There is one thrilling moment dangling in the meandering, verbose khich-khich of Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One, when Tom Cruise—the actor-star, or perhaps the star-actor, his persona out-staging his artistry and eventually becoming it—rides a long stretch on his motorcycle and then launches off a Norwegian cliff and parachutes onto a moving train. The launch was performed, as are many stunts in his films, without a body double. This was Tom Cruise, the actor, lending his courage to the character. Nothing new here.
The image of him poised on top of the Burj Khalifa to shoot an action scene for one of the many Mission Impossible films preceding this one is still the stuff of cinema legend. That casual masculine pump that Cruise seeks when performing these scenes leaks into the other side of the screen as male audiences vicariously dip into the adrenaline.
The motorcycle leap is a thrilling moment for two reasons—we experience it as both thought and visual. The visual is enough, with those vertiginous leaps and effective cuts throbbing with a blinding immediacy, and it does not really need a metaphor or subtext to prop it up. Yet, the knowledge that it is really Cruise and not CG adds to the moment.
The scene stays in our head, with the reality of the moment (the news reports of him performing the stunt) and the fantasy of the film jostling for space. We are directing our awe towards both Tom Cruise, the daredevil actor in real life, and towards Ethan Hunt, the agent in the fantasy-toting film in which his bravado is embedded.
The film is fantasy; the actor’s stunts are reality. The scene—the text—leading up to it shudders with anticipation, foregrounding what we know about the film—the paratext. The scene after it trembles, foregrounding how we feel about the film.
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It is this bit of reality intruding into the film that makes the fantasy so much more thrilling, alluring and, perhaps, even aspirational. A voice in your head asks, “If a 60-year-old can do this, what is stopping you?” You are pulled towards the screen by a promise of realism even as the fantasy is being woven simultaneously.
This unsteadies the conventional understanding of fantasy, that it helps produce what columnist Damien Walter called “the total eradication of self… fuelling our ravenous appetite for escape”.
The best fantasies feel real, producing a dual, contradictory pressure. On the one hand, it helps eradicate the self, producing immersion, and, on the other, it furiously “selves” you, making you aware of your body, your thoughts, your aspirations, tapping into it with a depth of feeling even as it peddles alternate realities, laws, possibilities, flirting with the absurd and, sometimes, becoming it.
Sites of desire
This tension—between what is real and what is glazed—is best expressed in the cinema of Karan Johar, full of candied stories of love and with characters whose lives you want simultaneously to escape into and to aspirationally inhabit one day, some day.
It is this vigorous self-ing and unself-ing that makes his cinema a robust site of desire. You lean into it just enough, seeing faint threads of your present and future aspired selves floating in the narrative somewhere, punctures of mimesis.
Take the costume design of Johar’s first film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. The main protagonist Rahul, in college, is dressed in Polo Sports and DKNY—brands that were out of reach for most people in the newly globalised India; out of reach, but the reach was still visible, possible, even if implausible. It did not feel like an inter-galactic desire.
So, while on the one hand, Karan Johar is spinning the most egregious tale of love lost and returned, shunning realism so effectively that to ask for it would render you inane, on the other hand when it comes to costume, he does not merely want it to signal richness, but wants it to be rich. You can doubt the veracity of anything on the screen, but never the wealth of the protagonist. Suddenly, with the possibility of this narrow “realism”, the larger fantasy becomes juicier.
It shifts your relationship with the film. You are alert to not just the story unfolding, but its branded, aesthetic gloss. Manish Malhotra, who began his career as a costume designer with films like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, launched his own couture label in 2005, connecting the thread of aspiration from the film to the store. His name is synonymous with weddings—both on- and off-screen.
Karan Johar’s films—both the ones he makes and the ones he produces—are a site of both aesthetic and narrative aspiration. I graduated from high school around the time of Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani’s (2013) release, and I remember the palpable tension caused by the cobalt blue Manish Malhotra sari with sequinned border and ruffled gold trimming that Deepika Padukone wore during the “Badtameez Dil” song. The sari was rendered iconic by repetition. Vogue India even did a piece on how to recreate the look. This was not a mimetic desire to be Deepika Padukone’s character but merely to look like her—a distinction that Johar’s fantasy makes.
- In the latest Mission Impossible movie, Tom Cruise rides a long stretch on his motorcycle and then launches off a Norwegian cliff and parachutes onto a moving train.
- It is this bit of reality intruding into films that makes fantasies so much more thrilling, alluring and, perhaps, even aspirational.
- Similarly, Karan Johar’s films—both the ones he makes and the ones he produces—are a site of both aesthetic and narrative aspiration.
Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani
Similarly, in Johar’s latest romp Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani, the anecdotes and brand names swirl in your head while watching it: the Gucci multicoloured silk twill shirt and the DSquared2 Beer Patch shirt that Ranveer Singh wears; the Amiri Indigo Chemist Star denim jacket and matching pants he dances in, the Louis Vuitton monogrammed jackets, the Versace egg-yolk yellow robe, the Dior monogrammed shirt.
Even in the dream sequences, the richness does not rest, with Fendi padded bombers and Burberry trench coat showing up in snow-struck Kashmir. In his interviews, Singh has directed our attention towards the diamond earrings his character wears—he borrowed them from his mother.
Alia Bhatt’s many Manish Malhotra saris or even the $1,400 La DoubleJ trench coat with bubble prints use this same fancy—to see something so beautiful that it “unselves” you, and also sets you yearning for that same or adjacent beauty for yourself. As Susan Sontag wrote, “In the one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralizes it.”
To get a richer sense of the arts, we must contend with this duality. That we experience art both viscerally and cerebrally, and sometimes the two overlap; sometimes they over-correct, sometimes they bruise each other. The darkness of a cinema theatre is not just a portal into an unknown world that we are willingly flinging ourselves into—it is also a portal back to the self, where desires ricochet wildly.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.