In Frederico Fellini's masterpiece, La Dolce Vita, the wistful faux intellectual, Mr. Steiner remarked, "I am too serious to be a dilettante, and too much of a dabbler to be a professional." We may christen him a 'serious dabbler' for our purposes – too cautious to flirt with non-traditional pursuits but too restive to be content in a linear career. This sentiment echoes among many of the privileged class of my generation. Elite kids who grew up witnessing economic liberalization, cultural change, a breaking of traditional mores of defining ambition, gender and relationships – it was promised that sky was the limit.
The protagonist of Tamasha is a true itinerant at heart. He is a wandering storyteller fascinated by the tales of war and conquest, love and heartbreak, epics and myths. But like Naseeruddin Shah in Monsoon Wedding, Boman Irani in Lakshya and Balraj Sahini in Waqt, our protagonist's father is a child of India's partition – a bitter tragedy which instilled a diehard spirit of self-denial and zealous enterprise among those starting life afresh. Such enterprise scoffed at woolly ideas of philosophical self-discovery – an indulgence reserved only for the unambitious and unworthy. It is no accident that the high-achieving father in the movie is domineering and judgmental, an overpowering authority whose strident disapproval is like a death knell to the son. In the face of such scathing scrutiny the son gives up. Ploughing the automated trajectory of adulthood, his creativity gets stifled and he finds himself at a tedious desk job. He makes soul-crushing PowerPoint presentations using clichés while pandering to disinterested clients. His gift of inventive storytelling falls flat in the face of regimented corporate-speak with its punctilious rules of syntax and economy. His boss, once an entrepreneur, is now a happily risk-averse CEO who likes predictability and a rate of profitability that beats the market.
The protagonist has convinced himself that storytelling is an inferior calling. He is firmly ensconced in the corporate straitjacket and has throttled his original self. At a subliminal level, he knows that the limited liability of the corporate form is causing him limitless pain but he has deliberately rendered his iconoclasm comatose. Till one fine day, an old flame who had once witnessed the free-spiritedness of his rolling-stone days jolts him out of his hypnotic trance. So a 'dilettante' turned 'professional' was confronted with the fact that he has become a turncoat. This desperate realisation triggers a disturbing bipolarity in him. He is not sure where he belongs. He is too scared to pursue his passion and yet too revolted to turn up at the gut-wrenching guillotine of creativity at work. How he reverts to pursuing his childhood passion is the director Imtiaz Ali's artful construction of self-discovery.
But coming back to the scourge of the serious dabbler. Blessed are those who have a talent and are able to forge a path to pursue it – like our protagonist in the end. Or those who love the stability of corporate life – the smooth income stream, promotions and bonuses and the appearance of success by association – like the boss of the protagonist. The 'serious dabblers' are ailing. They dislike the ritual of turning up at work. Social media, influencers and self-proclaimed life coaches have amplified the realization that they are not isolated in their sense of disquiet.
This brews a growing discontent that they are cut out for something else – something more meaningful and rewarding, which they will stumble across one fine day. But they either lack directional clarity or the conviction to pursue their passion thereby getting drawn into a vicious cycle of longing and self-pity. More often than not, the happy compromise for them is the awareness that they have missed the 'passion bus' and are making decent money in any case. So they follow the directive of Ramadhir Singh, the pragmatic ganglord and another implacable father to his effete son in the Gangs of Wasseypur – 'stuff your feelings and just get on with the job'.
Ranbir Kapoor has become the quintessential vagabond – the 'khanabadosh' of our times. However, unlike his grandfather, Raj Kapoor, the original wandering tramp of Bollywood, Ranbir Kapoor's characters do not come from rural poverty or urban squalor. They grow up in posh localities, have rich parents and privileged childhoods. Therefore, their personal conflicts can seem elitist compared to those faced by millions in our country who struggle to live a life of basic human dignity. One is reminded of the poignant scene in Richard Linklater's masterful Boyhood where the rich white kids of a well-off family are struggling to 'find themselves' whereas the poor immigrant Mexican kid, who did odd jobs to pay for night school, finally bags a white-collar job and is thrilled to bits.
Many would attach the millennial moniker of a 'man child' to Ranbir Kapoor's aimless characters. From Wake Up Sid to Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and Tamasha – he has embodied the figure of a grown man who is dreamy at work, is commitment phobic and nurses an artistic passion at odds with his middle-class moorings. Interestingly, the character often finds his anchor in a woman of the same age. The women are often portrayed as grounded and with a steadfast commitment to their vocation. Their romantic love transcends maternal boundaries as the women heal, nourish and recoup damaged male characters and provide an anchor to their bruised ambitions at the cost of much personal anguish and suffering. This also begs the question as to why popular culture in recent times has consistently foisted the onus of redeeming an equivocating man's mission on a coeval woman.
But to come back to our distraught protagonist – you could either take the father's side on this one and command the vagrant son to dutifully climb the corporate ladder, or choose to be sensitive and respect the subjective relativity of each one's personal demons – the call is yours. But in this trichotomy of being a dilettante, a professional or a serious dabbler, the only sensible career advice seems to be to avoid being the third. Because it didn't end too well for Mr. Steiner of La Dolce Vita.