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On Nostalgia For The College Days
Hridayam, a Malayalam film, asks you to participate in its project of eliciting nostalgia, even if it does so with shameless, predictable genre trappings
Mark Hawthorne was a street philosopher, homeless by choice, divorced. He who would greet strangers with a booming voice, “I hate you”. An officer at the Air Force, then a rewrite man for the New York Times, he quit his job in the late 1960s to trail across the American continent boiling in the final edges of the Hippie years, shacking up in the other, more temperate coast, in Berkeley, California. People’s Park in the South-side of Berkeley had become a huddling ground for homeless people like him — while the politically correct phrasing would be “transient” not “homeless”, Mark was steadfastly intransient in his homelessness — someone coasting along and indeed courting “downward mobility”. He would change his name often — sometimes California, sometimes Berkeley Baby, sometimes Sparky — always looking for his next Virginia Slim cigarette and heckling the Jesuit evangelists who would be making moral monologues on a busy plaza.
His philosophy was twofold. One was to push against the notion of performing positivity — that there was something pretentious and impractical about it. The other was to push against the concept of the collective. To never descend from “I hate you” to “We hate them”. He would instigate strangers by professing his hate, a litmus test for whether the stranger can be trusted. If there is comfort in hatred, then trust is possible. “He had come to believe that dialogue, understanding or trust between people can only be established if they admit what separates them, or, as he put it, why they hate each other,” his friend who spent late nights at the NYT wrote. I had seen him with his trolley that had all his possessions — or I think it was him — around Chipotle butting his shoulders against college students who would either ignore him or inflame themselves or respond diligently, “I hate you, too”. Mark was nonchalant either ways.
In 2017, while I was in my third year at Berkeley, he passed away. The August before my fourth and final year, the local art museum was having an outdoor screening of a documentary based on his life, Hate Man, Street Philosopher. It was a hot afternoon, and my friend and I decided to go, armed with tangerines that glowed amber under the snapchat filter. The museum had cleared a street, and we sat on the zebra-lined footpath opposite, separated from the big screen by grey, burning bitumen and a patch of dried grass ready to verdantly perk up in the coming months. I had worn a shirt over a t-shirt — it was a phase — and in the heat I rolled out of my shirt, placing it over our heads as a protective umbrella against the beating sun, under which my friend and I smouldered quietly, like slow soot, for the duration of the film.
There was footage of Berkeley from the 1980s, the 1990s, the early 2000s, the same streets, but not so same, the same buildings, but not so same. A sameness that was threatened by the bulldozing temperament of time. Suddenly, for no reason at all, I throbbed with a feeling I could recognize as nostalgia. I turned to my friend wondering what this odd feeling was — nostalgia for a time I never lived through, for a place I am currently living in. Can we be nostalgic about the present? Isn’t nostalgia’s currency the embellishing of the past?
Monica Youn writes in her poem Goldacre:
“as if you were ever wide-eyed enough to believe in urban legends
as if these plot elements weren’t the stalest of clichés …
as if every origin story didn’t center on the same sweet myth of a lost wholeness
as if such longing would seem more palatable if packaged as nostalgia”
Wasn’t I inhabiting the “wholeness” that I was feeling nostalgic about — without having “lost” it? What was wrong with me?
We wondered how we would remember that day, how we would make it “more palatable”, as people aware of the warped tunnel vision of nostalgia wonder about the beauty of present moments. That, indeed, we won’t possibly feel the discomfort of the slowly materializing pit-stains. That, indeed, we won’t remember the sleepless fatigue in our muscles after helping out with orientation, that we might even package the fatigue as fantasma. We took a photo. The tangerines glowed amber, like polished turmeric.
Four and a year years later, and a few oceans and seas beyond, after an evening show of a Malayalam film that mines for college nostalgia with a pathetic, desperate, unflinching dedication, one that is so manipulative it could be considered a series of tropes if watched uncharitably, one that produced the glee and gasping of having watched something exceptional, emotional, egregious, I rummaged back through Google photos — which slots memories neatly according to the dates — to the same photo. We were right. There was in that photo, that memory, a charming fantasma of a dead time.
