Month: September 2016

When Rahman Composes a Sonata

When Rahman Composes a Sonata

Here’s a provocative statement. A. R. Rahman is the greatest composer in Indian cinema. It is a biased and subjective statement. It’s an opinion. Someone else will have a different one. Some may agree partially, some may not. That’s the beauty of discussing art. Everyone can have an opinion and they all will be right from their point of view. You cannot do this in science. You cannot have an opinion about gravity. It’s a fact. Or climate change, even though appallingly large number of people seem to think that climate change is up for debate. It’s different in case of art. We do not even experience a simple event like a sunset the same way, as the concept of qualia shows. How then can we expect everyone to experience something complex such as a movie or a musical piece the same way? I am not surprised to see different opinions in these cases. What’s really surprising is that we do, in fact, agree on so many points despite having such a vast subjective spectrum.

Rahman is often called the Mozart of Madras. A very apt description but I like to compare him to Beethoven instead. Beethoven broke every rule in the composition rule book when it suited him. The opening in his Fifth Symphony shocked the listeners at the time. We do not feel that shock because our ears have become desensitized by all kinds of sounds. Like Beethoven, Rahman broke many rules. He succeeded without sticking to one or more favorite singers. No singer was greater than his music. Most of the times he used newcomers and still made hit songs. This slight touch of arrogance – even though Rahman is a very humble person – is what makes him very similar to Beethoven. Rahman is what I would call an eclectic composer. His inspirations range from Indian Classical to Rock to Gangasta Rap. Composition wise, his songs are full of new experiments. A defining feature of most Rahman songs is that the composition is so strange that after first hearing, you start wondering how anyone can like this song. After repeated hearings however, the same songs seeps into your subconscious and you become addicted to it. Then you start thinking – how can anyone not like this song!

It has become a matter of great curiosity for me to listen to Rahman songs and try to uncover the hidden structure and influences. This curiosity was put to test when I first heard the song Aila Aila from the movie I. The song is in Tamil by the way and I do not understand a word of it. That does not stop me from listening to it. Rahman’s music transcends trivial matters like a language barrier. Aila Aila was unlike anything I have ever heard. It was difficult to place the song in a known structure. In addition, there was a moment when the music stopped. This is known as coda, more popular in pop music but extremely rare in Indian film music. This intrigued me, so I decided to go to the origin of coda – the Sonata – and bingo! Aila Aila fits perfectly into the Sonata format.

Sonata form was established in the early eighteenth century. Its most basic type consists of three parts.

Exposition : Two musical themes are introduced, often in contrasting styles. Beethoven’s Fifth starts with a violent minor chord theme (A) followed by a mellow major chord theme (B).

Development : A and B are developed further. They may change forms and the contrast may deepen.

Recapitulation : We return to either A and B or their modified forms. In Beethoven’s Fifth, the theme in major chord triumphs over the one in minor chord. This has been a subject of great discussion and many interpretations have been proposed.

Coda : This is like a punctuation mark. It indicates end of one theme and beginning of the next theme. This may also occur at the end.


The singers in Aila Aila are Natalie di Luccio and Aditya Rao. The themes are easy to identify since they are sung in an alternate manner in male and female voices. Song starts with theme A in Natalie’s voice, followed by theme B in Aditya’s voice. Then comes the coda C sung by Natalie (1:02). The music stops for a moment and this marks the end of exposition. Development starts at 2:07 where Natalie sings a variation of theme A – A’ – and Aditya sings B’ followed by Natalie’s A and Aditya’s B’. This is the end of development section. Recapitulation starts with Natalie singing both A and B while Aditya sings the coda C. This is exactly in reverse of the exposition section. In the end, Rahman introduces a final trick. While Aditya is singing the coda C, Natalie joins him halfway through with a time lag, creating brief moments of polyphony and the song ends on a high note in Natalie’s voice. Natalie is popularly known as Bollywood’s soprano and Rahman has fully utilized her amazing voice range.

Rahman’s music exhibits signatures of a great work of art. You make discoveries as you go deeper into it.

Mehmood’s One Man Show : Gumnaam

Mehmood’s One Man Show : Gumnaam

There are few remarkable things about the 1965 movie Gumnaam. Considering the films that were made during the sixties, the story is quite unusual, since it is based on Agatha Christie’s well known novel And Then There Were None. The film is a suspense thriller and it shows from the very first sequence itself. A man arranges another man’s killing and not long after he gets killed by a mysterious stranger. At the heart of the story are nine strangers – seven men and two women – who get stranded on an island. One by one they get killed. Who is killing them? Who planned this trip to get all of them together?

There are many well known names in the movie. Manoj Kumar plays the role of C.I.D. Inspector Anand, Nanda is Asha and Pran is Barrister Rakesh. Watching the movie after more than 50 years, one character stands out – Mehmood who plays the butler. Mehmood is one of the most underrated actors in Hindi cinema. Comic acting is rarely considered elite enough to warrant a serious discussion and comedians are often looked upon as nothing more than characters who provide relief in between tense scenes. With the exception of Pran, Mehmood is way ahead of everyone else in Gumnaam in terms of acting.

