Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Memories of Silver

[This is the unedited version of an essay published in the Deccan Herald as Going, Going, Gone]

Memories of Silver

In a theme park near Bangalore, one of the attractions is a recreation of an 'old-time village theatre'. The box office is a rickety wooden shack with a tin signboard. There are faded posters of 90s movies with 'Coming Soon' hand-lettered on them. You cross all these, smiling, and enter into the actual 'theatre'. The best seats in the house are folding aluminum chairs, then there are several rows of backless wooden benches, and the cheapest seating area is just a sandy patch of ground. There are incandescent bulbs hanging from the ceiling, shaded by clay pots. The 'movie' is just a 10-minute long compilation of iconic scenes from old films (when I was there, they showed Gabbar Singh's introductory scene from Sholay). Inspired by the atmosphere, people around you clap and whistle at famous dialogues. You come out of screening feeling refreshed, feeling like you've just visited a simpler, more innocent time that has vanished forever.

Indeed, the way we watch movies has changed dramatically over the past few years. Leave aside the shift from watching one movie a week on Doordarshan, to having a dozen 24-hour-movie channels in your cable subscription. Forget the difference between having a couple of small video-cassette libraries in your neighbourhood, and of having the infinite resources of online shopping and the internet at your disposal. Take just the basic, most traditional, way of watching a movie by buying a ticket, sitting with a bunch of friends and strangers in a large hall and staring at a giant silver screen. Where once we had standalone, single-screen theatres with name like Alpana and Minerva and Rex, standing on independent plots of land, today we have shiny multiplexes, embedded into even larger malls, beckoning the young and peppy crowd. The multiplexes, while ostensibly in the same business as the single-screeners have changed every single part of the movie-going experience: from the way tickets are booked, to the seats, to the projection equipment - it's all new and 'improved'. But is it really a better way to be going about things? 

Take the way we decide which movie to watch. Once upon a time, the first we heard of an upcoming movie was by seeing its trailer before another movie. Or when we saw the posters in the lobby of the theatre. A week before it was due to release, the posters would spread out from the halls and onto every available public wall in town. If we were paying attention, we could hear songs from the movie on the radio. But it was possible for most of the movie to remain a secret. I still remember when Amitabh Bachchan's Shahenshah was released, it was not until after the release, when some classmates had seen it, that the rest of us heard the line 'Rishtey mein to hum tumhare baap lagte hai...". And we knew nothing of, say, the hot-air balloon scene or the courthouse scenes. We went to the theatre blind, relying on the superstar's allure.

Even after it was released, it was common for a good movie to take time to find its feet, to benefit from the slow spread of word-of-mouth. Sholay famously ran to empty theatres for a while before the word got out and the crowds started coming in. And the single-screen theatres were well suited to this kind of business: they worked on smaller margins, they had less staff. When a movie did do well, it could run for months or even years (we all know about the famous Maratha Mandir theatre in Mumbai, which has been running Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge continuously, for the past 17 years). Considering that the question to ask in those days was "Is there a movie releasing this week?" rather than "Which movies are releasing this week?" the model worked well. Almost every movie ran for more than a week, if not in the main shows, at least in the matinee and morning shows. It became a hit only when it completed 25, 50 or a 100 days.
That time is gone. Today, with the aid of multiplexes, a movie can be declared a hit and recover its money on the first weekend. A hundred shows run every day across all the multiplexes, mopping up all the demand quickly. Publicity departments for movies run at full steam to bring the audiences in as soon it's released. It's common to release details of the movie, interviews with the stars, have cross-promotion with television soap operas, sponsor TV shows and college events, even make up scandals and controversies just to get the movie in the public eye.

Take any recent blockbuster movie. We know all the lyrics of all the songs before it's released. We pretty much know what kind of story it is, and we know exactly what the leads will look like. We’ve read the trivia about the foreign shooting and the item song girl. We’ve seen the making-of interviews on the TV channels. What sort of revelation are we expecting in the theatre itself? And now that we're interested, we need to go see it on the opening weekend. The culture of long-running movies is gone; can you imagine even the biggest hits of today - Dabangg, Ra-One, Bodyguard, running in the multiplex longer than a month?
This is admittedly not the fault of the multiplexes alone; the very business model of movies is undergoing a change. But the frantic money-gathering around the first few days (which makes every movie a hit) is only enabled by multiplexes.

