Monday, July 25, 2016

The Grand Inquisitor And Notes on Recent Arthouse Science Fiction

Warning: Long post. Preoccupied with arthouse sensibilities in recent science fictional films. No spoilers anywhere.


There's long been a stock villain  especially in science fiction  who's suave, smooth-talking, cheerful, tremendously intelligent and often world-weary; and who relies on high philosophy to justify his actions, which justification is usually delivered as a didactic, dispassionate monologue at a critical, tense juncture. The most classic example is O'Brien from 1984, known for his powerful soliloquies, including memorable lines such as: 
Always, Winston, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face — forever. 
Such antagonists remain friendly, accessible, intimate and eminently understanding, even as they participate in cruelty without being somehow stained by its odor.

The (Vint Cerf lookalike) Architect from The Matrix Trilogy is another memorable character in this mould  his academic, abstract, nihilistically deadpan philosophical monologue in Reloaded is one of the high points in the Trilogy. Apart from science fiction, Chairman Jensen, in the terrific, far-ahead-of-its-time Network (whose thunderous, messianic peroration remains a treasure of world cinema: see youtube link here); and even Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds are prime exponents of this type.

The Grand Inquisitor radiates calm wisdom, deep understanding, genuine empathy and bucketloads of charisma while giving off the smell of total control and absolute, resistance-is-utterly-futile-variety invincibility. Pulling it off requires a fine balance on the part of the writer/director and it remains a notoriously difficult trope to get right. As a case in point, even the mighty Bong Joon-ho fails utterly in Snowpiercer (a rather forgettable effort, unfortunately) in rendering Ed Harris as a Grand-Inquisitor-type. The soliloquy is flat, the peroration, quite shrugworthy.

The returns however, are spectacular if you do get it right. Which brings us to Oscar Isaac's role as the almost otherworldly mega-billionaire in the terrific, sophisticated Ex Machina. 

The broad story arc of the film is as follows. A coder in a top software behemoth wins a one week vacation with the idiosyncratic, uber-genius owner. As the protagonist spends time on the owner's estate, he realizes that he's been roped in to administer a Turing test on a secret prototype. The owner is so confident that he's upped the ante instead of the usual test, the challenge is to observe that the interviewee is a machine (actually a hot, female android) and yet feel the conversation to be totally natural. Of course, not everything is as it seems and there is psychological manipulation at play. By whom? And directed towards whom? A surprisingly sophisticated and cerebral plot slowly reveals all answers.

The item that's breaking the internet
While everyone's written reams and reams on how great all performances were (especially Vikander's) most of the internet has been only paying attention to the admittedly quite groovy dance routine of Oscar Isaac. Hence, NF was compelled to highlight Oscar Isaac's brilliant performance since he hasn't seen much coverage of how spectacular an instantiation of The Grand Inquisitor he portrays. And yes, he had already noticed his powerful presence in the absolutely stunning Inside Llewyn Davis. In Ex Machina, Oscar Isaac delivers yet another killer performance. 

(A longish digression here. With Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens have established themselves as definitively the best American filmmakers alive today. No, it's not Tarantino look at the vapid, impressively hollow The Hateful Eight a classic case of the director being too full of himself and believing he can get away with nothing but his signature flourishes. No amount of fast talking, tense-conversations-ending-in-unexpected-bloodbaths can save this navel gazing wreck. It's not Woody Allen. He still comes up with surprisingly great films but his pinnacle coincided with Deconstructing Harry in 1997. Even truly great efforts like Match Point, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris; or Blue Jasmine don't stack up to summits he reached before. It's not Spielberg or even Scorsese they've peaked out long before and no one expects them to break new ground anymore.

The Coens are far ahead of other contenders as well. Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson are only a few films old. Linklater, Gus van Sant, and Harmony Korine are too niche. David Lynch and Terence Mallick are long past their prime. Fincher hasn't produced anything spectacular in ages. The Coens, however, remain a bag of surprises and with each film seem to get even better.)

Ex Machina is full of innovative details. For example, it's hinted that the film takes place in a near future but there's no timelapse of glittering, sprawling neon megacities, nor any direct connection to the outside world  the film being a mere four character domestic drama played out at the founder-owner's expansive, interminable estate. Similarly, as the story builds up, the real test reveals itself to be a Turing Test for humans, as the film slowly acquires dark overtones while cleverly subverting the classic, damsel-in-distress trope from film noirs of old. The camera-work is natural and understated; and the production design is outstanding. The ending is chilling, devastating and fitting revealing the title's true intent.

There's no Grand Peroration in Ex Machina but conversations between the protagonist employee and the uber rich employer are tight, singeing and brim over with dark overtones when you expect it the least. While Oscar Isaac is an almost otherworldly intelligence he's not merely that. He's also a meta-hipster who's rakishly handsome, incredibly cool, deeply thoughtful, irresistibly charming and oozes charisma out of every pore. He's also quick to take offence, impatient with slowness, prickly, extremely narcissistic and will cut you down to size in a blink. It's not hard to see him as an extrapolated amalgamation of the current (and past) crop of eccentric billionaires populating Silicon Valley today. Oscar Isaac shows himself to be a force of nature in a memorable and very powerful performance.

"Fucking unreal" indeed  as even his jaded character is compelled into uttering. 

Bravo! Highly recommended!


An arthouse approach to science fiction is not new. Luminaries like Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Tarkovsky (Solaris, Stalker) have been perennial inspirations. Among more recent arthouse ventures however, two other films that stand out the most are Spike Jonze's Her and Shane Carruth's Upstream Color (both 2013). 

