Friday, April 17, 2015

Rediscovering Mani Ratnam:O Kadhal Kanmani !

I can watch anything Mani Ratnam makes. I liked even Kadal! Heck, I even liked Abhishek Bachchan as Raavan. But I had my fair share of skepticism when I found out that OK Kanmani was going to be about live-in relationships. In my defence, every love story in Mani Ratnam’s movies starts with the leading couple looking at each other and then getting married within the next hour. The whole idea that a couple would not marry was in itself as anti-Mani Ratnam as it could get. 

Also, the fact that the concept of live-in has been so over made across the “-Woods” that I guess I did not expect to see anything new. And that disappointed me. I complained to everyone who I spoke to in the last week. That was before I went into the theater on a fine Thursday evening.

Any shadow of a doubt that I might have had about the movie evaporated within the first 15 seconds in the theater – opening with Kaara Aatakaara (the catchiest tune in the album for me) and a pretty well made animation sequence. In about 2 hours and 20 minutes of the film, Mani Ratnam took me on a journey on the Art of subtle filmmaking, where the style of storytelling took precedence over the simplistic story itself, where the characters were so beautifully written that they transcended seemingly trivial considerations like “good acting”, and where the music, far from being hard-hitting and breathtaking, merged so deeply into the movie, that you could hardly separate it from the storyline.

I cannot stress it enough. In so many films in the Tamil film industry made recently, there’s been so much focus on getting some parts of the movie right that in many cases the parts don’t even have anything to do with each other anymore. Take the case of “I”- fantastic score from A.R.Rahman (not a huge fan personally, but it really worked for some people apparently), stunning and elaborate song sequences splurged with Shankar’s everlasting supply of money and resources, and some pretty kick ass work from Vikram, earning everyone’s collective praise (and groans) for having put the amount of effort he did for the role. The collective result – a big merciless 0 – because not only did the parts not add up, they ended up effectively neutralizing each other. The visuals were so colorful and resplendent, that you couldn’t really use too much of your perception to listen to that orderly cacophony of A.R.Rahman’s genius in the background. The setting and the elaborate song sequences meant the character Vikram so painfully enacted did not get enough screen space to make the kind of impact it deserved.

But being the master that Mani Ratnam is, he uses simple things that people can relate to, to create these amazing moments on the screen that you just cannot get enough of. Take for instance, the song “Parandhu Sella Vaa”. It was my least favorite song from the album, probably because, a little bit like “Sheher Mein” in Rockstar, I felt the song was to be a filler moving the story through scenes. But in the movie, Mani Ratnam creates this 5-minute long intense magical sequence that builds an incredible amount of sexual tension on the screen in every frame – all without having the couple on the screen even kiss! Parandhu sella va was for me the high point in the first half of the movie. Even a good 24 hours after I saw it, just thinking about it makes me go weak.

Then there is the other Ratnamism that he so frequently uses – the Train. In his words, the reason he uses train sequences is as a tool to express motion to the story, but then again, instead of having a robot jump over trains (which btw, don’t get me wrong, I am a huuuge fan of) he uses the perception of motion to make long conversations a lot less painful to follow and watch on the screen. The conversation is critical to establish the chemistry between the lead pair, but having them talk sitting at a park bench ( in Gautham Menon VTV style), or at a coffee shop (also Gautham Menon in almost every other movie) might just cause the audience to lose patience.

So, with simple techniques, even a simple story looks really rich and detailed simply because you can perceive more of the movie. Like Nolan proposes in Inception, the mind kind of stops to differentiate between the visuals and its own imagination, in a seamless flow of perception creating a magical union.

Even with all that, the fundamental aspect of any film as I see it, is still acting. And traditionally that is something that has always worked for Mani Ratnam, because he is normally able to bring out the best of actors. Exceptions would be Madhavan in Alaipaayuthey (yes, you read it right), where he was still to gain a lot of his understated screen presence, and ability to emote (which he does so beautifully in another Mani Ratnam film, Kannathil Muthamittal). But even in films like that, the character is usually developed so well that the actor has little to do in terms of making people understand him/her. Guru is a great reference. Even constrained by a shoddy screenplay, and Abhishek Bachchan’s unidimensional acting, the role of Gurukant Desai is so powerful simply because of how well developed it is.

Which is why, I think in a Mani Ratnam movie, being a stand out actor is so difficult. Starting with Leela Samson, and Prakash Raj, and how they are able to make the kind of impact they make given the limited footage they get, to Dulquer and Nithya who practically occupy every frame in the movie, the emotional investment of the viewer on each of these characters is the same. To put it more simply, I would react in the exact same level of pain or elation, for anything that comes upon any of those characters, no matter how much they feature in the movie.