The rise of the multiplexes is killing not just the single-screen theatres themselves, but also any number of supporting businesses that grew up around them. Single-screen theatres tended to have a very basic selection of snacks (although everyone remembers with fondness the popcorn packets, the samosas in brown paper bags, and the crate of small Thums Ups - not to mention the rush at the counter during the interval). But just outside the theatre you invariably found several small snack vendors - a chaat wala, a bajji wala, fruit juice, soda and peanut sellers. Some of these vendors became well known in their own right. And medical shops, phone booths, even small restaurants were always available nearby, patronised by the crowds passing through the theatre.

The multiplexes, of course, have brought most of those businesses in-house. Selling eatables at sky-high prices is a model borrowed from US multiplexes, and it is the major source of revenue there. I'm not sure how much it contributes here, but the prices are definitely on the incredible side - a hundred rupees for a medium popcorn! Fifty plus for a sandwich! To make things worse, the "security check" at the entrance looks out for outside food with much more vigour than for bombs or weapons. It's even included in the pre-movie notice in some places: For your own safety we must check and remove all weapons, cameras, and outside food. Gone are the days when you could bring in a pack of glucose biscuits to avoid the interval-time rush.

Single-screen theatres in smaller towns outsourced even things like parking. This brings to mind a story my college professor was fond of telling. At the theatre he used to frequent, the bicycle parking was handled by local entrepreneurs who would rope off a segment of the pavement, leaving just enough gap for a cycle to enter or exit. They would then sell space in these improvised parking lots for movie-goers. (leaving your cycle outside these lots would mean a mysterious loss of air in its tyres). When my professor and his friends, in their college days, went to watch Dev Anand's Jewel Thief, they got a proposition from one of the entrepreneurs to park their cycles in his lot for 10 paise each. A competing lot owner then offered them the lower rate of 5 paise. Seeing his customers about to switch, the owner #1 tried to hold them to their word of honour. But finally, seeing them about to go to owner #2, he spat at them, "Fine, go! But let me tell you, Ashok Kumar is the Jewel Thief!"

Well, maybe bringing parking under the theatre's management wasn't such a bad idea. On the other hand, competition and outsourcing kept the prices of the food and the other facilities to the bare minimum. As each of these simple, low-end activities have been brought under the umbrella of the multiplex and turned into additional income sources, the average price of a movie outing has been rising. This includes, of course, the prices of the movie tickets themselves, but snacks/dinner, parking, and any number of extra attractions provided by the surrounding mall. Where an evening outing to the movies was something easily affordable by any class of people, today a movie for two, with dinner, could easily go above a thousand rupees. And if you're going on the weekend? Even more than that. Once a great leveller, movie watching has become an elite activity.

Beyond all these disappointments, what sticks in the mind is the boring homogeneity of the multiplexes. Once your ticket (printed by the same model of printer everywhere) has been torn and you step into the lobby, you could be in almost any multiplex in any town in India. It could be day or night. The food counters are always the same, the decor is the same colour shades, the walls displaying the posters look the same, even the security guards all wear the same sort of uniform everywhere. Where are the large lobbies with red carpets, the chandeliers, the paintings and distinct wall decor that marked each theatre differently? What about all the fancy type faces and metal letters announcing the name of the theatre, outlined in stark relief against the evening sky?

Many single-screen theatres that had been around for a while developed their own identities, for good or bad. Where this one was frequented by 'mill workers' and was best avoided by families, that one was grand and had a big lobby and air-conditioning and perfect for impressing out-of-town relatives. Other theatres stood out because of the genres of films they showed - in Bangalore, for example, Urvashi theatre near Lalbaug has been a hub for Tamil movies, and every Kamal Hassan release is accompanied by a gathering of his fan club there, putting up huge cutouts of the star. Rex, at the junction of Brigade Road, on the other hand, specializes in the latest English releases.  Theatres like these come into the common vocabulary of the local populace, become cultural icons. The Majestic area, after all, is named after the long-gone Majestic theatre. The distinctive outline of the Eros theatre in Mumbai has even been used as a backdrop in advertisements.

