Sunday, 20 October 2013

Before Sunrise | Before Sunset | Before Midnight |

Spoiler Alert: This post is about my thoughts on the movies, “Before Sunrise”, “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight” and it is, unfortunately, not free of spoilers.

Eighteen years ago, on a train-ride starting from Budapest, two people from very different worlds – Jesse (played by Ethan Hawke) and Celine (played by Julie Delpy) – met one another. Even though the movie, Before Sunrise, was released in 1995, I saw this movie, years later, and I was completely floored! I raved about it to everyone I knew, even stating that it is “one of the best films ever made!” Knowing that I have low tolerance for uniform superlatives like “the greatest this” or “the worst that”, some of my friends were rather intrigued. They asked me to tell them more about the film in terms of the plot. Usually this is an easy question to answer; however, how do you get someone hooked to a movie simply by telling them it is a film essentially about two people just walking around and talking to one another? Yes, Before Sunrise is a movie about two people talking but I don’t really mind that because the conversations are stimulating, thought-provoking, engaging and allow you to know more about the protagonists in terms of how they see themselves, each other and the world.
For many cynics, a chance train-ride leading two strangers to form an instant connection powerful enough to motivate them to disembark in Vienna and spend time with each other until the next morning may seem to be too magical a fantasy to actually come true in real life. Yet this is exactly what happens in Before Sunrise and the powerful performances of the cast and the ease with which they converse with one another makes it absolutely believable. The characters are regular people – Jesse is an American with a Eurail pass on his way to Vienna to catch a flight back home. Celine is a French student on her way back to Paris. Their conversations are exactly the sort you would have with anybody any day –childhood, parents, former relationships, music and arbitrary philosophical stuff. The sexual attraction is obvious but it is handled with great care and patience. I like the way that their short stay in Vienna is not presented as a travelogue but as a series of meetings with amateur actors, fortune-tellers and street-poets. The tourist-sites are not emphasized; instead, they are seen inside a music-store, spending time in a church, going to a grave-yard, and drinking wine in a random park. The movie ends with them at the railway station the next morning making a pact to meet six months later at the same place without exchanging any contact information.

Before Sunset released in 2004. Fortunately, I had watched the first film in 2008 and I did not have to wait nine years for the next release – I saw it immediately.
Before Sunset is set in real time i.e. nine years after the two characters had first met. Jesse is in Paris on a book-tour – his novel, This Time, which he wrote, inspired by his time with Celine, is an American bestseller. Celine happens to be in the same book-store. In the beginning, itself, they broach the subject on why they did not meet after six months – it turns out that Jesse had come but the sudden demise of Celine’s grandmother made it impossible for her to make it. Since they had no contact information, there was no way of getting in touch. Jesse has a flight to catch the same evening and so they utilize the rest of the afternoon catching up with one another. While they continue to talk about environmental concerns, violence in third-world countries and religion, through their conversations, we also learn what has happened in their lives since their first meeting. Both are in their early-thirties and are dissatisfied with life in varying degrees. Jesse is married and has a son but he does not really love his wife. Celine is dissatisfied because her current boyfriend, a photojournalist, is not around as often as she would like him to be. The connection that they had with each other still holds and as the movie progresses, you can see the fumes of passion getting rekindled with whiffs of tension; especially when Jesse reveals that he wrote the book with the hope that he would find her someday and Celine replies that reading the book brought back painful memories for her. The movie ends with both of them arriving at Celine’s apartment and Celine playfully telling Jesse, “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane!” and Jesse smiles nervously, fidgeting with his wedding-ring, and replies, “Yes”.

If Before Sunrise painted before you a simple picture of ideal romance between two dreamy youngsters who meet, fall in love, and are very hopeful and enthusiastic about the future, Before Sunset, to some extent, is heart-breaking as you re-visit these characters who are now more grownup and somewhat jaded by their life-experiences. It brings you closer to reality and the picture that the first movie painted does not appear so beautiful anymore.
Being a fan of happy endings, I was somewhat disappointed when I learned, in the beginning of the movie, that Jesse and Celine never met after six months. However, I hoped that the second movie would show them having a happy ending. The abrupt end of the second movie seemed unfair to me! I hated the fact that it just left me hanging! I wanted to know whether they actually ended up being together “happily ever after” or were there going to be more twists to this romantic saga.