Having said that, with the risk of contradicting what I just said, I am going to stick my neck out a bit, and call a favorite.  Nithya Menon’s stellar performance is what I think gives OK Kanmani that extra bit of mileage which pushes the movie to the next level of awesomeness. Starting with her cutely funny diction, to her extremely realistic expressions, its hard for you not to look at her when she is on the screen. I’ll be curious to see if girls have the exact opposite opinion, which will not be surprising given how lovable Dulquer’s character is. And in all fairness, he has done a tremendous job portraying the role of a happy-go-lucky guy who is maddeningly driven by his girlfriend into opposite extremes, not knowing how to deal with it. But then again, I don’t know if that makes him a really powerful character seeing how that’s quite literally every romcom hero. Don’t know. Maybe I’m just jealous of him.

So, given all my initial skepticism, and polarized view of Mani Ratnam’s view of love and relationships, I think I was quite pleasantly surprised to see how good OK Kanmani turned out to be. Comparisons to Alaipaayuthey, while very reasonable, would be far from fair. They were both different worlds. Think about it for a second – Madhavan had to call Shalini from a landline phone (rotating dial btw) to a Maligai kadai phone to talk to her. Imagine how bad that might be for the 21st century relationship in OK Kanmani. Taking even one more step backwards, I don’t think Arvind Swamy could have even called his “uyire” Manisha Koirala if he wanted, but that’s the evolution we are talking about.

OK Kanmani is not the greatest movie ever made. I don’t know if it will be remembered widely or become an evergreen classic. But that’s exactly the point – it doesn’t have to be! Not every movie needs to advance the science or the art of film making. Not every movie needs to have something technically “unseen or unheard of”. Not every movie needs to provoke a thought for the viewer long after he’s gone from the theater. Sometimes, it is just enough for a simple movie to make you feel strongly without directly telling you anything. And that is what OK Kanmani does brilliantly!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

From Sunset to Sunrise...

A long day was coming to an end. Shlok had survived two massively demotivating and debilitating exams, that had somewhat dented his sanity, and I had barely managed to walk out on my feet after what seemed like the most mentally draining two hours in my examination career, when Siddharth Prabhu – fondly christened ‘Sithappa’ - called up and commanded us to quickly come home. Wishing not to incur Sithappa’s wrath, Shlok and I had urgently walked back home, all the time discussing how badly our long term prospects would be affected by those vile creatures called “Grades”.

As we stepped into our house, Sithappa told us in his deep, slow and patient voice, “Get ready. We are going to Wheeling in West Virginia. We leave at about 8, it’s a two hour drive. We can drive down there, and go around a little bit. Then start again at around 12. We can return by 2.” That was how Sithappa had always been. He first attacked you with a seemingly odd idea, and then before your mind could reason out why it was an odd idea, he hit you with a ‘plan’ that sounded so good, it couldn’t be wrong. So while I was still processing the 5 sentences he had just said, I could already hear myself saying “Yes, sure!”

Friday nights are probably the most exciting evenings of the entire week. There is so much euphoria in the air, in anticipation of the weekend that is coming (though all you do is just sleep through it), and the whole city is out on the streets partying, that you don’t want to miss out on the fun, that you start finding everything around you entertaining and oozing with elation, and that even Rebecca Black finally makes sense. So even though Sithappa’s idea to drive down a 140 miles to the middle of the Appalachian nowhereness, sounded pathetic, at that moment, it was THE thing to do.

“But what are we planning to do after going there?” remarked Shlok with his characteristic sense of barely hidden incredulity and derision, bringing my wandering mind back to reality.

“Well there is a really old Suspension Bridge there, a national landmark. I really think it’s a place we must go to see”, Sithappa replied. That sounded good enough to me. Suspension bridges were always cool !

Shlok was not giving up easily, “But we are driving down across the state in the middle of the night to see a bridge? Is it worth it?”

“I definitely think so, there’ll be lights and all, and a bridge across a river, and we are doing nothing on a Friday evening anyway, so why not go there and return”

“We could go to Hollywood Casino, spend some bucks and have fun for the night. Why waste our time going somewhere we don’t know is half as much fun?”

“There is a really big casino in Wheeling too! We could go there if you want. It’ll be great fun there”. Shlok was visibly not convinced, but the promise of a casino in a different city made him less hostile to the idea, and eventually he agreed. His only condition – We have food before we leave. Sithappa said yes, the deal was signed!

