Month: August 2016

The Man Who Knew Infinity

The Man Who Knew Infinity

I don’t write about books or movies that I don’t like. For one, I don’t finish them in most cases. And writing about why I did not like them seems like reliving the boring experience. Much better to write about things that left an impression on you. This post is an exception, though. I did not like the movie very much right from the start, still I sat through it and now I am writing about it. The movie is The Man Who Knew Infinity, a biographical movie on the Indian mathematical genius Srinivas Ramanujan.

I love British movies. They rarely disappoint. Most British movies have a different feel, you can tell just by looking at a few frames. There is a general tendency to use minimum CGI or at least use it in a way that is not blindingly obvious. There is also something about British actors that makes you want to concentrate on the characters. Of course, Gandhi is a pinnacle of achievements in all departments – one of the greatest movies ever made. So when I start watching The Man Who Knew Infinity, the expectations are already set. Though it would be unfair to compare it to Gandhi, one does expect much more than an average film. And this is where the disappointment starts.

All movies have to cut material in order to fit the movie in limited time. It is also expected that not everyone would agree on the parts that have been cut. My objection is not on the specifics of the cuts but the focus of the movie in first half. Much of it is spent in establishing Ramanujan’s personal life, his surroundings, his interactions with his newly-wed wife. No doubt this is an important aspect of the story, but in focusing on this, the story misses a very significant part of Ramanujan’s life – his getting established in India as a mathematical prodigy before he went to Cambridge to work with Professor Hardy. Ramanujan had already published papers in Journal of The Indian Mathematical Society before he contacted Hardy, whereas the film would have you believe that he had to go to Cambridge to get published. In Gandhi, this would be equivalent to cutting the part that shows Gandhi’s contribution in South Africa. This creates another false impression – that Ramanujan’s genius was not recognized in India at the time.

Then there is Dev Patel in the leading role. I don’t feel like criticizing him too much because you can see that he is being very sincere in his efforts. Unfortunately, it’s nowhere near enough for a monumental part like this. There is nothing in his speech that would even remotely suggest a South Indian background. He walks, talks and even runs like he is in the twenty-first century. The personification of a mathematical genius in speech and mannerisms, that Russell Crowe did with such brilliance in A Beautiful Mind, is nowhere to be seen. With such a disaster in leading role, there is not much left in the film. As an ironical solace, Jeremy Irons as Professor Hardy is not very convincing either. As a result, the Wiki page on Ramanujan is much more interesting that the movie. This is a pity because ten years went into making the movie.

It is often said that you should not watch a movie for what you want to see. You should watch it for what the director and the actors want to show you. This is fine in case of normal movies but in case of biographies, this does lead to a disappointment. Another example is The Iron Lady. Instead of focusing on a rich and dramatic political career (The Falklands Crisis itself would make a movie!), it focuses instead on Thatcher in her twilight years going to the supermarket. Nothing wrong with that of course, but if you want to neglect the political aspect in such an important movie, I find it hard to summon up any enthusiasm for it¹.

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1. The only thing going for this movie is of course Meryl Streep. Yet another feather in her crowded cap. If you want a first hand lesson in diction, watch this movie. It’s one of the best examples of British accent by an American actor. That’s what the movie is – an acting lesson by Prof. Meryl Streep. I find it hard to separate Ms Streep from the character she plays. But, I repeat myself. More on that here.

On Public Speaking

On Public Speaking

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy. —  Jerry Seinfeld

Doing a PhD is a unique experience. One of the many things that it teaches you is public speaking. During my PhD, I gave many seminars, taught a science course for Bachelor’s degree and in the end there was the dreaded viva voce. I even won a tiny award for best speaker in a conference. During post-doctoral research, this trend continued with project meetings, conference talks and so on. In all these type of talks, the audience always quizzes you on the minutest of details and you get better and better at dealing with tricky questions. The upshot of all this is today I can give a talk to any audience, provided I am not asked to speak on, say, ‘Agriculture In The Sui Dynasty In Sixth Century China’.

