In the mid 30s, when the Nazis came to power, the writer Charlotte Beradt began collecting dreams. Her attempt was to understand the effect authoritarianism has, as the New Yorker put it, on the collective unconscious and she soon began noticing a pattern where the German population grappled with paranoia, self-loathing, fear, and compliance.
Any major event holds the capacity to subconsciously change the way we process and react to reality and while India may not be a dictatorship — not yet at least — the current pandemic, as researchers have noted, has left dreamers with a dearth of “inspiration.”
And among the many things that have emerged during this event is the reappearance of the idea that art — movies, TV shows, music, comedy, literature — is a crutch that’s helping us power through this moment of unprecedented crisis.
However, the propellers of art and workers that keep the dream factories running are themselves, like everyone else, locked up in their houses, grappling with a reality that’s changing faster than any fictional narrative that they’d ever imagined.
So how are those who create fantastical stories that transport us into an alternate universe coping with an invisible force that has held us captive for months? Is our collective grief something that might reflect in the narratives we’ll see in the coming years?
Does an altered psyche affect a screenplay and if yes, in what ways? More importantly, as grief, hopelessness and despair, alongwith the sporadic bout of good news, clutter our feeds, our minds and our consciousness, how will the writers and creators decide what story needs to be told? Will we watch more comedies as many prophesise (not particularly true after Great Depression) or will we veer towards dramas that reflect our pain?
HuffPost India spoke to some of the finest writers of Hindi cinema to understand where writers find inspiration when the world around them looks so bleak and sleep remains a distant dream.
1. Atika Chohan — Guilty/Chappak/Waiting
For days, I couldn’t put two sentences on paper. And how could I? We’re all participating in a global medical thriller. We are the protagonists of this story and we need to make wise decisions to win this over. And that’s tough. What I am going through is guilt. It has been like this since December 15, the time of the anti-CAA protests. At the time, it was the guilt of belonging to the majority religion. And now, it’s about class privilege.
Even if i don’t work for the next 6 months, I can survive, but how many of us can? If I keep writing online, I feel like I’m only contributing to the noise. How do I write, what do I write? About human fuckups? Because, ultimately this isn’t a natural disaster, it’s a human one. It’s been transported by the upper echelons of the society and the ones who are suffering the most are the underprivileged.
But, I think I have guilted myself to tide through this time. I have told myself that I need to survive and be there to tell these cautionary tales. As a chronicler of tales, I’ve to carry this truth and embed them to my stories. I need to contribute to the consciousness of the new kind of storytelling that’ll emerge once we come out of this pandemic. I have granted myself the responsibility to stay sane and safe. When I struggle with writing, I journal my emotions: there’s pain, anxiety, depression and numbness. I want to record my feelings, everyday.
What are the big lessons? Well, for one, whatever little fancy I have had, that vanity has diminished. Someone I know has 80 pairs of shoes, but nowhere to go. My takeaway is that this pandemic should be an examination of human consumption. And it begins with self-examination. The thought that’s occupied my mindspace a lot in the past few days is how I can regulate some of these needs and create a balance between the shallow side of me and the creative side of me, how they can feed off each other.
Some days are tougher than the others. Maybe the world would want to see more of comedies and not serious dramas after this? Am i prepared to face the thought that I may not have skills for the world that awaits me on the other end? I don’t know. I compel myself to write for at least two hours in a day. There are existing projects, there are deadlines and then there are people around us dying without seeing their loved ones.
Honestly, it just feels so selfish and obscene to worry about your deadlines.
2. Kanika Dhillon — Guilty/Judgemental Hai Kya/Kedarnath/Manmarziyaan
People have been calling and telling me that this moment is amazing, isn’t this your ideal dream? Well, not quite. Locked up in a house. This isn’t my lifestyle. Quarantine isn’t a choice. When writers socially distance themselves, we do so by choice. And people aren’t dying outside. Do people actually think as writers we’ve a switch that we click and disconnect from the outside world, the outside politics, the outside reality? Obviously not! We don’t work in a vacuum, we work in tandem with reality. Amidst the disturbance, uncertainty, worry, anxiety—I haven’t been able to disconnect from outside, despite being locked in.
Personally, I have to engage with the outside world to hone my writing. People are dying of hunger, I just can’t sit and weave tales of fiction at this time. I am a reactive person, I respond to a narrative of reality. Right now, everything feels frozen. And then there’s the guilt of not being productive. In regular circumstances, I do what I read Murakami does: lulling himself into a creative trance and powering through that journey. But right now it isn’t working. So I meditate for about 45 minutes to find my creative self.
