Sonder, Empathy, and The White Baloon

A feeling or expression that I look for in every film, or should I say, in every person I come across is ‘Sonder’. It’s a fascinating word that stands for a profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers we come across on streets, hav a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.

Do you get it? Back in the olden days, when we used to walk on crowded streets, watch films in packed auditoriums, and eat in restaurants, everyone in our physically vicinity had a life as vivid and deep as us. Like they were faceless bypassers in our lives, we are by passers in theirs. They experience the same emotions and human complexities as us. Let it be an old man struggling to find a spot to sit in a metro train, or annoying teenaged girl who cannot get rid of her phone amid a movie.

Also, I strongly feel the word sonder is interrelated to empathy, which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Where there is sonder, empathy will follow. If we realise that the other person’s life is as deep as ours, empathizing with them is assured.

I’m talking in length about these two emotions because Jafar Pahani’s debut feature The White Balloon primarily deals with them, or in a way, the lack of these two emotions in humans.

Minimalistic in nature, the film tells the story of 7-year old Razieh who has to fight numerous odds to buy a goldfish, as the clock ticks for Islamic new year. The seemingly simple task of going to the Tehrene market and purchasing the fish she desired, mounts into an impossible task, as she faces adversaries in different forms one after the other, all in a tenure of 1 hour 15 minutes.

Starting from procuring the money from her mother, to facing a snake charmer who tries to take her money, and the most severe of all, losing the note to a grate on the street, the young girl struggles to achieve what she set out for. Retrieving the note becomes an arduous task for both the girl and her elder brother, who joins her on the quest. However, seen from the perspective of these by-passers in the narrative, it is just two annoying kids hindering their plans.

A still from the film

Throughout their struggle, there is a clear view of empathy and the lack of it through different characters. An elderly lady who bolsters Razieh in finding the path, literally and figuratively.  And the titular white balloon asserted me to rethink the entire narrative, while leaving us with a jolt. It’s a glorious instance for Michael Scott to recite his iconic line, “Well, well, well. How the turntables…”

Jafar Panahi doesn’t try to represent the world in it’s all doom and gloom. We do come across people who empathize with the children and extend a helping hand. However, more the empathy, lesses the struggle.

The brilliance of the film lies in its ending, which suffused me with ‘sonder’. The balloon, who becomes the hero of the entire film, sits idly as the children rejoice at their accomplishment. That’s when it strikes, perhaps we talk about empathy only when we are in dire need of it.

The fact that the film has a seemingly happy ending is proof that despite the hardships we go through in our lives, when we exhibit empathy and stand for each other could make our lives much better. It’s an exhibition of human nature, a theme that would remain consistent through the auteur’s glorious filmography.

A slightly modified version of this piece can be found here as an AV

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