April 19, 2015

OK Kanmani..Conversations on Time

Spoilers ahead...

There are no goons chasing the hero, no conspiracies, no human devils, and no accidents in Maniratnam’s ‘OK Kanmani’. That’s perhaps how most of our lives are, well.. most of the time. Dulquer (Adhi) and Nithya (Tara) are free spirited. They seem to like each other at first sight. For similarities abound between them – both sophisticated, young, good-looking and liberal. They turn from strangers to two people who share a common world-view. A world view that sees the futility of the institution of marriage. Marriage, as the charming conversation between them in the Church goes, is an endless cycle of pointlessness from two people sharing a common roof, to finding their babies poop over them, to getting them married eventually – as a submission to the vicious cultural cycle.
'naetru enbadhu indru illai, naalai ninaippe oh thollai..'
But what’s interesting is that their world view isn’t an act of rebellion against the society. They are not revolutionaries trying to make a case against the institution of marriage. In the scene where Dulquer asks Nithya to ride with him in the bike for a cup of coffee, she is slightly surprised and pauses for a moment before deciding to ride with him. Being young and sophisticated doesn’t make her any more liberal than her gender instincts limits her to be. In a sense, they are just two young people who are tethered not to the society but to the self. Looking to have fun without being weighed down by institutional commitments; disenchanted with the idea of marriage, for its futility and more realistically for being an impediment to personal aspirations. 

Nithya is endearing. Her enthusiasm and jubilance seem to be perpetually on steroids. As Maniratnam said in one of his recent interviews “…she is somebody who has a mind of her own”. She is nonchalant when Dulquer says that she is no.16 in his girlfriend roll; apologetic to the point of screaming cuteness when she gives a running commentary of where she is in the elevator when she stands up Dulquer for Coffee. She is snarky when she asks Dulquer if he can come with her to Paris, in response to his request for her to come to the US. There are a lot of teasing moments between Nithya and Dulquer, which happens in a world of their own, with only the local trains and buses of Mumbai eavesdropping on them most of the time. 

The roles are reversed between the lead pairs from Alipayuthey to OK Kanmani.  Madhavan was the tormentor of romance in Alaipayuthey, Nithya takes the baton in OK Kanmani. She torments Dulquer by being casual about his brother’s unexpected appearance at their place, and calls him ‘Manja maakan’ when he doesn’t know to lie to his brother and anni (sister-in-law) when they ask for directions to their place. And she plays with his pulse by taking him to a hospital full of ladies who are expecting. 

Leela Samson’s tongue-in-cheek wit on several scenes is timed perfectly. When Prakash Raj refuses to entertain the idea of living-in, Leela Samson casually says that ‘he is old-fashioned’ without really participating in the conversation. Prakash Raj and Leela Samson pair, in a sense, embody a model of marriage that lights hope on the institution for Dulquer-Nithya. In one of the most beautiful conversations in the film, Prakash Raj asks Nithya if she would choose her career over Dulquer. And she says “I would have chosen my career had you asked me a week back. Now I want both. Koncham peraasaikaari ayiten…” This conversation is revealing because it shows how experiences can make priorities malleable and ideologies meaningless.  

For all the liberalism Nithya and Dulquer seem to embody, they are still products of their cultural environment. So when it comes to taking a final call on their relationship, they decide to walk into that cycle they once detested. This is where the movie fails to make a convincing case for marriage or for their decision. Nithya-Dulquer could still have maintained their relationship without having to get married. They don’t need a marriage certificate to take care of each other or grow old together.  Can not love and commitment coexist without submission to an institution? This cobweb of charm, romance, hope and jubilation without much complexities is what makes OK Kanmani both overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time.

December 27, 2014

2014: Intriguing Ideas...

As 2014 draws to a close, I look at some of the ideas that aroused my curiosity, challenged existing beliefs, and inspired awe this year.

Moral Progress
The predominant theme that piqued my interest this year is the field of ‘Moral Psychology’. From ideas of self-identity, to empathy, to the evolution of morality and lot else, the field opened me to a new world of ideas on the foundations of our moral lives.

