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 (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 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.



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

Pather Panchali by Satyajit Ray

The first film by the famed Indian director is a landmark in world cinema. Inspired by the Neo-Realist movement in Italian cinema, Ray and Subroto Mitra (the cinematographer), both rank amateurs, succeeded beyond anybody's imagination in presenting a slice of life in a poor village in India with such tremendous sensitivity, beauty and poise that the film swept across the world, gathering award after award, accolade after accolade, and paving the way for a remarkable director to present his ouvre in his famed Apu Trilogy to the world.

Ray was foremost a humanist, and only secondly a filmmaker. It is not a surprise that the title of the award to the film at Cannes in 1956 was "Best Human Document".

Richly deserving of all the praise, the film is episodic in style. Understatedly dealing with life in its various forms and shades, man and nature in constant play with each other, the passage of time and the awareness of decay, death and loss of innocence, the film says nothing overtly, and yet says it all.

One always feels softer, more sensitive, a little kinder and more generous, more understanding after watching a Ray film, and that feeling is the signature of this great director.

Recommendation: Masterpiece

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev (continued)

As the second example, let us take the following question and its answer.

I will be annotating "Sadhguru's" reply since this is a long text and repeating it for annotating will make it too long. The question and Sadhguru's answer are in quotes and mine are prefixed by a "#" character.

"Q: If you would review your interview you may realize the overall 'feel good' nature of Sadhguru's responses. Appeal to one's logic and reason while diverting attention away from substantive issues. Thus Shiva becomes an embodiment of Universality, and not worshipped as part of the Hindu trinity. The Dhyanalinga (a representation of Shiva in the form of a phallus), the Sanskrit slokas, the bija mantras, invoking Sadhguru's presence by chanting the hymn to Lord Vasudevaya all these are non-religious!

Also note that Sadhguru glossed over the screening process. My conscience alone knows the dedication and fervor with which I pursued this path. I wish I had paid attention to what was happening around me I would have pulled out sooner. This response again is typical of a cult. The blame is always the individual and the person's lack of faith. My experience has shown that the process is geared towards enslaving a person's mind, and as such rises to the level of a cult. I give below some of the signs typical of a cult leader that I gleaned from the net:

1. Extreme obsessiveness regarding the leader resulting in the exclusion of almost every practical consideration.

2. Individual identity, the group, the leader and/or God as distinct and separate categories of existence become increasingly blurred. Instead, in the follower's mind these identities become substantially and increasingly fused--as that person's involvement with the group/leader continues and deepens.

3. Uncharacteristically stilted and seemingly programmed conversation and mannerisms, cloning of the group/leader in personal behavior.

4. Dependency upon the group/leader for problem solving, solutions, and definitions without meaningful reflective thought. A seeming inability to think independently, analyze situations, independent of the group/leader's involvement.

5. Hyperactivity centered on the group/leader agenda, which seems to supersede any personal goals or individual interests.

6. A dramatic loss of spontaneity and sense of humor.

7. Increasing isolation from family and old friends unless they demonstrate an interest in the group/leader.

8. Anything the group/leader does can be justified no matter how harsh or harmful.

The crux of the organization is the offer of 'liberation'. This liberation is exemplified by altered states of consciousness brought on by sleep deprivation, meditation, constant chanting, yelling, screaming etc., I am now suspect of any group that requires that one suspend one's logic. Since this 'knowledge' is 'beyond' logic.

In any scientific study the results are open to scrutiny. The results ought to be both reliable and repeatable. A pharmaceutical company cannot claim that the randomness in the efficacy of their drug is due to the doubting nature and short attention span of the patients. But this is precisely what these organizations get away with. Could the Sadhguru tell us how many else became enlightened through his process besides himself. Why then the claim that the 'inner possibility' is as open to Shyam as it was to the Buddha or Sadhguru himself. With regard to the altered states of consciousness itself: it is not limited to Yoga or Hinduism - we can find it in the sects of Christian Pentacosts, Islamic Sufism, Dervishes, Sri Sri Sri Ravishankar etc., To lay out a process that brings about these states and then use it to convince people that they have found THE way is both disingenuous and duplicitous.

Do not be a follower, but be a prophet unto thy own. During my days in Isha there was this Jewish doctor who was sought by Sadhguru as well as a competitor to serve in their ashram. Sadhguru preaches about his yoga hospital in the ashram where people are treated in holistic methods. This doctor who visited the ashram reported that she was shocked to find that there was no such hospital in existence. We collectively reasoned this away by convincing ourselves that it is his intention to bring the yogic hospital to fruition in the future. Alas such is the power of mindless delusion! - Name withheld on request


"Spiritual science is about inner well being. To create the inner well being we use every possible method that life allows. Modern science has proved that the whole existence is just a reverberation of energy."

