We go way back, film and I. In some ways there’s been some sort of relationship between me and the silver screen from way before I was even born. It wasn’t always positive. There was a lot of crying, kicking, screaming, and even a tragic accident—and I’m not just talking about the movies I enjoyed watching as a lonely introverted pre-teen. Movies, still I find, are what really helped shape me into the person I am today, and not a day has gone by where I look back and cannot connect a movie to my being. This essay is less of a personal essay and more of a story. If I was narcissistic (and talented) enough, I would even turn this into some form of a screenplay. Thinking about it now, however, I honestly don’t think it would sell.
I watched my first film at three weeks old. At least this is what I’m told. My parents were flying back to India from Los Angeles with their first-born, excited to show him off to the entire family with his unnaturally quiet and pensive demeanor. According to my mother, I was sat in her lap, glaring at the screen while she watched Runaway Bride (1999). Now obviously, my reaction to Runaway Bride at three weeks old could not have been to deem it “a soul-less commercial entertainment film solely created to fill Julia Roberts’ bank account.” It was more along the lines of “eh,” followed by a string of baby voices and sleep. Still, it was enough to encourage my parents to take me to more films, and I don’t blame them for it. I just wasn’t ready to realize how important the cinema truly was to me for another twelve years.
The next stage in my life was probably not what the first stage would logically lead to. This is home to the majority of the kicking and screaming. I deplored going to the movies from the times that I first remember until we moved from India in 2011. The first time I threw a tantrum was the 2004 Bollywood movie Veer-Zaara. It follows the story of an Indian Air Force Pilot who falls in love with a Pakistani politician’s daughter when he saves her from an accident, and the troubles they face on their journey to happiness. Honesty, I was more than within my rights to not want to watch this movie. First of all, there’s no way Zaara (Preity Zinta) could have survived that deep a fall off a cliff inside a tourist bus; I didn’t understand why all of Shah Rukh Khan’s (the actor that plays Veer) films involve confessing love at trains just as the love interest is about to leave; most of all, it was three hours and sixteen minutes long. Of course, I didn’t know any of this before I went to see the film. The premise of my tantrum was that I did not want to make the hour-long journey to the newest multiplex in New Delhi. But the experience built up a rage inside of me, and then on, I would not get into the car to make that horrendous hour-long journey without a fight. Being an Indian family though, filial piety always betrayed my rebellious resolve, and I’d end up going.
English or Hindi, animated or live action, it would be five years until I watched a movie that changed my viewpoint. I guess I could blame it on my parents’ taste– they preferred the classic Masala Bollywood film, where (in typical melodramatic style) a buff hero faces a conflict, usually with the same typecast actor, and his femme-fatale love interest needs his help and there’s lots of singing and dancing. I wasn’t a big fan of that. Two movies in 2009 changed this for me. The first was the Hindi film 3 Idiots (2009). The story follows three students at the Indian Institute of Technology, a deathly pressurized environment that mechanically breeds the smartest robots in India. This movie, as it did for the entire industry, broke the image of Bollywood movies I had been exposed to then. I was finally allowed to see a film that could be classified as Hindi Cinema, not Bollywood. The way it dealt with real issues of stress, chasing one’s dreams, and friendship were inspiring. Perhaps subconsciously Farhan’s (R. Madhavan) subplot—becoming a photographer rather than an engineer the way his parents were forcing him to—planted the seeds that would lead me to have the same conversation with my parents almost a decade down the line. The second film was the Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock rom-com The Proposal. It was the first movie I had seen that made me laugh so impeccably hard. It’s an odd cinephile awakening I suppose, but it was the start of a new stage, my love for cheesy romantic movies. I watched everything released in that genre after that. Valentine’s Day (2010), New Year’s Eve (2011), When in Rome (2010), and This Means War (2012), and all the Nicholas Sparks films—a personal of mine was Safe Haven (2013)— among many, many others.
It was soon after this development in my tastes that my family moved to Singapore. Singapore changed everything. Singapore is a technologically and culturally (at least more than India) progressive society, and it certainly helped that there was a movie theater on my block. I received my first laptop in Singapore, which meant streaming services. And the wifi did not move slower than the plot of a Bollywood sequel either. The accessibility I had to the movies made my love for them increase ten-fold. I was able to, with my overdeveloped pre-teen frame, get into restricted movies and watch stuff my parents would never have come with me to watch. I watched classics like The Godfather (1972–1990), Citizen Kane (1949), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and the entire Star Wars franchise (which I did over one weekend). Adjusting to the new town and school was not easy for me. It was a while before I made a solid group of friends. Movies were my escape from the harsh reality of eating lunch alone. After all, I was the chubby new tall kid who couldn’t do somersaults like the rest of his athletic peers. Eventually I found my footing socially, which was also accredited to films. My two closest friends today I met at a charity film screening at school. But this stage of my life is where I developed the ability to watch films alone, which, to this day, is my favorite activity.
