Monday, December 2, 2013

Into the wild

“What if I were smiling and running into your arms? Would you see then what I see now?” thinks Chris, just moments before his death, in the movie ‘Into the wild’.

Not being able to ‘see’ what others see is the cause for so much of unhappiness in our lives. A lot of conflicts can be resolved by a little empathy, understanding. While we see very clearly what we ourselves see, we do not really try to see what others see. My guess is, even if Chris would have run to his father’s arms, smiling, it still would not have been ‘happily ever after’. After the initial joy of rediscovering each other melts away, the conflicts resume.

However, ‘smiling and running into the arms’ is still a useful first step – because the choice between hating and forgiving is often the most important step in our lives. Chris hated his parents – he held them responsible for his miserable childhood. A childhood that taught him that beauty can be found only in nature, not in human relationships. So in quest of that beauty he sets out – leaving family, friends and all other attachments. He wants to go to Alaska – where the nature is tranquil, where nothing would disturb the harmony of his mind. Far from the madding crowd, far from the selfish agendas of petty people, far from the daily conflicts of society.

On his way he meets an assortment of interesting people. Some are on the same quest to find peace. Some others advise him that he is on the wrong path. He is loved by most of those people he meets. They all miss him terribly when he moves on. But he does move on, because he knows the truth about human relationships – that in the end, it all turns bitter. Or so he thinks.

He reaches Alaska. In the lap of nature, life is beautiful for a while. Slowly, the basic survival needs rear their ugly head. But there is one need he feels much more strongly than even basic survival needs. That is the need for company, the need to share. ‘Happiness is only real when shared’ – he writes in his journal just before his death.

This realisation, which runs contrary to all that he believed in the past, leads to the final, beautiful line of the film – “What if I were smiling and running into your arms? Would you see then what I see now?” He wants others to see that truth which he realised at the cost of his life. His voyage away from human relationships, his journey which was spurred by a hatred of his parents – finally leads him to a truth which is exactly the opposite of what he originally expected to find. Forgiving instead of hatred. Sharing rather than a lonely existence.

Sadly, Chris could not live his life according to this realisation, but maybe we can.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The God Delusion

Continuing on the theme of my previous blog, life is essentially unpredictable and unfair because of the huge role chance events play. Which is why most philosophies had a really tough time giving us a cogent explanation of our life and its meaning.

That’s where men stumbled upon the most convenient explanation, God. God filled in all the gaps of our knowledge. Any physical phenomenon that cannot be explained had to be God’s creation. The lack of justice and fairness in this life found neat explanations in afterlife, or reincarnation.

We have a difficult time living with the assertion that all life is on earth through blind chance and evolution. We had more difficulty with the fact that good people do not always get rewarded, or bad people punished. Which is why God is such a persuasive argument. God makes life better, because we cannot live life with so much unexplained.

Richard Dawkins, the celebrated author of ‘The Selfish Gene’, argues persuasively against the existence of God in his book, ‘The God Delusion’. Other than being a nice refresher on some of the scientific topics like natural selection and the origin of the universe – it also provides an alternative philosophy on why life does not have to be completely amoral because there is no God watching us, punishing or rewarding us in afterlife.

His argument is that if there is no God keeping order, the mankind has to take the responsibility in creating a fairer world. And man has indeed taken such enlightened steps. Move towards democracy, end of apartheid, a progressive tax structure are just a few examples of such attempts.

Of course, we may never hope to achieve the precise justice that God would have meted out in afterlife. Life here will always be somewhat unfair, buffeted by chance events. But man’s attempts, small and imprecise they may be, are real, tangible and immediate. God and afterlife are a copout.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The role of dice

I recently watched Woody Allen’s ‘Match Point’ – a great thriller about how a person is moved to kill his mistress when she threatens to divulge their affair to his wife. Other than its taut storyline and intelligent screenplay, what I found most interesting about the movie is its philosophical exploration of the role luck plays in our lives. The movie begins with Chris, the main character, narrating:

“The man who said "I'd rather be lucky than good" saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It's scary to think so much is out of one's control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win. Or maybe it doesn't, and you lose.

