Are you chasing bliss?


‘Every person on this planet can relate to wanting to chase bliss.’ Can you?

Last night I watched the movie Bliss (2021). It’s funny how, sometimes, some things that made no sense thus far, suddenly make sense to you in the most unexpected of places.

Before we proceed: spoiler alert. This post is full of spoilers about the movie, though this is not a review. It is an intensely personal experience reflected through the movie.

On the face of it, Bliss seems like a science fiction film. But it isn’t. It is actually a commentary on drug culture and the grip of drugs on the human brain—and an intense, deep reflection on human psychology anywhere in the world. In fact, the film wasn’t even trying to appear like science fiction, because science fiction makes an effort to convince the viewer of the world that it creates. This film, though, was clearly revealing to the viewer the mixed-up nature of its reality, the hazy nature of the ‘created’ world in it. It was giving signals all along, and yet was crafting a new ‘reality’ in a way that was very convincing.

Greg Witter is a man who is already neck-deep in troubled waters, when he meets a woman who claims to be his soulmate, who claims that the world they live in is all fake, including all the people in it (except for the both of them). And from then on, reality becomes difficult to decipher, as he keeps swinging between two ‘worlds’, not knowing which is real.

Close to the end of the movie, when everything is falling apart and descending into chaos, Greg’s grown-up daughter who has been consistently trying to reach out to him, looks at him, and says: ‘One of these days, you’re going to have to choose between these worlds. And maybe somehow, to you they’re both real. So just… just do what’s best for you, okay?”

Up until that moment, I’d been having flashes of déjà vu throughout the movie. But this was the statement that suddenly brought everything crashing down upon me. ‘One of these days, you’re going to have to choose between these worlds.’

And what if you make the wrong choice?

Watching Greg Witter discover the home he used to sketch over and over, the home he thought existed only in his imagination. Watching him suddenly come face to face with the woman whose face he used to sketch, the woman he thought existed only in his imagination. Watching him discover a new world, one that was incredibly, impossibly picture-perfect. A utopia.

It all landed so heavily on me, reminding me of the time when I had discovered something that I thought could not possibly exist, something that I had always considered a figment of my imagination.

When you find something like that, something that seems to materialize straight from your dreams, out of thin air, then the hold it has upon you is unshakeable. It becomes an addiction.

The movie Bliss is primarily about drug addiction. But addictions can be of various types. There are so many different ways a person can become addicted; so many different things one can be addicted to- particularly the addiction to one’s own dreams. And every addiction produces the same effect.

You. Just. Can’t. Let. It. Go.

Letting go of your illusions is the hardest thing to do, particularly when they appear so real. Particularly when they spread out before you a shimmering dream of everything that could be.
The possibilities!

An article on Medium explains so beautifully how this film goes deeper to explore the human longing for utopia- that unattainable ideal of how things are supposed to be. The possibilities of ‘if only’ and ‘what if’. The motifs of heaven, paradise, jannat- all of these are echoes of the human longing for perfection, for utopia.

The film’s story plays upon the insatiable human need for ‘more’. And that ‘more’, in our lives, may not necessarily be materialistic. It may be a need for more knowledge, deeper connection, a better world, more love, more recognition, more ‘you’.  The endless chasing of Bliss.

Greg’s amazement and wonder at the utopian ‘real’ world that he suddenly encounters hit home for me, hit so hard. That feeling of incredulity. Am I really going to get this? Is this really going to be mine? All these images in my head, all these crazy visions- am I really going to have them all fulfilled? Is this true? Is this real? How could it be? How could this be so perfect and still be real?

It can’t.

And that is the bitterest pill to swallow.

What is real can never be perfect. What is perfect can never be real.

In the end though, Greg makes the decision to stay back in the ‘imperfect’ world because in spite of everything else, it was still full of beauty, still full of moments of joy, still full of chances of redemption. And there was his daughter.

He makes the right choice.

And yet he leaves you wondering, what if he had had enough ‘blue crystals’ to cross over to the other side? What if he had chosen the other side? Since we know this is a film about drug addiction, we know what the right choice was. Yet you wonder what would have happened had he made the other choice? Could he have found his utopia?

What if you got the chance to make a different choice? Would it have been any better?

Here’s the thing, and that’s the point the film makes earlier on, through the ‘brain box’ experiment. Even in the utopian world, humans had begun to find things to complain about. They had begun to find out that everything does not always remain in a state of perfection. That life is messy, chaotic and unpredictable, and there will always be struggles, no matter how small those may be. There will always be something ‘missing’.

Matt Williams writes in his article on Medium: ‘It is a demonstration of how the human mind inherently questions reality, refuses the world as it is given, and seeks to construct something anew.’