We were off! We were joined by Siddharth Baskar (Bosskhar). The plan was to go have food at some restaurant in about an hour, and leave by 9.15-9.30, reach wheeling before 11.30, have fun, and return home by about 3.

* * *

By the time the waiters in the underpowered and remarkably slow serving Udipi Café in Columbus brought us our numerous variants of Masala Dosa, considerable time had already passed. It was already beyond 10 PM. Our plan, which had sounded remarkable simple and obvious, was not going very well.

Sensing the opportunity, Shlok quipped, “Are we surely going to Wheeling? I mean I really want to go, but don’t you think it is kind of late? Won’t it take too long to return?”

Sithappa thought for a minute, and chose to ignore Shlok’s ‘well-meaning and anxious concerns’, and soon we were on our way again.

* * *

Twenty Miles into Interstate 70, things were looking good. We were making good progress. The road was curving around in intriguing turns, and the full moon was shining down upon us, rendering a tranquil light on surroundings, just enough to look around and appreciate the beauty of the Ohio landscape dotted with fields, forests and small towns alternatively. But watching cornfields is no IPL game, and we soon realized that we needed a better form of entertainment. How could there ever be an awesome trip without awesome music? 

We started exploring FM options, but then again, there is no Radio Mirchi or Big FM in the USA and one might agree that it is better to suffer in silence than listen to people you don’t know, advertising things you haven’t heard of, in between songs you have never listened to. So we decided that we might as well switch off the radio, and turn on some good old Indian music, but the car played only audio CD’s and we did not have any. But we could always buy some CD’s and write songs couldn’t we ?

The GPS found us a Walmart store 6 miles off I70, and we decided that 10 minutes off track could not have a big impact on our plan. We were wrong. Because 10 miles of alleys, 50 mph-limit single lane roads, and creepy haunted forests later, we were in the middle of the Ohio countryside, certainly not close to a Walmart, which according to the map was another 12 miles away. Shlok was groaning, Sithappa was getting flustered, and Bosskhar and I were just looking out of the window on the vast expanses of potential spooky villages where werewolves could be active on Full moon nights.

When we finally did land at Walmart, half hour later, and found the CD’s we were looking for, and got back into the car, it was already 12.30 and we realized we were only 30 miles from home. The quest for the Walmart had almost brought us back to Columbus.

To top it, Shlok had checked the timings of the Casino in Wheeling and it was closed already. Shlok took the opportunity to point out, “Are we surely going to Wheeling? I mean I really want to go, but don’t you think it is kind of late? Won’t it take too long to return? We could go to Hollywood Casino, spend some bucks and have fun for the night. Why waste our time going somewhere we don’t know is half as much fun?”

For the third time in the evening, the question had come up again if we did want to go on the trip. This time, Shlok had struck the right note, because Sithappa turned the car and we decided that Hollywood Casino was the more practical destination for the evening. Bosskhar and I were still looking out of the window, like innocent kids going out with their parents.

But this did not feel right. I mean we were having fun just sitting in the car and seeing the roads, and the moon and the spooky trees. Why go back home just as yet? Or the casino, where there was nothing to do anyway apart from the free Coke. We could keep going for another couple of hours. For the first time in the evening, me and Bosskhar spoke and convinced Sithappa that we had to go to Wheeling, if not for anything else, at least for having gone through the pain to get the CD’s from Walmart. 

Shlok said,"But why would you want to go all the way there just to see a bridge ??"

It was then that Sithappa, in a moment of George Mallory-ish inspiration quipped, 

"Because it is there!"

We pulled over to the right, took the next exit, and before there were any other protests from Shlok, we were back on our way and on track!

* * *

Two hours later, we were in Wheeling. And on one of the World’s oldest Suspension bridges, on Ohio river. It did look a little weird and reckless to a greater extent, walking on a suspension bridge, in the middle of the night in a city that did not seem to have any people, but me and Bosskhar did it anyway, and it was among the coolest experiences in the USA, not least because a cold breeze was blowing on the open river. The bridge was made up only of steel gratings, and looking down, we could see the river flowing. It was like walking on footpaths over drainage systems. What if one of those gratings was loose and it actually caved in when we stepped on it? That’s when I put my phone back in pocket and held on firmly to the railings and slowly walked, careful to feel each and every grating’s structural integrity before completely stepping onto it. I survived the short walk, and reached the car!

