Sunday, July 27, 2008

Beowulf by Robert Zemeckis

Reviews of this film have focused either on the motion-capture technology, or on the controversy surrounding the shots of a nude Angelina Jolie.

The technology is imperfect and a work in progress, and the shots of Ms Jolie would be interesting only to a celebrity-fetishist.

However, I do have something to say about a particular aspect of the mythical story. Whereas aggression is celebrated as manly, lust is distinctly condemned in this film. According to Beowulf, a hero is one who is brave, and one who doesn't capitulate to a lustful moment. He may compete, he may plunder, he may kill, he may loot, he may have many wives, he may mistreat his slaves and workers, but he may not give in to a lustful temptation which brings woe upon his kingdom.

It is a rather interesting viewpoint, but one which is eminently understandable. A King's foibles are acceptable (even if they are rooted in animal-like behavior) if they bring prosperity and glory to his kingdom. His wanting of sons, his desire for immortality, and his manliness exhibited in having many queens is perfectly acceptable. But if he gives in to a temptation which is treacherous towards his people, then shame is in order.

(Can one perhaps draw a parallel to Clinton's forgivable indiscretions while he was President?)

What is also curious is that people want to believe in unblemished heroes. The pain and denial expressed by Beowulf's deputy when Beowulf tries to tell him about the fall is one of the most interesting aspects of this story. So also is the seemingly inexplicable suicide of King Hrothgar.

The Queen is shown to be in the know all along, and she is probably the most self-aware of all characters in this story.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

ICICI Direct Disclaimer

I keep getting investment advice (aka spam) from ICICI.

A small link at the bottom of each mail leads to this gem of a page: (selected text bold-faced by me)

The information contained herein is strictly confidential and meant solely for the selected recipient and may not be altered in any way, transmitted to, copied or distributed, in part or in whole, to any other person or to the media or reproduced in any form, without prior written consent of ICICI Securities Limited. The content of this mail is based on information obtained from public sources and sources believed to be reliable, but no independent verification has been made nor is its accuracy or completeness guaranteed. The contents of this mail are solely for informational purpose and may not be used or considered as an offer document or solicitation of offer to buy or sell or subscribe for securities or other financial instruments. Nothing in this report constitutes investment, legal, accounting and tax advice or a representation that any investment or strategy is suitable or appropriate to your specific circumstances. While due care has been taken in preparing this mail, I-Sec and affiliates accept no liabilities for any loss or damage of any kind arising out of any inaccurate, delayed or incomplete information nor for any actions taken in reliance thereon. I-Sec may have issued other mails that are inconsistent with and reach different conclusion from the information presented in this mail.

ICICI Securities Limited or its employees may be holding a small number of shares/position in the above referred companies as on date of release of this mail. The securities discussed and opinions expressed in this report may not be suitable for all investors, who must make their own investment decisions, based on their own investment objectives, financial positions and needs of specific recipient. Please be informed that past performance is not necessarily a guide to future performance. Further, actual results may differ materially from those set forth in projections. This mail is not directed or intended for distribution to, or use by, any person or entity who is a citizen or resident of or located in any locality, state, country or other jurisdiction, where such distribution, publication, availability or use would be contrary to law, regulation or which would subject I-Sec and affiliates to any registration or licensing requirement within such jurisdiction. The securities described herein may or may not be eligible for sale in all jurisdictions or to certain category of investors. Persons in whose possession this mail may come are required to inform themselves of and to observe such restriction.

Friday, July 04, 2008

The Conversation by Francis Ford Coppola

The Conversation is a grave character study of a man who is extremely moral and professional, but whose very professionalism clashes with his morality. As a professional, he professes to do his job and leave the consequences of his work to others. He seems totally oblivious to the inherent inhumanity of his work, which is to eavesdrop on others. And finally, in a climactic moment, this inhumanity wreaks his world apart, literally and figuratively.

Privacy is a human notion, and in many films, e.g. in Bergman's Shame, its violation seems to strip people of their dignity and humanity. Those involved in eavesdropping and surveillance rarely realize, or perhaps realize too well (and revel in that power and dominance), that freedom is meaningless without the freedom to be on one's own, without anyone policing one's private thoughts, emotions or acts.

Humans have a unique capacity for self-reflection and internal dialogue, and this makes us private individuals by our very nature. Some of us feel uncomfortable when left alone, but for some of us, solitude is a much-needed respite from crowds, noise and frivolousness.

To trust someone mostly means entrusting him with a piece of information. To betray someone is to exploit that trust to one's advantage. Therefore, it is also betrayal, one no less heinous, to peer surreptitiously into someone's private life (and thus get private information without the act of entrusting by the other).