The wait ended when Before Midnight released this year. I was extremely upset when I found that this movie was not releasing in India. However, I watched it yesterday. Jesse and Celine are now middle-aged. They have two beautiful daughters who are twins. The movie begins with Jesse bidding farewell to his son from his previous marriage and is unhappy to see him go. The air of tension is evident throughout the film and you can see the cracks beginning to surface in the relationship between Jesse and Celine. The film exquisitely depicts a day in the life of the couple and you can see how the years of togetherness has brought into their lives a fair share of conflicts along with love. The couple is not just quarrelling over every day things like, for example, the fact that he does not shave; but it is quite apparent that the couple has genuine issues lurking beneath the surface of their fairylike relationship. As the story progresses, one can see that Jesse’s humour is a mask to hide the serious problems in their marriage while Celine’s assertiveness and strong-headedness are triggers for unpleasant confrontations. They still talk a lot, argue even more, sometimes are exasperated with each other  – in other words, they are everything a real couple is in today’s times; and like regular couples, they too sometimes fail to re-create the magic of their past romance despite good intentions. In every relationship, once the newness wears away, one is exposed to a lot of sides of the partner which one may not necessarily like. While acceptance is the key, a lot of us try changing some things about our partner and do whatever we can to make things work for us in the best way possible. Jesse and Celine are no different. They are still fond of each other but the spark that was so apparent in their years of courtship is dwindling with intrusions of reality in their relationship in the form of ambition, parenthood and work. One thing that really struck me while watching the third movie is how convenient the internet has made things – at a lunch-table, a young couple tells Jesse and Celine how they maintain a long-distance relationship through Skype. The subtext, here, questions whether a situation like Jesse and Celine’s would be possible today in an era where communication technology is so pervasive.

The three films, when seen together, beautifully depict how our shared connections just seem to bounce back and forth with the passage of time – it is a rare, beautiful yet real experience. In the first film, the couple largely talks of the future; in the second, they are focusing on the present; and in the final movie, Jesse and Celine are seen reflecting on the past and how their lives have turned out to be since their first meeting. You can actually see how a couple progresses in a relationship and how one advances and alters from one stage in life to the next. Before Sunrise is about the idealism of romance, Before Sunset grounds Jesse and Celine’s love as a decision they both have to make while Before Midnight is about the consequence of these choices. All the three films depict the protagonists trying to control the flow of life, attempting to find the meaning of their existence and struggling to keep their anxieties at bay through their words and actions. The most interesting feature of the Before trilogy is its focus on real-time – the gaps between when the films are released (1995, 2004 and 2013) are reflected in the characters’ ages in the movie. A part of me hopes that another sequel releases in 2022 – after all Jesse and Celine’s love-story only seems to grow better with age - but only time will tell if my prayers are answered! 

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Dustbin

Her cubicle was always in a state of perpetual mess. No matter what time of the day, week, month or year, heaps of paper-work and files always remained untidily stacked on her desk. It wasn’t that she was not a fast worker; in fact, she worked more efficiently than most of her colleagues. She just happened to take on more work than necessary in an attempt to dislodge the burden from others’ shoulders. She was everyone’s favourite in the office. Even those who were not from her department had a good opinion of her. After all, no matter how drained she was, she always had a warm smile to spare for those who looked her way.  Even when things became chaotic, especially during crunch-times, she continued to remain the perfect picture of calm. It did not matter how deep the mess was! She always managed to step in and clear it in a manner that was so flawless that one could not even believe that there had been a muddle in the first place.

Things were no different in the personal front. Her friends always turned to her for comfort in times of distress. No matter how messed up things appeared to be, she always managed to clear the clutter. Everyone came to her with their problems and she always lent a patient ear to their worries. She was the first person on everyone’s list of “Emergency Contact” – they knew she could be counted on in the case of any kind of urgency.

She was always surrounded by friends, family-members and well-wishers. Despite that, she always felt alone. No matter how hard she tried, she could never pinpoint the reason why.

He was a silent worker who was way too engrossed in his own world. He had no time for others. He came to office, did only what he was required to do, and then left as soon as his work was done. He did not like wasting time socializing with others nor did he like to offer a helping hand. He kept to himself because no one really bothered talking to him or involving him in conversations beyond the necessary.

