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.