The jury may be out on whether a leopard can change its spots or not, but a Snowy Owl certainly can and will! It used to be believed that the male Snowy is white with little barring and gets whiter with age, and the female has more barring and gets darker with age. But, in reality, Snowies cannot be aged or sexed with certainty. The darkest males and the lightest females are selfsame to the human eye. Also, no two owls are identical, and even throughout an individual’s lifetime, Snowies may choose to increase or decrease their coloration based on the environment and their physiological condition.
The female’s barring serves as a camouflage to help her hide herself and her chicks in the nest, but not in the way that we automatically reason. Animals don’t see colors like humans do. For example, several animals see our black power lines as glowing and flashing bands. We are also not always who they display to or hide from! So their visual appearance is tailored specifically to their needs, keeping in mind their primary ‘ultra-awesome’ predators and prey.
Several of the owl’s prey have UV vision. So while the white plumage of the Snowy may seem to humans as allowing it to camouflage itself against the snow, it is in fact highly UV absorbing, making the owl conspicuous to its prey! To the prey, neither the Snowy Owl’s white plumage nor its dark parts reflect in UV or near UV. In fact its dark parts peak in the near infrared part of the spectrum. So the Snowy Owl appears starkly grey against the white background of the snow. Moreover, Snowies breed in the open tundra, where they can be seen from great distances both in white winter and in colorful summer. They are the largest avian predators on the tundra and can protect themselves from intruders. Having said that, they spend as much time fighting competitors and bullies as it do minding their own business, because every predator in the Arctic is plucky; Pluckiness is a prerequisite to survival in inhospitable terrains (unless you are a lemming, in which case, good luck, and hope the Snowy shines!).
In fact, the males that do all the hunting during the breeding season, reflect significantly more light than the females, so their white color is not an adaptation to camouflage the bird, but is an impairment during hunting! But, this is the sacrifice that the birds make, because pigmentation production costs energy that is better used to minimize energy expenditure during the moult, when all Snowies loose one or two primaries on both wings (the moult intensity is higher for non-breeding Snowies). At no point during the moult do the birds lose their ability to fly.
Because the white of the Snowies is an impediment, it is only the best hunters that can pass on their genes to further generations. In fact, a female might be mighty pleased to know that the male can hunt even without pigmentation!
While their preys have UV vision, Snowy Owls themselves don’t. To Snowies, white is white. On sunny days, they orient themselves toward the sun so that the snow’s albedo enhances their visual display. This is how they broadcast their territorial claims, prey information, and show-off to conspecifics. The lighter Snowies display longer than the darker ones.
Even though Snowies are not UV-sensitive, their vision is one of the most highly developed of any owl, and can track distant objects in all variations of ambient light! Unlike other owls, the Snowy Owls are diurnal (active during the day). Some believe this is the case because they have adapted themselves to the long nights and days in the Arctic! In fact, their multifocal tubular eyes are one of the most ecologically adapted of any bird. The species eyes are roughly 1.5 times more sensitive than those of humans, but with lower limited field view, and increased ability to see in low light levels. Like all owls, the Snowy can turn its head 135 degrees in either direction giving it a total of 270 degrees “field of view”. It can even turn its head almost upside down.
Interestingly enough, the primary reason for the eyes being set at the front of the head is not to give them binocular vision as much as to accommodate large ears. The Snowy Owl is distinct from the other avian predators in taking prey from under the snow. It even prefers to hunt through the snow than over thawed surfaces. Such hunting is clearly done using sound, as much as vision.
And even though their pupils maintain an unchanging diameter of 12mm giving them a small depth of field, they have well-developed rictal bristles around the eyes and beak that help them feel for their newborns, and assess their well-being, or detect the shape and softness of the captured prey.
(This is an uber-long post, because Potapov and Sale's book is fascinating. If you've made it this far, you will enjoy reading the rest of this post. So read on, and do read the book!)
Imagine if you unexpectedly came upon a Polar Bear, an Arctic Fox or a Snowy Owl casually moseying down your street. One might assume it’s also the day when the sun decides to remain under the horizon! But, the sun came out, and a female Snowy Owl, found herself nestled cosily on the ledge of The Washington Post building (fortuitously, a few floors down from the Capital Weather Gang’s workspace) in DC. But sadly, her fate was sealed! She was hit by a bus, and is now being cared for at the zoo.
