A Joyful Experience

...from Hooghly to Hyderabad and beyond.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Inception - The Review

[Before you start reading, please be aware that this post discusses a few plot elements from the recent movie “Inception” and the book “Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows” although I don’t think I have given away any major spoilers from either the movie or the book. Also, I think if you are interested in Harry Potter and haven’t read Deathly Hallows by now, probably you deserve spoilers being thrust into your face anyway!]


Mundungus Fletcher had an idea. It was a brilliant escape plan to take Harry away from the Dursleys. Only, it wasn’t he who generated the idea. It was Severus Snape who had gone into his subconscious mind and planted the seed of that idea. When Harry saw Snape doing it, he wasn’t seeing it in the real world of course; he had dived into Snape’s mind and he was looking at the projection of Snape and the projection of Mundungus talking among themselves. And as you know, Harry Potter exists just in the mind of author J. K. Rowling and her millions of fans, and we have no way of knowing whether Christopher Nolan is one of them. So when Nolan had this idea of inception, it was probably triggered by this projection of Mundungus in the mind of Snape’s projection in the mind of Harry who was in turn just a projection in Rowling’s mind – a Rowling who wasn’t real but just a projection of Nolan’s own subconscious.

Confused yet? Welcome to the world of Inception.

Christoper Nolan’s latest movie explores the world of dreams and the subconscious mind, and questions reality in a way that probably only “The Matrix” did in recent times. It is built on the premise that several people can share a dream and interact in the dreamer’s subconscious. There can also be a dream within a dream, a concept that we computer programmers call “recursion.” And just as in computer programming, if the exit condition is not specified properly, one runs into all kinds of problems.

The movie plays with its timeline in a very interesting way – without giving away any key plot points, let me say that when we dream for a few seconds, the incidents that occur in the dream span a much larger time. This “expansion of time” has been cleverly used throughout the movie which is as full of action and special effects as all action movies these days seem to be.

That’s about all I am going to say regarding this movie. Too much discussion is likely to harm your viewing experience. Leonardo DiCaprio is good as usual, as is the rest of the cast. Nothing new needs to be said about Nolan’s direction after “The Dark Knight” and Hans Zimmer’s music is lovely as usual. There is only one thing more that I want to say about this movie.

That is about the concept. The idea.

The protagonist in the movie says, “What's the most resilient parasite? An Idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules. Which is why I have to steal it.” While nobody is accusing Christopher Nolan of stealing someone’s idea, the concept is not entirely original either. In stories all over the world, people interacting through dreams with other people both living and dead is a well-known plot device. As far as questioning reality and bending the rules of physics is concerned, The Matrix got there first, and the science of The Matrix (only the first one) was much more believable. Not that The Matrix was original either – we Indians have always known that the world is just Maya, but that is not relevant to this discussion here. What is relevant is the fact that the comparisons with The Matrix are inevitable for Inception, and according to me, Inception loses on that front.

And that is why, my final verdict is that while Inception is a very well-made movie, it left me a little disappointed. I don’t know whether the trailers were too explicit, or I had set my expectations a bit too high reading the “OMG Inception is the best movie made in like, ever!” Facebook status updates from some of my friends. But when I saw The Matrix, I felt it was full of surprises. Inception, on the other hand, felt predictable to the very end – not in the details of course, but in the overall plot. To be fair, I saw The Matrix when I was a lot younger, I had not seen trailers, and Facebook did not exist back then (I know I sound like somebody’s grandfather saying that line).

Inception is definitely an excellent movie. A “must-watch,” to use the oft-used phrase. But a life-changing experience as some people around me seem to claim? No way! Four stars out of five if you ask me. The Matrix would probably get five. Not Inception.

But then, it was The Matrix that planted the seed of the idea in our minds. Inception pays the price of coming second, and it does a very good job of being the second.

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Monday, July 19, 2010

Tolerance

The other day someone asked me how I am surviving the summer without an air-conditioner in my attic room. The question may come as a surprise to people who don't know that New York City touched forty degrees Celsius last week. For me, however, the surprise was of a different kind. The very idea that I would be unable to survive without an air-conditioner in forty degree heat was laughable. After all, I have grown up in Allahabad where forty-five was the norm during summer and I had to bicycle back from school when candles turned liquid within minutes in the sun. Also, much of the day was spent without power supply and hence the absence of even a fan was a mere inconvenience that we learned to live with. And while explaining all this to my questioner, I thought about all the different ways in which growing up in India has hardened me against difficult situations. Some of the day-to-day situations that are very commonplace for me are extremely disturbing for my American companions, and this forms the basis for this post.

