Monday, December 23, 2013

Entropy and Orderliness

An Indian short story goes like this - a learned sage was once walking besides a riverbank, when he spotted a scorpion in the river struggling to come out of a strong current. The sage waded into the water and lifted the scorpion with care, intending to carry it ashore. As soon as he lifted it, the scorpion stung him. Gasping with pain, the sage dropped the scorpion in the river as a reflex action. He then smiled, and undeterred, tried to lift the scorpion again. The scorpion stung him once more, and he had to let go of the scorpion once again. But the sage ignored the pain caused by the stings, and kept trying to help the scorpion out from its predicament. A passer-by, who had stopped to watch the action and couldn't contain his curiosity after a point, confronted the sage thus - "Learned seer, why do you keep trying to help the scorpion while it keeps hurting you?". The sage smiled serenely (as wise protagonists usually do before stating a punch line), and replied "The scorpion's dharma is to sting, and my dharma is to help the needy. Why should I deviate from my dharma, while the scorpion sticks to its dharma? One should perform his duties regardless of how others treat you for doing it." Saying so, he went back trying to help out the scorpion. Legend is not clear on whether the sage was eventually able to rescue the scorpion. Nevertheless I use this anecdote often in defending my own otherwise inexplicable actions - against questions like "why do you stop when the light is red but when everyone else is ignoring it", or "why don't you go to the stage to dance when everyone else does?".

Hold on! If you have been reading my blog posts for a reasonable amount of time (bless you!!), and still think that I am consistent about my opinions, let me set you right here.  I might at times pretend to be more intellectual, more virtuous, more consistent and more many-other-things than an average human being, but I am just as unreliable as your average Joe. I twist, bend and ignore facts and anecdotes, and replace them with other facts and anecdotes to suit the point I am trying to make. Having said that, and considering that the aforementioned story does not fit in with the core idea of this blog post (Note to self added during first revision : The rest of the post doesn't fit in too), let me request the readers to forget it momentarily, and listen to another story - that of Sisyphus.

Per Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a mythological king who was slowly turning quite deceitful. To punish his misdeeds and arrogance, Zeus - the God of Justice - sentenced him to serve an unique punishment. Sisyphus was given the task of rolling a boulder up a slanting hill. But as soon as he rolls it to the top, the boulder rolls back down the hill. This continues indefinitely, and legend has it that Sisyphus is still trying to get to boulder to the top of the hill. 


Which brings me to the point, why do we obsess so much with so many mundane tasks in the World? The foremost of the mundane tasks I have in my mind is insisting on and trying to achieve cleanliness and orderliness (I can think of so many other mundane tasks. One day, I might try compiling a list of all the such activities, "compiling lists" being the first one in the list). Despite the second law of Thermodynamics concluding that the entropy  (or disorderliness) of the whole Universe keeps on increasing, some of us are quite obsessed with orderliness. I accept that some amount of cleanliness and orderliness is necessary in life. But why aim for a Howard Hughes level of cleanliness, while the whole World conspires to make things disorderly and dirty? Cleaning things is often a Sisyphean task, and let us keep it at a bare minimum. You don't agree with me? Well, as always, I would (selectively of course) muster the support of an expert. Listen to what the American comedian and social critic George Carlin had to say on the subject of germs and personal hygiene.

One more thing we waste time on is combing our hair. A research conducted at University of Liberia in 2009 concludes that an average male spends nearly 4 full years of his life setting his hair right (talking about which, another research conducted at the same University in 2011 concludes that 81.4 % of statistics stated in impromptu debates and blog posts are made up on the fly, including this one). I personally like to follow a simple and effective philosophy of cutting my hair so short that it takes at least a month for the hair to grow lengthy enough that nature could make it recognizably unkempt, and promptly take another haircut. Which reminds me, it is time for another haircut.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Critique on Movie Criticism

In the past few days, my assumption that the Earth stops rotating on its axis if I do not log into Twitter for a reasonable amount of time was shredded apart like a, like a, well, like a controversial tweet by Narendra Modi . I logged into Twitter after quite a long time yesterday, to see if there is any netizen who missed my presence. Finding none, I diverted my mind by looking at the various twitter outrages that I had been unfortunate to miss. The one that caught my eye had to do with a Chennai-based Radio Jockey. If you know Tamil, you must have heard of RJ Balaji, or rather heard RJ Balaji. Known for his irreverent, humorous and often intelligent quips on everything under the Sun, he is one of the most famous RJs in the country (more so now). He is also known for his show titled "120 rubayum", where he discusses movies and the returns they give for his investment on the movie ticket.

This show - which is very popular with his fans (who love it), and most of the film fraternity (who hate it) - usually involves RJ Balaji dishing out movies with enviable sarcasm and wit. Not for the first time, his review of a movie drew so much ire from the film fraternity that they allegedly threatened and forced him to completely shut-down the show. Having already revived from the show after stopping his reviews for similar reasons once, the RJ decided to end the show permanently this time - once again. Summing up the situation in a few tweets RJ Balaji announced made this announcement. Here are his exact words
"Ok here it goes. I am a normal guy who wants to do good wrk everyday n go home happy. I can't really handle the aftermath of evry show on films. After lot of thought, have decided not to speak bout films until there's tolerance and maturity among certain ppl from film fraternity. Which is most unlikely to happen, so 120 show is no more. Sorry to all those who liked it. Can't be dishonest to d work I do. I will rather stop talking bout films than to speak sugar coated pleasing lies. (sic)"
As a cliched cricket commentator would say, the situation was tailor-made for free-speech champions to make an entry. While it is always amusing to see these self-declared activists go gaga over some free speech issue (often in response to some poor guy who implied something he wasn't trying to. So much for HIS free speech), what stood out was the response of film critics themselves.

Here is an article posted on a F.I.G.H.T C.L.U.B. I quote from the article :
"People are not always right in recognising good cinema which is why we need critics sometimes to point them in the right direction. We need someone to be the bad guy and say the truth out aloud that this film stinks, go watch the other one."
Eh? Really? Don't people have the right to decide what they want and what they like? As a normal movie watcher, am I expected to like something simply because a critic says it is "good". How do you define good and bad movies? I have always been under the assumption that cinema is a personal journey, and every single person has something different to take out from every movie ever made.

This is not the first time that the Indian movie critics' fraternity (if there is such a thing) has responded like this. My one-time favorite reviewer Sudish Kamath defended Kamal Hassan's Vishwaroopam thus. I quote from the article 
"When everyone is a critic, the art of criticism becomes even more significant. At the risk of sounding condescending/patronising, I must say here that the average Joe hasn’t been exposed to the basics of criticism or film studies. He reacts on an instinct, like a child getting his first injection saying: “I don’t like it. It was a bad experience.”
The average Joe probably hasn’t understood why willing suspension of disbelief” is such an integral aspect of storytelling, an artistic licence that allows the filmmaker to tell stories that are larger than life.
Which is why while he has every right to crap over everything he has paid to watch and troll anyone who does not agree with him, these shouldn’t be taken seriously for the same reason that critics shouldn’t be taken too seriously either. What you need to consider is the criticism – the arguments – why is it good or why is it bad."
I don't think so. A movie is an instant experience. There are exceptions of course, I watched the Pulp Fiction, read about it, and had to re-watch again until I started falling in love with the movie. On the other hand, movies I watched as a child and liked instinctively like Ratchagan, Badshah, Thanga Magan, Siva, Dosth were among the best movies ever made in my opinion at that time, and though I laugh at the mindlessness of these movies today, I can't stop loving them. Any "structure" defined by a movie critic is arbitrary. A film, like any book written by Salman Rushdie, can break all these structural inhibitions, and still connect profoundly with the audience.