Hridayam slots itself very sincerely, very emphatically into this genre of nostalgia. Not just personal nostalgia — one that milks the director’s anecdotal tosses into a musical narrative that papers over flaws with fiction. But also systemic nostalgia — one that most of us can find ourselves, or parts of ourselves dunked in.
That friend who would pass away in the years tapering out of college, and in whose passing you can only remember their goodness? (Courtney Brousseau, who would wax passionately and insightfully about public transportation, a transit activist who made sense of but wasn’t jilted by the rugged idealism in student governance, who gave me the privilege of his company at my first Pride Parade in Oakland in frilly tutus and grey t-shirts, gunned down by a stranger minutes after he took a photo of his burrito and posted it to Twitter. The Senate Chambers of the student government at UC Berkeley was renamed in his honour, much like in Hridayam, where the hero names his child after his deceased friend. Isn’t it fascinating how the only meaningful way we know to memorialize is to pass on the name?)
That lover who gave you the confidence you never thought you possessed — to say things, to do things? (The coffee shop where I asked the barista out in a reckless act of charm would shut down years later.)
That copy of The Communist Manifesto? (That often quoted line comes to mind — if you are not a communist at 20, you have no heart, if you are not a capitalist at 40, you have no brain.)
Even the music of the film, by Hesham Abdul Wahab, was released in cassettes with songs etched on spools wound around a “Side A” and a “Side B”. Everything about Hridayam makes it not a film you watch but participate in, and swoon at, for these are characters built with human fragility — they do and say awful things — but eventually constructed as aspirations. If you don’t already see yourself as them, you will want to construct your life in their image.
The film itself has a neat structure — the first half set in the college years, the interval at the train station as the protagonist, Arun (Pranav Mohanlal), leaves having hugged his lover, Darshana (Darshana Rajendran), whom he never had a chance to practice love as an enduring act with, and the second half set in the years post-college where the idealism saps away under the grinding demands of adulthood. It is here that Arun meets Nithya (Kalyani Priyadarshan).
There is something not just manipulative, but deeply suspect and human about the second half — they did this in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani where the hero is courting wanderlust across Paris, in Premam where the hero works at an artisanal bakery, in 96 where the hero is a travel photographer, bike racing in Bangalore Days, a filmmaker in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa, or even in Hridayam, where the hero becomes an “intimate marriage” photographer. The men — and the protagonists, the heroes, of the nostalgia genre are men — are given these jobs that not only chafe at the pipeline of college-to-cubicle, but actively subvert it. So while the first half, set in college gives you the space to find yourself in the nooks and crannies of the anecdotal storytelling — the ragging, the porridge-like mess food, the bribing, the grime, the curfews, the companionship — the second half distances you but it perfumes that distance such that you yearn to close the gap by restructuring your life.
The American anthropologist Ernest Becker philosophizes that the progress of humanity is the quest to become the “Hero”, so armed with this heroism we are capable of confronting both the futility of life, and the inevitable terror of death. The nostalgia genre, the coming of age genre, are crucibles of this desperation. To live a life worth living, whose worthiness is located outside of normative expectations, whose trace is left behind because of how subversive it is.
Why do we need heroes? Why do we insist on seeing ourselves as heroes in our stories?
The film begins in 2006. The second half takes place some years after 2010. The timing is essential, for it is before the years where the internet, the phone, the apps stacked reverentially craving for our scrolls and swipes, robbed us of our attention. The nascent years where making a career out of blogging — as Darshana does — is considered not just novel but unprecedented. When Arun and Nithya are in bed, we don’t see the fetid light of a smartphone glowing dimly on their faces. These are the years where being and being online were considered separate ideas. Can we say that about our contemporary existence?
Today we have Google photos, Instagram, and Reels to stack up nostalgia and score it to film music. We are making our own nostalgia movies as we coast along our lives, movies which are propelled and pushed by an algorithm whose internal logic is warped by the desire to keep us hooked. But for people of the generation who performed college in the aughts, their cementing of nostalgia, their evidence of a lived life, is to make an entire movie, fictionalized for commerce.
After Hridayam ended, a three-hour brush with cinema at its most compelling, my friend and I sat at Chaayos even as their shutters went down. 5 more minutes, we asked, even as we sat there for an hour longer and the manager finished the day’s accounting. The film unsettled us. It was not just for the sweetness in the film that curdled slightly when we thought of our own lives.
