Trauma as Drama
In which T explores who suffers in our stories and why?
My introduction to trauma as a tellable event–that is, an event worthy of being the focus of a story–happened through Indian cinema. Waking up in hospitals after life-threatening accidents, protagonists in Bollywood films asked “Main kahan hoon?”--“Where am I?”. We would soon learn they sustained serious head injuries in the accident. Then someone had to hit us over the head with “Inki yadaash kho chuki hai”--s/he has lost his/her memory. The rest of the movie would chart the amnesiac character’s experiences until s/he got hit on the head a second time. The latter injury turned out to be restorative. Did the character remember the attachments formed in the amnesiac state? The concluding beats of the movie would solve that mystery.
Posters of Raaz (1967) and Henna (1991), Hindi films featuring traumatic brain injuries
One of the better iterations of this plot is Sadma (literally, “trauma”). I remember watching a run of the movie on TV, with my parents, and copiously weeping when the protagonist, Nehalata (Sridevi), recovers from retrograde amnesia and fails to recognize Somu (Kamal Hasan), the man who rescued her from a brothel and acted as her caregiver/companion between her accident and recovery. One of the worse iterations of the same basic plot is Dil Ka Rishta, featuring Aishwarya Rai and a lot of wealthy male entitlement.
Still from the film Sadma
Even as an adolescent I knew movies like Dil ka Rishta were terrible in their treatment of mental illness but Hindi films also made me wary of head injuries. I recall how, soon after learning to ride a bicycle, I was trying out some tricks in the lane in front of my house–paddling very fast and going in a zigzag. I saw a motorcycle race toward me. Instead of stepping aside with my tiny bicycle, I freed my hands from the cycle's grip, surrendering to the idea there had to be a collision and I needed my hands to protect my head. I fell with my head in the pillow of my hands. Fortunately, the motorcyclist was far less dramatic. He simply braked. The bike skidded a little and the man ended up scraping his forearm. (If you must know, my parents put a sanction on my bicycling on the roads. Henceforth I was allowed to cycle in empty fields only “for exercise”).
Trauma was physical in my imagination. I also thought it curable. You had to be hit on the head twice.
There were quieter and more invisible forms of trauma that did not register as trauma to me back then. For instance, we were taught Mark Twain’s Huck Finn in sixth or seventh grade in school. It was perhaps an abridged version–I am not sure–but I don’t remember recognizing the protracted torture of the runaway slave Jim in the hands of the white boys Huck and Tom in the last quarter of the novel as any more damaging than physical wounds. When I read the novel again in college I was shocked by how I had missed the psychological costs of the physical injuries Jim sustains through the adrenaline-fueled adventure novel. Huck was an abused child. Mistreated, abandoned, and imprisoned by an alcoholic father. But a survivor can also inflict trauma. That is the insight of Huck Finn.
Why must fictional characters suffer?
Trauma is everywhere in stories now that I think of it, in pop culture and literature; our epics are certainly full of it. Mahabharata not only features the more popularly known trauma-inducing incidents like the stripping of Draupadi in public, a symbolic rape, but also entire segments, such as the Stri Parva, narrate the psychological toll of war on its survivors. Dushyanta forgets and then remembers his wife Shakuntala–their story is not unlike the more contemporary memory loss-and-romance films.
Fictional treatments of the Partition, the Holocaust, the endless wars of twentieth and twenty-first centuries, too, present casts of traumatized characters. We consume these stories. We like to watch fictional characters suffer. Invoking Aristotle we may say we love fictions of suffering because they are cathartic. Catharsis endows the spectating of trauma with a default moral and social purpose. But I would hazard a guess that we like characters to suffer because suffering is a “problem” and it pleases us to see problems solved in stories. That is, I do not think trauma as the core problem in stories always invites special moral consideration.
Another way of thinking about this is: while trauma has been germane to storytelling for ages, not all stories present it in ways that imbue spectating trauma with an ethical or political charge. Without deft treatment, the limitations of trauma-as-conflict, a done to death formula, show. The so-called trauma plot then invites critique.
