Sunday, December 27, 2009

Three Idiots and Man's Search for Meaning

What does a Hindi Bollywood movie and a book by Victor Frankl, an internationally renowned psychiatrist and the Father of the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, have in common? Precisely nothing as anyone would say!

I have a proclivity to seek connections and patterns in disparate elements, bits and pieces of information, situations and events unrelated... but even I would be extremely sceptical if you were to ask me the same question.

However, no one asked me the question. It stems from personal experience of the last two days.

I had gone to Mumbai and saw Three Idiots over the weekend. I also started reading Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, a book I had been looking for and very surprisingly found in Mulund Crossword--a sole copy lying on the shelf. Coming at a very affordable Rs. 260.00, I bought it immediately before going in to see the movie. Even then, I didn't know what was in store for me that night.

I was impressed with the movie. Apart from the performances of the 3 idiots that stole my heart (Madhavan has extremely expressive eyes and I have a soft corner for this chubby actor with his honest, winning smile, and Aamir Khan remains unbeatable at 44. Sharman Joshi outdid himself. "Kameeney ne dil jeet liya!" Kudos to all three!), the message of the movie resonated with the values that I hold dear and believe in.There are dark moments in the movie that emphasize the message.

The lessons I brought home from the movie: Have the courage to follow your passion and learn for the sheer joy of learning. Find your reason for existence and pursue that with sincerity and courage. Above all, don't become a machine, a slave to the system. Therein lies our meaning for living, for being.

The antagonist, Chatur's character portrayed the typical "system-manufactured man" who is in reality more of a machine than a human being, whose identity hinges on his possessions, the size of his bungalow and his car, his material worth and the degrees against his name. For whom, the pursuance of "success" is the reason for existence. Against this mechanical creature stood Aamir Khan, the iconoclast--who stood apart by virtue of a weird name and his philosophy, who refused to let the system turn him into another cowering, blubbering, spiritless creature, who retained his humanity in spite of the system. Who chose to retain his inner freedom to react to situations as his spirit demanded. And refused to follow success as the world understands it.

After dinner, I started reading Man's Search for Meaning while everyone went to watch TV.

In this book, Dr. Frankl recounts his experiences as a long time prisoner at Auschwitz, the concentration camp. This is where a human being was just a number--stripped of every vestige of identity and dignity, every reason for living, all semblance of human existence. People with bungalows or without, with degrees or illiterate, all became as one. Just a number. In this bestial existence, thus rendered identity-less and stripped naked--literally and metaphorically--Dr. Frankl found his reason for living. A book written with remarkable, almost frightening objectivity about events that make you shudder, it left me sleepless.  

However, this is not another tale of the brutalities of the concentration camps but is an essay of profound depth, about humans who have "nothing to lose except his so ridiculously naked life." The book has a Nietzscheian undertone running through it and Dr. Frankl begins with the quote: "He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how."

What connected the book and the movie for me? Not because I experienced both on the same day but the life philosophy embedded in each and the following paragraph from the book (I am copying it verbatim) that echoed the movie. Searching for and understanding one's personal "why" is the underlying theme in each.

"Don't aim at success--the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as a by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen; and the same holds for success; you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge."

The movie and the book came together at this point for me. Poles apart in the tales that encode the message, the message however unites. And this is a message I have been introduced to at a very young age--when I was just out of school--by someone who has been and is my best friend, confidante, teacher, guide, father, and has taught me my life's philosophy. My father-in-law!

That night, I slept fitfully. I tossed and turned as the book and scenes from the movie merged in my semi-conscious, dreamlike state. And the meaning of success gradually became apparent.

Success is not an outward state of recognition and fame, praise, material gains or possessions. It is success over oneself. When every choice has been taken from us, when fate throws us into situations undreamt of, it is the attitude we bring to the situation that matters. It is the inner freedom to make a choice--the choice to meet fate with dignity and grace. No one can take this inner freedom and personal value from us if we don't let them.

Dr. Frankl recounts the tale of prisoners who gave up their last meager morsel of food to others who were ill or dying in the concentration camps, who exchanged places with prisoners who were too weak to dig in the snow, who faced death and the gas chambers by staying back to take care of other prisoners. These are not tales of glory or of heroes but ordinary folks who became extraordinary because of their attitude. Even under the most degrading of human existence, they did not surrender their spirit. The SS officers could whip their bodies till they were broken but their spirits refused to cower.These are men who did not set out to be heroic but merely refused to die vermin-like deaths even when living among vermins.


  1. Sahana, very well written post. As Learning theory explains that human brain stores data or information by making connections or a neuron web unlike a computer wherein it is stored in binary format .That is why we as Learning professionals emphasize more on context than on content. I watched #3idiots too and found it quiet entertaining. Reconfirms the same belief i have grown up with and evangelize during my motivational training session to new employees.

    "Chase Comptence and Success will follow "

    Your mention about Victor Frankl book "Man's search for meaning" reminded me of another movie " Shawshank Redemption" ( recommended watch)
    Despite all tortures a human being is ever subjected to, there is something deep down at core of all human beings "Hope" that people can't touch and get to . It is a movie emphasising triumph of "spirit" and "determination", "courage" and "desire" which again confirms Victor Frankl's theory that meaning in life ( not pleasure as acclaimed by Freud) drives the human race .
    Keep on sharing the good stuff ! :-)

  2. Thank you Ruchi! For your kind words and thoughtful comments. It keeps me motivated and makes me want to share my thoughts...


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