In Her, Spike Jonze is almost perfect with nary a misstep and while the broad story arc may sound underwhelming a human falls in love with his operating system it's Jonze's masterful, supremely confident execution that makes the film an entirely believable, near future inevitability. The invisible Scarlett Johansson as the operating system "Samantha" is the one of the most original and stellar roles committed to film in recent memory. If there's any justice, she should get more recognition for her (voice) acting in this film. Indeed, together with the abstract, highly formalist and NF's recent favorite Under the Skin also released the same year, Scarlett Johansson has staked her claim as among the very finest American thespians in operation today. 

Much like Ex Machina, Her is an indoor drama. Again, much like Ex Machina, its science fiction is of an understated, somewhat unobtrusive variety. The protagonist's job seems to take him to both LA and Shanghai with equal frequency, suggestive of substantial efficiency gains in air travel; and there's a funny news announcement about the impending merger of India and China. What does differentiate, more explicitly, this society set in the near future is not the glitter of special effects but the subtle channel of everyday economics, design and fashion sensibilities. This has been Jonze's eternal playground and he excels in his quiet, background shots featuring near future office and home decor, current, in vogue fashion styles (observe Phoenix's rocking trousers), quirky-yet-not-outlandish near future job descriptions; and a gentle undercurrent of situational humor and romance that transform it from a merely well executed thought experiment to a beautiful and surprisingly touching love story.

Upstream Color is more radically formalist, much like its director Shane Carruth's previous, undecipherable Primer. While its take-no-prisoners-unapologetically-abstract approach could draw parallels from Under the Skin (also released in 2013, making it a watershed in artsy science fiction filmmaking), a more fitting influence seems to be Terence Mallick, whose shadow looms large and whose imprint upon this film (especially Tree of Life) is undeniable. 

In Upstream Color, Shane Carruth sticks with his fluid, scenes-melding-into-each-other approach. Dialogues are minimal, camera movement maximal and the plot (which involves two people infected by a mysterious worm which renders them slavishly pliable to hypnotic suggestions of which no memories survive, as well as telepathic connections mediated by pigs in whose bodies the worms are provided refuge) somewhat threadbare making sense only slowly as the film meanders its way towards conclusion. In common with Ex Machina and Her, Upstream Color's intrusion into explicit science fictional territory is minimal indeed, the only few seconds it occupies is the footage of a drone on a computer there are hardly any special effects and one may even be forgiven into thinking the film to be completely disconnected from science fiction and being merely an arthouse offering. 

However, much in the same way as mathematical maturity is found not buried beneath formidable equations but in the style and characterization of formal argumentation, exploration of science fictional themes occurs not in overt displays of neon sparkle and action sequences in deep space but in the casual interstices of ordinary scenes played out by ordinary humans under the yoke of an alternative reality. It's in this subtle, unobtrusive, ethereal background noise that the future is dispersed in the present; and it's in this mould that these new films are welcome intrusions into our present space.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Project X

His first film, "Jangal Sagre Baeen Bhaye Kubade" ("जंगल सगरे बईन भए कुबड़े") (tr. Jungles All Beein' Hunchbacks, 92 min (Hindi, Urdu, Bhojpuri)) was reviewed glowingly in the influential Journal of the JNU Film Society, which described it as "... a debut so assured and accomplished, it's unnerving!". The impact of its slow tracking shots, lush visuals, its self aware, somewhat understated, idiosyncratic storytelling - a curious mix of high and low, academic and folk, self serious and comic - is as powerful today as it was when it first came out. It premiered at the Gorakhpur Film Festival, was screened at Lucknow Mahotsava (tr. Lucknow Big-Festival) and won Best Editing from the Kolkata Critics' Association.

According to some commentators, he did little filmmaking for the next several years, choosing instead, to publish some poetry and short stories in Hans (tr. Swan) and teaching philosophy at IIT Kanpur; and has not been heard of for the past five years (though see the survey in Srivastava et al. which allude to his writing (uncredited) in obscure, arthouse indies like "Bonga" ("बोंगा") (tr. Bonga) and "Antatogatvaa" ("अंततोगत्वा") (tr. In the End)).

And so, when Jenny argued in the Lucknow Film Quarterly that "Neti Neti" ("नेति नेति") (tr. Not this, not this, 81 min (Hindi), unreleased) was his second film and got a message some days later that not only was she right but there were several other unreleased works, she asked if she could arrange a meeting.

"I can't meet you", came back the message. "But I can send you some evidence."

Saturday, June 18, 2016


From Kedarnath Singh's poetry collection सृष्टि पर पहरा (tr. Nature Under Watch)

घर और देश 

हिंदी मेरा देश है 
भोजपुरी मेरा घर 
घर से निकलता हूँ 
तो चला जाता हूँ देश में 
देश से छुट्टी मिलती है 
तो लौट अाता हूँ घर 

इस अावाजाही में 
कई बार घर में चला अाता है देश 
देश में कई बार 
छूट जाता है घर 

मैं दोनों को प्यार करता हूँ 
और देखिए न मेरी मुश्किल 
पिछले साठ बरसों से 
दोनों में दोनों को 
खोज रहा हूँ 

NF's English translation:

Home and Country

Hindi is my country
Bhojpuri my home
When I leave home
I go into the country
When I get leave from the country
I return home

In this coming and going
Many a time the country walks into the home
In the country many a time
The home gets left behind

I love them both
And consider my difficulty (won't you)?
Past sixty years I've been
Both in each other.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

They Also Serve Who Only Stand and Wait

From Kedarnath Singh's poetry collection सृष्टि पर पहरा (tr. Nature Under Watch).

