Serials and movies

Yesterday I finished reading Gita Krishnankutty’s English translation of MT Vasudevan Nair’s Randamoozham. It’s the story of the Mahabharata told from Bhima’s perspective.

This wasn’t the first time that I was reading a translation of this magnificent book. A few years ago, journalist Prem Panicker had created a series on his blog where he would put up translations of bits of this book daily. I remember quite liking that, and a lot of people raving about it.

Prem’s version of the book was far longer than the version that I finished yesterday (Gita Krishnankutty’s version is 380 pages long, which comes to around 70000 words or less. Prem’s is 120,000 words long). It was also far more passionate. Rather than directly translating the novel, Prem took liberties in adding his own inputs.

It’s been over a decade since I read Prem’s version, but from what I remember, the parts of the story where Bhima mourns Ghatotkacha’s death, for example, are far more well sketched out in that version. It is similar with the parts which show Bhima’s frustration with Yudhishthira’s leadership.

Thinking about it, though, one reason why Prem was able to go into such detail was that he presented his book in a serialised format. Every day he would put out the translation of a few pages’ worth of a book, and the translation would come out to be the length of a long form article (the kind of articles that Prem became a specialist in writing during his time at Rediff).

When you’re reading it in book form, in which you read the whole thing together, reading in such detail may not work so well since that might make the book unnecessarily thick, and people might put NED midway. Give the inputs in small doses, however, and people will be happy to consume the greater detail. In that sense, Prem’s and Gita Krishnankutty’s translations are both excellent, and both very well suited for the formats they came out in.

It is a similar story with movies and serials. Movies have a 2-2.5 hour length because that’s how much typically people can consume at a time without putting NED. Serials, on the other hand, because they are consumed bit by bit at a time, can go much longer in aggregate (sometimes unnecessarily long).

Netflix releasing all episodes of a series at the same time, however, is changing this dynamic. Sacred Games apart, I’ve been unable to get through any Netflix fiction series because of their sheer length. Because binge-watching has become a thing (thanks to Netflix putting out an entire season at once), the entire season comes to resemble a movie. So a season with 8 one-hour episodes effectively becomes a 8-hour movie. And unless it’s extremely well made, or has sufficient stuff going on through the 8 hours, it becomes incredibly hard to sit through!

 

Amazon and Sony Liv

Amazon is pretty bad at design of products they’re not pioneers in. They’ve built a great shopping engine (25 years ago) and a great cloud service (15 years ago), but these were both things they were pioneers in.

Amazon being Amazon, however, they have a compulsive need to be in pretty much every industry, and so they’ve launched clones of lots of other businesses. However, their product design in these is far from optimal, and the user experience is generally very underwhelming.

Prime Video has a worse user experience than Netflix. The search function is much worse. The machine learning (for recommendations) isn’t great. The X-ray is good, but overall I don’t have as pleasant a time watching Prime as I do with Netflix.

However, the degree to which Prime Video is worse than Netflix is far far smaller than the degree to which Amazon Music is worse than Spotify. The only thing going for Amazon Music (which I only use because it comes free with my prime delivery membership in India) is that they have inventory.

Spotify in India has been unable to secure rights to a lot of classic rock and metal bands, such as Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and Dream Theater. And these form a heavy part of my routine listening. And so I’m forced to use Amazon Music (Apple Music has these bands as well, but I have to pay extra for that).

The product (Amazon Music) is atrocious. The learning is next to nothing. After five months of using the service to exclusively listen to Classic Rock and Heavy Metal, and zero Indian music, the home page still recommends to me Bollywood, Punjabi and Tamil stuff! History is not properly maintained. Getting to the album or playlist (the less said about playlists on Amazon, the better) I want takes way too much more effort than it does on Spotify.

In other words, the only thing that keeps Amazon going in businesses they’re not pioneers in is inventory – Prime Video works because it has movies and shows other streaming services don’t have. Amazon Music is used because it has music that Spotify doesn’t.

I figured it is a similar case with Sony Liv, Sony’s streaming service in India. They sit on a bunch of lucrative monopolies, such as rights to broadcasting Test cricket in a lot of countries (all three Test series being played right now are on Sony, for example), Champions League football and so on. Beyond that it’s an atrocity to watch them.

I remember missing a goal in the Liverpool-Porto Champions League quarterfinal because of a temporary power cut. There was no way in the broadcast to go back and see the goal. If I by mistake pause for a couple of seconds, I’m forever behind “live” (unless I refresh). Yesterday during the classic Ashes Test, the app simply gave up when I tried to load the game.

