Summer 2018 has been no exception.
I just haven’t seen any of them.
Summer 2015, I had an entirely different experience with summer blockbusters and worn-out plots.
And it’s a treasured memory of mine.
For two summers I worked as a camp counselor. Another one I worked in pest control.
Then there was that summer I landed a temp job for a non-profit here in San Antonio, TX.
The job didn’t involve writing content. It didn’t involve working inside.
Everyday for about two months I would help load up a truck with produce along with tables, chairs, canopies, and few other important things. We’d drive to a certain location and set it all up, in the Texas heat, for a farmers’ market.
For about two to six hours I, and a few other temps, would toil in the heat to serve customers who wanted fresh produce. The goal of the non-profit was to teach healthy eating habits. To do that, they needed healthy food options. To achieve that goal they needed temporary help doing the heavy lifting while the nutritional experts provided lessons and handed out vouchers.
I got to help people, albeit in an indirect way, recognize better eating habits and options.
Most of these farmers’ markets were busy. People with food vouchers could come to our stand and get food. For that reason there was usually a line of people waiting to redeem their vouchers and then survey the produce we had available that day.
That One Bollywood Flick I’ve Seen
My wife teaches geography at the high-school level. She’s an amazing woman who puts up with immature freshman on a daily basis, and then comes home and puts up with me.
One of the benefits of being married to a teacher, besides having summers and most holidays off, is that I occasionally learn something. There is an above average amount of maps in our house and at one time I knew all the countries of Africa. This wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t marry my wife.
Part of my wife’s process for preparing lessons is to talk out her plans with me. When a certain lesson involves video material, I get to watch it.
When it came time for her to cover India, she’d decided to show a Bollywood film. I’d never seen a Bollywood film in its entirety before, so I was interested to watch something new. Since it was in a foreign language the captions were turned on, so I could also count it as reading.
The film chosen was Om Shanti Om.
I enjoyed watching it, and felt just slightly more worldly when I was done.
That One Song
Back to working in the farmers’ markets.
I mentioned I was one of a few temps working during that summer. A young woman from India was also employed as a temp.
During a lull at one of the farmers’ markets, someone produced a Bluetooth speaker. After pairing it with a phone, we had some music playing. It wasn’t my taste, but music in the shade on a hot Texas summer day isn’t all bad.
My co-worker from India got a turn to play music and she sheepishly asked if Indian music was okay. I couldn’t think of a good reason why not, so we told her just to hit play.
I wasn’t familiar with the first few songs, but low and behold, the title track from the Om Shanti Om, aptly named Om Shanti Om, was on that playlist.
I started laughing and asked her if it was the same Om Shanti Om as the movie.
She said it was.
Since I’m into stories and naturally curious, I asked her how this Bollywood movie stacked up against the rest. Was it one of the better ones? Was it bad?
She shrugged and replied that Om Shanti Om, despite its big budget and long list of stars, was just another summer blockbuster over there. It was a worn-out plot with different faces and locations slapped onto the original elements.
On the sliding scale of good and not-good, Om Shanti Om sat in the middle. It wasn’t great, it wasn’t terrible, it was just a well-known story with a big budget.
What a Worn-Out Plot Can Do
I’m no authority on Bollywood films. I’m not even an authority on Hollywood, though I do have my opinions. And don’t we all?
It was fun to talk about this film, that one Bollywood flick I’d seen all the way through, with someone who’d grown up watching these. It gave me a rare glimpse into another culture and way of living.
The funny thing was that her biggest complaint about the movie was that the story wasn’t good. It was one that had been used a lot. And this interpretation of it wasn’t done well.
Story, above all else, mattered to her.
So we talked about story and why it’s important to write a good one and how that makes or breaks a movie, not the stars or the effects.
It was story.
Om Shanti Om, as entertaining as it was, was really just a worn-out plot.
Even a worn-out plot can achieve some interesting things.
Texas can have some brutal days during the summer. Especially during July and August. This farmers’ market, as I recall, was near the end of August. The days may not have been as hot as previous ones, but by then Texans are so tired of the triple-digit temperatures anyway.
Sitting and discussing story with a total stranger made the heat bearable.
I was still sweating, but I was also engaging in a mutual discussion on story. I cannot express how refreshing it was to be able to have an open dialogue about this. I wasn’t trying to convince her of something, she wasn’t out to convince me of anything.