‘Often unbeknownst to us, our brains are constantly comparing the real world to an infinite number of imagined alternatives, and therefore raising the bar of our expectations higher and higher each time we try to reach it.’

For so long I struggled to find answers to what it was that hit me with such force, knocking the wind out of me, turning me into a perpetually recovering ‘addict’. Why it became so excruciatingly difficult to accept what was real and what was not. I looked for answers everywhere, from books to religion to therapy. And all of them had their own particular ways of looking at the questions, their own unique answers.

Bliss opened up new perspectives and delivered new answers.

There will perhaps always be a void inside of us, a gap that we are forever trying to fill. That is what drives us to the point of insanity, to the point where we are unable to discern between the real and the unreal. That unfillable gap is the endless quest for the perfect world. The quest for utopia.

And yet, in that quest, we may discover things about ourselves, we may make other discoveries that ultimately lead us to uncharted spaces. To better places.

Such is the strange beauty of this imperfect, chaotic world.

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Movies: Men love action, women love romance. Think you know why? No, you don’t!


(I break my narrative yet again, because this is something that just had to be said.)

Wonder Woman

So I finally got a chance to watch Wonder Woman (yeah, I always watch new movies way too late) and oh girl, am I thrilled! It is absolutely mesmerising to watch Gal Gadot aka Diana, Princess of the Amazons, unleash her raw power and true grit. Watching the movie made me realise a few things though—namely why I have never been a fan of action movies and prefer mostly romances. I just thought I didn’t like all the fighting —until I saw this woman kicking, punching, lassoing and sword-fighting away to glory. And it suddenly dawned upon me that the reason I—and perhaps most women— do not enjoy action movies so much is because 99 per cent of all action movies only ever have MEN taking part in all the ‘action’.

Think about it.

What makes a good movie —or any good story— tick? How much the audience/readers identify with the characters. When you watch a story unfold, you identify with at least one person on the screen—mostly, you identify with the protagonist. For that brief span of time, you are transported to the screen, you are the person experiencing it all—and you vicariously partake of all the pleasures and pains unfolding before your eyes. That is why women prefer romances—because the protagonist there, the focus of the story, is always a woman. However, in common discourse this is projected as: women are only interested in love and romance.

Not true.

Women are interested in adventure, intrigue, thrill and action as any normal human being, but one look at the ‘regular’ action fare you get on the silver screen (and the small screen too) and you’d know that women would find it hard to relate to. It’s actually not the ‘action’ that puts us off—it’s the fact that every single time, it’s always a man commanding and carrying out the action. Yes, women definitely prefer peace to war any day—but hey, when it’s about being the hero and saviour and fighting evil and injustice, women absolutely love packing in a mean punch.

A pity then, that our choices are so very limited.

All the way through Wonder Woman, I found myself jumping up and down in glee beside my very amused husband, and almost screaming—“Go Diana! Woohoo! ”

Yes, we love it when women throw the punches and absolutely decimate the baddies.

I remember whooping with joy many years ago when Keira Knightley clashed swords with cursed pirates and sea-demons in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. And I can never have enough of the way she and Will got married right in the middle of slashing up the baddies together!

Keira fight

But I was severely and utterly disappointed by the post-credits scene in the very same movie—where Will returns after 10 years on the Flying Dutchman, and Elizabeth has been waiting for him, bringing up their son all this while. I swear I felt my heart sink right into my shoes.

All that spunk—all that valour—all the sword fighting and dealing with pirates, demons and sea –monsters—all of that for nothing? No, don’t get me wrong. It’s not the child-rearing part that I had a problem with. Nope.

She got married, she had a kid, great —but nobody said she had to stay right there and give him a super traditional upbringing, did they? His dad was Captain of the Flying Dutchman, for cryin’ out loud! And his mom was King of the Brethren Court, lest we forget! She could just have brought up the boy on a ship, having adventures of her own and being the remarkable, doughty woman that she was! But the message we got instead was that once you’re married and have a baby, you really needn’t involve yourself with anything other than said baby.

But now I am beginning to digress. Where were we? Yes, women in ‘action’.

Women enjoy it when women protagonists ‘do the stuff’. When my husband introduced to me the popular TV series “The Arrow”, my favourite protagonists almost all the time were the fighting females —Sarah Lance aka the Canary, Laurel Lance aka the Black Canary, and most of all Nyssa Al Ghul — the daughter of Raas Al Ghul, Chief of the League of Assassins — but above all a shockingly lethal fighter if there ever was one. It was a real delight to watch these women in action. (Of course, Felicity was a great character too, but her fight was more of mental and digital warfare rather than throwing actual punches.)