The casino in Wheeling was long closed, and Shlok was sitting depressed in the car. We decided to go have some coffee, and chanced upon Perkin’s, the only café/restaurant that seemed to be open. We went there just to get some coffee or hot chocolate, but the Menu card looked so good, we decided to expand our plans and ended up having a full course meal instead. Yup, at 4 in the morning, we were having either an extremely late dinner or a delightfully early breakfast. Whatever it was, it was among the best American meals I have ever had.

* * *

Once our appetites were satisfied, and once all plans to spend the night and leave the next morning, proceed to Pittsburgh to have a go at the Casino there, and return later were promptly rejected by Sithappa, at about 4.30, we started on our journey back, discussing how great our night had been. The plan had been constantly under question, and we had decided more than once, to drop the plan and head back home, and yet, there we were, on I70, returning from one of our most memorable Friday evenings.

* * *

Shlok was sadly sleeping in the car, heartbroken that we never quite made it to a casino. Bosskhar and Siddharth were on about electronics, banks and filters, reminding me of those sad days when I had to deal with solid state devices and semiconductors.

At a distance we could see the Columbus skyline, against the backdrop of the golden orange sky at the crack of dawn. It was among the more beautiful sights I have seen that my Lumia 920 camera is not capable of capturing. The best images around us are for our eyes only. Cameras have no work capturing the beauty of a moment - they capture only an image. Beauty, as we know, is in the eyes of the beholder.

Good food, good places, good long drives, good memories. 

Life’s Good! 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Adios Amigos !

At 6.35 AM on June 6th, I was on my way to the bus stop. It was my last exam in my final semester of college, and not for the first time, I was running late. 6.35 was normally the time the bus reached my stop, and left without me if I wasn't there. I dont know how, but for all the lack of punctuality that we see around us, my college bus has been spot on time each time I have been delayed by even 20 seconds.

However, this was my lucky day. There was no bus there, and looking at my friend standing there, I realised I was actually in time for the bus. "No Bus No. 20 today, another bus will come by this route and we will have to take that instead", he declared.

I was disappointed. I had been hoping to get into that bus for one last journey, but it was not to be. The other bus arrived and I found my way through to a 3-seater in the back rows, almost by habit, but they were all taken. I found a hospitable 2-seater, and settled down. I looked out through the window, and I pondered. If there was any rule that my life on the last official day of college should be very different from routine, I would have just won a prize for that.

But then, my experiences with my college buses was never very amiable. With the customary earphones on my ears, and the sun shining brightly on my face, I drowned into the memories of my first ever independent journey to SSN - A journey I will never forget.

* * *
It was the 12th of August, 2008. I was still pretty new to Chennai, naive and quite intimidated by the people here. My neighbours at Coimbatore had warned me that Chennai was as different a place from Coimbatore as different could get. My own experiences had given me reason to believe in the stereotype ! I knew very little about this new big city, and though I was quite accustomed to shifting to a new city every 4 years, this one still wasn't very inviting. The worst thing that could have happened to me - Missing the bus on the very first day of college !

I knew nothing about the MTC. So much so, I thought it expanded to Madras Transportation Corporation. And I was particularly shy of asking for bus routes. The result - What should have taken me a simple 2 buses and 2 hours to college, took me 4 buses, an hour long journey to the middle of nowhere on ECR road because the conductor heard "Palavakkam" when I said "Kalavakkam", another 2 hours of hanging precariously on the 21H bus to Kelambakkam, and finally a 5 km walk from Kelambakkam to the college cos I was stupid enough to think that it was "not that far off" and that "buses dont go there often". When I reached college about 6 hours behind schedule (coincidentally being the first Mechie to bunk a class), and rejuvenated my stamina through the Rs.12 Thayirsaadam (Back then, the canteen served stuff the rest of the World calls "food" at reasonable prices), I set out on a long quest to discover where my classmates were. Eventually, I ended up meeting the "Mambis" outside the Chemistry Department, and I have never been more relieved to meet people. I've stuck like a magnet to the Mambis ever since ! The first "Friends" SSN Gave me !

* * *

Its 4.30, and the last 30 minutes of the Exam. I have just scribbled it all away, not concerned about the mortal stuff like neatness and presentation - the Aim: Get done with it once and for all. I succeeded, though I knew a couple of my answers weren't good enough. I just wanted to pass.

I looked at the page number, ruffled through the pages and put down the number of pages on the cover page and suddenly, I was overwhelmed with emotion. However grudgingly, irritatedly I had reached the end of this last ever exam in B.E, it was still the last ever exam. Never again would I spend that anxious "night before" knowing I had cartloads left to have any hopes of doing well. Never again would those morons come out of the exam hall saying "Sure Fail" and end up getting a 9 pointer. Never again would I celebrate the end of the exams in style going out for a party. Never again would there be those study holidays when I saw a new film every week.

