Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Provocation of the Ego

In interacting with people, how important is it to take cognizance of their egos and their attachments? Is consideration of another's feelings a pandering tactic and a form of manipulation? Or can it be helpful to lessen unnecessary friction?

What do you think? After all this is a slippery slope where one can indulge in manipulation and justify it as saving others from themselves? Spiritual teachers, in particular, are fond of being disingenuous, mystifying, distant, acting as veneration-worthy towards their disciples "for their own good".

Also, it is quite dangerous to presume to know what is good for the other. Is it acceptable to assume, at least in some cases, what is in another's best interests? In those cases, is manipulation justified?

I think that in general, provoking someone's ego and self-defense is counter-productive. The best conversationalists are those who can communicate in a way which does not raise others' defenses needlessly. It is, in my opinion, important to be wary of what can flare up another's tempers and ego and leave him not just where he was or worse, but also distant and angry with the one who is trying to communicate, and so closing the possibilities of further engagement.

However, since ego, temper, passions are what I consider the source of human suffering, how useful is it to sidestep them in order to apply a therapeutic balm? Will it not postpone another's freedom? Is it not more important to point out what is causing the problem, rather than to address it in a temporary way?

The balance that I strike is this: I take care not to provoke people at all when dealing with them functionally (i.e. when my association with them is mandated by circumstances). But between friends, those interested in the human condition, with people who have chosen to associate with me, I assume that they will not be offended no matter what I say.

However, it gets tricky with people who are neither very close, nor entirely functional in one's association with them. In such cases, it is best (I think) to start tentatively, and if the person shows gusto and a non-offending attitude, to amp up the mutual enquiry and questioning. Otherwise, to back off. To try to "do good" to everybody despite their reluctance, is, I think a tad compulsive.

Again, what do you think?

The Burden of Memory

When I was young, whenever I used to come across a news of someone committing suicide, I was perplexed as to why that person did not simply start a new life somewhere else. I considered such people, e.g. a farmer committing suicide due to an unpayable loan, a lover unable to unite with his beloved, as ones who were limiting their options. Life is too vast, I thought, and why end it if one is frustrated in one environment? Why not start over?

Only much later, I realized why not. It may seem trite, but it took me quite a while to experience it myself and thus realize the force of the factor involved.

The invisible threads and burdens of emotional memories bind us wherever we go. One may leave one's family and one's home, one may start a new life elsewhere, but what is to be done about the scars of heart and of emotional ties? Thus, a lover is unable to imagine a life without his beloved. In his valid reckoning, the failed love and the ache will haunt him no matter where he goes. In the same vein, a financially ruined man validly reckons that it will be well nigh impossible for him to rebuild his self-esteem in a new place, and for him to get over the feeling that he ran away like a coward. In the grip of such thoughts, many consider suicide and hence oblivion a better choice than to live with these burdens.

That also explains that when life becomes unbearable, it is the feelings inside which are unbearable, and which are sought to be drowned in addictions, drugs, alcohol, sleep, activity, etc. When there is no avenue to live a life free from these feelings, and when these feelings make one unable to live, one starts considering suicide as a possibility.

In the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman examine the possibility of erasing one's hurtful memories so that one may be able to live again. The film does not explore this idea fully, and becomes a tad romantic towards the end, but the idea is immensely powerful. Most of us are so scarred and burdened with our emotional history that to be able to wipe it clean would literally be a new lease of life.

Psychiatry and therapy is primarily to weed out the most persistent of our emotional knots. Mood elevating drugs is an industry in itself. Distractions take us away from ourselves.

But what if one could indeed put the burden away, oneself? Not just dissociate from the painful self and its memories, but to wipe it off? To live a clean and pure life in which not only the emotional past is wiped clean, there is no emotional present to control and no emotional future to be afraid of (or to look forward to).

In essence ... the extirpation of one's heart and soul.

Scary? Inhuman? Too extreme?

That is the promise of Actual Freedom.

Public Enemies by Michael Mann

I consider cinema to be both an art form as well as a medium of experience and provocation. Film lovers may differ in their appreciation of a film. Some consider the style, formal dexterity and virtuosity as more important. Others consider the message and the emotions a film can provoke to be primary. Most fall somewhere in the middle.

Public Enemies is a gangster film made by a director who is trying to further the frontiers of film art. There is nothing new, absolutely nothing about the human condition that is illustrated by this film. And moreover, if you watch this film with the expectation of an emotional involvement, you will again be sorely disappointed.

