Saturday, January 05, 2008

Taare Zameen Par by Aamir Khan

Taare Zameen Par, Aamir Khan’s directorial debut, is about a challenged, misunderstood child, and how empathy and care finally redeem him.

Ishan (Darsheel Safary) is a mildly dyslexic child who is unable to perform well at school. His parents and teachers berate him without even a whiff of compassion (though the mother does shed a few tears). When Ishan bunks school one day and roams around the city, heedless of the danger and enjoying the sights and sounds, it proves to be too much for everybody. He is packed off to a boarding school. The boarding school looks like a juvenile institution out of The 400 Blows, where maladjusted kids are sent to be disciplined. Lonely, misunderstood and feeling let down by his family, Ishan slips into depression.

Then suddenly, the arrival of a new teacher, Ram Shankar (Aamir Khan), changes everything.

Ram immediately perceives the problem in the alienated and depressed Ishan. And with a friendly zeal, he brings Ishan back to his smiling, expressive self.

Films about compassion are difficult to dislike, or one is in danger of being politically incorrect. The recent films starring Aamir Khan have mostly been "message movies": Lagaan, Mangal Pandey, Fanaa, Rang de Basanti, and now Taare Zameen Par. Coupled with his known sympathy for the socially disadvantaged, his films showcase his persona as a caring, aware individual, having few faults. He is someone who confidently proclaims what is right and wrong, an angel of understanding and heart-warming sensitivity. Such roles in successive films, especially in TZP which is produced and directed by himself, are therefore open to the criticism of being expressions of a hardly subtle moral narcissism.

Sentimentality is a dish best served soppy. There are quite a few sequences in the film which make one’s eyes well up. One of the better ones comes in the ending, when Ishan is spectacularly redeemed. But one can’t fail to notice the flatness of the characters, and the too easy way in which Ram Kishan overcomes all obstacles.

Everyone in the film is shown so callous and cruel (except perhaps the mother) that the friendly bonhomie and the almost angelic understanding shown by Ram Shankar is a contrast which is too stark to be comfortable and realistic. The contrast doesn’t end there, however. While other teachers are crude, crass and dressed like bus drivers, Ram Shankar is shown wearing trendy, smart casuals, living in an amazingly chic home, having an ultra-high-maintenance haircut and having a comely partner in his evangelical pursuit to save the lost souls. One wonders if his ilk would be able to find fulfilment in the absence of suffering people around them.

The message of the film is probably fine, though simplistic. Isn’t it also true that care and individual attention in Indian schools is a luxury affordable only to the well-heeled? There are the KFI Schools, for example, but almost invariably the teachers in these schools are prosperous and highly literate and are there by choice (as Ram Shankar is in this film). Most teachers in Indian schools are paid a pittance. They are generally frustrated and hostile, burdened with the additional responsibilities of mid-day meals and election duties. One also wonders whether the film should have at least made a passing reference to wilfully precocious children. To its credit, the film is vocal about the appalling student-teacher ratios prevailing in Indian schools.

The editing in the film could definitely be better as some of the cuts seem too abrupt. There are too many songs, only a few of which are good. The performance of Darsheel is indeed noteworthy, though his tears and crying look artificial. Of others, the mother’s acting is perhaps the most natural.

I wondered whether the film was made for kids or for adults. It has elements for both, but is ultimately a moral tale for harsh parents.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The saga of getting a new mobile phone

I have had a Samsung C230 for around 30 months now. Its battery was becoming less and less reliable, so I decided to go in for a new mobile phone. Not an easy chore. Too many choices, too few good ones.

I like simple things with a clean, pure design. How does it reflect in my choice of mobile phones? Let us go through the cell phones that I have owned.

In the beginning I bought mobile phones based on their simplicity and low cost.

My first mobile phone was a Samsung R210.

It had very basic features, a monochrome screen, monophonic ringtones, a jutting antenna, a log having last 10 calls, it stored 10 SMS messages and had a 100 entry phone book. It worked well, its screen was very legible and a pleasure to look at.