I didn't submit the paper and leave. I just sat there, and collected my thoughts. All those exams I had written. The one time, where I nearly got myself booked by accidentally carrying the cell phone into the exam hall. The one time when we started rofling when a guy in my exam hall started answering the wrong question paper in fine Mr. Bean style. The horror of a classmate getting preposterously booked by the Squad for no fault at all.

Yeah, I was done with the exams finally. Anna University had tried their best to delay it as much as possible. I had joined thousands of others in cursing them, but then was there a subtext there ? Maybe, this was a sign that we were all to remain together for a long long time to come !

I must have started smiling, cos when I rose my head up, the invigilator from St. Joseph's was eyeing me suspiciously. Careful to avoid any kind of trouble on this last day, with a heavy heart, I got up and left the exam hall, hopefully, for the last time !

* * *

At 5.15 pm, the Stores starts to swell with people. The Stores was originally supposed to be the Centre of all the departments, but over the years, it kinda drifted away from the newer blocks, and finally became some kind of a Mechie hangout.

Still, the people there that day were practically all the guys in the college who had an exam. I waved to a lot of people, talked with a lot of them. I made a looot of friends in SSN. Friends from the two years I spent working for Lakshya, the brilliant team mates of the "Content Development Board" which we created, the brainstorming sessions with the I-Cell leaders from departments. Somehow, last couple of years, the Clubs at SSN really came alive, old clubs getting active, new clubs being formed, and people like me who have been here during these years, have something to be really glad about.

It led me back to memories of the E Week in the second year, when we attended classes for hardly 10 days in the whole semester, when we went on that sponsorship spree  to 43 different shops in Pondy Bazaar. Then the E Week in the third year, the TedX and the massness of Pawan Agarwal and Krish Ashok, my interactions with Atul Chitnis.

College certainly was more about the classes I didn't attend, than those that I did !
But maybe  I should have attended more of them back then, now I cant even if I want to !

* * *

At 5.45, the buses are ready to live, and as I look through the window, I can see the place which I, and 65 other people with me, shall always remain indebted to - The Department of Mechanical Engineering !

When I joined the college, the Mech department was only one year old. My friends at Amrita University had advised me against moving to SSN where "core companies never come for placements". But I still came to SSN, and I have never been happier about a decision I took in my life !  Under the roofs of the SSN Mechanical Department, I have had the opportunity to work with some of the most brilliant minds I shall ever know. Every classmate of mine is an achiever in his own right, every single one of them an inspiring role model ! In fact, I dont think the diversity of achievements that people in my class have achieved shall be replicated for a long long time.

When I decided to take up Mechanical Engineering four years ago, it was a decision driven by my love for the subject. But as I have realised now after my experiences as a Mechie, it is also the Beshtest way to have fun. Everyone everywhere acknowledges the fact that Mechies have a couple of horns sprouted on their head, like it or hate it. That comes, I dont know from where, but it definitely comes, how much ever you try to avoid it. You cant attribute it to the "absence of girls" as many people do, because as I have seen, girls too generally tend to become "Mechie" in spirit. Its some kind of initiation by a divine power when you decide to take up Mechie - You know you are awesome, you dont know why. Hard to understand ? You probably arent a Mechie then :D

I feel up my head for the horns, and I can feel them, still going strong. Yeah, I am stuck with it for life - as obnoxious as you may find it, the Attitude will never go. Not that I am complaining.

* * *

I always thought College life was over rated. I grew up listening to stories about how the 4 years in college would change your life forever, always reacting sceptically. But then like they say, experience is the best teacher. The four years that we have spent here in this college has transformed us from innocent/not-so-innocent school kids into young adults ready to take on the World. I never subscribed to the view that leaving college would be painful. I have been waiting for that moment to get out of college and explore life that lies beyond those walls. But now I feel that the excitement stems from the fact that we are confident of living a life on our own terms, and that confidence is what College gave me.

It is almost magical that this particular song plays on my Shuffle playlist right now:

Aankhon mein sapne liye, 
Ghar se hum chal toh diye, 
Jaane yeh Raahe abb le jaayengi kahaan

Mitti ki khushbu aaye, 
Palkon pe aansu laaye, 
Palkon pe reh jaayega yaadon ka jahaan

Manzil nayi hain Anjaana hai kaarava 
Chalna akele hai yahaan 
Tanha dil, Tanha safar 
Dhunde Tujhe phir Kyun Nazar

Tanha Dil !

Yeah we all now leave our homes with dreams in our eyes, and we go on, not knowing where the roads will take us.