Here’s one reason why Mehmood stands out. Most leading stars are very keen to preserve their screen image and in the process impose too many restrictions upon themselves. Not Mehmood. He has no qualms about playing any role. In Gumnaam, He speaks the Hyderabadi dialect with such perfect diction. What’s more, he even writes in Urdu using Arabic script! How often you see such minute detailing in a Hindi movie from the sixties? Mehmood’s dialogues are much more crisp and he has some amazing punchlines. In comparison, dialogues of the rest of the cast are mostly very plain (With the exception of climax!) My guess is that Mehmood himself must have contributed to his dialogues. I would love to have some confirmation on this. As a result the movie is carried almost single handedly by Mehmood. Perfect dialogue delivery and timing! What an actor!

Songs are an essential part of Hindi cinema. Most of the old movies can be categorized as musicals. Characters break into a song and after the song is over, they go back to their normal lives. As the movies began to be more realistic, this contradiction became more and more apparent. I still find it a bit strange to watch Shabana Azami or Anupam Kher breaking into a song in a so-called realistic gritty movie. Some filmmakers found a way out by introducing the song in background, the way it’s been done in Hollywood. Here’s what’s interesting. No matter how many times the characters break into a song, they rarely refer to it or acknowledge it in any way. It would be breaking the fourth wall. David Dhawan has done it quite a few times in his comedy movies. In Gumnaam, we repeatedly hear the title song sung by an unknown lady and the characters actually acknowledge the fact. Mehmood even says, “Yeh basti ka hit gaana hai, Bhaiyye!” (This is the famous song of this place!)

The fact that Sholay has been derived from many sources is well known and Salim-Javed themselves acknowledge it. So a discussion of its sources should not be considered as criticism. It is rather a matter of curiosity among Sholay affectionados. The kind of milestones Sholay has achieved will remain unparalleled in history of Hindi cinema. In the climax of Gumnaam, the villain Madhusudan played by Tarun Bose has tied Asha and Anand to two poles. He opens his revolver and finds only one bullet in it. He then says, “Ek goli aur aadmi do, dekhe ab kiske hisse mein aati hai” (One bullet and two persons, let us see who gets it.) The Russian Roulette scene is then played out, with the exception that no one dies.

While watching old movies, one has to take into account the limitations of technology at the time. It would be unfair to compare them – even unconsciously – to the post-CGI sleek movies of today. What Mehmood shows very convincingly is that good acting does not depend on these external factors. A great actor can make any movie interesting.

Dilip Kumar : The Accidental Actor

Dilip Kumar : The Accidental Actor

Here’s an interesting aspect of the illustrious career of Dilip Kumar. Whenever you hear stories about how great actors/directors got into movies, there are two themes that often repeat. First, they discover their passion very early, in childhood. Then they progress through school dramas, acting courses etc. The second theme is of constant struggle, many rejections. Both these themes are markedly absent from the story of Dilip Kumar.

Dilip Kumar was born in Peshawar in pre-indendependent India. His birth name is Yousaf Khan. Growing up in a big joint family, he had a happy childhood. Just before World War II started, his father decided to shift to Mumbai (then Bombay) along with his family. This wise decision saved liitle Yousaf from the horrors of partition in 1947. Life in Mumbai was comfortable. Prithviraj Kapoor, one of the most sought after actors at the time was a family friend and as a result Yousaf developed close friendship with his son Raj Kapoor.

In college, Yousaf’s passion was Football. He wanted to become a professional Football player. When he was in his teens, Yousaf left home and went to Pune (then Poona) because of a trivial altercation with his father. He took up a job in the Army Canteen. Later he set up his own sandwich stall which became quite popular. He lost the job when the war beagn and came back home looking for alternative jobs. He even thought about helping his father in his fruit selling business.

One day he was waiting at Chruchgate station when he met an acquaintance, Dr. Masani. Dr. Masani was on his way to meet Devika Rani, well known actress and owner of the famous Bombay Talkies. He asked Yousaf to come with him. At the end of their meeting, Devika Rani offered him a job as an actor in Bombay Talkies at a monthly salary of Rs. 1250. Yousaf had seen only one movie in his life till that point. He accepted the offer mainly due to the handsome salary. As Yousaf Khan became Dilip Kumar and starred in his first movie Jwar Bhata, he had to learn everything about acting from observing other actors like Ashok Kumar and David. Here is an actor who set new standards for Hindi cinema. Satyajit Ray described him as “the ultimate method actor”. It’s mind boggling that Dilip Kumar entered the film profession by sheer accident.

