Month: December 2016

The Rise of Bollywood Superheroes

The Rise of Bollywood Superheroes

 

Ever wondered why Bollywood never produced a Superman or a Batman? Sure, there was Krrish but he never really got the fan following that a superhero deserves. I have not seen any of his movies and I still do not feel as if I am missing anything. Why our movies could never do this?

Here’s a theory. They did. Bollywood has been producing superheroes since the last forty years. You may not have noticed them because they don’t wear a cape or a mask. They are like Clark Kent wearing your everyday costume. They can do almost everything that a Superman can do.

It started with Amitabh Bachchan in the seventies. Much has been written about the zeitgeist that gave rise to the Angry Young Man. People could no longer cope with the sugary sweet romancing of Rajesh Khanna on screen while the country was in turmoil – nationalization of banks, Bangladesh war, erosion of fundamental rights finally culminating in the 1975 emergency. Amitabh Bachchan as Vijay was in the right place at the right time. So were the writers, Salim-Javed.

I have seen some critics doubting Bachchan’s acting capabilities. I want to ask them two questions. What is your definition of acting and who are your five best actors? Bachchan did not have the physique of a Superman. It was the intensity in his acting that made people believe that he can beat 50 people in a fight. Diptakirti Chaudhuri in his book Written by Salim-Javed describes reaction of someone in the audience as ‘Arre, baap re baap’ during the famous police station scene in Zanjeer. Never before had the Indian audience seen such a volcano erupt on screen. Agreed, Bachchan got caught up in that image. When he was at the top, if he had taken even 5% of the risks that he took later on, things would be much different.

Things were never the same after Bachchan. He could do everything – sing, dance, fight. During the seventies, he was a superhero both on and off the screen. Interestingly, a similar role was played by Rajinikanth in Tamil movies and his action sequences are much closer to a superhero than Bachchan’s. Unfortunately, I do not have enough background on Tamil movies to expand on that.

Cut to 2010-11. We have two movies coming back to back. Salman Khan’s Dabangg and Ajay Devgan’s Singham. There are many similarities between these two movies and some crucial differences as well. Why these two movies? No other reason than I saw them one after the other.

Even though these movies are similar, they are not connected. Singham is a remake of Tamil movie Singam. Director Rohit Shetty has more than remade the Hindi version. I always feel that Rohit Shetty is underrated. His obsessions of flying cars aside, Golmaal was one of the very few truly humorous Bollywood movies. One reason I did not like the Tamil version Singam was that I find it hard to get used to fast motion sequences and extreme jerky cuts. In Singham, Rohit Shetty does the opposite. He slows down the action. Most of Ajay Devgan’s sequences are shot in slow motion.

Singham is where the superhero label really fits. First of all, the name Singham means Narsimha (half lion, half man) which is one of the reincarnations of Lord Vishnu. The entry of Ajay Devgan as Bajirao Singham fully justifies his God status. He is shown emerging from the water and all around him devotees are praying in his direction. This is accompanied by Sanskrit chants that praise Narsimha. (I would love to know the source of these Sanskrit verses!)

In contrast, Salman Khan playing Chulbul Pandey in Dabangg is a mixture of many contemporary heroes and superheroes. There is a bit of Neo from Matrix, some Terminator, a bit of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon flying sequence and a trademark goggle action which is a nod to Superstar Rajini.

Both the characters of Bajirao Singham and Chulbul Pandey have been designed with specific Indian sub-cultures in mind. Singham taps the Marathi crowd in Maharashtra while Chulbul Pandey woos the U.P.-Bihar belt. In both these movies, extraordinary effort has been put in to make the dialogues crispy and authentic. Hence the sometimes crass humour in Dabangg. For instance, Chulbul Pandey asks a character who has polio, “Do boond nahi piye?” (You did not drink the two drops?) referring to the polio vaccination program. He replies, “Baap ko daaru pine se phursat nahi mili.” (My father was too busy getting drunk.) I refuse to believe that this scathing humour is of any less value just because the film stars Salman Khan. The productions values are high for both these movies.

It is interesting to see how the concept of morality has changed from the times of Bachchan. It is inconceivable to imagine him in his prime accepting bribe on screen, something that Chulbul Pandey does without thinking twice. In both Singham and Dabangg, we never see the justice system in action. The superheroes perform extra-judicial killings in the end and the viewers are satisfied with the outcome.