विज्ञान और नींद 

जब ट्रेन में चढ़ता हूँ 
तो विज्ञान को धन्यवाद देता हूँ 
वैज्ञानिक को भी 

जब उतरता हूँ वायुयान से 
तो ढेरों धन्यवाद देता हूँ विज्ञान को 
और थोड़ा सा ईश्वर को भी  

पर जब बिस्तर पर जाता हूँ 
और रौशनी में नहीं आती नींद 
तो बत्ती बुझाता हूँ 
और सो जाता हूँ 

विज्ञान के अँधेरे में  
अच्छी नींद आती है 

NF's English translation:

Science and Sleep 

When I board a train
I thank Science
The scientist too

When I alight an aircraft
I thank Science a lot
And God a little too

But when I go to bed
And sleep eludes me under lights
I switch off the bulb
And go to sleep

Under Science's blackout
One sleeps well

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Pronounced Nwaa:(r)

He thought it a good omen that he woke up early to the drumbeat of his ever flaccid member's throbbing erection - little did he know that before the sun had set, he'd be broken, shattered and bruised, fighting every inch (valiantly, one might say) for his life - but it won't matter to us in the least, because this story is not about him but about someone else altogether; and his name is Robert Paulson.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Hari Seldons of the World, Unite!

Legend has it that once a famous physicist (NF thinks it was Stanislaw Ulam) challenged Paul Samuelson to name even one discovery in economics that was counterintuitive yet indubitably true. After reflecting upon it for a while, Samuelson is said to have cited Ricardo's 19th century idea of comparative advantage. 

Upon updating Ulam's challenge in contemporary terms, one can cast the following challenge: "While there are several more deep ideas in theoretical economics (the Nash equilibrium, Arrow's impossibility theorem, the Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem are some top contenders), has there been any empirical economic exposition of a real world, social phenomenon that is counterintuitive but indubitably true?" 

The short answer is that there are many. But none of them pack a more powerful punch than the following story on crime rates in America

The broad contours of the debate are well known - empirically, there was a long build up in the '60s onwards, leading to a peak in crime in US cities around the '90s after which rates receded and continue to do so even now. A massive academic, as well as public debate has followed this issue from several different points of view - ranging from sociological and criminological, to religious, political and economic. NF has been aware of this debate since his undergraduate days when he chanced upon the funny and clever Freakonomics, where the (co)author Steven Levitt from U Chicago described his research in which he displayed evidence that legalized abortion, with the attendant termination of several unwanted pregnancies, was perhaps the most important factor; and not the tough policing or other such more intuitive explanations. Needless to say, the paper invited controversy, though economists characteristically ignored criticism, accustomed as they've been (cf Gary Becker) to allegations of economic imperialism from decades past.

Rudy Giuliani espoused the "broken windows" theory of crime - you let one broken window unrepaired and soon the whole building will sport them - the moral being, no tolerance for small crimes will automatically stop big crimes. However, there were problems:
...political scientist John DiIulio warned that the echo of the baby boom would soon produce a demographic bulge of millions of young males that he famously dubbed "juvenile super-predators." Other criminologists nodded along. But even though the demographic bulge came right on schedule, crime continued to drop. And drop. And drop. By 2010, violent crime rates in New York City had plunged 75 percent from their peak in the early '90s.
There were several explanations based on drugs, policing, gun control (or lack thereof), family, prisons and of course, race. One Rick Nevin, however, observed something curious.
Lead emissions from tailpipes rose steadily from the early '40s through the early '70s, nearly quadrupling over that period. Then, as unleaded gasoline began to replace leaded gasoline, emissions plummeted. Intriguingly, violent crime rates followed the same upside-down U pattern. The only thing different was the time period: Crime rates rose dramatically in the '60s through the '80s, and then began dropping steadily starting in the early '90s. The two curves looked eerily identical, but were offset by about 20 years...
...In a 2000 paper (PDF) he concluded that if you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America. Toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the '40s and '50s really were more likely to become violent criminals in the '60s, '70s, and '80s.
Elsewhere, a graduate student Jessica Wolpaw Reyes was conducting her own investigation:
During the '70s and '80s, the introduction of the catalytic converter, combined with increasingly stringent Environmental Protection Agency rules, steadily reduced the amount of leaded gasoline used in America, but Reyes discovered that this reduction wasn't uniform. In fact, use of leaded gasoline varied widely among states, and this gave Reyes the opening she needed. If childhood lead exposure really did produce criminal behavior in adults, you'd expect that in states where consumption of leaded gasoline declined slowly, crime would decline slowly too. Conversely, in states where it declined quickly, crime would decline quickly. And that's exactly what she found.
Meanwhile Nevin kept writing:
Nevin collected lead data and crime data for Australia and found a close match. Ditto for Canada. And Great Britain and Finland and France and Italy and New Zealand and West Germany. Every time, the two curves fit each other astonishingly well. When I spoke to Nevin about this, I asked him if he had ever found a country that didn't fit the theory. "No," he replied. "Not one."
Further, others began noticing this observation.
We now have studies at the international level, the national level, the state level, the city level, and even the individual level. Groups of children have been followed from the womb to adulthood, and higher childhood blood lead levels are consistently associated with higher adult arrest rates for violent crimes. All of these studies tell the same story: Gasoline lead is responsible for a good share of the rise and fall of violent crime over the past half century.
Several neurological studies confirm such effects of lead on the human brain.
In other words, as Reyes summarized the evidence in her paper, even moderately high levels of lead exposure are associated with aggressivity, impulsivity, ADHD, and lower IQ. And right there, you've practically defined the profile of a violent young offender. 
Needless to say, not every child exposed to lead is destined for a life of crime. Everyone over the age of 40 was probably exposed to too much lead during childhood, and most of us suffered nothing more than a few points of IQ loss. But there were plenty of kids already on the margin, and millions of those kids were pushed over the edge from being merely slow or disruptive to becoming part of a nationwide epidemic of violent crime. Once you understand that, it all becomes blindingly obvious. 
The new results remain ignored however among leading criminology experts:
Mark Kleiman, a public policy professor at the University of California-Los Angeles who has studied promising methods of controlling crime, suggests that because criminologists are basically sociologists, they look for sociological explanations, not medical ones. My own sense is that interest groups probably play a crucial role: Political conservatives want to blame the social upheaval of the '60s for the rise in crime that followed. Police unions have reasons for crediting its decline to an increase in the number of cops. Prison guards like the idea that increased incarceration is the answer. Drug warriors want the story to be about drug policy. If the actual answer turns out to be lead poisoning, they all lose a big pillar of support for their pet issue. And while lead abatement could be big business for contractors and builders, for some reason their trade groups have never taken it seriously.
The article grimly goes on to outline how massive amounts of leftover zombie lead continues to flourish in the soil and pose a threat to human society, especially children.