We were two weary temp workers talking about a common interest.
Bridge a Gap
This co-worker was Sikh and I’m a Christian.
Religious backgrounds didn’t get in the way of our discussion.
She mentioned that the story is based on some Hindu beliefs and that wasn’t really her thing. I wasn’t aware of this and asked her to explain it to me more.
I learned some more about Indian culture this way, and through a Bollywood film. How about that?
Looking back I’m amazed that I had this kind of conversation with someone from a completely different background than me. I learned a lot and it was a fun experience.
Now I want to do it again.
I’m not looking for a debate or trying to seek out how one religion is better than the other. Finding out more about a different way of living is far more interesting to me than discussing the merits of religion.
Had I not watched Om Shanti Om, I may not have had anything to say at all.
Although there were other things to talk about that day- the heat, working the market, the heat, loading up the truck, the heat, possible weekend plans, and of course, the heat- Om Shanti Om provided infinitely richer fodder for discussion.
At least for me.
She may have thought I was just another ignorant American, and to a large extent, she’s right.
One of the best ways to combat ignorance is to start a conversation.
Share An Experience
Despite the plot of Om Shanti Om being run into the ground from overuse, it still created a shared experience.
It’s the same with books.
Except the effect is more powerful.
Reading a book, or watching a movie, that someone else has creates this bond between both. The two have now read the same words. How they interpret it can be vastly different but they are now attached to the same anchor.
This is why we need more books and more readers.
A Hidden Advantage
While Om Shanti Om created a shared experience between two living people, the effect can happen between real and fictional characters, or real and the non-fictional representation of a real person.
Thanks to books like Hidden Figures, Outlaw Platoon, All the President’s Men, and many more, I feel as though I’ve gotten the chance to live a little bit of the lives of other people. The saying goes “you never know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” Books provide the shoes and the miles with which to walk them.
They are no substitute for actual experience.
They are, however, the second-best thing to experience.
Movies can do this too, but are much less potent than a book. Movies are shorter than books and having to compress so much into such a short amount of time results in diluting the emotional impact.
Books don’t have to make that sacrifice.
Tapping into more than just the eyes and ears, books draw out our creative side. We envision scenes, provide the characters appearance, and create their voices all from within our own minds.
When we complete a book we’ve exercised our brain much more than a movie has.
We’ve imprinted more information and memories across a wider surface of our minds.
This is called experience.
The events in the story, the characters reactions and emotions, even the words used, leave an emotional impression with us.
I may not have crunched numbers for NASA, but thanks to Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, I got experience it.
I may not have toured Kandahar Province in Afghanistan, but thanks to Sean Parnell’s Outlaw Company, I got experience it.
I may not have worked as a reporter for the Washington Post, and uncovered a massive scandal within the presidency, but thanks to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, I got to experience it.
Stories are powerful things. Be they fiction or non-fiction, a story can bring together people from vastly different backgrounds. When told well, the emotional impact of a story can produce a shift in someone’s life, even if it’s a small one. Underneath the characters, the climax, the build-up, the sense of victory after hopelessness, the plot of the story itself is what connects us.
We can relate to a plot and in doing so, we can relate to others, regardless of where they’ve come from.
A Dark Place
Stories create a shared experience.
Shared experiences bring people together.
When we share an experience, we produce empathy among others.
It’s a tricky thing though. Telling a story well is hard work. There is some art to it, but it’s mostly trial and error. We may feel the story is a powerful one, but if don’t work with it, draw out the elements that carry the emotions, and use words that lack punch, then the story falls flat.
Luckily for Om Shanti Om, its worn-out plot provided a catalyst for conversation.
That’s not to say just any plot will get a conversation going.
Getting the right conversation going is why each story needs to be edited and reworked until it shines.
I can’t remember who said it, but there’s a quote out there that writing isn’t art, it’s hard work.
Because we need to have more open conversations between Christians and Sikhs, Atheists and Muslims, and any other combination of religious, moral, ethical, and spiritual backgrounds.
To do that, we need more stories that provoke those open conversations.
It’s going to take hard work.
If we don’t, then the world will be a darker place because we will not be sharing stories. Instead, we’ll be assuming the wrong things about other people.
That’s not a world I want to leave for the next generation.
I’ve got some work to do.
And so do you.
Start by sharing your experience.