A few weeks ago, a friend expressed horror when I didn’t know who Parineeti Chopra was! And then, he went on to gag some other names: Alia Bhatt, Arjun Kapoor, Kangana Ranaut, Ranveer Singh and so on; none of whom I could place. The stench of my ignorance was insufferable!
In a sheepish attempt to redeem myself and obscure expressions of shocked outrage directed at me, I watched a few films I could find on Netflix and Google Play: Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl, Ishaqzaade, Shuddh Desi Romance, Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela, Aurangazeb, Band Baaja Baaraat, and Listen...Amaya. (I know to look forward to Alia’s Highway, and Kangana’s Queen).
All these movies are about bold but sleazy juvenile adults with sketchy personal and social convictions, who make godawful choices that get them in trouble, only to resolve them rather unimaginatively! Most of these films are enjoyable to watch because they are all colorful without exception; the characters are charming and relatable; there’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek dialogue; and all the actions are complemented with harmonious soundscapes. They also allow us the luxury of unabashedly judging fictional people with confused morals born of societal guilt (early modern literature stock). For instance, in Shuddh Desi Romance, the protagonists unnecessarily complicate their relationships and inflict problems on themselves because of their own bigoted stupidity and their misgivings about their society. On the other hand, if they just went about their lives as they wanted, to begin with, there wouldn't have even been a story to tell. The story is ultimately about the humor that arises from taking advantage of or creatively circumventing societal guilt.
The most creative parts of the new films point directly to the storyboards and screenplay, and how the filmmakers take advantage of cinema’s unique qualities that make it different from any other storytelling medium and cannot be replicated using any other art form. The films are very self-aware and attempt to impress us by exuding a kind of blustering, ostentatious aura that makes us pay attention to their artful non-story elements over their stock stories.
I like this! I like this for the same reason that I enjoy adaptations and re-makes. I like this for the same reason that I like the not-so-accurate gilded bling-bling in Luhrmann's adaptation of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Having read the book, I wasn’t curious about the story, as much as the things that can come alive only in cinema. I like cinema that has the materiality that I can never dream up on my own!
One other thing. Some of the kissing scenes in these new movies I watched have the couples aggressively going at each other like hungry chickens pecking at grain. What is that!?
What frauds! It is not as if either of them bypassed the anti-defection law and resigned from their political party and re-contested from the other's! In any case, two-third of cinema enthusiasts are honey badgers, and one-third will lap up whatever dreck they will dole out anyway.
The first time we watched the Ship of Theseus, we spent the evening thinking up all the different human organs that can be replaced, and came up with stories for each of them. As the night had us in a stupor, what began with heart and lung transplants, ended with cosmetic dentistry, sex reassignments, nose jobs and hair extensions!
I like this type of storytelling. I call it The Shell approach. It is when you take a philosophical question, thought experiment or a moral lesson, a.k.a. “the shell”, and create stories that best explore them. In The Ship of Theseus, the filmmaker likens the human body to the ship, and whips out three Hip of Theseuses! And because there are as many human body parts as there are ship parts that can be replaced, the creative possibilities of churning out such stories is as limitless as creating new songs from the same melodic modes. Moreover, the filmmaker is careful to keep the allusions partial, so we can explore each story in our own way within the confines of the overarching philosophy.
In the “shell” movies, you spend your time judging the quality or anatomy of the stories, how they are treated artistically, how true they are to “the shell”, and how deeply they explore it. If you were previously familiar with “the shell”, you also have the privilege of comparing how you perceived the same philosophy to that of the filmmaker, and how you may have explored his stories differently.
I think the beginning of a human personhood happens when the gametes fuse to form the zygote. From then on, every biomarker indicates how one has grown as a person, until the time of their death. To some others, the beginning of a human personhood is when one comes out into the physical world and takes in their first breath of air and interacts with the environment.
Regardless of where you mark the beginning of your personhood, you will agree that every moment from that beginning is only about change. There is nothing about us that is constant. We are not the same people we were a second ago. There is always a cell renewing, so much that, in seven years, every cell in our body will have been replaced by new cells, and none of the old remain. We are physically not the same person. And most of this happens in the absence of free-will.
This is the case even with our beliefs. I like to think that our beliefs change entirely in seven (or some other number) year cycles so that everything that was true then is false now, and everything that is true now is false later. And most of what we are is a result of our evolutionary history, our genetic makeup, our innate qualities, our personal experiences that are shaped by our environments, our physical and mental health (especially the interaction between our conscious and unconscious brain), and other deterministic or stochastic factors! But, in spite of the lack of real free-will, the idea of free-will is the prerequisite to living, if not life itself; because living is all about embracing change, and we do so by making choices under the sham of free-will.
