In the first section of Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, a mind-opening book on the climate crisis, he traces — with great depth and clarity — why fiction has been unable to accommodate the present and impending crisis. He posits how, from origins of high fantasy, where the imagination soared and took acceptable leaps and bounds, fiction gradually evolved into its current avatar, with a single-minded focus on realism, and “individual moral adventure”. The extraordinary was relegated to the background — and there it lies currently. As a result, science fiction and fantasy were torn away from mainstream fiction, of which both were once soul and sap.
A gold rush for internet activists
In Ghosh’s thesis, and in our internet culture, we can find a diagnosis for our age of activism-affliction. While thinking about these two, I realised I would find no better pillar to lean on than a recently-released Bollywood film, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. After all, some Bollywood films are loyal to a certain fantastical vision that successfully draws the ire of the internet elite (no doubt unaware of the irony of calling a film “sooo filmy”). And in this ire, I believe we can find the symptoms of a different derangement.
“If literature is conceived of as the expression of authentic experience, then fiction will inevitably come to be seen as ‘false’. But to reproduce the world as it exists need not be the project of fiction; what fiction — and by this I mean not only the novel but also epic and myth — makes possible is to approach the world in a subjunctive mode, to conceive of it as if it were other than it is: in short, the great, irreplaceable potentiality of fiction is that it makes possible the imagining of possibilities.”
I suspect a similar project is underway in the world of films as well. After all, films are fiction; and many of them are adaptations of novels — hence, they are literature themselves.
In addition, along with the suspicion of fiction itself, and its ever-closing boundaries, we now also have an internet generation that is feeding itself on half-baked knowledge. (The other half is internet memes.) As a result, we’re flooded with opinions — attached to worthy causes, no less — that nonetheless exhibit a startling blindness to the necessity of argumentation and contextualisation.
It is deemed progressive enough to have loudly demonstrated loyalty to a certain belief system (say feminism) with a rash of generic, chest-thumping statements, and then to comfortably retire into a cocoon of smugness and self-satisfaction. It can be no coincidence that companies looking to create popular advertisements are pressing writers to include groan-worthy angles of women power. Depth is unnecessary; abiding by certain tired tropes is good enough.
This mad rush to demonstrate a certain progressivism is now turning into a mass blindness (and hypocrisy) of the internet elite.
In some reviews of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, for instance, there is a familiar disapproval — a carefully practiced, holier-than-thou disavowal of a story about unrequited love. All this has been largely centred around how the characters behave. Unsurprisingly, many wonderful subversions of tired Bollywood tropes were lost in the mad dash to be the first to call the film out for various behavioural crimes.
Blindness or hypocrisy?
First, can we please accept that we live in a world of complexity, and messy relationships, especially when it comes to romance? Often, at the level of the individual, morals and social mores break down when two people are “in love”. We know this from our past relationships, and those of others around us. Accepting this reality is not to condone such turbulence in relationships, but to acknowledge that they exist, and that — despite our best efforts — they will remain messy. Moreover, unravelling the many threads in romantic relationships is almost impossible no matter how progressive one’s outlook might be, especially because romance involves sex.
Think about the objections to Lisa Haydon’s character because she’s apparently with Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor) due to his wealth. Such straight-slamming is ironic. Largely because, in the garb of feminism, it would have you believe that there are no complex realities in romantic relationships. I suggest more research into the thriving world of sugar-daddies, ably aided by women with undeniable agency.
In How to Think More About Sex, Alain de Botton writes:
“Despite our best efforts to clean it of its peculiarities, sex will never be either simple or nice in the ways we might like it to be. It is not fundamentally democratic or kind; it is bound up with cruelty, transgression and the desire for subjugation and humiliation. It refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should. Tame it though we may try, sex has a recurring tendency to wreak havoc across our lives… Sex remains in absurd, and perhaps irreconcilable, conflict with some of our highest commitments and values.
…This is not to say that we cannot take steps to grow wiser about sex. We should simply realize that we will never entirely surmount the difficulties it throws our way. Our best hope should be a respectful accommodation with an anarchic and reckless power.”
Even as we grow wiser and kinder, we must not forget that taking a moral high ground on someone else’s love story is the ultimate act of hypocrisy. Most of us have said and heard, and have forgiven, and been forgiven for, saying and doing cruel things in love (and obviously I do not mean physical assault).
Real life — and love — is difficult business. And nowhere can this be experienced more than in this book review about the lives of two very famous people, one of whom is a feminist icon:
“Many of the myths that surrounded Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in their lifetimes were demolished when their private letters and journals were published after their deaths. Even Beauvoir’s legions of feminist admirers could no longer view them as role models for new forms of free love. By their own accounts, Sartre and Beauvoir were often selfish, callous and cruel, not least to third parties caught in their web.”
Have we not fought angrily and thrown around things, and then made up later? Has nobody ever sulked after being turned down by a girl, or a guy? How many people have actually asked before kissing someone? Should trying to kiss someone and then stopping (which happens in the film) when rebuffed — yet display some hurt — be called sexual assault? I worry then that many or most of us could be accused of some form of sexual assault. If donning the mask of feminism closes our eyes to the possibilities and complexities of human interactions, we might as well not wear it. The complexity of human interactions is the reason why it’s difficult to sue for emotional torture.
