Mythology, writing and evolution: Exodus edition

I watched half of Exodus: Gods and Kings last night (I’d DVRd it a few days back seeing it’s by Ridley Scott). The movie started alright, and the story was well told. Of Moses’s fight with Rameses, of Moses being found out, of his exile and struggle and love story and finding god on a mountain. All very nice and well within the realms of good mythology.

And then Moses decides to hear god’s word and goes to Memphis to free his fellow Hebrews. There’s a conspiracy hatched. Sabotage begins. Standard guerrilla stuff that slaves ought to do to revolt against their masters. Up to that point in time I’d classified Exodus as a good movie.

And then things started getting bad. God told Moses that the latter wasn’t “doing enough” and god would do things his way. And so the Nile got polluted. Plants died. Animals died. Insects attacked. Birds attacked (like in that Hitchcock movie).  What had been shaping up to be a good slave-revolt story suddenly went awry. The entire movie could be described by this one scene in Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark:

When you see the guy twirling the sword, you set yourself up for a good fight. And then Indiana just pulls out a gun and shoots him! As a subplot in that movie, it was rather funny. But if the entire plot of a movie centres around one such incident (god sending the plague to Egypt, in this case), it’s hard to continue watching.

Checking out the movie on IMDB, I realised that it has a pretty low rating and didn’t recover its investment. While this is surprising given the reputation of Scott, and how the first part of the movie is set up and made, looking at the overall plot it isn’t that surprising. The problem with the movie is that it builds on an inherently weak plot, so the failure is not unexpected.

It did not help that I was reading mythology, or a realistic mythological interpretation, earlier in the day – the English translation of SL Bhyrappa’s Parva. In that, Bhyrappa has taken an already complex epic, and added his own degrees of complexity to it by seeking to remove all divinity and humanise the characters. Each major character has a long monologue (I’m about a third into the book), which explores deep philosophical matters such as “what is Dharma”, etc.

While moving directly from humanised philosophical myth to unabashedly religious story might have prevented me from appreciating the latter, it still doesn’t absolve the rather simplistic nature of the latter myth. I admit I’m generalising based on one data point, not having read any Christian myth, but from this one data point, it seems Christian myth seems rather weak compared to Hindu or Greek or Roman myth.

My explanation for this is that unlike other myths, Christian myth didn’t have enough time to evolve before it was written down. While the oral tradition meant that much valuable human memory was wasted in mugging up stories and songs, and that transmission was never exact, it also meant that there was room for the stories to evolve. Having been transmitted through oral tradition for several centuries, Hindu, Greek and Roman stories were able to evolve and become stronger. Ultimately when they got written down, it was in much evolved “best of” form. In fact, some of these myths got written down in multiple forms which allowed them to evolve even after writing came by.

While writing saves human memory space and prevents distortions, it leaves no room for variations or improvisation. Since there is now an “original book”, and such books are determined to be “words of God”, there is no room for improvisation or reinterpretation. So we are left with the same simplistic story that we started of with. I hope this explains why Exodus, despite a stud director, is a weak movie.

The Chamrajpet model of leadership

When you are doing a group assignment (assuming you’re in college) and you get assigned your share of the work, the assumption is that the allocation of work across team members has been fair. Good group leaders try to ensure this, and also to split work according to the relative interests and strengths of different team members.

Except that there are times when team members get the sneaking suspicion that the group leader is pulling a fast one on them, by following the “Chamrajpet model” of leadership. To understand what the Chamrajpet model is, watch this video, from the beginning of the Kannada movie Gowri Ganesha (the video below has the full movie. Watch it if you can. It’s fantastic).

For those who couldn’t understand, Lambodar (played by Anant Nag) needs to get to Chamrajpet but doesn’t have the money. He befriends two guys (who also want to get to Chamrajpet) and convinces them to share an auto rickshaw with him. He convinces each of them that the “other” guy is his (Lambodar’s) friend, and that they should split the fare equally. This way, he collects the full fare (and a bit more ) from them put together.

It is a fairly common occurrence in group assignments for one of your teammates to tell you “you do part 1. This guy and I will do part 2”. There are times when this is a fair allocation (when part 2 requires twice the effort as part 1). If the teammate is a Lambodar, however, he might have pulled a similar allocation with the third teammate (telling him “you do part 1. I’ll do part 1 with this guy”).

In a way, these are the perks that sometimes come with leadership.

The only way you can deal with it is to follow the advice at the end of the movie – “Beware of Lambodars”.

Uppi2 Review

Uppi2 is easily the best movie I’ve watched in recent times. Across languages. And I’m not joking. It’s a bloody good movie, and breaks all kind of stereotypes. Having watched the movie, I have half a mind to log on to IMDB and add one more perfect 10 rating.

