Aug 24, 2010

The music of Udaan

The soundtrack of Udaan should be properly introduced as being created by Amitabh Bhattacharya (lyrics) and Amit Trivedi (music). The duo, in their first full-length album since Dev.D, are clearly masters at exploring themes of angst. This collection of songs has a cohesion rare in most film soundtracks, with the tracks complementing each other in mood and thought. Restlessness and the optimistic desire to escape current orbits suffuse the songs.

Kahaani establishes the mood of Udaan with its whispered beginning slowly developing into a electric guitar-fuelled rock piece. The title song is more conventional, with a catchy riff and words of quiet rebellion. It is a little weak though, in comparison to the songs that follow. Geet... is wonderful - somehow the Amits manage to perfectly capture a sunbeam of naive optimism. The mood is upbeat and there's some very nice use of harmony and guitars. The two also have an interesting singing partnership - this is as far removed from Bandmasters Rangila and Rasila as you can get.

For me, Naav is the standout song from the album. I'm assuming Mohan (I don't know who he is!) is the lead singer. Though the diction is a little odd, the delivery is wonderful. The thought is age-old: a call to overcoming impediments, but the metaphor (of a boat struggling for breath) was new to me. You will scarcely find a more rousing song to listen to when you are sinking to the dumps. Compositions like these put the 'rock' in rock. (Here's a link to the lyrics for this song.)

Aazaadiyaan reminds me a lot of a previous Amit Trivedi song - "Ik Lau" (Aamir) - it has the same lingering start and perhaps the openings of are similar too, though the tempo is different. The sitar riff is very pleasing, and serves as a springboard for the rest of the song to take off (almost literally).

In contrast, Motumaster is quite out of place. To be fair, it has been designed as an 'arbit' ad-hoc kind of song (Anurag Kashyap's official debut as lyricist?) and is quite hilarious in parts ('kamar to naapte hai magar hum kamraa kaise naape?"). But it might have been better off being just in the film and not on the album. The concluding instrumental piece is reflective and appropriate.

One reason why Udaan's soundtrack works is because the story and treatment seem to be tailormade for the Amits. Amit Trivedi is very good at the rock-folk milieu and is able to bring his own bag of tricks to it. I wonder how he will deal with more commercial ventures. One of the pleasures of listening to his albums is to hear very new voices. Who are these Neuman Pinto/Joi Barua/Mohan/Nikhil D'Souza? Now we've heard them and of them. But if he goes more mainstream, how will this work out for them? But I do wish Amit Trivedi didn't feature on every other song s- he's got a raspy voice suited only for certain types, and he might be overdoing it a tad.

In short, listen to Udaan.

Image created using Wordle

Aug 20, 2010

Lamenting convocation speeches

Why don't we have good speakers at convocation ceremonies in India? Each year, a commencement speech or two from a US university will do the email rounds. Usually by a leading figure, the speech will be amusing, inspiring, interesting, and even personal. It's quite a good way to sign off a graduating year's stint in that academic institution. And some may finally learn something useful there!

In contrast, most convocation ceremonies at Indian institutions are boring affairs, with the chief guest's speech crowning the insipid cake with the dullest cherry of the day. It doesn't help that chief guests are often politicians, called to the ceremony because they are ultimately influential patrons of the educational system, or because the powers-that-be get a chance to rub noses with the ruling elites. On occasion, figures from business are invited, which is usually an improvement on the politicos. But oratory may not really be their strong suit. Forget diction or command, even the content is mundane and in danger of adding decades to Kumbhakarna's slumber.

The three convocation speeches that coincided with my stint at IIT Bombay were largely uninspiring. The first was the then HRD Minister, Arjun Singh (2005), incidentally in the middle of his reservations controversy. Montek Singh Ahluwahlia (2006) followed - decent, but I can't think of anything memorable that he said. Invited to preside over the convocation ceremony of 2007 was industrialist L.N.Mittal. On paper, it seemed a decent choice - he was riding several waves of fame. But the hour-long speech was, sadly, one of the most boring that it has been my fate to sit through. If it wasn't the small matter of picking up a degree certificate, I might have succumbed to that most primal of social urges: of escaping from a boring colloquium, by hook or crook. What made it worse was that he repeatedly referred to the hallowed institution as "double-I-T" or even on occasion "double-I-I-T". Depending on which rules of association one applied to the latter, we wondered if we were taking leave from "I2IT" or even "I4T". (Incidentally, earlier that year, his namesake Sunil Bharti Mittal had delivered a guest lecture in the nearby School of Management, which was quite impressive in content and delivery.)