Most of the reviews of these two movies comment on the unrealistic fighting scenes. This is because they are viewing the movies through a realistic lens. If we switch the lens and assume that these are superhero movies, then we don’t have to worry about questions like why they defy gravity. There is no need then to use adjectives like make-believe or exaggerated.

This is the season of film festivals in India. I always feel that film festivals and Kindle Unlimited have the same philosophy – truckload of content for a limited amount of time. Film festivals almost always show the critically acclaimed movies from every country. Movies that may or may not be popular with the masses. Now I have nothing against any kind of cinema. I like Bergman as much as any fan of his. But I cannot help wondering – how far these movies represent the zeitgeist of a particular country?

The distinction of high-brow and low-brow art is – pardon the pun – artificial. There is good art and there is bad art, irrespective of the genre. A badly made art movie cannot be better than a commercial movie with high production values just because it’s genre is supposed to be high-brow. If a work of art gives you a memorable experience, then that is good art.

So, I propose an anti-film festival, if you will. Forget the critically acclaimed movies, show me the movies that the people love and flock to theaters to watch. What kind of humour do they like – slapstick, dark humour or droll satire of the British? Which action movies do they like – aliens and spaceships or zombie apocalypse?

A well made commercial movie can provide as much insight into a culture as a critically acclaimed one.

Apollo 13 and the Spirit of Science

Apollo 13 and the Spirit of Science

Apollo 13 is one of my ‘watch anytime’ movies. I can watch these movies anytime, anywhere, no convincing needed. Usually, when I like a movie this much I ask myself why. For Apollo 13, I have so many answers to this question.

Consider for a moment what is at stake here. An explosion occurs on a manned space flight to the Moon. There is no rescue possible in a space flight. The list of number of things that could go wrong is endless. This is not just another experiment that may fail. Human lives are at stake. If an experiment in a remote laboratory fails, no one knows about it. In space slight, the whole world is watching and there is no way to hide a failure.

Apollo 13 is the most authentic movie about space flight that I have ever seen. Director Ron Howard went to great lengths to make the movie as accurate as possible. The dialogues between Apollo 13 crew and Houston are almost verbatim reproductions of the actual manuscript. No attempt is made to dumb down the technicalities. We are never told what ‘main bus B undervolt’ means or what happens when the spaceship gets ‘too close to the center’ but it does not matter. In fact, this creates a very realistic picture of enormous complexity of the task.

Truth is much, much stranger than fiction. How many anti-climaxes does this movie have? First, the oxygen in Odyssey is falling so they have to transfer the astronauts to LEM. Then they have to find a way to fit a square peg in a round hole, literally, in order to reduce the carbon dioxide level in the LEM. And finally, one the scariest scene I have ever seen in a movie. The astronauts have to steer the spaceship manually while executing the engine burn. Can you imagine a scarier thing? One mistake and you could be off into the infinity of space, never to return. I hold my breath every time I watch this scene.

Tom Hanks plays astronaut Jim Lovell. The film is based on the book Lost Moon : The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffery Kluger. Tom Hanks lives this character, as he has done throughout his career. The nuances that he brings to this role are too many to list. I also loved Kevin Bacon as Jack Swigert. I always feel that Bacon has been underrated.

The character that impressed me was of the flight director Gene Cranz played by Ed Harris. I love leading actors delivering great performances as much as everyone else but sometimes I am more partial to supporting characters who leave their mark. For example, Jason Robards playing a cowboy in Once Upon a Time in the West and editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee in All The Presidents Men. Can you imagine two characters that are more apart?

Gene Cranz is an ideal leader. He listens to all suggestions and takes quick decisions. He is under tremendous pressure but at no point does he waver which is also a characteristic of the whole crew – except for one guy who is always pessimistic. The emphasis is on ‘working the problem’. Gene never gives up. Even when things look bleak, he is confident that ‘this is going to be our finest hour’.

The amazing thing about space flight is that it’s all classical physics as dreamt by Sir Isaac Newton. You know exactly where the spaceship is going to land and at what speed. No esoteric probabilities of Quantum Mechanics or exotic parallel universes. This is one of the finest demonstrations of how well science works.

There was once a Japanese guy who could see Mount Fuji from his house and every day for forty years he drew a sketch of how it looked – clear, clouded or sunny. (I cannot recall if I read about this guy somewhere or if this was the guy that I once met in Seoul). Imagine living next to Mount Fuji and actually being able to see it every day with fresh eyes.