The upswing of the multiplexes has been steadily drawing business away from the single-screeners for the past two decades. As incomes rose, and more big-budget movies were released (both Indian and foreign), audiences were drawn towards the bright lights of the multiplexes which, let's face it, provided a cleaner, more assured experience, even if more expensive. The single-screeners began to be the second option - favoured by people with lower incomes, or who desperately wanted to see a movie and could not get a ticket in the multiplex. As time has gone by, many smaller single-screen theatres have gone bust, their land sold out to developers to build malls and apartments.

But all is not lost yet. Some hints at salvaging the situation come from the way US single-screen theatres have reinvented themselves - as specialists in specific genres, as hosts for film festivals, as showcases for vintage films, as nostaliga trips. There's no reason Indian theatres cannot do the same thing. Indeed, some venues are already doing it.

In Mumbai you have the Gaiety-Galaxy theatres which have been rebuilt as a set of 7 smaller screens. They're now becoming famous as the hangout for movie industry folks - they see a fair number of premieres, and even when normal shows are running, there are camouflaged visits from film stars and directors, to gauge audience reaction to the film.

In Bangalore we have the story of the erstwhile Symphony cinema, on M G Road. When it got closed down 'for renovation', the general sentiment was that it would get turned into another boring multipex. But it has become a luxury single-screener, with the spaciousness of the old-style space, and prices lower than other multiplexes - a new landmark. Then there's Rex, which is actually doing well just because of it's strategic location. With the large number of food stalls surrounding it, it has become a hangout spot for college students. Hopefully these trends continue, creating and updating these old landmarks with something new to look forward to.

To sum up, while the multiplexes are doing well and will not go away, there is still something to be got from the older single screen theatres - a trip down memory lane along with a pack of popcorn. Will you go on one this weekend?

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Story Doctor: Ek Thi Daayan

Here comes the Story Doctor, to fix sick stories, show them the error of their ways, tell them what went wrong, prescribe a soothing twist or two, and send them off, healed and ready to hold audiences everywhere in thrall.

[Warning: This is not a review of Ek Thi Daayan. Rather, it is an analysis of the story. So don't read further unless (a) you've already seen the film, or know the entire story in intricate detail, and (b) fancy yourself a storyteller, like I do (or your wife calls you a baal ki khaal nikaalne wala). ]

First Impressions of the Patient

I'd been looking forward to Ek Thi Daayan for a long time. (After 13 B, this is probably the first horror movie that isn't a sleazefest.) So, went over the past weekend, and came back impressed enough to keep thinking about the movie.

The credentials of the movie are impressive - Vishal Bharadwaj and Gulzar on the soundtrack, an impeccably pedigreed first-timer, Kannan Iyer directing, an all-powerful female starcast, and the scene-stealer in Shanghai as the lead.

Overall, the movie lived up to part of the expectations - the soundtrack is generally awesome and worth looping, and the acting and direction is great. The very boldness of the concept- let's take a traditional Indian monster and update it to a modern urban context- puts the movie above other horror offerings lately.

But the promise held up by the story, particularly the first half, never quite gets fulfilled.  By the time it's over, you're conflicted about whether to like it or not. It's later in the night when you're trying to sleep and the Lautungi Main song and title sequence keeps playing through your head, that you realize that the movie has had an impact despite the shortcomings.(And of course you've kept the night light on tonight for no real reason.)

All the way up to the midpoint, things are going swimmingly. The device of using the hypnosis adds a layer of ambiguity to the flashback, and during the interval, we're all busy formulating theories about what is really going on. Lisa's introduction livens things up, and we seem to be heading for some major shock. And then, suddenly, the movie goes southwards. The last 'fight' comes straight out of a Ramsay brothers movie, and convenient last-minute world-building that gets thrown around ("Pishaach do tarah ke hotey hai!!!???") absolutely kills any subtlety left in the movie. Even the so-called Big Reveal - that Tamara was a Daayan all along - makes you yawn rather than be shocked. On top of that we have an absolutely cheesy penultimate scene at a outdoor grill that belongs to My Friend Ganesha rather than a horror movie.

