Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Kai Po Che!

This is not a review. Just a few spoiler-ridden thoughts on the movie, which I need to get out of my system.

People all over the world today, including those in urban India, lead increasingly homogenised lives. We watch the same American television programming, use the same kind of brands, and eat the same kind of food.  It’s not just about a job anymore, any job that would support a family back home. Our aspirations for a career revolve around the more first-worldly ideal of finding one’s true calling. Likewise, our movies have come to reflect this (or a more exaggerated version of this) reality. Take the toast-making, skydiving trio of Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara. I can’t help but feel that they would fit in rather more comfortably in New York than Mumbai. Transplant the leads of Dil Chahta Hai to London, and it would make absolutely no difference to the narrative. Which is probably why films like Cocktail and Ekk Main aur Ekk Tu completely dispense with an Indian backdrop. And which is why Kai Po Che is the most refreshing film I have seen in a long time.

Kai Po Che is an Indian film in every sense of the word. Yes, of course there is song-and-dance, and Manja manages to evoke an atmosphere that reams of dialogue could possibly never establish. But more importantly it’s the world Govind, Omi and Ishan inhabit that makes the film resonate so much. You can see the dust, the sweat. Here, an eleven year old’s most pressing concern is the goti championship in his neighbourhood. A young man longingly fingers the plastic covered seats of a new car. Dates are carried out in extreme secrecy. Travelling inside a Roadways bus is more uncomfortable than on the roof. Sure, finding love is important, but achieving other goals (monetary, political or, otherwise) more urgent.  This is a movie where you cheer the Indian Cricket team on for a match you know they have won. Because you know cricket can resolve feuds between friends. That it can magically paper over religious fissures. You pray the ending doesn’t enter the territory, you know it’s heading for, when a dazed Omi finds his Mama injured by Ali’s dad. And when the fatal shot hits, you hold back tears, wishing that Ishan and Govind could sort it all out, Omi and Ishan could sort it all out.

If only Bolly-wood can now come up with an ode to female friendship. One that preferably does not involve two pretty girls falling for the same guy.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013


I remember reading somewhere in the context of Dwarkanath Tagore, about how the protestant ethic of Bengalis helped them succeed in business. That theory doesn’t quite explain the subsequent shrinking of the list of pre-eminent Bengali owned businesses. And I don’t quite know whether ‘protestant’ is the right word. But in no other Indian community, is religion such a matter of convenience. My mother, who considers herself to be quite religious, has forever had a scientific aversion to fasting. My grandmother is considerably more devout, having observed Shiv Ratri since she was twelve. She once told me not to say out loud the prayers that the priest calls out during pushpanjali since the Sanskrit words often hide behind them, quite regressive ideas. She encouraged me instead, to make up my own prayers in any language I preferred.  And it’s not just a family. Our main festival, Durga Pujo, is essentially an excuse to overhaul wardrobes, dig into non-vegetarian food (to the consternation of the Navratri-observing, abstemious ‘non-bengalis’), and bond with old friends over aadda.  Saraswati Pujo, unofficially Bengal’s own Valentines’ Day, is another one of those occasions when we mix pleasure with piety.

Saraswati in Hindu Mythology is the goddess of learning. This time it ‘fell on’ 15 February, though in the past, and especially in my board years had the tendency to be right in the middle of exams. Yet, I remember devotedly giving up all my books to lay at the feet of the Goddess and solemnly observe the ritual of not studying. To make up for that, I would concentrate on the prayers a little harder (notwithstanding my grandmom’s advice) and sometimes also offer to distribute the bhog- all to curry favour with Maa. Now of course things have changed. I no longer attend the pujo that the Bengalis of the middle-class colony I grew up in, conduct. We have a small pujo at home. Which my mom performs. Unlike in my old colony, where the priest had a day-job as a scientist. And there is no gaggle of gossiping women chopping fruits for the prasad. Only me, grudgingly carrying out the errands my mother sets out for me. We have the bhog at our dining table. Earlier, I would squat on the floor with my friends while an adult would dump khichdi and labra on our Styrofoam plates. And the celebrations would take all day. Now we are through by noon.
One thing remains the same though.
No studying.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Valentines' Day 2011

Overheard at the Damdami Mai Celebrations at the Hindu College Virgin TreeValentines’ Day 2011
Valentines' Day at Virgin Tree, Hindu College
Photo Credit: Shubhda

Short, curly haired girl (G): You know this would never be allowed in any other college?
Tall Boy (B): Yeah…but you know colleges like SRCC and Hansraj don’t really have a sense of history…
G: Stephen’s does…
B (laughs): They are too high-brow for this. Plus didn’t one of their principals ban hugging or something?
G: Yup. And girls’ colleges are too squeamish.
B: What about Ramjas? They are just the right-level-of-brow. Also liberal enough.
B: Yeah. Ramjas is the poor man’s Hindu.


Happy Valentines’ Day.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

My Taxonomy of Academic Writing (in Economics)

I am currently reading a paper, firmly ensconced in the intersection of B, D and E (see below). Which motivated this.

A.      Vishal Bharadwaj cinema*- Our microeconomics professor encourages students to write short answers in exams. He cites the example of Kenneth Arrow, who was notorious for his short papers (most of which, went on to span complete branches of economics). I haven’t read much of Arrow, but I have certainly read other economists who decide to infuse meaning into every word they construct. You blink. And you miss the most important plot point. These economists enjoy sneaking in a harmless looking line in the introduction, or worse, a footnote- the one line that holds the key to all the mind numbing (unsolved) differential equations that you are so impatient to get to, in later sections.

B.      Ekta Kapoor Soaps- These authors lie on the other extreme end of the continuum. They absolutely must give us a recap of every section of the paper at the end of the section, as well as at the beginning of the subsequent section. And in the introduction. And in the recommendations. And in the concluding remarks. You get the idea. (And then almost start missing the algebra).

C.      Farhan Akhtar/ Abbas-Mustan projects- While the Vishal Bharadwajs are theoretical economists (in the vanguard of academia), empirical economists (especially if you skip the methodology bits to power on to the results and discussion) are more accessible. That’s not to deny their capability of employing stunning gadgetry on the way to the climax. When done well, the results are sublime. When not…umm I trust you have seen Race.

D.      Rohit Shetty filums- unambitious and unpretentious. But (happily) not very taxing on the brain. These benign authors decide that they must make life easy for students, and spend most of their paper presenting a simplified version of the papers written by Exhibit A and C. Just as fancy cars hurtling in the air are a regular fixture in Shetty’s films, the penultimate section of these papers too must invariably involve critiquing the papers they discuss, and sometimes an extension.

E.       The ensemble film (in the tradition of Aaja Nachle, Chak de India)- Chak de India straddled regional chauvinism, national unity, religious persecution, sexism, the pathologies of Indian sport, all in a three hour narrative. The academic equivalents may not give such gripping results, but they do manage to flog a single mathematical model into providing amenable results on a variety of points the author wishes to prove. Sometimes this is not limited to a lone paper. Several careers have often hinged upon one model, one idea. Sometimes so much so that all the loving self referencing pushes it into Yashraj Films territory (who remind us at every chance they get, that Aditya Chopra made DDLJ).

* Yes I compare academic papers to Bollywood films and Hindi television. Sue me.