Sunday, December 30, 2007

Samsara by Pan Nalin

Samsara is a 2001 film by the Indian director Pan Nalin. This review will contain spoilers.


The plot is sweeping but minimalist. A Buddhist monk is awakened from his deep trance after years of meditative solitude. After coming back to his monastery, stirrings of lust and desire begin to make him restless. He sets eyes upon a woman, whose family he and his fellow monks visit for a ritual, and ends up giving up his monkhood and marrying her. They have a son together, the husband gets immersed in the agricultural life and the trading decisions. There are fights, disasters and he has an adulterous interlude with one of the migrant workers. Unable to come to terms with his present state, one night he leaves his sleeping family to again become a monk. Just as he is reaching his old monastery, he is confronted by his wife and asked some hard questions.

I want to address a few complex issues explored in this film.

The first theme is that of renunciation as an involuntary path, especially for a child. I completely agree with the writer/director that it is foolish to make a child a renunciate, only to have him struggle with his instincts and his code of monkhood in his later life. The simple living of a renunciate must be a conscious choice born of experience and maturity.

The second theme is that of making choices in life to follow one's desires.

The monk decides to spend three years in solitary meditation, then he decides to give up his robes altogether for the life of a householder, and then, troubled by the increasing complexity and uncontrollable urges of worldly life, he decides to turn back and again become a monk. Certainly, that is what freedom is.

But due to a complete lack of self-awareness and understanding of oneself, the monk lives his life like a leaf in the wind, blown here and there by the passing storms of his desires. He has no foresight as to the consequences of his actions. For a monk who has spent a dozen years studying scriptures, living in the company of other monks who have spent a lifetime doing the same, who has spent many years in deep solitary meditation over impermanence, egolessness and suffering (the three insights of Buddhist meditations), he seems peculiarly unevolved and immature. He doesn't understand sexual desire and social conventions even to the extent of a normal human being. He picks up fights, gets seduced almost too easily by another woman, is impetuous and vengeful, graceless (observe the way he sheds snow from his clothes after coming in from the storm, versus the grace of his wife) and ill at ease with letting others see the instinctual side of him.

His choices are not born of an understanding of the limitations of a certain set of circumstances. Rather, he escapes just as the circumstances are becoming forceful enough to make him ponder over the nature of desire and conflict. He is escaping conflict, both inwardly as well as outwardly, and his crying and wishing to come back with his wife towards the end brings home the pathetic truth that he is unable to face a crisis head on. All seekers go through wavering, doubt and scepticism, but not in such an ignorant and unaware a manner.

Hermann Hesse's works (also those by Nikos Kazantzakis) engage with this theme in far deeper manner, as befitting a written work. Three novels by Hesse: Siddhartha, Narcissus and Goldmund, and Steppenwolf, singularly address the dichotomy between hedonism and asceticism. In Steppenwolf, there is a divided mind. In Siddartha, the life is divided into asceticism, hedonism and understanding. In Narcissus and Goldmund, two monks lead divergent paths, one towards solitude and the other towards a wild, gushing engagement with life. In Kazantzakis' flagship work, The Last Temptation of Christ (adapted into a film by the American director Martin Scorsese), a figure as revered as Christ suffers the temptation of a householder's life when nailed to the cross.

The film is remarkable for its cinematography, its music and its depiction of the life of a monastery and in the hills of the Ladakh-Zanskar region. The director has chosen a complex theme for his film, and a more self-aware protagonist would probably have been able to do justice to it.

There are a few conundrums in the film which are left open to interpretation. One is the aphorism by the old monk, "Which is better? To satisfy one thousand desires or to conquer just one?" According to me, the one desire (for religions affirming transmigration and reincarnation, i.e. Samsara, the cycle of birth and death) is the sexual instinct, the desire which leads to further and further entanglements. Sex is the primary instinct, the central act in the propagation of life.

The second is the question and the answer written on the rock by the roadside. The question is: "How does one prevent a drop of water from drying up?" And the answer, on the back of the rock, is: "By throwing it into the sea." One possible interpretation of the analogy is: The drop of water is the individual soul. Its "drying up" is its death as a separate entity. The "sea" is the worldly life, in which it finds sustenance and mixes up with other selves.

Since this Q&A is the last frame of the film, it is hard to ignore the stance of the director that the step taken by Tashi, the monk, to enter the life of a householder was a disaster. Despite the misgivings expressed earlier in the film about renunciation only being valid after ownership, and despite the feminist polemic at the end of the film by Tashi's wife about how Gautama the Buddha, and men like him, care only about their own enlightenment without bothering about the consequences of their desertion, the director seems to have a slight bias towards the monastic life (evidenced in the compassion of the old monk, the graceful smile of the child head lama, the playfulness of the young lama, the angry snort of Tashi's dog when Tashi changes into the clothes of a householder, the unrepentant way in which Tashi's wife gives up her engagement to her suitor, the noise and corruption and the superficial entertainments of the city life, and so on).

According to me, the prime mistake Tashi makes is of his passing through life unmindfully, which is surprising given that mindfulness is a central theme in Buddhism. He doesn't seem to examine anything. He doesn't reflect upon how his actions and thoughts are shaping. The faculty of self-reflection in completely absent in him. And without reflection and self-enquiry, actions, choices, consequences, suffering, pleasures, anything, will not lead to evolution.

So for me, the aphoristic Q&A has another interpretation: The outer shape that one's life takes is mostly accidental. In the flow of life, one can struggle against circumstances, or one can flow with them and evolve inwardly, by an insightful examination of all that is happening within and around oneself. The drying up of a drop, the shriveling up of the self, is therefore a consequence of the desire to escape the flow of life and to become an isolated and walled self. The process being a psychopathic defense mechanism blocking a revelation of one's own darker aspects. If one flows without needless restlessness, life provides enough opportunities to grow, and to reach the natural destination, the understanding of one's existence as a self-aware drop in the infinite material ocean that is this universe.

In life, one must make choices, but the choices should be out of understanding and maturity. Even if that means a rejection of outdated or silly rituals or social conventions, even if that means rejecting the prevailing goals of human endeavor around oneself. Choices based upon uncontrollable urges to satisfy oneself heedless of the results will only result in guilt, regret and resentment. Urges are not extinguished by indulgence. Once temporarily satisfied, they demand higher, novel stimulations to sustain themselves.

They are extinguished by understanding and attentive enquiry, each moment, into one's state of mind.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Supposedly great films I don't like

The Barbarian Invasions: It is hard to relate to a group of spoiled intellectuals and to a rude professor having little depth who demands our sympathy for living a meaningless promiscuous life.

Dancer in the Dark: I genuinely liked Breaking the Waves, but DITD (A Cannes Golden Palm winner) is sophomoric in comparison, ludicrous in its sentimentality, Bjork is childlike but little else, and the film is overly ambitious and paranoid in its depiction of injustice in the US.

The Element of Crime: Stylistic homage, but too boring to be of interest to anyone but die-hard fans of Lars von Trier.

Jerry Maguire: Couldn't see what the hype was all about.

Rainman: As a reviewer says, this is Dustin Hoffman playing a single note on the piano for two hours.

Blanc: One can ascribe deep meanings to anything, especially tears, but I found it hard to learn anything from this film, about cinema or about life.

Donnie Darko: Quite inexplicable till one surfs the internet and finds all sort of hidden codes one is supposed to know to understand the film. I am a reasonably intelligent guy (I think) who has read more than his fair share of science fiction, and I think the film appeals to geeks having problems with authority.

A Fish called Wanda: Yes I can understand why it must have been funny, but I didn't find it especially so. It has gags, but they are contrived.

Wild at Heart: This is a Golden Palm winner at Cannes. Hardly the director's best work and I find Lost Highway to be his best, which most people think is pure tosh.

I Heart Huckabees: Walked out after twenty minutes.

Miami Vice: Michael Mann knows how to direct dramatic action more than perhaps any other director, but this film had nothing but false notes.

Unagi (The Eel): Interesting premise, but flawed execution.