Referring back to the Medical Textbooks

So does that mean that if only they'd directed the climax 'fight' better, the movie would have been a classic? I thought about that for a bit, and finally came to the conclusion that even the most slickly directed fight wouldn't have helped. The weakness was in the way the story itself panned out. There are more problems than one here, and several missed opportunities within the framework of the existing story. Let's go over these.

(a) A horror movie featuring monsters or otherwordly happenings can go one of two ways:
- The monsters are absolutely real in the world of the movie. You as a viewer know it early on, possibly some or more of the characters know it, and by the time the movie is done, everyone who matters knows it. We follow the characters as they too discover it, fight it, and either subdue it or fall before it. There are thousands of these movies, and I don't even need to give an example. Godzilla? Aliens? A Nightmare on Elm Street? Let's call these movies Type A. These movies are impressive either because the monster is unique, or the storyline unfolds in a good way.
- The second, more subtle type: There's some sort of suspense about what they really are and where they come from. We as the audience are given the viewpoint of one or more of the characters, who are under danger from the monster. We see the movie only through their biases and fears. Somewhere down the line, the later the better, we realize that the monster is not who or what we thought it was, and there's a shift in perspective. A few examples of this type are The Descent, Paranormal Activity, Identity, Kaun (with Urmila Matondkar) and Psycho. Let's call these Type B.

Now ETD starts out by being type 2 - we are seeing events undoubtedly through Bobo's eyes. When we're being set up for a flashback, we are first introduced to a doctor who will be more sympathetic with Bobo's viewpoint, and then the actual flashback happens through a hypnotism session - again, as the doctor says, this is something completely through Bobo's 11-year old eyes and hence not necessarily accurate. Most of all, the final scene in the flashback is open to interpretation (we'll come back to this in a bit). And for whatever reason, Bobo has forgotten enough about it to require external means of reminding himself of what happened.

What that means is that we're expecting some sudden revelation later on - that there was a trick of memory, that something hidden to us from the past will come out, that there is some actual suspense, in short.
But towards the end, the movie flips over and turns into a Type A - everything told to us so far was absolutely true, and the one guy who didn't believe it - the doctor - is forced into belief by the sudden appearance of Diana. We never know whether or not Tamara believes Bobo, so that point is moot. And further from there, the whole fight scene behaves as if the existence and nature of the monster had never been in doubt - when *that* should have been the big reveal.

(b) Continuing from above, if the movie was to have been a Type A from the beginning, we need the standard tropes related to that style: the disbelief of everyone else around the hero, the hero being conflicted and doubting himself, the signs that we the audience see that convince us the hero is right, and finally the one-by-one convincing of the necessary characters to force a showdown. Not a single one of these happens.

(c) While the mythology of the Daayan herself comes through fine, the whole Pishaach addition is done almost as an afterthought - as if the writer couldn't think of a better way to end the movie, and relapsed into Twilight "Saga" mode. The so-called plot twist - which is that the one person built up to be trustworthy (Tamara) was the villain, and the doubtful person (Lisa) was actually good, is so old that people probably groaned when it happened in the Bible. It's not that you can't see it coming, it's that it's so boring that you don't care when it happens. Even worse, what was that Ramsay style sacrifice to Shaitan bullshit? These supernatural creatures are going to stand in a circle like normal people and chant? Who thought this was a good idea? And the final fight was even worse than Ramsay - these creatures can turn into lizards, or disappear, or god knows what else, and they're slugging it out like a WWF match, in full lighting? We needed a more interesting, or alteast competent, ending.

(d) And finally, that song. That Totey Udd Gaye song. WHY IS IT EVEN THERE? Worse, WHY IS THERE A MUSIC VIDEO AROUND IT? What happened to the repurcussions of that lengthy flashback just before the interval? Who edited this movie, anyway?

Fixing all the above would really mean making a movie with a completely different ending. Since, as you can see above, I see it heading in a Type B direction till some way in, let me propose an alternate resolution that goes all the way.

Preventive Measures

If we had to choose a point where the story goes south, it would be the point where it turns from Type B to Type A. That's the scene where Diana appears, exactly as she was in the flashback, to the doctor, and kills him. So we'll have a brand-new story from then onwards. Even before that scene, though, let's make a few additions and changes:

1. Even before Bobo became an orphan, he was fascinated by the orphanage next door, when Zubin lives in the current day. When his family died (or disappeared in the case of Diana), he did get taken in my some relative, but he kept running down to the orphanage and to the closed flat, staring at it from the street, where he would sometimes see Diana or Misha through the windows, calling to him. In spite of that, he did go into the flat from time to time, drawn by his memories. This explains why they wanted to adopt Zubin from that orphanage.