I have an unusual way of rating movies – essentially, any movie that manages to hold my attention through its length is a great movie by my definition. This is a consequence of my extreme attention deficit, but in general I find it hard to sit through movies. The story needs to be tight right from the beginning, else I’m extremely likely to switch off. The number of half-watched movies on my Tata Sky recording box is not funny, for example.

From this perspective, the best compliment that I can pay to Uppi2 is that never once did I start wondering when the movie would end. There have been several otherwise great movies which have dragged a bit as it has gone along and I’ve found myself checking my watch to see how much longer it might go on for. Not with Uppi2. The movie keeps you fully engaged right till the end and doesn’t drag one bit. And I wouldn’t write more here since that would be giving too much away.

There is only one jarring thing about the movie, and that is the songs. All songs are little better than “extra fittings” and none adds to the story. Most songs are fairly atrocious, but there is one truly outstanding song. And you might be surprised that I’m actually recommending a hip-hop song. Enjoy off:

The story, as you might expect from a Upendra directed movie, is rather complex and has lots of twists and turns. There is a fair bit of self-reference, and you might do well to keep in mind the concept of recursion while you watch it. There are references to several other movies, including Upendra’s earlier movies.

If you think you’re a “buddhivanta” (intellectual) this movie will surely tingle your intellectual nerves. There are a lot of stupid jokes also, like the play on the lead character’s name “Neenu” (“you”), and the pun in the title of the movie itself. And stuff like one guy scolding another guy (whose name is Bala) as “LK Bala”. So even if you aren’t a buddhivanta, there is much for you in the movie.

As this excellent review by Jogi in Udayavani describes it, go expecting to see an Upendra movie, or to eat “Uppit”, and you’ll not come back disappointed. If you go expecting to eat “Obbatt”, on the other hand, you’ll surely be disappointed!

I thought Upendra had done a wonderful job with his last offering Super, but I must confess he has outdone himself with Uppi2. Please go and watch! And contribute to the movie’s rating on IMDB.

On Uppi2’s top rating

So it appears that my former neighbour Upendra’s new magnum opus Uppi2 is currently the top rated movie on IMDB, with a rating of 9.7/10.0. The Times of India is so surprised that it has done an entire story about it, which I’ve screenshot here: Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 8.50.33 pm

The story also mentions that another Kannada movie RangiTaranga (which I’ve reviewed here) is in third spot, with a rating of 9.4 out of 10. This might lead you to wonder why Kannada movies have suddenly turned out to be so good. The answer, however, lies in simple logic.

The first is that both are relatively new movies and hence their ratings suffer from “small sample bias”. Of course, the sample isn’t that small – Uppi2 has received 1900 votes, which is 3 times as much as its 1999 prequel Upendra. Yet, it being a new movie, only a subset of the small set of people who have watched it so far would have reviewed it.

The second is selection bias. The people who see a movie in its first week are usually the hardcore fans, and in this case it is hardcore fans of Upendra’s movies. And hardcore fans usually find it hard to have their belief shaken (a version of what I’ve written about online opinions for Mint here), and hence they all give the movie a high rating.

As time goes by, and people who are not as hardcore fans of Upendra start watching and reviewing the movie, the ratings are likely to rationalise. Finally, ratings are easy to rig, especially when samples are small. For example, an Upendra fan club might have decided to play up the movie online by voting en masse on IMDB, and pushing up its ratings. This might explain both why the movie already has 1900 ratings in four days, and most of them are extremely positive.

The solution for this is for the rating system (IMDB in this case) to pay more weightage for “verified ratings” (by people who have rated more movies in the past, for instance), or remove highly correlated ratings. Right now, the rating algorithm seems pretty naive.

Coming back to Uppi2, from what I’ve heard from people, the movie is supposed to be really good, though perhaps not 9.7 good. I plan to watch the movie in the next few days and will write a review once I do so.

Meanwhile, read this absolutely brilliant review (in Kannada) written by this guy called “Jogi”

Rangitaranga – review

Ok this is not a formal review of the movie. I saw it this evening – the first time in over a year that I’d seen a movie in the theatres. I didn’t like the first half so much but the second half was significantly better. Overall the movie was quite good.

But there was one key plot element that I found to be rather illogical, which I want to register my protest about. Since there are spoilers ahead, I’m putting the rest of this post under the fold.

Continue reading Rangitaranga – review

Queueing dynamics at Ranga Shankara

Last night we went to Ranga Shankara in JP Nagar to watch a play.  Thanks to unusually heavy traffic on 11th Main Road Jayanagar, we reached there only at 7 pm (the play was due to start at 7:30), and there was already a long line at the foot of the stairs waiting to be let in.