NF believes this to be an exemplary, current answer to Ulam's updated challenge. The phenomenon of crime rate dynamics was a puzzle for several social sciences. Everyone had partial explanations and dogged beliefs but the main culprit remained at large for several decades and was unearthed only gradually, over years of painstaking empirical verification.

Counterintuitive yet indubitably true.

Do read the whole thing! Highly, highly recommended.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

In Praise of Commercial Culture

Vishwas R Gaitonde is on top of NF's next great writer-to-watch-list. Read his magisterial, epic-in-scope, gloriously erudite essay that just takes your breath away: Viewing Narnia Through A Hindu Lens, in which he interprets the classic in terms of Advait Vedantic philosophy - biblical homilies sprinkled uniformly by the Christian apologist CS Lewis notwithstanding. An enviable achievement indeed - highly recommended! 

Praise be, to a host of new, exciting magazines that continue to feature such astonishingly high quality long form journalism, in particular, to the The Mantle and Inference. The latter for example, published an awe-inspiring essay by the mathematician Gregory Chaitin about his project of empirical mathematics, which essay he begins by way of Leibniz, followed by Popper, Imre Lakatos, Turing, Godel and others along the way to conclude that mathematicians should study mathematics with an empirical state of mind, and points to P ≠ NP, cryptography etc. as problems where this attitude has shown success. Among ye old reliable, The Caravan and The Believer continue to impress.

While the publishing business continues to adjust to the rude reality of the internet (though witness the continued success of The Economist and FT), for the readers-as-consumers group, times have never been better before! 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The (Abstract) Horror, The (Abstract) Horror

It's really heartening to witness the slow, searing brilliance of It Follows and Under the Skin. Both films belong solidly to the indie-arthouse-horror category and while the arthouse-horror label is old (think Eraserhead), its indie interpretation makes for compelling viewing. Again, while it's not a new thing altogether (think Blairwitch Project) and other equally powerful films that fit the label have been made in the recent past (think We Need to Talk About Kevin), their distinctively original take on classic horror tropes made a fan out of NF. Both films eschew cleverness, metafictional commentaries etc. (cf. the really funny Cabin in the Woods for a contrast) to focus on what's really important - mood, atmospherics, stylization and an unapologetically arthouse, indie outlook.

It Follows is about the girl whom It is Following after she contracts It from a boyfriend - an abstractification of the exclusive, animal horror felt under pursuit. The premise is intriguing, especially the notion that It may be passed on to others. Transference is not enough though, for once It is finished with someone, It relentlessly pursues the one who originally passed It on; and while reviewers have seen it as an allegory for the AIDS epidemic etc. (which make more sense once you see the film); NF likes the film the way it is - ambiguous, pretty and abstract. 

Under the Skin goes even further as a self conscious arthouse feature. It follows Scarlett Johansson as she prowls about Scotland seducing gullible men. The weather's grey, the palette lush, the style highly formalist. The ritualistic seduction is eerie, ambiguous and surprisingly beautiful. (If you think you know the Scarlett-Johansson-as-seductress trope, watch this film for a rude shock.) The pursuer's humanity is suspect, though a chance encounter makes her ignore protocol and become curious about humans; whose humanity or lack thereof she discovers by the end. What's under the skin is that matters in the end. Or does it? 

Another aspect worth mentioning is the stunning, discomfiting soundtrack (Mica Levi of Micachu and The Shapes fame) which segues seamlessly with the primal dread each frame oozes. NF awaits Jonathan Glazer's next with bated breath!

Bravo you guys!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Beautiful Mind...

... is alive no more. Lloyd Shapley gives up the ghost. Here's The Economist's obituary

Eerily enough, NF had let loose his wagging tongue singing praises for his "men proposing procedure" matching algorithm, a mere hour before he read of his demise. A good omen that. A tiny tribute this.

The redoubtable Aumann is our last man standing. May he stand long. May he stand last.

Update: Hilary Putnam's no more either. The ides of goddamn-you-March. Boo.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

एकदा मेटलोपरांते

(नोट: टाइटल अमृतलाल नागर की "एकदा नैमिषारण्ये" से चुराया हुआ है.)


अपने बैंड का नाम बहुत सोच समझ के रखना चाहिए. केवल धाकड़ नाम से कुछ नहीं होता है. केवल धाकड़ अर्थ से भी कुछ नहीं होता है. इस मामले का भी ख्याल रखना चाहिए कि बैंड खुद को कैसे देखता है - उसकी आत्म-व्याख्या क्या है? क्या बैंड के सदस्य खुद को और अपनी कला को बड़ी गंभीरता से लेते हैं? या फिर आत्म-व्यंग्यात्मक समझ की सम्भावना है? ये सब मालूम होना बहुत ज़रूरी है. (इस मामले में एक अच्छा भविष्यवक्ता बैंड मेंबर्स की काफी सहायता कर सकता है.)

अब पोस्ट-मेटल बैंड "आइसिस" को ही लीजिये - बिचारे अपनी संजीदा नामावली को कितना कोसते होंगे! अगर कोई हंसोड़ नाम रखा होता तो क्या ये दिन देखना नसीब होता? क्या कोई छिछोरा, आत्मोपहासी नाम-मात्र, आतंक-अवरोधी बीमा नहीं है? क्या कल को कोई आतंकी संगठन अपना नाम "बटहोल सर्फर्स" (अनु: नितम्ब-छिद्र अन्वेषी) रख सकता है? लेकिन "ऐन्थ्रैक्स" और "स्लेयर" जैसे नाम आतंकियों की लिस्ट में इज़्ज़तदार और हिट नामों में शुमार होंगे. नहीं? 