# Such simplistic reductions of modern theories of (e.g.) quantum mechanics and general relativity is quite common by modern day charlatans such as the venerable Deepak Chopra. The trend was probably begun by the physicist Fritjof Kapra when he published his opus "The Tao of Physics". To get further insight into these antics, do refer to an article about Quantum Quackery.

"Where there is a vibration there is bound to be a sound. "

# Firstly he reduces the universe to "reverberation of energy" which is then equated with "vibration". Then he reduces "vibration" to "sound". Sound is the perception (e.g., by a human being) of a pressure wave traveling through a matter medium. Sound waves are completely distinct from electromagnetic waves, which are completely different from quantum mechanical waveforms and probability clouds.

"So the whole existence is seen as yoga of complex amalgamation of sound. What you call the cosmos is a complex web of sound called nadabrahma. In it are some key sounds."

# Certifiable bullshit. There is no sound at all in the pervasive vacuum which exists in space.

"These key sounds when applied to the right door can open a whole dimension for you."

# Presumably, the new dimension is the so-called extra sensory realm.

"This is how a mantra works. You cannot look at everything also from a religious perspective. The reason you do that is because of the culture you were brought up on and the tools that were used to create that inner well being in you. May be some religions have staked a claim on these mantras or these tools but that doesn’t make it religious."

# The questioner is probably questioning whether the label "secular" can be applied to the chanting of Sanskrit mantras praising Hindu deities. The "Sadhguru" is responding that the mantras are generic and are not tied to any particular religion. In fact bija mantras (or the key sounds) are quite specific aspects of Hindu theology. They hardly find any mention in the religions and cults outside India and its neighboring countries.

"In India we light a lamp in the evening. It may look like a religious ritual - before sunset light a lamp before God, but when there was no electricity then lighting a lamp was basic common sense, isn’t it?"

# Lighting a lamp is not a religious ritual, dear "Sadhguru", lighting a lamp in front of a deity is! Never was "common sense" so evident.

"So there is an elaborate science of mantras behind the process of using sounds for inner well being."

# There may well be. Music and chanting do effect one's mind, make it calm or agitated (depending upon the music). Music or mantra therapy to treat physical or psychological disorders is a stream of new age healing, just like Pranic healing, Reiki, crystal and gemstone therapy, and other such claptrap.

"Today people say music has a healing quality, cows are giving more milk , hens are laying more eggs and plants are thriving when certain music is played. Here you arrived at a certain healing or productive procedure through accident but in effect there is a whole elaborate science of mantras and how to use these sounds for inner as well as outer well being."

# It would be laughable were the spiritual promise of salvation to sick individuals via mantras not so pernicious.

"Just because someone says Vasudevayah does not make it my name. I would advice Mr. anonymous to look at IT closely and see what impact it has on the people rather than being focused on finding faults behind a hidden name. If he has some scientific background, I invite him to come with his instruments so I can show him that just by uttering the word vasudevayah what kind of activity it’ll create in the brain, because today we measure all these things scientifically."

# Vasudev is indeed Sadhguru's current name, the label by which his body is identified in this world. Vasudevayah is a reverential utterance for the God Vasudev. If this is indeed the bija mantra (the key chanting sound) being given to most of the seekers in his ashram, there is definitely something fishy.

"The Jewish doctor he is talking about had heart and other problems that prevented her from undertaking anything strenuous, or even flying. When she came here she was expecting a hospital with drips and sick patients lying in bed. When she didn’t see that she came and asked me where was the yogic temple and I told her look at the people around you-the ones in the kitchen, those mopping the floors-these are all sick people but we put them to work. Seventy percent of all illnesses are self created. Today that doctor is still with us and she walked about 60 kms with us in the Himalayas and she has talked about her experiences on a video."

# Ok. Fair enough. She got better after staying in an ashram. See the paragraph containing the reference to the Pragmatic Fallacy at the end.

"There are thousands of people who come and go from here and I’m sure some of them are disgruntled like this man because someone rubbed them the wrong way. There are no super human beings here These are people who are imperfect and are striving to grow. If they were perfect they would not need me or anyone else."

# Maybe the person is disgruntled, maybe not. But if every critic is to be labeled as a disgruntled one because someone who is not yet perfect might have rubbed him the wrong way (and not because the critic may be saying something sensible), where is the space for questioning the "Sadhguru"?

"I must say this man’s understanding of enlightenment seems very rudimentary, especially if he has to go to the internet and describe what is a cult. He couldn’t even come up with his own interpretation."

# There are various definitions of cult and cultist methods on the internet and before calling a community a cult, it is not a bad idea to see the prevailing standards of what is normally considered a cult (e.g. by the Rick Ross Institute). If the questioner had just called the community a cult without citing the reasons, he would have been doubly reprimanded.

"Now what is a cult? Today whatever is considered religion was called a cult yesterday. That is why when Jesus was alive he was called a cultist and crucified. Anyone who did not follow the established religion was punished. I guess people may want to do the same to me but today(laughter) the law doesn’t permit it. Frankly that cult was more meaningful than the existing religion right now because people experienced it then-today its only belief and this man’s interpretation of cult is also based on western interpretation."