As I grew more experienced in public speaking, I also started watching more and more talks to find out which speakers are more effective and why. I realised that there are two main types of speeches : content-based and style-based. This division is not written in stone but you can distinguish most speeches as one or the other. Few can be both. Main feature of content-based talks is that there is solid content that the speaker wants to communicate. It’s the results that matter more than the way they are communicated. So when Elon Musk announces latest SpaceX results, concentration of the audience is on the content. That Musk is also an excellent speaker is an added bonus. In content-based talks, the speaker does not have to convince the audience using his style. A video of a successful launch and landing of a space rocket speaks volumes. Same is true of scientific seminars and TED talks. Talks of authors, scientists or most CEO’s are always content-based.

There are some speeches that are both content-based and style-based. Speaking at a debate is one example. There are no definite answers, emotions matter as much or sometimes more than the content. For a lawyer, there is a whole lot of content – precedents, laws and exceptions – but there is also the need to convince the judge and/or the jury. The one who does it convincingly wins the case. Unfortunately, lawyer speeches are not allowed to be filmed. In lieu of actual speeches, I watch courtroom dramas – Kevin Costner in JFK, Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men, James Stuart in Anatomy Of A Murder or Sunny Deol in Damini.

This brings us to the last category – style-based speeches. People who use it the most are politicians. Here facts matter very little or not at all. Of course, giving speeches is just one aspect of a politician’s image and at times, it does not matter. We have seen any number of successful politicians who are horrible speakers. My interest is in politicians who are very good speakers. At this point, it does not matter what they say. I am concerned with how they say it.

Here is a list of my favourite speakers.

Nani Palkhivala was one of India’s most famous lawyers. He is well known for his involvement in cases about fundamental rights in the constitution. These were : the case of Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala  and the case of I. C. Golaknath v. State Of Punjab which was also known as “the case that saved the Indian Democracy”, in which the Supreme Court ruled that parliament could not curtail any of the fundamental rights in the constitution. Here’s what Justice M. C. Chagla says about Palkhivala, “He has an unrivalled command over the language which he uses with mastery and skill and which he combines with vast knowledge of law and great powers of advocacy ¹.” In this rare audio clip (25 mins) of 1971, Palkhivala argues brilliantly on the importance of fundamental rights in the constitution.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee : Of all the Indian Prime Ministers, Vajpayee is the most articulate speaker. His use of pure Hindi language made his speeches very effective and his use of poetry was like an added charm. He was not as effective in English but that’s normal. I have never seen a speaker equally effective in more than one language. Sadly, public speaking does not seem to be a forte of most current Indian politicians, they just make do with reading the speeches in a loud voice.

Bill Clinton : One of the most persuasive speakers I have ever seen. He is completely natural. He rarely needs to look at the teleprompter. I enjoyed his speech at the last DNC convention when he endorsed Barack Obama. He also had a catchy phrase : “Arithmetic” that he repeated over and over. That was a fact-based speech as well. In contrast, his speech at the 2016 DNC convention was emotional, targeted towards the women voters.

Barack Obama : Without a doubt, Obama is the most effective speaker today. He has a good, deep voice which he modulates very well, an infectious smile often used to disarm and he can be authoritative if need be – like when ticking off a reporter. Like Clinton, he rarely reads his speech from the teleprompter. It’s been great fun to watch him at the White House Correspondents Dinner. At this year’s DNC convention, he came up with a brilliant catch phrase, “Don’t boo, vote!” I would love to know if that was planned or impromptu.

Gulzar is in my list because of his language and diction. I am all for the evolution of language and I have no problem with people speaking Hinglish, though I could never bring myself to do it. Nevertheless, there is something to be said about language spoken in its most natural, purest² form. No one speaks Hindi/Urdu as beautifully as Gulzar and he has a great voice to supplement it. He is a poet and a lyricist among other things so the words that he chooses are perfect. His speeches show his formidable erudition – ranging from ancient Sufi poets to modern ones like T. S. Eliot. Added to this, he has a great sense of humour. All this makes his speeches sheer pleasure to watch.

I have not included  some great speeches by actors here because I feel they fall more in the category of performances. For instance, opening speeches at the Oscars by Steve Martin or Chris Rock are most enjoyable.

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1. Roses In December : An Autobiography by M. C. Chagla, 2012, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

2. This does not mean that you don’t use words from other languages. Gulzar is well known for his use of English words in Hindi songs. This has more to do with using the language to its fullest capability and using the right words and phrases. Few can do this better than Gulzar.