For a long time, reading stories and watching movies focused on traumatized characters, I could not tell why some felt more tropey and trite than others. I was interested in understanding my response not only as an audience but as a writer. If trauma is at the heart of fiction, both pre-modern and modern, epics, novels, and films, then how might a writer craft her way out or through it in a purposeful way? So, while reading and watching traumatized characters, I started asking the question “What is trauma doing for the story?”
The most formulaic use of trauma happens in the anti-hero’s bildungsroman. This genre follows unloved, abused, and bullied boys, whose childhood experiences leave them feeling emasculated. They eventually grow up to become Joker (Joker), Travis (Taxi Driver), Joe Goldberg (You), and Munna (Mirzapur); agents who reproduce the cycles of violence that produced them. Simply put, trauma is the backstory for the cis, male anti-hero in pop culture.
Certainly there are exceptions to the “traumatized straight man becomes a murderer” plot. Thinking of the “shellshocked” Septimus Smith here, brilliantly written by Virginia Woolf, and the gentle, unloved Shutu in Konkona Sen Sarma’s A Death in Gunj. But barring such exceptions, trauma is the ingredient meant to “humanize'' unlikable men, a project to which patriarchy is particularly committed. Trauma is defense for the anti-hero’s bad behavior.
Bullied boys: Joker, Joe Goldberg, Munna, Travis, Shutu
The formulaic-ness of such stories is transcended only when the novelist or the filmmaker is able to not only “show” but also comment on the causes and implications of our societies functioning as breeding grounds for trauma. For me, the pulpy You is more successful at commentating than the self-serious Joker, because Joe in You is such a caricature, a character who hams up the emotional scars of his childhood to such an extent that it dulls sympathy. There is a joke in there about him being the average Joe when he is anything but that.
The motherless and unloved Munna of the hit Amazon Prime series Mirzapur season 1 is, at least in this context, a much more interesting character than Munna of season 2 when the script and the actor (Divyenndu) redeem a part of Munna’s viciousness. I sort of like the Munna of season 2, which paradoxically strips the character’s murderous monstrosity of any moral significance.
Traumatized women and/or queer men in fiction do not go on a killing spree that often. They are refused the privilege of acting out their feelings in public, even in fictional worlds, and that turns out to be the superior aesthetic move very often.
Abusive and neglectful treatment of girls in domestic spaces makes them subtly manipulative, overly obsessive, or apathetic as women. Raised by the eccentric Miss Havisham, Estella in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is indifferent, sure, but not homicidal. Rahel in The God of Small Things is disoriented but does not spend her broken, adult life plotting revenge against Baby Kochamma or Comrade Pillai. The rage of traumatized women transforms them under the surface. Yeong-hye in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian devastated me by devastating herself. The incremental nature of these characters’ coping and unraveling makes them far more intriguing than the straight male characters toting guns to heal wounds.
In the Hindi film Dil Dhadakne Do, the abused and fat-shamed Neelam (Shefali Shah) tackles her billionaire husband’s mood swings and bad behavior like a large piece of chocolate cake. That is, with her back to the mirror she creates a mess of consuming it. She loathes herself and the husband who makes her loathe herself, but she is also committed to finding a happy ending with him. What sets Neelam apart from the many long-suffering wives of Hindi cinema is that she does not tolerate her husband's transgressions silently. She is constantly devising strategies to hack her way to happiness. She is assiduous in her attempts at aggravating and exasperating the man who abuses her emotionally. She is also motivated to remain married.
In Dil Dhadakne Do, Neelam tackles her husband’s bad behavior like a large piece of chocolate cake.
Yet, this brilliant, contradictory character is ultimately used in the plot to prompt the husband’s self-awareness. Her sufferings ensure for her daughter the freedom she didn’t have, though at the outset she had been reluctant to empathize with the daughter’s discontent. The movie has several interesting scenes, but as a high-budget Hindi film that needs to recover its costs, it takes some familiar turns that undo the heft of Neelam’s daily suffering. Dil Dhadakne Do reinforces that a dysfunctional family in a Bollywood film can handle only one divorce at a time and men’s apologies can work wonders.