# Jesus was indeed trying to form a community of followers with himself as a divine leader, which in today's terms would indeed be called a cult. There is no controversy about it. Why is the Sadhguru so antagonistic to admitting that his community is indeed a cult? Because it would deter future western spiritual tourists. His response to criticism that the labeling is done from a western interpretation is indeed correct. But then, he should be forthright in admitting that from a western interpretation, his community is indeed a cult. (Do note, however, that in between the Sadhguru also does the neat thing of comparing himself to Christ.)

"If he is so concerned, disappointed and disturbed then I invite him to come and do both the basic and the next course and rip it in front of me, and make me look like a fool if he can. He should have the courage to stop his fellow humans from suffering and I would like to know myself because I’m also concerned. If he is afraid he need not reveal his name but I invite him to come and demolish the program if he can show that it doesn’t work. Why is he letting such wrong things happen to others?"

# So a critic or a sceptic should come inside a cult or an alternative medicine hospital, be bombarded with questionable therapies, group brainwashing tactics, stay with an intellectually subjugated crowd of disciples, spend time doing the practices of the cult, and only then say that "it doesn't work." Right?

Wrong. "What works" is no proof of correctness. I hope some readers are familiar with the Pragmatic Fallacy.

"If he is just there to sit and criticize or find faults without proving it scientifically then we won’t waste our time with him."

# Who is this "we"? Me, the Messiah, and my disciples. The Sadhguru needs to be told that the onus of proof of a new theory or medicine or treatment or process of enlightenment is upon the inventor, not on the sceptics.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev

A friend sent me this Q&A anthology between seekers and a self-proclaimed Messiah (Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev). Some of the contents of this anthology deserve comment in order to show the pernicious nature of modern spiritual discourse.

As the first example, let me take the following question and answer:

"Q: Sadhguru, how can one overcome fear? - Rajshri, Chennai

A: Fear is always about what will happen in the next moment. Its never about the present. When the future is not yet manifested, and not an existed reality why be afraid? You are actually suffering for that which does not exist-and so you cannot overcome that which does not exist."

This is a shining example of silliness which passes for spiritual wisdom these days. The question is eminently sensible. Fear troubles all humans at some stage in their lives.

Fear, in its most common form, is an agitated state of mind related to an apprehension of danger or pain. It is an instinctual reactive pattern in the brain present in all sufficiently evolved species and one which is seen in animals (including humans) to manifest in the freeze-fight-flight responses. In humans, fear can also be based on thinking (e.g. after one has committed a crime, one is afraid to be caught by the police) or on imagination (e.g. after one has not done one's daily prayer, one is afraid to be punished by the Gods).

Since fearful apprehension is always about an unfavorable future course of events, the "Sadhguru", instead of commenting upon the unproductive nature of a fearful state of mind, its place in evolution and the various ways of getting rid of these agitations (temporarily or permanently), gives the wise advice that since future is not yet here, there is no reason to be afraid.

I hope the advice will prove useful to a person who is afraid that he might stop breathing while in his sleep due to chronic apnea. (Since the death has not yet occured, there is no reason for him to worry about that now, correct?)

The "Sadhguru" ends his timeless wisdom by saying "You cannot overcome that which does not exist." May one comment that the original question was about how to overcome the state of mind known as fear, and not overcome the future course of events about which one is afraid. And needless to say, changing unfavorable future courses of events by timely preventive acts in the present would not find much favor with the "Sadhguru" since he is of the opinion that "you cannot overcome that which does not exist."


Fear prevents judgment. Some future events are definitely to be avoided if possible, not by getting afraid, but by judging their seriousness and preventing them from happening by planning and thought.

(to be continued)

Monday, September 24, 2007

Ta'm e guilass (Taste of Cherry) by Abbas Kiarostami

In the words of Akira Kurosawa, "Words cannot describe my feelings about them ... When Satyajit Ray passed on, I was very depressed. But after seeing Kiarostami’s films, I thanked God for giving us just the right person to take his place."

This is the first film I have seen by Kiarostami, and a film which gives you the opportunity of reflection without forcing something down your throat, is eminently re-watchable. But people who prefer "barrel-down cinema" might get sleepy in the middle.


A few comments about the controversial ending, however:

Firstly, I was disappointed by the ending because it disrupted my emotional state where I was ruminating on Mr Badii's fate.

But on further thought, putting words in the director's mouth:

1. This is the post-modern way of saying "The End". "This was a film, and don't worry about Mr Badii, he is hale and hearty, think of your own life."

2. "The world is more beautiful, and green than what I have shown you with all the drab shades and dust and depression in this film." (and hence also the almost comically cheerful music)

3. "The taste of cherry wasn't just a narrative device. Look at the soldiers, they are not required by the film to do so, but they are enjoying the beauty of nature. It isn't all fiction."