        Ancient Greeks and Romans are the earliest champions of the cause of political liberty and equality at their home (if not abroad). They debated, argued and philosophized on issues of citizenry, rights, equality, etc. Despite this prevalent intellectual tradition, slavery was commonplace in ancient Greece & Rome. Fast forward to the 19th century. John Stuart Mill, the influential British philosopher and economist, argued for radical political ideas like: individual liberty, abolition of slavery, equality of women, etc. In stark contrast to his other views, he was deeply racist and prejudiced in the sense that he favored colonialism in countries like India, where he believed the inhabitants to be barbaric and not capable of self-rule. What explains these paradoxes? "Ancient Greeks did not see slavery as a case of injustice. Rather, justice arose as a question only among those who were not slaves" (Lane, 2014). Similarly, JS Mill’s support of a retrograde idea like ‘benevolent despotism’ shows the possibility of fallibility of thought even among progressive people. The two cases also illuminate that ideas of morality are not static or etched in stone. Views that are deeply held and considered as moral today might be looked down by people in the future as "immoral, prejudiced, simplistic, and misguided. And they might even be right about it."(Guerrero, 2014)

       How then does civilization achieve Moral progress, if even the smartest among us are fallible to poor logic and parochialism? Should empathy be our primary instrument to achieve moral progress? Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein (in their 2012 TED presentation) deconstruct the better of angel of our nature that causes moral progress, thus:

“Empathy is a feeble instrument for making moral progress. For one thing, it's innately biased toward blood relations, babies and warm, fuzzy animals. As far as empathy is concerned, ugly outsiders can go to hell…Reason has muscle. It's reason that provides the push to widen that circle of empathy…. Contradictions bother us, at least when we're forced to confront them, which is just another way of saying that we are susceptible to reason. And if you look at the history of moral progress, you can trace a direct pathway from reasoned arguments to changes in the way that we actually feel. Time and again, a thinker would lay out an argument as to why some practice was indefensible, irrational, and inconsistent with values already held. Their essay would go viral, get translated into many languages, get debated at pubs and coffee houses and salons, and at dinner parties, and influence leaders, legislators, popular opinion. Eventually their conclusions get absorbed into the common sense of decency, erasing the tracks of the original argument that had gotten us there.”

Another idea that captivated me recently is the use of behavioral economics to understand why poor people stay poor. There is a tendency to attribute poverty to people’s choices or their personalities, and not see it as a consequence of the circumstances they live in. In the context of inequality, Dr. Kaushik Basu (Chief Economist, World Bank) remarked recently that: “there can be no distinction on the lines of hard-working babies and lazy babies”. Sendhil Mullainathan & Eldar Shafir (Professors at Harvard & Princeton University respectively) in their book “Scarcity” explain the reason why poor people stay poor. They deploy the notion of scarce ‘mental bandwidth’ as the primary reason why poor people (and most of us) make bad choices. They argue that scarcity “makes us dumber” (i.e. it lowers IQ points) and consequently makes us bad decision makers. Poor people, therefore, are not inherently dumb, immoral or demotivated. Rather, their constant pursuit to make ends meet constrains their bandwidth to reason through other choices in their life. The life-critical choices being: sending kids to school, borrowing money from a moneylender, buying fertilizers, etc.

This idea is humbling because people with abundance are fortunate, in a sense, to be part of a familial or cultural system that grants them sufficient mental bandwidth to make the right choices and design better lives.  

I have always found it puzzling as to how people perceive intuitively the notion of identity, both as self and other. Further, lacing identity with the notion of morality adds a new layer of complexity. From selling iPads, to detergents, to movies, to communal violence, identity is a potent ingredient. Let me consider two questions around identity: Are our self-identities static as most of us tend to believe? What is fundamental to the notion of self – is it memories as we commonly tend to believe?

       I have long held this view that people don’t change. The idea was comforting, for it grants a strange sense of authenticity to who we are. But, as I recently discovered, I was wrong! Dan Gilbert (Professor Psychology, Harvard), based on his research, argues that people vastly underestimate how much their values, personalities and preferences change over time. He attributes this tendency to underestimate change, more as our inability to imagine our future-self than the unlikelihood of change actually happening.

     If we are all so susceptible to change, then what is it that remains fundamental to who we are? In other words, what is the substrate of our identity? Most of us tend to think that memories fundamentally constitute who we are and stripped of them, we would lose our sense of self. But Nina Strohminger (Psychologist at Duke University) makes an interesting argument, dispelling these popular notions:

“If people have an essence that lends them their identity, memory might not be the most promising candidate… The single most important mental trait in judging self-identity is one’s deeply held moral convictions. We are not only concerned with moral character when constructing an identity for others, but when doing so for ourselves.”

Identity, as she argues, is an evolutionary design which helps us distinguish members of a society. Why would we need to do distinguish members of a society in the first place? To perpetuate shared values and humanity, “for reciprocal altruism and punishment”. Therefore,

“It’s not that identity is centered around morality. It’s that morality necessitates the concept of identity, breathes life into it, provides its raison d’ĂȘtre. If we had no scruples, we’d have precious little need for identities.”