Which brings me to the question, how relevant are professional movie critics today? I seriously believe Indian movie reviewers (even the non-professional ones) need to grow up (but for a few exceptions, like Baradwaj Rangan and Raja Sen). As a reviewer, simply dishing out movies just because they do not meet the artistic expectations of the critic is unacceptable. Some reviewers even go to the extent of judging fans of movies they don't like. What? You are a Salman Khan fan? You must be an idiot then. In their defense, a common argument thrown by critics is that since movies are made with a commercial intention, is should be open to criticism. 

Absolutely. But there is an inherent inconsistency in this argument. The success of a movie is decided by the lay audience alone, and once they decide, there is no point in passing judgments. It is foolish to think that we are above the common audience. And when so called artistic movies released commercially flop at the box office, these critics blame the audience for not being mature enough. In a commercial environment, good products are bound to fail at times. Instead of blaming the consumers, market it well and try again. As critics, please decide if a movie is a piece of art or entertainment. If it is a piece of entertainment, it better entertain. If it is art, it is only for the elite.

There is also a vague question of biased reviews. While critics claim that there is no way they can get rid of their biases, they can always try to reduce the effects of these biases. I can point to two specific instances by my most favorite (as of today) film critic, Rangan. In the first instance, reviewing Aadukalam (to declare my bias, it stars my favorite actor Dhanush), he mentions that letting two men go at each other like roosters is too literal, and is downright silly. In his review of Raavan, he misses the fact that Govinda (Karthick in the Tamil version) portraying the character of Hanuman is introduced as he skips between trees. In the second instance, I missed watching out the wonderful Vazhakku En 18/9 after reading one of Rangan's most caustic reviews. His main point of contention against the movie is that it has no characters with gray shades - everyone from a city is bad and everyone from a village is good. The same holds true for Raavan too, where every single police office is evil-at-heart, while every single naxalite is good-at-heart.

As movie audience, we need to be careful while interpreting the opinions of critics. While critics may help in getting a second opinion, the first opinion should always be ours. If we like a movie, we like it. There need not be any explanation or justification (the only useful purposes such justifications serve us non-critics are in helping us write blog posts and FB notes). Some movies are pieces of art, but the primary purpose of a movie is to entertain (be it at an visceral, visual, or intellectual level). Critics call a "badly made" entertaining movie a guilt pleasure. I wonder if there is any reason to be guilty about enjoying such a movie.

Just to make it clear, I do not support the suppression of RJ Balaji's opinions, despite their causticity. I used to be a fan myself, until he generously reviewed Theeya Vella Seiyanum Kunaru, a movie in which he played a minor role. It is the response of film critics themselves that I am concerned with. If I were a movie director, and didn't like a reviewer's opinion of my movie, I would simply write a critique on the criticism, instead of forcing the reviewer to quit.

PS : I tried conveying similar ideas in a previous blog post, and failed miserably in elucidating what I wanted to say. The responsibility rests with the readers of the blog (an endangered and soon-to-be extinct species) to understand it fully this time, and prevent another blog post from me with the same idea.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Little Women - Review

I had been to attend a family function few months back. Meeting a little cousin of mine after a long time, I was trying to get her to talk to me. She ignored me and joined a gang of little children. I tried engaging all of them together, but the little children just mocked me and kept playing their own games. The adult crowd around me scorned at my inability to engage little children. I decided to give one last try. Approaching them, I drew out my flute-like mobile phone and declared "who wants to play temple run?". With those magical words, I had transformed myself into Pied Piper. As the children surrounded me with glee, one little brat climbed over my shoulder, and hugged me with an affectionate "Anna!!". Needless to say, he got the first chance to play.

The children in Louisa May Alcott's brilliantly written Little Women (Volume 1) - a "children's classic" which laid untouched on my book-shelf for years until I picked it up on a severely insomniac night because I had few other choices -  are from the late 18th century, and I wonder how they would have grown out to be if they were to be born today. Margeret (Meg), Josephine (Jo), Elizabeth (Beth), and Amy of the March family are the Little Women in this coming-of-age story. The March family is rich with happiness, but not too well-off financially. It is Christmas eve, and the girls are fretting over the fact that being poor, they need to work hard instead of having a good time like all the other children around. 'Marmee' March overhears them, and reads out a letter from their Father (who is away serving at the army) which starts thus :
"Give them all of my dear love and a kiss. Tell them I think of them by day, pray for them by night, and find my best comfort in their affection at all times. A year seems very long to wait before I see them, but remind them that while we wait we may all work, so that these hard days need not be wasted.."
As soon as their mother finishes reading the letter, the girls realize that while their father is away serving for his country, they are being "selfish" in thinking of themselves, and vow to work as hard as they can. This is where I started getting a little uncomfortable about the book. It is just a personal belief, but I am not a big fan of sacrificing everything for the country. A collective morality is bound to become immoral at some point. And I didn't like the fact that these little children were made to feel guilty of wanting to play - after all that's what children are meant to do. I compelled myself to persevere a little more. It is Christmas day now, and Marmee March convinces the children to sacrifice a thing they had been dearly looking forward to. Their sacrifice does not go in vain though, as fate (or God) rewards them amply before the end of the very day. At this point, I was so disappointing with the book that I decided I would be better off trying my luck falling asleep.

I discovered the next day - coincidentally (or through fate, or through God) - that Alcott's working title for The Little Women was "The Pathetic Family". The March family is indeed pathetic, pathetically good that is. A perfect Father who doesn't shirk at an opportunity to serve for his country, a mother who is a walking library of wisdom, and children who are adorable, intelligent, generous, hardworking and happy. In today's society, a similar family's ability to stick to such goodness would be challenged immensely. Probably Alcott realized this. Why else would she call them "pathetic"? With this thought, I decided to give the book another try.

And I am glad that I went on to read the book. Alcott's writing is alluring. The narration is largely third person, but she surprises us by unexpectedly shifting to commentary at times (For example, "As young readers like to know 'How people look', we will take this moment to give them a little sketch of the four sisters"). And there is a very subtle sense of humor permeating throughout. Each of the March sisters' character is well-delineated, and so are the supporting characters. Even the neighbor and close family-friend Laurence is almost the perfect boy that girls dream of (but he is not the macho type). The blurb of the book challenges us to pick one of the March girls to like the most, but it is pretty easy to make the choice. The tomboyish Joe (who is said to be an extension of the author herself) is the most likable of the lot, closely followed by Beth. Joe is completely unromantic, and her spontaneous burst on discovering the prospective romance of her sister is brilliant.
"..and she'll go and fall in love, and there's an end of peace and fun, and cozy times together. I see it all!! They'll go lovering around the house, and we shall have to dodge.."
Admittedly, the author is a little severe while describing Amy (the youngest of the lot, and therefore the most "selfish"). 

