When I began my English Literature lectures in the first year of college, one of the first novels we took up for in-depth reading was George Orwell's dystopian masterpiece, 1984. A horrifying novel based on the broad themes of surveillance, conformity and homogeneity that frequently threatens to mirror the realities of our own fast-changing world, it opened our eyes to a fact that we try very hard to ignore – that we are all in fact in the process of becoming indecipherably similar, losing our ideas, thoughts and creativity in a haze of social media and instant gratification.
For the longest time, all of us have struggled with the ideas of conformity, creativity and individual thought. The latter two elements are at constant odds with the former – something that is epitomised in 1984. A Hindi film that closely examines the same themes, though in a vastly different way, is Vikramaditya Motwane's first film Udaan, starring Rajat Barmecha in a memorable debut and an unforgettable Ronit Roy, about a boy who returns to his hometown to a draconian father and the father's half brother, both of whom he barely knows, after being expelled from his boarding school.
The similarities between both 1984 and Udaan might not seem obvious but as one begins to peel away the layers, one finds that their subtexts are related. It is merely the scale at which both explore these themes that differentiates them – 1984, on a larger scale and Udaan, at a more micro-level, closer to a deeply personal and individual experience.
What, then, differentiates the two? 1984 is grim at its very core. It offers very little hope for redemption as it inches towards its bleak dénouement. Individualities stifled and the protagonist broken – it leaves its readers feeling a tad disheartened. Udaan (literally meaning 'flight'), on the other hand, gives the audience the catharsis that both Rohan the protagonist (who is actually us in so many ways) and the viewers so desperately desire.
Rohan epitomises teenage angst. He is no sketchy character, not a mere stock trope of what it means to be an adolescent. We know that he can be both angry as well as tender. Fun loving as well as insolent. At once silent but questioning authority at the same time. As viewers, we identify with Rohan. Some of us may be privileged enough to not live in a toxic, abusive and violent environment that he must bear with, but like him, we too are at constant crossroads with ourselves – should we become what we are asked to become? Should we clip our wings in fear?
Much like 1984, Udaan also shows us the importance of literature and writing as being the fundamental act of rebellion. Rohan's announcement that he wants to study literature and become a writer begins the feud that his father and he silently have which often spirals into spontaneous, unchecked acts of violence. He is subjected to constant taunts and insults about his laziness, incapability and his supposedly not being 'manly' enough. But it is writing, recording his thoughts and sharing his poems and stories that gives Rohan his small moments of catharsis. It sustains him and helps him retain his sanity in an environment that is constantly at risk of disintegration into complete and utter violence from where there can be no escape.
In the beginning, Rohan's acts of rebellion remain small. He sneaks away to a pub at night to drink with his friends and bunks classes to wander along tracks, sit by riversides, smoke cigarettes and write. At the same time, he continues to remain under the authority of his father. He rarely questions what his father says – perhaps believing it is of no consequence to do so or because he thinks he can find freedom in the small rebellious acts that he commits. But as the narrative moves ahead, we see him become increasingly empowered by his ability to write, think independently and tell stories. There is a wonderful scene in the film where we see Rohan narrate a story to an entire ward of patients and doctors, leaving them spellbound – only to be interrupted by the arrival of his father. A few scenes later, we see him begin to question his father – asking him whether he has the strength to digest the truth. In much less privileged circumstances than us, Rohan achieves what most of us only dream of – the ultimate non-conformity, one that actually comes from within, rather than merely aping someone to appear 'cool'.
His final and definitive mutiny against his father's authority – of completely breaking away from his father and freeing the shackles that hold him, is also fuelled by his writing. When his father burns up a notebook containing his poems and stories, we watch as Rohan's anger reaches its peak – a point from where we know he is unlikely to ever return. He becomes increasingly aggressive – his pent up frustration manifesting itself in him damaging his father's car. He eventually breaks free and the cages of his father's authority can no longer hold him.
Udaan's evident catharsis is seen in the scenes where Rohan finally leaves home but the film inspires me more because of it being a testament to art and art's liberating effects. As a young person trying to navigate my way in a world which constantly tries to project ideals that I should supposedly strive for, Udaan asks its viewers to actually examine the world around them and to express themselves. Like 1984, it asks us to question the draconian Big Brothers in our lives – whether that be someone like Rohan's tyrannical father or even the constant ideals that our social media feeds conveniently 'feed' us.
In a world that preaches narratives of non-conformity in a manner that paradoxically appears conformist, Udaan continues to inspire even a decade after it was originally made.