A wife suffering for her husband’s self-awareness is still Project Humanization. The husband becomes a better human. And that is the happy ending.
A plethora of Ayushmann Khurrana movies focused on social discrimination are committed to Project Humanization. In the most recent installment of this project, Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, Khurana plays Manu, a macho bodybuilder who cannot believe he has fallen for a trans woman, Maanvi (Vaani Kapoor). Setting aside for a moment the debate on whether or not a trans woman should have been cast to play Maanvi, the main problem of the film seems to be how it uses trauma. Maanvi has been rejected by members of her own family. She has suffered physical trauma as well. She is rejected by Manu and humiliated publicly by his sisters. She endures one blow after another but the story is not invested in her healing. It is Manu’s enlightenment in the end that we must applaud.
So, what else can trauma do in a story other than humanize men?
A much discussed contemporary critique of the trauma plot in the US targets formulaic Anglo-American fictions in which trauma becomes the characters’ “totalizing identity.” Totalizing is the key word here. This is “The Case Against Trauma Plot”:
“Unlike the marriage plot, the trauma plot does not direct our curiosity toward the future (Will they or won’t they?) but back into the past (What happened to her?). “For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge,” Sylvia Plath wrote in “Lady Lazarus.” “A very large charge.” Now such exposure comes cheap. Frame it within a bad romance between two characters and their discordant baggage. Nest it in an epic of diaspora; reënvision the Western, or the novel of passing. Fill it with ghosts. Tell it in a modernist sensory rush with the punctuation falling away. Set it among nine perfect strangers.”
It is a perceptive assessment of the drive in modern storytelling to make trauma, specifically its disclosure, the main object of character-centered drama. We begin with the consequences. Then, a flashback. Flashback after flashback explains away every bit of the chaos unfolding in the present. This is a peculiar storytelling move really, because of all experiences, trauma seems least likely to become bound up in a neat cause-effect chain.
In Bollywood, we see this drive even in films applauded for sensitive treatment of mental health, such as Dear Zindagi. Yes, Dear Zindagi is mostly thoughtful. It does not encourage stigma against depression. It normalizes seeking help. Initially it also makes emotional turbulence seem like an everyday experience, in sync with Millennial and Gen-Z discourses on mental health as well as felt experiences of mental illness. But the trauma plot is not a millennial invention and so, even Dear Zindagi must be held responsible for not only what it says about trauma but also how it deploys trauma.
Dear Zindagi ends up thoroughly diagnosing its protagonist, Kaira (Alia Bhatt). Her present-day discontent is traced to a decisive past experience. One major trauma, albeit not an over-the-top head injury, was the engine running the plot all along.
Gehraiyaan, the recent Deepika Padukone film, despite its odd spa-retreat-like visual grammar makes a plucky attempt at twisting the trauma plot. Alisha is dissatisfied with her life as well as her boyfriend who cannot be bothered to share domestic chores, and becomes infatuated with the flashy life of her cousin Tia, plus Tia’s boyfriend. Alisha also resents her own father for the discontent of her deceased mother. There are the flashbacks and video recordings from Alisha’s childhood that seem to explain a lot of what’s wrong with her. The movie certainly lets the audience diagnose Alisha and her maladies.
Alisha and Zain in Gehraiyaan
However, an interesting turn comes when Tia’s boyfriend Zain (played by Siddhant Chaturvedi) chronicles the traumas of his childhood before Alisha–and exactly in the way we have known straight, cis antiheroes to do. As defense for their unmooredness and bad behavior. Yet, because this is Alisha’s story, and even though Alisha seems to buy his defense, the movie makes us see his story for what it is: a self-serving narrative. At a technical level I thought the filmmaker’s restraint did the job–we do not see a dramatized flashback here, only a first-person account coming at a moment Zain seeks to assert his moral authority. He wants to show Alisha he gets her, because he gets suffering.