The short book is sprinkled generously with some delightful moments. My personal favorite was the episode of "Pickwick Club", a  homage to Charles Dickens, where the girls publish a magnificent (and extremely witty) in-house (literally) newsletter. I really regretted that I had't done anything as exciting as a child. But the book is a little too preachy. Most chapters begin with the girls being a little lax about their work, and end with the girls learning a very useful lesson. Almost every single character is good-hearted, and the pinnacles of evil in the book are petty-jealousy, laziness, selfishness, anger and ambition. The book is a huge ball of goodness being thrust in your face like a cute smiling puppy, and challenges you to hate it.

Also, Little Women sound like religious propaganda at times. A conspiracy theorist can point at Little Women as literature aimed at curtailing the ambitions of the poor. But I will give the benefit-of-doubt to Alcott. There are also instances which would repel modern feminists ("Meg, my dear, I value the womanly skill which keeps home happy more than white hands of fashionable accomplishments") Despite its preachiness, Little Women works simply because Alcott's hold on writing. She makes us root for the characters though their little travails, and makes us feel their happiness when they come out unscathed (after learning a moral lesson or two).

I would have loved this book without any reservations if I had read it as a child. Little Women would have been a book that inspired me to an extent that Uncle Tom's Cabin (an easy English version) did. But at this age, I realize that the whole morality of Little Women, though romantic, is not very true. Life is more like a movie directed by Coen Brothers, filled with absolutely random justice (the hero gets shot in an unrelated gun battle between two completely insignificant gangs, the villain gets hit by an out-of-place and unexpected car). I loved this book enough though, and I would recommend this book as a must read, for it is fun, enjoyable, and has its heart in its right place. As Loius Mary Alcott says in a low-key line somewhere towards the end,
"Now and then, in this workday world, things do happen in the delightful storybook fashion, and what a comfort it is."

Useless AsideLouisa May Alcott wrote a follow-up to this book titled Good Wives. For some strange reason, both the books published together as, again, Little Women. I discovered this in an unfortunate way when I tried to read some reviews of the first book, and ended up starring at some idiotic reviews giving away major spoilers from the second book. I hope that I haven't given away any such spoilers.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Girl arrested for checking in from 29 countries while sitting at home

Inspired by a lot of Indian bloggers, I have been wanting to write satirical news items for a long time. I finally got myself to do it, thanks to the "Citizen Journalism" section of the fantastic website Faking News. Here is a link to my article at their site. For the sake of posterity and my own reference, I am pasting the entire text of the article below :

Girl arrested for checking in from 29 countries while sitting at home

The Tamil Nadu police has arrested 24-year old Soumya this morning following startling revelations that  she checked in from 29 countries in the last two years, all the while sitting at her home in Chennai. On contacting one of our sources in the Police force (who wishes to be unnamed), it was revealed that she is now held in an undisclosed high-security no-internet zone. 

When asked how the girl fell under Police scrutiny, our source replied, “We were going through random Facebook profiles to arrest people who abuse the Government on the internet, while we came across this girl’s profile. We were stunned to know that she managed to visit  29 diverse countries in just two years. I mean, even our former President managed to visit only 22 countries, and the Honourable President took 5 years for that. We were sure that something was amiss”, continued our source, “And we started tracking the IP addresses of all her check-ins, only to realize that all check-ins were made from the same IP address.”

“Initially we suspected a cyber-savvy criminal using sophisticated techniques to mask her original whereabouts, and we hired hacker Bharghava Rallapilli to help us crack the case”, revealed our source when probed further. “After 6 months of sustained effort, we uncovered the fact that all the 29 check-ins came from the same machine located at Chennai. We immediately proceeded to arrest her, but she has been very uncooperative, and has refused to answer to any of our questions.”

Debashish Roy who studied with her in a popular engineering college in Tamil Nadu expressed his shock over the incident. “No man, I didn't know her personally. But I was always the first person to like her activity when she checked in from various places and uploaded picture albums. I had even envied her life. I mean, look at me! I got placed in an IT company and I have been sitting at the same place all these years. But she was supposedly visiting all these funnily named places! What? Did I ever think of asking her what she was doing at all these places? Dude, I didn't even care! I thought she was doing some MS or something.”

Using tremendous journalistic presence of mind, our correspondent managed to get an exclusive interview with Soumya by offering her his internet-enabled mobile phone in exchange for her answering a few questions. “Once I completed engineering, I didn't get placed anywhere. I didn't even have money to do a MS”, declared the visibly emotional young girl. “So, I decided to join a Visual C#, .Net course at a local computer centre. But the only thing I learnt throughout the 6 month training was Adobe Photoshop. Being an optimistic person, I decided to use the skills I had learnt, and started uploading morphed photos of me in front of the Taj Mahal. Encouraged by the fact that I got more than 100 likes for each photo, I started uploading photos morphed photos of me from all around the World. I also started checking-in from various cafes just to maintain consistency”, she trailed on.

“In my virtual World, I have already been chased by bulls in Spain, sky dived over Lake Wanaka in New Zealand, skied on the Andes Mountains, climbed over The Great Wall of China and trekked through the Amazon Rain Forest”, sighed Soumya. “I was about to complete my whole bucket-list, when I was caught”. Saying thus, she refused to answer further questions, grabbed the reporter’s mobile, and started checking-in from Lola’s, Cape Town. At the time this article was being written, the check-in activity had already garnered 77 likes.

Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi sent out an a strongly worded email statement condemning the “sorry state of affairs in the country”, and referring to the Government in third-person. When we pointed out to him that he was a part of the ruling party, we didn't receive any replies. In Bombay acclaimed director Madhur Bhandarkar announced in a press conference that he was so “deeply moved” by the story of the girl, that he would make it as the theme of his next movie. The as-of-now-untitled movie would focus on the struggles of engineering students, how they lose their identity, and how they lose their virtues when faced with utter-despair.

To a question by a reporter from The Times of India on whether the move would have any love scenes, he quickly retorted with “Arey! Didn't I already tell you? The movie is about engineering graduates.”

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Weekly Digest - Must read online articles

Having spent the last few hours reading various articles on diverse subjects I had bookmarked throughout the week, I am overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge present in the internet. Here is a pick of the most interesting articles I came across last week. There are few more I haven't found the strength to read yet, and I am holding them back for now. Hopefully they wouldn't be piling up to insurmountable levels by the time I sit down to compile next week's digest. Hopefully, I would sit down to compile the digest next week.

1) Women in India : My first link from last week's post had two contrasting articles on the experiences of women from foreign countries visiting India. Another article which surfaced this week sounds credible and reasonable, and it has only good things to say about men in India. Read it and feel a little happy. Here is another interesting response. This article reasons that it is the duty of women in India to just accept the state of affairs, and be extra-careful. Meanwhile, a television actress from Mumbai had her bag snatched. How did she react? By chasing the miscreants and attacking them with the help of another female friend. They were able to hold off the thieves until a few Policemen came to their rescue. Encouraged? Well, all this happened with a bunch of people watching the spectacle without making any effort to help.

2) Seriously, this was not planned. Having linked a wonderful article on Roger Federer last week, I accidentally came across a super profile on Novok Djokovic. I am not an very serious Tennis fan, and I know of Djokovic only as a Djoker and as a player who has started playing some great Tennis recently. But this super article sheds light on a lot of things that I personally didn't know. Things that increase my respect for Djokovic.