Fear and Trembling: Caricatures, not characters.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Two Films by Sidney Lumet

Recently watching two films by the American director, Sidney Lumet, has whet my appetite for more. He is not really an avant garde director, but he is certainly a master of his craft. As much as I enjoy visionary films, with something incisive to say about human nature, I do get entertained by an intelligent story and flawless execution.


His most recent film, Before the Devil knows You're Dead is a taut study of a heist gone wrong. Taut, edgy and technically flawless.


The other film that I saw yesterday, the courtroom drama Find Me Guilty, was thoroughly enjoyable, even though, like others, I don't think it is his best work. But it is based on true events, and I was genuinely surprised by the bittersweet ending.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Junebug by Phil Morrison

As the world becomes more and more globalized, as we are more exposed to other cultures, counter-cultures, liberal ideas, as we become street-smart, capable of being witty, fashionable and urbane, are we also losing something perchance? As we grow disenchanted from the traditional structures, from the clutches of clergy, community and conformity, are we thereby not getting into the throes of a personalized superficiality and a nostalgic cynicism? What does love mean in the absence of the historical goals of procreation and kinship?

These are the complex themes explored in the multi-layered drama, Junebug, directed by the otherwise unknown director Phil Morrison. The film is a highly original treatment of modernity versus tradition. It is, in essence, an enquiry into the depth of communication between human beings. As I have written elsewhere, in the modern world, interactions are more varied and technically easy, but are strangely superficial and devoid of warmth and genuineness.


The plot is simple. An art-gallery owner (Madeleine) discovers George, a charming man at one of the art auctions, and travels with him to meet a self-taught artist in rural North Carolina. George's parents live nearby, and he and Madeleine go and stay with them for a couple of days. There is George's brother Johnny, his wife Ashley, and George's parents, Eugene and Peg. The film revolves around the presence of Madeleine in the house and her reactions towards everybody.

The film opens with an almost predatory approach by Madeleine where she catches hold of George, a charming, unassuming man at one of her auctions. The mood and of the auction is quite phony, art of dubious value being pushed by the auctioneer to the bored rich, and it is not clear to which extent the flirtation will go. They are married a week later.

Obviously the relationship is based on something superficial, and not fundamental. Madeleine is attracted to the man on a whim, and does not discover his background and his constitution till much later.

The self-taught artist she is to visit is slightly lunatic. He paints the armed encounters of the civil and the confederate wars between white Europeans and the blacks and the native Americans. Is the theme of his paintings just coincidental? Or is the director trying to provide an analogue to the cultural difference between the visiting Chicago urbanites and the small-town conformati. In the lunatic's paintings, the prime object of attack is the genitals, suggesting that the the violence has a sexual undertone. Is Madeleine the foreign predator (she grew up around the world, and was born in Japan) who is trying to sexually and economically devour both the "native American" brothers?

The greatest performance in the film is, however, not of Madeleine. It is the Sundance award winning role by Amy Adams as Ashley. Her character begins as a caricature, and as the film proceeds and ends, her stature rises and rises, till she is undoubtedly the one we feel closest to. In a landmark performance portraying a simple but bubbly, God fearing, un-exposed small-town woman, her character can almost be compared to that of Inger in Carl Dreyer's Ordet, the woman who with her plain humanity, optimism and vulnerability, lights up the otherwise morose and difficult home. Her performance in the hospital bed, with George, ranks as one of the great female performances of our time.

...

As James Berardinelli states in his review, the film can be looked at as a study of three couples: George's parents, his brother and Ashley, and himself and Madeleine. There is a different dynamic in all three couples. While his parents share a deep understanding and familiarity, Johnny and Ashley are yet to cement their relationship (but the film concludes with hope for them). George and Madeleine, we suspect however, won't be together for long.

The film has been categorized as a comedy-drama (at least for the first half) and the change in tone towards depth and somberness in the second half is unexpected but not off-putting.

Physical contact and words such as "Love" mean completely different things in Madeleine's world and where she is now. It is not just the protocols (and the values behind them) which Madeleine completely fails to understand at George's home, it is also her total bewilderment at finding herself in the midst of a close (closed?) community, a river which is flowing at a depth unknown to her.

Bombarded with values (Catholicism, procreation, being there for one's family, anti-Semitism), she comes to realize her own dubiousness in using people and situations to her advantage. She uses the the word "love" with Johnny, to disastrous effects, and she plays along with the lunatic artist's anti-Semitism, to great success.

And it is this inner emptiness, this not-belonging and therefore the tendency to be false everywhere and true nowhere, that carries her close to the breaking point. She is not a villain, however. She wants to be good, but does not know how, except to be what people want her to be. Her mistakes are significant because she is unable to understand where she is erring. Her efforts at bridging the distance between George and herself on the last night are painfully superficial.

It is a film which will reward repeated viewings, it is a labor of love by the director, deserving the highest accolades for the keenness with which the camera observes the smallest nuance of comfort (as in homeliness), and discomfort (as in disorienting lack of belonging). The scenes in the final sequence, where Eugene hides his gift from Madeleine, where George and Madeleine are distant when travelling back to Chicago are masterful.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Fallacies in Epidemiological and Sociological "Research"

Came across this gem of a fallacy in an Indian tabloid today: Domestic Abuse makes women smoke

Technically this is the fallacy of Cum hoc ergo propter hoc. A related fallacy, Post hoc ergo propter hoc is also frequently found, e.g. in the list maintained by Dr Bernstein.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tadpole by Gary Winick


Tadpole is a humorous (and probably self-indulgent) look at the Oedipal complex and the latent fantasy of having an older woman as one's sexual companion. It is mildly erotic, and its insights are facile, but it does lead one to reflect on the nature of attraction.

...

A woman reaches menopause much earlier than a man reaches his "male" menopause. Hence, traditionally, in the interest of a longer childbearing union, men have married women younger than themselves.

It is conventional wisdom that the majority of men, especially older men, find young women more attractive than women their own age, or God forbid, women elder to themselves. The image of a lascivious "dirty old man" is quite well-known. The crimes of pornography involving children predominantly exploit young girls more than young boys.

The evolution of pornography on the internet (mostly catering to men) has created niches catering to very specific fantasies. There are offerings for those who like to fantasize about partners from a different race, from a specific ethnic background, of a certain body type, having a certain amount of pubic hair, of a certain age, who are acting unwilling or masochistic or bossy or bitchy or cuckoldish, etc.

One of these categories is known as "Mature" or "MILF" (Mothers I'd like to Fuck) porn. In this, typically men in their twenties seduce (or are seduced by) women older than themselves (typically in their late thirties). There are obviously psychological reasons for liking a specific kind of sexual partner, and this review-essay will focus on the fantasy of a young man for an older woman.

Freud was the first to forumulate the mother-fixation in sexual relations of a male as a unviersally occuring Oedipal Complex. From early childhood, the boy is possessive of his mother, who is "shared" between him and his father. The love towards his mother (which has elements of erotic desire) coexists with a resentment and animosity towards his father. The father is seen as an adversary, competing for the affections of the woman. Various factors, such as an affectionate father, can to some extent attenuate this complex but it survives in various forms in most men.

A survey of pornographic material (stories, situations in films, South Indian porn productions, softcore mujras) in India and Pakistan brings out clearly that the male psyche in this region is infantile (and also in a certain sense, laden with feelings of guilt and inferiority) and much more mother-fixated than in the west. The typical fantasies in this region revolve around elder female relatives, the housemaid, the landlady, mother's sister, the schoolteacher, elder brother's wife, etc. If we consider not just the age of the desired sexual partner, but also the body type of the partner and nature of the acts fantasized, it is clear that the fixation is on the breasts, on a moderately plump body-type, on a submissive and nurturing attitude, on oral acts performed on the woman, etc.

I think men who are unsure of themselves like to fantasize about elder women, because, seemingly, the younger men are being the givers in the relationship. Such men are also generally less masculine than they think they should be but they compensate for this inferiority by indulging in various surrogate activities (intellection is but one of them, as shown in this film). The elder woman fantasy is a fantasy of acceptance, of being led back into the womb, of not being challenged or being forced to pursue and seduce and manipulate but of being nurtured and nourished. In a sense, the umbilical cord of these men is still intact. They are not willing to fight for women "out there".