The first incident that comes to mind involves a mosquito. I was sitting at the subway station near my home one day while immersed in an interesting book. Suddenly, I heard something like “Ewwwww!!!” in a feminine voice from my left side and looked up. There was a teenage girl sitting next to me, and she was pointing at my knee with an expression of extreme horror and disgust on her face. Sitting close to people, pointing at them and saying “Ew” are all extremely rare in this country and so I decided to follow her finger and look at my knee. There, on my trouser-covered joint, sat a particularly large and juicy striped mosquito, which on brief inspection didn’t seem much different from the ones back home. Therefore I decided against treating it any different from the ones back home: I swatted it with my palm, dusted the carcass away and got back to my book. But as long as I sat there, I was keenly aware of a pair of eyes that pierced me with a gaze that was a mix of awe and disgust. After all, how could a common man kill such a big mosquito with his bare hands?

The second incident that I can remember didn’t strictly happen to me. It happened to my Turkish roommate. Someone at school explained to him that houses built prior to 1930 have lead pipes and people living there were in risk of lead poisoning. My roommate said our house was built in 1928, and so it must be having lead pipes. The other person apologized for scaring him, but my roommate just laughed in his face and said “I’m coming from Turkey; I don’t care about that stuff.”

I remember feeling really amused when I saw weather.com’s air quality alert for the first time. They advised people to stay indoors because the concentration of ozone near the ground was likely to be high during the day. I had to look up ozone in Wikipedia to find out what happens in ozone poisoning and what causes the ozone level to increase, and came to the conclusion that back home in India every day must have been a high-ozone day but nobody knew about it.

Be it something related to food or drink, or the weather, or phone, electricity or train services – whenever something falls out of the ordinary, the American way of living is thrown into disarray. People lose their way while driving as soon as the GPS gets confused. Take away cell phones and even basic tasks seem impossible. And the less one says about the Internet, the better. I have seen people sitting with the setting sun on their face, and breaking their heads over Google Maps trying to ascertain which direction they are facing. I, on the other hand, try to keep my dependence on machines to a minimum (a battle that I seem to be gradually losing) just because I want to make things easier for me when I go back to India.

Coming back to hilarious situations, the most memorable one occurred during one of the classes that I was teaching. I normally write a problem on the board at the beginning of the class. That day while writing on the board I was aware of a growing murmur in the class behind my back. I turned to find the students talking among themselves excitedly. “What’s the matter?” I snapped. “The place is crawling with bugs,” came the reply. Now I noticed there were winged termite-like insects all over the floor of the lab. Back home these insects come out during the rains and are considered quite harmless. So I asked the nearest student, with genuine impassivity, “So what’s the matter? Are they biting you?” He stared at me with a look of incredulity and replied in a hurt voice, “I do not want to sit in a classroom full of bugs even if they don’t bite me.” I realized my mistake and quickly moved to an adjoining room. Our tolerance of such extraordinary situations as normal can be very unnerving to Americans. Like the time when someone threw a dead kitten in our garbage bin, greatly upsetting my landlord. I remained calm and mildly amused throughout the whole incident, but that’s another story.

Of course, I maybe better adapted to commuting on an overcrowded train, but that does not mean I am always the one with the higher tolerance for something bad. I realized this when I was going to Ithaca a few days after arriving in the USA. As I bought the bus ticket, the gentleman at the counter gave me a badly torn $20 bill. “Can you change this please?” I asked. He gave me a surprised look and asked what was wrong with it. I showed him the tear which ran halfway down the bill. He replied “So?” and dismissed me with a wave of his hand. I later came to know that we Indians may have a better tolerance to heat or mosquitoes, but when it comes to torn currency notes, almost anything can be used in this country.

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Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Wrong Heaven

Came across this short story by Rabindranath Tagore while browsing through his works online, and couldn't resist the temptation to translate it. Is it just me, or do the people of heaven really look vaguely familiar?