The product is atrocious (actually more atrocious than Amazon Music), but people are forced to use it only because they have a monopoly on content. And in that way, it is similar to Amazon, which can get away with atrocious products only because they have the inventory!

I’m glad the Premier League is on Hotstar, which is mostly a pleasure to watch! (actually back in the day when I had cable TV, the star sports bouquet had significantly superior production values to the sony-zee-ten bouquet)

Super Deluxe

In my four years in Madras (2000-4), I learnt just about enough Tamil to watch a Tamil movie with subtitles. Without subtitles is still a bit of a stretch for me, but the fact that streaming sites offer all movies with subtitles means I can watch Tamil movies now.

At the end, I didn’t like Super Deluxe. I thought it was an incredibly weird movie. The last half an hour was beyond bizarre. Rather, the entire movie is weird (which is good in a way we’ll come to in a bit), but there is a point where there is a step-change in the weirdness.

The wife had watched the movie some 2-3 weeks back, and I was watching it on Friday night. Around the time when she finished the movie she was watching and was going to bed, she peered into my laptop and said “it’s going to get super weird now”. “As if it isn’t weird enough already”, I replied. In hindsight, she was right. She had peered into my laptop right at the moment when the weirdness goes to yet another level.

It’s not often that I watch movies, since most movies simply fail to hold my attention. The problem is that most plots are rather predictable, and it is rather easy to second-guess what happens in each scene. It is the information theoretic concept of “surprise”.

Surprise is maximised when the least probable thing happens at every point in time. And when the least probable thing doesn’t happen, there isn’t a story, so filmmakers overindex on surprises and making sure the less probable thing will happen. So if you indulge in a small bit of second order thinking, the surprises aren’t surprising any more, and the movie becomes boring.

Super Deluxe establishes pretty early on that the plot is going to be rather weird. And when you think the scene has been set with sufficient weirdness in each story (there are four intertwined stories in the movie, as per modern fashion), the next time the movie comes back to the story, the story is shown to get weirder. And so you begin to expect weirdness. And this, in a way, makes the movie less predictable.

The reason a weird movie is less predictable is that at each scene it is simply impossible for the view to even think of the possibilities. And in a movie that gets progressively weirder like this one, every time you think you have listed out the possibilities and predicted what happens, what follows is something from outside your “consideration set”. And that keeps you engaged, and wanting to see what happens.

The problem with a progressively weird movie is that at some point it needs to end. And it needs to end in a coherent way. Well, it is possible sometimes to leave the viewer hanging, but some filmmakers see the need to provide a coherent ending.

And so what usually happens is that at some point in time the plot gets so remarkably simplified that everything suddenly falls in place (though nowhere as beautifully as things fall in place at the end of a Wodehouse novel). Another thing that can happen is that weirdness it taken up a notch, so that things fall in place at a “meta level”, at which point the movie can end.

The thing with Super Deluxe is that both these things happen! On one side the weirdness is taken up several notches. And on the other the plots get so oversimplified that things just fall in place. And that makes you finish the movie with a rather bitter taste in the mouth, feeling thoroughly unsatisfied.

That the “ending” of the movie (where things get really weird AND really simplified) lasts half an hour doesn’t help matters.

Kader Khan and Slippery Fish

Until I read his obituaries, I didn’t know that the just-deceased actor Kader Khan was also a dialogue writer, having written the dialogues for several iconic Amitabh Bachchan movies such as Laawaris, Muqaddar Ka Sikander and Agneepath (I highly recommend his obituaries by GreatBong and by The Economist. Both are brilliantly written and highly informative).

When I found that Kader Khan wrote the dialogues for Agneepath, I was reminded of this old piece written by Nitin Pai, Director of the Takshashila Institution, that referenced a particular dialogue from Agneepath. In that, he talks about international relations and the “law of the jungle” that operates there. In fact, I recommend you see that dialogue from Agneepath. It’s on youtube:

Major level up in terms of my respect for Kader Khan after having re-watched this. I only knew him as a masterful comedian and actor as I mentioned. Now I want to go back and watch more of the movies for which he wrote dialogues.

In any case, if you watched the above video from Agneepath, you see that Amitabh Bachchan talks about the law of the jungle in the form of a food chain. I don’t know the Hindi names of animals precisely, but he talks about a frog being eaten by a snake, and a wolf being killed by lions, etc.

The talk of the food chain reminded me of another song which is my daughter’s favourite nowadays.  This talks about the marine food chain. Watch the song here:

I had no idea about this song until the daughter started singing it. In fact, since she liked the third stanza of the song best (“tuna fish, tuna fish”), it had also caused us a bit of a problem one weekend when she kept requesting for it but we couldn’t find it on any streaming service (you should ask for “slippery fish”).