I agree with Chris there. The intervention of chance in our lives is not limited to big, obvious occurrences like winning a jackpot, or being in a road accident. If we look deeply enough, a lot of our successes have to do with being at the right place at the right time. Or meeting the right person.

Less obviously, what Warren Buffet calls ‘Ovarian Lottery’ plays a much bigger role. Some of us are fortunate enough to be born with above average intelligence, among parents who were inclined to, and could afford to prioritize education. We happen to be born in a country that was politically stable. If I were born with below average IQ, or worse, with a genetic disease, I would have stood very little chance. If one is born in a village in a poor, strife-torn African nation, it is impossible to escape poverty and a life of misery.

Given how vulnerable is a happy life to chance events, I agree with another quote from the movie, which says, "To never have been born may be the greatest boon of all."


Nostalgia is a curious phenomenon. It somehow elevates mundane past events into fond memories.

Chennai was my home for seven years. In the last few days of my stay in Chennai, even the routine, day-to-day stuff was filled with a twinge of sadness – the regular drive to my daughter’s school, going to Nilgiri’s to buy grocery, taking an evening walk in our apartment complex. When I was dropping off my maid to the Egmore station on the last day, I even felt sad that I’m not going to hear these Tamil announcements in the railway station in near future. Never thought I was going to miss that!

Can it be true that our childhood was not as idyllic as we make it out to be now? With many years in between, may be our memory has glorified mundane events into sweet memories, and erased unhappy ones?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Bengal: A strange place - Part I

Recently, I relocated to Calcutta. While I’m happy to be closer to my parents, my roots – culturally, I find the place to be quite alien.

Nowhere is it more apparent than when you step into a shop to buy something. There is no concept of customer service. Indeed, there is no commercial orientation altogether. That does not mean shopkeepers are altruistic and want to give you things for free. They do not want to sell things to you at all. They are irritated if you ask questions about a product. The length of their yawns are often more than duration of your patience. Their mobile conversations seem to stretch longer when they have a customer at their doorstep. And of course, afternoon siesta is of paramount importance – doing business, making profit, earning a livelihood – everything else is secondary.

And of course, the issue of change (Khuchro, chutta) dominates commercial transactions. In most places, if you cannot produce the exact change, they will refuse to sell you things. If you produce a 100 Rs note after buying something of, say 76 Rs, - they may say you should have warned them in advance that you do not have change, in that case, they would not have given you the product. Suppliers are more worried about accumulating change, than selling their products. I wonder whether there is a business model possible – where you sell ‘change’ (Khuchro) for a premium – say you give small change for 90 Rs in exchange of a 100 Rs note, and pocket 10 Rs. Such a business model would work in West Bengal.

In retrospect, the obsession with small change is not surprising. After all, big money has eluded Bengal.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

My favourite directors

In movies as well as literature, there are some people whose works resonate with us more at a personal level, often more than the bigger and more celebrated names. It may be due to a number of reasons – we may find their style easy to access, or their message close to our heart. Or we can identify with the characters they create, given our personal experience. For such an author or director, you cannot just have enough of them – you savour their latest work, and eagerly wait for the next one. In movies, there are some directors whose work I particularly like, and always look forward to watching more of their films:

Spike lee: He is really my top favourite. His movies transport you briefly to a different world. You identify with the characters, you empathize with their situations, you enjoy their conversations. At the end of the movie you feel you know the characters like you know your close friends. Even though you may not have like all of them, you always understand them. I would recommend everybody to watch ‘Do the right thing’ – which is really the finest movie he directed. However, ‘25th hour’ and ‘Malcolm X’ are not to be missed as well.

