A friend recently downloaded "Mile Sur Mera Tumhara" on her new phone (the original version of the song, don't worry) and played it on a loop throughout lunch, singing along with it continuously. Even where she didn’t know the lyrics, she managed to imitate the sounds pretty well, betraying how often she must have heard it before. It was clearly a tune etched in her memory, and the sheer frequency of exposure she had had to it had ingrained everything about it in her mind- the beats, the instruments, the visuals- so much so that even years after she must have last heard it, she could replicate it perfectly.
And I understand that this is no great feat. Every person of my generation can apparently recite this song with fluency comparable to the national anthem, and shot-by-shot relay the video also.
So I was not unprepared for the surprise on her face when she discovered that I had only heard the song once or twice, and knew next to nothing about it. “Sacrilege!” her eyes screamed, as she tried desperately to find some reason to retain whatever little positive opinion she had of me.
Once again, I came face to face with my muddled past, and once again, albeit after quite a while this time, I blamed my father and his transferable job for not leaving me with a grounded sense of history.
Growing up around the world has several instantly recognizable advantages- the opportunity to see so many places, the chance to experience so many cultures, learning different languages, access to great schools, and the concomitant ease of faking sophistication and worldliness. What lies beneath, in the shadows beyond the glitz and the limits of myopic eyes, is the side no one wishes to acknowledge. The darkness where constant upheavals and repeatedly trying to make new friends and losing good, old ones dance uncomfortably with a confused sense of identity and a lack of a solid, grounded sense of belonging.
Living in India for the past 7-8 years (the longest I have ever stayed in one place) has thankfully cured me of the suffocating lack of belonging that plagued me greatly during my late teens. However, every once in a while- as it did on that day at lunch- my culturally fragmented childhood resurfaces, and makes me pine for a more… normal past. Certainly, I would have to give up on many a wonderful experience, but what I wouldn’t give to belong. Somewhere. Anywhere. What this constant uprooting and the inability to properly immerse myself anywhere has made me, I think, is a permanent tourist; the eternal outsider, the perpetual spectator; who can only observe life and cultures and experiences from a distance- quietly and unobtrusively, without ever being able to take centre stage.
That is why, I think, I value cinema so much. There’s a famous quote from Scorsese that sums it up beautifully: “It's as if movies answer a quest for the common unconscious. They fulfill a spiritual need that people have: to share a common memory.”
What cinema allows me is a sense of shared history, of a common mythology. Sure, I didn’t have any classmates in 1998 who wore chains saying “COOL”, but just like you, I too started playing basket ball after watching Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. So what if Hrithik Roshan was just an actor to me in 2000 and not a hysteria-inducing name; I have also tried to imitate the ‘Ek Pal Ka Jeena’ steps in front of a mirror. Mowgli and Bagheera may not have visited me every Sunday, but I have also thrown sticks in the air and waited for them to come back in my hand. I may have no experience of playing cricket in gullies, but I too cheered for Bhuvan. I also got a hair cut after Dil Chahta Hai, I also cried at Jai’s death, I also dangled out of trains hoping to catch a girl’s hand, and the first song I also learnt on the guitar was “Tujhe Dekha Toh Yeh Jaana Sanam”. I may not have grown up the same way as you, I may not have played the same games, roamed the same streets, celebrated the same festivals or had the same experiences, but when it comes to films, even though you and I may be strangers, we have seen and laughed and cried at the same things.
Years later, I will be able to discuss a scene from a film, and you will tell me how you also loved that scene, and while we may not have met before and may never meet again, for that one miniscule, meaningless moment of our lives, we will be connected- we will have a shared past, one that is exclusively ours and yet simultaneously universal.
And that one moment will immediately fill me with a confluence of calming peace and an exciting awareness.
That I finally belong.