City City Bang Bang, Columns

Talent as Fantasy

In an ad currently on television for a finance company which specialises in pawning jewellery, a mother is shown doing so in order to finance her son’s music scholarship overseas. It is interesting that not only is the mother pawning her jewellery, something that is otherwise taboo and a guaranteed way to turn into Nirupa Roy and start coughing over a sewing machine, she is shown doing so quite cheerfully in order to her finance her son’s further education overseas for a degree in music. Now this is quite a change, considering that serious education in India has usually meant a degree in science or management; music would come very far down on the list of career options worth investing in.

In earlier times, education was virtually the only vehicle available for social and economic mobility, and the options here too were extremely limited. Boxed in by a rigid hierarchy, and the extremely limited availability of ‘seats’, most students travelled to their nondescript stations in life in cramped unreserved compartments, comforted by the fact there were so many of them facing a similar fate. The absence of options and the fixed nature of the academic hierarchy made studying an act of stressful penance, as one swotted from exam to exam, hoping to crack something half decent.

But over the last few years, a new discourse is taking root about success and how to achieve it. Spurred on by the mushrooming of many new kinds of careers, there is a greater sense of room available, a feeling that are more than just a handful ways of finding one’s niche in the world. More significantly, there is increasing evidence that one can make a career out of one’s talent rather than rely only on education.

The idea of talent is a truly alchemic as it locates the source of one’s future success entirely within oneself. Talent is a gift, something precious and inborn that gives its owner a magnetic aura that creates its own force field. Talent burns avenues into arid wastelands and conjures up opportunities from nowhere. It democratises the very idea of success, and levels the playing field otherwise skewed heavily in the favour of those who are well born. Most importantly it creates a career out of what one likes to do and what one is good at rather than what one needs to. In most cases, it also marries the twin goals of fame and fortune that drive us today, for talent and fame are joined at the hip. This new discourse has been advertised extremely powerfully by films like Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots which tell us that there is another way, one which finds its way through our own individual specialness, and one where we need not second guess the world and are successful by finding our own way.

Of course, talent is such a powerful idea because it is so seductive in its appeal. By creating an aura of inevitability around itself, talent posits itself as an inexorable force that must find its own destination. This new narrative is so appealing in part because it conforms to a common fantasy- that of being special in spite of an outward appearance of ordinariness and having this specialness discovered by the world in a blinding blaze of glory. This is pretty much what both Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots do; both films are paper thin fantasies, that use a deliberate and meticulously constructed narrative to seduce the viewer. 3 Idiots for instance has a story that borders on the ridiculous, particularly of the Aamir Khan character, and is one of those films where every problem is solved, every character’s issues resolved and where every dilemma is reconciled with a decisively sweet click. More tellingly, the winners win in conventional ways- they beat others in competitions, make a lot of money and become famous while apparently not exerting themselves. Creativity becomes conflated with ease, and the Bollywood paratha gets a new stuffing.

The talent narrative gets consumed as part of a larger storyline, that of believing in the inevitability of one’s good fortune. This narrative puts desire at the heart of everything and is best illustrated by the Raj/Rahul character played by Shah Rukh Khan in many films that believes that if you wish for something truly fervently, the world will conspire to make your wishes come true. The idea that intense desire is its own engine and is sufficient to make one’s dreams come true is the kind of engaging fantasy is vastly appealing in the context of today.

The idea of talent becomes an easy escape route for it allows us to believe in finding ways that circumvent effort and externalise the responsibility for our eventual success. As is clear from the participants who throng the many talent shows on television, believing in one’s own talent and possessing any are only marginally related. The idea of talent which is powerful on one hand, also serves to create an army of empty dreamers, who look to strike it big, just like that. The principal trick of the magician is not to produce a rabbit out of the hat, but to make it look easy. The idea of talent is the easily produced rabbit that can be frustratingly elusive in real life. Consumerism is a feathered conspiracy to make us believe in our specialness, in our unique abilities and irresistible charm, and idea of talent makes it possible to believe this.

Perhaps, having lived lives burdened with the notion of limited destinies eked out of severely constrained options, it is time we revel in a sense of plenty. The idea of talent frees us from the yoke of conformity and gives us something to shoot at. The stardust we get brushed with when we imagine a future based on talent may not be real, but it allows us a new way to imagine the future. In an abstract overall kind of a way, talent is a powerful force of liberation. At the individual level, taken too concretely, it might be another story.