It is also a betrayal in some sense to not open oneself to people close to one. If I know more about you than you about me, I have power over you. And if you gave yourself away to me because you trusted me, my remaining opaque is an insult towards that trust. This expectation of reciprocity of trust can also be misused. Psychopaths reveal false but intensely private details about themselves in order to elicit your most intimate thoughts.

In the aftermath of the convention, Harry Caul, brilliantly played by Gene Hackman, in a rare moment of vulnerability reveals something intensely private to himself.

The sense of violation that he feels when he finds out that his words have been recorded and listened to by others does not make him question his life and work. But it does make us question.

Human communication is inherently ambiguous without proper context and the mental states of its subjects. Surveillance focuses on what is visible, what is verbal, what is written down, the overt acts. This assumption of understanding another by a few acts is also a form of violation, because as humans, we seek to be understood in our entirety, not by our isolated acts.

When finally, the weapons of surveillance are switched on towards Harry Caul, rather than by him, his world falls apart. He is reduced to an abject persona, unable to say anything except play his musical organ.

Because after all, if one does not speak, how can one be heard?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Older Writings

A lot of essays that I wrote before and during my spiritual years are archived here.

As specified at the top of the referred page, I consider most of the deliberations to be obsolete. But many essays contain interesting thoughts.

Some essays, e.g. on Yoga and on Commitment, I still consider to be valid.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Bazaar (The Marketplace) by Sagar Sarhadi

Preachy dialogue mars this otherwise moving film about two couples struggling against poverty and exploitation.

However, only one character in the film, Shabnam, is blameless. Everyone else is guilty one way or the other.

Shakir Bhai is anyway self-centered without any regard for the pain he causes to others with his violent, callous and calculating actions.

Akhtar does not mind sacrificing others for his own advancement.

Salim is Najma's lover but is willing to wait for her to come to him. He is guilty in the whole second act (though self-consciously so) by not intervening in the sordid affair. He only verbally lashes the folks involved, and rails against society with drunken polemics, but doesn't actually do anything. He foolishly pursues Najma even though they have nothing in common, and tries to persuade Najma that Akhtar will never marry her (which is shown to be false later).

Sarju is ineffectual in his attempts at saving Shabnam, because he is too driven by his emotions and does not understand the forces at work. And when effacing himself in front of Shakir Bhai, all he wants is for Shakir to leave his Shabnam, no matter if he goes in for another young thing.

But the really guilty person in the film is Najma. She keeps Salim on a leash for 6 years while being a mistress to Shakir. She calculatingly plans to find a bride for Shakir in order to buy her marriage with Akhtar. Once in Hyderabad, she visits brothels and gets in touch with matchmakers. She knows she is acting criminally, but thinks of making a pilgrimage for washing her sins while the "sin" is in progress. She feels a whiff of guilt only when Sarju tells her who Shabnam is. Does that make her crime any more or less, because Shabnam is Sarju's beloved?

And moreover, she self-righteously leaves Akhtar as if she has suddenly found her "self", as instructed by Salim. And after leaving Akhtar, immediately runs to Salim. So much for being independent.

It can be said however, that she is the only person in the film who undergoes a crisis of conscience and changes because of it. The others continue on their trajectories as if moved by fate.

In my opinion, the parents should have been talked to by Salim and Najma. Salim and Najma should have arranged some money for Shabnam's elder sister's marriage and helped her marry Sarju, and married each other long back anyway.

The editing is quite bad but the director deserves commendations for scene composition, the realistic sets, and the remarkable acting by everybody.

The songs are memorable, composed by Khayyaam and some written by none other than Mir Taqi Mir, the celebrated Urdu poet.

I quote a haunting Ghazal from the film, one of my favorites, in its entirety here:

दिखाई दिए यूँ के बेख़ुद किया
हमें आप से भी जुदा कर चले
दिखाई दिए यूँ के बेख़ुद किया
दिखाई दिए यूँ

I caught a glimpse of her and lost control of my senses
I got separated from myself

जबीन सजदा करते ही करते गई
हक-ऐ-बंदगी हम अदा कर चले
दिखाई दिए यूँ के बेख़ुद किया
दिखाई दिए यूँ

I kept on bowing my forehead to you
And thus completed my obligations as a human being.

परस्तिश किया तक के ऐ बुत तुझे
नज़र में सभो की खुदा कर चले
दिखाई दिए यूँ के बेख़ुद किया
दिखाई दिए यूँ

I worshiped you so much with my eyes, O Idol
That it made you a God in the eyes of everybody

बहुत आरज़ू थी गली की तेरी
सो या-से-लहू में नहा कर चले
दिखाई दिए यूँ के बेख़ुद किया
दिखाई दिए यूँ

I yearned so much for you abode (lane)
that I come bathed in the blood of my despair.

I caught a glimpse of her and lost control of my senses
I got separated from myself