One of my pet peeves about Hindi movies is that the actors (and the writers) do not make enough use of language as a defining aspect of a character. We are such a rich nation consisting of so many languages and dialects. How often do you see the main characters speaking with different accent or inflection? Dilip Kumar is a notable exception here. In Gunga Jumna, his character speaks a dialect from Uttar Pradesh. When Dilip Kumar was growing up, his gardener used to speak in this dialect with his wife. Dilip Kumar is a Pathan. He grew up speaking Pushtu and Urdu. The way he imbibes this UP dialect in the movie is truly remarkable. Equally credible is Vyjaynthimala who had a tougher task ahead of her. For South Indians, it’s extremely difficult to speak Hindi without an accent because Tamil is so different from the Sanskrit based languages. To her credit, Vyjaynthimala gave a perfect performance in every aspect.

Much has been said about influence of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, especially Once Upon a Time in the West, on Sholay. Salim-Javed have acknowledged Gunga Jumna as an inspiration for Deewar. However, Gunga Jumna has clearly affected Sholay as well. The scene where Gunga chases the train riding on horses would become the iconic chase in the beginning of Sholay. The climax of Gunga Jumna when Gunga shoots the zamindar is very much reminiscent of the final sequence in Sholay, in terms of location. And of course, there is the name, Dhanno.

As our history amply shows, Indians are lazy about keeping records. Not only that, we do not even care about preserving the existing records. Our national news channel Doordarshan, accidentally destroyed an interview of Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa and Elia Kazan! Memoirs of great actors and directors are among the few records available that chronicle the evolution of cinema in India in the last century.

Atomic Memory using a Scanning Tunneling Microscope

Atomic Memory using a Scanning Tunneling Microscope

Is it possible to see the atoms?

Well, yes and no. I mean you cannot see them like you see everything – with light reflecting on it and then entering your eyes. Atoms are so small that the wavelength of light is too coarse for them. Just as you cannot use a big screwdriver for a tiny screw, you cannot use light to see atoms. Can we get something fine grained then? As a matter of fact, you can.

Carrying the screwdriver analogy further, if we want to see atoms what we need is a probe that is of the size of atoms. The second condition is the probe should be close enough to sense the presence of the atoms. In addition, this whole assembly must be shock proof because even a tiny vibration will crash your probe into the surface.

These were some of the problems faced by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer – two scientists at IBM Zurich – in the early eighties. They were trying to invent a new kind of microscope that will reveal a surface with such high resolution that you will actually be able to see the atomic arrangement on the surface. After years of trial and error they succeeded in inventing the Scanning Tunneling Microscope or STM. STM required a metal tip similar to a fountain pen tip except that the very apex of the tip was only few atoms (or ideally one atom) wide. This tip was brought close to the surface which you want to examine. ‘Close’ here means so close that the atoms on the tip and the atoms on the surface start interacting but they are still not touching. Then you move this probe over the surface and record the interactions as the tip encounters irregularities in the surface structure. This is like a blind person reading a book in braille except that the fingertip is of atomic size and there is no touching in the usual sense of the word.

Silicon Atoms on the surface of Silicon Carbide. Image credit : Guillaume Baffou

The first STM results showing beautiful rows of atoms on a Silicon surface were published in 1983. They received the Nobel prize in 1986.

Later on STM gave birth to so many different kinds of microscopes that collectively this branch came to be known as Scanning Probe Microscopy (SPM). It was like breaking the four minute mile. You already have the technology to place an atomic size probe very close to the surface. Change the probe according to the property which you want to investigate. Make a probe sensitive to the tiny forces between the tip atoms and the surface atoms and you get a map of the atomic forces. Or magnetic forces. Or temperature. This spawned something like 30 different microscopy techniques for different properties of the surface. You could do things that would have been considered in the realm of sci-fi few decades back. You attach a DNA to the surface, pull it using the probe till it breaks and measure its strength. SPM also works in liquid environment so you can watch all sorts of biological processes at nanoscale. Some atoms are quite jumpy on certain surfaces. You can watch as the atom hops on the surface, make a movie out of it and measure all kinds of interesting parameters – how strongly is the atom bound to the surface, for instance.

Here was a tool that could operate at atomic level so the scientists went even further. They picked an atom from the surface and placed it at another point. They could now write with atoms. IBM and several other researchers demonstrated the technique of atomic manipulation. So now you could pick an atom, place it where you want and then take an image to see you have placed the atom correctly. What if presence of an atom can be considered as 1 and absence as 0? You have a memory device of the smallest possible dimensions.

In July this year, a group of European scientists demonstrated one kilobyte of atomic memory using STM. The way they demonstrated this was quite remarkable. In 1960, Richard Feynman gave the famous talk on nanotechnology titled “There is Plenty of Room at the Bottom”. The scientists took a sentence from this speech and wrote it using atoms! Chlorine atoms were used for “writing” on a Copper surface. The sentence that they wrote was very apt – an homage to the vision of Richard Feynman.

“But I am not afraid to consider the final question as to whether, ultimately – in the great future – we can arrange the atoms the way we want; the very atoms, all the way down! What would happen if we could arrange the atoms one by one the way we want them (within reason, of course; you can’t put them so that they are chemically unstable, for example)”.

—  Richard Feynman, There is Plenty of Room at the Bottom, 1960.