Sociological Imagination
The idea of “Sociological Imagination” proposed by C. Wright Mills (in 1959), is another fascinating work that I stumbled across this year. Mills provides an excellent framework for conducting social analysis & understanding social outcomes. The sociological imagination, says Mills, insists on understanding people in terms of the intersection of their own lives (their biographies) and their larger social and historical context (in history). He also exhorts us to see the interconnections between personal ‘troubles’ and public ‘issues’ to really understand the underlying the structural problem plaguing the society. For example, he takes the case of marriage and argues thus:

“Inside a marriage a man and a woman may experience personal troubles, but when the divorce rate during the first four years of marriage is 850 out of every 1,000 attempts, this is an indication of a structural issue having to do with the institutions of marriage and the family and other institutions that bear upon them… In so far as the family as an institution turns women into darling little slaves and men into their chief providers and unweaned dependents, the problem of a satisfactory marriage remains incapable of purely private solution.”

October 6, 2014

Movies and Social Imagination

“Am all for artistic creativity and freedom of expression and speech, but I wonder whether a day will come when someone from Bollywood will have the guts to make a film on the plight of Kashmiri Pundits too!”

 read a post on Facebook after the recent release of Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider.  Similar sentiments (amidst the rave reviews for the movie) were expressed by several people across social media platforms. A slightly aggressive cohort called for a boycott of the movie for allegedly showing the Indian Army in poor light; some went further and called for a ban on the movie. Haider isn’t an outlier to be at the receiving end of such sentiments for a controversial movie; such sentiments have increasingly become the norm.

Shahid Kapoor
Shahid Kapoor in 'Haider'

In the specific case of Haider (and which also applies to most controversial movies), there are two important aspects to the critical response against it. Firstly, the expectation that it’s not just important what the filmmaker has chosen to show us, what’s equally or perhaps even more important is what he has chosen not to show us. The problem with such a response is the nature of responsibility that it levies on a filmmaker − to tell every conceivable version of an event or story. Even if the filmmaker chooses to propagate an idea that is seemingly false, it’s a choice that a filmmaker is well within his rights to execute. A filmmaker isn’t in the business of reporting news or developing high-school curriculum. S(h)e is not obligated to tailor her/his art to comfort popular (or minority) beliefs, whatever be the nature of validity of those beliefs. After all, one cannot expect the director of Harry Potter to show us all the patrons of magic, even if that means insulting the old and the new gods.

Secondly, the expectation that a movie that goes against the grain of majority or minority wisdom be boycotted or banned. Call for boycotts (without the elements of coercion and intimidation), though counterproductive, is a fair enough social response. Such responses spring under the guise of maintaining the social order. It is a form of social whip that eventually leads to self-censorship of content in movies. Case in point are movies with themes such as disability, incest, homosexuality, etc. which continue to remain largely uncharted in our movies. Boycott of movies, therefore, only trade our social imagination for the wisdom of the crowd.

The most primitive response of all is the call for ban of movies. Friedrich Hayek’s case for the importance of individual liberty offers a compelling counterargument to the case for ban of movies. Hayek, in ‘The Constitution of Liberty’, argues thus: 
Liberty is essential in order to leave room for the unforeseeable and unpredictable…. every individual knows so little and, in particular, because we rarely know which of us knows best that we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it. Humiliating to human pride as it may be, we must recognize that the advance and even the preservation of civilization are dependent upon a maximum of opportunity for accidents to happen”.  
In a democratic society, the majority or minority therefore cannot act as arbiters of truth in their pursuit for social stability or progress. Hence, there is no practical or moral case for ban of movies. 

Influence of Movies
All these above discussed responses to movies pivot on our belief of the extent of influence that movies have on our collective conscience and consequently our lives.  Movies serve as an important epistemic source of social reality, culture and beliefs; they act both as a mirror and as a flashlight for the future. And sometimes they just exhibit the degree of creative insanity prevailing in the society, without offering any window to the social reality. Our fears and insecurities about the influence of movies on our lives, however, revolve around them acting as mirrors and flashlights of future. Sometimes we are just uncomfortable of what we discover about ourselves in movies, individually and as a society. Censorship of swear words or sexually explicit scenes in even 'A rated' movies is an exhibition of our immaturity and collective insecurity about who we are. Institutions working actively to limit the degrees of freedom of movies need to understand that movies did not invent the novel and supposedly evil concepts of sex, violence or obscene language. 

