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Cinema of the lonely

Sayantan Ghosh | Updated on March 02, 2018

Find me here: The lonely often hide behind doors. The sun can’t enter but some light seeps in through the cracks of an ageing door. A still from Aligarh

Away from the hubbub of family dramas, a breed of films explore a dimly-lit world where aloneness is not taboo or unbeautiful

I was on a film set once. At the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune. Everyone around was so busy that I hesitated to make them halt and ask what was being filmed. Someone was screaming on a megaphone, someone was asking for a mirror, another was nervously searching for the same... most were in a constant state of motion, running amok. It was a scene both chaotic and loud but more importantly seemed self-aware of the fact that important work was in progress.

There are very few jobs that require such colossal teamwork. In which every individual work of genius stands the risk of failing if even the smallest link in this gigantic assembly line falters. And yet film-watching is often the opposite. The relationship between the audience and the sequence of events playing out is personal. One may argue that our country is famous for family dramas where a bandwagon of relatives, distant relatives, and even relatives of distant relatives haunt theatres together, especially during festivals. But then there are those films which fall off this wagon when no one is noticing; which are difficult to categorise and be fitted inside boxes of genres. What is Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation? Drama? Comedy? But you don’t really laugh. Tragedy? But no one dies. Srijit Mukherjee’s Nirbaak? A daring experiment? But is it not a romance and a Shakespearean tragedy at once?

Everyone is lonely differently. Or there are a few types of loneliness and we fit into at least one. This breed of cinema recognises the kind that flowers in the quietness. A kind that sits in dimly-lit rooms and stares at its own shadow. Admirers of such cinema seek a similar nature of comfort, which millions of readers around the world seek from Haruki Murakami’s fiction. They offer the same kind of intimacy as staring at ‘Nighthawks’ does — the oil canvas portrait of a downtown diner at night-time by Edward Hopper and the people populating it evidently separated from the outside world. With ‘Nighthawks’ Hopper admittedly tried creating the feeling of aloneness in the inhabitants of a big city. The kind experienced by almost all who dine alone in crowded cafeterias or delay our return home from work.

Films about lonesome people get made often, but films that capture both the delights and the pain of loneliness and abandonment with authenticity are rare. Lonely people hide behind closed doors. The sun can’t enter there but some light seeps in through the cracks of an ageing door. Leonard Cohen was right. As we watch Theodore in Her or Clementine and Joel in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind we understand that these are characters in extraordinary situations. But when we break them down we can tell that minus the marginally futuristic elements thrown in, many of us are not feeling too differently from each other.

The latest addition to this list is the melancholic and raucous The Florida Project, in which six-year-old Moonee and her mother Halley occupy and collide with a world that constantly attempts to cage their unbound energies, and they, like a single unit, stick together and fight for their fiefdom. On the other hand there’s Willem Dafoe’s Bobby, the manager of the motel where the duo lives and the only one other than Halley to indulge Moonee. From a distance, he is a custodian of the premises but a closer look reveals glimpses of his lingering pain of isolation.

Technology has invaded the most private crevices of our lives, trading everyday comforts with human contact. This distancing is unavoidable. And this is the reason why watching other people, albeit in a fictional form, go through the same cycles of trying, failing and retrying, brings us contentment.

This has got little to do with happiness and is more about an intangible sense of consolation for the soul. Which is a strange, sad and funny concoction of the modern world, but urban ennui is such. Whether it’s in Inside Llewyn Davis when a young Bob Dylan is shown inside The Gaslight Café waiting to be discovered as Davis fades away into oblivion, or Professor Siras in Aligarh reciting poems at a gathering and blushing as he accepts the applause that makes him feel better about himself, or the addict Kym in Rachel Getting Married and her inability to assert control over her present because she’s unable to forgive herself for a family tragedy she was responsible for in the past — these characters are all record-keepers of the socially awkward from a certain time. They have many similarities and may sometimes seem as if they are only shape-shifting and appearing in different universes with different names but no real change. But this repetition is necessary, to help us empathise with the dreariness of our routines.

And even though singer/songwriter Tom Waits named his 1975 album Nighthawks at the Diner and placed himself in a similar scenario as the painting on the record’s cover, I’d imagine some slow jazz instrumental record playing in Phillies, the diner in the painting. I may even throw Kym and Siras, Clementine and Theodore in the mix, but by no stretch of imagination I’d picture them in conversation. After exchanging pleasantries (or not), they would silently take their positions and go on with their nights; seeking solace in the fact that they may be alone, but they are not the only ones.

Sayantan Ghosh is a Delhi-based writer

Published on March 01, 2018

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