Entertaining half-truths, nuanced truths and (un)intended consequences

One of the now-inevitable sideshows that accompany most big releases is the group of people objecting to something in the film and taking their grievance to court. Sometimes it’s religion (Kevin Smith’s irreverent religious comedy Dogma comes to mind), sometimes it’s the depiction of real life personalities (too many to count), sometimes it’s the misrepresentation of government policy… it doesn’t really matter.

The latest one has to do with the “unscientific” basis for the villain’s ideology in Rajni’s 2.0 — apparently a bunch of people are up in arms about a film espousing the idea that cellphone towers might be dangerous.

This discussion doesn’t just rage in public spaces. My friends recently got into a discussion on a WhatsApp group on whether the caste politics depicted in Pa Ranjith’s films were faithful to reality. 

As with most things, the truth is complicated and doesn’t lend itself to binaries. Punch dialogue in films, and much of what passes for reasoned argument in public forums, seems to have no use for anything but binaries.

Take Vijay’s Mersal. There was a line in there about how liquor doesn’t have GST while medicine does. Which is true, but also disingenuous — liquor is taxed by the state and has VAT. His fundamental point, which is that access to quality healthcare needs to be free for all, is reasonable. (Whether or not it is achievable in our country is besides the point. It is a reasonable thing for a man to ask for.) 

The ruling dispensation had a problem with the specific argument about liquor, which is fair as well. (They also shot themselves in the foot by protesting about a bunch of other things that they should’ve left well enough alone, but that’s a separate story.)

The straightforward way of looking at the issue is to say that films are no place to search for truth — as long as the story has emotional truth, the facts don’t matter. This is an easier concept to sell when a straightforward rout in reality is depicted as a nail-biter in the sports movie based on it. But when the consequences of this misrepresentation involve a bit more than box-office receipts, this begins to get tricky.

So what were the consequences of this dust-up?

First, the push-back from the ruling party simply gave the film an additional boost. I suspect that curiosity contributed at least partly to the film’s collections.

Second, and here’s where it starts getting tricky, Vijay has increasingly been showing signs of political ambition, and this little brouhaha only added to his political capital. Instead of ignoring him, they engaged with him — for someone taking his first steps in the field, the engagement is the win. While the specifics differed, the fight itself played out so similarly in Sarkar that it almost felt pre-meditated.

Third, and now it gets really tricky, we’re increasingly finding ourselves in a world where confirmation bias is not just a cognitive blind spot but a consciously adopted strategy. Plus, political rhetoric has traditionally been a bit light on facts, but now, practically anything goes. The intended consequence of something like Mersal could be that people start talking about universal healthcare, and if Vijay makes it part of his political platform, people would remember the film and go “Ah! I knew it!” But the (perhaps) unintended consequence might be that their opinions are now informed not only by the overall message, but also by the half-truths he used to support it. (Vijay himself gets the best of both worlds — if his political manifesto turns out to be at odds with the film dialogue, hey, it was just a movie.)

None of this matters to 2.0, of course. Not just because it’s a Rajni film. The contention that the radiation from cellphones can harm loving beings has not, to the extent of my knowledge, been proven. I might be wrong or misinformed. But even if we’re gonna discuss the film’s themes or their relevance to Rajni’s political ambitions, we’re gonna do it on, well, WhatsApp.


Warning: Here be spoilers

I walked out of Spyder sick to the stomach in a number of ways. It took me a while to process my reaction and realize that I had a problem with a lot of things, only some of which are about the film itself. In order to talk about this, I will have to reveal some spoilers, so if you have a problem with this, please stop reading right now. But if you are going to watch the film, please, for the love of God, don’t take your kids to see it. You’ll understand why when you see it.

So, here goes.

The hero works for the intelligence bureau, in an illegal wire tapping division that has been set up for the public good. He decides to use this to eavesdrop on a bunch of private conversations and plays vigilante. Or to be more precise, he stops crimes before they occur after having listened to phone conversations that involve the perpetrators discussing the crime beforehand.