I’m pleasantly surprised that they teach about the food chain to children as young as two years old, since it introduces to them the concept of death, and the fact that animals eat other animals to survive. Somehow I had thought that kids are told that all animals co-exist like they do in Peppa Pig (as an aside, I wonder what will happen to Peppa Pig and friends when it’s time for them to grow up and start dating), and that the concept of death is also taboo in some circles.

Anyway I’m glad my daughter likes the song. Maybe it’s time to let her graduate to the Amitabh Bachchan dialogue? But that would involve her learning Hindi, which is my wife and my “secret language” (when we’ve to say something we don’t want the daughter to understand) !

Wheels of the bus went swimming one day

One story I like to tell is about how Mozart charged so much for setting Twinkle Twinkle to tune (if he did set it to tune, that is) that propagators of nursery rhymes decided to use the same tune for several other popular songs – most prominently for ABCDEFG and with a small variation for Ba Ba Black Sheep. It’s confusing, not just for kids but also for the parents. I’d written here a month or so back about how I would play tunes on the keyboard and Berry would try to guess the song and sing along. As someone who sets quizzes occasionally, the lack of “a unique answer” drives me nuts. And it possibly drives Berry nuts as well, since she changes from twinkle twinkle to ABCD within the course of one stanza. I wonder why this is the case. Using my one data point (Berry) kids can catch on to tunes pretty quickly (she was barely a year old when she started humming the tune of Black Sabbath’s Iron Man. Now she knows the full lyrics). And having unique tunes for songs means that kids are able to make easy associations between music and words – always a desirable thing. And the lack of one-to-one correspondence doesn’t just run one way – sometimes there are multiple ways in which the same song can be sung. For some songs, such as Happy Birthday, this is due to copyright issues. I’m not sure why other songs are sung in different tunes. For example, there are two clearly different ways in which the third line of itsy-bitsy/incy-wincy (depending on which side of the pond you’re on) spider is sung, and it gets especially confusing when I’m playing on the keyboard, since I don’t know which version Berry is expecting ( we invariably sing/play the “other” way). The usage of voice controlled players has made things worse. In fact, the first time I appreciated Siri on my phone was when Berry was just born, and I needed both hands to hold her and put her to sleep, and then someone turn on a lullaby (“Hey Siri, play iron man by rockabye baby”). Now, the problem with voice-controlled playing is that when there are multiple versions of the same song you don’t know which one will get played. An extreme case is like earlier today we asked Alexa to use Amazon Unlimited (we have a 3-month free trial, possibly because of my Prime membership) to play “london bridge”. It belted out some dhinchak EDM song! Within the realms of nursery rhymes itself there are songs that are sung to completely new tunes (like I had never expected that there exists a version of Jack and Jill sung to the tune of Yankee Doodle. It is most annoying). It is extremely disorienting for me – and I guess it is for kids as well, for I’m told they like predictability. I don’t know what can be done to restore the sanity of one-song-one-tune.  Yes, I can record a set of songs in unique and popular tunes, but there is no guarantee that it will take off. And with the increase of voice controlled music playing, there is no guarantee that the “bad tunes” won’t get any air time. The title, for those that didn’t get it, is a portmanteau of two songs that share a name. I must mention I have no intention of popularising these two precise renditions of these songs – they were simply on top of the search engine results.
Mommy duck said quack quack quack, all day long! PS: There are differing versions in lyrics as well. One version says “all day long”; another says “all the way to town”. As Aditya Narayan sang in Rangeela Re 23 years ago, it’s complicated being a kid.

Why Indian Classical Music is Superior to Western Classical Music

I’ve been half-watching this atrocious movie called “Thank You“. Rather, the wife has been watching and I’ve been eavesdropping once in a while. Apart from the odd lame joke, it’s a horrible movie, so I wouldn’t recommend you to watch it.

But there’s one scene in that that illustrates that Indian Classical Music is superior to Western Classical Music. So the plot of the movie is that there are three stupid guys who are trying to find a conman who has been messing with them. Despite mostly obvious clues, they fail to identify him.

Until this day when they are all in his office, and one of them finds some sheet music and starts playing the notes on a conveniently located keyboard. This piece of music is something associated with the conman through the movie, and the three stupid guys immediately figure the identity of the conman.

So what does this have to do with Western Classical music? One of the key differences between Indian and Western Classical music is that in the former the performers mug up the notes of the songs – at least the parts where they don’t have to improvise. Once you know a song, you can dispense with the book. It is almost unknown for professionals to look at notes while performing.