This kind of vision is envious. We get used to things too quickly. Space flights are becoming so common that we don’t think about them twice. While this is but natural, losing sight of the grandeur of science is fatal to the scientific spirit. Richard Feynman was one of those rare people who never lost this sense. Watch how his eyes light up when he talks about physics.

Whenever I catch myself skipping over a report of a successful launch, I go and watch Apollo 13.

Debunking the Self-help Myths

Debunking the Self-help Myths

Even after spending about 85% of my life in India, I don’t understand fellow Indians. For instance, why don’t we understand the simple concept of keeping our surroundings clean? One might think that maybe the people who behave this way did not have benefit of education. Well, yes and no. How do you explain the mountain of garbage outside the Coldplay concert venue in Mumbai after the night of the concert? I am pretty sure no villagers came all the way to Mumbai to listen to Coldplay. Many of those who attended this concert belong to the elite class who behave like model citizens when they go abroad.

India abounds in such contradictions. What gives me hope are two things. First, India has the largest youth population of 356 million 10-24 year olds (2014 U.N. report). It was a team of 60 young volunteers from Global Citizen India who came the next day and cleaned the Coldplay concert venue. Second, sales of self-help books are rising in India. There are many misconceptions about self-help in India. I have seen people react violently to anything that can be remotely called self-help, as if it’s something contagious. In an age where cynicism rules (and gives you likes and retweets), mocking and deriding everything and everyone has become a norm.

I am not worried about the cynics. I don’t think about them. My concern is the still impressionable youth who have not made up their minds. If the young people in India are interested in self-help, then they should know what it is. But first some debunking of myths is in order. These myths are prevalent in India, I am not sure to what extent they are applicable in other countries.

Myth 1 : I don’t need self-help. It’s for those (insert your favorite bashing group) people, not me.

Here’s a fun fact. Each and every one of us has used self-help at some point in our life. Let us say you want to start a blog but you have no idea how to go about it. You search on Google, find out about WordPress and Medium, watch some videos and finally register. You write your first “Hello, World” post. Congrats! You have just used self-help to improve your life a tiny bit.

Myth 2 : I am an artist with a sensibility that is finer-than-the-finest-of-the-fine-Indian-silk. I don’t need these mundane pursuits of the common people.

The image of the eccentric genius artist with devil-may-care attitude is powerful. Many critics also consider themselves in the same class (I may not have the talent but I have the same finer-than-the..etc sensibility). They shun everything that can be remotely connected to self-help and positivity. Usually such critics also reject en block everything the masses love. The irony is hard to miss. While these critics are busy singing paeans of their chosen exalted artists, those artists are busy applying the self-help methods in order to produce the masterpieces.

Here’s the thing. It was different in the older days of Counts, Lords and Maharajas. In today’s world, you cannot be a successful artist without strong work ethics. Sure, there are those one-hit wonders but they come and go as fast as the boy bands. (Who remembers Boyzone? Or Savage Garden?) Consistently producing high quality work requires many attributes than just talent – hard work, discipline and finding ways to prevent burnout, to name just a few. That is why Haruki Murakami runs marathons and triathlons. It’s not easy to shut yourself off from the world for months and write consistently, day-in and day-out. He needs that physical stamina for writing a thousand page novel.

Myth 3 : Self-help is all that sugary sweet positivity.

Yes and no. Keeping a positive attitude does not necessarily mean being unrealistic. Indians are very fond of praising the Japanese while making cynical comments on the conditions here. How do you think Japanese people achieved this excellence after having been through WWII? Without positive attitude? (Tip : Google Kaizen.) One of the philosophies that is becoming popular in the self-help community is the Stoic philosophy of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and others. Being realistic (and often pessimistic about the future) is one of the main tenants of this philosophy. Self-help also involves deep introspection and taking full responsibility.

Self-help is much more than just the labels. In one sense, it is what you choose it to be. Be judicious in your choice.

Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss

Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss

 

Tim Ferris likes to call himself human guinea pig and his approach is that of a passionate scientist. NYT Bestselling author, entrepreneur and advisor to multinational companies, Tim has mastered the art of learning skills. Be it cooking, archery or learning a new language, Tim has gained mastery over these skills in a record time.

