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Saluting Robin Williams

August 14, 2014 12:49 IST

Robin Williams in Dead Poets SocietyWherever you may be Oh Captain, My Captain, today I reach out, stand on my desk and salute you, says Aseem Chhabra.

It was around 7 pm on Monday evening that I checked my Twitter feed, as I sat at a Starbucks in Queens, New York.

I think I first read a tweet from The Hollywood Reporter, but others were confirming the news as well.

Robin Williams had been declared dead by the police in Marin County, California.

First there were just words -- breaking news, apparent suicide, depression.

Then some friends and others I follow began to write their personal thoughts -- how Williams had been a vital part of their childhood and depression is something we should recognise, so we can help those crying out for help.

Sitting alone in Starbucks, I found the Twitter feeds comforting, as I tried to grasp the reality and the news. Twitter has that quality. At anytime one can be connected to hundreds of people around the world, in times of joy and celebration, but also when we encounter a tragedy that impacts many of us in the same way.

My first instinct was to go search on YouTube for the closing scene of Dead Poets Society, when a young Ethan Hawke and his co-stars stand up on top of their classroom desks as a salute to Williams' John Keating, and honouring Walt Whitman's poem Oh Captain! My Captain. It is a deeply moving scene, as it caps a set of tragedies in the final act of the film.

And then in the crowded Starbucks, I felt tears in my eyes, not because of Peter Weir's brilliantly directed scene, laced with soaring orchestral music by Maurice Jarre. I was tearing up for Robin Williams, a man I had never met!

Celebrities and entertainers have a strange hold us. They fill our lives with so much joy and pleasure. We start to believe in them, the characters they play, especially when someone was as good hearted, noble, talented and hugely funny as Williams.

People around the world had their own personal connections with Williams. His sudden tragic death shook us, leaving us feeling quite alone.

We forget to look at the personal lives of the celebrities, unless there is gossip, which can be troubling as well. Williams went through years of battling with addiction. His own problems, including two failed marriages, must have impacted him deeply. But we were busy laughing with Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam, the adorable blue Genie in Aladdin and Mrs Doubtfire (one of my son's favourite films that played again and again in our living room in the late 1990s).

Williams was a mad comic genius, his mind exploding with so many random thoughts and voices that he would speak out on talk shows, leaving the likes of Johnny Carson speechless. Or as Norman Lloyd, his 99 year-old costar from Dead Poets Society said, the actor had the 'curse of too much talent.'

I was always a bigger fan of Williams' dramatic (sometimes quieter) roles in films as diverse as Insomnia, The Fisher King, Good Will Hunting and One Hour Photo.

Earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, I saw Williams in a new indie film -- Boulevard, where he plays a closeted gay man in a bland marriage with a woman, until one day by chance he meets a young male hustler. It is a moving film with remarkable understated performances by Williams and Kathy Baker, who plays his wife.

As a film, Dead Poets Society spoke to me more than anything else Williams worked on. Much of my personal struggles as a teenager were reflected in Weir's film based on Tom Schulman's Oscar-winning screenplay.

But as it often happens in successful films, we tend to forget the forces behind the screen. I associate Dead Poets Society and its message that we should all write our own original poems with the film's protagonist. It was Keating, in fact Williams, who spoke to me when he questioned: 'What will your verse be?'

I was an adult living in New York when I saw Dead Poets Society in 1989 at an East Side theatre on Third Avenue. But my life and career have evolved a lot since then. I think I have finally written my own verse.

Can a film and the voice of its actor really influence us, and change our lives? I like to believe so.

Williams' Keating was such an inspiring character that I am sure he has been residing in my subconscious for all this time. There is a reason why I went searching for the last scene of the film on YouTube.

So wherever you may be Oh Captain, My Captain, today I reach out, stand on my desk and salute you!

Aseem Chhabra