--"Ave Maria," Frank O'Hara
A love of storytelling is my only religion. But like a good
Catholic whose humanity means they’ll inevitably sin between each reaffirming
Sunday mass, I’ve come to realize that this love I always assumed was flawless,
was never as absolute as I believed.
First I have to explain why books, movies, television, and even radio, are so important -- why they are the source of all my faith. I realize that in so many of their incarnations, stories have the capacity to make people feel less alone, and to foster a profound sense of empathy. When I was a teenager it was The Breakfast Club. Did I think of myself as a geek, jock, princess, rebel, or basket case? Not really. But the movie seemed to validate the aching isolation I felt. It was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders when I came to the realization that childhood didn’t immediately lead to adulthood, and that there was a space in between meant to be fraught with confusion and contradiction. And nowadays, when I watch Mad Men or The West Wing, I can relate to one man who is a chain smoking philanderer, and another who is president of the United States, simply because we’re all trying to create something, to find our places in the world.
But I began to realize, quite ironically, that the quest for empathy and imagination I thought I was cultivating through narrative was making me judgmental about the kinds of stories I was willing to watch or read. I’m not saying a person can’t be discerning and prefer Breaking Bad to the Real Housewives, but I was taking things a step further by creating rules for myself about what constituted good and bad storytelling, and while holding fast to them, was writing off countless opportunities to acquire a new perspective.
And the number one victim of this mentality? Bollywood.
To be fair, I have seen my fair share of Hindi films, and with a production rate of nearly 800 a year there are plenty to pick from. The endless reasons why I don’t like these movies include blatant plagiarism, a simultaneous pandering towards and disdain for American modernity, and humiliating sexism.
Then I remembered one of my heroes, Sister Wendy Beckett. This Oxford educated, bespectacled emissary from God is a Catholic nun and art lover who travels the globe, habit and all, making videos about art history. (Her DVD collection, the aptly named “Story of Painting,” is essential for anyone who wants to learn about art.) What I remembered was her response to a question that asked how she, as a Catholic nun whose faith and experience lends itself to Christian art, can find beauty in work based on other religions.
Well, all great religions are great because they're based upon the longings of the human heart. Essentially what the Buddha taught Jesus taught, as far as moral conduct goes. The intricacies of theology are not usually what concerns the artist. They're concerned with the big, beautiful fundamentals, and there I have never had any problem. In fact, anybody who has a narrow sense of their religion, whether they're Jew or Christian or Muslim or whatever, has only to look long and intelligently at the great work of another tradition and they will see what the religions have in common.
Was I being narrow minded about my self-prescribed religion? Was I missing out on the big, beautiful fundamentals of storytelling that transcend culture? When I thought about it, I realized I had been criticizing qualities that, in some form or another, run rampant in American film as well. I could still hate the Indian versions of those qualities more, but maybe I needed to assume that if the things I hated existed in both spheres, the things I loved could also. So I finally sat down to watch my mother’s favorite movie, Sholay.
Sholay, set in a village in 1970s in India, is a story about a former policeman who enlists the help of two outlaws to help him catch the man who murdered his family. The movie is about friendship, loyalty, love, and the notion that society and community are meant to liberate us from isolation, not force us, through judgment, to succumb to it. Most of all, it was about seeking justice when vengeance is the easier option.
The heroes, Veeru and Jai, had resplendent chest hair, hideous outfits -- and effortless swagger. I found them sexy despite myself. And what a glorious villain. A man so evil that parents threaten their misbehaving children with his name, a real live bogeyman who is so capricious that both his victims and his henchmen walk on eggshells in fear. Throughout the movie the tragedy was palpable, the comedy clever but sometimes unintentional, and the dialogue poetic but sometimes filled with moral platitudes. The women were brave and funny, though often two dimensional. But at the end of the day the ideas that resonated also exist in some of my favorite stories -- in movies like The Dark Knight and plays like Julius Cesar. They are about the pursuit of a complicated kind of justice, about dark, flawed people who have every reason not to take the moral high ground, but painfully do so anyways.
I know myself well enough to assume that the next time my mother asks me to watch a Hindi movie with her, I’ll probably fail my religion once more and say no. This isn't the dawn of faith's perfection. But hopefully, from time to time, I’ll remind myself to be a little better. 'Til next Sunday, then.
The previous issue of Hyphen is available in its entirety for your perusing pleasure. Almost as good as having it right in your hands!