3) Here is something from Cinema, an article on one of my most favorite Hollywood directors (along with Hitchcock, Tarantino and the Coen Brothers), Woody Allen. Woody Allen is also in my opinion, a great modern philosopher. Approaching the age of 80, he is still making movies non-stop. When questioned on why he is so relentless, here is his reply:

"You know in a mental institution they sometimes give a person some clay or some basket weaving? It's the therapy of moviemaking that has been good in my life. If you don't work, it's unhealthy—for me, particularly unhealthy. I could sit here suffering from morbid introspection, ruing my mortality, being anxious. But it's very therapeutic to get up and think, Can I get this actor; does my third act work? All these solvable problems that are delightful puzzles, as opposed to the great puzzles of life that are unsolvable, or that have very bad solutions. So I get pleasure from doing this. It's my version of basket weaving."
4) Here is the pick of the week. The story of a very brave lady, Laura Poitras, who has been instrumental in getting Snowden's revelations public. Reading about the treatment this documentary filmmaker has been subjected to tells us a little more about America's Orwellian attitude. While on the topic of piracy, here is a very very interesting take by Scott Adams (creator of the very famous Dilbert strips). He says privacy is not as good a thing as people claim it to be. Have a look at his take on Gun Control too.

5) Here is a filler. Mark Zukerberg talks about how he is going to make the World a better place by, hold your breath, making the entire planet go online. What do you think about his stated intentions?

6) The headline grabbing personality this week has been Asaram Bapu, the now-infamous-spiritual-Guru. This article does a sort-of-insider scoop on the allegations against the self-proclaimed-Godman.

7) Cricket now. Trust Michael Holding to speak his mind. In his characteristic straight-forward style, Holding laments on the partiality ICC shows towards bad English pitches.

8) Again, this is not by design. We had Forsyth last week, and we have Jeffrey Archer this week, claiming that his experience of being in a prison made him better, both as a writer and a person. Budding writers, you know what to do next, don't you?

9) For a change, there are some positive signs for India on the economic front. At least potentially. Don't believe me? Professor Jayanth Varma explains very quickly why he believe so. He makes some sense too.

10) Manmohan Singh is the best Prime Minister India has ever had. No, that is not a joke. Amitava Gupta says so, and defends his opinion here. An article that makes me reconsider my own opinions. It is always good to have contrasting claims.

11) Apparently Mary Shelley, famously known for her novel Frankenstein was born sometime last week (years back, of course). While most of us know Frankenstein as a discourse on the ill-effects of Man playing God, here is an argument that we have completely misread the theme. "The novel is not about bad science, but bad parenting."

12) And to wrap it up, why does the USA keep entering into needless wars? And why are these wars needless? An attack on America's foreign policy.

Happy reading!! Let me know if you find the links useful. 

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Stephen Hawking's Black Holes And Baby Universes and other essays - Review

A few days back, I got into an online debate with a random girl in a Facebook community. She had mentioned that this is the age of Science, and while Science is taking human life forward at an unimaginable pace, speculative Philosophers are just a hindrance to human progress. I replied with the speculation that a lot of what Science says could turn out to be wrong.  This started a fierce discussion that went on for quite long, and I was barely able to defend the powerful arguments she kept throwing at me, until the community admin removed the post for "digression". The takeaway from that experience was this : if she is right, Science is very close to finding an answer to The Life, The Universe and Everything in It, and that it would not be 42.

Stephen Hawking's "Black Holes and Baby Universes and other essays" published by Bantam Books is a collection of essays and speeches by Stephen Hawking during different times in his career, and like a cherry on top, it includes his 1992 interview with BBC Radio. Like the girl I got into an argument with, Stephen Hawking believes that we are very close to solving the puzzle of the Universe. He sets the tone in the introduction itself, with the words

"The scientific articles in this volume were written in the belief that the universe is governed by an order that we can perceive partially  now and that we may understand fully in the not-too-distant future. It may be that this hope is just a mirage; there may be no ultimate theory, and even if there is, we may not be able to find it. But it is surely better to strive for a complete understanding than to despair of the human mind."

In the first two essays, "Childhood" and "Oxford and Cambridge", Hawking tells us briefly about the first few years of his life, and he makes it out as unremarkable. One feature of Hawking's writing throughout the book is that he maintains a largely impersonal tone, with an occasional sense of humour. This aloof attitude of his writing is further highlighted in his third essay (which is actually a speech transcript) - "My Experience with ALS". This speech transcript describing Stephen Hawking's unfortunate medical condition and its effect on him should arguably be the most attractive piece in the collection, given our morbid curiosity over other people's lives. But Hawking uses an unemotional tone, and describes the events alone. He concludes this speech making an effort to give all his listeners hope with the words

"I have had motor neurone disease for practically all my adult life. Yet it has not prevented me from having a very attractive family and being successful in my work. This is thanks to the help I have received from my wife, my children and a large number of other people and organizations. I have been lucky that my condition has progressed more slowly that is often the case. It shows that one need not lose hope."

In the next two essays "Public Attitudes Towards Science" and "A Brief History of A Brief  History", Hawking explains his belief that the public should be aware of the latest advancements in Science, and his own effort in making this possible by writing his most famous book - "A Brief History of Time".  Hawking does not ignore the fact that though the book may be a best-seller, a lot of people use it to just adorn their bookshelves as a status symbol (The book lies untouched in my own bookshelf for about 7 years now. Note to self : Soon).

Starting with the  speech transcript "My Position", where he temporarily lets go his composure and indulges in a self-confessed harsh attack on Philosophers ("They are not in touch with the present frontier of Physics"), the next few essays get into real Physics. Though I couldn't understand the Physics part completely, I could get the broad ideas pretty well. This is largely due the fact that owing to their independent by-themselves nature of the essays, Hawking gives a general idea of the same concepts multiple times throughout the collection.

The final interview - "Desert Island Discs : An Interview" - is a delightful read. As a part of this very interesting show hosted at BBC Radio, the interviewer (Sue Lawley) manages to bring out different aspects to the very incidents that we encountered though Hawking's own words. For example, in answer to a question, Hawking explains the feeling of hopelessness on discovery of his medical condition better than he does in his own speech. A more musically inclined person than me would even take the chance to approve (or disapprove) of Hawking's taste in music. However my personal favorite in the whole collection is the essay titled "Is Everything Determined?", where armed with no emperical data to support him Hawking  himself indulges in what he accuses the Philosophers of being guilty of - speculation. Touching over concepts of a pre-determined destiny, and the moral culpability of human actions in a pre-destined Universe, Hawking lets himself go (with an ironic sense of humour).

On the whole, "Black Holes and Baby Universes and other essays" is a very good read (at least for a scientifically non-inclined person like me). Hawking's writing is good and to the point, and his sense of mild humour ensures that all is not dull. Regardless of your agreement or disagreement (as in my case) with the statement from the book's Introduction I have quoted above, I would suggest that you go for this one.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Weekly Digest - Must read online articles

For the past few months, I have been coming across some wonderful articles on varied subjects. Most of my content discovery has been through twitter. Given that I follow nearly 300 people on twitter, I come across articles of many different kinds. Since my the list of my browser bookmarks, and favorited tweets are continuously growing, I have decided to make a weekly digest of all the interesting links I come across the week, along with a short description of the article in each link. I do hope that it would be useful to you at some point of time, but I don't mind if it is not. Having said that, here is a list of articles that kept me engaged this week :

1) Here is the first one. A first person account of the sexual harassment faced by an American woman who studied abroad in India. There is nothing uplifting about this article. It is a depressing read on the state of affairs prevalent in our country. A little time spent in the comments section of the article makes one even more depressed. When I shared this link in FB, I was directed to this response to the article, which didn't convince me. But I would leave that to your own judgement.