Recommendation: Very Good.

Omkara by Vishal Bhardwaj

Vishal Bhardwaj's second movie on a Shakespeare play is named Omkara (after Othello), the first one was Maqbool (after Macbeth). Many movie critics in India have praised the movie for its excellent adaptation and for the outstanding performances.

I beg to differ.

I think despite the hard work put in by the director and the actors, the movie is still a mediocre production by global standards.

Acting: In Indian movies, intense facial expressions and tightening of muscles is considered great acting. Most Indian film critics have no exposure to great cinema and they contrast and compare movies within the realm of Bollywood. Saif Ali Khan's acting is above average but it is not outstanding. Ajay Devgan always has a scowl on his face, as if he is perenially constipated. Kareena Kapoor looks too angelic to be believable. Naseerudin Shah and Konkana Sen Sharma act naturally but their screen time is very limited.

Casting: Casting is a disaster. Kareena Kapoor and Vivek Oberoi are just not suited for a movie in an Indian village setting. Kareena Kapoor's skin tone and facial features are anything but those of a typical UP woman. Vivek Oberoi looks foppish with his hairstyle and college-graduate modernity. Bipasha Basu, the less said, the better. Manoj Bajpai would have been a great choice. Naseerudin Shah and Konkana Sen are cast well.

Direction: There is no need to show so many scenes of pistol-whipped violence. The first fight involving a bet seems to glorify Omkara's brutality with chants of his name in the background when his opponents have been killed. Most of these scenes just contain a lot of loud gun-shots with pistols in outstretched arms and clumsy running around. There is not one, but two gratuitous item numbers which are in no way connected to the storyline. There are way too many obscenities being mouthed by everybody (just to show that the director is being radical, but expletives do not make a movie radical). Needless to say, understatement and subtlety is not the forte of Vishal Bhardwaj.

Actors seem bent upon showing their sculputed muscles (can you believe anyone in rural Uttar Pradesh having shaved chests and chiseled biceps? In a Salman Khan-esque touch, both Saif Khan and Vivek Oberoi perenially keep their sleeves rolled at least 6 inches above the elbow to show off their work-outs. The concept of making one's body look like one's character is not a very acceptable notion in Indian movies, it seems). The real musclemen of UP are well-built, tall, with oiled muscles and just in case you missed, they don't wear Timberland shoes. I would have been pleasantly surprised with the director had Kareena Kapoor's face after her death been shown as contorted (as is to be expected after a death by asphyxation) but I guess that was too much to ask. She is as angelic as ever.

Storyline and Treatment: The story is implausible. The reason given as to why Kesu is chosen as the new commander (that he has more rapport with the college crowd) is flimsy, especially since we don't see any urbanity or college kids in the movie. The character of Omkara seems to be oblivious to the grievance of Langda and doesn't see anything wrong in his simplistic conspiracy. There are not a few implausible coincidences. A very valuable piece of jewelery is easily stolen by someone and not noticed, the thief doesn't ask her husband/lover why he needs it, Kesu loses his mobile phone very conveniently on the day where it would be handy to his opponents, and worst of all, there is an extremely misinterpretation-friendly conversation between Kesu and his beloved on the D-day.

Many characters are caricatures. The effeminate sidekick, the old woman wearing a denture, etc. are there to amuse the audience, and their dialogue delivery is calculated to achieve comic relief. There are many scenes where the government machinery is shown to be impotent (the police being strip-searched, the train TTE, the jail staff having a rowdy time) and the applause of the audience at such scenes only goes to show their bitterness towards the system.

Songs and music: Song and dance sequences are overly long and it is evident they are to attract the average movie goer.

Recommendation: Average.

Trois couleurs: Bleu by Krzysztof Kieslowski

"Blue", the first movie in the Three Colors Trilogy by the Polish director Kieslowski, is, in the words of the director, about the liberty of "life itself". The three colors, Blue, White and Red, are the colors in the French flag, symbolizing respectively Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

The motion picture "Blue" is a subtle masterpiece of cinematography and is, in essence, an enquiry into freedom from one's past, so that life again has a chance to function without being repressed. Social, cultural and economic freedom is not the subject of this movie and those freedoms are assumed to be present.

The film begins with a car speeding down a highway, through tunnels and through nights, and is a metaphor for life itself. The landscape is merely a blur, which is an apt commentary on the self-immersion of the modern human being. This emphasizes that this will be a personal story, that the story will not have a big canvas.

The car stops by the side of the road, and we see something dripping on a pipe in the innards of the car. Not all is well inwardly, even though the car is outwardly shiny and modern. No matter what seeming perfection is achieved by technology and civilization, the possibility of faultlines always exists, and that is why even in the most advanced societies, human tragedies continue to happen. No system can take away the inherent fallibility of the natural world. It is also an apt metaphor for troubles which exist in our unconscious, which are not visible to us, which we have no way to examine, which exist unknown to us.


