Month: February 2017

Why We Need To Celebrate ISRO’s Every Success

Why We Need To Celebrate ISRO’s Every Success

The article Calling ISRO’s Fluff : Only Higher Achievements Should Merit Widespread Celebration by Pavan Srinath was published in The Wire on 17/02/2017. I would like to argue the exact opposite. We need to celebrate every ISRO success as widely as possible.

The launch was celebrated not just by Indian media but well known international news-outlets as well. The New York Times stated that the launch established India as a “key player in a growing commercial market for space-based surveillance and communication.” Equally praising were other major newspapers including The Washington Post, The Guardian, BBC and CNN. Surely, these reports do not count as chest-thumping?

The article suggests setting a high bar for ISRO. Seriously? We have already been to the Moon and Mars. The future plans include a second mission to Mars and a mission to Venus, something the article conveniently neglects to mention. How higher can the bar be than this? Instead, how about raising bar of other Indian research institutes as high as ISRO?

ISRO is a government organisation. Part of its program has to be oriented towards the development of India. It would be a mistake to plan ISRO launches on the footsteps of SpaceX. Elon Musk has his own grand vision, some of which may overlap with ISRO. The “routine” ISRO launches so far have given us immense technological advantages in areas ranging from Earth observation and disaster management to climate and environment. In addition, ISRO is not averse to taking risks. The Mars mission did not have any practical application other than basic science research. So does the trip to Venus. Keep in mind that China failed in its Mars mission, even though it has become kind of routine for us.

Writing proposals to funding agencies is both an art and science. If you really want to find out the reasons for the current state of science in the post-independent India, dig up all the science projects that have been completed and audit their achivements severely. Quite often, you will find that the aim of the project covers a wide area with goals broad enough that can be justified no matter how things go. For instance, instead of claiming that we will make an apple superconducting at room temperature, most proposals would claim something like “Feasibility studies of room temperature superconductivity in apples.” This way, even if the apple does not become superconducting, the goal of testing feasibility is met.

By the very nature of its work, ISRO cannot do this. Its successes and failures are digital in nature. It either lands a rocket on Mars or it fails. And there is no way to hide the failure or give it a positive spin. Simply because they have done it many times before does not ensure the success of any launch. NASA was a pro in shuttle launching when the Challenger disaster struck. There is no fluff in any of ISRO launches. Each one is as complicated as the last one.

NASA dominated the social media last year. They have a team of social-media experts who handle around 500 accounts across multiple platforms. The user is bombarded with great videos and information about all of their activities. Even the manned Moon landing is routine for NASA now. So why are they doing this? They do it because they know the value of communicating science.

Back home, I am dismayed when even senior Indian scientists ask why they should waste their time in science communication. According to IndiaSpend, out of India’s 1.2 billion population, 22% or 264 million are internet users. Add to this the fact that Indian has the largest population of 356 million 10-24 year olds and you quickly come to the conclusion that the young Indians are using the internet more than ever and the number is only going to grow. Imagine an 8 year old kid who has just opened her Facebook or Twitter account. She has not seen previous 50 ISRO launches. The live telecast of the 51st launch will be her first. Can you imagine how excited she would be? We have to make science exciting for people. This includes celebrating not just every ISRO launch, but successes from other research organizations as well.

You never know which video or which article plants a seed in a young kid’s mind and she decides to become a scientist.

In Praise of Dangal and Aamir Khan

In Praise of Dangal and Aamir Khan

Here’s the most remarkable thing about Aamir Khan. What was the last time that his movie didn’t do well at the box office? Do you remember? I think it was Mangal Pandey : The Rising in 2005. For more than a decade, he has consistently chosen off-beat topics and not just made them a success but has broken every possible record. He was the first to reach the 100 crore club with Ghazini and Dangal is the most successful Bollywood movies ever. One of the most difficult things in the world is to make people interested in your creation. No one knows what will work and what won’t. Even Aamir does not. But it’s his gut feeling about the right script that works so beautifully every time.

If I remember correctly, Aamir was the first of his generation of actors to do one film at a time, when his colleagues were working in double or triple shifts. There was a lot of criticism in the media on this decision especially because Aamir was not the superstar that he is now and this could have been a dangerous move for his career. He stuck to his intuition and the results are for everyone to see. Today it has become a norm with actors like Ranbir Kapoor doing one movie at a time.

One oft-occurring criticism of Aamir’s movies is that the usually positive message is too direct. This can be a turn-off for those who have had a wide variety of cinematic experiences and would prefer a more subtle approach. But there is another side to this.

Whenever I write about Indian cinema, I am acutely aware that for most part I am writing for the minority. If you are living in India, ask your grocer or household help about their favourite movie. Chances are the answer will be a commercial movie. As a bonus question, you can also ask them what they think of Bergman or Shyam Benegal. I am reminded of a dialogue from Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, “My brothers, India is seven hundred thousand villages, not a few hundred lawyers in Delhi and Bombay.”

Dangal is based on a true story from Haryana, a state which probably has the worst record for women’s rights in India. Honour killings are common, male/female sex ratio is dismal and patriarchy exists to a degree which is unimaginable from the comfort of cities. Mahavir Singh Phogat is a national level wrestling champion and Dangal depicts his struggles while training his daughters for wresting. In doing so, Phogat demolishes taboos that have been ingrained into the Indian psyche for centuries. Imagine a father allowing his daughters to wrestle against boys because there are no female wrestlers available. How many well educated, liberal minded fathers would dare to do this? I try to imagine what must be going through the minds of members of Khap Panchayat as they watch Dangal, members who routinely order honour killings. So yes, if the message is a bit too direct, it’s certainly needed for this type of audience.

Dangal means wrestling in Haryanavi. Dangal has the technical perfection that is rare in Bollywood movies. The girls underwent training for a year before they were ready. No body doubles or CGI has been used in the action sequences. I especially liked the fact that the movie is in Haryanvi throughout. Many Bollywood movies show actors speaking the few initial lines in whatever culture the movie is supposed to be based in but few scenes later, it’s too much work and they are back in the normal Bollywood Hindi.

It is not easy to take a neglected subject like women’s wrestling and make it a success. Previously, Chak De! India managed it with women’s Hockey. One of Shah Rukh Khan’s best roles in my opinion, where he successfully broke free of his romantic image. In Dangal, Aamir gives the best performance of the year. His transformation from a young boy with six-pack body to an old man with a belly is truly commendable. Equally delightful were the performances of Zaira Wasim and Suhani Bhatnagar as young Geeta and Babita. Their spontaneity makes it difficult to believe that this is their first performance.

News is that one of Aamir’s next projects is a biopic of Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian to go in space. I am looking forward to this one. Finally, a Bollywood movie about science – a subject that for all practical purposes does not exist for Bollywood.