Birds don’t usually draw the same brouhaha as animals! Hedwig may be more popular than Iorek, but in the human circles, Polar bears outclass Snowies all the time. No one made a fuss about Hedwig being played by male Snowy Owls in the movie because Harry “Daniel Radcliffe” Potter can’t handle a heavy female. The popularity of animals over birds has nothing to do with their beauty, rareness, fearsomeness or intelligence. This is how we have come to size things up. But, this year the Snowies are attracting a deluge of onlookers, because of the unlikely places they are being sighted in.
Snowy Owls are one of very few avian species who have the audacity to wait out the winter season in the Arctic. It is usually the full grown adults wanting to breed that stick around in these unmerciful areas. The Snowies that choose to skip the breeding season, and the young ones who are less equipped to survive up there, fly southward where the weather is less extreme. Still, it nearly never happens that south-flying Snowies fly all the way to the Mid-Atlantic, and as far south as Florida, as we witnessed this year. One curious Snowy even made it all the way to Bermuda!
For years, scientists cerebrated over these on and off massive irruptions, and have not been able to make sense of them. In order to do a systematic study of Snowies, scientists need to understand how the owl’s live in their main domicile, as well as what motivates them to travel to places with extremely different ecologies, especially since they don’t migrate every year but sporadically, and for a limited amount of time. The hypothermic weather in the Arctic makes observing the owls there impracticable. Added to that, Snowies are extremely nomadic even in the Tundra. They not only follow the cyclical nature of lemmings, that are abundant one year and scare another, and move around a lot, but also go after bigger lemmings, and therefore an abundant population of those that breed less! So scientists have been limited to compiling information about the the owls that migrate to the south, where are more easily observable, and have been doing so since the early 19th century!
What they’ve found so far is that Snowies are both individualistic and collectivistic. Every owl follows a different trajectory of living, hunting and breeding, making it difficult to make broad generalizations about the species. At the same time, they also choose to travel in boids (loose groups), so that one’s fate is tied to another’s. It seems as if being a part of a boid to them is a choice and not a given, making boids fundamentally different from flocks.
The magic of the Snowy Owl is not in how they survive in a pitiless landscape, but how they transform themselves physically, and make the impossible possible. But, magicians never reveal their secrets, not even if you put them under a knife. If you saw them in half, they won’t tell you anything at all, and you won’t be able to put them back together, because you are not a magician. I consciously share this analogy to underscore a sad piece of information that I learnt from the Snowy Owl book. Up until the 1940s (and perhaps even later), biologists who wanted to understand the diet of Snowy Owls would cut them open to examine their stomachs’ contents. One particular scientist examined 205 stomachs, meaning 205 Snowy Owls were killed; 78 of them had empty stomachs, which means they were cheated out of life for nothing! This is in spite of the fact that one scientist in the 1930s made popular how owls’ regurgitated pellets could be used to understand their diets, so that owls don’t have to be autopsied to understand their diets! Snowy Owls are one of the most delicate bone digesters in the world. They preserve more bones of prey in their pellets than most other birds and make ‘little’ modification to the bones in their pellets.
Pellet analysis can reveal not only what an Owl ate, but also how many species and the size and weight of each! Moreover, Pellets of owls take as much as 10 years to decompose, because of the cold weather in their chosen habitats, so the information is in tact for a long time! In fact, the Owl too routinely tastes its chicks’ pellets to assess their wellbeing and hunger levels. For instance, the absence of bones in the chicks’ pellets would mean the chicks didn’t get enough food, so the digestion sucked every last calorie from their meal. Fortunately, today, scientists don’t cut open Snowy Owls! They capture, examine, band and release them!
This year Snowies migrated southward is unusually high numbers! This kind of irruption hasn’t been seen in may never happen again (even though a long-term look at irruption patterns point to more and more Snowies migrating over the years!). Over two dozen researchers, including the Pulitzer nominated author Scott Weidensaul have come together to work on Project Snowstorm to understand this anomaly, and other physical and behavioral characteristics of the owl! They are using new methods of tracking the birds, such as solar-powered GPS-GSM transmitters, and also performing DNA and feather analyses, among other things.
The transmitters weigh 40 grams, which is the size of one lemming, and about 1.5-3% of the owl’s weight. This makes me uncomfortable, as owls determine what they eat and what they feed their chicks based on the weight of the hunted prey and their energy budget! The transmitters that are attached to their wings using a backpack harness should make flying inconvenient and cost them some energy on top of their usual expenditure.