When we recently watched Au Hasard Balthazar, one of the fellow spectators found the film pretentious because, according to him, the director was merely indulging in exhibiting his formal expertise and the film did not raise any important questions. I consider this kind of viewer expectation to be valid, but to look for provocation and lessons in every event is a peculiar kind of narcissism as well.

It is important to meet a film on its own turf. To appreciate a film for what it is trying to do, rather than to be gratified when it fulfills one's expectations (even an expectation of depth), is, I think, an important milestone for a film lover.

Au Hasard Balthazar, for example, is a film about suffering, and in a way, everybody already knows that life can be tough. But Bresson is saying it in a way which is new. Like a painting, or a poem which expresses a familiar sentiment, it is therefore not important for what it depicts, but in how it depicts it.

Public Enemies could not be farther from the Bresson film in its film language. Michael Mann uses gunfire as a brush on his palette. He uses elegaic music, dark hues, operatic sounds, echoing shots in open spaces, reflection and brilliant contrasts, wide angle lenses, and so on, to create a visual feast. There is only a hint of a narrative in this film, which is one gunfight after another, and of a bunch of policemen chasing an iconic law breaker.

To meet a film like Public Enemies at its turf is to try to see what the director is trying to do, and then to judge whether he has been successful or not. In my book, formal experimentation is an admirable quality in itself, and if it works at least at some level to create something which can elicit a "Wow", it succeeds. The opening jailbreak sequence in the Michael Mann film is just one such instance which succeeds spectacularly.

This is a film which needs to be seen on a big screen with a sophisticated audio system. The themes raised by this film (the love of the outlaw, the seduction by a demonic force, the bravado of a life lived in the moment) are mundane as compared to the visual and aural artistry.

I was disappointed that Giovanni Ribisi was not given more screen time, but that is a small gripe.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi by Sudhir Mishra

The film is a better-than-average reiminiscence of a particulary troubled period in modern India. While the 60s (or Sexties, as it is sometimes called) were times of experimentation in the US, in India the youth were waking up to the fact that the promise of freedom had failed, that repression continued in old and new forms. While in the US, the protests against the state were mostly non-violent and non-ambitious, in India the violent Naxalite movement aimed at nothing less than the overthrow of the state apparatus. In recent years, the Naxalite movement has lost much of its ideological high ground, but it is still a grave presence in many tribal and poorer regions of India.

The three main characters in this film differ in their dedication to "change". Siddharth is an idealist, committed to bringing about change, violently if needed. Geeta, who eulogizes and loves him, lives in his shadow. Vikram, hailing from a middle class family, rejects all this talk of "change" and works the system to become wealthy and powerful.

The film is interesting in that it traces the three characters' uncertain trajectories. None ends up in a place they had wanted in the beginning. The cost of waging a war against the organized militia of the state is brought out in sharp focus as it breaks down relationships, makes even the toughest of spirits resign in defeat, and leads to horrendous and callous violence.

Siddharth admits defeat and moves back into the mainstream. Vikram is the victim of circumstances, driven by his love of Geeta. But it is Geeta who finally finds her place in the world. She is one of the strongest women portrayed in recent Indian cinema. Self-assured, never wavering, anguished at times but still not losing hope, she emerges from a life in which she has been living in a shadow of one man after another, and is an elevating presence by the end of the film. One looks forward to more performances from this talented actress.

A rather realistic (and pessimistic) portrait of politics and the police is presented. Patronage still runs strong in modern India, and therefore it is modern only in name.

The direction is good, with attention to detail, but I am hesitant to call it flawless. I seem to feel that editing in Indian art films has actually become worse over the years. Dialogue delivery is at times forced, and gestures (especially laughter and eye movement) are frequently not well-timed.

What also jars is the profusion of English dialogue. I am not sure about the reason why Geeta is depicted as more comfortable in English (and hence the letters to her, written by Vikram and Siddharth, are in English) but not only is this a distancing choice, the accent and facial expressions of Geeta end up portraying her more as a Westerner living in India rather than an Indian girl struggling with family, society, culture. Geeta gives up her marriage almost without any trouble, has a child out of wedlock without any eyebrows being raised, and in general lives with nary a care for social customs. This was the only unrealistic part of the film. It doesn't ruin the film, but I daresay that her character is unrelatable for most Indian women. It is convenient that she is shown as having grown up abroad. A contrast to her character is that of Sujara Chatterjee in Hazaar Chaurasi ki Maa (Govind Nihalani, 1998), who struggles with a repressive family structure in addition to a repressive state.

There are numerous small characters in this film which are curious and realistic, but don't lend much to the narrative. The narrative is therefore loose. I consider one of the director's earlier films, Yeh Woh Manzil To Nahin, which I had the good fortune of catching on television in my adolescence, a much better and tightly narrated film.