I note that this year's IIT Bombay convocation featured more science-oriented individuals: Dr. Kiran Majumdar Shaw and Prof. Roddam Narasimha as chief guests. (I was even more intrigued to find out that the convocation had been split into two sessions over two days - apparently, too many people graduating! The Convocation Hall is huge, so the space overflow must have been considerable.) I don't know how their speeches went, and it's not a good idea to automatically assume people like these will be any more inspirational than their predecessors.

It's a pity that most public function speeches in India are so poorly delivered, and that everyone involved has come to expect nothing more. The speakers don't do us listeners the honour of diligent practice, and the listeners in turn, do the listeners no favours of attention.

Some of the more famous commencement speeches alluded to in the opening of this post:

* Steve Jobs at Stanford, 2005: video, transcript - probably the most famous of the lot
* J. K. Rowling at Harvard, 2008: video, transcript - titled "the fringe benefits of failure"
* Jon Stewart at The College of William and Mary, 2004: transcript - quite hilarious
* Atul Gawande at Stanford School of Medicine, 2010: transcript - interesting, cautionary, and thought-provoking thoughts for a graduating class of doctors

The inevitable top ten list is here.

Aug 18, 2010

Bus Ek Pal

I take the company bus to work in the morning and return by it in the evening. I am convinced these buses have bombs on them that will go off within 30 seconds of the bus reaching its destination.

What else explains the mad rush for fellow passengers to alight? As the bus nears its stop, people from the back storm to the front. As the bus stops, others will get up and into the aisle. The line to get down is clogged. But they don't mind standing uncomfortably, rubbing more than shoulders with people in front and behind them. All they care is that they be out into the open, where presumably, they will be saved (yet again) from the poisonous gas slowly filling their empty seats.

Me? I sit down defiantly. Some kind of sit-in protest that is doomed because, well, I do also have to get down at some point. Sometimes, I swing my legs out into the aisle. It announces to the hyenas behind me that yes, I want to get down too, but can't you see that people seated ahead of us must be allowed to get down first? And where are your manners? And do you have to get down in a group? Clearly, the signal is too subtle and packed with too much information, because they rush past me, stumbling and saying "sorry" without meaning it. I must be acquiring a criminal education in sparking off stampedes.

It's funny, this urge to dismount at the earliest. There's no visible advantage in having to wait for 2 more seconds. People who are supposed to get down don't stand in the middle of the bus discussing the Kashmir issue or whether P is not equal to NP. So what are the rushers afraid of?

That leaves only one explanation. But it can wait - it's time to go.

Aug 10, 2010

Stalk show

I've started receiving Twitter's suggestions for people I should 'follow'. I wish it wouldn't. For the most part, these are celebrities that I have deliberately chosen to stay far away from (the likes of Shah Rukh Khan, Chetan Bhagat, Lalit Modi). The suggestions seem to be deduced from my current social graph on twitter and popular Indian celebrities (probably based on number of followers or a list). Apart from these being shallow dimensions to suggest 'interesting people', shouldn't such an algorithm consider this: if I have been on Twitter for a couple of years and these people have been around for over 3 months, I would in all likelihood have heard of them? (if they are indeed popular enough to be tweeted about) Thus, if I have not followed them so far, it is out of choice and not of ignorance.

Probably they should stick to picking friends-of-a-friends and minor celebs (not in the top 100, say). Or just leave us alone to stumble in the jungle. Even better, is there someway to indicate (proudly) under a "Who Not to Follow" section, that I choose not to follow these people?

Aug 8, 2010

Lost in Austen -

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that any article about Pride and Prejudice must begin with the line It is a truth universally acknowledged. But more pertinently to this blog post, it is a truth universally acknowledged that any schoolgirl who reads Pride and Prejudice, particularly in the company of fellow convent schoolgirls, must fall hopelessly in love with the plot, the milieu, and most importantly, with Darcy1. Even Hugh Grant (ex-floppy-haired-bookshop-owner and cor-blimey-was-he-PM-of-Britain-too?) couldn't unseat that juciest of all snooty Darcies, Colin Firth. And he tried.

