TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING?
Madhu Jain looks back to a time of simple games and pleasures and compares these to the multitude of on-demand diversions available to all, in the present day
ILLUSTRATION BY AASTHA CHOUDHARY
The little girl, with a big pout, declared: “I am bored. . .what shall I do. . .?” My friend’s granddaughter was sitting in her playpen surrounded by a sea of toys and on the verge of a tantrum. She started throwing her playthings out. Was she seeking attention, or was she just bored? ‘Bored’ wasn’t a word that existed in our vocabulary while we were growing up. And, I don’t ever recall my children using the five letter word.
In fact, they would either be playing with their friends at home or a few houses away. Growing up on the sprawling campus of the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, the children were always busy. They curated their own entertainment – long before the small screen began disgorging it into our living room 24/7. They set up makeshift cricket fields. They played hide-and-seek, charades and, of course, doctor-doctor.
As for us adults, entertainment used to be a collective activity. You went to the theatre, movies, picnics or concerts with family or friends. It was much the same with cricket and football matches, going out to eat in a dhaba or splurging in a many-starred restaurant. The whole lot went together. And smuggling parathas into movie halls required ingenuity! It was always a great deal of fun — that feeling of getting away with things.
At your fingertips
The way we consume entertainment is gradually evolving into a solitary and stationary activity. No longer do you feel the need to go anywhere: it all comes straight to you — whether it’s food to the table, movies and music, or football and cricket matches to the small screen. You can summon art exhibitions, occasionally in 3-D, on your laptops or mobile phones. Ted Talks are just a tap away. And you can enjoy family time, live, on WhatsApp — even from the far corners of the globe.
The famous American singer Marian Anderson was quite the visionary when she sang: ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands’. As was, much before her, the English poet William Blake, who saw ‘the world in a grain of sand’. The world does now come to you. But it is usually cut to size, digitised and fancied up into that little device. The mobile may not be as poetic or ethereal as the grain of sand, but it certainly brings almost everything to you — as do Alexa and the other virtual assistants in her wake.
But some of the inherent magic of entertainment, particularly of cinema, evaporates when it enters your home, having been made to share the ‘moment’ and space with pizzas and burgers and sodas ordered in. It’s a far cry from the magic of the movies viewed in cinema halls that the late Italian cineaste Federico Fellini had once described to me. “The darkened hall allows fantasy to take flight….” You sit with others, he had elaborated, but your experience of the film is solitary and has something of the divine about it.
An abundance of choice
Entertainment, which is increasingly at the command and fingertips of the consumer, is now also being curated by consumers. There is an abundance of choice, which can at times be perplexing. There was a time not too long ago when a television set had pride of place in the drawing room, or even in the dining room. This enabled the family or friends to watch sports or serials together. In some homes it was covered by an embroidered cloth, just like the one that covered the refrigerator.
There used to be a telling television advertisement which showed an elderly man sitting alone and forlorn on a large, well-polished dining table. The rest of the family, including his children and grandchildren, were in their rooms watching television and eating. I can’t remember what was being advertised but my takeaway was that the little black box was no longer used for ‘collective’ viewing. The each-to-his-own way of doing things — of keeping themselves entertained — was weakening family bonds. Loneliness was just one of the consequences of individually catered entertainment.
Most recently, entertainment has muscled up and extended its ambit to include fitness. Gymming has acquired some of the attributes of entertainment: you play your own music and can become part of a community of regulars. Gyms have become magnets, like Starbucks, for gathering an increasing tribe of solitary travellers. Camping has also acquired a more alluring avatar. You can now go glamping: a word coined from ‘glamorous’ and ‘camping’. There are glamping resorts which offer luxury comfort camping and flushing toilets. You can bring your own feather beds instead of sleeping bags. Yes, you have the whole world in your hands. But with it the dilemma of choice. . . .
Madhu Jain, editor of IQ, The Indian Quarterly, is an author and a journalist.