ‘The Bonnie Situation’ part of the movie. This is where Jules and Vincent come to Jimmy’s (Tarantino) house to clear up the mess in their car after Vincent accidentally shoots Marvin in it. Needless to say, Jimmy is visibly upset with the situation he finds himself in and does not appreciate Jules much for putting him in it. This is the part where Tarantino utters one of the most memorable dialogues ever:
“Did you notice a sign in the front of my house that said ‘Dead N****er Storage’?!!!??!!”
Everybody who watches the movie is inevitably looking forward to this piece of dialogue – whether they like to admit it or not. The sheer audacity and the matter of fact nature of Tarantino’s character helps pull it off without sounding particularly offensive or explicit. But there is no need for me to talk about that. What I intend to draw your attention to is something that follows this above mentioned line. Specifically, it is how Jules reacts to Jimmy explaining that it “ain’t there to storing dead ni**ers in his fucking business!”. Watch the clip and see if you are able to catch what Jules exactly says to Jimmy in response to his explanation.
Caught it? Jules says it exactly at 1:00 but Jimmy overrides him with a dismissive “No, no, no…”. See it?
Well, in essence, what Jules says to Jimmy is this:
“Jimmy, we’re not gonna STORE the motherf***er…..!”
Do you believe it??!!? Amidst all the drama and tension that Jimmy is expounding, Jules makes a sincere and genuine effort to actually CLARIFY to Jimmy that they do not intend to actually STORE the ‘motherf***er’ in his house! Now how is THAT for comic and ironic humor??!?? I can’t decide which part is more funny – the sincere intention and attempt to clarify, or Jules referring to the corpse as ‘the motherf***er’! It really is a gem of a line!
Now go watch it again….and again..and again!
As I had pointed out earlier, this is one of the many instances in the movie which can easily be missed while we look forward to all the memorable parts. There really are plenty more like this. The true joy is when you discover it for yourself. I have given you a sample. Now go watch the movie a dozen times and find more for yourself! Then feel happy that you got it!