How Mani Ratnam Ruined A Generation Of Indian Men

If you fall in love, you might be falling in love with a terrorist. In the arranged marriage market, you’ll find a hot girl who asks if you’re a virgin

I had recently written about how the ages are 13 to 16 are “peak movie appreciation age”, and about how I got influenced by several movies in that period in life. One of them was Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se (1998).

Of course, the most influential thing about this movie was the idea of dancing on top of a moving vehicle. I clearly remember our school picnic (on October 31st 1998), when responding to a challenge, a friend and I (later joined by another friend) clambered on top of the picnic bus and started dancing. I got a 2 litre bottle of Pepsi (presented by the friend who joined us later) for my efforts, which was duly shared between the rest of my class.

Dancing on top of a bus was fun, though it could get dangerous if the bus moved well-at-a -faster rate (I don’t think too many people copied that). The more dangerous thing about Dil Se was about the sort of ideas about arranged marriage that it presented.

Dil Se happened to be Preity Zinta’s debut movie (she was earlier mainly known for this Cadbury’s Perk ad) (it wasn’t technically her debut but I think it got released before the other movie she had shot).

Ten years back, when I was in the arranged marriage market, I wrote this series of blog posts called “Arranged Scissors“. One of them was a hypothetical letter I’d written to a prospective father-in-law (I don’t think I’ve got my actual father-in-law to read it). That included:

During the interview, I’m going to ask your daughter if she is a virgin. If you think she is the type that will be scandalized at such questions, you need not shortlist me.

I must admit that wasn’t an original. It was inspired by this movie released more than ten years before I wrote that.

Preity Zinta plays the role of this Mallu girl whom the protagonist (played by Shah Rukh Khan) meets in the arranged marriage market. They break out to a side room in the house for a chat. The first thing she asks him is if he is a virgin (that also happened to be Zinta’s first line on-screen, helping her set herself an image of a no-nonsense actress).

It fit into the story, so it was all fine. But for a generation of teenage boys watching Dil Se in 1998, it gave the perfectly wrong idea of what arranged marriage was like. It was almost like how Mani Ratnam was telling us that “if you fall in love, you might be falling in love with a terrorist. In the arranged marriage market, you’ll find a hot girl who asks if you’re a virgin”.

And some of us influential boys bought it. It didn’t help matters that just three years later, in Dil Chahta Hai, the Saif Ali Khan character finds that he can find himself a good match in the arranged marriage market (that occurred after my optimal age of movie appreciation, but Preity Zinta in Dil Se had influenced me enough that I bought the tripe anyway).

Many years later, many of us came into the arranged marriage market looking for Preity Zintas and Sonali Kulkarnis, only to find that it was an admission of failure, where you could at best look for a “common minimum program”, and which was overall a dehumanising experience (I’m glad I met my wife when I did, and she bailed me out of the market).

Now, we look back and curse the filmmakers. All because we happened to watch these movies at our most optimal movie appreciation age.

The Optimal Age of Movie Appreciation

My wife tells me that it’s a “family tradition” in her family to watch Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (K3G) whenever it is playing on TV. I’ve always found it (both the movie and that it’s her family tradition to watch it so many times) absurd. However, a conversation from earlier this morning makes me appreciate why her family appreciates the movie so much. It has to do with the “optimal age of movie appreciation”.

This morning, I was talking to “Raghu Sanjaylal Jaitley” (RSJ). “Raghu Sanjaylal Jaitley” is a pseudonym. The author told me that he had named himself in honour of two influential movie characters from his youth (both played by Aamir Khan) – Raghu Jaitley from Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin, and Sanjay Lal from Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar.

While I have watched both movies (at home, on VHS tapes, soon after they were  released), I don’t remember much of either movie, at least not enough to know the full names of the lead characters. My defence is that I was way too young when I first watched these movies, and too old when I rewatched them, to find them influential.

This brings us to the “optimal age of movie appreciation”, which I define as between 13 and 16 (give or take a year or two either side). At this age range, you are old enough to fully appreciate the movie and get involved in the story, and also young enough that you can get interested or obsessed about just about anything.

You don’t remember much of movies that you’ve watched before you were 12-13. And once you are past 16, and headed to college, you start making fun of the absurd bits in movies. Actually the optimal age of movie appreciation ends when you start watching movies with groups of people your own age -in such an environment, there is positive feedback to any fun you make of the movie, and you are encouraged on the margin to not buy into the movies.

So, in that sense, my golden age of movie appreciation lasted from Rangeela (1995) to Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (late 1998). That was the period in life when I both understood and got totally involved in the movies I was watching. And I could watch just about anything.