The influence of movies on our collective conscience is rather more subtle (and sometimes insidious) than what the censor board or patrons of our culture would like to think. Movies are an incredible window to people, culture, norms, ideas, etc. that we are unaware of – consciously or subconsciously, about ourselves and about others. For example, to people in North India, given their limited direct access to people in the South, their only popular, seemingly authoritative source on the people and culture of the South are movies. Therefore when someone like Shahrukh Khan purports to describe the South in his movies, it becomes the stereotypical model of the South. As in statistics, a predictive societal model, constructed in our mind to understand an alien society, becomes robust only with the availability of large number of data points that are independent. Sadly, the data points arising out of our movies are fixated and dependent on existing, outdated beliefs; they simply refuse to engage with fresh ideas or participate in deeper investigation. Filmmakers are just happy, from their commercial standpoint, to amuse, dumb us down and limit our imagination to archaic stereotypes.

The other important influence of movies, at the subconscious level, are the cues that they offer us about the existing social structures; these cues serve to reinforce or shape our actions to fit the majoritarian norm. Hence something as mundane and trivial in a movie as a heroine finding the hero’s chest as a safe abode to rest − as an expression of love and intimacy, offers us cues about the distribution of power between genders and the kind of machismo that the society demands from a man. Similarly our conceptions of beauty, societal recognition, success, power, morals, etc. are all actively reinforced and shaped to some extent by the movies that we see.  Does this all entail that we censor or ban movies that we perceive to be harmful to the society? Certainly not. The solution lies in holding movies to a higher standard – for starters, supporting the ones that infuse fresh ideas, actively question prevailing order and assumptions; ignoring the ones that are obstinate to change and progress, and eventually dragging us down as a society – culturally and aesthetically. The invisible hand of the marketplace will take care of the rest.

May 12, 2013

Linguistic Outlier

I read this piece recently which was widely shared and discussed in social media and provocatively titled - “Why Chennai can't and won't speak Hindi”. The title in itself provides a broad sense of what the article is about. I intend, in this piece, to offer an alternate perspective to the question, which sometimes might overlap or build on some of the arguments made in aforementioned piece. 

The discourse surrounding the linguistic diversity in India has always been chaotic, with multiple strands ─ suspended without a common knot. One such strand which never fails to entertain bystanders is the question of “Why Tamilnadu doesn’t speak Hindi?”  A simple, yet sophisticated, retort to the question is “Why should it speak Hindi?” The arguments that are drawn in response to this retort have become too banal now that they might put even legislators stalling parliament to shame. 

The central argument on which the entire discourse rests is that ─ “Hindi is our National
language”. And every time someone makes this argument, somewhere B.R. Ambedkar would be smashing his head on the wall in shame. If you are reading this, you are most likely aware that the 'National language' claim is false. Two quick facts (without getting into the nuances): Hindi, along with 22 other languages is the 'Official language' for administrative (read 'practical') purposes; the constitution doesn’t recognise any language as national language. The problem here isn’t that a large section of the masses (educated and un-educated alike) are ignorant of the constitution; far from it. The real problem is two-fold: one, the dubious normative assumptions that the proponents of the claim hold and two, the absurdity of words hijacking thought.

Dubious normative assumptions

Firstly, on an ideological plane, the 'National language' claim is disappointing at several levels. Even if we are to suspend our intellectual faculties and assume that Hindi is our National language, how does that mandate everyone to learn or speak Hindi? How can one language be deemed to be superior to others? As a civilised country striving to embody notions of equality in all social spheres, why should we be oblivious in the application of principle of equality with regard to language?

The notion of asserting superiority by virtue of Hindi’s majority status, falls flat in the face of logic. To draw an analogy, does Hindus’ majority status in India, grant them legitimacy to convert non-adherents (Muslims, devotees of FSM, etc.) to Hinduism? If religion is sacrosanct enough to warrant equality, then why shouldn’t language summon the principle of equality? Why should language be any less sacrosanct than religion?

Notions of linguistic superiority also need to be examined in a broader social context, and by not just considering language in isolation. Language is embedded within the social realities and social realities replicates in the realm of language. Hence, the assertion of linguistic superiority should also be seen as a subliminal assertion of cultural supremacy; as a clarion call to the minority to fall in the queue and take orders.  