I just finished reading Brecht’s essays on theatre and philosophy. The essays in the book are arranged in chronological order of when they were written by him, and span 38 years, starting in 1918 when he was 20 years old. What I love most about this chronological ordering is that I am able to take in how his ideas evolved over time, either to the contrary, or by becoming more developed, but always being consistently thought-provoking. He often ridiculed his own work.
Yesterday, I watched the Ship of Theseus for the second time after reading Anand Gandhi’s interview on Kindle. Coincidentally, it was only a few weeks ago that I watched The Turin Horse, which Gandhi talks about in his interview.
So during this viewing of the Ship of Theseus, where I came fresh off the Brecht fryer and loaded with Gandhi’s interview, everything was refracted through their ideologies. I was under their sway. And any cracks and fault-lines I saw in the film, were a result of the overlap between my way of seeing and their way of showing, and my ability to reflect their stories in my mind’s mirror without distortion; and that is not entirely up to any of us. What Brecht and Gandhi have in common is the ability to present social and character contradictions, and how causation impacts one’s choices and beliefs. They also make everything seem strangely familiar (read: verfremdungseffekt), as if you are looking at the familiar lines on your hands with a magnifying lens, and learning to read them. They both deal with the facticity of the world, and give a lot of weight to verisimilitude. But, they allow you to work out the immanent meanings behind the motives of the characters in their stories. But, the one important way in which Gandhi and Brecht differ (apart from their techniques to achieve their goals) is in how the former leads us to contemplate the world, but the latter leads us to change it.
I wonder which of the two approaches might inspire new philosophies? When is the last time you heard a new philosophical question that was posed only in the 21st century?
For every “shell” way of storytelling, there is a “non-shell” way, where the readers are allowed to engage with the stories without being limited to the confines of any one philosophy. Nothing is ever unformulated in storytelling, but the stories that intend to reflect reality and not change it are conceptually limited to what is, as opposed to what can be. It is when the story’s elements can take any shape or form of the audience’s choosing, that they become more socially active and create many stories and many different ideas out of the original. It is when actors become real people, and audiences become the characters, and the story mimics reality, where reality is mimesis, that some new philosophy may originate.
Sometimes, you may also create a story with a certain idea in mind, but that may not be what the audience takes from it. For instance, Brecht was unhappy that the critics of Mother Courage and Her Children sympathized with Mother Courage. He even made the necessary changes to the play to get his point across, to no avail. More on the Brecht book after I watch the play next week. I plan to be very unsympathetic.
Ship of Theseus is available online for free.
In describing this film, the word 'revulsive' comes to mind, but it's still important to watch it because something terrible is happening here.
There are two bands of exact likeness represented in this documentary, standing on opposite sides of the same chequerboard, intending to destroy each other, but ending up destroying themselves.
The Whites, moving first, are the Vishwa Hindu Parishad organisers and their young pawns who are training in a militant women's camp; and the slightly disadvantaged Blacks counterplaying the Whites are the Miss India pageant organisers and their 'hopefuls' who have been chosen to train for the Hunger Games. The chequerboard they are all standing on is their messed up view of themselves and their life's purpose.
Every time a piece is moved, there is a tense pause before we ascertain if they've neutralized the play, or if they deliberately or inadvertently led themselves to their own slaughter at the hands of the opponent.
But this game is nothing like chess. All the differentiated pieces have lost their meaning. It is also unlike checkers, because there is no meaningful interaction among those of the same likeness. It's everyone for themselves out for the pruning; In any case, the hands playing the pieces are making up the rules as they go. And, when all the pieces will have fallen, a bras de fer will have ensued, and it won't matter who pins the arm to the chequerboard.
Luckily, there is time before that happens. We can get the hands off the pieces by crying foul.
A prejudiced doctor runs an unsuccessful sperm bank with a precarious business model that depends on incessant sperm donations from one man to keep the outfit running. Add to that, he uses unscientific, proto-aryan, eugenics-like reasoning to assess potential sperm donors. One day, he randomly zones in on Vicky from his apartment terrace, and sniffs out his fecundity like a piranha sniffing out blood. Idle, blithely unconcerned young men are homologous with Bonobo chimpanzees or newly plowed fields or villagers (this last one is his real analogy). From then on, he hounds Vicky for days to sign up as a sperm donor.
All the patients and potential donors in the movie are caricatured, and serve mostly to substantiate existing class and gender stereotypes. The movie isn’t the best advertisement for sperm donors or assisted-reproduction patients.
