Sunday, January 14, 2024

Chandler, Karna, and emotional armour (or, a New York yankee in King Dhritarashtra’s court)

(from my Economic Times column. This is a condensed version of an essay I am writing for my “life as a movie-watcher” book)

What is the difference between a tragic anti-hero from a great Indian epic and a wisecracking young New Yorker from a popular sitcom? Among many possible answers: only one of them has a laugh track accompanying his life.

But what might be common to these two characters?

Quite possibly, nothing at all. Or nothing that would make sense to anyone but me. But here’s my glib-sounding answer: the emotional kavacha. The armour that protects you from the world, hiding your vulnerability below a covering of (take your pick) toughness, or nastiness… or goofy, laugh-track-accompanied jokes.

Matthew Perry, who died in October, was a great favourite of mine – going back to the early years of this millennium when I watched every Friends episode multiple times as the show was telecast daily on two Indian channels – but if it has taken me this long to write about him it isn’t because I was coming to terms with loss. I just grabbed this pretext to binge-re-watch Friends instead, and to remember a time when the sarcastic Chandler Bing became the last of a series of lonesome types whom I strongly related to – characters encountered between childhood and my twenties, across literature and film.

The first of those was Karna in the Mahabharata, which is where the kavacha comes in. As a young reader when I first became obsessed with the luckless Karna, I wasn’t thinking about subtext – but I may have intuitively grasped that the divine armour, attached to his body until he cuts it away in one of the epic’s most stirring passages, had a symbolic function too. At any rate I understood Karna’s anger and resentment towards those who knew their place in the world and were comfortable in their own (standard-issue) skin. And I wasn’t surprised when, many years later, I read the first analyses of the armour as emotional cover, protecting him not just from physical weapons but from the world’s barbs – while also adding to his defensiveness, helping him nurture a sense of persecution. And how a major growth in character occurs around the time he rids himself of this albatross, opening up and accepting his destiny.

All this sounds solemn, but whenever I pictured Karna in my head I saw him as a sarcastic man, capable of being very cutting, and genuinely funny at times. I felt this fellow had to have a sense of humour – something like the sardonic quality that Bachchan brought to some of his angry-young-man roles. But I rarely if ever saw such a Karna in the many Mahabharata books I read (or in the TV show): those either turned him maudlin, on the cusp of weepy self-pity, or (in the conventional tellings where the Kauravas epitomized evil) a bad guy who was maybe somewhat less bad than the others.

I was well into adulthood when Friends entered my orbit, but Chandler Bing would fill this humour gap with his protective kavacha (“Back then I used humour as a defence mechanism. Thank god I don’t do *that* anymore”).

To repeat: I know not much connects Chandler and Karna (well, they both have parent issues. One doesn’t know who his progenitors are, the other has Kathleen Turner for a dad). But at different points in my life, and in broadly comparable ways, they became people to identify with, helping me articulate things about my inner world and my ways of dealing with the terrifying outside world. I didn’t fully appreciate Chandler at first: when I had only watched snippets of Friends on TV before I began watching the show properly, he came across as the least personable, the loudest, the most dependent on what one sometimes sees as facile, broad comedy. But soon I saw that his exaggerated, hysterical comedy was central to his function as a Greek chorus. In some other ways, he was the most poised and responsible of the six friends – despite being set up from the start as the guy who keeps making jokes which the others tolerate or roll their eyes at in the way that an adult might be indulgent of a prattling child. (The implication almost being that they could, if they chose to, say equally funny things, but were too mature for this. Utter nonsense.)

Over the course of a 236-episode situation comedy, it is inevitable that we will see each of these six protagonists at their silliest, most immature, most vulnerable at some point or the other – and that character arcs won’t be consistent over 10 years, they will be subordinate to the creation of funny “situations”. But with Chandler (and maybe even Perry), there is a sense that the immaturity is mainly performative, always with a tinge of self-awareness. And unlike my childhood hero, he doesn’t need to lose the armour to become more human. You can drily comment on the action around you, even while being part of it.

Or as Chandler might say, “BING!! part of it.”

(Related posts: Friends and masala; Karna in Mrityunjay)

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