That being said, scientists are already recording many differences in hunting strategies and invalidating many commonly held notions about their migratory motivations and their movements. One such myth is that the Snowies are here due to a shortage of lemmings in the Arctic. In fact, the abundance of lemmings in summer, led to a successful breeding season, and the current bumper crop of Snowies!
It has been believed for a few years now, that the mass irruption is the result of complex stochastic processes having to do with the availability of prey, winter snow thickness, but more importantly, the relationship between individual owls in their boids. Snowy Owls tend to travel to wintering grounds and breeding grounds in groups. It’s a loose structure where individuals keep safe distance from each other while also monitoring each others movements to get to places with rich food sources. Sometimes, this strategy works very well, and they hit a lemming bonanza, and pair up and start breeding. But, in some other years, they find themselves in an infertile area deficient in lemmings or alternate prey, but are too weak to move elsewhere and leads to mass deaths!
Snowies' most-preferred urban habitats are airports, because they offer vast open spaces with few trees and limited human access, and noise pollution. The noise factor gives the Snowies an advantage over other owls that use their ears and hunt in the dark close to dawn and dusk! Even though the Snowy Owls are diurnal, in the airports, they become very active when the sun begins to set. Here, they capture everything from tiny insects to large raptors, and even the Great Blue Heron and other Snowy Owls. While some airport owls are very healthy, others, especially the adults are exhausted and underweight.
Some years there are as many as fifty owls in one airport, which makes them all the more susceptible to being hit by planes. FAA recorded over 120,000 wildlife strikes (the vast majority were birds) in a 10-year period, and 11,000 strikes last year alone. Bird strikes have caused up to $700 million a year damage to civilian and military aircraft. At least five snowy owls were hit by planes in the US this winter season! A few States have “shoot-to-kill” orders, but most prefer to trap and relocate them.
But, in the early 1980s, research of 385 owls at Logan Airport revealed that the presence of owls in airports discourage flocking birds from roosting in the area. And attempting to disperse the owls only created a greater risk of a bird strike than just leaving them alone.
I recently watched the Magic of the Snowy Owl, which documents the life of one Snowy Owl pair raising their young in a very bleak part of the Alaska North Slope, where food seems scarce and there is little relief from cold winds, rainstorms and freezing fogs. It’s a story of struggle and triumph with all the deflating and elevating elements of reality-melodrama. There is this sense that you are furtively observing The Addams Family of Snowy Owls. The narrator suggests that everything the family are doing is unusual and never been recorded before; like one kawaii scene of owlets daring to cross the river. It was the first time that this behavior was ever recorded or filmed.
In reality, a lot of what the movie thinks is unusual has in fact been observed many times before. The Snowy Owl book by Eugene Potapov and Richard Sale that I mention a few times in this post, provides both scientific and anecdotal evidence from all over the world to this effect. If you’ve enjoyed the movie, I recommend the book to contemplate the bird’s stunning and peculiar ways and facets.
In a different post, I share insights from the book, and clarify some of what the movie thinks is unusual. But mainly, I intend to share how the owl magically transforms itself physically and does amazing non-birdlike things; such as how it changes its spots, manipulates the sex-ratio of its offspring, and enjoys recreational sex, among other things!
Yesterday was the 201st anniversary of the first publication of Pride and Prejudice. But, it was in fact written seventeen years before that, when Austen was still as young and spirited as Lizzy. She carried the book with her for almost half her life before it was finally published, only to depart from it and this world four years later. In those seventeen years, she had experienced a tumultuous life that was to change who she was and the course of women all over the world for all time.
When she first wrote the book, her father made an earnest attempt to get it published, but it was to wait almost two decades before Thomas Egerton agreed to publish it, albeit at Austen’s expense. Curiously, Egerton specialized in military and political works until then, and Austen was his first woman novelist. He was also her publisher for Sense and Sensibility the year before. Pride and Prejudice was so popular that it caught on with readers more quickly through word-of-mouth than printed advertisements, so that a second edition had to be printed within nine months of the first edition coming out.
At that time, Austen was only the second generation of novelists. Novels were a fairly new form of literature. They became popular in the mid-18th century when the middle class expanded and there was a demand for secular stories driven not by plot, but by individuals. But, most of them were written by men, and were adventures centered around larger-than-life male heroes, usually in imaginary worlds, with women playing insignificant roles in the stories. Even the novels centered around women were mostly written by men and portrayed them as being modest and meek, or as they were meant to be.
