On Swearing

While watching Delhi Belly last week, every time a curse word was exchanged on screen, I heard responses from the audience that ranged from disapproving grunts to coy smirks to stifled giggles to spontaneous LOL’s. Even if a particular dialogue or situation was not funny, some viewers just couldn’t help but reciprocate to swearing. Every. Single. Time.

Swearing, in and of itself, is not funny. May be in this particular case it was amusing because this is the first time a Bollywood movie is peppered with so many expletives. Funny or not, we do react strongly to swearing. And the reaction isn’t just emotional, it is also involuntary. Swearing is a linguistic instrument that we often sorely need to render our passion (and other emotions) compellingly. When the adrenaline is running sky-high, replacing a curse word with one of its genteel synonyms just doesn’t seem to invoke the same feeling (and provoke the same response). Delhi Belly wouldn’t have worked as superbly as it did, if it weren’t for all those curse words that sound so natural, so organic, so real in this hilarious movie.

These concluding remarks from Stephen Pinker’s essay “What the F***?” beautifully celebrate the power of swearing:

When used judiciously, swearing can be hilarious, poignant, and uncannily descriptive. More than any other form of language, it recruits our expressive faculties to the fullest: the combinatorial power of syntax; the evocativeness of metaphor; the pleasure of alliteration, meter, and rhyme; and the emotional charge of our attitudes, both thinkable and unthinkable. It engages the full expanse of the brain: left and right, high and low, ancient and modern. Shakespeare, no stranger to earthy language himself, had Caliban speak for the entire human race when he said, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.” [From: The Harvard Brain (PDF) See Page 20]

If swearing ever died, this should be its epitaph.

And the savage chicken (below) nods in agreement.

Also read: On Bullshit

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Exam [Movie]

Few months ago, I wrote about a mathematical thriller in Spanish that contained a bunch of good ol’ classic riddles, but appealed to me due to the premise: four mathematicians are locked in a room, and they have to solve puzzles in order to stay alive; if they fail at solving a puzzle in 60 seconds, the hydraulic walls move inward to shrink the room and reduce their chances of survival. I watched another movie recently that reminded me of Fermat’s Room: Exam.

This psychological thriller revolves around eight job applicants in a windowless, guarded room. A pencil and a “question-paper” is provided to each of them, and they have 80 minutes for the exam. Only one of them will join an esteemed rank in a big organization. The instructor announces the rules of this exam (“If you try to communicate with myself or the guard, you will be disqualified.”, “If you choose to leave the room for any reason, you will be disqualified.” etc.), starts the stop-watch, and leaves.

The candidates exchange puzzled looks with each other, turn over their question-paper to see the question, and find it completely blank!

The rest of the movie is about how these candidates collaborate, co-operate, confront, combat and conspire against each other to win the esteemed position. The direction and acting performances were modest. The basic premise and the motives of the candidates did seem stretched beyond plausibility, but the mystery and psychological drama kept me intrigued. I enjoyed watching Exam for the same reasons I liked Fermat’s Room.

Puzzles in Fermat’s Room

I watched Fermat’s Room — a mathematical thriller in Spanish language — few weeks ago. Although I did enjoy watching this movie, I am hesitant to recommend it due to sloppy direction (too pretentious, IMO) and average acting performances. But the premise on which the movie is based was quite intriguing: Four mathematicians are invited by an anonymous stranger (Fermat) to solve a great mathematical enigma. But soon after they convene, they get trapped in the room and must solve puzzles in order to survive. The room, with moving walls, begins to shrink as soon as they receive the puzzle from the host and it won’t stop contracting until they solve the puzzle.