It is an extremely modern motion picture. Almost everybody is economically free and secure, even a streetside flute player who sleeps on the pavement has no fear of his flute getting stolen when he takes off for a night, leaving his flute behind.

In this milieu of freedom and aloneness and security and anonymity, where affairs can go on without anyone noticing, where nobody knows where you live, and nobody asks, where you have no real friends, and violence, birth and death are seen coldly, with detachment, there is a certain aseptic sterility to life. This is a very "cold" movie, accentuated by the proliferation of the colour blue throughout.

A woman who works as an erotic dancer and as a prostitute is free to do what she pleases in life. There is a threat to her freedom, but in a very modern statement, the threat, unless it is unanimous and endorsed by all, is not valid. This is the freedom to be unpopular, and not the democratic freedom of the twentieth century. But her freedom is deceptive. She can't sleep alone, by herself, and is tormented by the sight of her father at the erotic dance bar.

The unrelatedness of the inmates of the apartment complex is striking. Nobody really knows anybody there. The self-immersion is brought into sharp focus when a helpless man, being kicked by thugs, knocks on many doors but none opens. Like Julie, everybody must have been awake, but nobody chooses to open their door. When in trouble, we have nowhere to turn to. We expect the system to take care of sorrow and loneliness, but that never works. The mother of Julie is probably living in some retirement community, and she spends her time watching adventure sports on TV. The sterility and dispassion of the world makes people indulge in bungee jumping and drag racing just to get their blood to flow, for their blood to turn red from its bluish lack of life.

There is a boy who is spending his time playing with a balancing toy, and just as he manages to balance it, something much bigger crashes nearby. He is alone, and he also searches for Julie, to return her necklace. But Julie doesn't take it, it is worthless to her now. And he , in love of her, wears that feminine necklace on his neck. We live with our memories and the symbols of past or imagined happiness when we are alone. Julie has a lover, who keeps a discarded mattress on which he first made love with her. As long as we have a symbol of a relationship, the relationship is alive, if only in our hearts. That is why Julie, to start a new life, sells or throws away everything she owns, except a blue hanging lamp. She tries to destroy it first, by pulling on one of the strings. But keeps it in the end. It is this last remnant of her old life which keeps her alive, it is as if her life is in those blue crystals. Why does she keep that memento? What does it signify?

We are always afraid to completely let go of something, and there is a part of us which can never completely get over any experience in our lives, we never seem to die in our lives, we are shaped by what we have been. Julie is alone, she is determined, but she keeps a vestige of her past with her. As the Zen koan says: "A bull crashes through a window. Its head, body and legs come crashing through, but not its tail. Why?"

(to be continued)

Recommendation: Must see.

Dead Man Walking by Tim Robbins

Death penalty is a debatable topic in the modern age. Certainly the penalty does not help the guilty. The rationale seems to be that it acts as a strong deterrent for others. It also acts as an outlet for the affected parties to have their revenge in a legal manner.

This motion picture deals not just with a man knowing that he will die in a couple of days and how he responds to this knowledge, it also deals with the themese of compassion, institutionalized redemption, the "cold equations" of the inevitability of a planned death, of the relationship between parents and their children, and the themes of guilt, denial, and dignity.

In many movies, an emotional reaction in an audience is through the identification and transference of characters' emotions. The tears and intensity of a character in the movie often has the effect of inducing tears and emotions in the audience. The more realistic a movie, the more it deals with the normal human relationships that everybody is familiar with (parent-child, man-woman, fear-death), and the better the acting, the greater the intensity of the emotional response of the audience. Frequently, an ovation within the movie effects an ovation in the audience itself (example: Al Pacino's speech in the Scent of a Woman).

That said, this movie has two great performances. Susan Sarandon typifies compassion and a motherly-womanly love, and Sean Penn typifies an adult still in essence, naive and innocent, a precocious child (not really evil, we never really come to hate him. He has his faults, but we see his faults through a mother's eyes, and hence we see the essential humanity of his character. He has faults which each one of us has, to a greater or lesser degree.).

The vocal and Indian instrumental music lend the movie a spiritual, alternate-world, non-establishment feel. The music might be alien to many ears, and that serves the context: A life of full-time service and compassion is alien to us, as most of us are caught up in our own ambitions and hedonism.

The love felt by Poncelot (Sean Penn's character) is a motherly love, the love of being accepted unconditionally, despite one's faults, the love which makes one want to be a better person. The love felt by Sister Helen (Susan Sarandon) is a little more complex. It is compassion mixed with a longing to be united with the object of one's compassion. It is a divine as well as a human love. The urge to whisper and comfort, the urge to touch and kiss, the tears in one's eyes knowing that the other person loves oneself, all point to a love that is of a more personal nature. It does involve the feelings of incompleteness felt by all of us, which we seek to fulfill by uniting with our complement. Sister Helen does feel a womanly love for Poncelot (especially poignant when in one of her dreams, she sees Poncelot sitting at her dinner table waiting for her).