One night, he eavesdrops on a conversation between two medical college students. One of them talks about how she stumbled upon some porn and ended up watching it for four straight hours, and now needs to get laid. So obviously he decides to go meet this girl. After a bit of stalking, they end up as friends with benefits. (I am not going to describe the scene where they have a conversation about this with the hero’s mum.) 

Am I the only one who finds this plot thread problematic? Why have a (ahem) romantic subplot at all in a film about a vigilante phone tapper on the hunt for a serial killer? And if you do feel compelled to have one due to commercial considerations or whatever, could you please, pretty please with sugar on top, go easy on the whatthefuckery?

The serial killer plot, though, has some  interesting aspects. There’s a pretty interesting origin story there: he is born in a crematorium, and needs to hear the wails of people mourning the loss of their loved ones in order to feel alive. So at some point he becomes a serial killer himself. SJ Suryaah plays the villain with such palpable relish that he walks away with much of the film. 

But here’s my problem, and this is not with the film but with something peripheral. I walked out to the loo at the interval, sometime after this origin story was told, and noticed that the hall had a whole bunch of parents who had brought their kids. I’m not talking about teenagers, I’m talking about eight year olds and the like. And I realized that the aforementioned whatthefuckery in the film couldn’t even hold a candle to this. 

My first reaction was, why on earth would you bring your kids to this. I understand that you don’t want them to stick to talking animals until they go to college, but come on! Then I realized that the film got a U/A certificate, which means that, if you’re under 12, parental guidance is advised. So if this certification is how a filmgoer decides whether or not to take his kids, then the certification process as well as how it is enforced needs fixing. 

I’m not talking about censorship here, just the idea that if a film has content that is only suitable for mature audiences, the certifying body has a responsibility to inform filmgoers of this, and the theatres screening the film have a responsibility to ensure that kids don’t get in. 

Why is this so difficult?

Honestly, I found it difficult to care about the rest of the film after this. 

Chickens, Pirates, Special Theory of Relativity and, er, Mona Gasolina

Warning: This post might be a bit NSFW.

First, watch this. Then we’ll talk:

This post began with an urgent request for my email id from Ganesh Raghuraman in the middle of the night. Since he knew me well enough, I figured that the matter had to be of earth-shattering inconsequence for him to sound so desperate, so I obviously sent it to him right away. His email, which I reproduce below in its ungrammatical entirety (despite his fervent pleas to un-Michael Bolton the crap out of it) was as follows:

I am totally tripping on Mona now..thanks to Mukund.  One of those weird songs that gets better the more you listen to it.  I have some serious doubts about the production and shoot as it pertains to lyrics.

un kannu compassa

nan un columbussa

Nangooram na paychha, nee aaada,

kadal vedikkuthu pattasa
Have you guys seen the video?  Thalaivar raids a ship in the high seas and there is a elaborate cannon-fire routine all inside the studio. I mean, we are talking about straight out of TR’s page book.   I wonder if the poet, nay song writer,  (please don’t be vairamuthu, please) wrote some random shit to rhyme and thalaivar just told to producer to spend a few lakhs of rupees.  Or did he want a pirate themed song (i don’t think so. because he does some Mission Impossible shit).  Would they have done for some other guy who is not so famous.  They probably would have asked the song writer to come up with something else, right?

This is indeed a matter for deep thought, and deserves to be on par with the great existential questions of our age, such as “Does wisdom fruit have seeds?” or “Where is the other banana?” or “Could we (not we personally, more of a general we) possibly come up with a theory that reconciles gravity with quantum mechanics, leading them to have some urgent, sweaty, high-dimensional make-up silpongs in a corner of a Riemannian manifold?

Research suggests that the question is homomorphic to older ones such as “Kodi asainthathum kaattru vanthatha?” or “Which one came first, the chicken or the egg?” (the latter of which presupposes the existence of some very inventive — not to mention kinky — chickens).

Still, let me make an attempt to resolve this. A film like this begins with a resolution, and that resolution isn’t “We’re gonna make a great Rajni movie!” Rather, it’s “This is gonna be the biggest Rajni movie ever”. Which means that, once you’ve expended the GDP of the average banana republic on Rajni, you still have enough left in the tank to blow up on song sequences. The consequence, however, is that whatever trickles down to the serfs (lyricists etc.) after all the aforementioned profligacy smells faintly of ammonia and warrants lyrics with the same penetrative aroma.

