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!

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!


The high cost of “relaxing” activities

So I have a problem. I can’t seem to enjoy movies any more. I’ve written about this before. My basic problem is that I end up double-guessing the plots of most movies that I watched (how many storylines are there anyways? According to Kurt Vonnegut, there are six story arcs).

So as I watch movies, I know exactly what is going to happen. And just continuing to watch the movie waiting for that to happen is simply a waste of time – it adds no information content to me.

The result is that I’m extremely selective about the kinds of movies I watch. Some genres, such as Westerns, work because even if the stories may be predictable, the execution and the manner of execution are not, and that makes for interesting watching.

Then, of course, there are directors who have built up a reputation of being “offbeat”, where you can expect that their movies don’t follow expected story arcs – their movies have enough information content to make them worth watching.

And most “classic” movies (take any of the IMDB Top 250, for example) have stories that are told in an extremely compelling fashion – sometimes you might know what happens, but the way things are built up implies that you don’t want to miss watching it happening.

Now, all this is fine, and something I’ve written about before. The point of this post is that while I feel this way about movies, my wife doesn’t feel the same way. She watches pretty much anything, even if the stories are utterly predictable.

For example, she’s watched at least a 100 Telugu movies (though, admittedly, during a particularly jobless stretch in her MBA when she was watching loads of movies, even she got bored of the predictability of Telugu movies and switched to Tamil instead!). She likes to watch endless reruns of 90s Kannada movies that now appear rather lame (to me). She especially loves chick flicks, which I think have excess redundancy built into them for a very specific reason.

I don’t have a problem with any of this! In fact, I’m damn happy that she has a single-player hobby that enables her to keep herself busy when she’s bored. The only little problem I have is that she believes it is romantic to watch movies together. She might sell video for Amazon for a living, but she surely is a fan of “netflix and chill” (more the literal meaning than the euphemistic one).

And that is a problem for me, since I find the vast majority of movies boring and predictable, and she thinks the kind of movies I like are “too serious” and “not suitable for watching together” – an assessment I don’t disagree with (though I did make her watch For a Few Dollars More with me a couple of months back).

I’d prefer to spend our time together not spent in talking doing other activities – reading, for example (reading offers significantly higher throughput than movies, and that, I think, is a result of formats of several lengths being prevalent – newspaper articles, longform articles, books, etc.). I’ve offered to watch movies with her on the condition that I read something at the same time – an offer that has been soundly rejected (and I understand her reasons for that).

And so we reach a deadlock, and it repeats every time when we have time and want to chill. She wants to watch movies together. I initially agree, and then back out when presented with a choice of movies to watch. Sometimes I put myself through it, thoroughly not enjoying the process. Other times, much to her disappointment, we end up not watching.

Clearly there are no winners in this game!



Movie plots and low probability events

First of all I don’t watch too many movies. And nowadays, watching movies has become even harder as I try to double-guess the plot.

Fundamentally, commercial movies like to tell stories that are spectacular, which means they should consist of low-probability events. Think of defusing bombs when there is 1 second left on the timer, for example, or the heroine’s flight getting delayed just so that the hero can catch her at the airport.

Now, the entire plot of the movie cannot consist of such low-probability events, for that will make the movie extremely incredulous, and people won’t like it. Moreover, a few minutes into such a movie, the happenings won’t be low probability any more.

So the key is to intersperse high-probability events with low-probability events so that the viewer’s attention is maintained. There are many ways to do this, but as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote (in his masters thesis, no less), there are a few basic shapes that stories take. These shapes are popular methods in which high and low-probability events get interspersed so that the movie will be interesting.


Kurt Vonnegut’s Masters Thesis on the shapes of stories

So once you understand that there are certain “shapes” that stories take, you can try and guess how a movie’s plot will unfold. You make a mental note of the possible low-probability events that could happen, and with some practice, you will know how the movie will play out.

In an action movie, for example, there is a good chance that one (or more) of the “good guys” dies at the end. Usually (but not always), it is not the hero. Analysing the other characters in his entourage, it shouldn’t be normally hard to guess who will bite the dust. And when the event inevitably happens, it’s not surprising to you any more!

Similarly, in a romantic movie, unless you know that the movie belongs to a particular “type”, you know that the guy will get the girl at the end of the movie. And once you can guess that, it is not hard to guess what improbable events the movie will comprise of.