Is it true that the capacity for love is more in a woman? Is it true the women feel identified with men who can admit their weaknesses? Women want their men to be men in the world, but to them, they should be bare, vulnerable chidren. The theme of a man who is in need of reform, and who responds to the love of a woman, brings out the mother in his beloved.

(to be continued)

Recommendation: Very Good.

Mulholland Drive by David Lynch

Dreams are more potent than reality. We might live numbly through our days and nights, but in our dreams, the feelings, regrets, aches, fears and hopes pulsate with a strange intensity. We can cry in our dreams, we can be mortally afraid, we can feel an intense longing in our dreams which has no outlet in our waking lives.

Some random notes:

Why does the assassin mess up? Diane wishes him to be a mediocre, error-prone murderer. In her heart, she does not want Camilla to die.

Who is the young man who has nightmares? It is Diane, transferred into his body. She is the one who has nightmares (she has had recurring dreams about the diner). The psychoanalyst is a symbol for the organized part of our selves, which is well-dressed, has a clean, shaved face, regular features, and who knowingly looks at us, knowing all our secrets but in denial.

Adam Kesher is also another face of Diane. The world is corrupt. And what is our wish in the face of this corruption? "I am going home." "I am going home." (Adam Kesher after his meeting with the mafia). And if home too is a den of rejection and betrayal? There is nowhere to go.

When Rita mumbles in her dream "No Hay Banda" and is woken up, she tells Betty, "Go with me somewhere." Where are they at present? They come out and see something pasted on a pole: "Is Hell".

"There is no band"! This is but a dream. In face of extreme suffering within a dream, we do get messages within the dream that it is a dream, so that we can wake up. Diane does wake up soon after this message, in a daze.

Who is the streetwalker? She takes something from the assassin's shirt pocket. Remember the assassin had the blue key in the very same shirt pocket.


This is movie which made me sadder than a thousand other movies about heartbreak. David Lynch has crafted a true masterpiece of world cinema by presenting the immeasurably haunting vision of what tears mean, deep down.

The acting by Naomi Watts is exemplary, a shining light of artistic excellence.

Recommendation: Masterpiece.

United 93 by Paul Greengrass

Three recent films, United 93, Flight 93 and World Trade Center, deal with the September 11 tragedy as seen from the eyes of people involved in the disasters.

V Sanil from IIT Delhi forwarded me an interesting article by Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher-critic on the so-called non-political stance of these movies.,,1869546,00.html

I think Flight 93 and United 93 both succeeded in portraying the agony of humans facing a certain death when the victims have no understanding of the reasons for the drama unfolding before their eyes and when they are just caught up in the immediacy of self-preservation.

World Trade Center, on the other hand, is a mediocre attempt at portraying Americans as the professionals of the world. What is this US fetish with "professionals"? I think it is a very deep issue related to the lack of political power that a common citizen enjoys in the US. Because he is unable to anything to change the system, the most heroic thing he can do and command respect thereof, is to be great at what he does. Be a great pilot, a great fireman, a great cop, a beautiful woman....

And obviously, being great, being specialized to the exclusion of other things make others instantly appreciate your skills, but it also makes you a caricature.

Digressing a little bit...

Americans dream of a family as the goal of their pursuit of life liberty and happiness. And professionalism is the allged means. Strangely, it is the professionals who cannot hold their family together. The dimwits (Forrest Gump) do a great job at it (not related at all to Forrest's luck in the world). You can't worship both money, ambition AND have warm relationships.

Recommendation: Good.

Parzania by Rahul Dholakia

Is the Indian psyche so infantile that nothing can be left unsaid in a movie?

As we are deeply uncomfortable with our true identities, our movies and our lives happen at the outermost surface of our minds. There is no depth in our motion pictures.

In that sense, Parzania is a conventional movie. It breaks no new ground in depicting the reality of India, where churlish idealism stands beside an appallingly callous and violent society.

The dialogue is extremely amateur, the diagetic music at times good and at times out of place, acting sub-par mostly. Most importantly, the extremely bad decision to have the characters speak in English destroys the film's credibility. Many Americanisms have been copied (Husband kissing the wife while going to office, an old Muslim man saying "That's very sweet" at the gift of a bed sheet (ridiculous)).

However, to be fair, in places Naseeruddin Shah and Saarika do display what they were capable of doing had the director been more accomplished.

Recommendation: Poor.


There have been many movies about communal riots in India.

Amu: Not a very well known movie, stars Konkana Sen Sharma and Brinda Karat. This is a insightful look at the 1984 riots in Delhi. Understated and focused, with a very realistic look at present day Delhi. Slow at times.