मुझे तो लगता है कि आम तौर पे आर्टिस्ट जनता को खुद को सीरियसली लेना ही नहीं चाहिए; और ढिठाई और हलके छिछोरेपन की एक मोटी, पुष्ट चादर में स्वयं को लपेटे रहना चाहिए. ऐसा करने से बकैती में भी इज़ाफ़ा होता है - विश्वास न हो तो कुंदन शाह और कमल स्वरुप से पूछ लो.

वैसे पीकेडी लिखित, सत्यव्रत अनूदित "बह मेरे आँसू पुलिसवाला बोला" के बारे में सुना है तुमने? मेरे मुंह में तो पानी आ रहा है! 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

निरी आर्ट फिल्म

"सतह से उठता आदमी" मेरे लिए मणि कॉल की पहली पिक्चर थी. इस फिल्म में वे सब गुण थे जिनसे आम इंसान थोड़ा घबराते हैं - बोझिल संवेदना, धीमी चाल, अवसादोन्मुख यथार्थ - और एक सजग, सघन कलात्मक आत्मतुष्टता.

इन शार्ट, बेहद पकाऊ.

बचपन में इन्ही कारणों से मैं आधुनिक हिंदी साहित्य से बचता था. देवकीनन्दन खत्री का मैं भक्त था, लेकिन इतना मुझे भी मालूम था कि बड़े राइटर खत्री बाबू नहीं, बड़े राइटर मुक्तिबोध हैं, या उनके टाइप के अमूर्त, निम्न-मध्यवर्गीय पर्यवेक्षण में लिप्त उनके चेले चपाटे. कॉलेज के दिनों में मैं स्वतः हिंदी साहित्य के प्रति पुनर्जिज्ञासित हुआ, लेकिन इसका श्रेय निर्मल वर्मा को देना बेहतर होगा - निर्मल वर्मा, जो यूरोप में दोस्तों के साथ बियर पीते थे, उम्दा यात्रा साहित्य लिखते थे, नयी कहानी के प्रणेता थे; और कूलता की सारी हदें पार कर चुके थे. बीच बीच में मैं फिर से मुक्तिबोध की तरफ लौटता था (हूँ) ("शायद इस बार कुछ चमकेगा!?") लेकिन उनकी अमूर्त कविताओं का लौह आवरण अभी तक अभेद रहा है - बू हू!

कुछ ऐसा ही सोच के मैंने फिल्म देखने का फैसला किया था. ये सोच के कि कम-से-कम किताब पढ़ी है, खुद को हौसला भी दिलाया था. "पिक्चर बोरिंग है और पल्ले भी नहीं पड़ेगी", ये स्वयं को आगाह भी था. लेकिन जैसा सोचा था, वैसा ही हुआ - सतह से उठता आदमी, सुपर थकाऊ और सुपर पकाऊ पिक्चर निकली - निरी आर्ट फिल्म सुसरी!

लेकिन मैं उसे भूल नहीं पाया.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Reading List: January 2015 - January 2016

  1. वह भी कोई देस है महराज (अनिल यादव) (tr. Is that too a country my lord!, Anil Yadav) 
  2. The Great Hunt (Robert Jordan) 
  3. The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid) 
  4. A Case of Exploding Mangoes (Mohammad Hanif) 
  5. The Dragon Reborn (Robert Jordan) 
  6. सब उसके लिए (मुनव्वर राना) (tr. All For Her (Him), Munawwar Rana) 
  7. Kafka On The Shore (Haruki Murakami) 
  8. आँखों आँखों रहे (वसीम बरेलवी) (tr. Eyes Eyes In, Wasim Barelwi) 
  9. Farther Away (Jonathan Franzen) 
  10. Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (Fyodor Dostoyevsky) 
  11. Galapagos (Kurt Vonnegut) 
  12. Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell) 
  13. Waiting for the Barbarians (J M Coetzee) 
  14. संसद से सड़क तक (सुदामा पाण्डेय 'धूमिल') (tr. From Parliament To Street, Sudama Pandey "Dhoomil") 
  15. The Fires of Heaven (Robert Jordan) 
  16. New Spring (Robert Jordan) 
  17. The Man in the High Castle (Philip K Dick) (reread) 
  18. Parallel Stories (Peter Nadas) 
  19. Lord of chaos (Robert Jordan) 
  20. नौकर की कमीज (विनोद कुमार शुक्ल) (tr. The Servant's Shirt, Vinod Kumar Shukla) 
  21. Game Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Ken Binmore) 
  22. Solaris (Stanislaw Lem)

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Portrait of the Mathematician as a Young Artist

A grand synthesis of Pragmatism, Wittgenstein's meaning-is-use, and his own native, formalist mathematical leanings was his Last Stand, in a long career often marked by a succession of radical, often geometrically inspired reinterpretations of classical notions, which while facing stiff resistance initially, gained slow influence over time. In a rare interview, he called himself a "late bloomer", with each decade of his life, more accomplished than the last, his oeuvre progressively acquiring the warm glow of what is now his signature mathematics-is-study-of-forms approach. By the end, he was described to be increasingly moody and aloof - given to blank stares, idiosyncratic pronouncements and unsubstantiated claims - on platforms both technical and lay, about the invisible, unobservable mathematical forms he dubbed "connection gauges"; followed by denouncements of a "cavalier, merely bijective" approach he attributed to others. 