Watching Gehraiyaan, I wondered whether I was overreading the moment. So, I was gratified to be hit over the head with Alisha’s dialogue suggesting she saw through Zain’s spin on the backstory. The climactic twist that comes later in the movie also worked for me because it refused Alisha and her relationship with Tia a neat closure (even though Tia does not realize it). In other words, the backstories in Gehraiyaan do not rid characters’ lives of their jaggedness, accidents, and protect them from suffering.
I found the web series Taish intriguing for similar reasons. Taish explores misdirected rage and vacuous masculinity. The characters who have been abused in the world of Taish manage to lead restrained lives, even find ways to recuperate. It is the witness who refuses to be contained, and acts at a great cost to not only himself but also the victims he is supposedly avenging. Showing the desi diaspora in the UK, Taish is self-consciously pulpy and establishes the angry young man, Sunny (Pulkit Samrat), as an alienating presence from the outset. By witnessing abuse, Sunny thinks he has won the moral right to wreak havoc, but he hasn’t.
Sunny in Taish with Rohan and Aarfa
Perhaps no one can win such a moral right, notwithstanding the magnitude of their suffering. And this is not a trivial memo, coming from a pulpy pop cultural artifact no less, at a time when powers-that-be use history in the way toxic men use the trauma plot–to wage wars. Collective traumas like Partition, Holocaust, 9/11 do not give witnesses, future generations, or even the survivors, the moral right to inflict trauma.
But who is listening?
Postscript from P: Usne Atmahatya Kar Li AKA How We Missed the Plot on Trauma
T’s ‘main kahaan hoon’ pop culture childhood moment takes me back to a few of my own. The ultimate traumatic moment in a film is, you could say, when a character decides to end her life. Only the way Bollywood dealt with it, again and again, was ‘yet another character in yet another film decides to end her life’. It was a most non-unusual occurence, particularly after the girl had been sexually assualted or raped - always termed “izzat loot gayi” - that I’m not surprised I never blinked an eye when it unfolded onscreen. Yet again.
For all its blatant obviousness though, it remained a hidden trauma. Characters almost never killed themselves onscreen, there was paraphernalia suggesting it - ek dupatta, ek pankha, ek kursi. ‘The Event’ was duly reported after.
When I encountered suicide up-close IRL - an aunt in the late ‘90s, a colleague a year-and-a- half ago - it felt, unsurprisingly, nothing like what we’d consumed in Bollywood. It was so much messier, the aftermath of a person’s choice on the darkest edge of despair. The point of no return is not a singular moment; there are many, many points that haunt so many, many people that the person leaves behind.
There have of course been more powerful (more real) portrayals of the atmahatya in mainstream Hindi cinema. 3 Idiots and Masaan rendered the despair and trauma felt by an Indian youth abandoned by the system. And Anjaana Anjaani, a lesser known very-pop flick from the 2000s, in that genre of let’s-party-and-have-casual-flings, dealt with it interestingly too - a couple committing to a suicide pact.
The trauma that stands out, however, is when the character hijacks the narrative by refusing to end it i.e. the trauma that is her life. Two movies, released in 1978 & 1980 respectively, accomplished this masterfully. Insaaf ka Tarazu has Bharti (played by Zeenat Aman) standing up against her rapist in court, navigating all the public humiliation and censure this action brings. (Think Pink, but without a female lawyer exhorting ‘No means No’). Ghar is an examination of the effect of a brutal gangrape on a marriage - what does it do to the love and the sex and the partnership shared by a happy couple? It also plays out a bit like a cautionary tale - don’t watch late-night movies apparently? Aarti (played by Rekha) portrays the confusion, the anger, the frustration, with great skill and nuance - it’s unbearable to watch.
(Word to the wise: Don’t Google these movie posters, they’re unbearably traumatic for other reasons).
More from T & P?
P’s short story Sheher Jaise Aag ka Dariya (City like the Lake of Fire), featuring revenge, redemption, Whats App, and the city of Ayodhya, was published on The Third Eye; its Hindi version here.
T’s essay on how literary critics in the US/UK mis(read) stories by writers of color, queer writers, and international writers appeared in Public Seminar. You can read “Literary Imperialism and Scenes of High Melodrama: When BIPOC and queer writers defy minimalism” here.