Tamas: The 6 hour TV series opus by Govind Nihalani based on the novel by Bhishm Sahni. Not available on DVD. The best movie about communal tensions in India. The depiction of Sikhs in the Gurudwara and the communists' efforts to stop the riots are head and shoulders above any other such movie in India.

Bombay: Directed by Mani Ratnam, with music by A R Rahman. The less said the better, but still, two words: Lollypop tragedy.

Train to Pakistan: Based on Khushwant Singh's novel about the partition riots. Good in parts but meanders in between.

Dev: A recent Govind Nihalani movie about the Bombay riots starring Om Puri and Amitabh Bachhan. Accomplished in many ways (except for the jarring picture perfection of Kareena Kapoor). Hackneyed in places.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Flandres by Bruno Dumont

The latest film by Bruno Dumont, the Grand Prix winner at Cannes, is a minimalistic vision of an almost intangibly small evolutionary step of one man.

The film gives a new meaning to the term "Animal Farm".

This is, like Michael Haneke's cinema, a challenge to the existing codes of media and filmmaking. Mainstream cinema portrays love and war in an idealized form, with an implicit goal to entertain. Both Haneke and Dumont shock the viewer into seeing things that are normally not seen on film. When people complain that violence and sex in films desensitize or "corrupt" the spectators, they fail to realize that most films present, what Haneke calls very eloquently, 24 lies per second.

When violence is of a form which makes us clap and cheer, is it really violence? Or is it some form of perverse entertainment.

Real violence leaves one reeling and scared and shocked. It never entertains or titilates.

This film begins in the inane life of the farms of the Flanders town with an exposition of lives bereft of any feeling or thought.

It then proceeds to a clinical examination of what these farm animals are capable of in the midst of a desert war, and what happens to a lonely heart in which there is no hope of love or joy.

It ends with the protagonist realizing just a little bit of his humanity, but which is tragic in its belatedness. It is all the more tragic when one sees that it needs war to bring a man to at least some sense of his beastliness.

Recommendation: Very Good.

Freedom of Expression

Did Ram exist, or did he not? Was the Ram Sethu constructed by Ram, by his monkey army, or is it a natural formation?

Is Mr Karunanidhi speaking for political benefit? Is he right or wrong in what he says?

Did Justice Sabharwal commit acts of corruption or not?

These are not the important issues.

The important issue is this: In a free society, it must be safe to be unpopular. It must be possible to blaspheme, one must be free to say things which hurt others' sentiments, one must be allowed to express unpopular or heretical ideas, one must be free to criticize the judiciary or the constitution, to burn the flag or to burn the effigy of not just Ravan and his brothers, but also of our Gods and Goddesses.

However, as India is far from that reality, where it would be safe to be unpopular, a common man cannot think of making radical statements and expect to be provided safety by the state. Hence, work towards that freedom, get together and discuss civil liberties, act for their enactments in India (or elsewhere) but temper your words carefully in the present environment.

Do not be suicidal.

Martyrdom is not the catalyst to public outrage as it used to be.


I quote from Noam Chomsky's article about freedom of expression here:

(for the context, do refer to The Faurisson Affair).



I do not want to discuss individuals. Suppose, then, that some person does indeed find the petition "scandaleuse," not on the basis of misreading, but because of what it actually says. Let us suppose that this person finds Faurisson's ideas offensive, even horrendous, and finds his scholarship to be a scandal. Let us suppose further that he is correct in these conclusions -- whether he is or not is plainly irrelevant in this context. Then we must conclude that the person in question believes that the petition was "scandaleuse" because Faurisson should indeed be denied the normal rights of self-expression, should be barred from the university, should be subjected to harassment and even violence, etc. Such attitudes are not uncommon. They are typical, for example of American Communists and no doubt their counterparts elsewhere. Among people who have learned something from the 18th century (say, Voltaire) it is a truism, hardly deserving discussion, that the defense of the right of free expression is not restricted to ideas one approves of, and that it is precisely in the case of ideas found most offensive that these rights must be most vigorously defended. Advocacy of the right to express ideas that are generally approved is, quite obviously, a matter of no significance. All of this is well-understood in the United States, which is why there has been nothing like the Faurisson affair here. In France, where a civil libertarian tradition is evidently not well-established and where there have been deep totalitarian strains among the intelligentsia for many years (collaborationism, the great influence of Leninism and its offshoots, the near-lunatic character of the new intellectual right, etc.), matters are apparently quite different.


Let me add a final remark about Faurisson's alleged "anti-Semitism." Note first that even if Faurisson were to be a rabid anti-Semite and fanatic pro-Nazi -- such charges have been presented to me in private correspondence that it would be improper to cite in detail here -- this would have no bearing whatsoever on the legitimacy of the defense of his civil rights. On the contrary, it would make it all the more imperative to defend them since, once again, it has been a truism for years, indeed centuries, that it is precisely in the case of horrendous ideas that the right of free expression must be most vigorously defended; it is easy enough to defend free expression for those who require no such defense.