When I reached a more comfortable footing in my freshman year of high school, and had growth spurted into the tall, dark and handsome-if-he-didn’t-have-creepy-peach-fuzz realm, I made the mistake of asking girls to movies. Don’t get me wrong, movies are great for dates, but not the first ones. At my tender hormone-fueled age, I didn’t realize the importance of talking when trying to gauge chemistry. The first movie first date I went on was to watch The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013).The film about Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), an overworked, under-ambitious everyman who finds himself by taking a series of risks searching for a lost negative as his employer, LIFE magazine, transforms into a dot-com. I loved the movie. Fresh off the Meet The Parents series, Ben Stiller was one of my favorite actors at the time. The girl I was with, not as much. In fact, upon talking after, she recoiled hard when I used the word “date”. I don’t think she saw me in the same way as I saw her. That’s when I realized that movies are probably best saved for the third, fourth, or even thirty-seventh date. I spent the entire night listening to the soundtrack of The Secret Life and trying to figure out what I did wrong. I distinctly remember typing the search “movies about girls that friendzone guys” and realizing that not only was the cinema my escape, but it was also my guide.
The harsh lesson of “unrequited love” that I learned that day led me to realize that film was more than just a solace, it was also a way for me to discover myself. The stories I watch manifest on the screen often have universal thematic experiences that directly apply to me. I finally understood then that I can learn so much about the world, one that I wasn’t exposed to in my safe haven of Singapore, through this medium.
It seems I did promise a stereotypically Indian “coming out as an arts student” story. Mine could definitely be from a screenplay on the bottom of a pile somewhere in Culver City, California. It was the summer before my senior year in High School. I’d had a miserable junior year: I’d been dumped by an older girl who I swore “I’d follow to the other side of the world” and most of my friends had graduated. When these things happen to me—particularly the heartbreak, I seem awfully privy to that– I usually turned to books or music for solace. I have, on occasion, watched a movie to help but I never really liked the idea of Matthew McConaughey rubbing his devilishly sly smile into my face as he walks off into the credits sequence with the perfect girl.
However, during this particular summer, I was practically forced into it. My sister, God bless her, dragged me to watch Wonder Woman (2017) in theatres. Though I’d already seen it in the comfort of my own bed on one of my many illegal streaming services, I felt like a breather and a trip out of the house could be useful. Of course, Gal Gadot again did not fail to disappoint and I had an enjoyable experience. I found that I had been distracted in the same, if not better, way from my teenage angst. I found myself at the theatre again the next day. This time I was alone. I had to see if this really worked, and if it did so consistently. I wound up watching a new Bollywood film called Mubarakaan (2017). The plot for this film is quite ridiculous. It follows the story of two estranged, orphaned, identical twins (Arjun Kapoor) and the strange man who strives to have them marry their soulmates. Naturally, this was a slapstick comedy. Naturally, it was terrible. I loved it. Sure, eight year old Shubh is probably cursing at me with his newly installed arsenal of cuss words, but screw it—I enjoyed the shitty movie.
I took trips to the cinema as often as I could. It had ended up being easily more than twenty trips. I ended up watching fifty-three movies that summer. I even posted a list on my Instagram.
There was still just one film that stole the show for me and made me question my future broadcast journalist/lawyer/President self: Dunkirk (2017). I give full credit to Chris Nolan for making me the man sitting down, chugging coffee, and writing this paper right now. Without Dunkirk, I would not be at NYU. Without Dunkirk, I would be reading a dusty old copy of How To Be A Lawyer For Dummies. The pure cinematic spectacle of that film with its long, voiceless scenes of chaos and camaraderie, its narrative-less story and the ingenious synergy of all its facets made me feel for something I had never known. I walked out of the cinema and said, “Fuck it, I want to make movies.”
My parents didn’t come around as easy as I did. Naturally, my first instinct was to take them to watch Dunkirk. Did not work. They don’t really enjoy movies that don’t have a 50-50 action-to-romantic-music ratio. I had no choice but to explain it to them the hard way: an open and honest conversation. I told them about my summer, how instead of working on the three major High School research papers that determine whether or not I receive a diploma I spent my time watching any movie that came to me. I told them about how there was nothing I had ever felt that passionate about.
Then they told me of my great-uncle Ish. They told me that he had gone to Mumbai to pursue the same dream in the late ’70s with the same fervent desire. They told me of Sweety (1981), his first and last film. They told me that he was so desperate for a break that he bet his entire life on a garbage piece of plagiarism that cost him more than he had financially and emotionally. They explained to me that they aren’t against working in the film industry the way most Indian parents are; they knew that it was what I wanted the most. They were just concerned that I would find myself in the same state. Honestly, I think they were just excited that I had finally decided to do something with all the time I’d “wasted” over that summer. I had still only convinced my mother; my father was still in the search for more inducements. He said that just a film degree leaves me with no safety net and that I should find something to do along with it. Though I was completely appalled by his lack of faith in me, I ultimately conceded and told him I’d minor in something more traditional. It didn’t matter, they were on board by then. That’s all I needed.
All this leads me to New York City. My parents wanted me to consider University of Southern California, but when their marching band approached me during my tour, I instantly vetoed any chance of applying. I picked my dorm based on proximity to a movie theater. I catered my program to be film based. I still find myself obsessing over the trailers parked outside my dorm on occasion. Obviously, I don’t want to say I made it—hopefully there is a lot more to come for me in this field. I just hope that this latest stage in my relationship with film will take me far beyond my expectations, just as I hope a movie will do for me when I step into a cinema and stuff my face with Twizzlers.