Carpe Diem

Peter Weir’s “Dead Poets Society” is a 1989 American movie that continues to speak to the 21st century audience. With Robin Williams playing the lead role, that of a young and enthusiastic teacher named John Keating, the movie captures the friendship that blooms within a group of students (Todd, Neil, Knox, Steven, Gerard & Charlie) at a leading prep school called Welton Academy. Simultaneously, it also portrays a beautiful relationship between the ever-supportive teacher and his pupils. The movie remains appealing to the viewers, even after nearly 3 decades, probably because of its exploration of certain aspects of human behaviour.

To start with, it is a fantastic portrayal and critique of conformity and tradition. The movie begins with a rather emotional first day at school, and the idea of upholding orthodoxy is instilled in the students while the viewers are introduced to the “four pillars” of the Academy – “Tradition, Discipline, Honor and Excellence”. The classes that follow successfully substantiates these “pillars” with the mode of teaching employed; the lectures are systematically and rhythmically conducted, with little or no scope for individuality. In opposition to this routine, Keatings’ classes are fluid and leaves a large space for individual opinion and creativity; but somehow the students take time to warm up to him and his idea of ‘Carpe Diem’ (Latin for ‘seize the day’). And that’s where Keating, an ex-student of the Academy, faces his challenge – to persuade his pupils to de-conform to conventionality. One of his pupils discovers that Keating was a member of the Dead Poets Society and reconvenes the group – an association of poetry lovers and a space for individuality of sorts.

On the other hand, the movie is not oblivious to the fact that the idea of not conforming to societal norms is challenging. This is made possible through the various problems that the students face in their individual lives. Knox wants to win over Chris, an attractive girl who was dating a football player; Todd battles with his shyness and fear of failing (after have been constantly compared with his successful older brother); and Neil (around whom a major chunk of the story revolves) is in a constant dilemma – while he wants to follow his passion in literature and acting, he is forced to obey his austere father who has laid high hopes on Neil and forbids him from engaging in such activities. Knox eventually impresses Chris with his charm and sincerity and gets to go out with her; and Todd has a cathartic moment when Neil helps him make his desk set (a thoughtless gift that Todd’s parents present him for every other birthday) “fly” into the night sky. And Neil finally chooses acting and dares to disobey his father. However, of all non-conformity in the story, it is this act of disobedience that causes a twist in the plot – Neil, unable to continue his existence, commits suicide. And that sparks off a series of events that end up with the dismissal of Keating.

This forms another important aspect of the movie – the idea of obedience and parenting. The moviemakers have in no way glorified disobedience or non-conformity, but have skilfully brought attention to the fact that parenting and obedience shouldn’t align with fear tactics and suffocation; through the character of Keating, the story discourages society from blind conformity to ideals and tradition. Most of us are scared of change, it is easier to conform to a group and move with the tide. However, when you train your mind to believe in the YOU, fear of change will be a thing of the past.

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