2) Another related link, a super sad story (fiction or everyday-reality?) of an Indian born mother who experiences growing up as a woman in India, and is reluctant to come back to the country.

3) Meanwhile, my most favorite cricketer ever is back at what he has been recently best at. No, I don't mean batting in a test match to save a series. Here is Rahul Dravid speaking at For Cricket summit, reiterating the values of test cricket. He gives some interesting ideas on merging domestic structure of different countries, and scheduling matches based on prevailing conditions to preserve test cricket. At a convocation function in BITS, he attempts to inspire youngsters with his own story. He mentions a particularly interesting plant - the Chinese Bamboo, which does not grow at all for 5 years, and then grows up to 90 feet in the next 6 months.

4) Here is a mash-up trailer of the upcoming Tamil dark comedy Sutta Kadhai, where the voice over of the Tamil movie's trailer has been synced wonderfully with visuals from Django Unchained. Personally, this movie scores high on my expectation meter, and I hope it doesn't disappoint.

5) And here is the link to a quora question "What are the most profound quotes from the Calvin and Hobbes series?". Need I say anything more? 

6) Sportskeeda has collected a list of the best Indian test cricket team ever from various cricket commentators and observers and compiled it to form the Best Indian Test xi. What stands out is that 3 players : Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid are present in every single list.

7) Apart from reading these various links, I also found time to engage in some twitter banter with @opindia_revenge, the Indian wing of the hacker and activist group Anonymous. The discussion is on the merits of an anarchist state over a statist state. I decided to try using Storify for the first time in my life, and save the conversation for posterity.

8) While India was reeling over another gangrape incident, it was announced that Ben Affleck will be donning the role of Batman in the Man of Steel sequel. Indians joined the rest of the World in outraging over the merits (or the lack of it) of choosing him for the role. Having seen only two movies starring Ben Affleck (Goodwill Hunting and Argo), and I have nothing intelligent to offer to this debate. But here is a link showing how the Internet World reacted when Heath Ledger was chosen as The Joker. 

8) Here is the pick of the week. A wonderfully written unauthorized biography on Yahoo's current CEO Marissa Mayer, and how she might just change the company's fortune. Even though it is quite long, the article is informative and inspiring on so many levels. I wonder how the real people who have been mentioned in the story would feel when they read the article. If they do not feel that their personal space is violated, all journalism should be like this.

10) Frederik Forsyth is one of my more-liked authors, and I was delightfully surprised to find his latest interview with The Hindu. For some reason, I felt very good reading the interview.

11) Roger Federer fans are having a tough time supporting their hero. Here is a longish article that considers the possibility of a comeback by the legend. The article maintains a balanced tone throughout.

12) And here is an story that touches upon the very reasons I dislike Science. The account of a social psychologist who fabricated data to become famous. It is also the story of a set-up that encourages such con men. And the story of a few brave souls who exposed him.

A quick glance at the list, and I realise that it covers Current Affairs, Cricket, Kollywood, Hollywood, Tennis, Politics, Comics, Technology and Science. No wonder I believe that the Internet is awesome.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Depression Flowchart

This year has already been one of my most productive year as a Bibliophile, both in terms of quantity and quality. I have already read 17 books this year, and I am on the brink of completing the 18th. My aggregate for the whole of last year was 18 (The statistics are readily available, thanks to goodreads). I have also made a conscious effort towards reading a certain kind of books - books that I have been avoiding for a long time. Having read one book each by Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Franz Kafka this year, I can even try pretending to be an expert on existentialist philosophy. My sudden voraciousness in consuming books hungrily delights me, but it also makes me wonder about the reason behind it.

One of the major reasons for my rekindled love for books is my new Kindle EInk. Buying a kindle is one decision I won't regret anytime soon, if at all. Having started my kindle journey with a sufficiently memorable book (The Fall by Albert Camus), I can't wait to get my hands on numerous other classics. But, there has been another equally important reason for this book-reading streak - depression.

I seek books as a cure for depression, and ironically the kind of books that accentuate it. In a rare occasion where I get to show my work skills outside of it, I have charted out a flowchart that depicts a normal working day in my life. 

The flowchart is quite easy to follow. In case you didn't know, the diamonds depict a decision point. The ratios in parenthesis indicate the probability of that event to occur. As I intended it to be fairly obvious when I started with the diagram (I am not sure how it has ended up), the normal pattern in my day is : Go to office, feel low over something, come back home, write a blog post (or get depressed over my inability to write one), try to promote the post, get depressed on the reaction, read a depressing book, fall asleep in a colossal ball of depression, wake up forgetting everything, repeat. Do I intend to do anything about this? No, not at all. I am getting used to this depressed state of mind. In fact, if I ever experience an exhilratingly happy moment, I might dearly miss my depression, and get depressed all over again.

Ah, looks like I have another blog post in hand! Now, if you don't mind, I will have to leave you at this point. And promote this blog post. And..

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

India Today

I don't usually blog on current events. The reason is simple - I need atleast a whole week to complete a single post, and by the time I complete it, the event is not current any more. Looking through all of my blogposts (admittedly not as many as I would like), there are just a couple of posts that were prompted by news items. Make it one more now.

The two headlines that scream at me when I take a quick glance at any national newspaper's website are : "5 Indians soldiers killed in attack by Pakistan soldiers." and "UP cops arrest dalit writer for Facebook post criticizing UP Government on Durga issue". It makes me wonder about a couple of things. 

1) Security or liberty?
Large Governments make us believe today that there must be some compromise on individual freedom so that the country's citizens can be safe. Since the 9/11 attacks in the United States, they have managed to prevent any other major terrorist incident. But as recent revelations show, they have also been monitoring potentially every activity made by their citizens online. The Government probably thinks it is a necessary compromise. What do you feel? Do you value security or liberty? Or are you Libertarian, and want minimum interference from Governments whatsoever? (As a side note, Libertarians believe that every Man has enough rational abilities to govern himself. These days, a lot of netizens proclaim themselves as libertarian, but a lot of them also accuse the masses for its tastes, such as in, and especially in, movies. This is a topic for a different day though)

2) Security at the cost of liberty? Liberty at the cost of security? As today's national headlines demonstrate, we seem to have neither in our country.

PS : Whoa, that is my shortest post ever!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Art, Movies and Philistines