Cambridge, Massachusetts
October 11, 1980


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Crying Game by Neil Jordon

What is the "Crying Game"? Love, of course.

This is a film about redemption and love, it is not about war, it is not about politics, it is not a thriller (though having elements of it) and it is definitely not a film for everybody.

The film, in less than two hours, deals effectively with issues of fraternity, guilt, remorse, compassion, love, lust, revulsion, betrayal, forgiveness and sacrifice.

The plot is highly original and Jaye Davidson deserves the high accolades he got for an extremely brave and career defining role.

However, I found the film to be lacking in production values, or probably the print I watched was sub-par. The music is excellent, especially the theme song.

Recommendation: Very Good.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Der Siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent) by Michael Haneke

In the shadow of the laws, where is thy life?

Does what you drink and consume quench your thirst, the emptiness of your being?

In the midst of plenty, what makes you cry suddenly and unstoppably?

Since you were born, what have you not pursued, and found wanting?

If you think you have everything, think again.

Your life is not what you write in your letters about your career and health, your life is what is left unsaid.

As each lap-day comes to an end, the gear again shifts to the first, and we again go through the motions of another mechanized day.

Unable to come closer in life, with clothes and rules and engagements between us, the only intimacy seems to be in death.

Recommendation: Masterpiece

Saturday, September 15, 2007

TwentyNine Palms by Bruno Dumont

In TwentyNine Palms, the French director Bruno Dumont paints a haunting, visceral and brutal picture of masculinity and isolation.

Many people have commented on the allegorical meaning of the movie, that the movie is a commentary upon US and its foreign policy, but I perceived the movie at a more individual level, as the story of the primeval man.

The violence that is endemic between man and woman is brought into sharp focus when the violator and the violated both are men. The violent echo of heterosexual sex is present in the brutality that happens to David in the desert. The orgasmic scream and the facial tensions are frighteningly similar. The unwillingness to indulge in sex in an otherwise consensual relationship is taken to its logical extreme.

The scenery of the desert and of the vacant town and of the tiny hotel room accentuate the feeling of fear, barrenness, of a primtive animism, of loneliness and isolation and of being a team of mutual haters. The failure of communication is not just linguistic, it is an opacity between two human beings, it is an absence of empathy, more than anything.

The violence and the forced intercourses of the couple during most of the film are echoed in the final sequence. As in Irreversible, the violation is seen to be horrific when the knob of hedonistic selfishness is turned several degrees clockwise.

The symbol of masculinity, the red Hummer, is helpless when an even bigger one comes along and rams on its backside.

I have a few comments to make about the epilogue as well. The director himself has said that he considers the ending as a mistake. I agree, but only slightly. There is an interpretation of the ending which I found to be quite natural.

Why does David not go to the police? It is shame as well as a tacit understanding that what he has been doing to Katia in the last few days is less criminal only by a matter of degree. Several times in the film, David puts Katia in great danger and only now he realizes the fear that she must have felt.

His several violations and insensitivities towards her are brought in the limelight when he himself suffers the violation and the insensitivity.

He finally is aware of what violation is, and is shattered by this realization.

As he cannot bear this awareness of his own lower depths, he must therefore demolish the symbol of his guilt. The evidence of his crime.

And as he cannot live without being criminal, without being a hedonistic sexual animal in his life, he cannot go on living. I found the last part of the film a reflection of the short film Cutting Moments.

Recommendation: Must see.

Children of Heaven (Bacheha Ye Aseman) by Majid Majidi

A film from Iran, Children of Heaven, is a glimpse of the poverty and limtations of life and the richness and generosity of heart.

The title itself "Children of Heaven" stands examination. If Heaven is not where one gets everything one wants, then what is it? The poverty of Ali's family is quite tangible, the father does not have money to buy even a pair of shoes for the children. But there is a transcendence visible in this very squalor. Heaven, in this movie, is the realm of unselfishness and innocence present in most of the characters in this movie.

The story is simple: Ali is the son of a poor family. One day he loses the only pair of shoes belonging to his sister. They hide this loss from everybody. One day Ali gets to know of an upcoming race in which one of the prizes is that of a new pair of shoes. He is selected for the race and participates.

I will not disclose what happens afterwards.

There are episodes in the film which show the community spirit co-existing with disease and poverty, which show that generosity can live side-by-side with want, which show that honesty is a gesture of hope and affection, which show that understanding the other person is to fathom the peculiar circumstances which might be forcing him to do what he is doing.

The messages given by the movie are neither preachy or blatant, nor are they overly subtle. The director achieves the rare feat of making the audience imbibe his vision without making it explicit.

The acting and dialogue delivery are average. The camera work, especially in the final sequence, is flawless. The music is minimal and all non-diagetic and plays little part towards strengthening the emotional power of the film.

It is simply the innocence of the characters' world that breaks one's heart in the end.

Recommendation: Must see.

IMDB Link: Children of Heaven