* * *

My mom walks up to me behind my back, and says,


Startled, I turn back and ask her "What ma?"

"Going to College tomorrow?"

"Yes, ma"

"Er... Isn't your college over ? When will you stop going to college?"

I think, I smile, and in a low voice, I reply to her,

"Never !"

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

India, Hinduism & Atheism 2.0

After a long time, I got to think about religion, spiritualism and God today when I was watching this rather popular talk by Alain de Botton, titled "Atheism 2.0" on the TED website. A brilliant lecture, the kind TED is famous for, Botton elucidates in his talk, what he calls the superstructure of a new idea that starts at the basic postulate that "Of Course there is no God" and that "believing in God is akin to believing in fairies and is very childish", but goes on to adopt practices from religions as a way of "culture" and lifestyle.  

It is a very intriguing idea. What it fundamentally says is that, while Atheists are completely opposed to the idea of one man up in the "heavens" who creates all of us, they dont exactly have to be opposed to the more humanitarian and social ideas that religion proposes. Botton says that the whole concept that you either "believe in God, or dont get to sing Christmas Carols" is ridiculous. Botton says that the next generation of Atheists are the ones who like the ritualistic side of religions, the practices and the lifestyle that religions prescribe, just not the God. It is a simple, yet powerful way of perceiving religion.

As I was watching the video, the thought process started within my mind. Was this possible ? Why would anyone want to be stuck with the practices of religion when one doesn't like the religion itself ? It is known that the biggest proponents of Atheism are the Scientist classes, why would they want to have anything to do with God or religion ? That was when I realised that the answers were all around us.

Hinduism, the World's oldest religion is the foremost example that comes to my mind when I think of a religion that places lesser emphasis on God and more emphasis on the lifestyle. No dont go by the Hinduism we see today, cos somewhere in its 3000 year old history, its crux has been lost. No, I talk of the Hinduism that was designed for the scientists and the practitioners of the Vedic times. The Hinduism that originated in our country as a social/moral/scientific code of conduct prescribed not by a religious institution, but by Society as a whole. Hinduism never paid emphasis on praying to an idol, or to any other material form of God, rather the Gods were the various forms of nature which nurtured humans - Sun, the rivers, the mountains, the Cows, and the like. The Hinduism that we read in our scriptures was more about "how to live a productive life" than about "who to pray, when to pray, how to pray", which is supposed to be one of the basic requirements of Atheism 2.0. In fact, I was surprised that Botton didn't talk about Hinduism in his 18 minute analysis. I was keenly anticipating it.

The other big example that I can think of when one talks about religion being a collection of ideas from various sources in which one believes, again from India, is the brilliant idea of Din-E-Ilahi. To those of you who dont know what that is, it was a religion introduced by the Great Mughal Emperor, Akbar, that compiled the best practices from all known religions of that time. In quality terms, it was some kind of a benchmarking done from scratch to obtain a totally new product, so we had something that was a mixture of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. Sadly though, the religiously conscious people of sixteenth century India rejected the idea and Din-E-Ilahi died with Akbar the Great. The principles lived on though and that could have been in many ways, the second time A non-religious Spiritual movement could have succeeded in India, after Hinduism of course.

The idea of Atheism 2.0 is simple. It is polite disagreement of Faith, but complete acceptance of a lifestyle subscribed by a religion. Everything religious can have an Atheism 2.0 analogy - Pilgrimages can be the corporate tours that businessmen undertake, Religious Sermons can be the Lectures that are delivered in Seminar Halls, Prayers could be celebrated as Music that is an essential form of contemporary art. The idea is just removing "Faith in that higher power controlling our lives" can unify Faith and Atheism. That is what Atheism 2.0 strives to achieve, and that is what the great Vedic Maharshis first started out to create.

The world's oldest religion is, ironically, the biggest example of what one can possibly call Atheism 2.0 ! 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Why the PISA is total rubbish

Over the last couple of days, there has been a lot of noise around the report by Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) on the evaluation of scholastic performance of students across the World. To those of you who haven’t heard or seen the report being widely shared on social networking sites, the study ranked India at an abysmally low 72 out of 73 countries – just ahead of Kyrgyzstan. To say that I am totally offended by the conclusion of the report would amount to giving merit to the report and by extension, to the study. So, I’ll just say that I’m amused at what the report has to say. I have my reasons – for totally disagreeing with not just the conclusions of the report, but with the entire attempt to compare the educational system of as many as 73 different countries on a common denominator - as I shall try to explain to you in the remainder of this post.

