Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Dreams of positive grief

I have time these days. A little more time than I have allowed myself over the last year or so. Time to think about myself, life, patterns, hopes, futility, art, purpose.

I am not sure whether this much time is good for any writer. Particularly a professional one who is not really given to philosophy. But I have been attempting to collaborate with another writer/filmmaker and, as was inevitable, talk veered to 'positivity'. Leaving people with positive images. Positive overtones. Positive pitches. Positive 'vibes'. Putting a positive spin on things.

And I found myself getting annoyed. I make no secret of my own leaning towards darknesses and ambiguities. In fact, I often find myself disappointed with plays or films or books because they tie up so neatly. The hero jumps in and saves the day in the nick of time. The heroine finds true love. The children get their puppy. The puppy gets to learn salsa, and gets to make out with a tigress. Whatever.

There is nothing so annoying in art as absolutes. And the only absolute I can stomach is the absolute of grey. Which is not to say that I cannot, or do not, write happy endings. I do. But an overbearing emphasis on happiness can be as soul-destroying as relentless grief.

One recent show that particularly made me think about feelings and vibes and endings in art was the play Dreams of Taleem.

I should mention straightaway that my Marathi is almost nil and the script is a combination of English, Hindi and Marathi. Now, 'Taleem' in Marathi is slightly different from 'Taleem' in Hindi-Urdu, where it means education. And I went in expecting a show about, well, I don't know, kids wanting a real education, or some child protagonist fighting to stay in school. It turned out to be about theatre. About acceptance and rejection. About anonymity and pasts and secrets. About children and old age and tolerance.

It was about many different things and despite the fact that there were whole chunks I did not understand the meaning of, it was alright. Because I did actually understand. And what was amazing was that I was laughing without any idea of what the joke was about. And then I would turn to my friends and they would be laughing hard too. I would ask them what the joke was and they would say, there was no joke. But there was nothing you could do but laugh. It was just the moment. And to tell the truth, it was actually a slightly scary and slightly sad moment.

This is an incredible thing to have in a play. I don't think I have seen anything like that in theatre in Bombay over the last two years. To be able to weave grief, absurdity, fear and laughter so simply, and so naturally that the words themselves aren't very imporant - that was some really accomplished writing.

On the other hand, there was the matter of the end. And the play itself dwells upon it. How are things going to end? Is a sad end the only possible end in a sad, complicated situation? That is a question asked by one of the characters in the play, one who is determined not to let sadness and despair and intolerance win a second round. Whether it wins or not, I will leave you to find out. Dreams of Taleem is playing at Prithvi theatre this week. I recommend it unreservedly.

But for me, the question remains: why do we feel the need to rebel against sadness in our stories? So often I hear people saying that they like humour. They want to read humour. They like gags on sitcoms, even poor ones. They like funny films. They want even the everyday tragedies of our society to come topped with the safety valve of comedy. They want all our black pots of misery to be coated with a non-stick hoax of joy.

Why do we forget that people have always had as much of an appetite for tragedy as they have for comedy? Even in ancient Greece there was tragedy and comedy, both. But tragedy was just tragedy. Another facet of life. Grief was another state of being, a part of you that the artist was calling forth, demanding a connection. It wasn't 'negative'.

Could it be that we get so much visual and textual exposure to bad news and bitterness that we cannot deal with it any longer? Especially if we have to pay for it. Especially when our expectations of art are so driven by our expectations of ambience and entertainment and comfort. Or has it been different in any other pre-mass media age?

I sort of get it because I too watch those movies, those sitcoms, read the funny books, watch crazy youtube videos. I understand. But there is a corner of my mind that rejects too much of a sugar pill. I am discomfited by our relentless quashing of truth.

On the other hand: what truth? The truth as it exists? Or the truth as we would like it to exist? When it comes to a fabrication of the mind - films, books, plays - who can say which of these truths is more significant? In a piece about the movie Avatar, Zizek has said, 'If we subtract fantasy from reality, then reality itself loses its consistency and disintegrates. To choose between "either accepting reality or choosing fantasy" is wrong: if we really want to change or escape our social reality, the first thing to do is change our fantasies that make us fit this reality.'

If we are going to change our truths, perhaps the first step is to change art.

Our stories, then our lives? I don't know. I know that the best work I can do will have to be the work I want to do, regardless of who wants to read it, or buy it. But I am not yet certain about whether or not this is self-indulgent. All I know is that the most powerful art I have read or seen is the kind that does not turn away from pain, one which does not deliberately employ humour as a weapon of defense for its protagonists, one that isn't afraid of infecting audiences with its stinging tail of grief.


??! said...

Even in ancient Greece there was tragedy and comedy, both. But tragedy was just tragedy. Another facet of life.
I'd suggest the difference is that there's a lot more tragedy around us, and that's why people turn more and more to humour.

Sure, the Greeks had wars and poverty and lost loves and betrayal. But it just seems like there's a lot more things that oppress us now - from living in cramped cities to creepy men stalking the Web to the helplessness of politics.

So, when nearly aspect of life around you can drive you to despair, it's easy to see why the majority of people are driven to humour.

Besides, it's not as if humour is all knock-knock jokes. Some of the most enduring comedies have a distinct dark side. It's just that the canned laughter covers it.

Anonymous said...

hi, i would have given this play a miss.

now that a non marathi-speaking person who despite not really understanding 'whole chunks of it' was able to appreciate and recommend it...

think i'll have to find out about it myself.

thank you.

Nitha said...

Amazingly insightful piece... Been trying to put certain things into perspective recently, esp. about 'negativity' in my own life, and this helped immensely. (Philosophy could also refer to an individual set or system of principles and beliefs, so I don't see why you couldn't be described as a philosopher yourself :-))

Abhishek Tupe said...

First, I must say I loved your style of writing, so do let me know when you write a book. The questions which you have put are pretty evident around and I also agree even in dark comedy. I feel, most of them love it because of the funny part and am not sure whether the serious message which director wanted to put reaches. But I guess people choose not to see the message, just laugh enjoy and forget. Also, I feel the name attached to most so called "experimental theatre" comes to it with the stereo type not attached to it. I dont know whether I have digressed now. But I was just going to watch the play, read your piece. Brilliant it is and sort of agreed to what most of the times I think. So had to comment. Thanks.

Tweets by @anniezaidi