You might still end up with a good movie, or even a decent one where Rajni is far and away the best thing about it. But it occurs to me that the bigness seems to be the first thing the makers focus on. It’s like a celluloid equivalent of the Spruce Goose – a big thing that flies rather than a thing that soars.

So the real answer to the question is: It. Doesn’t. Effing. Matter.

If they had already decided on dressing Rajni up as a pirate (is it just me, or are his song sequences increasingly looking like they’ve been designed by a Halloween party planner on crystal meth?), then these lyrics are as good as any you can expect. Okay, you can get all poetic about orgasms and condoms with visuals involving bandits in the desert, as in the case of Ottagatha Kattikko, but are you seriously gonna sit there and tell me that this approach would’ve immeasurably enriched your experience of Mona Gasolina?

If, on the other hand, the lyrics had come first, and had been speaking, instead, of rockets, then the budget would still have been blown up, except differently. Rajni would’ve donned a space suit, journeyed to a distant planet in the vicinity of a black hole (with scantily clad backup dancers chronicling the, umm, blast off and the reaching of escape velocity through interpretive dappankoothu), and returned to romance a girl a third his age, whereas here…

Actually, the outer space idea isn’t all that far-fetched. This is a man with a song titled Kilimanjaro that is shot in what appears to be Machchu Pichchu. He reads Joseph Campbell’s book years before Campbell was even toilet trained. Space-time bows before the sheer force of his awesomeness. Which, by the way, might answer the earlier question about the make-up sex.


Does wisdom fruit have seeds?

Where is the other banana?

Existential: An adjective usually attached to nouns like question or dilemma by neophytes who like to make trivial shit sound deep.

Neophytes who like to make trivial shit sound deep: See here.

Homomorphic: A mathematical term, which can be most-likely-incorrectly understood to mean “equivalent”. The word has been commonly misused to suggest that the subject has turned gay. Please note that this is a misnomer, irrespective of the gender of the egg.

Ganesh Raghuraman: Better known to BITSians of a certain vintage as Argon (a shortening of R. Ganesh, and certainly not to be confused with chemical elements that have adjectives such as noble or inert attached to them). A man who, when it comes to exploring the seedy underbelly of Thamizh vocabulary, has boldly gone where no man has gone before. (Or wanted to, for that matter.)

A man who can not only swear with more color and density than the average Jackson Pollock canvas, but can also, in mid-swear, pause to ask you for your preferred theory of creation, so that he can then continue to insult your family tree all the way up to Adam or the ape, depending on whom you state as your antecedent. A man who can not only put the words twerking and bharathanatyam in the same sentence but also — this is the part that is as tough as it is disturbing — make it sound logical.
I offered to put this on his LinkedIn profile as a recommendation, but he turned it down. Not sure why.

Dear Santa, now that the Christmas rush is over…

I always love the bit where Bond meets Q and gets a bunch of toys, all of which, would you know it, get used in critical situations. Which leads me to wonder about the dramatic possibilities of an action sequence where 007 desperately needs an exploding pen and finds himself stuck with a portable defibrillator instead.

Anyway, the point is, I love the gadgets more than the other perks of Bond’s job. Not that I’ve encountered too many situations where I’ve said to myself, “Man, I’d kill to have a watch with a laser beam right now” (which must’ve been how Richard III felt back in the day), but it’s really the principle of the thing. Besides, an Aston Martin DB5 is probably more low maintenance than Denise Richards.

Still, as Arundhati Roy says, for practical purposes in a hopelessly practical world, here’s what I’d like:

5. The computer they build in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that takes several million years to find the answer to the great question of Life, the Universe and Everything. With a bit more RAM and a processor upgrade, I figure it can do wonders.

4. On days when I’m stuck in traffic long enough to start gong postal, something like the Batcycle which detaches itself from the Batmobile (The Dark Knight) would come in handy. Ideally, I’d like to hold out for quantum teleportation, but with my luck, some colourful bird would find its way into the chamber just before I hit the big green Beam-Me-Up button and I’d come out looking like the Amitabh Bachchan character in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom.