His followers - a tiny cult of star struck graduate students and young, ambitious academics - breathed a collective sigh of relief when he began being professionally handled by his psychiatrist children, who, among other things, firmly believed in the therapeutic effects of thinly fictionalized modes of alternative self expression, particularly obituaristic.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Reasons To Be Cheerful

  1. Kumar Gandharva's interpretation of Kabir
  2. Mani Kaul's Siddheshwari
  3. Siddheshwari Devi
  4. Amit Dutta's Kramashah
  5. Amit Dutta

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

(एक दशक पुराना) रोग

*हेवी मेटल ग्राउलिंग अंदाज़*

मन प्रदीप्त था, ह्रदय उद्दीप्त था
ना सकता था किसी से हार
मानो जीवन में आ बरसी
चंचल अप्रतिम अमूर्त बहार
प्रेम व्याधि थे उसे कहते
करती वो सबको अशांत
बन गए थे सब रोगी उसके
कुत्सित, मलिन दीन और क्लांत

क्यूंकि है ये एक रोग
मात्र एक रोग
जीवन में भर देगा ये
अवसाद व शोक
है ये एक रोग
मात्र एक रोग
भोग है ये भोग
भोग मात्र भोग


निद्रा से जब जागेगा
पायेगा नया विकार
छलेंगे तुझको नित्यप्रति
कष्टों के नए प्रकार
फाड़ दे चादर तन्द्रा की
तू बन रहा प्रकृति का शिकार
हाँ खोल दे आँखें निद्रा की
और ले ये सुन्दर दृश्य निहार

क्यूंकि है ये एक रोग
मात्र एक रोग
जीवन में भर देगा ये
अवसाद व शोक
है ये एक रोग
मात्र एक रोग
भोग है ये भोग
भोग मात्र भोग


*कुछ रैप-नुमा, फेथ नो मोर के माफ़िक*

प्रकृति रचित सुन्दर ये पाश
ढक ले ज्ञानोदीप्त प्रकाश
मूढ़ता बंधन में विवश हो
बनते हम काल के ग्रास

ज्ञानी होने पर क्यों विवश हैं?
होकर एकाकार पृथक हैं
इंद्रजाल मायानगरी का
वास्तव में सब अलग थलग हैं

हाँ हाँ हम सब दिखला देंगे
अब तो सब सतर्क सजग है
ब्रह्मज्ञान से प्रतिभासित
शिरोमणि मुकुट जगमग है


क्यूंकि है ये एक रोग
मात्र एक रोग
जीवन में भर देगा ये
अवसाद व शोक
है ये एक रोग
मात्र एक रोग
भोग है ये भोग
भोग मात्र भोग



सौजन्य से: कांसेप्ट बैण्ड, ब्रह्मास्मि

Monday, November 30, 2015

So Meta, It Stasized

Attention Conservation Notice (h/t the great Cosma Shalizi): A (very, very) long, meandering, frequently digressive piece on, and an unapologetically hagiographic review-of-sorts of, Mani Kaul's Siddheshwari; featuring factionalism in Parallel Cinema, Shahrukh Khan and self indulgent navel gazing (not in the same order). To expect a cogent, critical, objective analysis from this piece would be tantamount to expecting a leg break from Anil Kumble; or anything but from Venkatesh Prasad. 

You have been warned.

(A part of NF still thinks ending the post here - right after detailed instructions on how to read it have been enshrined - would be cool (so second order meta!). Thankfully NF isn't a teenager anymore and has been declared free from cleveritis for some time now.)


Mita Vashisht as Siddheshwari

When someone asked him where they could find his films, he once said: “It’s good you haven’t seen them, but heard about them, you know; as time goes by the negatives of most of my films, which are in very bad shape, are getting worse, and there are very few prints anyway that are still alright…so, as I get more and more known, fewer people see my work. There will be a time when there won’t be any work left, and I will be gone, and people will be saying, ‘Mani Kaul, Mani Kaul, Mani Kaul’...” 
NF has whined often about discovering his heroes only after they've been dead for a while - Nirmal Verma, Manohar Shyam Joshi, David Foster Wallace were all part of this list, which now has the dubious distinction of adding yet another newcomer: Mani Kaul (the only hero who has been spared this treatment has been William Gibson - forever long may he live). Truth be told, while NF got around to finally watching his first Mani Kaul film a few months ago, he had been meaning to do so for many years now - having bought a three-in-one DVD of his films (Uski Roti, Duvidha, Nazar) from NFDC a few years back. That DVD still lies atop his bookshelf - its dust-laden cover, having never been in danger of being opened. That his films are supposedly challenging and not for the fainthearted, filled the prospect of viewing them with dread and subliminal anxiety.

In an eerie twist however, when he did finally see Siddheshwari, his universe was so jolted, so awestruck he was that he felt paralyzed to get the word out, since a post about the film, with an even remotely similar scope felt intimidating beyond belief. And hence this post has been more than two months in the making - the fact that it's finally being put to paper isn't about slaying personal demons or climbing mount impossible; but is more of a mad rush for self preservation - the sooner NF gets it out of his head, the quicker the end of his obsession with the film. It probably also has to do something with a newfound ambition NF's been suffering from, which causes him to think he can do justice to the subjects he's going to write about, making said prospect of writing filled with the aforementioned dread and subliminal anxiety. (There are some other posts several months in the making too - the utterly, utterly delightful Frances Ha being another one of them, with NF given to swooning over the mere mention of Greta Gerwig - levels hithertofore reached only by the likes of Fatima Bhutto (O heart, do be still!).)

NF finally took the plunge after watching Bollywood celebrities pay their respects to the great master soon after his demise. Rajat Kapoor, Anurag Kashyap and Mita Vashisht, straddling arthouse and commercial cinema alike, were natural candidates; but it was Rakesh Omprakash Mehra's account of stumbling on to Siddheshwari at a local theater that gave NF courage. Unaware of Mani Kaul and being a fan of Siddheshwari Devi - the legendary thumri singer from Benaras - he went in hoping to see a documentary (which the film ostensibly is); and so transfixed he was by what he saw that he watched it again and again and again obsessively - about six times in over a month!