To start with, let’s just take a look at the methodology followed in the entire study. 73 countries participated in this study, an addition of 10 over 65 member countries which participated in the previous edition. Over 5000 students from 30 different schools were evaluated from every participating state – Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh in India (Randomly picked, with little logical validation) – for performance in tests conducted in three fundamental subjects – Reading, Math and Science. The results of the study were processed over nearly 2 years (the study was conducted in late 2009-early 2010) and an elaborate picture of educational practices across the World was painted. 
Ambitious, and very meticulous, we all would agree, but fundamentally, the logic behind the whole study is erroneous. Such a study, can never ever produce results that can have an iota of sense in it.

Take a small example. I take the 10 brightest students from the Government School in Thoraipakkam, and I take the 10 brightest students from DAV Gopalapuram. Apart from the obvious difference in the boards that they study in (State Board and Central Board), there’ll be a huge difference in their IQ levels because their access to knowledge and information is highly skewed. While the students from upmarket schools generally have a strong educational background in their families, fine teachers to tutor them, access to greater intellectual material, their government school counterparts have to rely solely on textbooks for information, apart from the fact that the standards of teaching are pretty low. Either school cannot be taken to represent the Indian education system – doing so would provide insane results. Add schools in the rural areas to the equation and you will appreciate how different each school is from the other. In such a scenario, choosing 30 schools to represent the complete education scene across the state is absurd! 
All this is only within Tamil Nadu. Himachal Pradesh will have completely different issues. On the whole, India has over 35 different secondary school boards, each with different issues and focus areas. If India alone has so many different parameters that need to be considered, imagine how complex it would get if we were studying 73 countries!

This is not all. Skimming through the “Sample Design” of the study, I found a statement that I quote here,

The desired PISA target population in each country consisted of 15-year old students attending educational institutions in grades 7 or higher.

In India, a 15 year old student is normally in his 10th Grade. From what the statement conveys, I assume that somewhere in the World, 15 year olds are in their seventh Grade. The question this raises is simple. Is the level of education at 10th Grade in a country equivalent to the level of education at 7th Grade in a different country? The study assumes so, but common sense suggests that it is not. Lets again take the benefit of being in India and hence, being able to observe the diversity in education across States and Boards. A 10th Grade CBSE student has a math syllabus far different from a 10th Grade student in the Tamil Nadu State Board or AP State Board. Over a period of three or four years, this difference may be neutralised, for what a student from CBSE learns in 10th may be a part of the 11th Std syllabus for State Board students and vice versa, but the study does not take that into consideration. Across countries, this factor is bound to have a more pronounced impact on the results.

These systemic errors apart, there were some really absurd requirements for the test – like Indians having to read English text for the test due to lack of materials in local languages. German students read German, Americans read English, Chinese read Chinese, Finnish read Finnish, but Tamilians read English. Also, look at the rankings and you will see that tests were conducted in China at Shangai, their largest urban population, while in India it was conducted in Himachal Pradesh and different parts of Tamil Nadu. It requires common sense of the lowest degree to understand that the results would have certainly been far different if the study had been conducted in Delhi or Mumbai or Bangalore or just Chennai. It’s indeed baffling that even a study with such far-reaching consequences could have glaring flaws of this magnitude.

The biggest glitch in the whole concept of this study is that, in an era when we are looking at moving away from the textbook and examination form of study, and focussing on method that will improve the application oriented outputs of students, the PISA experiments put the spotlight back on studying rather than applying. That is unfortunate, and rooted in outdated principles.

It is really sad that without going through all these facts, there is a lot being written about how India must be ashamed of the results of the study. I agree that we cannot boast about our educational system. Far from perfect, there are serious flaws that need to be set right. But I have always believed, and continue to do so, that in a country so diverse, with such a wide range of cultural, social and economic differences, it is remarkable that we have an educational system that at the end of 18 years of studies in schools across nearly 40 different boards, produces students who have received nearly the same amount of knowledge from school. We may not have the best Education in the World, but we still succeed in producing among the best engineers, doctors, managers and economists in the World. While, we shall always strive towards improving the quality of education that students here get, I am certainly not ashamed of the education that I have received in this country, and there is no reason anyone else should be, either. 

Overall, from the land that made 3 Idiots, it would be incredibly stupid to take a “rating” very seriously. If anything, the report tells us that it is time we took steps towards improving the intellectual outputs of our students, reduced rote learning, increased learning by understanding, etc.

Didn’t we know all that already?


