Bangalore Film Society

Dead Poet's Society: Reflections on Conformism[]

Tushar K Shukla

Watching Dead Poet's Society today took me back to the eternal conflict between conformity and non-conformity.The movie tells the tale of an authoritarian school with a strict regime of regulations.In comes a professor,Mr. John Keating who redefines the way poetry was taught before in the school. He asks the pupils to tear off the page where the book says how to write poetry and things like putting in perspective the need for an objective,meter and rhyme.He exhorts the students to practice freedom of thought,which he calls Carpe Diem, being free of any restrictions.He makes them dream the impossible,takes them out,makes them read classics,something he calls the Dead Poet's Society.Another thing he does is invoking the artist in them. In comes Neil, a young student of his class who has a special affinity for Mr. Keating.Neil and Todd are friends.Neil discovers that he has a great potential for acting in him and is ecstatic when he is selected for the screening of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the college.It is not long before the news of this brewing undercurrent of non-conformity reaches the echelons of power and authority and the principal summons all the students in the assembly hall. It is there that Neil does the unimaginable. He rings a phone during the assembly and tells the principal that there is a call for him, from God saying that they should also have girls in their school. Neil's father is called and Neil is asked to apologize for his misdeed, and is also told clearly that his intentions of getting expelled from the place will not come true. Neil breaks down with the growing dissent of his father and the system's ridicule of his thoughts and aspirations. His agony is further exacerbated by Mr. Keating's disapproval of his action.His father says he can't participate in the play. But later he convinces his father and the play is staged. He hopes that his performance would melt down the father's harsh opinion about him. But that never happens, and he is left in the golden cage with snapped wings. He quietly goes in his room, puts on the crown of thorn he wore in the play, and shoots himself leaving a dying note on the opening page of the book of rhymes Professor Keating gave him, that includes among other things,.. And now when I am dying, I realize how much I had wanted to live.Things do not become any better at the school after Neil is gone, as one would have imagined. Neil's friends are threatened by the authorities to sign a letter stating that the non-conformist practices of Professor Keating, indulging in an exercise aimed at invoking a non-existent obsession with something so anti-authority and unconventional as acting in the students, were responsible for Neil's death and this would give them a ground for making Keating a scapegoat and expel him as well, as this would also satisfy Neil's parents who wanted a reason for their son's death and could not find one in the haze of obscurity.The students have a new arts teacher, the principal himself, who is taken aback with the kind of learning methods adopted by Professor Keating. When he asks the students how much course has been covered in the section on Realists, he is told that portion was skipped and the Romantics was done instead. When he asks them to recite the page on how to write poems, he discovers that page has been torn from every book. Finally he gives the letter to Todd to sign it, but Todd refuses to give in to the pressure and stands up on his table reciting one of the lines from the play they did, something they used to do in Professor Keating's sessions, soon to be joined by their entire Dead Poet's Society gang.Professor Keating who happens to pass by the class to take his belongings back from the classroom is content seeing that, and he says, "Thank you boys" and leaves the place leaving behind some proud students and a hapless principal furious with frustration, but pitiably helpless.There is a thin line between being a non-conformist and a rebel. There is no end to how dissatisfied and disillusioned you can get living in such a place, but the only escape is the belief and conviction that you will never give up. It is true that a revolution is started by a single individual but that, not always might be the case.A million times, a million revolutions are started but they never see the light of the day, they just die a slow, unnoticed death in the hoi polloi of proletarian obscurity. I imagine I never might truly understand what is the right path, for being a rebel with a cause does not pay much now, what keeps you alive is the sense of self-respect that here was an individual who refused to give in. But does that make any difference to the world; the way people wake up every morning from the surreal but attainable dreams to the killing monotony and conformity, only to discover the next sleep that those dreams are all gone. It takes a small step to join a revolution that was initiated by someone but it takes a giant leap for the person who starts that, which goes into the dungeons if no one gathers even that much courage to join in his noble crusade. As I said, there is no end to how long we can go discussing these issues, for these are not issues that we are unaware of or indifferent to. These are all things every single one of us has been through one or the other stage of our lives. It is just that we fail to acknowledge the effect it has on our lives. It is just that we would rather choose to live with our eyes closed than die with a hope to live.

10 December 2004 5:36 pm