Disappointingly, the puzzles were quite basic – most of them are classic riddles that I was already familiar with. I’ve listed some of them below:

  • Using a 4 minute hourglass and a 7 minute hourglass how would you measure exactly 9 minutes?
  • You have three opaque boxes. One box contains chocolate candies, another contains mint candies, and the last box contains a mixture of chocolate and mint. The boxes are labeled Chocolate, Mint and Mixed. None of the boxes are labeled correctly. You can take one candy out of each box (without looking directly into the box) and see what you get. What is the minimum number of boxes you have to open (and take one candy out) to assign correct labels to all boxes?
  • There are three switches outside a room. One of them controls a lightbulb that’s inside the room, while the other two are not connected to anything. You can turn the switches ‘on’ or ‘off’ and also enter the room to see the lightbulb. What is the fewest number of times you will need to enter the room to determine which switch is connected to the bulb? (You can’t see if the lightbulb is ‘on’ or ‘off’ from the outside. And all switches are in the ‘off’ position when you start.)
  • A mother is 21 years older than her son. In exactly 6 years, the son will be one-fifth his mother’s age. The question is: what is the father doing right now?

I think the following is probably the best one in the lot:

  • A student asks his professor: “What are the ages of your three children?” The professor replies: “If you multiply their ages you get 36, and if you add them you get my house number.” “I know your house number, but that’s not enough information!” says the student. To that the professor answered: “True. The oldest lives upstairs.” What are the ages of the three children?

And finally, a classic Martin Gardner riddle: What is special about the number 8,549,176,320?

[Picture Courtesy: IFC Films]

My Name Is Khan

A well-intended yet misguided movie that’s unnecessarily melodramatic, painfully long and filled with stereotypical caricatures that merely exist to incessantly attest and affirm the same point (again and again and again!) that “A Muslim can be a nice person too.”

But technical issues aside, the movie inadvertently makes the same “group-think” error that it so humbly tries to rebuke. The correct response to denounce the claims of Islam’s tendency to propagate violence is not “Hey look over here! See, Muslims are nice people too!”. You’re just trying to put them on the “right” side of the divide — while accepting that such (crude and singular) division exists.

When one tries to describe an individual in terms of a single dimension – be it her religion, culture of ethnicity – all other associations and affiliations that this individual has are conveniently ignored. And what you end up with is a grossly incomplete, flawed and narrow understanding of that individual.

The protagonist in My Name Is Khan is shown to be a devout Muslim who continually chants his prayers, who donates handsomely to the 9/11 victim fund because that’s what a true Muslim would or should do. He opposes the justifications for a violent jihad – not because he’s a good human being, but because he’s a good Muslim (who happens to disagree with a nascent terrorist organization’s leader’s interpretation of a Koranic/Biblical story).

This reminds me of the classic example of a presupposition/trick question: “Are you still beating your wife?” If the respondent answers yes or no he’s admitting that he had beaten his wife in the past. Similarly, “Are Muslims bad people?” question presupposes that the humanity can be preeminently classified into discrete and distinct groups and defined based on religion… that the world can be seen (and analyzed) not as a collection of people, but as a federation of religions and civilizations.    

While Islamist militants have good reason to deny all the identities of Muslims other than that of Islamic faith, it is not at all clear why those who want to resist that militancy also have to rely so much on the interpretation and exegesis of Islam, rather than drawing on the many other identities that Muslims also have. [From Identity and Violence, Amartya Sen]

What the makers of My Name Is Khan failed to understand is: the problem is not that of incorrect attribution, but that of monoculturalism (i.e. civilizational or religious partitioning that confines human beings into “little boxes”) and disregard of individual identities at the behest of a group identity.

No One Talks Like That

In an old post on Sulekha, Abbas Tyrewala (the director of Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na) mulls over the frustrations of a contemporary scriptwriter who tries to make dialogues written in Hindi work (i.e. sound genuine). The subtitle of his article reads:

“In which a frustrated scriptwriter attempts to explore and expose the myth of Hindi as a spoken language, in a pathetic display of the defensive instinct towards his stilted film scripts.”

