In recent times, two films, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM) and Dear Zindagi have achieved what only Imtiaz Ali films like Tamasha and Rockstar could previously boast of — polarise Facebook status updates. The rants have equalled the raves in their intensity — and the rants have mostly focused on how singularly shallow the lead protagonists of both these films are. If Ayan in ADHM shows the emotional maturity of a seven-year-old, Kaira in Dear Zindagi, too, refuses to grow beyond that particular mental age. Both these characters wallow in self-inflicted angst to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. They are slightly vacuous, definite party poopers and guess what — they are you. Or actually us.
If characters in movies no longer move us, if you find their trials and tribulations trite, if there is no conflict that touches a chord deep inside — welcome to our lives.
A great philosopher (not Rumi) said, “Never before has a generation so diligently recorded themselves accomplishing so little.” Our storytelling is extended Insta stories of an entitled generation with the posterity value of Snapchat memories. Don’t blame the filmmakers — their work only chronicles the times we live in. These are easier times — and we are a self-satisfied lot. Self-satisfaction, however doesn’t make for a compelling story. In absence of external conflict, films like ADHM, Dear Zindagi or Tamasha take the conflict inwards. But since the average millennial has the emotional depth of a cup of frothy cappuccino, the internal conflict is often trivial, indulgent and a tad boring. Mental illness and unrequited love can be powerful narrative tools — but if you don’t care for the characters, chances are you won’t end up caring for their conflict either. Or the reasons why they are conflicted.
Don’t get me wrong, the 1990s films were insular too. It catered to a growing NRI audience. It was about rich, beautiful people living in a perfect little bubble. But for all the self-contained prettiness of their lives, they lived and loved hard. The economic disparity of the ’80s (Maine Pyar Kiya) gave way to the loaded question of parental consent even when you were wise enough to fall in love within the same strata (Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge). There were uncomfortable love triangles, fatal ailments and characters who fell in love after a heartfelt courtship.
And that is where the problem of the current-day film comes in: it doesn’t make you feel enough. It has characters who are far too cool to fall in love or feel anything at all — and even if they are messed up enough to seek therapy, it is cutesy and all too easy. It would be ironic to quote Dear Zindagi, but at one point, Shah Rukh Khan’s dishy therapist says, “If you won’t cry hard enough, how will you laugh hard enough?” You could say that to us as film audience and as characters in a movie — we don’t feel hard enough.
Which is not to say Ranbir Kapoor’s man-child or Alia’s cute dysfunctional avatar are not doing the misery bit right. Both these fine actors ace it, but their misery feels far too self-absorbed and vaguely pointless. Self-absorption makes for a tiring experience — even if it only reflects its audience. If our films bore us, it could just be because we are boring.
Which brings me to the other problem — if we are not feeling enough, the opposite holds true for talking. We are talking far too much — on social media, WhatsApp groups and in our films. Especially in our films. Tamasha or Ae Dil Hain Mushkil left you in no doubt about what their characters felt — because they told you in excruciating verbosity. Every little thing — the same way everyone knows what you ate for lunch at that school reunion.
I am curious to see what the Hindi film industry will do in its remake of the powerful Marathi blockbuster Sairat. This is a film with all the tropes of old-school Bollywood — class conflict, rich, overbearing parents (they are not cool enough to hand over a private jet to the hero and never show up for the entire film) and extremely foolish yet endearing lovers. It worked because it chose to co-opt the audience in the process of falling in love and then followed it up with a darned good plot. A plot which made you invest in its characters and their follies. It celebrated love without the self-conscious swagger of the millennial. It plunged into it headlong. Will this generation of right-swiping, viewers be far too cool for this heady potion of loving recklessly and its consequences? I should hope not — because Hindi films need to get back characters who don’t just live for themselves and plots with a heart.
(Naomi Datta is a former broadcast journalist, part-time social media enthusiast and full-time movie-goer.)