In this film, for example, the protagonist clearly has a face which looks weak, malnourished and almost ready for suckling. Compare his face with the various elder men in the scenes (his father, his father's friends, Diane's boyfriend, the guard at the gate) all of whom show a certain fullness of features, a surety of understanding. Whereas Grubber shows pre-eminently confusion (covered up with intellectual name-dropping and French), anxiety and an emasculated body-type.

It is also a feature of metropolitan life (the film is situated in New York) that concerns about procreation and childbearing while choosing one's partner have been overtaken almost completely by a legitimization of one's sexual idiosyncracies. The modern man has trivial justifications for choosing one's partner in a metro (the shape of hands, the colour of one's car), and therefore divorces are considered a matter of course and not a tragedy.

The city is "happening", as compared to a village, due to the increased probability of new sexual encounters and due to the anonymity under which one can indulge one's fetishes and fantasies. In the city life, it is a given that one must look one's best at all times (for obvious reasons). The "urbane" life is a hotbed of neuroses in full bloom, because the traditional tools of suppression (morality, religion, fear of ridicule, fear of looking different) have been removed, and there is no time for reflection which, coupled with the vastly increased exposure, might lead to evolution.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Gap Year College and Jeevan Vidya

One of my long-standing friends from IIT, Vinish Gupta, has started an experiment in alternative, informal education for literate adults. He calls this a "Gap Year College", where one spends a year not acquiring a professional degree or furthering one's career but having stimulating discussions, experiencing differing ways of life and learning creative arts.

This program is being run under the auspices of SIDH (Society of Integrated Development in the Himalayas), which is closely associated with the doctrine of Jeevan Vidya. This doctrine has impressed many, including President Kalam and the Magasasay Award winner social activist Sandeep Pandey.

However, having interacted with its practitioners, and having read many of the articles written by its exponent and his close people, I consider it (I may be wrong) an idealistic philosophy of natural balance, agrarian prosperity and a harmonious, communal living. The writings are very abstruse and hard to decipher and there are regular retreats held to disseminate its ideas. I do not think the doctrine considers human instincts, feelings of being a self and conditioning as the primary causes of human suffering and it hopes to change one by intellectual arguments.

It invents new meanings for common words and considers itself non-spiritual despite considering "Life" as a non-material process.

I will be very interested in comments from people who have attended a JV program or have thoughts to share about this.

Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio


The story of humanity is a story of ever-accelerating change. In a famous illustration, if you compress the history of the universe in a single year, the pace of change (all the technological progress) that has happened on earth in the last micro-fraction of a second is both breathtaking and disturbing.

Koyaanisqatsi (a Hopi word meaning "Life out of balance"), the first film in the Qatsi trilogy, is a visually stunning film contrasting the life in ultra-modern cities with the desolate beauty of nature. Utilizing technically superlative time-lapse photography, panning shots, slowly moving camera frame, painstakingly choreographed music by Philip Glass, the film is a silent history of the world in 90 minutes.

The message of the film is quite obvious (especially if one stays till the end of titles, seeing the names of inspirations as Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich), that technology, modern institutions, the values of mass-production, are achieving a momentum and autonomy of their own, with humans becoming subservient and helpless as cogs in a vast network.

The problem of the accelerating pace of technical achievement, and the changes it is forcing humans to make, is very real. Most humans lack the awareness and the ability to resist unnecessary and harmful changes in their lifestyle. This is a powerful issue, galvanzing to action millions of activists around the world and making intelligent deviants such as Theodore Kaczynski try to blow up airplanes and universities and write manifestos of a "return to nature".

In this age of worldwide awareness of global warming and the population explosion, this film (and the later films in the trilogy) can spark intelligent discussion about the fate of earth and if an individual change can realistically stop this avalanche.

However, I must admit that as I am awed by nature, I am also wonderstruck at times by the sheer felicity of human achievement in transportation, computation, communication and digital technology.

...

I was spellbound by quite a few shots in the film, notably the clouds washing over the mountain tops, the jetliner staring one in the eye, the moon rising across a skyscraper, and the demon-shape formed by the explosion in the desert.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

DJIA, inflation adjusted

The article speaks for itself: The Real Dow


Inflation adjusted return for Dow Jones Industrial Average is 1.64 percent compounded annually.

The following paragraphs are enough to induce humility in an irrationally exuberant investor:

"To illustrate: the Dow averaged 985.93 in 1/66, and 4746.76 in 9/95 = 4.81 times higher; the CPI-U was 31.8 in 1/66, and 153.2 in 9/95 = 4.82 times higher; thus, the Real Dow for 1/66 and 9/95 are very nearly equal at 46.4 (see plot). This plot is directly inspired by the 3/30/99 publication of such a plot, titled “Dow, Inflation Adjusted”, by The Wall Street Journal (in article “The First 10,000 Points. How It All Adds Up to 10000”, page C14); the agreeing overlay of the two plots is here with quoted text."

"Again to illustrate: the Dow averaged 985.93 in 1/66, and it was nearly the same 16.75 yr later, = 988.71 in 10/82; but the CPI-U increased from 31.8 in 1/66, to 98.2 in 10/82 = 3.09 times higher; thus, the Real Dow for 1/66 and 10/82 are very different, = 46.4 and 15.1 (see plot), a more than 2/3 decrease over the 16.75 yr."

Financial Foolishness

Came across the following article in a mainstream financial newspaper in India:

Mutual Funds Best Bet to Beat Inflation

The sheer stupidity of the article is staggering.

See, for example:

"he said even a regular investment of a small sum of Rs 200 a month through the Systematic Investment Plan (SIP) route for 6 or 7 years would fetch an investor Rs 12 lakh after 20 years subject to an annualised return of 10 per cent"

Now supposing the investor does better and invests 200x12x7 = 16800 right at the beginning. Compounding a non-inflation-adjusted return of 10% (as claimed) leads to a multiple of 1.1^20 = 6.72. 6.72 times the original principal = 112896.

Counting in inflation at 5% per annum, the multiple reduces to: 1.05^20 = 2.65, giving an inflation adjusted return at the end of 20 years = 44575.

It doesn't look as spectacular, correct?

Let's look further:

"In today’s scenario, the stock market would provide a return of 20-25 per cent annually."

Not so, that has been the historical long term performance of Sensex over 20 years (where individual years at times gave negative returns), inducing future performance from the past is completely irrational.

"When the returns are 20 per cent, the maturity value at the end of 20 years would be doubled to Rs 24 lakh. Investment of Rs 500 every month could get a return of Rs 30- Rs 35 lakh after 20 years whereas the actual investment is only for 6 or 7 years. No other savings could match the return provided by MFs."

Alright, let's calculate. Suppose the investor invests 500x12x7 = 42000 right at the beginning, and earns a non-inflation-adjusted return of 20%. Over a 20 year period, the compounding multiple of principal = 38.33. Asset value = 16 lakhs. (when it is claimed to be 30-35 lakhs).

Counting inflation of 5%, the returns are only 16 times = 672000.

Assuming, of course the following:

1. The market is not in a temporary crash after 20 years (which might take 5 more years to get out of).

2. The market behaves in the long term and the investment does not get blown up.

3. One discounts MF loads, brokerage charges and MF management charges.

Finally, the piece-de-resistance:

"Offering a personal example, he said `believe me or not, I am investing and making money only after reading the business column in the Business Line.'"

Voila!

Monday, October 29, 2007

INLAND EMPIRE by David Lynch

The latest film by David Lynch is the third in his (for lack of a name) Identity-under-attack trilogy. Both the earlier films, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, bring a crisis of identity to an exquisitely realized vision. The crisis of identity happens at two levels in both films. Firstly the identity is humiliated by the infidelity of one's partner, and secondly it suffers confusion and a nightmarish escape from the painful reality of the consequences of one's response to that infidelity.

INLAND EMPIRE is superficially about the same theme, infidelity and the identity under attack. But in this film, Lynch considers infidelity to be not just a cause of an identity crisis, but also an effect of it.

On the surface, the film is about an aging actress, Nikki Grace, who acts in a film about infidelity and murder. In her desire to embody her character totally, she gets possessed by it to the extent that she is unable to make a meaningful distinction between her dreams, hallucinations, the film role and her actual reality.