Tyrewala argues that dialogues in shuddh Hindi hardly sound like ‘people talking’. They appear rather stilted and false. (Remember when Dharmendra got on Om Prakash’s nerves by his insistence on using shuddh Hindi in Chupke Chupke?) The logical and empirical conclusion, according to the talented writer-director-lyricist, is that “no one talks like that” in real life.

His assertion, that except for a small quanta of our society (Allahabad?) very few people actually use shuddh Hindi in day-to-day conversations, is kind of obvious, or at least hard to refute. (I don’t claim to have sufficient knowledge on this subject though. According to 2001 Census of India 422,048,642 people claimed Hindi as their mother tongue, but we don’t know how many of them use dialects as opposed to shuddh Hindi.) But I found his comments about the synthetic and scientific nature of Hindi particularly interesting:

Hindi is a language of twentieth century scholastic expression that enjoyed a promotional thrust in the post-independence era — a synthetic language has never been adopted by a people. At least not for significant length of time.

As a result, it has no traces of the idiom, the colour, the richness that stems from a familiar misuse and abuse of words and phrases. It lacks the poignant clusters of words, which in their literal relation to each other mean absolutely nothing, or perhaps something quite in contrast to their understood implications, which may be profound or incisive or just plain silly. These elements are rendered almost impossible by the very scientific nature of the language — it is so fixed and harsh in its pronunciation that there is no question of play, pun and misinterpretation. A certain syllable is that syllable only: unflinching in its dull fixedness, invulnerable to the seductions of creative interpretation.

A lot of this probably applies to Sanskrit – which, even in the Vedic age, was almost solely used in academic discourse and poetic reveries. Prakrit was the language that was commonly spoken – it was also referred to as the “kitchen language”. The etymology of “Sanskrit” {perfected, artificial} is based upon an implicit comparison with “Prakrit” {primordial, natural}, the language actually spoken. (Source: W Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternate History) And since Hindi derives much of its form and vocabulary from Sanskrit, some of this rigidity seem to have organically flown into Hindi as well. Hindi, in its pure form, does seem to be afraid of borrowing words from other languages (Urdu, Persian, Tamil, English etc.) and hence lacks the organic rawness and casualness that comes from such natural confluence.

Tyrewala’s frustrations as a scriptwriter-who-writes-in-Hindi-but-thinks-in-English might have more to do with his own knowledge of Hindi language (or lack thereof) and his personal preferences or biases, but his remarks about the rigidity of languages are spot on, and applicable to any language that takes itself too seriously.

Related Posts: A Barren Grammatical Exercise, Like an Ever-flowing River

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P. S. Abbas Tyrewala seems to have found a good balancing solution by writing his first movie Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na mostly in Hinglish. That is how most people in Indian metros talk. Interestingly, he didn’t just insert English words into Hindi dialogues, but also translated English idioms into Hindi — for example: “Aur uske muh mein thi chandi ki chamchi.” (Born with a silver spoon in his mouth.) Nice!

Indian Summer

I just ordered Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire written by Alex Tunzelmann. Below is the first paragraph from the book:

In the beginning there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swath of the earth. The other was an undeveloped semi-feudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England.

And then, after two hundred years of British imperialism, the author argues, the situation was completely reversed! (The “beginning” she’s referring to is 1577, when the Mughal empire was at its peak under the great emperor Akbar, in case you’re wondering.)

It’s difficult to imagine a country as diverse as India to be “culturally unified” as the author suggests, but even after adjusting for the exaggeration, the shift in opposite direction is as conspicuous as it is interesting. It shows what imperialism often does to the ruled, and to the ruler.

indian summer

Due to some early mixed reviews and the gimmicky subtitle (The Secret History of the End of an Empire) the book didn’t make it to my bookshelf in spite of its tempting subject. But now someone is making a movie based on this book with primary focus on Nehru and Edwina’s “clandestine and intense” relationship and my curiosity skyrocketed. And why not, after all one of the cover designs of this book features the infamous picture (the image on the right) that inspired me to write a post that’s very close to my heart: Love to Hate Nehru.