1.5 Before the eclipse/hide-n-seek scene, something breaks in their house, in the hall - a water pipe or maybe a concealed wire. Workmen were fixing it, and Bobo watched them with great interest.

2. When Bobo would go into the flat as an adult, one of the things he does is to stare at the photo of his sister on the mantelpiece.

3. Tamara hears the whole story about Bobo's family's death, and it devastated by it. She gains further sympathy for him, but there's a leery edge, as if she doesn't quite believe that there was anything supernatural about it. There's an intense scene where Bobo convinces her that it was all true for him. And no matter what, it ended with him losing his family, so isn't that what matters?

4. When Lisa comes into the flat to buy it, she stops and stares at the photo as well. There's some comment to the effect of "you miss your family a lot, huh, Bobo?"

5. Tamara tells Lisa about Bobo's back story to some extent. In particular, she mentions the Lisa Dutt name that has haunted Bobo for some reason. We change the scene of Bobo googling for that name, to Lisa doing it, and then hunting for photos of the time. She doessn't find anything, but it's clear she makes something of it too.

Corrective Medicine

And now, starting from just before the attack on the doctor:

The doctor picks out the old leather book again, after many years, and flips through it. He sees something there, breaks out into a sweat, and decides to call up Tamara. He tells her they are in danger, and to get out of the house immediately. The two of them try calling up Bobo, but he does not answer.

Someone attacks the doctor just then and he dies of shock.

Lisa arrives at Bobo's house, and tells Tamara/Zubin that Bobo is in trouble, and to come with them. They go with her (cue hidden, ambiguous, smile by Lisa).

Bobo reaches home, finds no one there. He has been suspecting Lisa all along, so he decides that she has kidnapped them, and decides to go to her (his old) house.

Tamara and Zubin are nonplussed when Lisa takes them to her home and there's no Bobo around. They remember what Bobo had been telling them about her, and panic. Lisa asks them to hear her out.

Bobo arrives at the building, and again sees Diana and Misha in the windows, calling to him. He starts to rush up, but is stopped by a lizard on the way. Then he sees Diana in her Daayan form, stopping him from going up.

Lisa asks them what Bobo told them about the fateful night, and they tell her. She shakes her head sadly, and then tells them to take the same thing and interpret it as an adult. Misha died of suffocation in the trunk - Bobo's fault for putting her there. Diana went in the room, and could not open the trunk in time. She was screaming in shock and pain (Bobo interpreted this as a daayan's scream). Pavan saw the body, blamed his wife for the death, and she yelled, denying it, and he had a heart attack and died. Bobo is sitting there, lost in his guilt, unable to understand what was happening, and blamed the 'Daayan'. He picked up the knife and stabbed her in the back.

Flashback ends. Tamara and Zubin are in shock. Finally, Tamara asks, if that was the case, where was her body? When the police came there, there was only Misha and Pavan. Lisa smiles sadly, and gestures to them to follow her. In the place where the pipe/wire had burst and wall had been dug up and replastered, the wall has been dug into again with a pickaxe. I looked all over the house, and finaly found it here, Lisa says. A skeleton hand - still with a ring on it - is poking out of the broken wall. If we can swing it, this is close to the mantelpiece where Misha's photo is - Bobo has been drawn to the spot where he hid the body, he wasn't just looking at the photo.

Flashback to Bobo, panicking, guilty, right after the murder. No one has heard anything of the screaming, fortunately. He drags Diana's body over to the hole, and begins to plaster over the wall badly. Then he throws a sheet over the wall and drags the trunk there. A crazy smile on his lips.

Tamara is confused. Why are you concerned about all this, she asks Lisa. Another flashback. Diana implicated in a crime she did not commit - her name actually was Lisa. She left her daughter in the care of a relative, promising to make a new life somewhere and then take her with her. Arrived in Bobo's town, had an affair, fell in lovei with Pavan. Wrote a last letter saying that she had found a papa and a brother and sisters for daugher (daughter is of course 'Lisa' of the present day), and then - no more letters - no more news. Enquiries made by relatives returned saying she was a con woman who fled with money after killing the family. Daughter did not believe it, and waited until she could come here to find out the truth.