3. That neuralyzer from Men in Black would be mighty helpful, especially when one is walking into review meetings for projects where one has spent a lot of time and money doing nothing. Hypothetically speaking, of course. I’ve never been in those meetings before. No really.

2. As helpers go, Jarvis from Iron Man or TARS from Interstellar sound like good bets. A certain sense of humour is always welcome in one’s AI. But really,  I’d give away all of these things in a microsecond if you could get me…

1. Chitti from Endhiran. Because Rajnikanth.

And while we’re on the subject, could we also see a bit more realism in the movies when it comes to technology? Like a nail biting sequence where the hacker desperately tries to fix a runtime error involving memory allocations for his double pointers while someone’s life (or his own junk, as in the case of Swordfish), um, hangs in the balance. I simply refuse to believe that they all get it right the first time around.

(But don’t mess with the virus idea on the alien spaceship, okay? When it comes to saving the world, it’s either that or Slim Whitman’s Indian Love Call, and I’m not crazy about that song.)

ps: I originally wrote this for a GE blog, but now that I’ve left the company, they seem to have taken it off. Pondering the science in Interstellar got me thinking about the topic again, so I figured I’d remove the mothballs and air the old post out for a bit.

pps: In other words, the well’s running a bit dry at the moment. Thank you for holding. Your visit is very important to us.

Four and a half reasons

Dear Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences,

The next time Mr. Daniel Day-Lewis does the lead role in a motion picture, I request you to simply disqualify all other potential Best Actor nominees for reason of not being Mr. Day-Lewis and present him with the statuette forthwith. To support my humble request, I present four and a half reasons:

0.5: If his performance in his Oscar winning turns (as well as some others like my personal favourite — The Age of Innocence) is anything to go by, you are unlikely to find a better performance in that year. Ordinarily, this would count as a full reason, but I give it only half points because on the odd occasion, some actors do manage to do better. (Although even if they did, you manage to ignore brilliant performances often enough that this wouldn’t really be noticed.)

1.5: Cutting down the time taken for to go through the nominees for even one award would cut the time taken for the Oscar telecast by a precious few minutes. Some of us have to get to work after the show’s over, ya know?

2.5: Consider his first Oscar win for My Left Foot. Look at how Morgan Freeman (nominated that year for Driving Miss Daisy) was cheering when the winner was announced. My guess is, he knew what was coming: a witty, wonderful, yet short speech that stayed in the memory.

3.5: Now, despite the fine example he set back then, so many of his contemporaries insisted on blubbering up there with the statuette in their hands, reading out prosaic laundry lists of thank-yous and making us admire, instead of their acting abilities, the writing abilities of the screenwriters that made them so watchable in the movies they won for. So he obliged by winning again and There Will Be Blood and giving us this object lesson:

4.5: One would imagine that a lesson twice-taught would be heeded, but no. We still got laundry lists. We still do, come to that. So he has won — yet again — this year, just so he could teach his dim-witted colleagues once more how it ought to be done.

However, dear Academy members, I doubt that he will be successful in his endeavour despite his repeated attempts. Therefore, I humbly request you to put both him and us out of our misery and do the needful.

Regards etc.


Skyfall — bullet points

Caution: Mildly spoilerific.