The doctor suckers Vicky into getting tested for donor eligibility. The lab scientist marvels at his high sperm count (In reality, this is not unusual for a healthy man of his age), and the test results vindicate the doctor's claim that only Vicky’s sperms can satisfy his patients' lofty desires, even though confidentiality agreements preclude patients from knowing who their sperm donor is.
Vicky eventually comes around, as he sees this as an easy way to make a quick buck, and works out a partnership deal with the doctor. The only hitch is that he may be blackballed from his community if they find out about his comings and goings. So he keeps his family, including his girlfriend (later wife) Ashima in the dark about his arrangement, even though she is scarred from a previous marriage to a perfidious man, and is touchy about trust.
As can be expected from a simple three-act, single-track plot, Act Two portends a predictable shitstorm that destroys all the characters' lives. Ashima learns that she can never have a baby because of a tubal block (which, by the way maybe treatable) and that Vicky is a sperm donor. She inarticulately expresses her disillusionment, and cuts and runs from home. Coincidentally, Vicky is also arrested just then for tax evasion (only for one night, because the police officer is stunned into inaction when he learns about sperm banks from the doctor, and neglects to issue further punitive action).
In the interest of saving Vicky and Ashima's marriage, the doctor breaks all confidentiality agreements, without a picosecond of hesitation, and rounds up fifty three of Vicky’s donor-conceived children and their parents in a happy park for display. On seeing them, Ashima is overcome with emotion and fesses up to Vicky that she left him out of jealousy, because of his stupendous ability to procreate (and her inability thereof). In the interest of ending the movie, she expels all other legitimate reasons one would expect of a self-professed “modern woman”.
The doctor then introduces them to a donor-conceived child who lost her parents in a car accident. Vicky and Ashima adopt her, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Indian regulation concerning assisted-reproduction is flaky at best. Sperm banks follow ICMR guidelines, but there are no real laws in place. Anyone can open a fertility clinic without permission. There are also illegal and unmonitored sperm donation websites with detailed donor-profiles that list their physical characteristics and other attributes for people to choose from.
But, while malpractices abound, this movie is about a well-meaning, legitimate practice that at least intended to honor ICMR guidelines (such as testing and confidentiality). A man cannot father 53 donor-kids in a legit practice, except in Bollywood make-believe. In reality, a donor is allowed to donate 75 times towards the conception of a maximum of six children; and cannot make enough (at best Rs.1000 per donation) to sustain himself on donor compensation alone.
There are couples who seek “superior” sperm; but they are likely to trace the master-race to more “credible” (now definitely illegal) sources, such as Brokpas in the Himalayas, and not some random sperm bank in Delhi. Patients definitely don’t approach legit clinics asking for Aryan babies.
I don’t know if one comes out of this movie with considerate feelings for couples seeking reproductive assistance, or for sperm donors who volunteer with no compensation (as is the case most of the time). The movie has encouraged many college kids to become donors for pocket money. I wonder if this is a good thing!
The movie underlines several class, gender and inter-regional stereotypes (admittedly enjoyable, and maybe the only thing that kept me going, but I hope we outgrow them). It [half-heartedly] tries to portray women as being independent, but they are still far from being modern or progressive. One of Ashima’s bank colleagues goads her to date Vicky and not be a “bore”, and that is all the peer pressure she needs to do a 180. The story sustains our positive feelings towards Vicky, even after his disparaging behavior with his needy ex-girlfriend in their break-up scene. For some reason, even though he is flawed, everyone around him feels the need to be contrite (including his relatives who try to rope him into their business).
Today’s google doodle celebrates the birthday of Grace Cooper, “the first lady of software”. How far have we come with regard to gender equality since her time?
This short is in Hindi, and does not have subtitles, but it is fairly self-explanatory, and has a predictable, albeit reductive ending!
On the issue of self-defense, I have, and I suspect a lot of women have wondered if self-defense works against sexual assault. This 77-page report published by the National Institute of Justice suggests that struggling against the attacker is better than cooperating. Some self-defense techniques have shown to have reduced the risk of rape by more than 80% compared to nonresistance; and to have also helped victims with mental health recovery post-rape.
This is great advice. But, many can't seem to see beyond women having to find the resolve within themselves to deal with sexual harassment. Moreover, sexual harassment needs to be seen as, and dealt with, in the same law enforcement capacity by the police, as any other cognizable crime, like murder or kidnapping. If a locality has a lot of murder incidents, the solution is not to simply teach all the residents karate, but to increase surveillance, patrols, and other enforcement efforts, in addition to educating people on protecting themselves and respecting human dignity!
I always watch these short films on sexual harassment in the hope that they will show us something other than women standing up for themselves or arguing that they are not to blame for sexual harassment; not because these are not important, but because, by now, we should have moved beyond this to a more reasonable world!
