Readers Write In #359: An impression of loss: Processing grief in popular culture

Posted on May 2, 2021

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(by H Prasanna)

But then, Mank isn’t really about the authorship of Kane or even a “biography” of Mank. That’s perhaps why he says, early on: “You can’t capture a man’s life in two hours. All you can hope to leave is an impression of one.”

–Baradwaj Rangan, Mank review

So, when a character dies, we get an impression of the loss. An aside, a footnote, a blurb. We can refer to that illustration as we explore the meaning of such a feeling. The following is based on a feeling of lamentation, melancholy, and loss. Some involve actual character deaths and some don’t. We pick up the lament in some movies/scenes/songs when we are in grief. We are in a state of collective grief right now. Not only because someone we know has died/suffered/lost something, but also because some of us have no way of physically being present for those in need. Books and music are a huge source of articulation for the sense of loss. Please share your go-to resources for grief reading/viewing/listening. Everything that makes us feel a little less alone helps.

This blog features excellent articles on depression (https://baradwajrangan.wordpress.com/2021/02/06/readers-write-in-336-a-diary-of-suffering/) and dealing with despondent parents (https://baradwajrangan.wordpress.com/2021/03/10/readers-write-in-344-my-dad-and-anthony-hopkins/). Check out the comments section on them as well.

  1. What a Karuvaad? VIP

en kattam azhinju pochu da, namma mattam thattiyachu da

My horoscope (destiny) is erased; and we are put down…

I thought I will start off light. This is also descriptive of an impression of loss because Raguvaran, the protagonist, hasn’t lost anything (yet; there is a song about the loss of his mother later in the movie). What a Karuvaad explores loss of self-worth. It is the ballad of Raguvaran, a young architect without a job. His family is wealthy enough to live without his contribution while providing for him. His younger brother has a job and is earning his worth in the eyes of their father. His mother is very supportive of him/his ideals. On plain sight, Raguvaran is redeemable, privileged. But, at this time, Raguvaran feels despondent, irredeemable, and alone (though he is dancing with his friends). He sings of his life and self-erasure, which is a go-to tool of the depressed when faced with societal disapproval. Then, more importantly, he continues karuthu solla poren da (I am going to give you some advice), which is the go-to thing when you want to crystallize some experience that has become too real (much like this article).

  1. Paddleton, the movie

Michael: [shouting] I’m the dying guy!

Andy: [shouting] I’m the other guy!

This is the odd one out in this list. It is not that popular. It is a mood piece, one of the hybrid, low-key personal emotional stories that the Duplass brothers are (not)famous for. The mood is grief and looming loss. Two friends hang out, one has a terminal diagnosis. They are both loners, and they discover what made their friendship meaningful. They play paddleton, a game they invented; it is like squash (in rules, and in that it is not important or cool). It is the cliched, weird favorite that a friend/acquaintance recommends and it makes you go Oh! I didn’t know you were into that, I see you in a different light now. Ray Romano’s bumbling, self-effacing portrayal of the non-dying friend is for all the times we are stranded in the face of being appropriate when facing grief. Much of (these types of male) friendships go without establishing a clear way to articulate these feelings. And it is not only devastatingly sad when someone is dying, it is also weird because we feel the dynamic “should change. Watch the movie, or the trailer is enough to get the gist (you will get the tone of this description when you see it).

  1. Kaakitha Kappal, Madras

Kaasu Kaiyil Vanthutaalum Kashtathila Vaazhnthitaalum Poga Maatom Manna Vittu…

Whether we live in wealth or misery, we will not leave this land…

Anbu (literally love) and Kaali grow up in the ghetto as life-long friends with different outlooks toward their community. Anbu is an activist/politician, and Kaali is apolitical. Anbu is murdered after taking the fall for Kaali’s crime. Like VIP, Madras also has an oppari. It is about the loss of Anbu, the protagonist’s friend (or some may say the protagonist). And this song is not about Anbu at all, it doesn’t even mention him. This song comes earlier and is about the rejection of Kaali’s love. Kaali feels a little down and his friends come together to pick him up. It uses this popular/cliched Tamil cinema staple as a backdoor to tell a story of community’s ethos, hope, and camaraderie (perhaps a definitive aspect of Pa. Ranjith’s career; I love how his production company created a front door for stories like this). I like this one because it also captures the feeling of hope, the potential, and the spirit of Anbu, and his embodiment of what the community stood for. If we lose a friend who was essential in defining the dynamics of the group, we remember him at his best. Also, I like Santhosh Narayanan, who features three times in this list. His whimsy tunes that turn dark or serious seamlessly work brilliantly with the constant tonal shifts in Tamil masala movies.

  1. Karuppi, Pariyerum Perumal

This is a straight oppari (a Tamil lament). I have listened to it only once (as I was watching it, also only once). But, the words Karuppi, en Karuppi, nee illaatha kaattil naa eppadi thaan thirivaeno (how will I roam the wilderness that does not have you) have stayed. The protagonist’s dog, Karuppi, is murdered to make a statement about who belongs where. This song features Karuppi’s funeral and the protagonist’s lament about the horrors of caste-based violence. The trauma also points to the protagonist’s survivor’s guilt. He talks to the dog in retrospect about unheeded advice (whom to trust and not to trust). He also says he doesn’t know who lays dead, him or the dog. The truth is it could have been him, and most times, it feels like it should have. An animal just trusts you, especially a dog; there is no explicit or implicit transfer of care from the ailing to the carer. And every time one dies on our watch, we feel it is all on us.

  1. Enjoy Enjaami

Nan Anju Maram Valarthen, Azhagana Thottam Vachchen,

Thottam Sezhithalum En Thonda Nanaiyalaye

I planted five trees and nurtured a beautiful garden.

My garden flourished, yet my throat remains dry.

This is a song, like Karuppi, that I wished I had listened to only once. But, it is everywhere. I don’t know how it has so many repeat viewings. Emotionally, it is so difficult to listen to. When I first read about this song, they said it had an element of oppari. But, they didn’t say this element is so devastating. This song is about real loss of identity, community, and an entire generation’s work. It also resonates the loss of a way of life. We have funeral rites (oppari, in this case) because it lets us come out and together. Hugging and falling on another’s chest at the moment of loss lightens the immense weight that is crushing you. Looking at someone’s lifeless body for hours gives a reason for your hands to hold your head up. This is some of what we have lost. As we reach out through video calls across screens to the grieving, we also reach into movies and songs to find a semblance of what we are feeling. The loss of sharing a physical expression of grief has made this connection more important.