On July 16, 2010, I was breathless. It had been a difficult few weeks. My life was in tatters. At 24, I had no job, and still no idea about what kind of career I wanted to pursue. I was distant, both literally and figuratively, from my family. Worse, my relationship was stuck in no man’s land. Neither of us had the courage to end it. As I walked into a multiplex with two friends, the film at hand – Christopher Nolan’s Inception – was perhaps the last thing on my mind. But the pre-booked tickets had left me with no choice. There was a nervous buzz in the cinema hall, but I couldn’t tell if it was just my head reeling from its own emptiness.
Three hours later, I was breathless again. But this time, I wasn’t the only one. A collective groan-sigh-gasp-scream flooded the hall. The screen had the audacity to cut to black just as the totem had begun to wobble. As the words “written and directed by Christopher Nolan” flashed with the arrogance of a winning punchline, a dark space full of disparate souls felt irrevocably connected for life. Complete strangers looked at each other with incredulous expressions. Did that just happen? Some sunk further into their seats during the end credits, shaking their heads in disbelief and refusing to leave, likely out of the fear that the corridor might (literally) start spinning. Some of us pinched ourselves to confirm that we, unlike Don Cobb, weren’t ambiguous about our status of slumber. Some stumbled out in awe, clutching onto their phones, desperate to share the moment with loved ones. Some even hurried back to the ticket counter to find seats for the next show.
My immediate reaction was that of hope. If some humans could conjure up a large-scale experience like that out of nothing, there’s hope for my own mind
I can’t quite articulate the feeling. I was too young when Matrix (1999) had urged movie-going audiences across the world to recognize that thinking is an integral part of being entertained. That imagination is a cerebral emotion. Inception, too, had instantly managed to nourish, expand and rephrase an entire generation’s understanding of large-scale storytelling. It had convinced us to “dream a little bigger, darling”. While watching the film, we felt a simultaneous sense of shock and accomplishment, as if we were being both tested and rewarded at once. For most part, we also felt relieved by the fact that we were clever enough to “get” Inception and discuss it. The deeper it went, the giddier we got at the prospect of narrative fiction triggering an inclusive conversation.
My immediate reaction was that of hope. If some humans could conjure up a large-scale experience like that out of nothing, there’s hope for my own mind. If they could center it on a tragic love story about a bereaved man trying to tame the memory of his wife, there’s hope for my heart. If ideas could change people as well as the people watching them, there’s hope for my words. If dreams could speak in such a spectacular language, there’s hope for my hope. I walked out of the hall with a renewed sense of confidence. The adrenalin rush had washed away the cobwebs of nostalgia. This was no time to be stuck in “limbo”. I pulled the trigger. I sent a relationship-ending text, after which there would be no going back. Just like that, it was over.
The moment a haunted Leonardo DiCaprio woke up on a mysterious beach of a shattered city, I woke up to a world of possibility and miracles. I waited to hear that breathlessness at the end of every screening
For the first day, I wondered if it was too impulsive. Maybe I would regret the surge of clarity. Maybe I made a mistake. Every hour felt like a year. How could a movie – something that isn’t even real – push a person towards heartbreak? Stories come and go, but consequences stay. Yet, it was like jumping off a balcony and landing on the floor above. Perhaps it wasn’t supposed to feel emotionally linear. Perhaps I had to keep dying a little to claw myself closer to actual life. But what was the guarantee that I would recognize flesh once the blood dried up? Would I be able to identify the notion of living once the dreamy nightmare ended? I’m not sure I had a device to distinguish between the two.
Over the next one week, a film about planting an intimate idea into a stranger’s head became my totem. I watched Inception four times in the presence of random faces in different degrees of darkness. The moment I felt like I was getting consumed by grief and memories and ghosts of my past, I bought a movie ticket. The moment a haunted Leonardo DiCaprio woke up on a mysterious beach of a shattered city, I woke up to a world of possibility and miracles. I waited to hear that breathlessness at the end of every screening. I waited to feel, for three mind-bending hours, that others were feeling the same. I spent nights reading fan theories and reviews and reddit threads. I got consumed by a definitive moment in modern pop culture, but also felt heard in what became the cinephile equivalent of a global group-therapy session. Inception made me feel alive, and by extension, rescued me from falling deeper into my own dreamscape. Hans Zimmer’s Time would score my heist – the reversal of the theft of my own truth – as I stepped off the long flight of uncertainty, got welcomed by the immigration officials guarding my adult universe and got reunited with a familiarity that I feared had forgotten me.
Within the next six months, I reconnected with my parents, travelled abroad for the first time, found new friends and found my calling. A movie had planted the seeds of a future in my head. A movie became the “kick” that pulled me back to the surface of my existence. They say cinema is the sight and sound of escapism. But cinema transcends sensory trappings when it offers no escape. Some movies inspire in us the courage to confront and create. Some movies, by intellectualizing the infinity of dreaming, restore our perception of reality. And that’s why, when I revisit Inception today, I know what happens after the screen cuts to black. I know that my totem stops spinning. I also know that it doesn’t matter anymore. And yet, I wake up breathless.