The Wrong Heaven
~Rabindranath Tagore

-1-

The man was simply jobless.

He had no work, only a multitude of hobbies.

He used to pour earth into small wooden squares and then arranged small shells on it. From afar they looked like untidy paintings, with flocks of birds or uneven fields with cattle grazing; or undulating mountains with a stream flowing down, or perhaps a small walking-trail.

His family never ceased nagging him. Sometimes he vowed to let go of this madness, but the madness never let go of him.

-2-

There are some students who shirk studies all year round, but pass the exams by fluke. A similar predicament befell this man.

His life was spent in useless work, but after death he came to know that he had been granted entry in heaven.

But a man’s fate doesn’t leave him even when he is going to heaven. The messengers mixed up their records and put him in the hardworking people’s heaven.

In this heaven they have everything, only no leisure.

Here the men constantly say, “We don’t have time to breathe.” The women say, “Must go now, we have a lot of work pending.” Everyone says, “Time is expensive.” No one says, “Time is priceless.” Everyone grumbles, “Can’t work so hard” and they feel very happy saying it. The complaint “This hard work is killing us” is music to their ears.

Our poor man does not find a place here, he does not fit in. If he walks absent-mindedly on the road, he gets in the way of busy people. Wherever he spreads out his sheet to rest, he finds it is agricultural land and crops have been sown there. Constantly, he has to get up, he has to move away.

-3-

A very busy girl comes to fetch water from the heavenly water-source everyday.

She walks on the road like quick-rhythm music played on the sitar.

She has hurriedly tied up her loose hair into an untidy bun. Still, a few naughty locks are peeking down over her forehead to see her black eyes.

Our heavenly jobless man was standing at the side of the road, motionless like a tree by the restless spring.

The girl felt pity for this man, just as a princess feels pity seeing a beggar from her window.

“Don’t you have any work on your hands?”

The man sighed and said, “I don’t have the time to do work.”

The girl did not understand anything at all. “Do you want to take some work from my hands?” she asked.

The man said, “I am standing here just to take some work from your hands.”

“What work can I give you?”

“It would be nice if you could give me one of the pots of water that you carry at your waist.”

“What will you do with a pot? Fill water?”

“No, I will paint on its surface.”

The girl replied heatedly, “I don’t have time for this. I’ll go now.”

But how can a busy person be a match for an idle person? Everyday they met at the spring, and each day he said the same thing, “Give me a pot from your waist. I will paint on it.”

Finally she relented. She gave him a pot.

Around that pot the jobless man started painting multi-coloured loops, multi-lined patterns.

When he was done, the girl picked up the pot, turned it around and looked at it from all sides. She arched her eyebrows and asked, “What does this mean?”

The idle man said, “This has no meaning.”

The girl went home with her pot.

She secretly observed it in different lights, from different angles. At night, she left her bed to light a lamp and sit silently to look at that picture. In all her life, this was the first time she had seen something that had no meaning.

When she came to the spring the next day, the busy rhythm of her feet had a slight disturbance. It seemed as if while walking, her feet were absent mindedly thinking about – about something that had no meaning.

The man was again standing by the side of the road.

The girl said, “What do you want?”

He said, “I want more work from your hands.”

“What work can I give you?”

“If you agree, I will weave a ribbon for your hair from colourful threads.”

“What good will it do?”

“Nothing.”

Many different coloured ribbons were made, of many different designs. Now the girl spent a lot of time braiding her hair in front of a mirror. Her work remained unfinished, hours passed by.

-4-

Soon, the work in the hardworking people’s heaven started filling up with large gaps. Those gaps were filled up with songs and sobs.

The heavenly elders became worried. They called a meeting. They said, “This is the first time such a thing has happened in the history of heaven.”

The messenger came and confessed his mistake. “I delivered the wrong man to the wrong heaven,” he said.

The wrong man was summoned to the meeting. One look at his colourful turban and flashy belt was enough to convince everybody that it was indeed a big mistake.

The chairman said, “You will have to go back to earth.”

He tied his bag of paints and brushes to his belt and breathed a sigh of relief. “All right, I’m leaving then.”

The girl came and said, “I’ll go with him too.”

The elderly chairman became absent-minded. For the first time in his life he had seen something that had no meaning.

(Translation by Sugata Banerji.)

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