Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Being Dorian Gray

Like everyone else, I have changed a lot after having come to IIT. I suppose I was a bit of a child when I first arrived here. In the two and half years I have spent here I have perceptibly changed. This has been a recurring theme in my posts for some time now. I wrote previously that I can at times actually notice how different I am and how differently I behave from only a couple of years ago. I often catch myself remarking only in half-jest “How things change!”.

I have rid myself of several qualms I had about many things. For example, I was one of those people in school who actually had issues with cheating. On the rare occasion that I did cheat, or skipped work, I felt a guilt that I feel even today. The guilt is, however, going away and I think IIT’s greatest contribution will be equipping me with a faith in jugaad.

Many people think I am cynical and berate me for not loving life more, especially as I have so many things going my way. I can’t deny I am cynical sometimes, and I don’t blame people for believing that is a permanent state. What they don’t realize is the extent of their own cynicism. People just use words like ‘cynicism’ interchangeably with ‘pessimism’, ‘skepticism’ or ‘depression’.

Cynicism implies believing the world is past repair. When you ask me to like the world for what it is, do you not realize you are asking me to buy into the perception that since the system won’t change, we should change to make the system work for us.

In a cesspool of corruption and selfishness and naked materialism, we must transform ourselves into slimy creatures feeding on the filth, or die of poisoning.

I respect those people tremendously who look down upon the cesspool’s lowlife, and yet occupy a position in society that I’d like to occupy. There are people who look like they are intelligent, perceptive and sensitive, who work hard for their lives and careers, but who have principles. These are people who look like they have grounding. Their principles will stand them in good stead and the sacrifices they might make for their principles will serve them better than the compromises they could have made at crossroads in their lives. These are people who understand what culture means, who understand that some things are sacred, who empathise with others without condescension. These are people who are spotless, who are looked up to and asked for opinions. These are people who genuinely try never to be late, who apologize when they’re late for no fault of theirs, who go some way in being the kind of men or women that Kipling made his model in ‘If’.

And you so want them to respect you for you respect them so much. You don’t feel ashamed of the influence their opinions have on you. You wish you were a protégé to their mentorship, or alternately their mentor. You feel, instinctively, that they will understand what you say when others will only nod. You know you’ll connect.

And then they tell you quite casually how they did this only because they wanted something they coveted, and which they coveted so that they’d get that miniscule leg-up in their careers, possibly. And it’s not the statement that shocks you. What shocks you is that it’s not an admission, it’s just a fact. Fact of life.

And you then realize that you were wrong in investing so much respect in ordinary persons. They are, after all, ordinary. They live and breathe the same smoke you do. And if you think you can manipulate your way to the top and absolve yourself by confessing and admiring those that prefer the stairs for their diligence and adherence to values, why should you expect them to not want to take the elevator?

And so let’s all try and enjoy the elevator ride in spite of all the claustrophobia. Because no one on the stairs is there because they enjoy walking. They’re there because the lift was full. And although it’s an inspiring sight, if you’ll leave your place in the lift to join the staircase fraternity, one of the Brotherhood will rush to take your place.

So let’s all admire their courage and envy their peace of mind, but from a safe distance, and knowing fully well that our admiration must not translate into action.

Let’s celebrate ambition and greed
And sex and sleaze
We’d be nicer if we could be
But we’ll gladly settle for selfish and mean

We suck up to the meanest
We taunt the meek
For the mean represent the best
And the meek represent the weak

Truth is Success
And anything less
Is just not good enough
For the bloody best

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Being Positive

I have rightly been accused of being cynical and negative about many things in life. A small experience yesterday brought home to me just what kind of a sad item people think I am. I can’t pretend not being secretly glad when I know people talk about me, but being talked about and being a subject of discussion and analysis are two slightly different things. The second smacks of being treated as a specimen, and that’s not an appetizing thought.

Anyway, I have decided to list out all the nice things I can think of about my various gripes.

My department (CS):

1) Fast internet access (through proxy), esp compared to aam junta that has no access at all.
2) Free afternoons, fewer classes, sometimes relaxed attention criteria, no labs.
3) A cool email account on my department server; it certainly beats the telnet email id. I can even have robertfrust@... unlike on telnet where I must be forever known by my number. It’s another matter that I haven’t set an alias yet, but the knowledge that I could is empowering.
4) Respect among people who look suitably impressed at the enormity of my burden when they realize I am in CS.
5) A bigger ftp account, but I neither need nor use it, but as in #3, it’s not what I do with it that counts. The power is in knowing I can.
6) Lastly, if I must have a low GPA, I might as well have it here where it is somewhat defensible.

On second thoughts, since I don’t want to extend this article beyond today, I’ll end with showing the silver lining to my pet gripe alone. Extending this to finding good things about Life etc will make this pretentious and fraudy.

