A hundred mouths opened in awe as the camera swirled around Mount Everest, and then descended to show a group of seasoned trekkers taking tentative, trembling steps across the precarious suspension bridge, in their quest to conquer the peak. Suddenly, the friend, with whom I was watching the recently-released Everest, told me how “awesome it would be to go there”; that “we should take the trip sometime”. Her desire was quashed almost immediately, as the film let us in on the grim knowledge that the mortality rate is rather high; that hundreds of mountaineers have died due to reasons ranging from cerebral oedema to avalanches.
But it got me thinking about how movies influence us; how they catch us off-guard at vulnerable moments in the darkness of the theatre, and force us, with stunning visuals and moving music, to question our most secure beliefs. Haven’t we all walked out of films and vowed to turn our lives around, in accordance with the philosophy of their protagonists? Two years ago, an Arizona teenager, inspired by Into The Wild, walked into the wilderness to embrace Nature. He ended up meeting the same fate as the movie’s protagonist, Christopher McCandless: A swift death. While on fatal inspirations, groups of people shot themselves dead in the 80s by playing Russian roulette, after taking a scene in The Deer Hunter a tad too seriously. It’s only rarely, of course, that movie influences — that fade away as quickly as hastily-formed New Year resolutions — result in such fatal consequences.
When I first saw The Godfather, I was so sold on Vito Corleone’s character that I’d decided that when helping out people, I’d remind them that all I wanted in return was their friendship. Then, of course, I watched The Shawshank Redemption. To hell with a life of crime. All I then wanted was an early retirement and life by an exotic beach. This was, of course, until the next film came along. One of the most influential films of all time has been David Fincher’s Fight Club, which has resulted in the formation of real fight clubs across America, and in people doing away with their painstakingly acquired material possessions, only to realise a few days later that they’d made a big mistake.
Different films champion different worldviews, and in many cases, contrastingly so. Good films sell their ideas to you so convincingly because they simply show you the lives of strangers; because you’re convinced that they’re not really out to convince you. If a real person gave you a cold, persuasive argument about the same philosophy, you wouldn’t be sold — not as decisively, at least. You need that space, that illusion that you’re making your own choices.
And that’s why when after returning from watching The Social Network, you are racking your brains to come up with the next big revolutionary idea that would make you an instant millionaire. Barely a few days later, you watch The Wolf of Wall Street, and realise that so long as you could become rich, the illegality of the means doesn’t really matter. After all, we’re all hedonists at heart, you think. That lasts a few days, and then, you watch Whiplash, and you come to the profound realisation that all the while, you were mistaken about the desire to earn so much money; that all you ever wanted was to be an expert player of a musical instrument. Thanks to you, some music school somewhere makes a tidy profit.
And no, it doesn’t take only films in the Top 250 list of IMDB to be so influential. Our films work just fine too. I remember the number of people who vowed against paying a bribe after watching Indian — for only a while, of course. What about those who, after Vasool Raja MBBS, suddenly treated blue-collar workers with new-found compassion? The first blue-collar worker to receive a hug of kindness must have been left thoroughly befuddled.
The complexity of our characters ensures that we are often torn between contrasting aspirations. If only we could lead a life of hedonism and then follow it with one of asceticism. The problem, of course, is that our lives are far too short; our crayon boxes far too small to accommodate all the colours we wish we could paint our lives with. And therein lies the beauty of films, of art. If you’ve watched a thousand films, you’ve lived — briefly — a thousand lives. No matter, if each lasted just a few days.