Why I Watch House of Cards While I Write About Anand

I’ve been slowing down on my Malayalam posts this week because I’m catching up on American TV.  Well, “TV”, the Netflix series House of Cards.  I find it very soothing.  Especially when I have to write about something emotional.

I’ve been trying to figure out what I enjoy about watching House of Cards so much, and why I find it particularly conducive when I am writing about something else.  I think it is because it is the anti-Indian film.  Not in terms of specifics like character building or story elements or mise-en-scene, but in the overall goal of it as a piece of art.

Indian film is built to grab you on a pre-intellectual level, to drag you in by your heartstrings, to make your emotions rise and fall at the director’s command.  House of Cards is built to keep you at a distance, to stop you from feeling anything, to make it all entirely intellectual.  That isn’t a side-effect, for either of them, it is the entire purpose of the artwork, everything else is just to serve that goal.

Anyway, I am now a little over halfway through the new season of House of Cards, and I still care about none of these people and have no reaction beyond vague amusement to anything that happens.  It’s fine, I guess?  But I’m not going to remember anything about it once it is over or ever need to rewatch it.

On the other hand, Anand I think I’ve only seen once straight through?  I don’t remember it scene by scene by scene (although if I concentrated hard enough, I probably could), but I remember how it felt and the big moments that swept over me and carried me away.  And I care way more about those characters that I only spent 2+ hours with than about the characters that I have spent almost 50 hours with in House of Cards.

In Western film criticism, it’s an insult to call something “overly emotional”.  Room got a lot of criticism for being “like a Lifetime movie”, as in, something made for TV aimed at women who just wanted a good cry.  A futuristic novel I read in college, A Brave New World, was written almost a hundred years ago in 1931, and set about 500 years from now in 2540.  It included a cynical description of characters who go to the “feelies”, cinema halls where images and smells and sounds and everything comes across to bring out waves of emotions in the audience.  This was supposed to be the complete end of civilization, people turned into unthinking beasts who just want to feel mindlessly.

Okay, sure, that version is a bit extreme, I agree people shouldn’t look to entertainment just to bring on waves of feelings.  But shouldn’t that be at least part of the goal?  Isn’t the ability to feel great depths and complexities of emotions just as important a part of being human as the ability to craft and understand complex thoughts?  And sometimes it feels like emotions are being discounted by critics not because they don’t think they are important, but because it is just harder to write about.

I think maybe sometimes academics and critics and everyone else who has to write and talk about popular media gets afraid of talking about feelings.  Feelings make you weak and soft and are really really hard to convey in words.  So instead of writing about Anand or Neerja or any of the other films that come out of India and that grasp you by the heart and don’t let you go, the scholars write about stuff like House of Cards, because all it is, is words, with no heart at all.

Meanwhile, I want to write about the feelings!  I think feelings should be the goal of artwork, higher than anything else, and especially in terms of global artwork, I think evoking emotions and feelings across borders through art is legitimately a part of creating a more understanding and peaceful world.  But it is really hard to write about feelings, partly because they are so hard to convey, and partly because I keep tearing up.  So I like having House of Cards on in the background so I can have a nice soothing break whenever I need to look up and be reminded of people who aren’t able to feel anything at all.

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