Austen is the first novelist in history to capture ordinary life in the Regency era. Her men and women are rooted in reality and come in every imaginable shade of character. Compared to her contemporaries, her characters are bold and the flirtations are akin to today's Fifty Shades of Grey, only more eloquent and reflective. I particularly savor the way she captures the constant negotiation of expectations and impressions between the commodities in the story, that is the “eligible” suitors in the marriage market. The conversations between them are crisp, witty and full of revealing gestures, but more importantly, intentional, and often driven through indirect discourses. Every conversation, every situation and every letter arrives with perfect timing, so that the plot always moves along in unexpected ways. We are forever reappraising characters and becoming aware of their lack of self-knowledge. Everyone’s foibles and the ironies of their life are so relatable, that you delight in them because it is your reality.
Her stories are primarily human and about the pursuit of truths through sharp satire. She once criticized her niece’s draft novel for portraying people in Dawlish gossiping about news from Lyme, which is forty miles away and would not be talked of there. That is the level of adherence to fact and societal accuracy that she aimed for, which makes her works important historic documents. Her truths are loaded and “universally acknowledged”, and lay all the societal pretensions bare and impossible to dispute!
What also sets her apart from novelists during her times is her lack of indulgence in prose about material things and the description of settings. Her characters are almost entirely preoccupied with calibrating delicate feelings and abstract nouns to take notice of their surroundings. They display a desire to understand what shapes people’s consciousness and their character and morality, and what dictates their choices.
And because abstract nouns have a universal appeal, she inspires every kind of intellectual dialogue imaginable. Her work speaks different things to different generations and cultures and academicians (and also to Orangutans). It has been superimposed by so many adaptations that the mind attempts to summon Darcy only to be distracted by Olivier or Firth or whoever else made a bold attempt at being devastatingly handsome (or devastatingly conceited)!
Along with the adaptations, there are a whole sleuth of biographies attempting to construct a woman who seems almost mythical in her attainments. When Austen first wrote Pride and Prejudice, she was a teenager with little formal education, gaining knowledge solely from the books in her father’s library. And it is that tiny world that inspired novels of such depth and beauty, and insight into society and politics. One wonders how!
When I read Pride and Prejudice today, I imagine my grandmom as a young teenager, holding the very same book, and swooning over Darcy, or admiring a clever Elizabeth Bennet and marveling at the society in England back in the days! Along with the book, my grandmom also passed on hope and that love comes from pursuing the truth of one’s own character. I find Austen's persistence as a writer, through all the hardships particularly inspiring! I also take comfort in reading the bits of her unfinished novels in Juvenilia because nothing about what I do is every complete. I can’t tell if I love her more or her works, because they, and their journey are also a reflection of who she is. Jane Austen and her Pride and Prejudice came close to being in extremis, only to become immortal.
Last year, BBC recreated the Netherfield Ball for the 200th anniversary celebration of Pride and Prejudice, and shared a 90-minute Making-of documentary called Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball! Also, there is an online exhibition called What Jane Saw, which attempted to reconstruct the art exhibit of Sir Joshua Reynolds paintings at the British Institution in Pall Mall that Austen talks about in Pride and Prejudice. Back then, the exhibition was the first commemorative museum show dedicated to a single artist, and something of a pop-culture phenomenon! Austen was something of a Rob Fleming of High Fidelity of her times, and kept up with all the who’s-whos and so-and-sos of her time and wove them into her stories. Many of the character descriptions in Pride and Prejudice were said to have been inspired by Sir Joshua Reynolds portraits. Finally, here is Pride and Prejudice cartoon by Jen Sorenson.
Walter White is Sméagol, the Stoor Hobbit. He becomes ensnared by the Ring and turns into Gollum, a slimy, sneaky creature consumed by greed and deceit. It is the Ring that prolongs his life far beyond its natural span and drives him to live under the Misty Mountains.
Walter White is Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis. The Three Witches prophesize that he will become a king. He assumes this to mean invincibility. He kills King Duncan of Scotland with his wife’s aid and takes over the throne and eliminates everyone who threatens his power, until his savage acts render his own life hollow and irredeemable.
Walter White is Satan, the rebel-angel fallen from Heaven, who vows to overthrow God and corrupt his beloved creation. He deceives Adam and Eve, first as a cherub, then as a cormorant, then as a toad, and finally as a serpent, succeeding only to become trapped in his own disguise, and robbed of speech and admirers with whom he can share his triumph.
Water White is Frankenstein, who creates a hideous monster. Unable to take back his creation, he rejects him, with little consideration for consequences. The monster casts himself as a miserable victim, overlooked and desperate. He kills everyone he and Frankenstein love.