Bobo has heard the last part of this. He walks into the room, and see Lisa, Tamara and Zubin all as daayans and pishaaches. It is clear that his mind was basically warped from reading that book in his childhood. He says, you all are daayans, out to get me, but I won't let you. That doctor was one too. Flashback to the doctor finding child Bobo's handwriting in the book, possibly with pictures of Diana stuck into the drawings there, and demented ravings, just before Bobo arrived there to kill him.

Bobo attacks the three of them, raving about cutting their hair. Tamara gets behind him in the struggle and knocks him on the head. Depending on how the story works best, Tamara either dies or is seriously injured.

Final scene, Bobo locked up in a psychiatric ward. A nurse arrives to check on him. He sees her as a daayan, with those large eyes, and cowers in fright. DO NOT show any ambiguity about the nurse being a real Daayan or anything extra at this point, unless you want to be like a crappy 80s movie.

Treatment Successful

The Story Doctor will return! 

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The so-so son returns

A chance search through the blog to dig up an old post brought home the fact that I haven't updated it in more than a year. This is depressing in many ways.

Lots of things have happened since the days of regular updates. I'd always intended for this place to be a dumping ground for thoughts, and a place for fiction experiments. Somewhere along the line, the latter coalesced into a novel-in-progress, which was kept away from the blog. The former exercise was rerouted into paid reviews and articles for newspapers and magazines, which still continue.

Well, the novel-in-progress is in limbo now, with motivation and time hard to find. And the beginner's joy of getting paid for writing is replaced by the grimness of a side-job (although still providing me with a sense of self-worth). Which means this experimental space has a place again in my life.

The literary scene too has changed over the years. Or maybe I've changed and figured out some of the things I was doing wrong? Working in a corner secretively accumulating words for a big bang doesn't work unless you're very very used to it already. The only way to get used to it is to set smaller targets, provoke the muse and share her rewards with friends and strangers. Write more, write frequently. Write without a mindblock of "Am I getting paid for this?" and you'll write better. Here goes.

And so, it's back to the regularly scheduled program of brain farts here on this blog. It's good to be back in the workshop. Dusts the lathe off.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

An Entire Stadium Disappears

Let me start by saying: I'm not especially interested in cricket, and will probably heave a sigh of relief once the World Cup and the IPL are done with. What interest I do have is because of my wife, who follows it like a true fan. We even went to Chinnaswamy Stadium for a couple of the practice matches there before the World Cup started proper.

And so we were happy when we found that an important match, India Vs. England, was being shifted from Kolkata to Bengaluru. Immediately the missus wanted to be try and get tickets. Knowing that over 50% of the city would want to attend (and the other half would be dragged there by their spouses), I looked around the net for the sales venues so we could be there on the first day. This was about two weeks ago, and the websites, and the news outlets, and signs at the stadium itself, all said that the tickets would be on sale starting from the 21st of February. Just 6 days before the match itself? Weird, but... OK, we'll go then.

A week after that, around Valentine's Day, there's this strategically inserted news item that talks of how the folks who bought tickets in Kolkata for the match originally are getting their corresponding tickets for Bengaluru. Wait, what? Are they all going to fly down all the way to see the match? At the most, this would be 5 to 10% of the total ticket holders.

A couple of days after that, on steady enquiries everywhere, it seemed like Planet M, Reebok (Official Partners Of The World Cup apparently) will sell the tickets offline, while Kyazoonga will sell the tickets online.

On the 20th, when we called up Planet M to confirm whether they're selling tickets, they backed out - they weren't going to be selling them any more. Oh well. On the night of the 20th, I stayed awake, hoping that "21st" would be taken literally and I would be able to buy the tickets online after midnight. No such luck - in fact the site got overwhelmed by the masses of people like me who had also hoped the same, and it got knocked offline for most of the day after.

Today (the 22nd), two things happened. There was a news story about Kyazoonga, which apologized for going under, and also mentioned that it had only 4,500 tickets for the finals anyway. There was no mention of how many tickets it had for the Bengaluru match - it would have to be less than the Finals, of course, so we can set 4,500 as the upper limit.