There was a fundamental dichotomy in how we accessed the film. There were two female characters — Darshana and Nithya — each of us aligning with one of the two with a fierce conviction that bordered on the delusional. Darshana was the love the protagonist pursued in college when his life lay ahead of him, and Nithya is the woman who gives him the security of adulthood, of fatherhood. (Darshana Rajendran, who plays her namesake, has one of the most calculating, charming screen presence, one that allows for desperation, despair, and drama to register with dignity.)
The friend noted in a frantic voice-note at 1 in the morning that perhaps Nithya — his choice — was too perfect. That they allowed Darshana to do things that strike true to anyone who has experienced debilitating desire and its ugly aftermath. The most egregious thing Nithya does is mope. These characters then, act as foils for the protagonist, the man, Arun. That the women are neatly constructed around him, allowing him to be more messy, more insistent, more indignant than they are. He is given the arc of goatee to beard to cap to beret, from bone to muscle.
This is the part of the nostalgia genre that I can’t stomach. The creation of characters who are flattened into tropes, aiding the protagonist in ways one does not have the patience to aid and gird in real life . We are not allowed to see how Nithya and Darshana exist without Arun. We are told that Nithya has a well paying job, and that she possibly earns more than Arun, but that world is not shown, even hinted at after their marriage. Has she left her job after her marriage? Taken a hiatus? Or is it so insignificant to Arun’s trajectory? Is this the tax that economist Shrayana Bhattacharya talks about vis-a-vis women who exit the marketplace?
Watching the second half, it is easy to believe that you can be the protagonist only if you find yourself your Nithya. The pressure, the prerogative falls on the other. These are not stories of “finding yourself” but “finding your life partner”, a difference that is not easy to parse. It becomes important then, when watching the story of a character coming of age, to discern the nodes, the catalysts, the provocateurs — do they seem to have a life beyond their coddling of the arc of the protagonist?
Before we part, I want to tell you more about Darshana, the first woman Arun falls in love with, who twines herself across the second half of the film despite never being allowed to inhabit it. When Arun first asks for her name, there is a second’s pause before she answers. It’s a poetic pause because in it you can sense all the questions that often goes through one’s mind in a state of flux — Is he cute? Why does he want my name? What will he do with it? Where will this go? When he asks for her number, she says no, but as he walks away, she immediately changes her mind, or in that brief second she is able to reconcile doubt with gumption, overrule caution with charm.
She gives him the vocabulary of courage, to stand up to the bullies. She gives him heartbreak when he gifts her infidelity. She makes him realize that for all his charm, he also has the devil within. You can argue that her role is merely to keep pushing Arun in different directions. The catalyst figure. As consolation, she is given an entire song in the movie, titled after her — a gift very few female characters are given, like ‘Alizeh’ in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, ‘Chandni’ in Chandni, ‘Deewani Mastani’ from Bajirao Mastani.
She asks him twice — at the interval, at the end — would they still be together if she had forgiven him all those years ago? Both times she wonders about the counterfactual. In the end, in a wonderful moment lit by the headlamps of two cars with a preening moon in the background, Arun tells her that counterfactuals can't be answered. They can only be countered by living a life that reminds you of the futility of hypotheticals. That life is all there is, so why imagine what life could have been?
In D.H. Lawrence’s poem The End, he writes
“If I could have put you in my heart,
If but I could have wrapped you in myself,
How glad I should have been!
And oh, that you had never, never been
Some of your selves, my love, that some
Of your several faces I had never seen!
For all your life of asking and despair,
I own that some of me is dead to-night.”
And that is both the tragedy and the gift of moving away from college years towards college nostalgia. A recognition that some of you — perhaps, most essentially, the part you had curated in your disorienting, charming years of college — has died. Where the despair of having never seen the “several faces” of a lover by not pursuing that love is filigreed by the life you now live, girded with its own secure love, where poetry and cinema tells you of despair, of disrepair, but tells it to you with such tenderness, that you are glad to see part of yourself reflected in it. That you lived a cinematic life, too, however briefly. The rest is for the future to mine at with conniving nostalgia.