Walter White is Dr. Jekyll, and Heisenberg is Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll’s dark side, a repulsive creature, free of moral conscience. Only, over time, Dr. Jekyll finds himself spontaneously turning into Mr. Hyde and becoming more and more trapped in his body. Eventually, he entirely loses his ability to change back to Dr. Jekyll and kills himself.
Water White is Ozymandias, the King of Kings. Where once he stood mighty and full of hubris, he now stands as a ruined statue; his life’s work reduced to dust. His legs remain in the lone and leveled desert sand, with a boastful inscription on the pedestal. He cannot see that everything he has created is gone, rendering his pride absurd!
Water White is a milquetoast college teacher, who comes face and face with mortality, falls to misfortune, and fights it with chemistry! He enters the drug world, and lets ambition alienate him, misery consume him, duty validate him, vengeance misguide him, and hubris feed him, until he loses all moral scruples and descends into a hell of his own making. Fate found itself in his choking grip. But, in the end, no one gets away with anything, not even Walter White.
"He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you." – Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Walter White Will Get a Real Funeral
David Attenborough is one of the most consummate storytellers of our time. What makes him endearing are things that make him curious and the lengths he will go to satisfy that curiosity. And his things are in the uncharted hinterlands teeming with invisible and mysterious energies; where everything is fluid and transforming; and where humans are one small blip in a more diversely inhabited world.
And because he gives the air of being the most unlikely person one would find whispering from inside a toxic bat-cave or sitting snug next to a gorilla (even though he may be the first person or the only person to have done a lot of what he’s done); because the technology he uses is always groundbreaking; and because the world he reveals is unfailingly awe-inspiring, you are left both amused and astonished. And so, he goes about fossicking in the boonies and presenting us with many banquets of wonder, and letting us know that there is more wonder than we’d ever dream of wondering.
In this series, which is a mix of memoir and science, he meticulously chronicles sixty years of his adventures in the wild. It serves as an unbeatable testament to one man, and his bid to make the stunning complexity of nature’s superior design known to everyone.
He begins in a time much different from our own; when we were still taken with the boundlessness of nature; and everything was waiting to be discovered or seduced into revealing itself. Collectors hungered to own the rarest birds and beasts from the farthest corners of the world. Wild animal dealers, private and traveling menageries and zoo gardens were ubiquitous all over Britain.
Then, he saw wildlife diminish over time, and succumb to its own lavish generosity and our insatiable appetite for everything it has to offer. Extinction became a reality, and he became one of the many voices for conservation. He spent the next half of his professional life, not collecting, but being a diligent observer, translating the wonders of the natural world into exquisite words and visuals.
When he narrates this story, he paints a vivid picture of a revolution in thought, and displays a sapient inwardness, like a Once-ler reuniting with his inner-Lorax; and we take his wistful rumination, his hopes and questions, and make it our own.
There is something marvelous about the wisdom and knowledge he has amassed over time. He always seems unburdened by the scientific prose or activist rhetoric, while somehow striking the elusive balance between the two and oozing erudition. He embraces the science of scientists and the subjectivity of conservationists as being dogged pursuits towards a common ideal. He presents them as the warps and woofs of the natural world, who work to understand, protect and grow their environments, sometimes without heed to personal consequences.
Naturalists, more than any other kind of science maven, display an exceptional ability to observe! There is nothing purely rational about their line of work. Nothing in their world is mechanistic. No two beasts of the same kind are alike; and the interconnectedness of nature, and the complicated symbiotic relationships between flora, fauna and the natural forces, make the process of revelation labyrinthine. And still, researchers show their tremendous skill in taking in all the sights, smells, sounds, and other sensory information around them, and filtering them through scientific thought processes and making deductions on behavior and their consequences. It is a delicate dance between astute observation and skilful intervention; like rearranging all the pieces in a salad back to their respective whole fruits.
In that sense, Attenborough, is not a naturalist-scientist or naturalist-activist. His job is to passively extend his senses to the natural world and make us see what we wouldn’t see without his help. But, having done this for sixty years, he has the unique privilege of sharing impressions about our world over a long passage of time and constructing implications. And because these implications are not just scientific, but moral and emotional, he serves as a calm light of reason, a new door-opener, who leaves us with a questing belief in the future. His life is evidence of how our triumphs, uncertainties and errors recycle into new hopes and anxieties over time.