Often, when history is unspooling in front of you, you don’t realise that you’re witnessing it. In my lifetime, I haven’t had such a transformative experience. For the first time, we have felt what it feels like being captured and that immeasurably changes your psyche. It has changed something visceral. Especially for a creative person, on a relative scale, how we experience life will change. What deserves our time and what doesn’t, this pandemic will make us re-prioritise and confront our pettiness.
This has the capacity to permanently alter our perception as it has shown us our place. Vanity, ego, pettiness remain suspended. This event has punctured the arrogance of this race, the false notions of invincibility that we pride ourselves for. And this will reflect in the stories we choose to tell in the coming decade.
3. Vasan Bala — Peddlers, Bombay Velvet, Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota
It’s impossible to start something from scratch. You can’t start something new because the context and everyday reality is changing so quickly that you don’t know what it’s gonna be like tomorrow. This time is precious for me because I’m spending a lot more time with my elderly parents, my wife, and my daughter.
We’ve started to watch a lot of Disney movies and reevaluate their politics. As a young father, I’m more conscious of the gender biases some of these films perpetuate. My daughter is 3 so I obviously explain to her the story. In that, I see an opportunity to recontextualize and at times, erase the problematic parts. Like, The Little Mermaid is well, quite problematic, but say, a Frozen is a great story conscious of the gender messaging
I also see this time to embed in my daughter notions of how privilege works. It has to start off an early age. And what better time than now to teach the ideas of valuing food and other basic necessities? The images we see in the news are deeply unsettling, forcing you to constantly evaluate your own positions.
But as I look outside, my belief system also feels challenged. When this began, I thought the lockdown would be a process of spiritual cleanliness for everyone. But as you see on the newscycle, hatred on a specific community has doubled down. We’re gonna come up with all this baggage.
Strictly from a work perspective, I’ve so far been resistant to long-form storytelling. But now i am re-considering everything that is there in my email as your ad shoots etc have dried up and will take a while before they get back to the usual.
To retain my sanity, I wake up a little before everyone else in the house does. I spend time by myself in the sun. I do nothing. Just be. And in times like these, that’s enough.
4. Juhi Chaturvedi — October, Piku, Vicky Donor
I am an eternal optimist. As writers, you always have this urge to make things alright. To propel positivity. Create an alternate reality. It’s a very potent space to live in. That’s where new ideas and thoughts comes out - in the what if. The optimist part tells me to write as if nothing has happened. Write with hope, write with positivity. But I’d be lying if I said nothing is bothering me.
The question I’m most deeply confronted with is this: why am I writing what I am writing? This pandemic will change the stories that we decide to tell. Our stories will have to reflect our collective pain and trauma and grief. It’s impossible for this psychological toll to not be reflected in our narratives. Just like the World Wars gave rise to new cinematic movements, the pandemic will define and inform a new kind of storytelling.
For now, I’ve found solace in a book - it’s called Kai Chaand The Sar-E-Aasman by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. It’s a tough read, has a generous amount of Urdu in it. It’s also a book I had been putting off for a while but now I had no excuse. It’s a great window in how the poets, writers, the dreamers, and the romantics of that era thought.
It’s also a beautiful amalgamation of cultures and languages. When you get a peek into another’s writers head, it soothes your soul. And that helps me focus on my own writing. I started writing a new story in January and I still need to spend at least 2-3 hours every night with my story. It’s difficult in these times but I do try, maybe this will help instil a new discipline in all of us.
I’m not much of a binge-watcher. I like to see something and allow myself to be moved by it, so I won’t watch anything for the next few days. I’ve been thinking a lot about what this event means to us as a race - foremost, this is an attack on our preparedness. It’s going to be a completely different world on the other side. We can’t undo this reality, we’ll have to accept it.
A film I had written - Gulabo Sitabo - would have released yesterday (17 April). Our fear, like any artist’s fear, is will it be relevant when it does finally come out? I think it will. It will bring much joy to us at a time when we’ll need it the most.
As for all the complex feelings that we’re all undergoing, as writers, we’ve the privilege to channel it out. Writing becomes the outlet. There are good days, there are bad days, and there are terrible days - when you don’t want to be productive. You’ve to shake yourself out of it. Else, you’ll spiral in a dark place from where coming out would be very tough. We need to stay emotionally sane and be there to tell the stories of our times.