Movies and shows, old and new, have helped us to live vicariously through them. They have allowed us to travel far and wide at a time borders are shut and people are restricted to homes. In our new column What's In A Setting, we explore the inseparable association of a story with its setting, how the location complements the narrative, and how these cultural windows to the world have helped broaden our imagination.
'Coming home is terrible whether the dogs lick your face or not; whether you have a wife or just a wife-shaped loneliness waiting for you. Coming home is terribly lonely'
When I first heard this poem (originally titled 'Bone-dog' written by poet Eva HD) in Charlie Kaufman's I'm Thinking of Ending Things, the narration stayed with me for a long time. Like Jessie Buckley's character, I too have been elusive, reserved, and compressed for the most part of my life. I moved out of my hometown, a small town with a mid-sized population but not large enough to call a city, to Mumbai aged 17. I was the first in my family to graduate, choose a creative profession, get a job, live independently, and not return until a pandemic struck the world.
Things were indeed tough in the beginning, but 2020 was a year that changed the idea of relationships, personal space, and gratitude for me.
At first, the thought of moving back home filled me with a sense of trepidation and regression. Sure, there have been some obvious benefits to living with my family " the home-cooked meals and no tiring local-train commutes to work (Thank god for WFH). But it was also a sad reminder of what I was leaving behind in Mumbai " my millennial-lifestyle-in-a-fast-paced-city bubble.
When I first saw Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird, a coming-of-age story for a young woman in Sacramento, California, dreaming of a life beyond her family and her hometown, I couldn't help but see myself. Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) wants, above all, to leave Sacramento, and go to college on the East Coast " if not in New York, then "in Connecticut or New Hampshire, where writers live in the woods." Her fierce struggle to get out of her hometown resonated with my own. She identified New York as a place of 'culture,' as I did for Mumbai, and sometimes still do. I never really hated my hometown but I couldn't wait to get out, as if I never belonged here. In turn, almost forgetting that the place you most belong to is the place where you actually start.
The most significantly personal aspect of Lady Bird was the setup and its minute details " the home "on the wrong sides of the tracks," the blue home Ladybird craves to live in, and the store she buys her first cigarette from as soon as she turns 18 " all created with a tinge of adolescent whimsy.
While Ladybird keeps on insisting on how much she is eager to lead a life that's the opposite of Sacramento, her Catholic girls' school headmistress Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), opens her eyes to her real feelings about the town. After reading her college entrance essay, she remarks that Ladybird clearly loves the city. "You write about Sacramento so affectionately, and with such care," she tells her. When Ladybird replies that she just pays attention, Sister Sarah Joan says, "Don't you think they are the same thing? Love and attention?"
For my postgraduate thesis, I too had written a chapter about my hometown. I had read about the Maratha empire history my town shared, was made aware at an early age about how my great-great-grandfather served as a cultural advisor to the kingdom, and hence had a tad bit more information about the town than the rest of my peers. When I shared the dissertation idea with my thesis mentor, she encouraged my enthusiasm, suggested more readings, patched me through various historians, and was delighted at the completion of the thesis.
I spent over a week interviewing people, visited the town museum, library, and gleefully dug through pictures and books for the project. "You write so passionately about the things you really care about," the professor had told me. The words still ring true, for I could escape, make excuses to stay from my hometown for as long as I want, but all it took to bring me back was this memory.
Unlike me, Ladybird's realisation moment comes sooner than expected. In the conclusive act, she finds herself in a hospital after a rough night out. She walks aimlessly around the city before stumbling on a church. After almost a prophetic turn of events, she leaves a voicemail for her mom Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Instead of apologising or talking about anything immediately relevant, she talks about driving in Sacramento, the hometown she could not wait to get out of.
"All those bends I've known my whole life and stores and the whole thing," she says as the scene oscillates between Marion driving and flashbacks from Ladybird's point of view. This scene, composed of disparate elements, could richly conjure up heart-wrenching drama and emotion. I can't drive, but I always feel exhilarated for brief moments when I pass through the most important locations of my hometown " my school, my best friend's house, and the little coffee shop I visited almost every day after my tuition.
While Ladybird speaks to my teenage self, Studio Ghibli's extremely underrated Only Yesterday echoes to my present self.
Directed by Isao Takahata, Only Yesterday is a melancholic journey through the memories of the 27-year-old Taeko Okajima (voiced by Daisy Ridley in English-dubbed version). The film is spun across two different timelines. In 1982, she's in her late 20s, working an office job in Tokyo, but soon escapes to the countryside for a break from the incessant demands to settle down and marry.