When he was taking breaks between works, he often used to observe the people around him. She was always an object of fancy. Her actions always amazed him! As an outsider, he could see what was happening to her. He saw the smile on her face that did not completely reach her eyes. He knew she had a lot to say. Her eyes expressed it all but what was the point? No one listens to you unless you resolve to make your voice heard. In all these years, she had become so accustomed to listening to others that she no longer knew what it was like to be heard for a change. He noticed those moments when she opened her mouth, perhaps, to say something, but shut it again because no words came out. No one encouraged her to speak. Why would they? The purpose of a dustbin is to clear the trash around. It does its job extremely well and makes the surrounding area neat and clean. However, when the dustbin wants to talk, no one wants to go near it. Who wants to go near the foul-stinking rubbish? No one! 
She was everyone’s dustbin. They went to her for disposing their garbage. She fulfilled no other purpose in their life.

He could see her restlessness. He noticed her jumpiness. She was slowly turning out to be less good-tempered than she used to be. He smiled as he noticed that change – there comes a point of time when even the best of people snap. Perhaps, her time was nearing.

He wondered if he could do something to assist her. She, after all, seemed to be in no position to help herself. No one likes emptying a litter-bin but it is a job that someone just has to do.  He just wasn't sure if he was ready to get his hands dirty and clear the waste…

Friday, 4 October 2013

To Mumbai, With Love

I return again to this space after an unexpectedly long hiatus. The good news is that the break wasn't the result of a writer's block. Rather, it was my busy schedule that prevented me from finding time to gather my thoughts and penning them down. 

I have written about Mumbai so many times before. There are times when I wonder what more is there to say about this city that hasn't already been said before. It has been more than three years since I have lived here; and finally it is no more just a city of dreams or a city of unending ambitions for me.
When I first came to the city, I was one among the many aspirants who come to this place with starry-eyed dreams and believe this is the Mecca of making those dreams come true.

It has been three years and I am not sure where those dreams disappeared. In hind sight, I don't think I can even remember what those dreams were. It all seems like hogwash to me - a thing of a past that is so distant that no matter how hard I try to recollect, the only faint remnants of its existence is experienced in my heart in the form of piercing feelings.
Yet I seem to be in love with this city. It is difficult for me to pinpoint the reason. Do I love the city because it gives me my independence? Or is it the unstoppable life of the city that I am attracted to?
The people, here, are fascinating. They always seem to have new stories to tell; and some of the old ones are always eager to fill you in with tales of bygone days. But then people are interesting almost anywhere you go if you take the time to catch a glimpse of their world.

It is not the busy life of the city that attracts me. Living in Kolkata for almost seventeen years of my life has ensured that I prefer the slow life compared to the madness one sees while travelling in the Mumbai locals especially during rush-hours; and while Mumbai does have a charm of its own, nothing beats the old-world charm of Kolkata in my eyes. The way I see it, the crude, harsh tone of Marathi stands no chance of winning points against the melodious ring of the Bengali language. Forgive me if I appear biased!
Of course the one thing I absolutely love about Mumbai, apart from the beautiful rains, is Marine Drive - the entire stretch at night is an object of devotion on its own.
But is that reason enough to make me want to stay?
Of course not!

Acknowledging Mumbai as my "home" instead of being just the "current city of residence" was not an easy transition. But it happened. This change can be attributed to a lot of factors - my exciting work, my very messy but spacious house, my funny, travel adventures, my daily encounters with individuals that always give me wonderful stories to narrate about discovery and delight...This list can be endless. But one thing that truly makes this city feel like "home" are the wonderful friends I made who stood by my side and always sustained my belief that no matter how bad things were, "this too shall pass".
Sometimes I wonder, if it weren't for them, would I have survived the time I got stuck at Dadar-Matunga for more than four hours owing to the heavy rains? Would I have managed to take a leap of faith and resign from a job that did not seem fulfilling enough if I did not have their support? Would I have had the courage to embark on a road to a new destination I was absolutely clueless about? Could I have overcome the loneliness one sometimes tends to experience living alone in such big cities?
I don't think I could have survived any of that without them!

My old dreams may have evaporated but I have still not become a person who just goes on with the daily drudgery of life with no fun and zeal. Life is a journey and even though one may have to give up on past dreams and wishes as one advances, it does not mean that those are not replaced with newer goals and ambitions.
Mumbai has helped me evolve as an individual at many different levels - today, I feel more connected to my core. I have set new goals for myself and I am aware that I have the support-system I need in order to achieve them. Life is not a bed of roses and there are thorns that I need to look out for but I have faith - in the end, everything will be alright!
I guess this is the Mumbai spirit that everyone boasts about - no matter what disasters fall in your path a Mumbaikar always has a ready disposition to face and overcome all calamities. I think this new-found fighting-spirit that I seem to have recently discovered officially qualifies me to say I am a Mumbaikar, after all.