Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A day with dinosaurs

In many Hollywood movies, it is not uncommon to find the character of a small boy who is an expert on dinosaurs or at least is fascinated by them. As a child, I was such a boy. My uncle provided me with a supply of dinosaur books, and I grew up like Tim Murphy from Jurassic Park – knowing the names of all the dinosaurs even before I could read them off the books, and eager to show off my knowledge to guests by pointing out the pictures and reeling off the names. Those books were old, of course (I am not so young anymore), and since then our views about dinosaurs have changed considerably. Gone are the pictures of fat sloth creatures with tails resting on the ground. The dinosaurs that today’s kids see in books and movies are fast and agile, and they move with their tails off the ground. But one particular dinosaur’s picture hasn’t changed much over the years.

Stegosaurus. With large scale-like plates along the spine, four deadly spikes at the end of the tail and a brain weighing just 70 grams, this herbivorous giant was one of my favourites. Hardly did I imagine at the time that I would be holding a real Stegosaurus tail spike one day. As I touched the 142 million year old rock, I could see the picture from that childhood book before my eyes. I caressed the white fossil for some time, and then moved on to the full Stegosaurus standing at the other end of the room.

And the stegosaurus is not the only one; the fossils gallery of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City has many other dinosaur fossils which have been recovered nearly whole. Among the most famous inhabitants of this gallery are the complete Tyrannosaurus Rex, an Apatosaurus whose tail itself is 41 feet long, an Allosaurus with its last prey, and wooly mammoths, wooly rhinoceroses, sabre toothed tigers and various other creatures from the ice age. The T-Rex was dismantled in 1992-94 from its original upright position (mounted in 1914-15) and remounted in a stalking position according to latest ideas: one leg lifted and tail up in the air. In the four galleries in this floor, there are fossilized turtles, fish, flying dinosaurs, extinct birds and water monsters. In the words of the guide, “This floor has more fossils under one roof than anywhere else in the world, and 97% of all this is real fossil.”

I was visiting AMNH with my friend who has come for a short visit from Kolkata. We had a very tight schedule and the fact that we had lost two hours in the morning due to a missed bus did not help. We had only three hours to see the museum. So we started off with the gallery that we were most interested in – the fossils. We realized an hour and a half later that we would not finish even that floor if we looked at everything closely, so after taking photos and videos of the dinosaur and other fossils, we headed downstairs. And yes, apart from the fossilized skeletons, this floor also has dinosaur eggs, fossil nests and mummified remains of an actual baby mammoth found in Alaska.

We couldn’t see much of the museum after that. However, as we passed through the reptiles and amphibians gallery, the African mammals gallery, the Asian mammals gallery and the North American Mammals gallery, we couldn’t help noticing the infinite care and detail with which each specimen has been mounted. A herd of African elephants in the middle of the two-storied African mammals gallery needs special mention. Also, the life-sized replica of a blue whale hanging from the ceiling of the ocean gallery as if frozen mid-jump really takes the breath away. The last item that we saw was a piece of a giant redwood trunk showing growth rings from 550 AD till 1894 when it was cut.

Our visit was too short and grossly incomplete. I will go back to visit the museum again as soon as I find the time. However, that excitement of seeing the T-Rex skeleton in the stalking position for the first time won’t be there in subsequent visits. So I decided to write about this while the experience is still fresh.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire - The Review

Almost three months have passed since a friend recommended this movie to me, and finally I have been able to watch it. A lot has happened since that time; the movie has won numerous Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Oscars. It has been praised and trashed by journalists and bloggers, and probably no other movie in recent times caused so much of passionate debate. After going through other peoples' opinions for nearly three months, here is my opinion of the movie.

 I will intentionally refrain from bashing the movie because of the way India was depicted - a land of slums, filth, beggars, criminals and call centres. A land of cheating tourist guides, thieving kids, torturing policemen and dishonest and rude TV show hosts. A country with only two places - Mumbai slums and the Taj Mahal. While I do not agree with this view of India, I will not go over the top in criticizing it because this is a story and not a documentary. If the director chooses to show India in this way, and if the Indian authorities did not prevent him from shooting there (like they prevented Spielberg while shooting Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), why should that prevent me from appreciating a great movie?


The problem is, it does not turn out to be a great movie either.


First and foremost, let me state that it is fast-moving, and better-made than the average Bollywood production. At the same time, it is also utterly predictable till the last moment. Never during the movie did I wonder what would happen next in the story. Also, it is a "don't-ask-questions" kind of a movie, so you may want to know certain things, but better get rid of your curiosity and common sense and enjoy the movie.