PS: Among the several things that I come up with now and then, there’s one particularly cool thought, which also happens to fit this situation: Worse things happen to better people.
Now if only we could make that sink into our subconscious.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

It's very late, and I'm very sleepy, but I don't feel like sleeping

Everything's gone,
Lost or left

And there's just dust,
Blood and sweat

That remain
All else is pain

Stripped of pride
You wish you'd died
But you survived

To live in isolation
Doomed to try

And regret
But never forget

What is the secret?

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Movie Ramblings

I was sitting in a friend's room watching new movie trailers and I suddenly realized, "This is a good time to be alive!".

If you are a fan of rock music (like my younger brother is), you'd probably wish you had been around to witness first-hand the growth of rock 'n roll, and experience the headiness of knowing this was as good as it would ever get, in the 60's and early 70's. Anyone who's seen Almost Famous will probably flashback to those scenes to picture what I aim to convey.

I love movies, and I absolutely relish good-looking movies. People like me, who derive a special pleasure from watching movies with geat cinemaography, sets, lighting, camera work, have never had it so good.

My favourite type of look is dark, moody, tense. Here are some movies/scenes off the top of my head that I like primarily or partly for their visual merit:

1) the yellow-tinted Kaante with jerky shots (e.g. the last big scene when all the main players have drawn guns and the camera goes round the actors in circles)
2)nearly all of Sin City, Underworld etc.
3)the last slaughter scenes in Apocalypse Now - the movie is the most beautifully shot movie I have ever seen, and the scene when Charlie Sheen comes out of the lake covered in mud is God's own work
4)lots of rainy scenes - Chandrachud Singh lying and crying in the mud in Kya Kehna when he finds out Preity Zinta is pregnant, a drenched and drunk Ethan Hawke under Michelle Pfeiffer's balcony in Great Expectations, Raveena Tandon dancing on top of a building under construction in Mohra (that I devoted a post to in Bhoot), rain in LOTR, and newer movies like V for Vendetta and Ek Khiladi Ek Hasina (they both look good in the trailers).
5)the fabulous opening 5 minutes of black and white footage of the Nazi camps in X-Men
6)Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaaye in Guru Datt's Pyaasa - haven't watched the entire movie but would love to
7)the scene where Humprey Bogart is drunk in his bar after closing time in Casablanca - "Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she had to walk into mine."
8)Ardh Satya and other movies of that era that I have missed but feel very strongly I'll enjoy
9)Abhishek Bachchan telling his father he killed his brother in Sarkar - I was so unhappy after watching Sarkar because I thought RGV did all the hard work and still managed to not make a brilliant movie.

Some scenes speak so eloquently that they become the points around which the viewer stretches the entire movie. I remember my favourite movies as a jumbled montage of powerful scenes.
This extends to books and music as well.

I remember Harry Potter IV (the book - the movie didn't do this as well as I imagined it, in fact I wrote a detailed screenplay for this scene) for the scene when Dumbledore blasts the hell out of Crouch Jr. and shows just why he was so feared and respected among the magical community, and li'l Harry sees Dumby for more than just a benign grandfather-figure.

And I love so many songs for their little/long solos (Fade to Black, Fear of the Dark, Highway Star, November Rain) or for the inflexion points that make the song leap from temporary favourite to work-stopping involving (Layla's piano piece, With or Without You, Don't Cry, Jab Kisi Ki Taraf etc etc).

But good looks can only get a movie so far. Look at what happened to the two Matrix sequels.
What I really wanted to say was that I really love the trailers of many movies only to be disappointed with the complete product. And this is true for both the 'ollywoods.

I believe the movie industry in India is world-class or close when it comes to publicity - trailers, teasers, item numbers (look at the promotional video for Bluffmaster), or set design and aesthetics (Lagaan, Black, HDDCS etc.).
It is a joy to watch movie trailers of the better produced movies that most TV channels believe should receive top billing during the evening hours, and that MTV and V believe ought to be priority programming for the Generation-X/Y, whichever we are, and then a proportionate disappointment to watch the promise being betrayed in the complete movie.

Sadly, we lag far behind in terms of quality stories and screenplays, and even direction. I think we have actors who can match the best, if only they were put to test.
In fact, it is misleading to claim we 'lag behind' because Hollywood produces lots of rubbish too, and their rubbish takes many times more money to produce too, so at least we match their abysmal quality with fewer resources. However, Hollywood simply produces so many more movies and of such varied themes that India may never be able to match their range, even if we do match their best as we have earlier.

Not only are the majority of our movies severely limited in scope, most directors/producers manage to screw movies on themes that ought to be their strengths with equal consistency.