The posters of this film are hugely disappointing. They are fashionable and glittering, instead of provocative. Judge for yourself.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


I live in North India, and for the past few days, the weather has become distinctly cooler and invigorating. The mornings are crisp. This is also the festive season in India. It was Dussehra a couple weeks back, Karwa Chauth is just past, and Diwali is round the corner.

There is celebration in the air, the markets are decked up, and kids especially are having a great time bursting crackers, eating sweets and are enjoying a forgiving atmosphere of noise and naughtiness.

One of the virtues in Buddhism is that of Mudita, being happy in others' joy (as opposed to being envious or cynical). There was a time, during my Vedanata years, when I used to scoff at circumstantial joys as merely escapism and distraction, but no more.

It is a pleasure to see people happy, even if their happiness derives from their passions or from the environment. Not only is happiness (in whatever form) enabling of an appreciation of being alive (as opposed to the denial of life in religion), it is also a respite for otherwise stressed human beings who spend most of their days in various kinds of struggles.

The "mundane" pleasures of eating, drinking, frolicking, enjoying the lights and sounds, shopping for new things for the house, gambling, getting dressed at one's best, and even elaborate ceremonies at temples, are welcome signs of people enjoying earthly life. Yes, it is consumptive, yes, it is polluting, yes, it is temporary, and one wishes there were more healthy ways of enjoying the festive season... But the joy on people's faces is there, and it is cynical to begrudge it.

During this time, one is filled with good wishes for all, and die-hard fogeys like me wish that instead of buying a "Season's Greetings" card, one could find a card which said "Life's Greetings".

Have a good time, ye all!

(photo courtesy

Friday, October 09, 2009

Labor, Consumption, Alienation

In the knowledge economy, most people earn more than the subsistence level.

Most white collar workers seek an increased standard of living.

The standard is defined largely by the degree and manner of consumption.

Hence the prevailing definition of success is to constantly be in the top percentile of consumers.

Both labor and consumption are expenditures of energy, and both creates margins for the capitalists.

Labor is to help create, and consumption is to help destroy. Both feed each other.

The trick in encouraging consumption is to make it a part of one's identity, as a form of potency in an impotent world.

In the modern world, what one consumes defines oneself. One is perceived according to the costly labels one carries.

To feel powerful after having consumed is the big delusion that markets strive to sustain. To feel as if one is more alive after consumption.

One is willing to live in inhuman conditions in order to have a chance at the consumption carrot which the market dangles before one's eyes.

Consumption leaves one unfulfilled. But since larger carrots are always there, one doesn't suspect the path, only the milestones.

The prime need in a human being to be gratified (in terms of neurotransmitters) is manipulated ceaselessly by the market in both driving him to labor hard, and then to consume hard.

A man riding a powerful SUV and feeling good about it is the result of pervasive brainwashing, but it derives from a primal need in the man.

Without gratification in various ways, one feels alienated. And as more and more gratification is dependent on money and status, one is less and less capable of being self-sufficient for one's happiness.

The owners are not fulfilled as well, of course. But their thresholds of gratification are now so high that thousands of people have to work, and consume, to enable their neurotransmitter levels.

To turn the other way, from gratification and satiation towards joy and contentment, is the key, but it is extremely difficult, owing to the very early programming of a child gearing him towards "worldly" success.

Sex being the core drive, and the competition for mates becoming more fierce with the breakdown of the traditional structures, and with the competing ability determined by one's worldly success, it is biologically counter-intuitive for a person to turn the other way and seek contentment instead of success as defined by one's potential mates.

Since the cycle of alienation, work, consumption, gratification, alienation, work, consumption and gratification is unending, there is burning out, exhaustion and depression.

As the community breaks down, and institutions and markets take over, there is choice only in the degree of one's participation in the economic arena, not in the matter of it. (As in, one can only choose to disengage to a degree, not completely)

To live comfortably by one's own labor is easier than ever before, but to fulfill oneself in the circumstances one finds oneself is not necessarily easier, it may even have become harder than ever before. Fulfilment in normal human beings is a socially measured outcome.

As one disallows society to dictate one's fulfilment, one risks becoming anti-social and even more alienated, as compared to being only asocial. The drop-outs, the various kinds of addicts, and so on. Man is inherently social, and to get cut off from this society (which today encourages alienation) is in itself alienating.

