As we go through the rituals of the end of one year and the beginning of another, it’s a good time perhaps to remind ourselves that our calendars are not necessarily natural or universal.
Even though the modern world follows, for the sake of convenience, a practice in which today might be called “December 31, 2021,” and tomorrow “January 1, 2022,” there are still many other ways of looking up at the skies to measure, mark and honor time.
Time is both a reality and a character in a story, many stories, in fact. It’s not only traditional “myths” and customs that express these diverse views of time, but also modern stories. Movies, TV shows, and novels often propagate culturally-specific views of time which are also connected with assumptions and beliefs about nature, humanity, and sometimes, God. Understanding how cultural beliefs about time operate in pop culture can help us understand our past, present and future too, a little better.
Don’t Look Up
I started watching Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up” with the usual disaster movie expectations, but in a few minutes, the mood felt more like “It’s the end of the world as we know it but I feel fine!”
Rather than the usual heroic (or whatever is the Hollywood equivalent of “masala”) saving-the-world movies, “Don’t Look Up” plays on genre conventions with wit and occasional madness. As the characters find themselves confronted not so much by mere skeptics as just great big walls of cluelessness, selfishness, and vapidity, from the White House to the media to the science establishment, I felt like this was the best movie in this vein since Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy.”
In “Idiocracy,” an average person from the present who wakes up in the future finds himself smarter than everyone alive. In “Don’t Look Up,” we realize we are already there. And the worst part about knowing that we are there (and most of us are these days), is our absolute certainty that the “other side” is singularly to blame for it.
“Don’t Look Up” eviscerates the insanity of polarization in our times (and hilariously mocks our selfie and vanity-obsessed social media culture). I actually thought it was an excellent depiction of media-produced polarization (about which I have learned much from the studies of Dr. Jean Twenge and others) – but interestingly enough, the real-world reception of this movie too seems to show some of the same kind of polarization satirized in it! Some outlets think it fails as a “climate change warning” story, while others think it does that very well.
Clearly, in a country where more people are open to their children marrying outside their race but not outside their political parties (cited by Jean Twenge in her book “iGen”), it is little surprise that there is no agreement on what exactly the movie is concerned about even. Climate Change, or Climate Change Denial? Fake News on social media, or in “big” media?
Propaganda and polarization aside, the real buttons “Don’t Look Up” pushes have to do with the deeper cultural and religious assumptions that surround the “end of the world” genre. Unlike 2012 and other movies in the genre though, the emphasis here is less on adventure and more on acceptance. Even if the movie doesn’t really get into “religion” in its conventional sense, the references are explicit and appropriate – this is a genre rooted in the myths and beliefs of the culture that produced it.
Just as how Indian film critics sometimes see shades of the Mahabharatha and Ramayana in almost every Indian movie, it is not too hard to see the influence of Christianity in the “end of the world” genre in general, and in “Don’t Look Up” in particular. Here we have a Christian view of time, negotiating with its differently secularized aspects, very contemporary, very relevant. This is the way the world ends, with a family reunion, forgiveness, a prayer and a meal.
That leads me to the key question about our cultural assumptions around time. The “end of the world” premise is so widespread now thanks to Hollywood that it is hard for us to remember that it is just one view of time, life, and the planet. Even a quick comparison of Hollywood and Indian movies should remind us that Indian stories really don’t focus on the imminent extinction of the whole world as a premise for a story, almost never at all. And I think the reason for this absence is not just the commercial aspect, but also the deeply felt cultural sensibilities we have in India around time, life, family, and of course, once again, God, or the Divine, generally speaking.
The simplest way in which one might contrast the modern, Western, Christian (or secularized Christian) conception of time with that of indigenous, pagan, native views of time is in terms of a “linear” or “teleological” concept on one side contrasted with a “cyclical” one on the other. But the “cyclical” concept isn’t one of the epochal ideas like the Yugas, in my view, but also about the little, everyday things we see, feel, and know — as time.
Leaves fall and then grow again. The days grow short, and then they grow long again. Birds come and go. Flowers. Allergies (Bless you/ Chiranjeevi!). “Cyclical” time is really natural time, everyday time. And of course, the most important way in which cyclical time is felt of course is our life experiences as parts of different cohorts or generations witnessing “end of (our) time” as well as its return, its joyous, hopeful return; the passing of elders, yes, but then also, the birth of our children.