In 1966, she's 10 years old, and dealing with the universal troubles of school and family life. Though the 1982 setting is the primary storyline of Only Yesterday, Taeko's memories of 1966 often get splashed on-screen " childhood memories of a dysfunctional family, puberty, and first crushes " all leading her to wonder if she has built a life her childhood self would be proud of.
The film feels more seamless because of the gorgeous, stylistically purposeful art from Takahata. The 1982 scenes are awash in vivid colour and detailed when it comes to the corporate buildings and use of realistic Japanese magazines, while contrasting with those are Taeko's memories of 1966, which are rendered in washed-out colours with simpler tones and pastel shades.
As a 10-year-old, Taeko's expressions are dream-like, more traditionally anime " like how her eyes can sparkle and widen to an impossible size. Her past of fifth grade is filled with literal flights of fancy, abstract backdrops, and the use of lighter colours "which almost depict how some of her memories are faded. Red is the symbol of Taeko's past " she wears it in almost every scene " either in her clothing or her hairpin, and if washed out in the background, it appears as a reddish sky.
By contrast, the reality of the present is a rich canvas " faces are drawn with more lines, on Taeko's face when she smiles, the way her brow creases, and her eyes wrinkle up when she laughs. In present, Taeko wears a lot of blue, and scenes are sprawled with green. However, red does come up often on this journey of rediscovery "the plant that Taeko picks is Safflower, which is used as a red dye. Her love interest Toshio (voiced by Dev Patel) wears red in his first and final scene, leaving subtle reminders that colours can merge beautifully to form something new only if we allow.
Only Yesterday does not hit the dramatic highs of Miyazaki's work by featuring moving castles, no-faced ghosts, or flying warrior princesses, but remains firmly grounded in reality. It is introspective, intimate, and uplifting. It's immensely relatable in how it evokes these little tragedies: the feeling of being a fraud, of missing out, of wondering if you've left your childhood self behind, idealism, dreams and all.
A stretched year at home made me ponder on a whole lot of things " not everything was rainbows and daisies; boundaries were tested, and often innocent conversations would turn into full-blown arguments with parents. I would miss my life in Mumbai terribly, but I would also sit back and savour light tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte sessions with my grandparents. I rebuilt connections with my childhood friends, attended a school friend's bachelorette party, and stood by a friend who was going through a personal tragedy.
But while staying at home ushered in old tensions, it also helped me develop a new understanding within myself. I still long for a sense of privacy and go through pangs of loneliness but have learnt to take control of the present in a better way. Now that I look back, it clearly helped me get closer to my family. There are still a few rough patches, but like Taeko, I try not to fret over the might-have-beens. I have learnt to keep those memories close, and ride them to move forward.
A few months ago, I nearly ran into a conflict when my fiancÃ© questioned me on what made me feel more at home " Mumbai or my hometown of 17 years. I could choose neither. While Mumbai did change me, made me the person I am today, my family, my childhood self, some of the most precious memories of my growing up years were rooted in my hometown.
Shoojit Sircar's Piku may be a film about difficult fathers, dutiful daughters, and charming taxi stand owners, but my conflicted self could find answers in it. The film, apart from being a comedy about constipation, is built around a road trip that Bhaskor (Amitabh Bachchan) and Piku (Deepika Padukone) make from their Delhi home to their ancestral house in Kolkata. Though there's an ostensible reason for this trip " Bhaskor has a near-death experience and wants to see his old house, which Piku is secretly thinking of selling and yet remains undecided on it.
However, things change when Piku takes Rana (Irrfan Khan) around for a Kolkata tour. She opens up about her late mother, admirably looks around the city, and then stops the car around a former theatre which now has been converted into a building, she says. Rana, unflinchingly replies, this is what people call moving on, development, and reminds her motive for the trip " to sell the house. While Piku retorts on being practical, Rana leaves her surprised with food for thought, "Nothing remains if you pull out your own roots."
I don't know why Piku retracted from her decision to sell the house. Maybe for her extended family, maybe to have a family heirloom, maybe to feel closer to her late mother, or maybe to respect her father's dying wish. I am not sure, but the perpetual homesick in me wants to believe that perhaps, it was because she did not want to pluck out her roots just yet.
Read more from the What's in a Setting series here.