Manikarnika is a sacred ground in India that offers us the best chance to meet our maker at the end of our lives. There, we are laid southward, in "the direction of the dead," and set alight, till the fire consumes our body and liberates our soul. If this ritual is not done correctly, our spirit floats restlessly above the sacred earth, and haunts the living!
Among those ensuring out proper departure are children, who stoke our fire, collect our dropping limbs that detach from us and throw them back into the pyre. Some take a few hours to burn and some a whole day, depending on how much fat and sin we have accumulated. With bodies burning round-the-clock, a hundred at once, all lined up next to each other, the temperature rises to a 50° (122°). The children are covered in burnt pocks and wet ash from all the sweating, and reek of melting flesh and the fetor of a thousand bodies. It is unconscionable to touch them, or let their shadows fall on the living. If the priests don't volley abuses or whack these varmints, they pluck the shiny shrouds straight off our cold bodies from right under the priests' noses, and sell them to recyclers for scraps. They smoke marijuana to ward off the images of burning corpses that interfere with their minds when they work; some corpses escape into their dreams and scare them all night in spite of the dry high. They mock our departure, by imitating the priests and chanting nonsensical verses over unclaimed bodies that they find lying on the ghat. They candidly speak uncomfortable truths that expose our affectations. They know too much. But, it is when they dance uninhibitedly, that their spirits transcend to where our delicate souls cannot reach! Not even when we are tempered perfectly for departure. And so, we stay back to haunt them.
The documentary is available on Netflix to Watch Instantly.
Kumaré is a documentary film about an Indian American who pretends to be a spiritual guru from a fictional village in India. He attracts a retinue of followers who are emotionally fragile from various distressing life experiences, and are looking for comfort and healing. The followers find value in his fabricated teachings inspired by Zen Buddhism, adopt his philosophy and are on the mend. Eventually, he reveals his true self to them and the fact that they were his unwitting guinea pigs, and leaves us to contemplate the message.
This brings me to dwell on the ethical problems of this social experiment, and whether it is okay to mislead vulnerable people to satisfy one's own curiosity about what inspires them to seek spiritual leaders and join a cult; especially given the fact that they invested a lot of their time and faith on this man. Your appreciation for this documentary rests on this question, and the verdict is still out.
I saw a man making his opinion known about the fakeness of spiritual enlightenment at the expense of skewering people's faith, and humiliating already dispirited people seeking help. The filmmaker meant to reveal that a lot of what followers think is coming from spiritual healers is in fact coming from within themselves; His intention may therefore be harmless but this experiment seemed like too high a price to pay just to ratify his personal beliefs; and in fact to no other purpose, even if he felt like he was able to connect to people more deeply as a fake guru than as his real self. It also makes light of the fact that there are spiritual leaders who lead austere and venerable lives that are guided by deep philosophies. Not all of Indian spirituality is commodified even in the West; and the line between being inspired by spiritual leaders and being fixated on them is not always apparent to an observer, as much as it is to the people going through that experience.
On the positive side, I saw a healing process, as people submitted to a spiritual teacher with an open mind and took real action to better their lives. It takes courage to seek help (be it spiritual or medical). If you liken spiritual healers to psychologists or counsellors, would it have been acceptable for this filmmaker to pretend to be a doctor and pull a fast one on his convalescing patients? Also, would this very same experiment have been possible in Hollywood among celebrities who are the biggest evangelists of Eastern spirituality in America. I have a feeling getting them to honor their release forms granting permission to use their footage after they learnt that they were hoodwinked would have been near impossible.
If there was little collateral damage at the end of this experiment, it is a testament to the purity of these people who took this in good spirit (at least most of them); and to Vikram Gandhi's ability to stay in character throughout the process and genuinely connect with them. It was evident that he and his followers saw this as a spiritually fulfilling experience in some way, at least for as long as the facade lasted.
This got me thinking about where Kumaré fits within the different documentary modes that Bill Nichols talks about (See wiki). The filmmaker doesn't spoonfeed us with his thoughts, but the overall rhetoric of the documentary is allusively expository and leads our observations and thoughts in a certain direction. The filmmaker directly interacts with subjects, but because he does so in disguise, as a fictional character in the real world, it is both participative and performative. And as we find ourselves observing the followers and Kumaré's personal growth, it becomes a reflexive experience for both him and us. That is five of the six modes that Nichols talks about; the sixth being the poetic mode, and there is nothing poetic about dupery, especially if there is no poetic justice in the end!
This is a funny Wired talk with the film director, Vikram Gandhi a.k.a. Kumaré on the making of the film.
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.