The world ends and begins, constantly, for each of us. The stories that are told too, reflect this sensibility. There is no rigid idea of “History” as having begun on a specific date and unfolding now on a linear timeline on which to estimate our “Progress.” As Vine de Loria writes in his book “God is Red,” “The way I heard it” (said by my grandfather/mother, etc.) is about all the referencing that goes on in speaking about the past in Native communities.
Many of us today, at least up to a certain age or generation, occupy both these sensibilities in our minds, framing some stories as “Once Upon a Time” or “Anaganaganaga” (Telugu for Long, Long Ago), or, alternately, as History, as Fact.
The relationship between the two is an important decision for us to make about our present and the future.
Decoupled in Space But not Time?
To help me better express this, I turn to the wonderfully funny Netflix mini-series “Decoupled,” which, on the face of it, is hardly about profound matters like climate change or extinction events. It’s just a witty and very contemporary story about life in upper-class Anglophone urban India. Manu Joseph’s script is sharp and perceptive like Tom Wolfe’s satires on New York society, and there are enough digs in the show to offend most positions on the political spectrum in India today (I first heard of the show through a complaint on Twitter about a scene in an airport prayer room).
But all the jokes about “radical chic” and “holy cows” aside, the story has a poignant premise: a couple is all but ready to get a divorce but is not willing to change their daughter’s life over it. They decide to throw a breaking up party in Goa while deciding to stay together in the same house with their daughter as friends.
Now, what does a social satire/ love story tell us about cultural perceptions of time? Quite a lot, when you think about it. In “Decoupled” (like in most Indian movies), we see people living without a peep about some globally significant event (or “telos”) framing or giving meaning to their lives. In an earlier time, that meaning might have been represented with a lot of religious sensibilities too, like devout mothers doing pujas in temples for their children or husbands. In 2021 Decoupled South Asia, religion clearly offers no such meaning to the characters.
In fact, there’s nothing giving meaning beyond fun, work, and social recognition– except, of course, that one thing we all have to deal with and give meaning to inevitably. Time is a thing here too, though here it is embodied in the form of generational realities.
There’s an ethic, and a view of our place in the tick-tocking cosmos as it were, even in the story of a wild, fun-loving, dysfunctional (de)couple, when it comes to love, and love poured into a being who will hopefully live long after their “time” is gone too.
“Don’t Look Up” also has some endearing moments about intergenerational relationships, and almost seems to make a point about that around the different ways in which two characters, Leonardo di Caprio as Prof. Mindy and Meryl Streep as President Orlean re-connect (or not) with their children as apocalypse approaches. But the bigger issue I would like to leave us with is that of our two cultural templates for thinking about time.
Stories for the Future
Will we do better as humans if our stories (what we grow up with in school, college, entertainment, news, etc.) operate on a teleological template, telling us that the end of the world is near, or on a non-teleological, inter-generational model, reminding us that even if we are mortal, our loved ones will be here longer than us, and it behooves us to ensure their safety and well-being, socially, economically, and of course, most of all, ecologically?
I think each story-model of time has its pros and cons, or at least, costs and consequences. The “world is about to end” story, urgent as it may be for scientific reasons, can easily breed fatalism, cynicism and indifference. If Judgment Day is around the corner, why bother anyway with cutting down consumption, emissions, and all that? The modern industrial way of life is at least in part a result of such a teleological view, seeing mother earth as a resource to be mined and exploited, rather than a living being to whom we entrust our children and grandchildren.
The Indian story of living from generation to generation as if nothing is ever going to change or even if it does, we’ll “just-adjust,” also has its limitations. On the one hand, it is wonderful to think beyond doomsdays to plan for the future of our children and grandchildren. But unfortunately, since the economic liberalization boom of 1991, many of us in India have failed to see how much and how disastrously consumerism and reckless “growth” have been normalized. If we keep supporting ecologically destructive policies by viewing our duty towards our young as nothing more than making lots of real estate money for them that too is dangerous (“Decoupled” actually has a nice little jab at that all too common Indian upper-class family drama-point too – a little squabble over parents’ “flats” and wills).
Perhaps, that is the lesson we can draw from these two different, yet very interesting, media sensations. There are different ways to look at time, and the end of the world needn’t be the only way to tell that story – especially if we want to avert it!
Vamsee Juluri is a Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco. His latest book is “The Firekeepers of Jwalapuram,” part 2 of a trilogy titled “The Kishkindha Chronicles,” … “because the world was a better place when the monkeys ran the world.”