The 2008 ITV Lost in Austen is a very interesting adaptation of the tale, which takes these very principles to heart. Amanda Price, 21st century Brit girl, looking for true love, is an ardent fan of P&P. One day, she finds Elisabeth Bennett, standing in her salle de bains, mysteriously transported from the world of Austen. They swap places, and the rest of the story is Amanda's 'sojourn' through that world.

Thanks to her presence, there are inevitable complications, such as pre-ordained partnerships going awry. Amanda soon finds herself trying to clear waters that get muddier with every passing day. In a sense, she assumes the role of that other famous Austen girl, Emma, having to steer relationships in the way they are supposed to, and miserably failing at them.

The series has its comic highs, especially in the first episode, but tends to go all sentimental as it heads into the second half of the four-part series. The ending is a little rushed, but overall, it's an entertaining excursion over well-known literary territory. The actors, being British and all, are quite good.

Coincidentally, this viewing comes the same week that India's (probably) first cinematic adaptation of Jane Austen released. I don't understand why people should remake a well-known classic faithfully, and would find the likes of Lost in Austen more appealing. But only if, as this New Yorker mention of Aisha remarked, it came without "zombies or sea-monsters". Or Gurinder Chadha. Brr.

1: applying induction from domestic evidence

Aug 4, 2010

A truth of inconvenience

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that

Talking to people in professional contexts, particularly in customer service, often makes you feel like you are Dave, trying to reason with a cold non-human (eventually, a bad idea). Neither do these people possess a super-brain like HAL 9000, nor (and this is worse) can they be bypassed or turned off. The idea of taking an axe to them to check for frontal lobe absence becomes more appealing by the minute.

Author Dan Pink writes about the use of 'professionalese' in this Telegraph article, calling it "a renter’s language". Talking about sentences like We apologise for any inconvenience, he says:

It doesn’t expect to be around for very long and has no stake in the long-term prospects of the neighbourhood.

Pink argues that people and businesses need not think of personal language as being weak and unsuitable in the arena of carrying out business. That people should try being more open and honest, and this is more likely to get customers to view you as being trustworthy and human.

I know this sounds right, but I really doubt this will happen on a sufficiently large scale. Working in a large company and living in a country famed for its bureaucratic attitudes, I encounter insensitive, uncaring, and non-human behaviour on a regular basis. The renter-owner comparison perfectly captures the problem. But I also blame such behaviour on individual laziness, the ability of an existing system to warp the minds of the average person working in it, and an inability to think independently. Look at workplace-verbiage such as "please reach out to me" or the infamous "touch base" (can I reach out to you to touch base?) rather than a simpler, more commonplace "please let me know"/"please contact me". Is this verbal camouflage? Do people learn to talk this way so as to meld into the ecosystem and not stick out too much?

Or, as I often suspect, they are just being idiots?

(from the archives: Billshot Bungle)

Aug 2, 2010

That's a wrap, Mr. Baswani

From what I can tell, the actor Ravi Baswani did not have a fan club or a Facebook page. And why wouldn't that be? IMDB lists fewer than 30 movies in his filmography, over a thirty year film career. Most of those movies never amounted to anything much. Some were nothing more than complete duds. Even his last public performance seems to be for a very unamusing ad for Mirinda.

Yet, to film-people and viewers of certain vintages and tastes, Ravi Baswani is a name that evokes several happy memories. Of chasing and being chased by Duryodhana. Of being turned into a chauffeur by Winnie Paranjape. Of losing a newly bought handkerchief in a girl-wooing scheme promoted by Amitabh Bachchan. Of being partly responsible for an entire generation both eating their cake and throwing it out of the window. And of being in a fabulous parody/tribute of ye olde hindi film songs.

You will notice that Baswani's reputation was built largely on his appearance in two movies. One is the much loved and much feted Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. The other is Chasme Buddoor, which according to me, has been the least watched of all the great Hindi films of the last 40 years. In both, he is in danger of being thought of a comic sidekick and a weakling. But it was never his place in the grand scheme of things to play the hero. To his credit, he always held his own: in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, trying to keep the moral compass in shape in a deeply immoral setting, while exhibiting shiftiness, jealousy and pusillanimity in Chasme Buddoor. In both senses, he was the guy next door - someone certain to lose out1.