I envy people who can express their thoughts clearly and crisply. A couple of years ago, I wanted to write a post on how people do quite a few things they imagine to be cool just to be accepted by their peer groups. I started writing a longish post, as is usually the case with me, filled with almost unending sentences, and punctuated with commas at the most inappropriate places, like this one. Before I could complete the post, I came across a random tweet that surmised everything I was attempting to say far more effectively than I could ever do. The tweet went like this..
"I Don't Smoke . I Don't Do Drugs . I Don't Sleep Around...Because I'm Not Gonna Lose My Self Respect Just To 'fit in'."
Isn't it amazing how people can stuff in so much wisdom within 140 characters? Thus having abandoned the idea of ineffectually repeating myself, I started to concentrate on more important things - such as movies. I pondered deeply and tried to define my taste in movies, which was admittedly puzzling. On one hand, I could see just a couple of scenes directed by Jafer Panehi and remark here is a work of a genius, and on the other hand, I wouldn't think much of critically acclaimed movies such as Mouna Ragam, Nayagan or Avatar. On one hand, I would despise movies like 7am Arivu or Avengers for their complete lack of coherence and on the other hand I would be watching the Nagarjuna starrer Ratchagan or the Rajnikant starrer Baba for the 100th time, thoroughly enjoying them. I finally arrived at some sort of opinion sometime last week and started writing a convoluted blogpost about it, when I came across this Woody Allen interview. I strongly suggest that you read the full interview (and like me, get infected with his nihilism), but in case you do not have the time to go through it fully, I will quote Woody Allen's thoughts on art, which mirrors the opinion I myself have arrived at :
I hate when art becomes a religion. I feel the opposite. When you start putting a higher value on works of art than people, you’re forfeiting your humanity. There’s a tendency to feel the artist has special privileges, and that anything’s okay if it’s in the service of art. I tried to get into that in Interiors. I always feel the artist is much too revered--—it’s not fair and it’s cruel. It’s a nice but fortuitous gift—like a nice voice or being left-handed. That you can create is a kind of nice accident. It happens to have high value in society, but it’s not as noble an attribute as courage. I find funny and silly the pompous kind of self-important talk about the artist who takes risks. Artistic risks are like show-business risks—laughable. Like casting against type, wow, what danger! Risks are where your life is on the line. The people who took risks against the Nazis or some of the Russian poets who stood up against the state—those people are courageous and brave, and that’s really an achievement. To be an artist is also an achievement, but you have to keep it in perspective. I’m not trying to undersell art. I think it’s valuable, but I think it’s overly revered. It is a valuable thing, but no more valuable than being a good schoolteacher, or being a good doctor. The problem is that being creative has glamour. People in the business end of film always say, I want to be a producer, but a creative producer. Or a woman I went to school with who said, Oh yes, I married this guy. He’s a plumber but he’s very creative. It’s very important for people to have that credential. Like if he wasn’t creative, he was less.
Alan Light / Foter / CC BY

In a short screenwriting workshop I attended at Chennai, acclaimed film academician K.Hariharan made an interesting point on whether film-making is an art. I parapharase him, "art is something which you do using minimum tools. A painter uses a brush and paper to create art, a dancer uses his/her own body to create art, a singer uses his/her own voice to hold the attention of the audience. A filmaker, on the other hand, uses sophisticated tools manufactured by others, such as a Camera. Further, a film is usually a collaboration of multiple individuals. A film is a mixture of art, science and industrial process".

Of course I would be making a mistake if I categorically state that no movie is artistic. There is a separate auteur based genre of movies that are commandeered by a single person, and serve a sole purpose of being "artistic". I once tried watching the much renowned director Fellini's 81/2, and couldn't make head or tail out of it. A little research made me realise that it is indeed a film with layered themes, and the movie is a source of inspiration for so many modern directors. Such avant-garde movies do exist, and they are extremely important.

But, All movies are not art and all filmmakers/actors are not artists. In the recent past, I have often seen people talk about how someone "takes a whole movie industry forward", or how a movie is "ahead of time", or how the standard of our movies "should evolve with time". Evolution is not getting better with time. When a popular Tamil director announced that his movie will be simultaneously released direct-to-home and in theaters, his fans immediately hailed him as a  lone warrior fighting to take the industry "forward". The very idea that his move was financially motivated was drowned in the ocean of praises showered on the director. As a side note, his movie has had a successful run in theaters, and is yet to release direct-to-home. Filmmakers are also praised if they are "loyal" to the industry and put the money they earn out of making movies back into the industry. Seriously, loyalty? I am afraid there are too many things to be loyal too these days. Country, state, city, area, the school/college you studied in, the subject you studied, the language you speak, the company you work for, so on and on. The only thing that deserves loyalty is other people.

What kind of movies I really like then? I simply like movies that engage me, be it on a basal level, visual level, emotional level or intellectual level. I liked the movie Rashomon because it was gripping. I like Alfred Hitchcock's movies because they keep me rooted to my seat. I like Baba because Rajnikant is one of my most favorite actors. I like Attakathi because it is colorful. There is no thematic similarity in all these movies. They just appeal to me at some level. Let us not get others' opinions, be they of the masses or of the critics, to decide if we like a movie. We like it if we like it, we hate it if it repels us in some way. Let us not be ashamed of the movies we like. Let us not try to like movies that do not appeal to us, just because they are highly-rated. There are movie critics to do that.

Monday, June 24, 2013

And The Mountains Echoed - Review

And The Mountains Echoed is widely read Khaled Hosseni's third novel,following The kite Runner and Thousand Splendid Suns. Somewhere in the middle of the book, the story telling abilities of a minor character is described as follows : 
"..This was often the pattern of their conversations, Gholam choosing what they would talk about, launching into a story with gusto, roping Adel in, only to lose interest and leave both the story and Adel dangling"
I believe Khaled Hosseini must have completed writing this book, brutally self-appraised his own work, and then fit in this line that succinctly describes his writing style as far as And The Mountains Echoed is concerned. And The Mountains Echoed is written in a completely non-linear fashion, starting at Afghanistan in the 1940s, going back and forth in time and ending somewhere after 2010 (where a couple of important characters sit together and watch The Slumdog Millionaire), while traversing between Afghanistan, France, Greece and the USA. 
The novel begins with a father narrating a story to his children Abdullah and Pari:
"So, then. You want a story and I will tell you one. But just this one. Don't either of you ask me for more....One story, then. Listen, both of you, listen well. And don't interrupt"
And as Saboor starts narrating a magical story involving "jinn s" (genies) and "div s" (demons), we immediately sense that this story-inside-story is just a metaphor, and the metaphor is explained almost immediately. The book moves at a breakneck speed, until the narrative shifts to explain the back-story of a minor character. We are mildly irritated at this diversion, but invest ourselves with a completely new character, only to find that the narrative shifts again, to a different place and time.

The narrative also takes different forms. While it is mostly third person, it shifts to first person at times, and epistolary at others. Having read a lot of other reviews, I realize that many people find this narrative distracting. Another thing a lot of people find discerning is that the book focuses too much on minor characters, and does not tell us enough about the lead characters. But this is exactly what makes me love this book, more than The Kiterunner and Thousand Splendid Suns (am I the only one to say so?). Almost every character has a back-story, which explains clearly the motive for their actions. 

And this shifting narrative, isn't that what life is all about? We meet a lot of people, we love few and we hate few, and then we are forced to separate from them all and meet a completely new set of people. Our knowledge of others' lives is not complete, it is filled only with bits and pieces. Khaled Hosseni's writing is magical, and by the end of novel, any lingering doubt in his mastery of storytelling is swept away. I could relate to the emotions and actions of most characters - Abdullah, Pari, Nabi, Suleiman, Marcos, Thalia, Pari (no typo here), and my favorite Odie. No character is morally right or wrong - like the epigraph says, 
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”"
On the flip side, I felt that a few characters like Gholam, Adel, Timur and Idris had enormous potential to be developed, but were left incomplete. There is a general opinion that this book is about sibling love. It is. But it is also about a galaxy of other human emotions. It is about a man who realises the true worth of his mom when he is 55 years old, it is about a woman who abandons her child to pursue her ambitions, it is about a girl jealous of her more beautiful sibling, it is about a man who almost dies at a place far away from home, lives on, and gives back to the society in his own way, it is about a man too lazy too do what he knows is right, and it is much more.