KKHH was the end of this, as I clearly remember us talking in school (I was in class 11) making fun of the concept of the movie. And then movie watching was never the same again (it didn’t help that a lot of my movie watching during undergrad years was at the Open Air Theatre in IIT Madras, where movies were accompanied by constant chatter of people making fun of them. We only made an exception for Life Is Beautiful). Now I’ve gone to the other extreme where I hardly watch movies.

Not everyone swings the other way as much as I do (for example, both my wife and RSJ remain movie fanatics), but once you are past 16, you can never get influenced by movies in the way that you did before.

RSJ is a few years older than me, so he was in this “golden age” when Dil Hai Ki Maanta Nahin and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar came out. My wife is a few years younger than me, so she was in this golden age when K3G came out (her sister was 11 at the time, but I guess that is borderline for this purpose). She doesn’t, for example, get what the big fuss about Rangeela is (as an aside, I think it helped immensely that I watched Rangeela at the massive Urvashi Theatre which had then newly gotten a Dolby Sound System).

What do you think your most influential movies were, and at what age did you watch them? Do you think this 13-16 age band makes sense?

The Ramanamurthy Spectrum

The basic point of the protests ongoing throughout India opposing the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act is that it doesn’t follow the “Ramanamurthy Principle“. Let me explain.

The Kannada classic Ganeshana Maduve (1989) is set in a cluster of houses owned by one Ramanamurthy, where all houses apart from his own has been let out to tenants. His battles with his tenants is one of the running themes of this comedy.

One notable conflict has to do with whitewashing. Ramanamurthy decides to get his house whitewashed, but his tenants demand that their houses be whitewashed as well. After a long protracted hilarious battle (starring a dog, also named Ramanamurthy), the tenants come to an agreement with Ramanamurthy – that if he gets his own house painted, he has to get the entire cluster painted.

In other words, the conflict between Ramanamurthy and his clients had only two permissible solutions – all houses are painted or no houses are painted. All solutions in the middle were infeasible. This gives us what we can call the “Ramanamurthy spectrum”.

Here it is visually.

 

 

The protests against India’s citizenship amendment act can be summarised by the fact that the act fails to follow the Ramanamurthy Spectrum. The act, as it has been passed by parliament, uses an arbitrary criterion (religion) to determine which incoming refugees will be given Indian citizenship.

And the protests against that come from both ends of the Ramanamurthy spectrum. In Assam and the rest of the North East, areas that will be most adversely affected by the act, they want the solution that Ramanamurthy finally adopted in the movie – “I won’t get my house whitewashed as well”. They don’t want any of the incoming people to be given citizenship.

Elsewhere in the country (now I must admit I haven’t been able to follow this crisis as closely as I would like to, since it is very difficult here to separate news from “reaction to news“), the protests seem to be at the other end of the Ramanamurthy spectrum – that everyone should be let in.

In any case, the incumbent government has utterly failed in recognising this important principle of politics, and going ahead with a regulation that is neither here nor there in terms of the Ramanamurthy spectrum.

No wonder that the whole country is rioting!

YG Rao

We’re celebrating Ganesha Chaturthi by re-watching Ganeshana Maduve and Gowri Ganesha, two classic movies from the early 1990s starring Anant Nag and Vinaya Prasad.

Ganeshana Maduve is a shop-around-the-corner / you’ve-got-mail kind of story of real-life neighbours who hate each other who court each other through letters. Real-life Adilakshmi has adopted the name “Shruti” for her singing career, and she replies to her fan-mail under the same name.

It is her fan/neighbour’s name that had intrigued me thus far. He is the titular Ganesha, but saying that “Ganesha” sounds too old-fashioned, he writes his letters under the name “Y G Rao”, short for his full name which is “Y Ganesh Rao”.

Now, this would have been fine, except that later on in the movie his father’s name is shown to be Govinda. And under conventional Kannada naming conventions, this simply doesn’t make sense. Typically in most Kannada names, if you have only one “initial” that represents your father’s given name (for example, the S in my name stands for Shashidhar, which is my father’s given name).

Hence, under standard Kannada naming conventions, Govinda’s son has to be G Ganesh Rao. And in what is an overall excellent movie (it’s easily my most-watched movie of all time. Today was perhaps the 50th time I watched it), this naming convention was a bit intriguing.

The thing with Ganeshana Maduve is that each time you watch it, you discover a layer that you hadn’t discovered  (or missed) earlier. And one detail I found today that I’d missed earlier, is that the movie is based on a Telugu novel. And then it all started making sense.

It is perfectly okay under Telugu naming convention for Govinda’s son to be Y Ganesh Rao, for a single initial there represents the family name, rather than the father’s given name.

And so it is very likely that when the Telugu novel was adapted into a Kannada film, the names were kept the same, and so we got the Telugu convention into the Kannada movie!

The next item on today’s festival agenda was to watch Gowri Ganesha, but I need to get some work done, so the wife is watching that alone. And while some process runs I’m writing this post.

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.

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!