This was the final push NF needed.

Table of Contents:

Ostensibly, Siddheshwari is a 1990 National Film Award winning documentary about the life of Siddheshwari Devi - a famous classical singer from Benaras; but this sentence might just be the most misleading description of the film ever - as Rakesh Omprakash Mehra was to discover. Mani Kaul preemptively assuages the lay viewer who is soon going to be hit with a barrage of wantonly, obscenely beautiful imagery, the meaning of which will be forever, maddeningly out of her grasp, by including a very helpful 'Table of Contents'. Urvashi curses Arjun for scorning her and then relocates to earth as a Gandharva; Siddheshwari's childhood with her mausi (maternal aunt) who trains her daughter (though not Siddhi) in classical music which Siddhi osmotically absorbs, eventually astonishing the guru so much that he takes her under his wing after Siddhi is evicted by the aunt; her musical peregrinations (literal and metaphorical) over boat rides over Ganga due to the patronage of the local ruler; and eventual fame and acclaim.

This table of contents is absolutely key to understanding the film - so much so that its exclusion will result in complete and utter bafflement - and yet its importance is easy to miss on a first viewing, as NF was to discover. In fact, NF strongly suspects that this table of contents was the stand-in for a screenplay - Kaul's untethered, rich, insanely imaginative visuals seem impossible to be tied down systematically in a detailed script. If so, he wouldn't have been the first - Wong kar Wai - another example of an ultra-stylish director prioritizing lush visuals over plot, relies only minimally on detailed screenplays.

The film is a radical inversion of what a documentary supposedly is and arrogates to itself the right to reimagine the idea of being Siddheshwari. More a montage of exquisitely beautiful images in motion tied only loosely by chronology, mythology and musicology, it feels like a plotless, surreal dreamscape propelled only by the powerful voice of Siddheshwari Devi; and an impenetrable-at-first internal logic that begins to make more sense on repeated viewings. NF has no hesitation in acknowledging it as the most formally inventive, authentically avant garde Indian film he's ever seen, with its slow-swooping camerawork, cinematographical wizardry and all round technical excellence putting to shame even current films - commercial and arthouse.

Fact, fiction, myth, music, the impossibly narrow gorgeous alleys of Benaras, whispers, oblique dialogues - all meld together in a jumbled, impressionistic collage to induce a state of mind that affects you viscerally - on a level so low that conscious thoughts find the gates barred for entry. The camera lingers on its subjects' profiles, then languorously shifts its gaze to the ghats and steps of Benaras and the richly hued doors and windows it houses, acquiring sepia tones when transgressing reality; donning rich colours when merely accentuating it. Mita Vashisht is impossibly ravishing and looks every bit the Urvashi whose curse would turn Arjun into a eunuch. The style is dazzling; the effect, hypnotic.

The sheer density of visual poetry per frame in the film is unprecedented. It is gloriously, glacially, majestically, powerfully, stunningly beautiful. It looks the way Nirmal Verma reads. NF finds it useful to think of Siddheshwari as a ninety minute long thumri music video with visuals so lavish and style so breathtaking that it'll turn Tarsem Singh, Chris Cunningham and their ilk green with envy. 

And what an inconceivable, perfect, even subversive ending that inverts, yet again, the identities of subject and object. The only other equally satisfying, artistically impeccable ending that shook NF to the bone was Kieślowski's Three Colours: Red's. Indeed, in terms of technique, the only valid comparisons to be made are those with Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr; and heavily biased as NF is, he feels the former's Stalker and Kubrick's 2001... to be the only films that are as visually powerful and formally accomplished. The magnitude of the achievement is every bit as stratospheric as Ray's Apu Trilogy - among the greatest that Indian cinema, arthouse or otherwise, has ever produced (though on an artistic spectrum, the farthest possible from Ray's Indian neorealism - quite self-consciously as it turns out; for Ray was famously dismissive of Kaul's "anaemic" and "aesthete" brand of filmmaking).

(For those who would think that Indian parallel cinema was a monolithic movement against formulaic, popular cinematic traditions will be sorely disappointed. Not only were there several parallel movements, there wasn't much love lost between them, though it is said that there were two towering masters - Ray and Ghatak - who along with their numerous disciples (Kaul and Shahani were supposedly in the Ghatak zone) dug themselves in two camps: neorealism (Ray) and non-neorealism (!) (Ghatak). Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani despaired over Kaul and Shahani's branding as 'parallel' filmmakers, Kaul thanked Ghatak for curing him of the 'disease' of realism.)

Normals and Tangents

This brings NF to the curious case of Amit Dutta who's fast become the Ted Chiang of avant garde filmmaking - a bona fide freak as far as prizes per unit artwork is concerned. His short FTII thesis film Kramashah (tr. To be continued/In sequence) was introduced to NF by Somnath Pal - an old friend and budding filmmaker whose fan NF's been for years. By the end of the film, NF sat thoroughly destroyed and completely bewildered by its sheer brilliance, being totally unable to get a handle on what the fuck it is and how the fuck is that even possible. 

Not many can take out 90 minutes to watch the dazzling brilliance that Siddheshwari is. But to not take out 20 minutes to sample how truly path breaking Kramashah is, is simply inexcusable. Here is the full film, with subtitles:

Siddheshwari however, is the rosetta stone that helps unlock Kramashah. While substantially original, it bears Kaul's distinct cinematic stamp - gorgeous shot selection; exquisite camerawork; a preoccupation with Indian folk tales and myths; elliptical, oblique dialogues and slightly out-of-phase whispers with their curious mix of literary and folk Hindi; and an unabashedly (for lack of a better word) avant garde sensibility that remains obdurately, authentically Indian. Kramashah could not have been possible without Siddheshwari in the same way Smells Like Teen Spirit would've been impossible without Surfer Rosa. This is not to deny Amit Dutta his fiery originality but to underscore that flying off a rooftop to aim for the moon often ends with you legs up in the garbage dump, as Rajat Kapoor's short Tarana (Kaul's Dhrupad's bad copy - that it won the National Award is a scandal!) reminds us. It took Rajat Kapoor twenty more years to craft an homage that is true to the spirit of his mentor in Ankhon Dekhi. NF admires his tenacity and persistence since most ordinary mortals would've jumped off a cliff after the embarrassment that Tarana is.