Friday, December 23, 2011

The King is Back !! Don 2 : Review

It is the middle of the sea. 5 influential men of the European drug cartel sit on a yacht, having a heated discussion. They cannot stand the sight of each other, but they have to tolerate them, because they have one common interest which has to be addressed before it’s too late – to kill Don. What follows is a remarkable spectacle of brilliant film making virtually unknown in the Indian film industry – an experience which delights as it happens, and when it ends, fills your mind with images that make you want to undergo the experience again and again!

Don-2, written and directed by Farhan Akhtar, has the best written screenplay in a Bollywood film in recent times. The story has a great pace about it that never really lets you lie back. You are on the edge of your seats right from the moment the movie begins. It has plenty of negative characters including Vardhaan returning from the first movie, and a couple others thrown in to make one grand party! From Europe to Thailand, Malaysia to Berlin, the story runs in a brisk fashion, leaving your heart pounding for action. And when the action begins, by god, you don’t want it to stop!! 

The trailer gave us a hint of what to expect. Don surrenders himself to the Police to rescue Vardhaan from prison. Together, they plot a plan to loot the DZB (cant expand it, some German shit I cant pronounce or spell), Germany's largest Reseve Bank where they print the Euro Currency notes. To those who think Don is after the money, he makes it clear "Mujhe paise mei koi interest nahi". He is not interested in the money. Then ??
He is after the currency printing plates. Why take truckloads of cash when you can print it yourself with the plates?? 
That's Don for you. 
If you are complaining that I let out the film's plot to you, I have to tell you that there is still too much for you to keep track of in the film. Every scene, every second of the film has a vital link. I can only advise you to go easy on coke or water or any other liquid before the film. You don't want to make one trip to the bathroom and end up losing track of the entire film!!

I always knew Farhan Akhtar was a great film maker. He is famous for bringing his father’s Don to our generation, and until yesterday evening, Don was a remake of the 1978 film. But after Don-2, people will remember Don (1978) as the film that inspired the Don series. It is always difficult to make sequels to hugely popular films cos more often than not, it is the first movie of the series that is enjoyed the most, but Don breaks that trend. And no one gets bigger credit for this than Farhan Akhtar.

Talking of credit, another man deserves a big applause for Don-2 - no prizes for guessing who. Shah Rukh Khan comes back in the role that he loves so much, and we love seeing him in so much. Shah Rukh Khan can finally sleep well after the RaOne nightmare, knowing that people across the country still love him, when he lets the director do stuff. 

It is regular for actors to own characters and fill it with a lot of themselves. But the great thing about the Don series is that the character is slowly growing bigger than the actor.When you come out of the film, it is one of the rare moments when the character dominates your experience more than the actor himself. Almost everyone I asked about the film after I came out said “Great film man, Don was fucking awesome!!” and not “Shah Rukh Khan was fucking awesome!!” The only time I have witnessed this before is with the 007 franchise and that’s a mark of how the Don character has captured the imagination of the audience.

Another important feature of the film is its awesome score by Shankar Ehsaan Loy. I know a lot of people were disappointed with the soundtrack of the film (my dear friend Prasad even went to the extent of calling it “a cheap remake of the first part”, and I feel too that the trio are well beyond their peak) but the music of the film is haunting. It has only two full length songs (thankfully!!) ‘Zara Dil ko Thaam Lo’ and ‘Hai Maya’ which are appropriately placed in the screenplay and directed really well. One may feel sad that there is no ‘Aaj Ki Raat’ or ‘Main Hoon Don’ in this, but trust me, any more songs would have dampened the movie. This film was about pace and speed and any more songs and dance would have been irritants as they so often are.

Brilliant screenplay and direction, a Don with a killer edge, awesome background score, you will think that this is almost all that defines Don-2. But then you gotta add in the ensemble cast and their performances, be it Priyanka Chopra returning as the “junglee Billi” Roma, or the versatile Boman Irani as the Don’s scheming cold blooded nemesis Vardhaan. Kunal Kapoor makes a decent attempt to get noticed among all this as a young computer hacker, Samir Ali, and manages to leave a mark. Lara Dutta appears on and off and along with Hrithik Roshan who appears briefly, is credited for guest appearance in the end titles.

It has been a trend for the past few years that the last film released in the calendar year also becomes the most successful. While Aamir Khan has been the Ruler of December in recent years, this time its Shah Rukh Khan’s turn to carry the flag. He is after all, the King Khan. And as a Shah Rukh Khan fan, I take great pride that at the end of the day, as all the promo’s of the film proclaim, The King is Back.

Don 2
Highly Recommended.
4/5 stars.
Watch it before crappy reviewers and mindless critics spoil the experience for you.