Brief Breaks from Reality

Even while we are pondering current realities and ways to wrap our heads around them, it is worth taking a look at how we try escape the banality and problems of our lives.

Given the kind of year we had in 2016, it is telling that one of its most successful movies was a musical with a throwback feel and a title that suggests a disconnect from harsh reality

Yet even though ‘La La Land’ is modeled after classic Hollywood musicals of the past, it is still a contemporary tale. Its many appealing elements – attractive stars, moonlit dances, hummable songs – come together beautifully in this story of the perpetual quest for love and success. Such has been its magical hold on audiences everywhere that a reviewer wrote in the Guardian:  “Its bittersweet beauty may be the perfect antidote to the world around us”.

The idea of movies as an escape mechanism is not a novel one.  No matter how dire the circumstances of our lives, we know that a movie ticket can transport us to a different place. And even if that place turns out to be less than enchanting, we can always fall back on inhaling popcorn and a sugary drink under the cover of darkness.

Old Hollywood musicals were a refuge for a population worn out by the Depression and war. When people wanted to put life on hold for a bit, stars like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire gave them an escape with their special chemistry on the dance floor. Similarly, during the License Raj era, Bollywood provided plenty of soundtracks to help Indians keep reality at bay for a minimum of three hours at a time. More importantly, it gave them a musical vocabulary to explore feelings beyond a general preoccupation with gas cylinders and leaky pipes.

If musicals have historically helped us deal with the mundaneness of life, then a movie like ‘La La Land’ may have struck a chord with a modern audience because it is refreshingly sweet without being syrupy. And that may be exactly what people crave when cynicism and distrust are at an all-time high across the world. As the movie’s director Damien Chazelle said in an interview: “[Musicals are] not a literal reflection of life – they’re about how life feels.” Even with its lighthearted treatment of the story, the movie still helped people reconnect with some core emotions.

But does frustration with the real world prompt us to seek out more avenues for escaping? The dictionary definition of the word ‘escapism’ is this: “the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.”

By that definition, a child’s imagination games could be termed escapism. When they are being over-parented and made to adhere to a whole host of tedious mandates, including daily baths and eating unpalatable vegetables, it must be a relief to slip into their own version of la la land, governed by fewer rules and filled with more flexible personalities than the grownups in their lives.

The fact that most people indulge in some form of day-dreaming is proof that the mind is one of the best vehicles for getting away that we have at our disposal. Who has not listened to a dull presentation to the point where their eyes glaze over and then dreamed of being elsewhere – a golf course, a golden beach, a mountain retreat. Scientists who have studied this human tendency of mind wandering associate it with positive outcomes such as creativity and innovation as long as it happens in controlled doses. Take it too far and your escapism could become avoidance, along with a compulsive need to steer clear of life altogether.

On that note, travel itself – of the leisure variety – is a mechanism that allows us to temporarily hit the pause button on stressful aspects of our lives. For those who are motivated by wanderlust (and who isn’t?), the travel industry can curate experiences to fit any budget and interest. But what we often get is an airbrushed version of most places, designed to play up their charm and character. It is impossible to see old cobblestoned neighborhoods, historical towns and quaint villages as a backdrop for crime and violence. However, if we lingered long enough, we may uncover such darkness in even the most picturesque of places.

The physical act of actually shedding our reality is never easy – in life or the movies. In the 2013 sci-fi thriller ‘Coherence’, a group of people who get together for a dinner party, are exposed – by a cosmic event – to parallel universes in which different versions of their own reality are playing out. But crossing over to any of these alternate realities is not without its consequences, as they soon find out.

That does not mean we should not immerse ourselves in experiences that remove us from our reality – for short periods of time. As long as we are in control, that can be both benign and healthy. As the late Jean Chapman, a British romance novelist, once said: ‘all books are escapism. They are life with the boring bits cut out.”

Sangita Srinivasa is a Bangalore-based writer and the editor of Viewpoint.