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.

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”

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.

Redundancy in movies

I’m writing this while watching this Hindi movie called Cocktail, which is being shown on the pay-per-view Showcase channel on Tata Sky. Ten minutes after the movie started, I remembered this review of the movie that I’d read back when I was released, and thanks to that lost most interest in the movie. However, I continue watching, giving company to the wife, and reading papers and writing, as I watch.

The last Hindi movie I watched with any degree of seriousness was Gangs of Wasseypur (1 and 2), which is an absolutely mindblowing movie. While watching that movie, I remember that time moved insanely slowly. After what I thought was an hour of the movie, I looked at my watch only to realize that only half an hour had passed. Each part of the movie (which actually lasts about two and half hours each) felt like it individually lasted five hours! There was so much action that was packed into the movie.

So coming to the point of the post – the problem with most Hindi movies (not of the GoW variety) is that there is heavy redundancy packed into the movie. Each concept that ties into the main plot of the movie is explained so many times, most times not even through different means, that it is quite easy to miss a part of the movie and still be clued in to the overall plot. Not so with the GoW type, where there is absolutely no redundancy built in, because of which you can’t afford to miss even a couple of minutes of the movie, without losing part of the overall plot.

If you were to read Benoit Mandelbrot’s excellent book on the financial markets (The (mis)behaviour of markets), you would be introduced to this awesome concept of “trading time”. In the book, Mandelbrot explains that markets are not uniform – there are times when there is much more action packed into the markets (like the first and last fifteen minutes of trading every day) than in slower times (mostly around mid-day). Thus, to get a better analysis of the market, Mandelbrot explains, you need to look at it not from the point of view of “clock time” but from the point of view of “trading time”, which “measures time” by way of volume of trade.

Drawing an analogy, a movie like Gangs of Wasseypur is like a snapshot of the financial market during the opening 15 minutes of trading. At every moment in the movie, there is so much happening. Scenes are short, and cut abruptly, and say only what absolutely needs to be said. So you get much more “action” for each minute you spend watching the movie.

(Ok I realize that by repeating the funda in the previous paragraph, this post tends more towards Cocktail than GoW.) Maybe that’s why I don’t particularly enjoy most movies that I watch – there is so much redundancy I get bored. Problem with most mango people is that it takes too much mindspace to be focused through the duration of the movie, so they end up losing parts of the plot in movies such as GoW, and so movies such as these are not as commercially successful as slower paced movies.

Upendra’s Super is a funny movie, in terms of the pace at which it moves. The first two hours are full of theatrics, and unnecessary redundancy that makes you ask why you are watching the movie at all. The last half an hour, both in terms of content and the concept it gets across (property rights, concept of ownership, etc.) packs in so much that you leave the hall feeling satisfied. Maybe the two parts of the movie are aimed at different segments and Uppi seems to have cracked the formula!

Brute force and elegant fight scenes

About a month back I happened to watch some random Kannada movie playing on TV starring wifebeater Darshan (it was called “Boss”, I think). It seemed like yet another of those typical masala flicks, with twin brothers and a weeping mother and lots of rowdies and corporate rivalry and all that. Overall it was a mostly sad movie but for me the biggest turn-off was the final fight-scene that takes place in some warehouse.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a big fan of action movies. After we got our VCP, I remember going up to the videotape rental store close to home every Saturday evening and asking for “some fighting movie”. I didn’t care at all for the story or the lack of  it in any movie I saw. All I cared about was for “action”. After I had whetted my initial appetite for “fighting movies” by watching a bunch of Shankarnag action flicks (CBI Shankar, the Sangliana movies, etc.) my father started bringing home James Bond movies. I remember watching You Only Live Twice and Moonraker back then. I remember watching The Spy Who Loved Me, too, but there was a problem with the tape so I wasn’t able to watch it fully.