For example, I enjoyed DDLJ immensely - I found it witty, musical, unabashedly filmi and quintessentially Bollywood, and by extension Indian, in the values it espoused.
However I was very disappointed with the half that I saw of Mohabbatein by the same director - tired, cliched, soppy, and sweeter than a syrup-drenched jalebi. I didn't realize it then but that started the hero's journey towards metrosexuality and super-sensitivity that was perfected in Kal Ho Na Ho and cemented in other productions from the house of Johar/Chopra that must now make movies only for gays/giggly girls.

I started writing this to declare I was entralled by King Kong, and am now convinced that Peter Jackson is the film director to make a multiple-part Mahabharat that will be the greatest movies the world will ever see, and then I can die peacefully. If the Mahabharat TV series can be bettered, only Peter Jackson can do it.

I believe there are some abilities that some directors have almost by instinct, and others don't, that make some movies life-changing, and others intellectually stimulating or simply entertaining.

One of the most important is the intuitive ability to cast right.

Quentin Tarantino has it. All four of his movies I have seen (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill 1 and 2) have been cast perfectly. It is impossible to imagine any actor who could have fitted better as the character he/she played.

Peter Jackson has it. Naomi Watts was perfect. She was the right mixture of beauty, poignancy, courage and humour. Naomi Watts was, in KD's words, a heartbreaker. Nobody else would have done.
Adrien Brody was perfect. Somehow, someone who looked like a movie star would have ruined it.
Peter Jackson handled even the love scenes (the scene in which Naomi Watts catches the gaze of Adrien Brody while shooting on the ship is pure magic) so well that I'm convinced he's the one who can do it all - epics, love stories, human dramas, all combined. Hence Mahabharat, since it is one epic that combines politics, history and human drama into a story that has as many layers as your understanding of people allows you to unpeel, and requires the highest talent to be handled well.

Bryan Singer has it too. The X-Men movies are perfectly casted, as are the LOTR movies, except that I thought Viggo Mortensen's voice in the third movie was a little high considering he made two big speeches.
Hugh Jackman as Wolverine is perfect. Ian Mackellen is brilliant as both Gandalf and as Magneto. He would've made the perfect Dumbledore too, the right mixture of wit, underlying ruthlessness and kindness. But I'll let that pass because the Harry Potter movies have been improving with every subsequent movie, and the fourth was pretty good, partly due to the delectable Emma Watson who also acted very well.

Among Indian directors, Rakesh Roshan, Raj Kumar Santoshi, Karan Johar are some of the contemporary fillm directors who posess that elusive ability to make movies that appeal. Somehow, they make movies that communicate with the inherent Indianness in us, often perpetuating cliches and regressive or outmoded values but all the same, striking a chord.

A related point is that I think Hrithik Roshan is an ass. I inform people on the first ocassion I get what an ass I think he is and I think I might as well put it in print and speak to all my fans at once.
I think the above is the behind (joke) because he doesn't play to his strengths, and he does have a major strength. He is the best dancer the industry has ever seen. He killed them in KNPH, and he danced like a dream in the Home Trade ad that used to come on TV many years back, before Home Trade was exposed for the fraud it was.
I haven't seen Saturday Night Fever (although would love to, so please lend if you have it and earn my undying gratitude) and I don't recollect much of Disco Dancer, but I get a strong feeling that in the hands of a capable and shrewd director - read Rakesh Roshan since Duggu baba's has had a 100% success rate with Papa and a 0% rate with everyone else, which naturally says something about his lack of judgement rather than ability - a mixture of the two dance-driven movies can propel Hrithik once again to national heartthrob status.
I mean, no one dances like him and the dude tries to beat SRK at weeping in KKKG, or Ajay Devgan's nice-guy act in HDDCS with his own in the one with Esha Deol (why is Esha Deol still in the movies? and Tushar Kapoor too - they look like brother and sister to me, somehow).
He should be having dance-driven movies made for him, and instead is trying to fit into existing stereotypes. I wish I was his agent.
I'm certain Kkrish will be a big hit, whatever else it may/may not be. Rakesh Roshan knows his stuff. He's not brilliant, but effective.

Martin Scorcese, on the other hand, hasn't impressed in the 2.5 movies I have seen of his. But I will reserve judgement until I see Raging Bull and Taxi Driver.

Steven Spielberg too has a similar problem. Jurassic Park, Jaws, Indiana Jones etc are great. But his human dramas, though immaculately produced, directed and acted in, lack an undefinable quality that stop them from being truly touching.
For example, Schindler's List has to be his greatest in this genre (haven't seen Amistad, in case you think that is better), is a great movie, intellectually. The use of all black and white is an inspired choice, Ralph Fiennes is adequately chilling, and Ben Kingsley is good too, but the film just does not speak to the heart the way Titanic or Deewar do, and that's the crux of it really.

There's no logic to these things.
Like clothes with lycra, you either have it, or you don't.

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