In Bengali, the word “film” is loosely translated to chhaya chhobi (moving images). When spoken colloquially, it is simply referred to as chhobi, meaning images. My uncle’s fervent admiration for films — his undying love for the actors and stories — made him the first connoisseur of art I knew while growing up.
Two years older than my father, Jyethu is the fifth of six brothers. The brothers are all uniform in height — 5 ft 7 inches — but that’s where the similarity ends. Jyethu does not share their stiff gait, volatile temper, baritone voices or their affinity to a stable life. His apathy towards school, his unapologetic addiction to films and his whimsical resignation from jobs were used as cautionary tales for us when Didi and I would try making excuses for not studying in the evenings. “Jyethu ke dekhecho, chakri petey koto oshubidhey hoye? (Look at how difficult it is for your uncle to find a job),” we were told, sometimes when he would be sitting in the same room, exhibiting a kind of intimate unkindness only families can perversely inflict on each other.
Jyethu—unmoved in the face of these unprovoked comments—would be sitting in the corner of the room, visibly busy listening to the radio. Sometimes, he would look up and ask Didi and me, “Do you know which film this song is from?” With all their ability to identify where he had gone wrong, members of my family missed how Jyethu never tried to prove their opinion about him erroneous.
Growing up, I rationalised Jyethu’s addiction to movies with my own theories. Staying in a joint family, with people constantly invading my space, I found films to be a fulfilling escape. Even the most mundane situations appeared interesting with the appropriate background music playing in my head. I suspected Jyethu’s enduring love for the movies stemmed from this and that’s why, on many afternoons, he would be found at the cinema hall at the turn of the lane. His absence at the dinner table when an Anil Kapoor film would be playing was seldom questioned. “Okhaanei gechey abar” (He must have gone there, again), I remember Ma saying, as if talking about an errant child who would not mend his ways.
It took me years to understand why the 76-year-old man still keeps his Sunday afternoons free, why he talks about actors with such familiar affection, and how their invisible presence compensated for his lack of friends and companions. His hapless dependence made sense to me when I found it difficult to navigate through the jarring monotony of life. Vasan Bala, in his recent film Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, aptly captures this struggle. In fact, watching the protagonist Surya (Abhimanyu Dassani) reminded me of Jyethu in more ways than one. Surya, owing to his medical condition of feeling no pain, stands first in line among his Bollywood counterparts. But soon, his strength is viewed as a menace by the world and his invincibility is transformed into fragility. The man who feels no pain is locked up in his room by his father. Being denied access to the outside world, Surya exists without making his presence felt. He only has himself and his grandfather to fall back upon. And the movies. Left to himself, he watches films all day, deriving his understanding of the real world from the make-believe world he is privy to.
In the fantastical universe created by Bala, the fictional world collides with the factual and the director pays his homage to movies by not letting their charm pale before the rationale and logic of the prosaic world. Fed on movies, Surya operates from his borrowed understanding when let out in the real world. A chance encounter with his beloved matinee idol and several mishaps lead him to protect the hero he had grown up idolising. By turning Surya into a protector for the one who protected him in isolation and not letting him fail even when vanquished, Bala shows how unobtrusively fantasy and reality seep into each other and that both worlds are, in fact, governed by a similar grammar.
Surya was similar to Jyethu: films were their way of finding solace in an unforgiving world, not merely an escapade. Jyethu’s love for them resembles less the headiness of first love and more the intensity of that first heartbreak that moulds you for the future to come. Ridiculed for his shrill voice or his gait, ever so often in our presence, I have seen him mostly keeping to himself. Unhappy with what others saw in him, he resorted to imitating what he liked in others. The characteristic bend of the neck, the side parting of his hair were all borrowed, as if these cinematic embellishments would elevate him from his routine existence, and prepare him for a world that will unexpectedly appear from the bylanes he is posited in.
Both Surya and Jyethu are misfits, waiting with obdurate defiance for a familiar world they know exists. Surya found it. Jyethu, I hope, will, find it too, someday.