Among my favourite kick-ass women characters though, right at the top stands the character of Teresa Lisbon from the hugely successful HBO series The Mentalist. Even though she’s not the central character—which is a man, Patrick Jane, The Mentalist himself—yet she’s not reduced to the status of merely a love interest. She’s a super tough cop—the Chief of the California Bureau of Investigation, a smart, fearless character who knows how to fight like a woman. Yeah, I said fight like a woman, because “fight like a man” kind of defeats this whole post—it indicates that only men can fight.

Again, the remarkable thing about this series was that they didn’t have to show the hero Patrick Jane as a super-macho guy, just because his leading lady was a tough-as-diamonds (why don’t they use that phrase, though? Diamonds are the toughest substance on earth!) cop who really knew how to use a gun. He, on the other hand, never even carried a gun. His super strength was his mind– the punching, shooting and capturing part was well taken care of by the lady.

Eventually, of course, Patrick Jane and Teresa Lisbon declare their love—and then comes the part where, for the first time, I felt really annoyed and angry at Jane, because he suddenly begins asking Lisbon to quit her job as an FBI agent—which she had by then become. He kept saying he didn’t want to ‘lose her’ given her high risk job and the fact that he’d already lost once a woman he dearly loved. Which felt entirely pathetic to me, because she had been a cop and a detective long before he even met her. And all these years that he’d been hunting the psychopath serial killer who murdered his family, she had been his partner and closest friend, always taking the lead in this high risk job. And now suddenly when he declares his love for her, he wants her to throw away all she has built up in life just because he’s insecure about losing her? It made me hopping mad.

Thankfully though, Lisbon was a woman after my own heart and she refused to budge. My most favourite, absolutely cherished scene from this series—and in fact my most cherished scene from any series or movie ever, period—is that of Lisbon in her wedding gown, in typical law-enforcement posture and fearlessly holding a gun at another serial killer.

lisbon gun
A smart man isn’t scared of loving a strong woman

That moment, to me, symbolises the very essence of my womanhood: she doesn’t necessarily have to reject love, she doesn’t necessarily have to reject marriage, she doesn’t need to reject femininity either—but she refuses to let go of her passions, of things that are important to her; refuses to let go of who she truly is. She dons the sleek and classy wedding gown, but as soon as the baddies appear, she gets all-out in cop mode—whipping out her gun and confronting the psychopath. Even though there’s a whole law enforcement team there, she doesn’t sit it out just because it’s her wedding day. She remains true to herself and her work, her duty.

That one moment will forever be the essence of femininity to me. Femininity is not about being a damsel in distress—it’s about being a damsel that can remove distress.

And that’s who we fantasise about being when we find doughty women in action onscreen.

This reminds me of exactly what I felt when I watched Jean’s character blast out her mutant powers with full force in the climax of X-Men: Apocalypse. Every pore of my body felt like that woman who is trying hard but frustratingly failing to harness her true powers, that somewhere in me those forces are all accumulating to rip out in one great explosion of fearsome power.

X-Men_Jean_Phoenix

Whether it’s saving your home or saving the world, we vicariously fulfil all our dreams of superhuman strength and fighting power through these characters. But when those characters are only men, we can just salivate or drool over them as fantasy love interests! (Or just appreciate them as interesting characters.) We can’t actually identify with them —obviously.

So here’s my last word on the subject.

Movie makers, you’ll be opening up a whole new demographic if you just create more intrepid, fearless ‘women in action’ characters. That way, you’ll know that it’s not just the romances that draw women in. We love action too— only you’ve got to have the right person doing it.

Feminism v/s Fairytales- Part I


“We are becoming the men we wanted to marry.”

— Gloria Steinem

This post has been far too long in the making — four months to be precise; and has changed titles three times, always a little shy of perfection—until about twelve minutes ago, when I was driving my son to school and the perfect title just glided into my mind, fitting in there with a pronounced click.

Feminism and fairytales. There has been far too much of a discourse about this, far too much of fairytale-bashing in the halls of feminist fame. And the die-hard romantic in me couldn’t reconcile herself to it.

And then I read this line by Gloria Steinem—the one I’ve quoted above.

Every time I read feminist authors—or even just quotes from feminist leaders, I feel a sense of solidarity. The power of the sisterhood, so to speak. But when Gloria Steinem says that we are becoming the men we wanted to marry, I get a stupendously severe sinking feeling.

Really? Is that what we want to achieve? To become MEN?

No, I do get it. I get what she means to say. I get the context of the time and place that these words were spoken in—times when the only ambition for women was to marry a ‘suitable’ (read ‘wealthy’) man and live a life of basked glory. So what Steinem really means is for women to possess ambitions over and above marriage, to actually earn their own glory and fame.  To rise and shine, to be all those things they want to be—instead of merely looking for those things in the men they wanted to marry. I get that those words have led us to where we are right now—where a woman leading an independent, successful life is not an aberration. I get it all.