Lynch, in one of the most rebellious acts by a mainstream director, shot and edited the film himself on a consumer grade camcorder and distributed it himself. The film has mainly played in film festivals and has only recently been released on DVD.

Cinematic art is especially prone to leading its participants towards an identity crisis. First, a real life event (an actual occurrence of infidelity, "the longest running show in history") inspires the artist to create a fictional account of it (the Polish gypsy tale). This is the first creation of another world. Secondly, in a cinematic adaptation of a fictional text, the actors are asked to play the characters and not be themselves. This is the second creation, doubly removed from reality. Thirdly, the spectators watch the enactment of this second reality on a screen, which is not real but is a projection of light, and identify with the characters on screen. Spectators feel happy, sad, fearful, angry, by identifying with the storyline and its characters.

One of the most interesting ideas explored in this film is what happens to an artist when she sees herself playing a character on the screen. She was already there, playing it for real. Now she is watching herself on the screen and as a spectator, trying to identify with what the director is trying to convey by the mood of the film, the lighting and the thousand other things which she didn't notice when she was engrossed in playing her part.

There has been a lot of discussion about the admittedly hard-to-understand narrative (or the lack of narrative) in the film. However, it is easier to enjoy and appreciate this film if one sees it as a maze in which one's identity is lost and not everything makes complete sense.

The first time there is a hint of the identity being cursed is when the actress starts embodying the role and she gets emotionally affected. Someone sees another presence in the set, and that perception is literally true, though the seeing was not of a physical being but of a new persona arriving.

Also explored are themes of feminine entanglement versus masculine distancing in a relationship. This distant-ness, or the lack of emotional depth can be considered a childish trait of an ego not fully developed. Males are repeatedly depicted as mental and emotional infants in this film.

The director is scathingly critical about the values of show business and about the commodification of a woman's body, about how the size of one's breasts determines success for a woman in almost any field (be it a nightclub, cinema, in one's career, on the street or in finding a life partner). And about how show-business is peculiarly cruel to women actresses. The sequence where Sue is bleeding on the boulevard of the stars is the one of most harrowing depictions in history of glamor versus suffering.

Some of the scene compositions are breathtaking in their originality and though it is a long film, it never feels long. As is usual with Lynch, the sound design and music in the film is superlative. The end titles are an exuberant treat in themselves.

Recommendation: Must-see.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

INLAND EMPIRE by David Lynch (pre-screening)

The Chandigarh Art Films Club is screening the latest work by David Lynch on this Sunday.


This is a film which will never run in a theater in India and most people will never hear of it, but this is a film that I have wanted to see for more than an year.

From the review by Walter Chaw:

Writing about it is perhaps, to paraphrase Frank Zappa, like dancing about architecture, but Inland Empire is a fascinating, terrifying document of the machinations of the lizard brain and even the instinct to represent it in story and image--of how all the intricate steps in the waltz of love and jealousy (and art and expression) might just be the product of millennia of biological hardwiring.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Horror of the Progeny

Three films: Benny's Video by Michael Haneke, Rosemary's Baby by Roman Polanski and EraserHead by David Lynch are diverse approaches to the deep-rooted fear and horror at the anxiety of bringing forth an inhuman child into the world.

Benny's Video, the second film in the emotional glaciation trilogy by Michael Haneke, is about the total breakdown of the sense of the other in the "supermodern" world.

Our primary interface to the world has become technological. As more and more of what we see what is fed to us by media, a strange kind of narcissism, self-absorption and apathy colors our self. No longer knowing the difference (or perhaps the economic forces actually seek to erase this difference) between an artificial image and reality, between an advertisement and a news bulletin, between what is shown and what is happening, makes us what can be called as virtual human beings, who behave and look like humans but have become so programmable and subjectively dead (lacking any authentic perception) that we might as well be androids.


Benny, a teenager, sees the world through his video equipment. The primary experience of life for the modern man is by proxy. Through TV, cinema, newspapers, the invisible creators of the virtual world shape our self. And how can a child succeed against the polished skills of the masters of mass communication? How will the parents protect a child from the media? The media is the world for the modern man.

The day starts with the newspaper, happens at the computer, and ends with television or a film. The direct experience of life is a luxury, unachieveable even as a tourist in a village. We have come so far (and moving farther every day) from a life of genuine human contact that our clumsy efforts to regain that humanity for ourselves are invariably futile or, worse, disastrous. It is in this context that one can understand the bitter urge of Non Resident Indians to involve themselves in some way for the betterment of their motherland.

The generation gap depicted in Benny's Video is not of different values or priorities in life, it is the horror of having a child with whom there is no sense of communication or understanding. The assumption that most urban children make, that their parents can't understand them, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Alienation is a vicious cycle in which every dose of apathy in the outer world makes one more and more apathetic oneself.

There are two scenes of painful crying in the film, and if the first (the unknown girl) is horrific in its brutality, the second (the mother) is tragic in its hysterical perception of the inhumanity of what came out of oneself.

In Rosemary's Baby, Roman Polanski has brought to film the worst nightmare of an expectant mother. All the fears and phobias, that one might actually give birth to a monster, that one might be trapped into caring (because it is one's creation) for a being that is alien and vile, that one will see a propagation of one's self in the worst possible way, are brought to a genre-defying climax.


What is remarkable about the ending is not the discovery, but the effect of that discovery on the mother. The horror is not what is brought forth, the horror is the loving acceptance of it.

The film is good, but not a masterpiece. It has little to say to one on a repeat viewing.

In David Lynch's first film, Eraserhead, he points his camera gaze at the post-industrial fear of commitment. This highly stylized film, with a collection of memorable and disturbing mise-en-scene's brings into sharp b&w focus the struggle of the modern intellectual man to evade the trappings of caring for an unwanted child.

Is it heretical to question the affection and love that parents feel for their child, no matter how ugly or deformed he is? The film is symbolic in various ways. The lady in the radiator, the benevolent Goddess is symbolic of freedom and happiness. The head and the hair are symbolic of intellection, which might as well be thrown out when one tries to fit in one monstrous responsibility after another in one's life.


Also dealt with are notions of carnal guilt leading to commitment, the evaporation of personal space, the fear of being used up for something extremely trivial, and of shared responsibilities in a nuclear family.

All three films are remarkable and a film enthusiast should not miss an opportunity to see them.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Gerry by Gus van Sant


Not for the easily bored, Gerry is a homage to Bela Tarr's meditative cinema from the American director Gus van Sant.

Superficially, the film is about two friends who get lost in a desert of dreamlike proportions and changing vistas. That's all.

It is a film which can get you to tune into a different rhythm in your brain. The experience is best described as trance-like.

What does the desert mean? What do the hallucinations about the road signify? Who are the two people, or are they the masculine and feminine of humanity, the ego and the id?

Gerry is the first in the "Death Trilogy" by Gus van Sant. The second film, Elephant is equally, if not more, spellbinding.

I am yet to see the last one: Last Days.

Once one has tasted the appetizer that is this trilogy, one might be ready for the monumental seven-hour epic, Satantango by Bela Tarr.

Recommendation: Must-see.

(If there is a large number of good films in my reviews, it is because as I am starting out writing about films, I find it easier to write about the films that I have liked the best).

Old Joy by Kelly Reichardt


One of the best films of 2006, almost completely overlooked (except in art circles).

A deeply affecting tale of the effect of time on joy and youthfulness. Two friends, who have drifted in life in very different directions, meet up after many years and spend two days together.

A minimalistic masterpiece, it will appeal to men more than to women (but remarkably, the director is a woman). The film is a meditative reflection on joy, or the lack of it in our lives, on the trappings of civilization, and on the fate of evading those traps.

It is an intensely individual experience, hence I recommend seeing it on your own.

Recommendation: Must-see.

Facets of Depersonalization

Technology affects culture. An explosion of communication technologies is driving not just the form, but also the content of messaging between people today. A communication is only as deep and genuine, and as treasured, as the time, thought and effort put into it.

Ease can also lead to callousness.