  • Is there a better Bond movie theme song than Skyfall? Tina Turner’s Goldeneye comes a very close second, but I think that’s about it. Adele’s voice singing This is the end… is as mesmeric as Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang (He shot me down) in Kill Bill Vol. 1.
  • And the visuals! As soon as I walked out of the movie hall, I wanted to go back in for the next show, watch the title song all over again and then walk out.
  • Things that this Bond movie seems to have taken its cues from:
    • Ian Fleming (that didn’t happen so often during the course of the series)
    • Home Alone
    • Harry Potter
    • Um… Mother India?
  • There’s a lot of verbiage out there about Javier Bardem being the best Bond villain ever. Sure, he talks a good game and has a Tarantino-esque monologue to kick off the proceedings, has a lovely moment towards the end where he shrugs and shakes his head (in that one gesture, he conveys more than most Bond villains ever manage), but… I don’t know, really. He’s quite good, but comparisons with Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter are a bit overblown.
  • Speaking of which, there have been a few truly great actors who have played Bond villains in the past. Christopher Lee (The Man with the Golden Gun), Christopher Walken (A View to a Kill)… if you extend it to Bond girls, you could also count Halle Berry, who followed up her Oscar-winning turn in Monster’s Ball by playing the unfortunately named Jinx (sounds like a mutant-turned-stripper, don’t you think?) in Die Another Day. It’s positively amazing how bad they were in those movies. I wonder if it’s a Bond movie curse. I mean, you could’ve gotten Brando to come in and scream “Stella!” at M and even he would’ve tanked. Compared to them, Bardem escaped relatively unscathed.
    • No, I’m not counting Orson Welles’ turn as Le Chiffre in the old Casino Royale starring David Niven, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen.
  • Just before the film began, they played a number of graphic warnings about the dangers of smoking. And then Bond and his enemies killed people off in so many ways during the film’s running length, cancer would’ve seemed like a blessing to those poor souls.
  • I am strangely happy about the fact that Sean Connery didn’t play the role that seemed to have been written for him. He would’ve demanded too much attention, and that is not what you require of that role.

Not apropos of Skyfall per se, but relating to it… You know you’ve watched way too much Tamil cinema when

  • You keep trying to figure out which role to cast Vadivelu in. The character played by Naomi Harris is a possibility. The henchman who fights Bond in the Komodo dragon pit is another. The psychologist who does Bond’s assessment, maybe — when he hears Bond’s response to his questions, his natural response ought to be “Only you possible.”
  • An Aston Martin DB5 makes its appearance, and the first phrase that pops into your head is “Swapnasundari vechchirundha car“.
  • You wish they had shot the opening sequence in India and given Namitha a small role.


Where is my cow?

For a while now, I have been meaning to write a blog post on Rowdy Rathore.  But just when I figured out what I wanted to say, Baradwaj Rangan beat me to it.

To be fair, he does it better than I would have. So let me speak of a couple of peripheral observations that I had while watching the movie.

First, I think the appeal of Rowdy Rathore is rooted partly in the fact that it seems to be very obviously winking at the audience. The poster art is a masterpiece — it is so deliberately lurid that I couldn’t help but smile. (It also occurred to me, in passing, that Sanjay Leela Bhansali probably made a deal with Prabhudeva years ago that they would share a colour palette, and that whatever was left over after the former was done with Saawariya would be the latter’s to play with.)

The second is a slightly more sober observation: I noticed this not just in the three versions of this film but also in a bunch of others — the stakes have constantly risen in the way films portray evil. Maybe it is because we are exposed to filmi villainy so often that we are desensitized to the more garden-variety bad guy (smuggler, gangster etc.). I don’t know. But every once in a while, someone finds it necessary to up the ante. When they remade Agneepath, for instance, it wasn’t sufficient to disgrace the teacher by making him seem like he visited a prostitute — they had to make him rape a crippled schoolgirl. This movie decides that the way to make the villain despicable is to have him rape a cop’s wife over several days while the cop looks on helplessly. Where will this stop?

Linked to both these observations, but in a meta sort of way, is a conversation I had a friend of mine recently. She asked me how Rowdy Rathore was, and I immediately said, “Fantastic! It was exactly what it intended to be.” I meant it in a half-serious, half-sarcastic sort of way, but the comment led to a discussion on whether a film should be judged by its content or by its ability to do what it intended to do.

In general, I believe in the latter concept more than she does. A trivial example would be movies across different genres that I love in equal measure. A trickier example would be something like Nishabd, which I found to be a very well made movie about a subject that not many people were okay with. But the whole conversation made me wonder. Would I have been okay with a film that glorified, say, child abuse, just because it was a very well made film about the subject? The answer is obviously no — we all have our holy cows.

But what does my threshold of tolerance indicate, in and as of itself? No easy answers, I’m afraid.