It must be a sign of the times that opinions attached to admittedly worthy causes can be handed out with argument or attention to context. For instance, isn’t it a worthy subversion that Alizeh, who is not in love with Ayan has agency, and isn’t, ultimately, forced into loving the guy? Or, that the entry of the third other is not an exercise in mindlessly demonstrating that women are always keen to undermine each other? The sautan of Hindi films died in this film and nobody applauded. Neither did anyone notice a man admitting, of his own accord, that his ego was hurt at the unresponsiveness of the woman.
Of course, it’s a small matter that Ranbir Kapoor’s nuanced performance was one of the most extraordinary portrayals of a leading character well in touch with his feminine side. Look at the film again — look at his babydoll dance; his bag when he’s at the airport (did anyone even notice?); his gait at Alizeh’s wedding; the mehendi on his hands; his pretending to be a bride; his easy tears; his non-embrace of a macho indifference in the face of tumult. Karan Johar’s obvious influence is strong here, but it’s easy to miss when you’re looking for ways to rip apart a Bollywood love fantasy. In fact, it has been reduced to characterising Ayan as a man-child. Five years ago we would have said “kitna rota hai, ladki ke jaise”. Irony?
So barren is our imagination, and so dedicated are we to the task of claiming virtue for ourselves, that we’ve rid ourselves of the possibility of examining whether “he acts like a child / he cries too much / he is too emotionally needy / he acts like a girl” are precisely the acts of assigning a behavioural trait to a gender / age that is an easy escape from understanding others. When “maturity” is measured by arbitrary, and ever-changing, social diktats, how easy does it become to disparage those who don’t fall into our chosen moulds?
“You see I love you better each time and I want you worse each time, and I bruise more heart strings each new time I go away, until finally you’ll just have to realize my life means you always near, and I can’t be nice and unsarcastic and happy when you aren’t near…
When I sometimes think that someday you may be married to someone else and I may be lying awake at night when it’s dark and still and deep and thinking of you, I wonder how I can stand to realize your blue eyes belong to someone else and that I can’t even have so much as the touch of your hand… Please don’t be mad at me, Eve, and like me more than a little bit. Please, please, please, please, Eve.”
James Thurber’s letter to an unrequited love could have been Ayan’s words, but since this is a Bollywood film, we are contemptuous of the latter. (Let me not even explain that the exaggerated crying of Ayan after a break-up is actually a humorous jibe at those who take the idea of love too seriously. That would ruin the fun of an easy jibe at him.) I am sure some bright person might suggest that the letter, with its forceful words, could be tantamount to sexual harassment as well. Such are the times.
The unwillingness to look at, or uncover, nuance, is a new derangement. So is the blindness to fiction — and our hard-headed efforts to examine fiction against reality. But what is reality? Some moan that the characters are too rich, they have private jets, they party too much. What is reality? Our reality, we of the internet, who belong to maybe the top 10% of this country? I don’t remember the last time the help at home, or the man who drives our car said he didn’t like a film because people were too rich. For them, the 90%, it’s fantasy that works. Which reality is real? The reality we seek in films is also fiction for many. I wonder if the reason we rail against opulence in films is because we have enough money to aspire to — and grudge — such possessions.
The great internet derangement
What is it about our internet-addled lives that closes even the most intelligent minds to possibilities other than those they’ve declared as final? I have three reasons to offer.
First, in a time of excessive information, skimming is the easy way out. Learning something appears overwhelmingly difficult. Therefore, we learn a little of everything, but not much of anything. Second, we are seized by an overwhelming desire to create a progressive personality online, because it is the right thing to do. It is sufficient in this case to loudly affirm allegiance to a cause; often, without knowing much about it. Third, people on social media behave like a mob — a much more insidious form of peer pressure can be observed here — and we’re afraid to be on the wrong side of internet opinions. Therefore, we refrain from seeking answers when in doubt, and clutch at the lowest hanging opinion.
Ghosh argues that the word “moral” which has transcended its Protestant origins and entered literature as a secular force, defines much of fiction now, compelling us to pay attention to “individual moral adventures”. As a result, “sincerity and authenticity” have become “the greatest of virtues”.
I suspect this is why we now seek a greater understanding of ourselves as individuals, but are loath to offer any acceptance to alternatives. Ghosh says “just as novels have come to be seen as narratives of identity, so too has politics become, for many, a search for personal authenticity, a journey of self-discovery”. I wonder if this makes us blind to fantasy, to other thoughts, and to other people and their opinions. No suffering, no love, no opinion matters until it is conveniently straitjacketed into a moral framework of our choosing.
Today, it’s easy to dismiss Ayan’s behaviour as that of a man-child, despite his obvious difficulties in dealing with rebuffed love that is not alien to anyone. (If I were cruel enough, I’d point to the personal lives — and some choice incidents — of some people who have called him that.)
We are now doctors with a ready diagnosis — but without a remedy — for other people’s failings. After all, on the internet, preaching is practice.
Shubhodeep Pal is a Mumbai-based freelance writer and photographer.