Writing a letter on paper used to take at least half an hour, and many days or weeks to reach. Coupled with the physical touch of the chosen paper, the watermark, the smell and texture of the ink, the handwriting, the writing in the margins, the post-script (which is meaningless in an electronic medium), the address on the envelope, the hazy postmark, the choice of the stamp, the way the envelope was glued... Even without considering the content, there was so much that was unique to a paper letter that it was a thing to treasure, to look up after many years when the paper had yellowed and smelled different, to read again and again and recognize an affirmation of oneself as a human being who was thought of. And as the letter was an infrequent thing, it also contained tidbits of events spanning a longer time-frame: the health of the family, the evolution of one's thought, the planning of a celebration...

My aim is not to romanticize the past, but to see in which way we are blindly driven by technology to change the nature of human interactions.

Greeting cards was the next step. Eloquent messages about the particular relationship ("The best mother on earth", "Happy Birthday Dear Brother", "Friendship") made the other feel better than any hand-written letter could make them. This was the first "outsourcing" of message-content. One could just write "Dear Mom", and "Affectionately, your son xxx" and the rest of the message could be taken care of (along with sweet pictures of flowers and scenery). Yes, we could choose between say, twenty different greeting cards, but does that make it any different, or any less depersonalized?

The strange thing is, sometimes it takes more time to shop for a greeting card than to write a letter. But there is a reason why people still shop for them. The greeting cards lie romantically. Most of us have neither the skill to be poetically romantic nor to express hyperbolic sentiments about the relationship.

Also, the verbalizing of emotion makes the emotion superficial, and that is why we find it hard to write a letter of our love to our parents or to our siblings. The card is not authentic, and therefore its over-the-top exclamations are also curiously acceptable. The love or affection between people doesn't need to be put into descriptive words, comparing (for example) our mother to other mothers or describing the value-addition they have meant for us. Hence, writing letters is also inherently a tougher task. What creative and original words can one write, after all, since the whole "keeping in touch" is a ritual to stroke each other's egos and keep the emotional bonds tugged tight?

But the messaging in greeting cards is a great study in inter-human expectations, and to see why they appeal so much (despite them being formulaic) can be an instructive exercise.

When greeting cards were still a new thing, people were teary eyed at getting them, the colored envelope and the oh-so-heartfelt (but professionally written) message inside, without perhaps realizing that that card was printed in thousands with very careful attention to what people would like to say to (or hear from) each other.

...

The proliferation of computer and mobile telephone networks breaks altogether new ground. Let's briefly review the situation at present:

- We are in touch. We have hundreds of email addresses of people: our childhood friends, our classmates, our extended family, our past colleagues.

- Mobile phones flaunt their 1000-entry address books.

- It is considered a feature to be able to send a mass message via one's phone to hundreds of recipients.

- We are part of faceless online communities: multiple social networks, mailing lists, forums and newsgroups.

- We have almost unlimited storage space for our old emails, but little time to ever review them at leisure.

- Through twitter, facebook, and other such contraptions, we know exactly which song our friend is listening at present, where he hiked to last week, which news stories she finds interesting, which are his favorite films, which books he recently read, ...

- We have automated reminders of others' birthdays and anniversaries (whereas the whole purpose of wishing somebody on their birthday is to express that we care enough for them to remember it).

- We receive probably dozens of personal emails (and many times more work-related emails) every day. For the personal emails, the interesting question to ask is: how many of them are worthy of being treasured? How much time is spent on writing them, reading them, thinking about them and in replying to them?

- We are addicted to the "latest". But since it is too time consuming to keep up with the latest happenings in hundreds of online places, "Feeds" comes to the rescue. Now one can be up to date without much manual effort. (I recently came across a news article describing a feed-junkie: that person had more than 600 site feeds in his RSS reader.)

- Greeting cards have a new avatar: E-greeting cards. Choose from a dozen or so animated pictures, put in the recipient email address and off it goes. Probably it can be automatically linked with our calendars (where we store others' anniversaries etc.). On the recipient side, probably an automated email filter will file the "Happy Birthday" wishes into a special folder, to be read and replied en masse.

- Emails allow responses in which the original text can be preserved, the replies merely being in the form of an annotation to the original text. Hence messages can be sent which are almost entirely responsive in nature.

- Hyper-linked content encourage attention deficit disorder. Due to the "unknown" nature of what lies behind a link, the mind has a tendency to de-focus on the present page and click and open (perhaps in a different tab in the browser) the various links in an article.

- One can have multiple open conversations in an instant messenger, without the other realizing it.


I think there ought to be a term: "information greed". Only recently in human history has it become possible for a human being to know about the entire world, have an unlimited vista (to an astonishing level of detail) of the workings, thoughts and activities of billions of people, all the films and books ever written, all the TV shows, all the software ever made, all the philosophies, religions, cults, sects available to one at the touch of a button.

With this storm, deluge and maelstrom of information, where does one stop? Being on the internet is like being in Manhattan or Tokyo or Bombay. There is SO much to see, absorb, so many people going around, so many billboards, things crying for one's attention, and so little time.

It is not possible to be empathetic in a big metro because empathy is possible only towards a limited set of people. How many will you empathize with when driving on the Ring Road in New Delhi? Just as relentless physical crowding takes away one's capability for genuine empathy, similarly, trying to keep in touch with too many people online (just because it is possible) takes away the depth in one's communication.

Most of the personal communication that I see happening around is not original. They are second-hand, facile and in a word: consumptive. Forwarded emails, feel-good powerpoint slides about the Dalai Lama, the Ten Rules of friendship, difference between a woman and a bottle of beer, chicken-soup-for-the-soul stories about conquering the odds, the pronunciation mistakes of Bush (and not his disastrous foriegn policy), urban legends and spurious health warnings, epidemiological and post-hoc "research", dieting tips, celebrity gossip, ...

One might find the way Donald Knuth deals with his email interesting.

On the mobile phones, SMS witticisms and jokes present a laugh in ten seconds and in two lines. Some claim that the messages are coined by specialists in mobile phone companies and are then sent out into the world, to rake in millions from clueless customers who have a chuckle, and then blindly forward them to all they know. Personal SMS messages, since they are so difficult to type, are short and abbreviated. Since the day is so tight, one of the prime uses of SMS is to touch base, to agree on an eatery or on the time to meet up or that one is getting late.

One can understand the abbreviation and the lack of pronunciation in an SMS, but this is now spreading to email and instant messaging, stressing that this a symptom of one's restlessness rather than a restriction of the medium. Dis instead of This, 2gud instead of "too good", "tc" (short for "take care") as the final remark in an online conversation, and of course the opening line in online dating: a/s/l (Age/Sex/Location)...

At any moment during the day, there are hundreds of known people online, holding a mobile phone in their hands or having a computer in front of them. Communication is so inexpensive so as to be almost free. In this milieu, "keeping in touch" becomes a tiresome and ultimately undo-able exercise, unless one starts using canonical mass forwarded messages. But then, what does that "keeping in touch" mean if one is only forwarding depersonalized information?

And if one does not keep in touch, is one therefore guilty of disloyalty to one's friends and relatives?

This is a very recent and real phenomenon, and one which is going to get more pronounced as time goes on. One will feel less and less at leisure, the days and months and years will pass as if in a flurry and yet nothing will be there to talk about.

One will be up-to-date at the time of one's death, knowing the stock prices and the discount telephone calling plans and the availability of a torrent of the latest chart busters, having thousands of emoticon laden unread messages in one's inbox, and hundreds of unread feeds. Up-to-date, in touch, and ... fondly remembered for the nice forwards and SMSes.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Day Night Day Night by Julia Loktev


A masterful debut by Julia Loktev, a Russian filmmaker, this film is a silent journey into the void of a heart which is without any glimmer of joy.

The review by Jim Hemphill recommends this film with more eloquence than I can.

But I will add that the final sequence is the closest any filmmaker in my knowledge has come to portraying the nihilism of a world without God. And though the film uses a few tricks, the effect achieved in the second half is nothing less than electrifying. Pathbreaking cinema.

Recommendation: Must-see.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum by Paul Greengrass


Lights! Camera! Action!!

Films dealing with violence and destruction fall into some broad genres:

Westerns: Wide open vistas, sparsely populated towns, primitive weapons, horses, stereotypes of valor and chivalry.