Western Classical, on the other hand, spares performers of using up valuable memory space in their heads from remembering music, and has performers read the music from a sheet as they play it. While this has its advantages – notes are never “forgotten”, and all performers are easily in sync, and valuable memory space in the brain is not wasted – there are disadvantages as well.

Like if you have a signature tune, and if you play it often, you are likely to leave the sheet music of the tune lying around in a convenient location – which can then be found by your pursuers who can then identify you. If Akshay Kumar’s signature tune in the movie was Indian classical, he is unlikely to have had sheet music lying around in his office, and thus not got caught!

Now, if this is the way that stupid guys identify a conman, you can imagine how bad the rest of the movie might be. As if it wasn’t absurd enough, they’ve even tried to shoehorn some senti-max social messaging into the movie, making it utterly bizarre.

And once again I must point out that I didn’t really watch the movie – I just occasionally  eavesdropped as the wife watched it!

Why I don’t like standup comedy

The other day, the wife was watching some standup comedy on Netflix when I walked by, and she asked me to stop and watch for a couple of minutes. Apparently the joke was funny.  Maybe it was, but those two minutes also taught me why I don’t like the genre. It’s the low “bit rate”.

Recently I read this book called The Design of Everyday Things. Among other things, it talked about why most people prefer reading to listening – because reading is much faster. We read at approximately 300 words per minute, while we can listen to a maximum of 50 words per minute. So minute-for-minute, you get a lot more information (in terms of words) from reading.

Which is why podcasts are hard to listen to unless you’re combining them with another activity, such as driving or commuting or exercising. If you’re only listening to a podcast and doing nothing else, you’ll get bored. Because the rate of information flow is low. In that sense, a good podcast offers much more than words – there will be information embedded in the voices, tones, any accompanying music, etc. so that more information can be transmitted to compensate for the low bit rate.

The same thing applies to video as well – the rate of flow of words is much lower than text, but the visuals more than compensate for it. In fact, good movies and shows (in my view) are those that overwhelm your senses with a high rate of flow of information that they keep you engrossed and occupied, and deliver “high information”.

So coming to standup comedy – the reason I don’t like it is because of its low bit rate. Most standup comics speak at a rate slower than Atal Behari Vajpayee, possibly because they want (canned) laughter during each of their pauses. So standup usually goes at well under 50 words per minute.

And there is nothing to compensate for this low bit rate. Visuals are flat – just a person standing on a stage and talking. There is very little action. In the samples that I’ve sampled, the jokes are nice but nothing extraordinary. And there is no information content – it’s just jokes for the sake of it. Finally, you are expecting to be told jokes all the time, and so there is no surprise in the timing of jokes.

So if it were up to me (I’m no standup comic, so it would be never up to me), how would I change it to make it more interesting? The first thing would be to convey additional information through the visual. The low verbal bit rate seems to be endemic to the genre, so that might be hard to change. So adding further information through better visuals can help.

Props might be a good first addition (from my experience with NED Talks, lecture demonstrations were very very well received). Better sets, maybe. Maybe some music (Shekhar Suman already had this with the “rubber band” on Movers and Shakers all those years ago). Anyway, I’m least qualified to comment on this except as a non-customer!

There’s one thing I’ve never understood about standup comics, though – why do they never use collar mikes?

Songs for sleeping

As I write this, Berry is fast asleep next to me. It took a long time, and a fair amount of effort, to get her to sleep, as has become the routine everyday. Finally, she fell asleep as Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb was playing. This was no coincidence. This is part of a careful sleeping routine I’ve developed over the last month.

It started with a bit of what I can describe as “reinforcement learning”. We were on the way to the airport sometime last month and Berry was getting cranky in the cab, so I started singing to her. On a whim I started singing Pink Floyd songs (maybe because I know the lyrics of a lot of them). She passed out halfway through Wish You Were Here. A couple of hours later on the flight, she felt drowsy during the same song, and then slept when I started singing Comfortably Numb.

So every time I found that she would sleep to a particular song, I started singing that the next time I was putting her to sleep. Obviously it didn’t work like that – her falling asleep was a random event, which I chose to infer was a cause of my singing. And I’m someone who gives lectures on not mistaking correlation for causation.

Singing got tiring, so soon enough I had created a playlist. The playlist to which she invariably falls asleep every day nowadays is called “lullabies“.

Here is what it looks like.

Now, you might just think that it’s a random list of Pink Floyd songs, with one LedZep song thrown in. It’s not. The songs have all been carefully selected.

The first set of songs have been chosen because they are heavy on lyrics, don’t have long instrumentals and are easy to sing along to. These are songs that play when Berry is about to fall asleep, and I sing them while patting her. And invariably she falls asleep during this time.

