Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of Being - Milan Kundera and Hindi movie Pankh

I must confess, I love it when Bollywood goes artsy, despite my love for colour, masala and song and dance routines. I am proud to be one of the 39 people on the planet who love Meenaxi, and movies like Chameli and Raincoat just make my day.

So of course I was willing to forgive a lot of "Pankh", despite the fact that this was the only good review I read about it, just because it dared to bring surrealism into Bollywood just like Meenaxi brought post-modernism. But this post is not about the virtues of the movie, nor is it a review. This post is about its tagline: "The Unbearable Lightness of Being".

Borrowed from Milan Kundera's best-known novel, Pankh's tagline must be trying to tell us something, so I set out to find what connects the two pieces of art that couldn't be any more different. And I will make this analysis a little anti-climactic by warning you from the get-go that I don't really see what the connection is, if it even existed. But as I was digging deeper and deeper for meaning, I was surprised to find many shared themes, though the approach is miles apart.


Like many other movies that deal with projections and imagination, Pankh has the difficult task of transitioning between reality and fantasy, while still keeping the visuals flowing logically. And it manages beautifully through various devices like doors opening up into enchanted worlds of dream-like creatures, or circular trolley shots where what was hidden before can always make an appearance on the next turn. There are no dreams, but much like Tereza's dreams in Kundera's novel, these projections are symbolic bearers of the character's fears and doubts.


This was one of the themes that surprised me by appearing in both the movie and the novel in completely different get-ups. In Kundera's novel it plays a central part in the doctor's life because of a misinterpreted essay that he writes "comparing" communists with Oedipus. Without going into details, the most important point that the book makes is that Oedipus may not have been guilty of the sins he commits, but he still owns up to his actions and punishes himself as if he had been aware of what was happening all along. Who, if not ourselves, is really responsible for our destiny, Kundera makes us wonder.

In Pankh, the theme comes about in a more clinical way, in the form of a dominating, alcoholic mother that Jerry has a love-hate relationship with. She has shaped his destiny from early childhood, and continues to do so, even when Jerry rebels. And just like Kundera we wonder again: who is in control of Jerry's destiny? Is it his mother? Is it his muse? Is it himself? Or is it some higher power? And when the movie ends, can we say that he also, like Oedipus, took his destiny into his own hands? Or did he shift the blame back on his mother?


Funnily enough, the most blatant similarity between the book and the movie comes from the two gender-confused characters: Jerry, a boy forced to play a girl's roles in Bollywood movies during his entire childhood, and Karenin, the dog. Both are forced to exist as the opposite sex for reasons that in the long run turn out to have no weight or reasonable justification. But while the dog Karenin assumes his/her new identity with no repercussions, Jerry's life is forever scarred by this.


We come now to the very essence of the title of the book. Without going over the philosophical concepts of what gives weight and what gives lightness to life according to Kundera, I want to focus more on his characters' idea of what gives weight to their own lives. And in this respect, Sabina, the painter, stands out as the one character who cannot bear any strings and who repeatedly abandons everything that could weigh her down. Ironically enough, she is also the one character in the book whose life will continue to mean something to the world after her death, through her art. So her existence is at the same time the most weightless and the heaviest.

Similarly Jerry wills himself weightless, wishes for wings to fly out of his own life, and refuses to acknowledge any mark he may make or may have made on the world. Fame and talent, he thinks, are not important, and his acting is irrelevant. Do his actions in the end give his life any weight? Probably not, and again, ironically, the only thing that will be left of him after his death will be the films he had made as young baby Kusum, a legacy he spends his entire adolescence trying to refuse.


The one quote that will likely stay with me whenever I think about "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" is "Einmal ist Keinmal" (which roughly translates from German as "what happens once may as well have not happened at all"). Going back to the more philosophical part of the book, Kundera does a brief analysis of Nietzsche's doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence, but unlike Nietzsche he focuses on its negative effects. He concludes that the world could not bear the weight of a history altering event, like the French Revolution, happening over and over again because time is the only reason why we are able to see the benefits of such a blood-thirsty affair. On the other hand, having occurred only once, parts of it (namely the bloodshed) have been forgotten as if they had never happened. Thus the conclusion that what happens only once may as well have not happened at all.

This is another point where the movie differs from the book, at first sight, because we know that the abuse that Jerry goes through in his childhood is not an einmal type of situation. In fact, the movie being inspired by real life, we know it has happened to other children as well. Could it then be the type of event that Kundera would deem too heavy a burden for the world if it were to reoccur eternally? Or, since it is a truth so obscure, so little known, and so meaningless to the history of the world, isn't it safer to assume that no, it carries no weight after all, even if it were to happen again and again and again?

Other parallels can be drawn between the characters of the book and those of the movie, the philosophy of the book and the events in the movie, but everything that brings the two together, also seems to set them far apart. As I stumble in the dark still looking for that one convincing argument, I have to wonder: did I miss something?

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