The other thing that happened was that we got a call from Reebok (Official Partners Of The World Cup), telling us that since we're earlier registered as being interested in the tickets, it was their duty to inform us that Reebok would not be selling the tickets for the match. The only offline place to get the tickets now was the stadium itself, and that too would probably begin only from the 24th, or thereabouts. As it was, "there were very few tickets left", and that was why Reebok outlets were not getting tickets to sell.

Recap: Online tickets are a very small number. Almost every outlet that was due to sell the offline tickets won't be doing so. And since there's an unknown but apparently significant number of people flying down from Kolkata, no one knows exactly how many tickets were supposed to be there. But "There are very few tickets left".

WHERE is this stadiums-worth of tickets going, then? The only other news story about this match was about MPs and corporators armtwisting the stadium officials into giving them large numbers of tickets. Could that be it? When we'd gone to the stadium for the practice matches, we were lucky to get tickets - apparently they'd all been bought by black marketers who were selling the same tickets for double the prices. Could it be the same back-office arrangements being made on the sly for the upcoming match?

Whatever - the missus threw up her hands in disgust and decided that it was not worth it. It was never going to be a fair fight/queue/arrangement, and any and everyone who could use his jugaad to get the tickets would be doing it anyway. So now we're watching the match on TV. Hope the cable guy doesn't decide to charge us extra for it.

The whole thing just makes me feel helpless. Whether it's buying a ticket, a house, land, food, phone - the moment any government body touches it, it's like the kiss of death for fairness. All I'm doing is sitting here angrily typing into a computer, I know, but no one else cares, in any case. They're too busy finding contacts to get their work done.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Introducing Tender Leaves

[Here's what I've been up to for the last few months. Pliss to pass on to your Pune based friends.]

Tender Leaves

It’s more than just a library

Introducing Tender Leaves – a unique book rental service that delivers books to your offices. What’s more - you can read at your own pace. There are no due dates, no late fees.

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With a combined experience of over 20 years, the founders B V Harish Kumar and Sudarshan Purohit have worked in IT companies like Persistent Systems, Infosys, BMC Software and Intuit. Sudarshan has also translated Hindi pulp fiction novels into English. Their passion for books brought them together.

Libraries were never so convenient and cool
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P.S. Do remember to use the promo code FIRST100 to avail a discount of Rs. 400/- on all half-yearly and annual plans.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Skimming the Surface

[This review of Dreaming in Hindi, by Katherine Russell Rich, was published with some edits in the Deccan Herald]

Sometime in 2001, Katherine Russell Rich decided to learn a new language. In fact, she decided to leave New York, go to the country where it was spoken and do a year-long course there to learn it. The language was Hindi, and the country was India. This book is partly a chronicle of that one year in India, and partly an exploration of what it feels like to learn a new language.

The book runs on four tracks simultaneously: Her experiences in India; discussions on the Hindi language itself; her views on Indian culture, religion, and so on; and finally, the neurology of learning a language, as understood from several researchers in the domain.

Of these four tracks, the last one is the most successful. Rich’s core theory is that learning a new language changes the way the brain itself works, and probably shapes the way experiences are stored in the brain. She interviews several experts (all of them American) about the latest findings, and explains their theories. At one point she uses the various flavours of sign language – American, Indian, formally structured and informally developed – to explain how the cadence of a language influences communication itself. These are the most interesting parts of the book; these topics have not been covered enough in popular writing, and Rich has created a good overview of the field here. Moreover, the discussion often goes way beyond Hindi itself, into what learning any new language is like, so there is plenty of interest here for Hindi-speaking readers too.

Unfortunately, the other three topics covered by the book fall flat. These sections are written with a very specific reader in mind: a monolingual person who thinks of India as an exotic land of turbaned, old-world maharajas. Neither of these criteria matches the typical English-speaking Indian reader, who speaks at least two languages and thinks of maharajas as belonging to mythological serials on TV.
Rich’s year in India was spent almost entirely in Udaipur, which is described in loving detail, exoticized the way the tourists like it: She lives in havelis, walks past cows on the street, meets traditional housewives who never completed school. And yes, meets the requisite Maharanas. Udaipur, however, is not equivalent to India, and Mewari-accented Hindi is definitely not the only language spoken in the country. So sentences like these jar: "In India, time is circular, a perception that’s shaped by the concept of reincarnation… yesterday and tomorrow are the same word: kal. 'The day before yesterday' and 'the day after tomorrow' are both parson... All the days in the spin are the same: aaj. In the west, in contrast, in English, time is linear..." What about the hundreds of other Indian languages with different words for "yesterday" and "tomorrow"?