I recommend this novel to everyone - this is a book you cannot hate (if your idea of good book is one that focuses on the story alone,and dispels all distractions, you might be mildly disappointed with this book. But still, you won't hate it, and you won't have wasted your time). And don't mind the narrative - like Nabi says 
"A story is like a moving train: no matter where you hop onboard, you are all bound to reach your destination sooner or later"

(My Goodreads reveiw of this book is available here

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Two MPs and an Aam Aadmi - A Political tale

The IPL is finally over. Just before the final match between CSK and MI began yesterday, twitter (atleast, my timeline) went berserk. Here is a glimpse of what the CSK fans were saying about Gurunath Meiyappan's (CSK Team Principal enthusiast) arrest. Two recurring themes in many tweets were about the anti-south hatred of the north Indians, and how the Lalit Modis and the Sharad Pawars are not to fit to accuse N.Srinivasan, simply because they themselves are alleged to be corrupt. I chose to ignore the first one. Thinking about the second theme made me - as it often does when the mind is idle - wonder about certain things. Should we worry only about the accusations made by the incorruptible? Should we be more concerned about who is saying it that what is being said? As my mind wandered on, I inexplicably ended up thinking about the state of politics in India. I was reminded of a famous and much-retold Indian folk story. Here is my highly altered version of the story, which I believe sums up the situation elegantly.

A middle class aam aadmi is walking through a jungle, using Google maps in his smartphone to find his way out, when he hears some commotion. He looks around, and finds a ruling party monkey and an opposition party monkey quarreling with each other vehemently. He immediately intervenes, and asks what the whole argument was about. The opposition party monkey says "He must resign! He has just been linked to a 300 crore scam, and  the country demands that he must resign".  The ruling party monkey lets out a laugh and replies "Lol! Look who is talking. Their party was voted out of the last elections because he was involved in a 1,000 crore scam!". 

The Aam Aadmi looks perplexed, thinks deeply for a moment, turns towards both the monkeys and says "Gentlemen, we have a serious problem here. When both of you are unequally corrupt, how can I be expected to judge your merits and demerits objectively?". The ruling party monkey says, "Sir, I have an idea. Let me rule for sometime, and once I somehow find a way to gain 700 crores more, we will both be equal. You can judge both of us properly, and let the best monkey rule." The Aam Aadmi excitedly drowns out the objections of the opposition party monkey, exclaims "Great, please go ahead. Please ping me when you have amassed Rs 700 crores more", and turns around. Not being someone prone to waste time, the Aam Aadmi busies himself in important matters such as checking out his tweets, uploading photos in Facebook, and forming detailed reviews of a recently released movie (which in his opinion was 'a complete waste of 120 bucks' ). After a few minutes, a temporary reduction in data speed makes him turn around, reminding him where he is. He looks at the ruling party monkey and asks if he is done. "Almost sir! I have amassed 950 crores", replies the ruling party monkey. "What!", exclaims the Aam Aadmi, "I specifically told you to stop at 700 crores. You corrupt idiot! What shall I do now?"

"Esteemed sir", interjects the opposition party monkey, "I have a suggestion - why don't you let me rule until I amass an amount of 250 crores, and then you can judge us equally?". "Wonderful idea!", exclaims the Aam Aadmi, "please go ahead. But don't forget to stop at 250 crores and inform me".  Not being someone prone to waste time,the Aam Aadmi busies himself in important matters such as trolling the IPL teams of all other states, collecting information on the link-up between the blockbuster hero and the newbie heroine, and writing never-to-be-read blogposts (such as this one). A temporary reduction in data speed makes him turn around, making him remember where he is. He looks at the now-ruling-party monkey and shouts "Stop! How much have you amassed?". "Not much sir, I have just reached 500 crores", replies the now-ruling-party monkey. "What!", exclaims the Aam Aadmi, "I specifically told you to stop at 250 crores. You corrupt idiot! What shall I do now?"  

"Esteemed sir", interjects the now-opposition party monkey.. (Loops until the treasury fund <= 0)

(Note : In case my attempt at metaphor is so poor that you are still trying to remember the original story, here is it :

Saturday, March 2, 2013

On Kindness

"Kindness is a distemper which is soon cured by experience"
 - Abraham Miller 

The weather that morning wasn't pleasant. It wasn't uncomfortable either, just unremarkable. As I wheeled out my bike out of my driveway, I wasn't as happy as this person (yes, I am quite shameless). I wasn't sad too, just indifferent. Brushing a speck of imaginary dirt from my relatively newer shirt, I started my bike and headed towards my office. The first person I came across on the road was staring at my shirt. I immediately looked down. Was something wrong? Perhaps a couple of buttons were undone? Nothing seemed out-of-place. I readjusted my belt with my left hand and continued driving.

When the eyes of the second person who crossed me lingered on me for a moment longer than necessary, I felt quite awkward. This time, I adjusted my rear-way mirror to focus on my shirt, but still couldn't find anything wrong. With a mild shrug, I rode on. I tried to put the thought out of my mind, but my eyes were unconsciously checking every passer-by to see if they found anything wrong with my atire. In another 10 minutes, I reached Medavakkam Main road. In case you haven't traveled by this road, it is a two lane road, one lane each for vehicles travelling on either side. There is no median-separator.

I was going at a reasonable speed through a plain stretch of road and there were no other vehicles around except for a bus ambling on the opposite lane. A shabbily dressed aged man carrying a shoulder bag walking on the opposite lane did not attract my attention. At least not until he fell down flat on the road with a thump just as I crossed him. I had already crossed the spot where the man fell, and I had every reason to keep going. Moreover, the man's appearance indicated that he was quite possibly poor. Haven't we all been taught that a poor person falling on a road for no apparent reason at all is most probably drunk? I mean, if he had been dressed like the millionaire in the movie Pushpak, I might have immediately rushed to his assistance. His appearance made me hesitate.

But I was reminded of a reader's editorial I had once come across on The Hindu (for those of you who aren't aware - "The Hindu" is an Indian  "newspaper" that has some news and a lot of opinions) which talks about the apathy of our society towards such incidents. The bus on the opposite lane braked cautiously, but no one seemed to get out of it. Not wanting to set a bad example by ignoring a person in need of help, I took a U-turn, stopped my bike and hesitantly went near the fallen man. Another motorist travelling in the same direction as I had stopped his bike, and came forward to help. I was still suspicious of the man lying on the ground, but both of us tried to lift him. He was heavier than expected, and my thin frame was not able to support him fully as he leaned on my shirt. By now, a third biker had appeared from somewhere, and he took over from me and moved the man away from the road. Momentarily left with nothing else to do, and spotting that the shoulder bag still lying on the road was probably blocking the bus, I moved it aside. Probably happy at being freed of the burden having to help someone, the bus driver rode on.

As is the case in such situations, our first thought was to provide water to him. I asked the other two people, but like me, they didn't carry any water bottles with them. I ran to the only two houses in the vicinity, only to find that both of them were locked. Meanwhile, the man had regained partial consciousness, and was whispering something about not having eaten anything for the past two days. Having done little to help until then, I was about to suggest that each of us contribute around 10 to 20 rupees to the aged man, when I noticed that the biker who had arrived immediately after me had already drawn out his wallet. Before I could speak, he just took out a few bills marked Rs.100 and offered to the man, turned to me and asked me to flag an auto. An auto driver was curious enough to stop, and we bundled the tired man into the auto.

