After reading the timeless 1925 novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the ninth grade, and waiting through the tantalizing advertisements and trailers, I saw the movie The Great Gatsby on opening night in Delhi last weekend. The theatre was full. The audience was largely well-educated, well-traveled, well-heeled expats and Indians, who knew of the book, the author, and the message.
This quintessential American story of excess, idealism and the American Dream, has now been globally released for a new and varied audience to analyze from their own perspective.
The plot has Nick Carraway (Toby Maguire) coming to New York in the spring of 1922 to take up residence next door to Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a partying playboy millionaire, and close to his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and her aristocratic philandering husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Carraway is witness to the excesses and the lack of morals of the jet-setting upper crust.
How might the average Indian audience interpret the movie?
Some may view it as just another opulent Bollywood movie: beautiful, rich, well-dressed people, palatial homes, and good music. What’s not to love? The only thing missing is a group dance sequence. Some things may not be understandable—like Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan not playing the lead role and the movie having a sad ending. Surely with his money and good looks, Gatsby’s mama could have found him a nice wife from a good family. On the other hand, some other things may be so understandable as to be unremarkable: such as the vast economic inequality and steep social class hierarchy; such as Tom’s racist comments and poor treatment of his servants; such as the gender inequality expressed in Daisy’s statement when her baby girl is born —“That the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” This can be as easily said of contemporary India as 20s America.
For others, it may support what they’ve long believed to be true: the United States is a land of excess and depravity, with no spirituality and no family values to ground their youth. As Fitzgerald says of Tom and Daisy, “They had spent a year in France for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together.”
Some people, particularly some Americans, could interpret the movie to mean that the American Dream did not really exist then and doesn’t exist now. With growing inequality within the country, the continuing economic slump, and a rival for superpower status, the good life seems to be over. But Fitzgerald is not depicting the American Dream. He is revealing an American Nightmare—rudderless materialism without roots, ethics or philosophies.
But while some no longer believe in the American Dream, many still do—or at least want to.
The American Dream is much more than just material wealth. It supports the concept of freedom in a land where traditions don’t hang heavy around your neck. It promises a vast number, breadth and depth of opportunities. It speaks to equality, self-reliance, and accepting failure as one step along the route to success. If you try hard enough, you can forge your own destiny and succeed—unless, like Jay Gatsby, you get lost along the way.
The Dream maybe of American origin, but it also applies to other parts of the New World—like Canada and Australia—that may be less quick to name or claim the concept.
And it’s not that discrimination and inequality don’t exist in these nations, but they aren’t an integral and accepted part of the system.
Some renditions of the American Dream are not perfect and some, taken to an extreme like Fitzgerald’s, can lead to tragic endings—but that doesn’t make the dream irrelevant or passé. Fact or fiction, the American Dream is based on hope, and Gatsby is one of the most hopeful characters found in any story. When his friend Nick Carraway tells him that he can’t repeat the past, Gatsby denies it vehemently: “Can’t repeat the past?” Gatsby cries out. “Why of course you can!” All mistakes are recoverable and happiness lies just around the corner. No matter the reality, hope continues to exist.
After I graduate from high school I, and many of my friends, would like to savor this American Dream during our university years. It’s not for the material things, which are now available in many countries and often in greater abundance. Rather, it is to experience life in a place that strives for equality, promotes independence, and encourages new thinking—that allows us the freedom to be who we want to be and the opportunities to be the best that we can be. Moreover, it’s the chance to have teachers and classmates who also believe in what we believe. For many of us, we look towards the green light and it says “Go.”
Kalpana Iyer Mohanty is a 11th grade student and a Fitzgerald aficionado, currently living in New Delhi.