War: Organized violence, heavy machinery and planning, grime, the brotherhood of fighters, memories of home.

Action: Urban (typically metropolitan) setting, suave, witty, modern handguns and peripherals, car chases, destruction of civic property, breaking of traffic rules, high-tech.

There was a time in Hollywood, when urban violence between man and man became so predictable and trite that the studios had to go in for aliens, robots and machines fighting against each other (the Robocop series, the Terminator series, Independance Day, the Men in Black series). After all, a man can only do so much. And one is relieved of the need for compassion when watching machines fight each other, or when watching ugly aliens die. One can just revel in the spectacle of destruction.

That period is still continuing (The Transformers is a recent example).

But the old "between man and man" action film is not dead, yet. Some of the biggest recent hits in Hollywood have been either sequels or remakes of classic action films. It is back to cops and gangsters (The Departed), the civic-sense hero versus the shut-them-down-villain (Die Hard 4.0) and now the man on the run versus the state: The Bourne Ultimatum.

Paul Greengrass is very well known for his last film, United 93. The handheld camera techniques he so effectively used in that film to portray the immediacy of doom is carried over to this film, and it is quite effective, at times.

After watching the latest action film, I used to ask myself: What will they do next? What novelty will there be in the next action film regarding the pyrotechnics, the gun battles and the chases?

In Die Hard 4.0, the novelty was in the speeding up of the action scenes, unbelievably (and laughably) bold acts of the hero, and in the (at times clumsy) editing where jump cuts were utilized to show a fast paced movement from various angles.

This is an action film in the true sense of the word. See the poster, for example. The hero is in motion, "in action", and that is true not just of the poster, it is true for the entire length of the film. It is not a stationary shot, it is a shot of movement.

In this film, the novelties (or the tricks) are many, and most of them work.

- The scenes are shot using handheld cameras with the shakiness adding to the realism and the tension.

- The scenes are very "happening" and fast and are edited using hundreds of jump cuts. Some of the scenes are hard to follow, but it works most of the time.

- The accompanying score is relentless and very well-paced.

- The sound effects are very loud, hyper-real and create an immediacy of destruction (e.g. in the destruction of the police car).

- The protagonist is very ruthless and skilled, and takes split second decisions. The action sequences are therefore whirlwind.

Director Greengrass realizes that this is an action film of the Twenty First century, exploiting the large metropolitan environments and the polished textures they provide for an action hero.

He drives this home by the numerous "eye in the sky" shots of the metro areas, the imagery of the vast concrete structures and the extreme density of a modern city.

The level of surveillance capability that today's governments have is probably exaggerated in this film, but the day is not far where the tracking of an individual or the analysis of a word spoken anywhere in the world on a wire will be available at the push of a button.

This film is the state of the art in the action genre.

Recommendation: Very Good.

300 by Zack Snyder


In The Battle of Thermopylae, circa 480 BC, three hundred Spartans, under the leadership of King Leonidas, and a few hundred Greek allies valiantly held back the invading Persian armies (with a combined strength of more than half a million people) for 3 days. Their superhuman herosim inspired the Greek army to rise and defeat the Persian invasion of King Xerxes and his armies.

This film is based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller. The dialogue and the composition of several scenes is taken directly from the novel.

Visually stunning, with state of the art audio-visual effects, the film is a masterful choreography of war. Seen on a purely sensate level, the artists have created some of the most awe-inspring frames in cinema history. There are a few scenes which stand out as truly remarkable, including the last of King Leonidas, in which his teary but valiant eyes look up to his fate.

The story, though an actual historical event, is the stuff of mythic hero-worship and legend, and the director doesn't hold back in any way. This film is a rendition of hyperbole, and should be enjoyed as such (at least on a first viewing), as children who hear about an ancient battle from a grandfather.

...

The criticism that the film is racist is indeed valid, and in the current world-stage, such a depiction of white supremacy may fuel an already heightened sense of one's communal and racial identities.

But some say that this is after all a comic book adaptation, and it is perhaps to be enjoyed as such. The response to that is: Even comic books are a part of one's culture, and deconstruction must happen where the audience will be hypnotized by the scale and felicity of the narrative. Because something can be enjoyed at such a visceral level and provoke such a strong adrenaline response, therefore must a critic be extremely calm, balanced and clinical when talking about it. It is no use recommending a film to someone just after one has had a cathartic or heartfelt response to it in the theater. One must wait, let the rush pass, and then reflect on the artistry and the message.

I enjoyed the film immensely, but I also thought about it later. Just as in most films of modern wars, this film also individuates the occidental man, and creates a crowd of the oriental ones. The occidental man is man in the image of God, such art proclaims, whereas the oriental herds are no better than cattle driven by a master. This worldview is partly driven by the fact that the films are primarily for a western audience, most of who have little motivation, or capability, to empathise or understand the mystic and hazy East. Almost all the films made in Hollywood related to the Vietnam war fall in the same trap.

There have been a few films which have depicted the German experience of the First or Second World War, and strangely, one is led to conclude that racial identities are stronger than national ones. Germans are usually not depicted as part of a herd, but as opaque, brave and empathize-able victims of a megalomaniac.

Only recently, a director (Clint Eastwood) has tried to do something different. He has crafted two films about the Battle of Iwo Jima in the second world war. Flags of Our Fathers sees the battle from American eyes, and Letters from Iwo Jima see it from the Japanese ones. I am yet to see both the films, but just the conception of this theme deserves commendation.

The war affects both the invaders and the invaded. And in the Kings' lust for power and revenge, the soldiers on both sides are unwitting pawns, maimed and murdered in the belief that one is serving one's destiny.

Bravery, heroism against insurmountable odds and testosterone-driven aggression appeal at an instinctual level, but is killing, without mercy, something that we, as humans, were "born to do" (as Dilios says in the voice-over)?

Haven't we come far from that primitive stage?

Probably not.

Recommendation: Must-see.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Dekalog 5 by Krzysztof Kieślowski


The Dekalog is a series of ten 1-hour films, each dealing with one of the ten commandments of Christianity as reflected in the modern world.

Dekalog 5 is about the commandment "Thou Shalt Not Kill" and is the most polemical of the ten films, giving expression to a personal, strongly held belief of the director.

The film raises a great many questions about modern society and the alienation it can cause.

There are three principal characters in the film: The Defense Counsel, The Taxi Driver and The Young Man.

The defense counsel is a lawyer, fresh out of the academy. He defends his heartfelt thesis opposing capital punishment during his bar exam.

The taxi driver is a mean, sadistic boor but one who also has his moments of kindness.

The young man is a homeless vagabond, full of bitterness and hatred. He encounters many people in the film. Each encounter says something about his relationship to the world.

His first encounter is with a sketch maker and a young girl in a red dress.
(He also sees the red girl later, outside the window of the cafe).

His second encounter is with an old woman feeding pigeons in the square.

His third encounter is with an unknown man in a public restroom.
(He sees the unknown man again on the road when instructing the taxi driver to go left).

What these three encounters mean is for viewers to subjectively interpret.

...

Using hundreds of filters to render a dark, brooding atmosphere as the film progresses, Kieslowski presents a chilling view of man's violence to man, whether it be born of emotion, or of reason.

It is easy to present a case against death penalty by pointing to the unjustness of it in cases the defendant is innocent or is unable to defend himself with able lawyers, but in this case the lawyer is an outstanding one, the crime is premeditated, without a doubt horrendous and the culpability certain.

In this way, stacking the odds against himself, the director proceeds to show why, still, we must feel what he wants us to feel.

It is easier to jail and take away someone's life than to reform an environment in which man cannot find a reason to be kind. Much easier.

The final sequence in the jail is a masterful tour de force, and it moves me deeply every time I see it. The fore-knowledge of one's end lends a strange poignancy to one's thoughts, words and acts. Never did the smoking of a cigarette on the screen burn so deep a hole in one's heart.

Recommendation: Must-see
.

Three Revolutionaries

Bhagat Singh's birth centenary has just passed. In India and elsewhere, there has been renewed interest in his life and message. It is pertinent to enquire whether revolutionary tactics work in the modern world, and what is the fate of people who, driven by ideology, embrace violence and opposition to the state in pursuing change.