By now, the shabbily dressed man had regained full consciousness. As we instructed the auto driver to take him to the nearest restaurant, the man who had drawn his wallet randomly took out some more currency notes and forced it into the auto driver's hands. Just as the auto started, the shabbily dressed man shouted "Innum oru 50 ruba kudunga sami". The man with the wallet glanced at us, and noticing that we were too slow to provide any suggestion, took out another note. The man in the auto happily took it as the auto left us.

I turned with admiration at the man who had, without a moment's hesitation, acted so generously. He shrugged off my glances, and hurried away from the place. I could put myself in his shoes and imagine how he would have felt. He would have felt plain uncertainty and an inability to decide if he had really been of help to someone in need, or had been duped. He would have wondered if he had been generous enough, or if he had been too generous. He would have pondered on why he wasn't feeling as happy, as one is supposed to going by popular opinions, after having performed a genuinely kind act. It is ironical that after having helped someone quite possibly in need, the first emotion that strikes us is self-doubt. Certainly, something is wrong. Either with us, or with a society that more often than not exploits  kindness, or with the people who teach the greatness of being kind.

As I wheeled around my bike, I wasn't as happy as this person (yes, I am shameless enough to pimp up that link twice). I wasn't sad too, just indifferent. Brushing a speck of (not imaginary) dirt from my relatively newer shirt (where the poor man had leaned) , I started my bike and headed towards my office. Strangely, no one seemed to stare at my shirt anymore.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Django Unchained - Review

Quentin Tarantino has a few trademarks that can be associated with him. Firstly, he has this inimitable ability to pick a genre, study it thoroughly, and make a movie that stays completely faithful to the genre while simultaneously imparting his own uniqueness to it. For instance, his Pulp Fiction is just a collection of pulp storylines, but is presented through a revolutionary screenplay. In Kill Bill, which should have been just a martial arts fare, you learn the angst of a hit-women who has just discovered that she is pregnant, and wants to get away from her violent lifestyle. Secondly, there are the dialogues. There is probably no better dialogue writer around. And thirdly, there is his characterization. In a career that has had far lesser movies than his fans would like, Tarantino has produced numerous memorable characters. If you judge Django Unchained by these aspects, the movie is definitely a must watch.

The basic plot line of Django is pretty much a part of everyday knowledge now - a black slave separated from his wife is on a quest to reunite with his wife - in a cow-boyish style. There are four pivotal characters in Django Unchained and since the the movie is completely driven by the characters, I would be attempting to describe them. Jamie Foxx plays the titular character - Django. Foxx has the tough job of portraying a black slave who feels oppressed by all whites around him and doubling up an adventurous cowboy, but he does a fairly neat job of it. Not every one gets an opportunity to stay in almost every frame of a Tarantino movie. In fact, only Uma Thurman has done it before. Foxx grabs the opportunity gleefully, and does everything right. He starts out as a helpless slave, portrays the delight of being freed (when Dr.Schlutz tells him "And now Django, you may pick your character's costume",  he replies with incredulousness "You say you're gonna let me pick my own clothes?"), and transforms to a bounty hunter and a man-on-a-mission. Unfortunately, the presence of three towering actors - Christopher Waltz, Leonardo DeCaprio and Samuel Jackson overshadows his performance.

Samuel Jackson  has the shortest screen time of the four characters. He plays Stephen - the house slave ,an elevated "nigger"  ferociously loyal to his boss Calvin Candie. As the man-in-charge of the house when his master is away, he treats the other niggers as badly, if not worse, as the "whites" do. It is curious that such people of black the race who considered the whites to be superior did indeed exist (A parallel would be the people in Indian freedom struggle, who genuinely felt that the British Empire was doing us good).  Steve's single purpose is to protect his master, come what may. When he feels that his master is letting off the "niggers" too lightly, he openly shows his outrage . Even when his master lets his guard down, Stephen maintains a hawk like vigil.  In a relatively short but important role, Samuel Jackson uses his bloodcurdling stares very impressively. Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and this. Tarantino and Samuel Jackson do make a wonderful pair.

For the first time in his excellent acting career Leonardo DeCaprio plays a completely negative character, Calvin Candie. Calvin Candie is an excessively rich, spoilt plantation owner who entertains  himself by making his slaves combat until death. Quentin Tarantino has already given us two wonderful and unique villains. In Kill Bill, the titular character Bill attributes his deadly act of violence to momentary loss of temper, but he goes on to act reasonably throughout after committing this act of violence. In Inglorious Basterds, we have Col. Hans Landa,a villain who is deviously cunning and ruthless, but still makes it a point to be completely polite and charming. Calvin Candie too would go down this list of memorable Tarantino villains. Like Hans Landa, he has a charming persona that could be used to hide his ruthlessness. But unlike the Nazi, it takes only a little digging to expose Candie's real persona - that of a violent young man who is used to having his own way. He trusts his house slave Steve almost completely, but doesn't hesitate to point out who the master is when the need arises. Quentin Tarantino's asides where characters delve into seemingly unrelated, but extremely engrossing, topics of conversation are quite famous. Like Bill in Kill Bill series explaining why Superman is the best superhero ever, Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction reasoning out that dog meat is better than pig meat, Steve Buscemi  revealing his reluctance to tip waiters in Reservoir Dogs, Cristopher Waltz  in Inglorious Basterds comparing Jews with rats, Calvin Candie makes an interesting observation on the relative sizes of various regions of the brain in Blacks that makes them subservient. The whole movie is a cowboy film, but for as long as Leonardo Decaprio occupies the screen, he manages to completely shift the genre. With his mischievous grin and apologetic shrugs, this is perhaps Decaprio's best performance till date.

Undoubtedly, the best of the lot is Christopher Waltz, who plays Dr. King Schlutz ("What kind of doctor?", "A dentist"). Dr. Schlutz is a German born bounty hunter who strikes a mutually beneficial "deal" with Django. Christopher Waltz is probably one of the most talented actors around. Hearing him mouth Quentin Tarantino's dialogues is a pure bliss. Carrying on from where he left off in Inglorious Basterds, Waltz continues to be immensely polite. Taking his own good time to put his views across, he makes sure both the characters in the story and the audience give him their complete attention. Well read, charming and filled with liberal views, everyone (both on-screen and off it) will fall in love with Dr. Schlutz. In a movie that must have belonged to the central character Jamie Foxx, Leonardo Decaprio and   Christopher Waltz steal his thunder with their riveting confrontations. The master Tarantino has sketched the characters so well that only an adamantly evil Calvin Candie can force the genteel Dr. Schlutz to momentarily forget his manners.

Django Unchained is not without its flip sides  Coming immediately after the excellent Inglorious Basterds, comparisons are bound to be made between the two. Django does not match the very, very high standards Tarantino  has set for himself. The movie drags a little with a length of more than two and half hours. It is probably because Tarantino wanted to stay true to the genre. Having grown up watching Indian movies which broadly fall under only two categories - "Commercial movies" (which is a mix of every possible genre) and "different movies" - we may find Tarantino's attention to detail a little too elaborate. Tarantino has also adapted a fairly linear screenplay here (which is of course a rarity for him). Having said that, there are still some short and quick flashbacks ( a few of them, in my opinion, unnecessary). On the whole, if you want an enjoyable experience served in Tarantino's style, Django guarantees it for the most part. For someone who has never scene a Tarantino movie, this might  not be the right place to start.

Do let me know what you think..