Amit Dutta (in general) and Kramashah (in particular) are spiritual successors of the legacy of Mani Kaul (in general) and Siddheshwari (in particular).

On a somewhat tangential note, Shahrukh Khan produced and Amol Palekar directed the remake of Mani Kaul's 1973 Duvidha, in turn adapted from the cult Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha's short story. The same SRK was no stranger to Kaul's art by the way. Back when he was a mere mortal, his repertoire of films comprised an incredibly artsy portfolio - ranging from Pradip Krishen's oddly titled (and somewhat pretentious, though don't just take NF's word for it) In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones (starring Arundhati Roy as the protagonist Annie), Ketan Mehta's Maya Memsaab and Mani-fucking-Kaul's Ahmak - an adaptation of Dostoyevsky's Idiot (no NF hasn't seen this yet). Here is a completely unbelievable news item from 1992 (archived from 2012) on Shahrukh Khan's then incipient rise and features this golden gem from SRK: 
"Yaar," he says, laying bare his carefree air, "shooting for Mani was something else. I didn't understand the movie but I loved the art film environment..."

Watch Kramashah, it's only 20 minutes long and is gloriously, unforgivably gorgeous. If it's up your alley, be fearless and take the plunge, for Siddheshwari is a high risk high return proposition - if it's a miss, you'll know it after having watched Kramashah, if it's not, it'll be a film you will never forget for it will paralyze you with its beauty. It will make a fan out of you of Mani Kaul, of his vision of avant garde cinema; and not least - of Siddheshwari Devi's mesmerizing art which you, like NF will begin listening to on a loop. Of so much ink that NF wasted in this post, not one sentence was about how Kaul uses Siddheshwari Devi's divine thumri to devastatingly good use. NF just hasn't developed the vocabulary for that. If you don't think you can watch Siddheshwari, just to sample what you've missed, watch this stellar, stellar scene where the guruji lays supine on this bed and plays the sarangi; and just observe how slowly, lovingly the camera moves around the room, as if sculpting in time.

For the brave and fearless, here is the full film (no subtitles though). Viva friggin' la!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Galactic Pot Dealer

A lot of people view Philip K Dick as a hack writer; and yes, there is a lot of merit to the argument. NF himself has been quoted a few times saying something to this effect. Mostly, the type of people who hold this view take writing as a craft very seriously and on a lower, sentence-by-sentence level, PKD is very hackish - no doubt about it. (A wonderful, perhaps apocryphal incident involves someone looking at a remarkably low quality pulp fiction journal and wondering who'd ever read it, to which PKD retorted that he was one of those who wrote it.) In fact, it's a common complaint against science fiction and fantasy writing in general, held presumably by those in the literary fiction camp, who are very self conscious about what they're writing - sometimes so much so that they go to great lengths to make their prose rather ugly and/or purposely un-self conscious. 

However, there are times when PKD breaks through his self limitations of uninspiring writing, vapid dialogue and plot-twists-of-varying-degrees-of-efficacy. One may wonder how much of it is a mere law of large numbers (he wrote 44 novels - at least once every year) and how much is truly great writing. 

As someone who's read more than his fair share of PKD, NF was taken aback at rereading a classic - The Man in the High Castle - an alternate history so well realized that it's hard to believe that it's by the same writer who wrote The Man Who Japed or Galactic Pot-Healer or Game Players of Titan or several other really forgettable works, whose plotlines NF has dutifully forgotten, with only murky, vague, not-so-agreeable remnant impressions. 

However, when PKD does manage to make magic happen, the impact is enormous. NF has powerful memories of reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ubik and A Scanner Darkly - incredibly high quality fiction - all of which NF enjoyed thoroughly. He's more confused about his later writing - The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer - he didn't enjoy them so much (the latter particularly), despite their undeniable literary merit.

All this is also curious because it shows that a description on a lower level (sentence-by-sentence level hack writing, which PKD is guilty of) can be totally overturned or may be wholly inadequate to describe the same system at a higher level (the big, complex philosophical themes that PKD often writes about). Indeed PKD's oeuvre, when viewed from this higher vantage point has much more merit than a lower level description based on mere literary qualities will suggest.

This "phase change", so to say, is common in physics and is by now a firmly established part of modern science where it goes by the name of emergence. Lower level descriptions don't segue continuously into higher level descriptions. That's why knowing physics doesn't automatically make you a good biologist. That's why phenomenology is not reducible to morphology. That's why David Foster Wallace said "Fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being." 

NF would like to see some emergent literary criticism take shape, where the critic pays close attention to which level in the overall hierarchy the writer is being critiqued at. Perhaps an $n$-tuple of scores may be assigned to each writer, ranging from lower to higher levels. PKD will get really low scores for lower levels but high scores at higher levels to compensate for mere bad writing. A similar fate awaits Dostoyevsky, though he will outscore PKD at all levels (a uniformly better writer in a mathematical sense). This however, is not the same as multidimensional scoring, though the operation will be mathematically similar. 

Will this ever be a part of mainstream literary criticism? Will you want lit crit to be done this way? Is this a regressive way to look at literature? Is it even desirable? Won't the ghost of Robin Williams haunt your dreams yelling Carpe fuckin' Diem

Not sure, though PKD could definitely tell an engaging story where it was being done all along until some misfit stumbled upon this alternate reality on the very last page.