Words hijacking thought
Another aspect of the 'National language' claim that is deeply worrying is the suspension of thought at the sight of anything prefixed 'National'. The claim shows their instant inclination to suspend logic and kneel down at the altar of the prefix 'National' and worship it unquestionably. This ritualistic worship extends beyond language and is true for most other national symbols. No wonder then 'National rituals' like throwing trash in public places, spitting on the roads, moral policing, etc. are observed with much religiosity. While these symbols have their place in signalling pride and shared sense of belonging, their mindless worship is disgusting and does more harm than good.

'Regional' is another adjective that renders thinking obsolete. It is used as a proxy to denote anything derogatory; to denote intentions that are supposedly parochial and pursued at the expense of the rest of the country. And hence the common disdain – “How does a regional language deserve to be placed on an equal footing with the national language?” As Thomas Sowell (noted social theorist and political philosopher) wrote recently “…if you don’t stop and think, it doesn’t matter whether you are a genius or a moron. Words that stop people from thinking reduce even smart people to the same level as morons.

Discriminating the “Other”
Another common lament expressed is that “people in Tamilnadu discriminate against the North-Indians”. To put it crudely ─ “not granting them the respect or rights they deserve”. It might be true at some level. But it is true of how minorities (linguistic, religious, ideological, etc.) are treated in most places in India. By that, I don’t validate such unscrupulous behavior. The simple fact is this: there are scums, scoundrels and racists everywhere; a language (like Tamil) certainly doesn’t create the evolutionary need to breed racists and chauvinists to protect it.

As much we would like to paint the 'other' with a lesser moral colour, the fact remains that the core of morality doesn’t change with cultures or regions; cultures determine only the level of ‘moral flexibility’ ─ the range within which an action is considered morally acceptable. And to believe that a language (like Tamil) grants the license to extend moral flexibility is to let imagination and vested interests run riot.  

Language is one of the many symbols that embody cultural identity. And cultural identities are strengthened, among other things, when there is a perceived threat to its existence. Hence there is a vested interest in keeping the threat of the ‘other’ alive. And the idea of the ‘other’ is perpetuated by delusional self-mythologies (like notions of linguistic superiority, nationalism, etc.). To worship these myths unquestionably, therefore, is to surrender reason and discard our cherished notions of freedom and equality.  

November 3, 2012

Pizza…With double trap and closed doors

Oh, the Horror...
I am ­no fan of horror movies. Not because their job description reads “scaring people”. It’s because they create a sense of conflict between two reactive states ─ one which reasons and sees through the absurdity of the idea of blood stained, translucent weirdoes playing hide and seek; and the other reactive state desperate to unreason, wanting to experience a sense of death wish. It’s in a sense the same as how a neurotic Woody Allen, in the movie “To Rome with Love”, nervously responds to his wife when there is turbulence during their flight to Rome ─ “I can’t unclench (my fists) when there is turbulence. I am an atheist”.

Pizza…The Slices
  • I was left wondering at the end of the movie as to why the movie was named ‘Pizza’. I hope it’s not because the guy in the lead role delivers pizza. And do they not give tax exemptions to filmmakers anymore to think of creative names? “Kalaignar ─ Where art thou?

  • Several independent plots that work great in isolation have been interwoven seamlessly, which is what makes the movie tick. That’s interesting, in the context of this movie, because the characters in those sub-plots are not different and neither do they exist in a different time-space continuum as in say movies like Crash or Aayidha Ezhuthu. Like ‘Matryoshka’ ─ the Russian dolls─ the plots are nested on top of each other with the lead characters spanning across them.
  • It is ridiculously easy to stage a Halloween party on screen and pretend to evoke horror; quite another feat to pose a death threat to the viewer and be taken seriously. Pizza sells its idea of fear to great effect. It constantly sets up a trap ─ first by reinforcing the skepticism on the notion of existence of ghosts, then by suspending that disbelief dramatically only to discover later that you are caught in a dangerously vicious cycle.
  •  It is refreshing to see the lead couple rejecting traditionalism ─ by ‘living in’, exchanging…..bodily fluids without public assent, and marrying without an audience. In the same breadth, it is also off-putting to be reminded of revisiting their intimacy from earlier movies. The visceral desperation to display crudity and cuteness in episodes of romance is quite evident. For instance, post their marriage when Michael (the lead actor) says to Anu, holding her tight, “Eh pondatti” and she teases back saying “sollunga”, you are pissed off at yourself for having thought of Alaipayuthey and Aayidha Ezhuthu at the same time.
  • Trivial question: “Pitstop ah ECR la vechutu, Anna nagar poi ethuku da tea aathura?”
  • There is a morbid grace in how the movie relentlessly whispers in your ear Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it 
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