Finally, based on some of the action movies I’ve watched recently (not many, mind you, so there is a clear small samples bias here), most of their plots can be explained by one simple concept. Rather than spelling it in words, I’ll let you watch this scene from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Censoring the death ceremony

So we finally watched Raam Reddy’s much-acclaimed Thithi today. Ever since we’d watched the trailer, we’d wanted to see the movie, and though reviews from relatives and friends were mixed, they helped set our expectations and we had a good time at the movie.

This post, however, is not about the movie, but about censorship. We watched at PVR Forum, and immediately after the U/A certificate (and before the movie) came a certificate with the cuts that the censor board had recommended. Even before the movie began, we knew that four instances of thika (arse) and one instance of bOLi (bitch) had been muted.

I think this is a fantastic idea – while the censor board is happy to use its scissors liberally, showing how they’ve used their scissors beforehand helps set viewers’ expectations, so that they know exactly what they’ve missed out. My only contention is that that slide should be shown for longer than it was, so that viewers get a better idea.

Anyway, once the movie started, it was clear that the censors had done a shoddy job. As a friend (who watched the movie yesterday) pointed out, the word “tuNNe” (dick) wasn’t muted out. I noticed during the movie that there is a dialogue that is translated (and subtitled) as “screw your mother” remained.

(while I initially wondered why a Kannada movie was being shown in Bangalore with English subtitles, I realised once the movie started that it was a good thing. The language used in the movie was quite different from what we normally speak in Bangalore.)

What the censorship of words in this movie goes to illustrate is that the censor board is thoroughly incompetent. Whether censorship is necessary is a philosophical question, and the government has appointed a committee to look into that. What is more important is that the people at the censor board are thoroughly incompetent, and hopefully that will be taken into account when the censorship policy is finally revised!

thika is something every Kannadiga kid uses liberally (though bOLi is something we graduate to only in teens), while tuNNe and nin-amman (translated as “screw your mother”) are normally not used in polite conversation. The censor board is absolutely clueless!

Censor Board as a preserver of the Bollywood cartel

The Indian Censor Board (Central board for film certification or something, to take its full name) has come under flak for the last year or so, for imposing excess cuts on movies, and more recently for some hilarious videos that its chairperson has made and uploaded (in the interest of taste I’ll not link to the video here).

The latest instalment is its decision to make over 45 edits to Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie “The Hateful Eight”. The common reaction on Twitter has been that it’s useless to watch a Tarantino movie with so many cuts in the theatre, and it’s better to illegally download and watch the movie. Here is the document listing the cuts:

While the popular narrative remains that the Censor Board has been acting the way it has been because we have a “right wing conservative” Union Government, it doesn’t stand that test that the Censor Board has become especially kooky after the current government came to power (barring the hilarious videos and comments that is). The fact of the matter is that the Censor Board has been kooky with its edits much before the current government came to power.

There is a simpler explanation to why the Censor Board censors as much as it does – it seeks to protect the interests of the “Bollywood cartel”. By Bollywood, I refer to the mainstream Hindi cinema industry based in Mumbai which churns out “family movies” which don’t contain too much sex or violence, all of which seek a “U” (universal) certificate from the board.

The idea is this – Bollywood mostly makes “mainstream” movies, without much scope for the censor board to cut anything, so they’re largely insulated. Foreign language (including English) and offbeat movies, however, are more experimental, and are likely to have much more sex and violence.

Cutting parts of a movie and muting further portions (refer to above document) drastically diminishes the experience of watching the movie. Scenes cut in a non-intuitive fashion, and you are forever guessing what word was muted out.

Given such an inferior experience of watching, the value you gain from watching drops, and you might decide it is not worth watching at all. Those that have the means might instead choose to download the movie via illegal torrents, or watch it online using VPNs (effectively watching another country’s “edition”).

To summarise, competitors of mainstream Bollywood movies suffer due to censorship, by declining viewership, and viewership that moves to illegal media. Bollywood, on the other hand, by not having much that can be censored, is not similarly affected, and is thus relatively better off!

The union government has instituted a panel to review the activities of the Censor Board. The panel is headed by Shyam Benegal, who is an “alternative filmmaker” who doesn’t belong to the Bollywood clique. Hopefully some good will come out of that!

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.