At times, Rich attempts the near-impossible task of explaining India to the western reader from her Udaipur vantage point. When she opens up a newspaper, the paper invariably mentions some significant event, such as Godhra, or the Babri Masjid destruction and the resulting riots. A colleague’s idle comment is linked to the massacres on trains during partition. All these incidents are pithily explained away, blame squarely placed, history turned into bite-sized chunks, definitely not intended to give the complete, complex picture.

Then there’s the required quota of exotic-India words, stuffed in at the first possible opportunity: tigers and saffron and saris. In the first chapter of this book, Rich sees a hotel swimming pool, and describes it thus: "The pool was mango-shaped."

The overall form of the book causes a few problems as well. Because she’s using her experiences during her course as the springboard for the scientific theories, Rich needs to shoehorn in some incidents that roughly match the topics of the theories she plans to talk about. So random comments by acquaintances lead Rich to talk about the latest views on Chomsky’s papers, and an invitation to a deaf school leads to a discussion on the "spreading activation network theory". This sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t. Also, since we know she did a specific course in India and then came back, there’s no ending or climax to build up. Rich ends her chapters with cliffhangers like "…and now I would be the next one to go down", which don’t really turn the book into a page-turner.

Rich winds up talking of too many things at once, and perhaps because of this, never really goes deep into any of them. The neuroscience sections are probably the only ones that feel authentic, and it would have been a good idea to have an Indian look through the culture sections for glaring errors (The definition of saala given actually means jija in Hindi – the problem probably happened because both words mean brother-in-law in English). But, as mentioned above, the book isn’t written for Indians at all. It is definitely not a guidebook to India, nor does it help in any way in learning Hindi. No, the book is about an American woman’s jaunt to an exotic country, and her subsequent interviews with researchers back home.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Some rudimentary water-related calculations

I posted this status on Facebook the other day: "If you take the number of centimeters of rain that fall on Bangalore or Pune every year, multiply by the land area, and divide by the population, you get so much water per person that we should all have enough and more of it every day.
(This is what I've been doing today afternoon, aided by the numbers from Wikipedia)"

A couple of folks wanted me to post the calculations, so here's a post explaining it.

According to this site, one cubic metre of water is equivalent to 1000 litres. So, if your city has an area of one square meter (small city, I know), and it has one meter of rainfall in a year, the city is getting a thousand litres of water. I.e., one centimetre of rainfall over one square metre is 10 litres of water.

Wikipedia lists Bangalore as having an area of 710 sq. km. approximately. 1 sq. km. is about 10^6 square metres. Therefore, if one centimetre of rains falls on Bangalore, we have 10 litres * 710 * 10^6 of water. That's 710,00,00,000 or 710 crore litres of water.

The official government site on Karnataka lists Bangalore as having about 900 mm of annual rainfall, or about 90 cm. That means that about 63,900 crore litres of water falls to the ground within Bangalore city limits every year.

Again, Wikipedia lists Bangalore's population at 65 lakhs. 63,900 crore (i.e. 63,90,000 lakhs) divided by 65 lakhs is 98,307 litres of water per person per year. In other words, about 270 litres per day.

This set of statistics show that only about 9 developed countries show a water use of more than 270 litres per day. India is way down the list, at 150 litres or so.

What it all boils down to (pardon the pun), is that if Bangalore can hold on to all the water that falls in its own territory every year, every citizen will have all the water he or she needs for every purpose. I haven't even considered all the water from the Kaveri river schemes and so on, and the much lower population density of non-urban areas in Karnataka.

Just hold on to the rain - using lakes, by letting the earth absorb the water, by helping the water table rise, and you will solve your water problem for a very, very long time.

[This is a rather naive calculation, I know, but the overall logic sounds pretty fair to me. Try it for your own city]