Unfortunately, but expectantly, the production of Indian Summer has been halted. The Indian government officials are evaluating the salacity of the script. “It was a relationship of great friendship between individuals of the opposite sex but at what point that relationship becomes more is between them. The desire to guard a reputation is institutional,” said Nehru’s biographer M J Akbar.

Road, Movie

I am a fan of actor Abhay Deol, who has consistently delivered fantastic cinema in last 5 years. In a very short time period, his name quickly became synonymous with quality cinema, powerful scripts and understated yet commendable performance. All of his first five movies were directed by debutant directors — Socha Na Tha, Ahista Ahista, Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd., Ek Chalis Ki Last Local, and Manorama Six Feet Under. He definitely has a knack for choosing the right scripts and talented directors. His last two movies – Dev D and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! – were solid testaments of his acting skills. (It’s ironic how he is the master of one particular quality that both of his cousin brothers, Sunny and Bobby Deol, completely lack – subtlety!)

His next release is going to be Road, Movie directed by Dev Benegal. It’s being premiered at the Toronto Film Festival today as I write this!

The sneak-peek (below) looks very promising — beautiful cinematography, and haunting background music — can’t wait to see this one!

Frost Modi

I know it’s ridiculous… totally hopeless, but while watching Frost/Nixon few days ago, I really hoped, rather yearned, that one day we’ll see Narendra Modi too breaking down in front of camera and commit his horrendous misuse of authority as the chief minister of Gujarat — like how Richard Nixon, the only man who ever resigned from the US Presidency, did in 1977.

Below are the three specific things that Frost (the interviewer) mentions when the defamed ex-president Nixon asks him “What do you want me to say?” —

… there are three things the American people would like to hear you say.

One, there was probably more than mistakes. There was wrongdoing – yes, it might have been crime too.

Second, I did abuse the power I had as President.

And thirdly, I put the American people through two years of agony and I apologize for that. 

And I know how difficult it is for anyone to admit that – most of all you. But I just feel if you don’t, you’d regret it for the rest of your life.

To this, Nixon, now perspiring, visibly shaken and ravaged, responds by committing his crime and admitting that he let the American people down.

When I heard Frost asking for those three confessions from Nixon, I couldn’t help but think how relevant they are with respect to Narendra Modi — admittance of crime, abuse of power and an apology. I know, I know, it’s too much to hope from Modi who evidently doesn’t share Nixon’s guilt-conscious and compassion (as I perceive from the movie).

So there. Hope in vain…

P.S. Thapar did try once to bring him to knees, but his arrogant approach was bound to fail.

P.P.S. If you haven’t watched Frost/Nixon yet, I highly recommend it. Isn’t it amazing that a political drama that exclusively revolves around an interview can induce an adrenaline rush as high as if you were watching a boxing-movie?

Little Zizou Scores!

The ten-year-old Xerxes plays soccer with other kids, avoids going to school to spend time at his neighbor’s always warm and welcoming house, and dreams of meeting his idol Zinedin Zidane some day. His elder brother Art is a bohemian teenager who often pours out his frustrations on his blog and spends most of his day making sketches for his graphic novel or dreaming about fulfilling the desires of his unrequited love. They both despise their father, Khodaiji, a self-proclaimed religious leader who runs a fundamentalist cult that worships him and hates the “impure” Parsis. Then there’s this neighbor, Boman Pressvala, effortlessly played by Boman Irani, who occupies the ideologically opposite position to that of Khodaiji. Boman runs a local newspaper company, believes in and writes about freedom of speech and mutual tolerance. (At one point we see Boman talking about the liberal teachings of Zarathustra to an uninterested, half-asleep community members, and at the same time the hyper-active followers of Khodaiji responds with cheers and applause to his rhetorical proclamations.) Boman’s wife Roxanne is a comely, adorable women who loves Xerxes, the motherless boy, causing agony and child-like envy in her own daughter who “hates everyone, but loves dogs”. There are many other such carefully defined characters in this movie that makes it a delightful watch.