For the uninitiated, Ranga Shankara follows “free seating” also known as “Air Deccan seating”. There are no seat numbers – in fact the seats are themselves not clearly demarcated – there are long tiered rows of cushioned benches on which you sit. So the seats are essentially filled on a first come first served basis. This enables Ranga Shankara to to fill up the benches in good time once people are let in, and the show can begin on time. Also, unlike Air Deccan, Ranga Shankara sees high social capital so people don’t jostle and fight for seats.

As we walked in and picked up our tickets (after showing our e-tickets), the wife said that there was no point joining the queue as we would be so far behind that there was no chance of us getting good seats. So we might as well eat before the play started, she reasoned. So off we went to the adjoining Ranga Shankara Cafe and thulped Sabudana Vada and coffee. The pricing was premium but the food and coffee were very good.

As we were gulping down our coffee, preparing to possibly join the queue, the wife spotted the renowned actor Mukhyamantri Chandru near the entrance of the theatre. We presently saw him posing for selfies with some people, and we have to do the same, we reasoned.

Chandru turned out to be an incredibly warm and nice person and enthusiastically talked to us for ten minutes. We told him that we’re major fans of his Ramanamurthy role in Ganeshana Madhuve. He asked us to come for the performance of Mukhyamantri (which gave him his name) today, but we told him that we’ve already seen the play.


We got talking about theatre and cinema and how acting is different in the two. Chandru told us that in a play an actor has to constantly play a dual role – one role is the role that he is playing in the play, and the second is that of a manager. It is inevitable that some slips happen during the course of the play, he mentioned, and what makes acting in a theatre tough is that you need to course correct on the fly without giving away to the audience that you’ve slipped up.

By the time we were done talking to Chandru, the line had cleared and the bell rang indicating that there were 10 minutes to go for the play. “You better hurry”, he told us, “else you’ll have to sit in the last row”. We didn’t bother particularly hurrying and it was the last row where we sat (there were seats available at the peripheries of forward rows but we wanted to watch the play from a central position to chose to sit in the last row instead).

Now I might have watched about 10 plays in Ranga Shankara, and sat in different positions to watch each one of them. There have been plays where I’ve sat right in the middle of one of the forward rows (the best seats in the house), and ones like yesterday where I’ve either sat right at the back or at one of the peripheries of the baseball-diamond shaped theatre. And what I realised is that the experience from each of these positions is near-identical!

In other words, the design of Ranga Shankara is so good that you are likely to have a great experience irrespective of where in the hall you sit! Or that the experience from the last row is not much inferior to that from one of the best seats in the house!

Yet, every play I’ve gone to I’ve seen a long line build up at the foot of the stairs before the play begins. It is as if people don’t believe that experience in the inferior seats is not very inferior to that of the experience in the best seats in the house, and are thus willing to pay a high price (time spent waiting in queue) to get the marginally better seats!

I don’t know if I’ve miscalculated on the relative merits of different seats in the house, or if the “market” (the rest of the people who stand in line) has got the pricing wrong! I’ll probably experiment a few more times at Ranga Shankara by not bothering to stand in line!

CEO Presentations and Rocky Movies

As part of my consulting assignment, yesterday I had to make a presentation to the CEO of my client. The process of preparing the presentation reminded me of Rocky (or any other Martial Arts movie). In these movies, before the protagonist can challenge the antagonist, he has to go through a series of underlings. Only after the protagonists has defeated all the underlings does the antagonist accept his challenge to a fight.

The work itself was done in consultation with a mid-level manager who heads the division that follows the process that I was going to recommend. While we had had a few rounds of discussions which led to the recommendations, I had prepared the presentation all by myself, and most of Wednesday was spent with him fixing the presentation.

Next we went to his boss, and repeated the process. Then to the boss’s boss. Then to someone else in the top management who would not be available for the main presentation! The hour before the main presentation was spent with the head of the division in whose realm the processes I was recommending fell. And then I got to the CEO.

Two hours before the meeting with the CEO, a couple of client team members and I were discussing the finer points of seppuku and hara-kiri. An hour before the presentation, the division head and I were discussing the Mahabharata!

The entire hierarchy was present for the meeting with the CEO (the mid-manager I had worked with, his boss, his underling, his boss’s boss and a couple of other people). Still typing away on his iPhone, without looking up, the CEO asked, “are all of you in agreement with what is in this presentation or are these Karthik’s recommendations alone?”

The Rocky Process was worth it, after all!

PS: I’m writing this sitting at the client’s office, in between meetings.