Last night Nancy and I watched an epic length Bollywood movie ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham’ in which all the actors cried for the last 60 to 90 minutes.  Some were happy tears, but most were tears due to separation within the family, tears of separation and longing. While the cause of the problem, the banishment of a son for marrying outside his class, is uniquely Indian, most people could well relate to the depiction of the pain of separation and of longing for loved ones.

Western reviews of this movie characterize it as ‘over the top melodramatic’. This is perhaps accurate in the context of the kinds of movies we tend to watch, but also misleading. We all endure separation and longing, sometimes for very long periods of our lives, especially through death. Many of our Western movies are characterized by an inhumane nonchalance when people die. While the idealization of family bonds displayed in ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham’ was perhaps unrealistic, the experience of watching the extended family deal with the separation was tremendously cathartic and the emotions genuine and very real. But so unlike anything I’ve seen in a movie before, even in Bollywood. Only the operas of Verdi or Rossini might offer a similar experience in sustained sorrowful emotions.

The father of the family, a wealthy industrialist, had banished his son because of the dictates of his tradition. This isn’t as foolish a motivation as it might appear on first blush. The family’s success and well-being over several generations, and even their familial loyalty and love, is seen as a result of adhering to those traditions. But clearly what was needed was for the father to have a change of heart, and his continued recalcitrance caused a decade or more of separation and longing, not only between father and son, but the entire family. As might be expected in a Bollywood movie, the change of heart does come, but interestingly no single dramatic event precipitates the change. The father looked at a photo of his two sons in happier days, and began to cry. It almost seemed, that with the entire family crying through scene after scene, that the father needed to cry too, and when he finally did, family love was restored as it was always meant to be. The transformation in the character of the father was an internal one, not caused by a single dramatic event, as we might expect in those Western movies where the plot is central, and everything happens for a specific reason. The family finally reconciles, and even more tears, joyful ones, follow.

With the movie still fresh in my mind and in my feelings, I read quite a bit of the expanded coverage of the refugee situation in Europe in this morning’s paper. I was struck by the theme of separation and longing, as Syrian refugees are displaced to different countries, and families are torn apart. 

Suddenly the world’s eyes are on Syria. Donations are flooding in, and Canada’s leaders are mobilizing toward action on a problem that has been mostly ignored for a year or more. As in the Bollywood movie, the story has turned on a single photograph. I cried when I first saw it a few days ago. Statistics, the number of refugees, the casualty figures, do not move us. A single picture of desperation and loss, the story of a single family, has touched a common chord. We all experience separation and death in life, not usually so harsh as this, but we suffer all the same, and seeing that at a personal level has led many to take up common cause with those from a seemingly distant and foreign land.

People often ask, “if God exists, then why do we suffer?” A partial answer is that without the universal experience of longing, separation and pain, we would be incapable of being appreciative, empathetic or compassionate. Those are the companion emotions to separation and longing; one can not exist without the other. I think that is so, even though while experiencing the down side, we always wish it could be otherwise.

Bollywood movies like ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham’ may never appeal to Western viewers who find the situations too foreign, and the emotions too ersatz. I like Bollywood movies quite a lot, but regardless of whether anyone else does, there is a lot to be said for a culture where theatrical performances are characterized by an unremitting flow of tears. Because such is the genuine stuff of life, and as the Syrian refugee crisis illustrates, we too often deny the better part of what lies within us.