Humour by Rehana Munir: Falling for the myth
I first read about the myth of Sisyphus while preparing for my graduation exams using notes photocopied from life-saving friends. Albert Camus’ influential essay, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), spoke about the doomed human condition using the mythological Greek figure condemned to pushing a heavy rock up a hill; every time he reaches the top, the rock rolls down and he has to begin again – a back- and soul-breaking task that is neither ever completed nor abandoned. Much like the trauma of trying to book a vaccine slot online. Caught in a miasma of pandemic-coloured absurdity, my mind often wanders into the fertile terrain of myth, from which countless patterns of thought and feeling emerge.
An apsara walks into a durbar
“We are children for a very, very long time,” says psychoanalyst and literary essayist, Adam Phillips. Fantasy, fable and myth lie buried deep in our minds, right from the days of devouring those Amar Chitra Katha stories in musty school libraries. The fast-paced action and crude yet catchy art were what hooked us, but the comics gave us so much more. They were an escape into a vivid world that was both reassuringly similar and thrillingly different from our own. The internal logic of the stories was comforting; for all the twists and turns, good triumphed over evil in the end. In addition, those apsara cholis, bejewelled turbans, opulent durbars and exotic bazaars were a fun introduction to Indian period kitsch, chiefly the domain of Bollywood.
I see a clear route from Amar Chitra Katha to Game of Thrones. While I’m a dame of groans when it comes to gruesome sex and violence passing off as entertainment, many a friend has tried to convince me of the fantasy drama’s rewards. Jon Snow’s heroic charms notwithstanding, I’d much rather indulge the smouldering toxicity of Mad Men’s Don Draper. I like my hero myth dressed in a well-cut suit, swilling an old fashioned in a dimly-lit bar.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
I’m often amused at the irony of humans creating creation myths, featuring everything from speaking turtles to floating angels, warring gods to didactic storms. Intricate and dramatic tales that explain why mountains exist or how the leopard got its spots. The best part about all these imaginative stories is that they’ve been immortalised in indigenous art across cultures.
On my last visit to a bookshop before the cataclysmic second wave, I got myself a copy of Tara Books’ Sun and Moon, a stunning hardback in handmade paper, with evocative illustrations and text soaked in folk and tribal art forms by celebrated artists. I personally trace the beginning of the universe as we know it to the Big Bang and don’t believe in supernatural interventions in the physical world. But I concede I’m charmed by myths and legends and all that they represent and uphold. Deep below the level of rational thought lies a child following an apsara down an enchanted forest, expecting to chat with a luminous deer. Or a teenager marvelling at the twin suns of Star Wars’ Tatooine. Or an incorrigible adult expecting a vaccine slot within her first hundred attempts on the app.
Running with the wolves
Animated movies invite us into self-contained mythological universes in the most fun and engaging ways. From the heartache of Simba’s abdication at the beginning of The Lion King (1994) to his Hakuna Matata escapism and eventual return to his place in the Circle of Life, the Disney classic offers a richly developed worldview – complete with a simian shaman and a Hamlet-esque ghost – that’s hard to resist.
But it’s not always this coherent. In Pixar’s Soul (2020), this year’s Oscar winner for Best Animation, the messages are mixed and the impact blunted. ‘What gives meaning to life?’ is perhaps the deepest question of all (after ‘What is the ideal gap between two doses of a vaccine?’, of course). But the filmmaker who gave us the faultless Inside Out (2015) seem to have gotten himself entangled in the multiple strands that make up this film’s mythology. Just like the makers of Wolfwalkers (2020), drawing on the evergreen human-wolf hybrid myth against the backdrop of Oliver Cromwell’s reign of terror in 1650s Ireland. The film’s storybook-like hand-drawn animation, however, is a howling success.
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From HT Brunch, May 30, 2021
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