But what I witness now, in the time and place that you and I live in, is that feminism is becoming more and more about women becoming men. ‘Femininity’ is becoming taboo. To be successful, you must be like a man—that’s the subconscious message being sent out. And that makes me sad, not to mention intensely furious.

I haven’t yet watched Aamir Khan’s acclaimed movie Dangal— where a wrestler dad turns his daughters into champion wrestlers. It is actually based on a real life story— of the Phogat sisters, three of whom have won gold medals at the Commonwealth Games, while the others have won medals and accolades in other National and global championships. My sister went for the movie and came back gushing about it. But when she came to the part where the wrestler screen-dad Mr Phogat chops off his daughters’ locks because they were using their hair as an excuse to get out of wrestling, I felt hugely uncomfortable. There it was again—to be successful you must be like a man.

dangal

Part of my discomfort stems from personal reasons, I must admit. My long hair has been a very, very important, distinctive part of who I am. But then, there are lots of women who like to keep their hair short, and there’s nothing wrong with that either.

What felt entirely wrong was that it appeared like the dad forced the daughters to renounce their femininity—so that he could turn them into the sons he never had. (Apparently, in the beginning the movie shows that the family had an intense desire for sons so that they could take the wrestling tradition forward.) But ultimately it leads the women to success and glory—so all’s well that ends well. And everyone goes home clapping.

I would have actually bought that theory, too, if not for the little fact that this past year, Sakshi Malik, an actual female wrestler, brought home an Olympic Bronze for India—and she hasn’t chopped her hair off at all. What’s more, PV Sindhu, the Olympic Silver medal winner, hasn’t chopped off her hair either. In fact, there have been five women in all who have brought home Olympic medals for India: Karnam Malleswari, Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal, Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu—and none of them has close-cropped hair. Deepa Karmakar who came whizzingly close to a a Bronze medal in the gymnastics category last year doesn’t have cropped hair either. And our very own home-grown Tennis World Champion Sania Mirza is the pinnacle of femininity: long hair, nose-ring, uber-cool and always stylish.

The reason I have chosen long hair to illustrate my point is that long hair is perhaps the most marked of feminine attributes. And by choosing hair, I want to point this out: you don’t need to renounce your femininity to be a feminist.

All the above mentioned women would surely be defined as feminists—breaking the mould with their endeavours. Sania Mirza famously even wore a T-shirt that proclaimed “Well-behaved women never make history.” The thing to be emphasised, though, is always this: feminism isn’t the opposite of femininity. You don’t have to be ‘like a man’ to be strong and successful.

In fact, when we make ‘manly’ attributes the standard of success, we are actually upending the years and years of protest and battle against the belittling of women. We are subliminally spreading the message that ‘womanly’ attributes are worthless and signs of weakness: that femininity cannot lead you to strength and success, only masculinity can. And that, ironically, is the reinforcement of patriarchy—presenting woman and womanliness as possessed of far less value than man and manliness.

Feminism evolved to give women their rightful place in society—so long denied to them. In effect, therefore, to be a feminist is to embrace your womanhood with pride, to wear your femininity like a badge of honour. In trying to be ‘like a man’ you’re merely succumbing to the kind of society whose greatest praise for a daughter is that “She is the SON of her parents.” That is to say, in transforming from daughter to son, she has reached a higher level of evolution.

That kind of mentality is precisely what feminists have vehemently opposed, but when we try to “become the men that we wanted to marry,” I am sorry but we’re playing right into the hands of the chauvinist brigade.

In the stages of evolution of a society, where misogyny is widespread with things like female foeticide being the norm, it is understandable why you would first need to prove yourself to men, just to show that not only are you equal, you can also be better. But as we move toward greater evolution, it is important for women themselves to value their womanhood, and not fall into the trap of woman-shaming.

In essence, what we need to become is the kind of woman we want. Let no one tell you what is womanly and what is the meaning of being a woman. YOU, yourself, are a woman—and YOU get to define what that means—not a man. So if your inner woman finds expression in short hair and wrestling, go for it, by all means. But if your inner woman loves both— long hair and wrestling— let nobody tell you that it can’t be done.

And if your inner woman loves all traditionally womanly things— long hair and cooking, for instance, that’s perfectly fine too—let no one tell you it’s something inferior.  The only thing is to be strong enough to decide for yourself and stand up for yourself—and for other, weaker people. That is the essence of a strong woman.

To be fair to Mr Phogat, though, I watched his interview on a TV show a few days ago, and perhaps by some cosmic coincidence, he was asked the ‘hair’ question. His reply was mighty impressive, I have to admit.

“Looks are fine,” he said. “I get that you want to look beautiful. But when you have done something substantial in life, when you have stacked up your achievements, only then you must focus on your looks.”

No arguments with that, Mr Phogat. No arguments at all.

{Stay tuned for Part II where we will actually discuss Fairytales.}