 "Enjoy the movie!" cried many bloggers and blog commenters all over the Internet. "Why do you have to over-analyze each scene and ask questions?" To honour them, let us see if the movie really is enjoyable. Firstly the story. The story is very weak, not only because of its total predictability but also because of its utterly unrealistic nature. Even if we choose not to ask the most obvious question of how all kinds of misfortunes could happen to one single person, other questions keep cropping up. Why does the show "Who wants to be a Millionaire" go on air live when it is a well-known fact that it is pre-recorded in reality? A person calling himself one of the three musketeers does not know the names of the real three musketeers, yet he knows who wrote a particular song sung by beggars. And how many blind beggars in Mumbai know a dollar bill by touch and smell? Moreover, how does one of them tell the denomination by hearing the description of the person on the bill? I, after handling dollars for over seven months, do not know whose picture is on a hundred dollar bill. By the way, that guy Jamal has to be real stupid to not know whose picture is there on a Rs. 1000 note – all currency notes in India have the same picture. Why does Anil Kapoor take a personal interest in not letting Jamal win? Why doesn’t Amitabh Bachchan hesitate to give an autograph to a child in that state? How did Jamal find Lathika living in that house with the guard? Why does Jamal choose 5:00 pm and CST to wait for Lathika? Doesn’t he know that an elephant could get lost in the Mumbai CST crowd at 5:00 pm? And really, when did he ever get time to fall in love with the girl?

 Then the direction. Since this is the Oscar winner for the best picture of the year we are talking about, one could ask whether there is any such thing as a “chaiwallah” in a call centre, or whether the emergency windows had been introduced in trains in the period depicted, or whether Hrithik Roshan, whose dance moves the child imitates in a scene, had made his debut then. As a person who has worked in the same building with call centre employees and seen the rigorous training that they go through, I also wondered how any of them could just hand over the terminal to a “chaiwallah” who could handle calls and navigate the system with ease. Is this the script that won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar?

 Actually this is a movie tailor-made for winning the Oscars. That is why the image of India most acceptable to the western audience is presented. The editing and cinematography are good, no doubt, and that combined with the immensely rich visual and auditory experience (compare an Indian market with an American one and you’ll understand what I mean here) was enough to bowl the judges and the audience over. Rahman’s music, although very ordinary by his own standard, was well suited to the movie. Only, I could not find any justification for the last song-and-dance sequence on the railway platform. And that is the song that gets the best song Oscar! Why, even Rahman’s other nomination, “O Saira” that accompanied the chase sequence in the beginning was better! It only shows that the western audience and film critics desperately need a taste of some really good music.

 In conclusion, I would like to say that while watching the movie, the thing that shines through every moment is its overwhelming mediocrity, more so because of all that hype and all those awards. The movie is just a below-average masala Bollywood story filmed by a little above average director and so it isn't bad for watching once. But several Hindi movies of recent times can beat this movie in all departments, and I’m not even talking of classics. This is not a film worth a second watch, not a film to buy and keep for one’s collection. And this is definitely not one of the all-time greats. My father summed it up in a single line after watching Slumdog Millionaire. “If I have to make a list of the best 500 movies that I have ever seen, this movie would not make the list,” he said. I can only add this much: if this is the best movie of the year, the others must really have been unwatchable.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Holi Greetings

A few days ago, I got a mail from someone at 123Greetings.com who had seen my photoblog and was interested in having some of the photos as online greeting cards on their website. He invited me to design cards for them. My first question was of course, "What's in it for me?" He replied that I could put a link to my blog or website on the cards so that it serves as an advertisement for my blog as well. Quite naturally, the first card that I designed and uploaded was for Holi. Here it is:

So with this card, I wish all my readers a very joyous and colourful Holi this year. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Vote for me!

A long long time ago, when this blog was just a few posts old, I had written that blogging was somewhat like votebank politics. Since then, a lot of posts have been written, and some other blogs too. I wrote a blog for my company for sometime. Also, since the first day of this year, I started a photoblog where I post one photo taken by me each day.

Now time has come to ask my readers for their votes: not for this blog but for the other one. I know I have not been doing this blog justice since last year due to my incessant travel from one deadline to another. As a result, I cannot rightfully nominate this blog for any awards. However, since my other blog requires just posting of images that I have already taken, its regularity has never faltered till date. That is why I decided to nominate my photoblog for the 2009 Photoblog Awards.

The process is simple. Go to the site and register. This is to ensure that you cannot cast more than one vote for me. Then log in, go to this link and just click on "vote" to vote for me. Of course, I would advise you to look at my photoblog first to make sure I deserve your vote. You can look through the "Archive" and "Portfolio" sections to look at old photos. And while you are at it, you can also go through some of the other nominees at the Photo Blog Awards. There are some greatly skilled people out there.