In The Tim Ferris Show, Tim interviews world class performers in order to gain insight into what makes them who they are. His guest list ranges from chess champions to celebrity actors and performance coaches to best-selling authors. These people have achieved excellence in their respective fields. How did they do it? That’s what Tim aims to find out in each of his podcasts. With nearly 200 guests in the last two years and close to a 100 million downloads, TFS is at the top of podcasts list. Tim’s latest book, aptly named Tools of Titans, distills these podcasts into a format that is easier to absorb.

Tim’s approach is very logical. With each guest, he is looking for the underlying beliefs, habits and philosophy that makes them who they are. What is their morning routine? Their favourite books? What are the essential rules to succeed in their area of expertise? Which philosophy do they live by?

Tools of Titans is probably unlike any book you have read. First of all, it is not meant to be read from start to finish. As Tim says in the introduction, skim through it, pick up what you need and come back to the skipped part later. I don’t think I will ever finish reading Tools of Titans. This is like a reference book that you come back to time and again.

A Personal Experience

One of the podcasts on TFS that changed my life was the one where Tim interviewed Pavel Tsatsouline. Pavel is former physical training instructor to the Soviet special forces and current subject expert to the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Secret Service, and the U.S. Nave SEALs. Now most of the stuff that Tim and Pavel talk about – very advanced physical training techniques like deadlift techniques or one-arm swing – is not remotely applicable to me. I am never going to do it. But it took just one simple advice from Pavel that proved extremely effective. He says (and I quote from the book), “To increase your pull-up numbers, start doing half the reps you’re capable of (e.g., sets of 4 if your personal best is 8) in repeated sets throughout the day with at least 15 minutes rest.” Pavel also describes the biochemistry behind this approach.

Think for a moment how simple and counter-intuitive this advice is compared to the popular “no pain, no gain” advice. Normally when you decide to work-out (most probably during first week of January every year), you try to surpass your maximum capability every day. Your body aches or worse you get injured. The workout resembles punishment for prisoners in eighteenth century and in two or three weeks, you suddenly get ‘too busy’ to find time for workout. Pavel’s approach is a complete paradigm shift. You need not do your best every time, just do half and repeat many times during the day. “Training is something that should be enjoyed”, Pavel says.

Using this approach my fitness level has increased beyond expectation during the last year or so. (A big Thank You to Tim and Pavel!) I am still far from where I want to be but I feel much healthier that I ever did in my life. Since I started using this approach, my HDL cholesterol level gradually rose from a measly 43 mg/dl to a whopping 81.5 mg/dl! This approach is not for bodybuilding by the way, but for strength training. Pavel’s father-in-law, 64, went from 10 to 20 strict pull-ups using this approach, something he could not do even when he was a young marine.

This is just a tiny glimpse of the ‘Healthy’ section of Tools of Titans. There are two more sections called ‘Wealthy’ and ‘Wise’. Do not be fooled by the simplicity of many of the rules and tactics described in the book. As Tony Robbins says, “Tiny changes produce huge results”. Tony is world’s best known performance coach whose client list is, in fact, a Who’s Who – Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mikhail Gorbachev – to name just a few. In Tools of Titans, Tony shares his routines, hacks and beliefs that help him achieve peak performance every day.

Well known author and motivational speaker Jim Rohn used to say, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. Spending time with people leads to you picking their habits, ways of thinking and attitudes – both consciously and unconsciously. Reading Tools of Titans is equivalent to a unique opportunity to spend time with some of the world’s best performers. This is supplemented by amazing quotes throughout the book. One of my favorites is by Maria Popova – creator of Brain Pickings – when she describes formula for greatness as “Consistency driven by a deep love of the work.”

I have stopped buying physical books in favour of Kindle but in this case I am thinking of getting a hard copy as well. Simply opening Tools of Titans at random and see where it takes you can be a revealing experience. And a hard copy makes it much easier to mark passages and stick post-it notes.

An added delight in Tools of Titans was to read the foreword by none other than the great Arnold Schwarzenegger who also features in the book. What a remarkable man! (The number of times I have seen the Terminator series is well into double figures now.) In a moving essay, Arnold describes his hardships in Austria and his journey to America and states quite passionately that contrary to popular belief, he is not a self-made man. His ending is what I liked the best,

“Now, turn the page and learn something.”

The Tim Ferriss Show is here.