For my second phone, I wanted a device which could act as a modem. All phones below Rs 5000 were either GPRS class 4 or their data cable slot was the same as their power slot. That wouldn't do as I wanted to do overnight downloads. My choice finally was a class 10 GPRS Benq device, the tiny M550, which cost me Rs 3500 or so.

It had all the features but it had a terrible interface. One had to pass through hoops to be able to send a simple text message. It had polyphonic ring tones, one could connect it to the computer using a cable and it worked well as a GSM modem. It had a really ugly screen and a menu system from some other planet, had mushy keys, but it did the job and I derived a perverse pleasure from owning such an unknown and arcanely small phone.

For my third phone I wanted a tri-band device. The simplest tri-band I was able to find at that time (June 2005) was the Samsung C230.

Unfortunately it had FM radio too, which I have never used. But there was no phone on the market which was tri-band, had computer connectivity and nothing else. I bought it. It had infrared connectivity which never worked, and by never I mean never. I could never connect it to any other device. It had a lot of latency, and it took almost 3-4 seconds to unlock its keyboard.

I used it for a while, and I had gotten used to it. It did have multi-entry phone book (used to store the many phone numbers for a single person) but had no group SMS (only rarely useful). But what was becoming increasingly unacceptable, I couldn't backup my information to a computer.

Then my firm gave me a Blackberry 6230, as I needed to have access to email at all times (or so they thought). It had very small keys and was very ugly to look at.

I soon exchanged it for a Blackberry 7100g, which had a clunky interface and I never grew used to it. It used to hang and require frequent reboots. But it did have email, a web browser, a large screen and the works. It was very hard to use it as a simple phone, to retrieve the call log etc...

I gave it up in May 2007, and continued using my Samsung C230. As I said, its battery was becoming weak, so I looked around the market for something which would catch my finicky eye.

Out were the Blackberrys with their clunkiness, Nokia N Series with their heavy design and overpriced featurism, the HTC Touch'es, the iPhones which are illegal, and other such show-offs, which do anything but act as a phone.

A phone should act like a phone, and should have features designed to make the messaging (voice and text) easier. I don't want to use a phone to send emails or to edit word documents because the keyboards are small and it takes a long time to type a long message. I don't want to use a phone to click 3-megapixel impromptu pictures of my friends. If I need a camera, I will use a device explicitly made for that purpose. If I need to listen to music, or to watch a film, I can wait till I get home to my projector and my surround sound system.

My requirements were simple: A no-frills candybar phone with good speed (nice keyboard, no latency in operation), good voice (good reception, handsfree), SMS (group sms, delivery reports) and phonebook (multi-entry phonebook, computer sync) functionality. I didn't want anything extravagant like an FM radio, a camera, an MP3 player, WLAN connectivity, etc. If it was to be a flip phone, it should display the calling party on the outside. It shouldn't cost more than Rs 5000.

You will be happy to know that there is no phone on the market which satisfies the above requirements.

Sony Ericsson candybar phones don't look good to me, they are too small.

Motorola phones have funky keyboard styles and have no delivery reports. Their new phone, W180, is good but it has neither PC-sync nor a multi-entry address book.

Motorola W375 also has a clean look, but it doesn't show the caller ID on the outside.

Samsung C180 is sleek and clean but it doesn't have a multi-entry phonebook, nor group SMS.

One of Nokia's higher-end models, 6300, has a very clean design but has too many features and is overpriced for my needs.

Nokia's entry level model, 1200, has one of the best looks: a very clean, minimalist design, but doesn't offer even a handsfree cable and has a real paucity of some much-needed features.

So after looking at umpteen models and rejecting them on one ground or another, my wife finally made me buy the Nokia 2630, which has everything I want (and also, unfortunately, FM radio and a low-res camera) and which costs Rs 4000.

It is a thin, sleek phone and I am actually quite happy with it, despite it having a few designer curves. It is one of the very few phones in this range to have Bluetooth connectivity, and it is very easy to transfer data to/from it. It has a very good keyboard, has a clean interface and has good battery life. It has multi-entry phonebook, group SMS, delivery reports, handsfree cable, etc.

The moral of the story is: It is getting tougher and tougher to find things in the market which are simple, do what they are supposed to do, and don't have features which you don't need and are not forced to pay for.