As it often happens, we learned more about Ravi Baswani after news of his death (from a heart attack, after looking for locations for his directorial debut) came in (see 2). He was 64 - which meant his acting debut in 1980 was at the ripe old age of 34. That he was a highly regarded theatre actor (as most of these can-really-act Delhi-wallahs are). That he was straight-talking, even caustic at times, and said such things about movies like Jodhaa Akbar such as: It's like [Ashutosh Gowariker] said, "Bring me all the bad actors. I’m going to make cinema out of that.".. (And even that he was probably living a couple of kms away from my house in Santacruz (E), long ago!)

On one hand, Ravi Baswani never did much else that rivalled his two most famous films in terms of attention. On the other, in those, he achieved much more than many in Bollywood ever do in an entire life. The length of a career is never a good measure of anyone's work, and there are several people both inside and outside film industries that this could apply to. Perhaps he was too hemmed in by the nature of his comic success, the inevitably stereotyping, and for being a thoughtful person in a time and place that made such people go extinct very soon.

Still, as with most obits, this made me evaluate the place such a person had in my life, and I'm surprised to know that it was significant, even if brief. And what better excuse to pull out Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and Chasme Buddoor once again, to marvel at the writing and the little touches, and the people that chipped in to make our little lives worth living.

* His last known interview; another interesting interview (from 2003)
* Ravi Baswani played the moderator on an Indian version of Whose Line is it Anyway. He also did a fair bit of TV during the heydays of DD, and perhaps his last major TV role was in the slightly offbeat Just Mohabbat
* The latest film I've seen him in was in Naseeruddin Shah's debut directorial venture.
* I've read obits mention that his name in Chasme Buddoor was "Jai Lakhanpal". They might be wrong. One, to my ears, he says 'J. Lakhanpal' ("brother of B.A.Lakhanpal") and not "Jai". Second, I always thought he was making the whole thing up, because it was obvious he had no such brother. (Incidentally, a man named Dinesh Lakhanpal was an assistant director on the film in real life.)

The wonderful parody/tribute song sequence from Chasme Buddoor:

[1]: In a post called Who's playing the lead, I used Jomu's un-heroic inability to start his motorcycle to wonder if we would be the heroes of our films. It seems strangely appropriate to RB's life.

[2]: See an interviews with Kundan Shah and a post by Sudhir Mishra

Aug 1, 2010

The software has nothing to do with it

It's an old ploy - newspapers put out headlines or take angles in a story just to grab our attention, but without considering the facts. And who does it better than The Times of India? Today's newspaper reports the unfortunate murder of Darshana Tongare, a recent COEP grad and IBM trainee, who was stabbed by an unknown figure. Apparently she wasn't robbed, so the motives aren't entirely clear yet.

The Times of India takes the view that "The safety of women techies in Pune has come into sharp focus once again". So far, nothing suggests that the profession of the victim had anything to do with the incident. The safety of every woman in the city, professional or not, traveling at night could be called into question. In fact, the general safety of the populace at large. What's more shocking was the lack of response from the police control rooms, when passer-bys tried to report the incident. The ToI buries that deep into the report.

Many newspaper articles, particularly in headlines, report incidents of crime with the profession of the victim embedded. In most cases, this is incidental. "Techie" is now a cliched and obnoxious word - and not everyone working in a software company is a technologist. Cases of suicide caused by overwork may qualify. But to papers, just 'man robbed' isn't sufficiently eye-catching, I suppose.

In fact, the same ToI report lists 7 other cases from the last 2.5 years where Pune women associated with the world of IT-BPO have been assaulted. In four of these cases, the suspects/assailants were known to the victims, and were crimes involving personal disputes. Nothing to do with being in the software profession. But yes, at least two of the remaining three could be said to be directly related to the nature of the industry, involving late working hours and being situated in poorly connected/lit/policed areas of Pune.

Such a lack of perspective affects the city and the industry as a whole, and dilutes the focus away from such issues such as better policing and systems that could both prevent and solve such issues. Incidentally, the ToI's sister publication (to my mind, the more reliable and less hypocritical of the two) Pune Mirror takes the angle of the emergency number "100" being unmanned. The Indian Express report is expectedly sober. From a non-Pune-paper view, The Hindu largely report the facts, editorialising only in the end (which is their prerogative), quoting the appropriate earlier cases.

One hopes the case is swiftly solved and that the right lessons are learnt by the police. Might we dare to hope for the same for India's most selling newspaper?