One, perhaps bonus benefit of this series is the stories of some remarkable women who put themselves in physical harm's way, as they work intimately with wild animals, in hostile regions full of poachers and angry locals. They have single-handedly saved whole species from extinction. And in them, as in the 87 year old Attenborough, and many other naturalists featured in this series, I find personal inspiration; it is clear that there is nothing one cannot do, and certainly not because of somatic reasons.
This is not a self-contained story, as the channel will have us believe. It is a story that was unfortunately shelved! You can tell because its plot holes need filling. And the best way to fill plot holes is to narrate the story linearly (from beginning to end), instead of the narrative chosen by the makers (narrating the characters' life at present, and having us deduce the past). So here goes:
Ryan is born into a family of wanderers and grows up in fairgrounds around the country. His early life is fraught with domestic violence, especially by his father and brother. His mother is both a victim of and silent witness to this abuse. The violence worsens as Ryan grapples with his gender identity.Over the years, he goes from boyhood to manhood as naturally as he is forced to, and briefly dates a woman and falls in love with her.
But of course, this isn't natural, and he is ready to make the switch to being a woman. He leaves his girlfriend and becomes Mia. There are no official records of Mia's existence. This comes in handy in Mia's line of work as a contract assassin. Having grown up in a violent environment, Mia takes to her job like a chicken crossing the road, and uses a multifarious approach to her hits. She is an honest-to-goodness sociopath, in her element.
One day, quite out of the blue, she receives a letter from the woman she briefly dated, and learns that she is the father of a 11-year-old son! The woman then dies of cancer, and leaves Mia responsible of her son, and the son's three misfit half-siblings, aged sevenish to sixteen, in a rural farmhouse in Yorkshire. The children, although overwhelmed, don't want Mia in their lives, but she sticks on as she contemplates her role as their new mother!
Riley, the eldest daughter, fills her mom's shoes quite naturally, and takes care of the kids. She presumably ran the house while her mom was sick too; which means having an affair with John, her landowner, a grown man with a pregnant wife and a 11-year old son. It's a give-and-take relationship. He lets her family live in the house without rent, and she feels some misplaced affection, perhaps of the paternal-kind. It's dark.
Riley remembers Ryan from when she was a kid and he used to live with her mom. But, she is not happy to have him back as Ryan or Mia or the new dad or mom, and makes it very apparent! In the mean time, Mia gets cosy with the rest of the family; has a fling with a neighbour who is confused about whether he wants to date a transgendered person or not; and is covertly her kickass-assasin self. Every once in a while Riley or her stepson make cruel jibes at her, and she runs away to her secret hideout and has a crying fit. Full life.
John, the landowner, isn't pleased with Mia's presence. Mia is oblivious is his affair with Riley, but generally thinks of him as a sleazebag and they exchange a few blows. John threatens to evacuate the family from the farm house, and puts the house up for sale. Needless to say, he is hesitant to sell it to Mia. Mia's boss comes to the rescue and buys the house for her, of course, with strings attached; although we will never know what because the series got shelved.
In the mean time, Riley becomes pregnant; John wants her to have an abortion; and when she refuses to do so, things get crazy; he almost kills her, and she most definitely kills him with Mia's gun! Riley, Mia and Mia's boss discard the body! There is an investigation pending, and a well-meaning but mentally handicapped uncle takes blame for the murder, and is put in jail, but this storyline never gets resolved because the series got shelved.
In an unrelated incident, things go wrong with Mia's latest hit. As a result, her so far helpful boss suddenly turns against her and is about to kill her, when her son comes to her rescue. Things end abruptly, and we will never know what comes next because the series got shelved.
There are other side plots, like Mia's relationship with her boyfriend, her relationship with her estranged family, her step son's business relationship with her boss, and the fate of the wrongly arrested uncle, that will never get resolved because the series got shelved.
ps: The unfinished story is still worth watching because everything about it so far is superlative. I could watch it many times, and therefore highly recommend it.
Between minute 10 and 18, Shabana Azmi and Shobhaa De have a difference of opinion on the film business. Shabana Azmi is optimistic about audience's interest in alternative cinema, and implores the government and established filmmakers to encourage small independent filmmakers and foster creativity; whereas Shobhaa De is more businesslike in her views, and insists that the film business will give the audience what they want, which is mediocrity.