Larry clark: I loved his ‘Kids’ and ‘Bully’. His portrayal of teenagers who have somehow failed to find any meaning to life – and sunk into the abyss of drug, sex and animal gratification – is so real that it is frightening. There is always a lot of sex in his movies – but given the bleak story, you are unlikely to enjoy those scenes.

Oliver Hirschbiegel: The German director who gave us ‘Downfall’ – a grim portrayal of Hitler’s last few days at the bunker, and ‘The Experiment’ – a movie which encompasses many genres at once – thriller, documentary, philosophy.

Robert Mulligan: I have a personal reason for liking his movies. Two of his best movies – ‘To kill a mockingbird’ and ‘The man in the moon’ – are set in a small town. Small towns have their own charm, and idiosyncrasies – most people know each other, people drop by your house without prior announcement, life moves at a tranquil pace. If something happens that is out of the ordinary (an accident, or a scandal), the entire town would be abuzz with discussion, opinions and gossip. With my childhood in a similar small town – I felt quite nostalgic watching those movies.

David Cronenberg: I do not normally like thrillers with their routine shootings, fights and chases – but I sat absolutely riveted when I watched ‘Eastern Promises’, and ‘A history of Violence’ – movies that contain quite a few of those elements. These are the two most recent movies he directed in his 40 year long career. He is 66, and at his best now. I eagerly await his next release.

Sam Mendes: His ‘Revolutionary road’ was overlooked for Oscar last year, but I thought it was much better than the likes of Slumdog and Benjamin Button. Roger Ebert wrote “This film is so good it is devastating.” His ‘American beauty’ is milder in comparison, but also explores similar issues of existential crisis and loneliness.

Jill Sprecher: He directed two little known gems – ‘Thirteen conversations about one thing’, and ‘Clockwatchers’. In ‘Thirteen conversations…’, he explores some of my favourite themes – life’s unfairness and unpredictability, and how fragile our happiness is in the face of chance events.

This is just a partial list – hope to add to this post soon. Specifically, we cannot forget Indian directors like Mira Nair, Vishal Bharadwaj or Raj Kumar Hirani!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Why is Slumdog Millionaire so popular in the West?

Slumdog millionaire won 4 golden globes awards, including the best picture. The entire world, particularly the West, seems to love this movie. It currently ranks #35 in IMDB all time top movies list, Roger Ebert gives it the highest rating, it will probably win a few Oscars as well. With the India theme, we Indians seem to be reveling in its popularity.

But it is nothing but a feelgood masala movie, based on an unrealistic premise, and filmed with numerous implausible details. Do you think a KBC host would belittle its guest onscreen the way Anil Kapoor did? Do you think a potential KBC winner will be given electric shocks in police station between the two shows? Do you think a boy going near a movie star, drenched in shit, will not be noticed, or smelled – and will still be granted an autograph? Do you think somebody may not know recognize picture of Mahatma Gandhi on an Indian currency note, but recognizes Benjamin Franklin on a dollar – just because he once got a dollar bill from a foreign tourist?

 We have seen so many such masala films coming out of Bollywood, full of such gaping holes. However, they do not become so popular in the West, as Slumdog did. What could be the reason? For one, the gaping holes may not be noticed if you are from a different culture. You may think a potential quiz show winner being questioned by police, and given third degree is possible after all – who knows what happens in India? Not recognizing Gandhi on an Indian note does not look so shocking to a Western audience – as they lack the context. A TV show host being a bit unprofessional on screen is probably possible. What we think as badly researched will not be perceived as such by a Western audience –  as they are not steeped in the culture and context of India.

Once you overlook those mistakes, this becomes an excellent movie. Unlike a Bollywood production, the editing is superb, the music is racy. There is no typical  song and dance sequence to distract you. It packs in a lot of action within two hours.  It deals with the extremes that characterise India -the facet of India West has always been fascinated by.

And finally, the movie feels good, it gives a message of hope – and one cannot have enough of that in these trying times!