What is the way out? I'm not entirely sure, but what I am practicing is: To question one's biological and social goals, and to risk meaninglessness, and then to come upon contentment in which there is an inherent significance to living and experiencing, and not an imposed one on the content of one's experiencing.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

On Responsibility and Indifference

This post was triggered by reading about J R Oppenheimer's reaction at the successful detonation of a trial atomb bomb, a little prior to bombing of Hiroshima:
Dr. Oppenheimer, on whom had rested a very heavy burden, grew tenser as the last seconds ticked off. He scarcely breathed. He held on to a post to steady himself. For the last few seconds, he stared directly ahead and then when the announcer shouted "Now!" and there came this tremendous burst of light followed shortly thereafter by the deep growling roar of the explosion, his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief

To put his reaction in perspective, the bombs killed as many as 140,000 people in Hiroshima alone.

In this case, I am willing to grant he did not have any malice towards the thousands of innocent people in Hiroshima. He was just doing his job. Neither can it be said that he was unaware of the destruction the bomb was going to cause. Hence it is neither malice, nor ignorance. But this was an extremely violent act.

The bombing was a pressure tactic to force Japan to adhere to the terms of surrender.

To be sure, most of us are not directly engaged in destructive acts. However, we are ignorant of the long-term or otherwise distant implications of our acts (on ourselves, as well as on others and on our environment), as is amply borne out by psychological neuroses and environmental pollution. A measure of obliviousness seems to be essential if one is to enjoy the fruits of civilized society.

To what extent is an individual responsible for the consequences of acts in which he acts as a conduit, or a participant? What are your reactions and thoughts on this?

Is absence of malice enough?

(A related earlier post)

Au Hasard Balthazar by Robert Bresson

Robert Bresson's precision in cinema is akin to J M Coetzee's precision in literature. Both share a bleak view of humanity, tempered only by a fleeting hope of individual redemption.

This was my third viewing of this remarkable film. The premise of the film is daring and simple: A donkey and a girl go through life, suffering abuse at the hands of those who have dominion over them. Whereas the donkey (Balthazar) has no choice in what path it takes, the girl (Marie) has little to choose from.

Rife with Biblical symbolism, this film is like a jewel polished to perfection. No image or sound is wasted, no frivolous words are spoken. This is a film in which the narrative is stripped to its bare essentials. Episodic and elliptical in style, the film can perhaps be best summed up in the phrase "Suffering in Silence".

There are films which do not make an overt claim of an absence of a higher power, but which illustrate it. The problem of suffering has long since been advanced as a proof that there is no God, that man is perhaps a higher animal, but an animal nevertheless who deludes himself into creating a benevolent and all-powerful God in his own image.

Many think of their childhoods wistfully and with nostalgia. The happiness during childhood is mostly the happiness of a sheltered existence and an innocence which is more ignorance and underdevelopment than uncorruptedness. In this film, both Balthazar and Marie have their happiest moments in their childhood, while in their later lives, it is one sorrow after another. A child cries not at life, nor at fate, but at something immediate which is achievable. The tears of an adult are deeper because one knows that there is no easy solution. Sorrow is an adult emotion.

The film is a highly compressed portrait of life's miseries. Godard famously called this film "the world in 90 minutes". The misery of social obligations, of adhereing to institutions and their procedures, of participating in a capitalist society, of the dubious promise of love and affection, of the unsatisfactory nature of religious solutions, of contradictory impulses within human beings, of a death without redemption.

An expert user of the Kuleshov Effect, Robert Bresson drains all emotion from faces and from eyes of his models, and demands a very different kind of viewing. This is non-consumptive cinema at its best. One has to actively participate, guess at what the characters must be thinking and feeling, speculate at what the director wants to portray. No explanations are provided, but there is a vision at work. It is not a stainless mirror, into which one can project anything. There is something which is being shown, but it is shown in a way which is neither implicit nor explicit, but which requires interpretation.

This is a hard film to watch if you understand it. And a hard film to watch if you don't. One will be silenced in the former case, and bored in the latter.

Bresson was also a master of atmospheric sound, and of highly surgical framing. His frames are sometimes perceived as incomplete, with only parts of a body or parts of a scene visible, but that very excision makes us focus on what is shown, and what isn't. It is a device to make us imagine more than we see. This film is therefore not just narratively elliptical (not every sequence is temporally or spatially linked to the one prior), but also visually incomplete. Both in the frame itself, and beyond it, one has to imagine what is left undepicted.

A film is constrained temporally in that it has to present something within a certain duration, and without lending indefinite gaps for the viewer to ponder over what has been shown. Unlike in a book, where one can pause at will, a film carries on inexorably at 24 frames per second.

A great film, like an enigmatic woman, therefore, invites you to visit it again, instead of completely revealing itself during the first night. This is a film which has to be watched many times to appreciate its depths.