I’ve been in Bangalore for two years now. Before that, I have lived in a small town suburb of Mumbai and then in Hyderabad. Though all three are metro cities, Bangalore has a quality all its own. For it is one place where the ambitious come from all over the country to realize the dream life, experience all the pleasures that an urban environment can provide, and seek satisfaction in the pursuit of material happiness. So much so, that Bangalore is now a typical urban jungle, filled with more vehicles than pedestrians, more potholes than footpaths, more traffic jams than smooth drives, more people who are connected to their devices than to their reality, more opportunism than empathy, more avenues of instant gratification than purposeful activities and more frustration than enthusiasm. It exemplifies the rat race like no other place I’ve seen. What does this have to do with the cult classic 1999 movie? Read on…
‘Fight Club’ is the story of an urbane man, trapped in his small world filled with small comforts and respectability, stuck in a dead end job and suffering from insomnia. His lonely life combined with his perception of the vacuity of his material ambitions drives him to a state of frustrated wakefulness that reaches such a peak that he seeks solace in the suffering of fatally ill patients, and sits with them at group therapy, pretending to have their diseases himself. So wretched is he that he finds ‘release’ from his pent up frustration and despair only when he is able to truly cry while hugging a fellow attendee who is actually dying. The released sorrow soothes him and he finds himself being able to get a full night of sleep. This pattern continues until he sees a fellow ‘tourist’, a woman seeking similar dubious relief from being part of such groups, and the narrator is forced to stop attending them for fear of being found out as an imposter. Thus, his insomnia returns and he becomes miserable round the clock again.
One day, during a business trip, he meets an unusual man named Tyler Durden, who turns out to be a soap salesman, and whose values seem to be the exact antithesis of the protagonist. Tyler is a rebel, a mercenary, a shady businessman, and an in-your-face type, who is at the same time very focused, very energetic and fears no one and nothing. And he has an agenda. He is more than just a soap salesman, in fact, he’s a subversive prankster who engages in disturbing acts such as showing a second-long porn image during a regular family movie in a cinema hall while working as a reel changer, collecting waste bags of fat deposited by hospitals in dumps post liposuction surgeries and using these in the making of his soap, and more, purely to disturb the docile civility of the average person and get back at the rich who gain at the expense of the working class.
One day, as he is returning from a business trip, owing to a gas leak and subsequent explosion, the narrator’s house burns down and he suddenly finds himself homeless. He calls up Tyler and is offered indefinite asylum at Tyler’s house, which is a rotting independent house, fit for demolition. One evening, outside a bar, after a few drinks, Tyler challenges Jack, the narrator, to hit him as hard as possible, in the face. Ignoring the narrator’s protests, Tyler encourages him until Jack ends up punching him in the ear. After howling in pain for a few seconds, Tyler punches Jack neatly in the gut, making him bend over in pain. This starts a no-holds barred fight, which awakens a deadened energy and spirit in Jack. Slowly, more frustrated men in the vicinity start coming over to participate in this bizarre ritual, and thus ‘Fight Club’ is born.
Jack’s life changes completely, as he finds himself being able to ignore the stress of work life as well as his demanding and mean boss, as his injuries from fights, new fitness regimen to continue participating in Fight Club and newly toughened disposition makes him numb to everyday irritants. Soon he starts working with Tyler to organize fight clubs in other cities, even as the activities of these groups become more and more dangerous and violent, something that Jack is not comfortable with. Jack realizes that even though they started Fight Club together, Tyler has slowly shut him off from his plans and activities.
Eventually, Jack understands Tyler’s unflinching drive as caused by his desire to destruct capitalist society’s pillars, the banking and financial institutions, that facilitate our comfort-seeking lives and make us subjugate our selves in our quest for material success. In Tyler’s view, destruction brings improvement, and letting go of all the things we hold dear makes us realize who we actually are. In a shocking twist towards the end of the movie, we learn that Jack and Tyler are the same person, that, like Jekyll and Hyde, Jack’s submissive conformity and endless despair seeks relief and self-expression through Tyler’s no holds-barred drive to recreate by destroying the existing order and helping an evolution of the self.
Though the message of the movie is expressed in a rather subversive way, for that very reason, it is quite hard hitting. A purely material life’s shallowness is exposed for what it is, and the innate violence within us that is severely suppressed by following rules rigidly is also brought to light, as is our meaningless quest for self-gratification and the media’s hypnotic control of our minds and desires. Ultimately, the quest for pure material success erodes our souls and we see society transforming into a well ordered battlefield, where everyone’s trying to run everyone else over to be the first to reach the destination, where a person’s worth is measured in the material assets he/she owns, and to achieve success, it is fine to compromise on your real values and your true nature. ‘Fight Club’ portrays the destruction of a materialist society that makes mice out of men, amuses and gratifies us with junk, keeps us conforming to its diktats, wants us to aim for what it holds high, and keeps our true selves repressed. It is indeed a dystopian existentialist vision that today’s average yuppie or aspirant would relate to and see reflections of his life in.
This movie makes you think about how you are squandering your life, and sums up its philosophy in this unforgettable dialogue:
Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.
And one more gem that reminds us of who we are not:
You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis. You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.