Coming back to Darshan and Boss, the turn-off about the fight scene was that it was an unbelievable “brute force” scene. The hero, a rather muscular sort of guy, singlehandedly beats up a whole bunch of bad guys. And it’s not even in the traditional form where the bad guys come one by one. They all come together and attack him and he repels them all simultaneously by means of sheer superhuman muscular strength. There was absolutely no fun in watching it. It was a similar story with the Puneet Rajkumar starrer Jackie, which I saw on TV last weekend. Though it was a rather well-made movie with a nice (and unusual) storyline, it again suffered from the problem of a superhuman hero who would overpower bad guys by means of muscular strength.

Earlier today I happened to watch the “Indian James Bond movie” Goadalli CID 999 starring Dr. Rajkumar. A rather poor attempt to make a “James Bond style” movie in Kannada, with a rather lame plot and underground hideouts involving automatic doors and the likes. The redeeming feature of the movie, though, was the fight scenes, especially the ones with Narasimharaju (who plays CID 888, 999’s sidekick). Clearly recognizing that this fellow didn’t have any means of brawn to beat up the bad guys, the fight scenes were “elegant”, where the good guy uses his brain rather than muscular strength in order to overpower the villains. So you have a gun that fires ten seconds after the trigger is pulled, and you have the good guy getting the bad guys to shoot each other, and things like that. It was a joy to watch.

The unfortunate trend in recent Kannada movies, though, is to make a superpower hero who simply beats the bad guys, which completely takes the joy out of fight scenes. That clever movement to deflect a punch, the use of easily available props to get away from the bad guys, setting bad guys against each other, stuff like this is completely missing from these movies. One reason could be that directors are not imaginative enough to put more care into fight scenes to make them enjoyable (though this is doubtful given that the general quality of Kannada movies in the last 5 years is better than that of earlier movies). The other reason has to do with the actors who play these roles. Perhaps they want to build up a superhero kind of image among their fans, one in which they can do no wrong and are supremely powerful. And a scene where they have to rely more on their intelligence and trickery to win a fight might go against this kind of an image they want to cultivate. Whatever it is, it only goes to remove entertainment value from a fight which could have been a joy to watch.

My all time favourite movie fight scene is from the “original” Don, featuring Amitabh Bachchan. The centre of attraction in this scene is this little red diary which contains all the information about the bad guys, and the good and bad guys are fighting for it. In the mix are a bunch of kids, the heroine, a paralyzed stuntman and of course the hero. The good guys play “monkey” with the diary, and in the process beat up the bad guys. It is an absolute joy to watch and for me that was the high point of the movie. Sadly, they don’t make movies like that any more.

Dhobi Ghat

It’s been a long time since I got a movie that I got so involved in that I never once even felt like getting away. Given that I have a very short attention span, that’s a really hard thing, I must say. Frankly, I don’t remember the last movie that I saw in a non-theatre environment which I watched without any distractions.

This is the best “Mumbai movie” I’ve seen, I must say. By the end of the movie, as the end credits rolled, I had the same feeling that I did when I watched Taxi Driver (incidentally, that was on a plane to New York), which I consider to be the quintessential “New York movie”. It’s hard to explain what it was about this movie (Dhobi Ghat) that got me so hooked. But the movie did make me miss the (mostly miserable) four months I spent in Mumbai back in 2006, and any movie that does that deserves credit.

There was a combination of things that got me hooked to the movie. Firstly, there was a weird connect I felt with the Aamir Khan character, especially in an aspirational sort of way (given that I aspire to a “hippie lifestyle” like his in the movie). Then, Monica Dogra plays an investment banker on sabbatical, and it’s only natural I connected with her. And then there was  the length. At an hour and half, the movie is extremely “crisp”, and when the movie ends, it leaves you asking for more.

Then, there was something about the Monica Dogra character here that reminded me of Poorna Jagannathan’s character in Delhi Belly (I had a huge argument with the wife, btw, about Poorna’s hotness. The wife believed I was getting turned on only by her character in the movie and she’s not “inherently hot”, and that I’m a wannabe. I won’t go into furhter details here). And the way she (Monica) speaks Hindi reminded me of Yappings. Don’t know why.