This argument reminds me of The Innovator's Solution, in which Clay Christensen says that big companies are apprehensive about investing in the ideas of new upstart companies because it entails daunting risks. So they choose to invest in their own 'sustaining innovations' that make incremental changes to existing products over disruptive innovations that introduce entirely new products that cater to a new market at the expense of their existing market.
And while big companies focus on bettering the performance of existing products for their loyal customers, new upstart companies target the low-end customers who want a niche product. Once they have achieved success in that specialised, but profitable corner of the market, they move up the chain and not only compete with the big companies for a share of their market, but also start to contend with the same risks of radical innovation that big companies face; This leaves even-newer companies to explore the next innovation space that the big guys don't want to play in. To a small company, stomaching the risk of failure comes with a chance at bountiful rewards, but to a big company, the risk-to-reward ratio is too high. However, this has also been the downfall of many big companies, who went out of business after they reached a particular scale because they didn't want to make big bets, and only wanted to consider incremental innovation until a point where the audience was unable to use or absorb the improvements.
In this analogy, the big company or filmmaker may be Yash Chopra or Karan Johar, making the highest grossing films in the country, many that are formulaic and leveraging on the success of the earlier films; (take for instance their romantic blockbusters or their film series like Dhoom); and the small company or filmmaker may be Shyam Benegal or Anurag Kashyap who cornered a niche and created successful disruptive business; (take for instance Kashyap's New Wave films catering to a niche audience… He initially began as a Director, and as he gained more clout, he went on to become a Producer).
If one were to take Shabana Azmi's suggestion of having big filmmakers invest in small filmmakers without attracting the risk of losing their reputation if the investment goes sour, then the big filmmakers would have to invest anonymously or somewhat covertly. One such example is Ekta Kapoor, who maintained two personalities, one as a TV serial maven making "K" serials, and another as an off-beat film producer, the latter personality being more understated. This is similar to big companies reaching new markets by creating new brands or subsidiary companies, while at the same time serving as 'disruptive growth engines' that also act as incubators for other growing businesses; like Coca-cola Company's Glaceau that makes Smart Water, or Amazon's subsidiaries like Zappo, Woot, iMDb, Lovefilms and products like Kindle and Audible.
In the end, it all boils down to big companies' willingness to fail, with an eye on success in the long term!
ps: I don't condone Shabana Azmi's comment about Americans being ignorant.
This is an issue close to my heart. Visual effects artists literalize the magic of cinema. The demand for them is overwhelming in the industry, and yet, VFX shops are struggling to keep afloat and artists are barely making ends meet. Realism is the life of the artists making fantasies.
I urge you to type "VFX Protests" in your favorite search engine and read about the struggles of my favorite people. Here's a start: A Wired Article.
David Attenborough believes that TV naturalists could become extinct and be replaced by YouTube amateurs. That made me wonder what 18th and 19th century naturalist explorers might have thought of the very idea of a TV naturalist!
While I enjoy Attenborough 60 Years in the Wild this weekend, I leave you with this Guillermo García Carsí's pilot for a spoof series on creatures doomed to extinction. Even Attenborough might enjoy Doomed.
You can see some clips from Attenborough's 60 years series on their official website , and maybe that will tempt you to buy the full copy.
I enjoy watching Reality TV. No other medium of art or literature allows us this pleasure, except cinema; unless you have access to several detailed diaries or biographies of related-people interacting with each other in some elaborate set-ups.
One does not assume that Reality is real. As soon as real life is presented in fragments, everything is transformed, and even the recognizable world becomes limited and constructed. So we explore a transmuted reality from a non-rational unconscious, guided mostly by our deep inward feelings; while our conscious, rational mind works to overcome the reproduction and find reality in it!
There is always a plot developing; even when it all looks like a mindless tussle; the diegesis is well-thought out and progresses at an agreeable pace. My visceral reactions to the unfolding reality, or fiction, or whatever that thing is, is fascinating, simply because it evokes a real reaction!
It is when you see reality being presented as a screenplay, that you recognize photogenie, the ineffable element of cinema, which is like color is to a painting, and notes are to music. It reveals the soul of everything it reproduces. Even a tree is transformed from nature to art when it is viewed through the screen.
It reminds me of what Louis Delluc said way back in 1919 about cinema being modern art, because it uses technology to stylise real life.
But, there is a certain sincerity to the genre of Reality, not because it is non-mediated in nature, but because it is seeking to evoke feelings in us that are real and automatic! We are Reality. I also like that it makes us think that our everyday can be presented in a structured format, where each of us is a character in a story moving forward in a one-dimensional plot. It plays to our vicarious pleasure of wanting structure!