The next few songs are long soothing songs, that will keep her asleep until she gets into deep sleep. As I write this, Atom Heart Mother is playing.

But getting Berry to sleep is not easy. I don’t start the evening with these lullabies – they come in only when I know that Berry is sufficiently sleepy and will sleep in the next 10-15 minutes (like the closer in Baseball). When she comes into the bedroom, I start with this playlist that I created a couple of months back, and which I had then named as “Berry’s Education“. 

As you can see, Black Sabbath’s Iron Man heads this list. It is Berry’s favourite song. In fact, when she gets on to the bed, she says “has he lost his mind, appa”.

This playlist is not intended for sleeping, and I randomly choose a few songs to play. When Berry gets into the next stage of her slumber, where she is now ready to sleep, but not sleepy enough, she needs some lullabies. And it’s the time for Iron Man again, except this time it’s the version by RockaBye Baby.

This is the song she used to fall asleep to when she was a baby, from the time when she was barely a couple of days old. And from there I let the album play for a while until she is really ready to sleep. Which is when the lullabies playlist takes over.

As you might imagine, having multiple playlists is a pain. I normally use the kinda old iPad4 to play, and changing playlists means entering my passcode, going up one folder and then going into another playlist. You might wonder why I haven’t created one integrated playlist.

The reason is randomness, on two counts. The amount of time Berry takes to pass each stage of sleepiness is variable. So I don’t know how long I will have to play each kind of music. Also, she is moody and the way she reacts to each kind of music is a bit random. So I need to switch back and forth between the kinds of music, and so having multiple playlists is better.

On good days, I will have my phone with me, which makes it easier to switch playlists (one hand operation, touch ID to login etc) – though it’s invariably the iPad that plays the music.

So as you might have figured out, putting babies to sleep is not an easy task, which is why I’m sharing my method with you, in the hope that it might help you. What do you do to make your baby sleep?

 

Bollywood movies and Rajputs

Bollywood movies and rajputs are in the news because of the recent stalling of this movie called “padmavati” thanks to threats of violence from goons who claim to represent Rajputs. This blog post is not about that, though, for there are better things to talk about, such as one Rajput movie from Bollywood that did see light of day, and become a huge hit.

I’m talking about the Imran Khan and Genelia D’Souza starrer Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. This released back in 2008, when I used to actually watch movies, and go to theatres to watch them (this one was at Inox Lido in Bangalore, and I even wrote what now appears to be an atrocious blog post about the experience).

Most of the story doesn’t matter here, except that the protagonist (Jai, played by Imran Khan) is a Rajput. And he’s no ordinary Rajput – he’s a Ranjhor ka Rathore. If you insist, he’s an excellent review of the movie by Baradwaj Rangan, and he’s a fascinating post about the geopolitical implications of the movie by Dr. Boris Bhartiraj Pandey.

So the main character in the movie (the way I saw it) is played by Naseeruddin Shah, and he appears as a portrait. For he is dead. But he comes alive to talk to his wife Savitri (played by his real-life wife Ratna Pathak Shah) at strategic times, offering advice which she is usually dismissive of.

There’s one scene in the movie that I still remember (as I commented a few months later, Bollywood movies can indeed by thought provoking). In that, Savitri chides her husband (in portrait mode, of course) for exhibiting the kind of false bravado that got him killed.

His reply (from the portrait), in my mind, encapsulates everything that I’ve read and seen about Rajputs in life. He starts off by saying that he’s a real Ranjhor ka Rathore who died an honourable death. And then goes on to say (ok I’m paraphrasing here) that it might be true that he got killed in the fight, but that before he got killed, he managed to slap each and every one of the opponents who killed him (exact context of the fight I’m not sure of – not even sure the movie dwells over that).

So people talk about the Rajputs’ culture of honour. One great example of this is the first battle of Tarain in 1191 when Prithviraj Chauhan, in a doubtless honourable gesture, decided to let go of the captured Mohammad Ghori. Ghori duly returned a year later and in the second battle of Tarain in 1192, not only defeated Prithviraj, but also killed him. He (Ghori) was perhaps not as honourable. But this led to the establishment of what we know as the Delhi Sultanate. Prithviraj being an honourable man was in a way responsible for this. But then he was honourable, and went down fighting, so we still revere him.

It is this very kind of honour that is illustrated by Naseeruddin Shah’s character in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. It doesn’t matter that you get killed (going down fighting is honourable, right?). What matters more is that you manage to slap a few people before you got killed.

And in illustrating this so effectively, Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na is in my opinion one of the best Bollywood movies about an Indian ethnic group!