In this essay, I briefly discuss three prominent revolutionaries of Punjab of the last century: the Marxist-Anarchist Bhagat Singh, the well-known Naxalite poet Avtar Singh Sandhu (also known as Paash) and the little known Naxalite poet Lal Singh Dil.

Bhagat Singh was born in 1907 in a family of Jats who were actively opposing the British rule in India. Due to the influence of his father and other relatives, he also, at a very early age, became convinced that he would dedicate his life to bringing about freedom for India. He became disillusioned with Gandhi's insistence on non-violence, formed his own group of radical communists who tried to irritate the British rule in various ways. To avenge the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, another freedom fighter, who succumbed to his injuries after being thrashed by the police while he was leading a protest rally, Bhagat Singh and some of his accomplices decided to kill the police chief. However, they mistakenly killed some other officer, J P Saunders.

He went into hiding and started publishing leaflets and underground papers.

To protest a new law giving more powers to the British rules to deal with the rising insurgents, Bhagat Singh and his accomplice threw bombs in the Assembly to grab attention (the bombs were not thrown in the direction of anyone present) and shouted slogans. He was duly arrested, found to be also guilty of the murder of Saunders and sentenced to death by hanging. He, and two others, were hanged to death in 1931.


His revolutionary ideas and death did little to catalyse the masses in Punjab. In the blind devotion to his cause of a violent revolution leading to the "dictatorship of the proletariat" and in his eagerness to achieve martyrdom (he declined to enter a plea of clemency), he failed to achieve any change of lasting value. There were a few riots in Punjab after his hanging but the party that he was a leader of dissolved soon after and Gandhi's non-violent protests took center stage.

He was a staunch Marxist, had an almost religious belief in the ideas of Marx and Engels (and later, Bakunin as well). He looked at the Bolshevik revolution as worthy of emulation and considered Lenin a great hero.

So the question is: Did he squander away his life in vain? (The vanity of being a martyr in the image that Marx had created.)

Avtar Singh Sandhu, or Pash, was born in 1950 and in his youth, became immersed in the revolutionary Naxalite movement in Punjab as a poet. He wrote fiery poems to rouse people from their slumber. He was falsely implicated in a murder case, was jailed for two years, came out, got married, and became burdened with financial difficulties. He went to the US for a while and tried to earn some money (thus violating his visa terms), became entangled in some petty disputes with other radicals in US who reported him to the immigration authorities. He came back to India. While he was planning to go back to the US via Mexico etc., he and a friend were killed by Sikh separatists in his village in 1988.


His legacy is a few books of his poems, bubbling with rage and refusal. In his time, he must have managed to enthuse a few young men to enter the Naxalite movement. Today, the Naxalite movement is completely finished in Northern India, while it continues in other parts where it is engaged in extremely violent attacks on police and the government machinery. The government is planning involving the armed forces to root it out.
Most treacherous is not the robbery
of hard earned wages
Most horrible is not the torture by the police.
Most dangerous is not the graft for the treason and greed.

To be caught while asleep is surely bad
surely bad is to be buried in silence
But it is not most dangerous.
To remain dumb and silent in the face of trickery
Even when just, is definitely bad
Surely bad is reading in the light of a firefly
But it is not most dangerous.

Most dangerous is
To be filled with dead peace
Not to feel agony and bear it all,
Leaving home for work
And from work return home

Most dangerous is the death of our dreams.
Most dangerous is that watch
Which run on your wrist
But stands still for your eyes.

Most dangerous is that eye
Which sees all but remains frostlike,
The eye that forgets to kiss the world with love,
The eye lost in the blinding mist of the material world.

That sinks the simple meaning of visible things
And is lost in the meaning return of useless games.

Most dangerous is the moon
Which rises in the numb yard
After each murder,
But does not pierce your eyes like hot chilies.

Most dangerous is the song
Which climbs the mourning wail
In order to reach your ears
And repeats the cough of an evil man
At the door of the frightened people.
Most dangerous is the night
Falling in the sky of living souls,
Extinguishing them all

In which only owls shriek and jackals growl,
And eternal darkness covers all the windows.

Most heinous is the direction
In which the sun of the soul light
Pierces the east of your body.

Most treacherous is not the
robbery of hard earned wages
Most horrible is not the torture of police
Most dangerous is not graft taken for greed and treason.
Again, the question is: Did he squander away his life in vain, unmindful of the reality of a post-colonial democracy where radical violent revolutionary tactics have no chance of succeeding?

Lal Singh Dil was born in 1944. He went to school and college despite extreme financial hardship at home. Started writing poems. Became a daily wager while continuing to be a poet.


Despite his poverty and hardship, he was extremely sensitive. While in college, he went into deep psychological trauma because of the way he, a sensitive poet, was treated as less than human because of his caste. He joined the Naxalite movement but there also he was treated as a low-level errands-boy by the upper-caste Naxalites.

He was arrested by the police on a false charge and was brought before the the DSP, a senior officer of the police who belonged to the Jat caste. Seeing a Naxalite from the lower strata of the society, the DSP flew into a rage and started beating him, while exclaiming "Ab chammar kranti layenge is desh mein? (Now you untouchables will bring revolution to this country?)" Lal Singh dared the DSP to torture him enough to get him to say his name. After beating him mercilessly and seriously injuring him (leading to a lifelong mental imbalance), the DSP left tired and disgusted.

After he was released from jail, he became mentally sick, never married and stayed with his mother till his death. Many of his friends and other writers tried to make him self-reliant, but he had started drinking and could not hold a job. Towards the end of his life, he was running a roadside tea vend (on the right in the photograph below).


He died in a hospital on August 15, 2007. It was ironic that August 15 is India's independance day.

His poetry was never widely known. Some of his friends collected his poems and published them in book form but he never knew it.

I quote a poem by him here:
Does love have any reason to be?
Does the fragrance of flowers have any roots?
Truth may, or may not have an intent
But falsity is not without one

It is not because of your azure skies
Nor because of the blue waters
Even if these were deep gray
Like the color of my old mom’s hair
Even then I would have loved you

These treasure trove of riches
Are not meant for me
Surely not.

Love has no reason to be
Falsity is not without intent

The snakes that slither
Around the treasure trove of your riches
Sing paeans
And proclaim you
"The Golden Bird"
(The reference is to ancient India termed as a Golden Bird because of its perceived riches.)

Monday, October 01, 2007

Sadhguru's lineage?

Found this at one of rickross.com forums:
A significant number of people (including me) were drawn to dubious gurus for seemingly innocuous things like yoga and meditation. Before we realize what is happening we are drawn deep into their practices and we begin to lose our logic and rationality. I wish I had known to do background checks into sadhgurus and gurus. The first 'guru' we got involved in the United States is 'Sadhguru' Jaggi Vasudev. Calls himself self Enlightened and teaches pranayam and meditation. Anyone attending his 'free' intro class would be struck by his logic, eloquence and seemingly friendly way in which he conducts his into class. All the other stuff comes later by which time it might be too late. Anyone encountering altered states of consciousness, hysterical laughing, crying etc., on the first day would flee the place. But the progressive way in which you are exposed to this makes every one of these appear natural and normal. Too late did I come to know that this Enlightened yogi was trained by Rishi Prabhakar, founder of SSY, who himself was a disciple of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Werner Erhard.
For more information, one can refer to Rishi Prabhakar, Cult Information on Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Werner Erhard and his legacy The Landmark Forum (wikipedia article on the Landmark Forum).

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Fooled by Advertising

Is high technology subsidized by taking money from the rich and foolish?

Let's consider the internet.

Almost all the libraries, databases, services and knowledge banks on the net are available for free. How come? Who is paying for all the bandwidth, hardware, data centers, programmers, content creators etc.?

Let's consider three cases: Google Inc., The New York Times and Wikipedia.

Google:

Google (like Yahoo and MSN) offers a bunch of services, including free email, discussion forums, social networking platforms, blogs, research tools, maps, and so on.

All free!

