Sometime after the intermission Ved wistfully wonders to his audience of autorickshaw drivers how things would have been had there been no money in the world. It is meant to touch upon the audience’s higher consciousness, to imagine a world beyond the materialism which the protagonist finds himself trapped in. Yet it rings false. This is classic Imtiaz Ali, where his characters pine for a world beyond the trappings of materialism and rat race of jobs and money, yet being blissfully supported by the same capitalist infrastructure that gives them time and the indulgence to muse such.
Ved and Tara come from money, (as evidences by their mansions in Kolkata and Simla) like most Ali’s characters, allowing them to live in chic central Delhi apartments and vacation in South of France while working in mid-level managerial jobs in cubicles. It also allows them to reflect. A lot. In fact the idea of being caught in the mediocrity and ordinariness of life is recounted by various characters at different times in the movie to the point it gets tedious. There are over explanations. It is even literalised in a theatrical sequence where Ved dressed as a robot walks on the treadmill, of life presumably. The final straw is when Ved narrates his life story to his father alternating it with semi-robotic voice. The conceit here is that Ved is supposed to be a natural story teller, yet his monologue is so boring that it found the audience squirming in their seats.
In long stretches Ali shows us Ved’s monotony in life. There are repeated stretches of him getting up, brushing his teeth, wearing his tie, and eating cereal. I was reminded of Saif’s character in Love Aaj Kal post interval, where he similarly took tram, walked up the stairs, ate his sandwich and played video games at night. However while Saif’s character progressively rebelled against the repetition of life and was motivated by soul crushing heart break, Ranbir’s character seems to have surrendered to this repetition. It is meant to show the person that he has become, an “average, normal” Joe as he calls himself.
According to Ali and his characters, this ordinariness of life is the greatest tragedy that can be, and yet he remains oblivious to the fact that the mere realisation of this ordinariness by the characters makes them anything but that. It is their material privilege to some extent that allows them the luxury to reflect so, in the rustic chic cafes and lanes of Hauz Khas. In the mere acknowledgement of the existential question they have actually transcended themselves from the soul destroying ordinariness of life.
We are meant to believe that Ved and Tara have rich inner lives, especially Ved. We are given a long introduction to childhood immersed in oral and visual storytelling traditions. We are supposed to acknowledge his active imagination. However, Ved as a child and especially as an adult seems to display no extraordinary brilliance. Eccentricity is tolerable if backed by genius, otherwise it’s a farce. The idea life imitating art is never built upon. Apart from references to mythological folklore in the beginning, the only two other references to literature are Asterix in Corsica and Catch 22 which mainly serves as a plot device and not a point of reflection.
At the end of the movie Ved quits his job and starts/joins a theatre. He is supposed to be finally living his creative vision. And yet no one takes a moment to acknowledge the fact that his quest of rediscovery has no basis. There is no soul crushing reflexivity that permeates it, there is no pain or longing or desire, there is not even realisation of the fact that it is in very bourgeois ordinariness of life that seeds of genius have bloomed.
Some of the best works of literature have come from writers with standard day jobs. Harper Lee wrote ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ while working as an airline reservation agent. Rowling developed her earlier novels while working as a researcher at Amnesty International and later at the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. TS Eliot wrote in a bank. Joseph Conrad produced his modernist masterpieces while working as a captain of the sea. Arthur Conan Doyle worked as a doctor. Charles Dickens’s realism and critique of the industrial revolution is based on the many years he spent working in a blacking factory sticking labels on pots of shoe polish. And Herman Melville’s Moby Dick didn’t bring him fame or fortune till after his death, compelling him to work as deputy inspector of customs at the Port of New York for 29 years.
Closer home, Premchand spent most of his life in poverty, working as a school teacher to support himself while writing. The truth is, binary between having a boring day job and discovering one’s creative calling simply doesn’t exist in black and white. One doesn’t necessarily oppose the other. Some of the best works in literature (also music and art) have come from people who continued to live rather mundane lives while producing masterpieces. Unfortunate material circumstances or late recognition of their genius necessitated that they make their living elsewhere. Their genius stemmed from the recesses of their minds fuelled by keen observation of society. Ali’s characters seldom look within or about. The question of money, its source as well as its lack, which has led to brilliant critiques in literature and art, never enters their consciousness, never disturbs their quest. And that is the real tragedy of their lives.