Little Zizou hardly takes itself too seriously, but when it does, it touches you to the core and leaves a gloomy and poignant feeling lingering in your mind – like when Roxane’s delusional mother, who adores her dysfunctional motel in Udwada (South Gujarat), is given a choice between either being realistic by selling off the motel or preserving her trembling yet endeared identity, she chooses the latter. One may call it sheer madness but the imaginary world in which she lives is more “realistic”, more important, and more personal to her than moving on with (the real) life. You wonder whether the talented director Sooni Taraporevala (who wrote Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala and The Namesake) uses this as a metaphor for what is actually happening with the Parsi community in general: dwindling quickly yet struggling fervently to maintain its cherished traditions, principles and values — the Parsi culture, in short.

Very few movies in Bollywood explored this alluring little world of Parsis before, the way they live their daily lives, pray to their God, express love and disgust, and all other small details that make you fall in love with this unique melting-pot culture and its people. But make no mistake, Taraporevala is not painting a Utopian all-flowery picture of her community here, there are many shades of gray (fundamentalism, sexual exploitation, religious intolerance, orthodoxy, and empty vanity to name a few) which might startle a viewer whose only source of Parsi cultural knowledge is those handful Bollywood movies with an old harmless Parsi couple (in a traditional attire that they usually wear during wedding ceremonies) uttering some funny dialogues with a heavy Parsi accent to garner few laughs. There were few Hindi movies, however, that tried to stay away from the slapstick comical elements, and honestly looked into the nuances of the daily lives of the Parsis. Here‘s a nice article for the interested reader.

I loved Taraporevala’s previous work as a screenwriter and was expecting nothing less than extraordinary from her debut movie as a director, and she didn’t disappoint me. Hoping to see more from her soon.

Jai Ho!

Being an ardent fan of his music, it was an enthralling experience for me to see A R Rahman accept his Academy Awards in the Best Song and Best Original Score categories. (I was even more out-of-control than Anil Kapoor!) Many congratulations to him, Gulzar (who shared the Oscar for his song Jai Ho, but was not present at the ceremony), and also to the entire cast and crew members of Slumdog Millionaire for a spectacular victory.

Bollywood is a widely recognized “brand” in the West, but Slumdog Millionaire will be remembered as the movie that made Bollywood a household name in the United States. And as Vir Sanghvi mentioned on his blog, any conversation about World Music will be incomplete now without mentioning A R Rahman. 

Meanwhile, India remains divided in its reactions towards SM. There are those who scorned at its “negative” depiction of India. And there are those who, in spite of the fact that the movie is produced by two American studios and directed by a British man, are celebrating its victory as one of their own.

In my opinion, the movie is fantastic and quite entertaining, but over-rated. (For the record, I am neither disappointed nor offended by the portrayal of India in this movie. I don’t think that it is any director’s responsibility to show the complete picture of a society.)  But I am happy for the movie’s success and especially for the global recognition that it has brought to A R Rahman, Bollywood, and Indian movie industries.

Since the dawn of multiplex cinema in the last decade (in India), we’ve seen Bollywood slowly starting to grow out of the singing-and-dancing, good-guy-bad-guy format and becoming more experimental and creative with its craft. And then… here comes Hollywood, embracing the feel-good, rags-to-riches, escapist nature of cinema that we’ve just started to shed off. Will the global success of SM create a reprisal of escapism in Bollywood movies or will the mingling of talents beween the two biggest movie industries in the world accelerate the growth of meaningful and artistic cinema in India? Well, I guess both can happen simultaneously, as Bollywood and India are big enough that they “dwarf even the sky”! (Danny Boyle’s quote from his acceptance speech last night.)

P.S. This article suggests that there’s an inverse correlation between global GDP and the mood of cinema (“as the wealth and prosperity ballooned, cinema became darker”) and tries to explain why a feel-good movie like Slumdog Millionaire won in this year’s Oscar race.

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