Life Toh Badi Sad Hai: How Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha Prepares You for Failure

Pop Culture

Life Toh Badi Sad Hai: How Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha Prepares You for Failure

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Abrief shot in Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha shows Ranbir Kapoor’s Ved ascending the steps towards his alma-mater, a beautiful engineering college in the hills. That is Jaypee University of Information Technology, in Solan, Himachal Pradesh. It was my college, but the steps aren’t actually the main entrance. In fact, they’re right next to the basketball court, leading up to a garden adjacent to the main academic block. It’s a sprawling campus snuggled safely between two mountains. Shimla is merely a bus ride away.

But we didn’t need Shimla. College was our home, our oyster, a safe cocoon where our dreams simmered. And, boy, did we dream.

Cut to four years later and none of our dreams had materialised. In my naivete, I’d assumed that I’d be a bestselling writer fresh out of college and paeans would be sung about me – or at least glowing reviews in prominent literary magazines. I’d have enough money to buy an oceanside bungalow and live the rest of my life happily writing away. Maybe I’d even buy a typewriter, just to prove how serious I was about my craft. This was, after all, how it unfolded in all those movies.

But reality hit hard, like a dash of cold on a winter night. It dawned on me that I couldn’t just keep taking sabbaticals and write novel after novel fervently hoping that it would all work out. And so, I trunked my novel, and like any urbane Bollywood hero, settled for the stability of a nine-to-five job.

I remember in 2011 when Rockstar released and a part of Jordan latched on to me. There was something about Janardan Jakhar’s innocence that felt painfully familiar – even if his eventual descent into madness didn’t. Sure, I wasn’t wide-eyed enough to think that “Toote huye dil se hi sangeet nikalta hai” but it still felt like Imtiaz Ali had somehow managed to capture that feeling of aspiration that hid deep inside every twentysomething graduate.

While Ved’s stories consumed him and followed him into his adulthood, mine were on the sidelines, always waiting to be picked up.

Four years later, Ali took that truth and, layer by layer, peeled it back, and laid bare an ordinary youth’s insecurities and regrets in Tamasha.

Tamasha follows Ved as he leaves behind his dreams – and himself – to become someone who survives the daily grind of corporate rigour just to exist. The film is many things: a story about stories, a daring, a different take on our deepest desires and fears, but also a scathing critique on the perils of maintaining our own status quo.

In 2015, an IT job was my status quo, even though all I was doing was looking for ways to fly away from the monotony of it all. It was the year Pitchers arrived on our laptop screens, Silicon Valley was in its second season, and I saw Dead Poets Society for the first time. Once again, pop culture was egging me on to do justice to the romanticised notion of chasing my dreams, but there I was, following night shifts with early morning shifts, working in a cubicle, and chasing faulty databases. While people around me – on screen and in real life – were breaking away from the moulds pre-decided for them and rebelling by changing their status quo, I had taken the shape of the mould itself.

Tamasha, however, flipped everything on its head. In a culture that now valorises the idea of doing what you love and following your heart, Tamasha showed me the terms and conditions attached to chasing my dreams. In an age that thrived only on inexplicable levels of success and fame, Tamasha laid bare the frustrations and failures that accompany trying to make your mark in the world. And more than anything, Tamasha gave a face to the repercussions of returning to monotony after a tantalising taste of one’s dreams.

Like Ved, even the seeds of my ambition were sown early in my childhood. When I was 11 and on my second read of Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel, I vividly remember my father snidely taunting me with a “Itni novels padhte ho, novelist hi kyun nahi ban jate?” Ved’s childhood had him listening to stories and their different forms and being admonished by his elders and teachers. But while Ved’s stories consumed him and followed him into his adulthood, mine were on the sidelines, always waiting to be picked up. So when I grew up, I learned to distance myself from those stories, unlike Ved.

But Ved’s frustrations mirrored my own. The only difference between his predicament and mine was that I was actually good at my job. Somehow, my success at my IT job tricked me into momentarily forgetting my desires. I was deluded because I believed I could survive like that.

“Tu wahi hai jo subah uth ke office jata hai, boss ki daant khata hai, aur kisi ko nahi batata hai.” This line comes very early on in Tamasha and is an apt summation of the life I once knew. In the film, Ved spouts gibberish while giving an important presentation at office and while I didn’t have a similar meltdown, I came within a hair’s breadth of one. And like Ved, I eventually broke free, but it did come with a cost, whose reparations are still going on.

Now, I write. And I love what I do. But I am also afraid. Dreams come with an expiry date, and if I am forced to go back to the same monotony now, I may not have the wherewithal to face that failure. Three years ago, Tamasha taught me to find that strength within myself. But I sure as hell hope that that strength is never tested.