Lisa Vanderpump, one of the one-dimensional housewives in the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, is featured in another new Reality TV series called Vanderpump Rules, where we can see her play a successful restaurateur, her other dimension.
When I was ten, my aunt's friend scotched my illusory perception of fairy tales. From then on, Little Red Riding Hood was a 17th century French peasant's tale about a prepubescent girl who is led astray by a ravishing male [wolf]; he subsequently violates her in her grandmother's house; and just as he is about to kill her, her father comes to her rescue! All fairy tales seemed to be about confronting one's fears and coming out bruised, but happily not broken.
Hidden in these stories are symbols and significations pointing to some dark truth that can have many meanings when placed in different contexts. I used to find The Little Red Riding Hood most relatable to our time, and so I found the older and darker interpretation of her story more gut-wrenching, and wished then that my emotions translated more literally to the huntsman wrenching the wolf's gut. Instead he put two stones in the wolf's belly as punishment for his sexual transgression! It so happens that this ending is more in line with my current stand against the death penalty, so I am fine with it now!
Later, I read The Great Cat Massacre, in which this story was validated, and early versions of other familiar fairy tales were retold. For instance, in the original Sleeping Beauty, Sleeping Beauty is molested by a married Prince Charming and bears him several children, while she is still sleeping! The infants break the spell by biting her breasts during nursing. What a horror that must have been to wake up to! It tells me that the curse was meant to begin after she was awoken! In one version of Cinderella, Cinderella becomes a domestic servant to prevent her widowed-father from forcing her to marry him.
A lot of these stories go back centuries before their supposed authors were even born. Charles Perrault's 17th century version of Sleeping Beauty that we are familiar with, also appeared in an Arthurian romance in the 14th century! Moreover, the same stories were retold all over Europe through centuries, with little to no variations, making it hard to trace their origins.
Fairy tales were mostly written keeping adults in mind, and were never regarded as being suitable for children. Some had to be rewritten several times before they were considered 'debatably' tolerable as "household" tales, and were imparted to children with some horrific details to make moral lessons stick in their minds!
Over time, we have been seeing the same stories taking on new dimensions and becoming representatives of their times! The Disney versions may be indicative of our times being comparatively happier (or censored more heavily, depending on your optimism about our times)! But that too is changing. There are some dark interpretations that are being made for adults!
Once Upon a Time is a fairly adult series that builds on fairy tales and other fantasy stories from pop-culture, by splitting the universe into several extra dimensions, and having characters travel back and forth between them using magic! It's String Theory reinterpreted as: All things being equal, all fictional stories happening across time and space can be strung together, and re-imagined as one single epic!
Suddenly the retellings of 18th century Germany's Grimm Brothers, 17th century France's Charles Perault, 19th century England's Lewis Caroll, 20th century Scotland's JM Barrie, 19th century Italy's Carlo Collodi, and many more authors from different eras and places magically come together in a fictional but contemporary American town, reminiscent of the Lost world, by way of a curse!
I love that fairy tales have been slowly evolving over time and space and taking on new dimensions. I also love that through Once Upon a Time, their characters are travelling many physical dimensions and interacting with each other in one place. The series is my most favorite adaptation of old fairy tales in this era, followed by James Finn Garner's Politically Correct Bedtime Stories.
There is also another TV series called Grimm that I followed for sometime, but didn't enjoy as much. It's a cop drama where the cop (a Grimm, with secret powers), goes after some evil characters from Grimm's fairytales (called Wessen) who inhabit the human world disguised as humans! It's a great concept, but followed the same Dr. Who type formula, with one bad character being finished off by the end of the episode.
I watched a French crime thriller called Nobody Else But You (Poupoupidou), in which a crime novelist solves a murder of a young woman who shared several commonalities in both appearance and relationships with Marilyn Monroe, and believed she was a reincarnation of Monroe and predicted her own death! I watched it around the same time that I watched a few versions of Snow White - Mirror Mirror, and Snow White and the Huntsman, and read an account of a German scholar who believed that the story of Snow White might in fact be based on the life of German noble girl in Lohr am Main in 1725. There is also a "Talking Mirror” that is now housed in Spessart Museum in the Lohr Castle, to validate this account!
The line between reality and fiction has always been a blur, but perhaps it is the blur that we inhabit, and true reality and absolute fiction that we seek from the blur! Or maybe, we are all Grimms meant to keep balance between the real and imaginary creatures we live alongside or create.