Google employes thousands of very highly paid engineers, and still manages to make a huge profit every year. How so? Its main revenue stream is from displaying targeted ads on millions of websites. As of now ads from Google are relatively low-bandwidth and unobtrusive whereas those from Yahoo and MSN's advertising arms are flashy and hard to ignore.

So the digerati surf on the net and see the ads. The ads are an art in themselves, employing various tactics to make the user click on them. Some of the users (probably 2-5%) click on the ads and some of them even buy the advertised product or service. So Google (as well as Yahoo or MSN) makes its money.

And it generously offers its free services to anyone who cares to sign up. All the free services also come with targeted ads. So fools keep clicking on ads and buy things or sign up for services and sites that they don't need, and freeloaders have a field day.

The New York Times:

Till recently, one needed a low-priced subscription in order to view the NY Times columnns and its archives. Now it is all free. How come?

Read Here.

Advertising comes to the rescue once again. Make your site free, and populate it with advertisements. The fools will click on the ads and make you your money, and hopefully they will be numerous enough to make you a huge windfall. The strategy seems to work for most online portals, so why not with NY Times?

Once again, the clever just read the content, and the clueless pay for them, not directly but indirectly with their time and energy (brand recognition, word of mouth and visibility are still worth something even if someone doesn't buy the advertised product but just notices the ad) and money. The geeks don't even see the ads (see the epilogue of this article).

Wikipedia:

Wikipedia is run with donations from foundations and individuals. An outstanding repository of information, it still is running without any advertisements or subscription fees. In fact, its quality of information is directly dependant on the number of participants in its community.

I have benefitted so much from Wikipedia that I have no qualms at all about donating to it. Since the Wikimedia foundation is non-profit, and it is serving such a eminently worthwhile group of websites, most people who are regular users will not mind paying a little bit to help it out. But the fact of the matter is, sites like wikipedia do not need much money to run. They need very little.

The software is written by free software volunteers from around the world, the hardware needed is not much and is easy to get from big retailers, the database can fit on a single hard disk. However, due to extremely heavy usage, wikipedia uses caching servers in Japan and in Europe.

Wikipedia is running on a comparatively old platform (LAMP), which does not require much computing resources.

Suppose a person was to start a small site, with easily available open source software (such as the OpenACS Platform). The site hosting with a dedicated server costs around $100 per month for 100s of gigabytes of traffic allowed and multiple gigabytes of databases. How come the hardware and bandwidth is so cheap?

Technology is getting cheaper due to the large scale of manufacturing, global competition between labor markets and constant advancements in technology and production process. But mostly, via research into new technologies which make the old technologies cheap and obsolete.

And who is paying for the research? Organizations like IBM, Microsoft, Canon, Intel, AMD, Cisco, Toshiba, and so on. Governments too, but usually university research takes a few years to reach a finished product. And how come the organizations can invest so much in research? Because they are making a killing introducing and selling new, overpriced products in the market (Vista, HDDVD, iPhone, quad-core CPUs, 12MP digital cameras, high-end laptops). The rich and greedy pay for the latest gadgets and research, and the poor and patient reap the benefits after a few years when prices fall drastically as the technology becomes commonplace.

The rich and impatient are paying for a constant stream of new technologies, products and gadgets. No matter how powerful one's computer is, there will always be an overpriced game, productivity app or a latest bloated operating system to take the wind out of its sails. People realize it only after spending tens of thousands of dollars chasing the gadgets.

And in this way, technology is being "subsidized" for the poor. Consider the following: A VCR used to cost Rs 22000 twenty years back in India. Today a DVD player costs Rs 2200. Adjusted for 5% annual inflation, a DVD player's cost in 1987 terms is close to Rs 800 only. So a much much better quality product costs 27 times cheaper over a period of 20 years. This is the effect of rapid technological change driven by the desire for better and more powerful gadgets, with the cost of change mostly paid for by the rich. An HD-DVD player costs around $800 today (Rs 32000), and it is indeed being bought at this price. After five years, the HD-DVD player cost will also be $50 and it will see mass adoption in the third world. And then we will probably see an even more fantastic media platform.

(I sometimes wonder what will happen once technology reaches its perceivable quality limit. I don't think a naked eye can see any difference between a 12MP digital picture or a 24MP one, even when enlarged to the size of a poster. I don't think even audiophiles can detect any difference between 384kbps and 512kbps VBR MP3. I don't think even discerning moviegoers can detect any visible difference between the image quality of an RSDL Dual Layer DVD and an HD-DVD. So maybe demand for new products will be generated by advertising alone, not by the promise of something objectively better (see the current crop of mobile phones, for example). Then both the advertising agencies like Google and marketers like Nokia will have ingenious new strategies for making money from fools, but the biggest winners will be the ignorant poor who will suddenly be able to afford a mobile phone for $10).

This kind of price reduction driven by planned obsoloscence is what makes technology so cheap and sites like wikipedia so inexpensive to run.

...

Epilogue:

If you don't want to ever see the vast majority of ads while surfing the net, and therefore increase the SNR (signal-noise ratio) of what you see on your computer, I heartily recommend the following software:

- Mozilla Firefox web browser
- Ad Block Plus (Firefox extension)
- Ad Block Plus filterset.G updater (Firefox extension)
- Flashblock (Firefox extension)

Not only will Mozilla Firefox with the above extensions make your internet experience better and more productive, it will also save you money in case your bandwidth is limited or if your bandwidth usage is metered (as is very common in a third world country like India).

In any case, most of the adverts on the web sites are not applicable for a country like India (they are for local products and services in the US/Europe etc.)

If you are even more adventurous, you can try CustomizeGoogle.

There is a lot of controversy about this approach.

See this Slashdot thread, for example.

The Shawshank Redemption by Frank Darabont


Because this film is about hope, and we all hope for freedom from our bonds and sorrows, it is a universally appealing film, currently ranked #2 in the IMDB top 250.

It is a popular and mainstream film, with little being left unsaid. Based on a short story by Stephen King, the film presents the life in prison of an innocent man, a man who is extraordinarily determined to not become a victim of his circumstances.

The acting by Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins is utterly believable and their characters are so well fleshed out that we know them, feel with them, think what they are thinking, cry and laugh with them, and find an affirmation of life in their bond of friendship and understanding.

It is remarkable how a film about criminals sentenced for life can resonate so well with millions of people around the world.

Recommendation: Very Good

Spring Summer Fall Winter ... And Spring by Ki Duk Kim


A film from Korea. With stunning cinematography, this film explores the themes of ignorance, time, cause and effect, suffering and redemption.

The film hardly contains any dialogue and there are only a few events which happen during the entire film, but they are enough to convey the essential message. A familiarity with Buddhism will certainly help one in appreciating the film beetter. Ignorance is the basis of suffering in Buddhism. It is well nigh impossible to know the consequences of all our acts (ref. the so-called Butterfly Effect), but the chain of cause and effect is inexorable. As seasons come and go, as we get older and wiser, we regret some of the follies of our younger years, we regret the hurts we caused and the hearts we broke.

This film does require patience. It is not a parable as it encompasses almost an entire life of one man, and it is not too subtle at times, but it is meditative, giving enough pauses to reflect on the fate of the characters.

As someone on IMDB points out, all the principal characters in the film are nameless, as in Buddhism, individuality is considered an illusion, and names only a practical convenience for worldly affairs. Other than that, the absence of names also points to the universality of the theme.

Every film is a microcosmos. In a wide thematic film such as this, issues as diverse as parental authority, the youthful bubbling of sexual energy, the rebellion against established norms, the storm of possessiveness and jealousy, the question of suicide, the emergence and decay and end of life, the norms of the world and the norms of a monastery, industralization and pollution are softly touched but nothing is said about them.

The writer Hermann Hesse considered the phase of Samsara (worldly suffering) as an essential factor in one's spiritual salvation, as without it, the suffering and the desire to be free, remains theoretical and a mere curiosity.

This film, however, does not question some of the basic tenets of prevailing Buddhism and I think the director is deliberate in pandering to common notions of spirituality, karma and penance.

As to the technical aspects of the film, a few remarks:

The scene composition and cinematography, as I said, is superb. The music and dialogue is excellent. The acting is above average but not exemplary.

Recommendation: Very Good