A GSLV Mk III glitching near the launchpad. Credit: ISRO

Why covering ISRO is a pain

The following is a bulleted list of reasons why covering developments on the Indian spaceflight programme can be nerve-wracking.

  • ISRO does not have a media engagement policy that lays out when it will communicate information to journalists and how, so there is seldom a guarantee of correctness when reporting developing events
  • ISRO’s updates themselves are haphazard: sometimes they’re tweeted, sometimes they’re issued as singles lines on their websites, sometimes there’s a ‘media release’, sometimes there’s a PIB release, and so on
  • As opposed to the organisation itself, ISRO members can be gabby – but you can never tell exactly who is going to be gabby or when
  • Some ISRO scientists insert important information in the middle of innocuous speeches delivered at minor events in schools and colleges
  • Every once in a while, one particular publication will become ‘blessed’ with sources within the org. and churn out page after page of updates+
  • Like the male superstars of Tamil cinema, ISRO benefits from the pernicious jingoism it is almost always surrounded with but does nothing to dispel it (cf. the mental cost of walking some beats over others)
  • There is a policy that says employees of Indian institutions don’t have to seek the okay of their superiors to speak to the press unless when speaking ill; ISRO’s own and more stringent policy supersedes it
  • There are four ways to acquire any substantive information (beyond getting close to officials and following the ‘blessed’ publications): bots that crawl the isro.gov.in domain looking for PDFs, Q&A records of the Lok/Rajya Sabha, Indian language newspapers that cover local events, and former employees
  • If a comprehensive history of ISRO exists, it is bound to be in someone’s PhD thesis, locked up in the annals of a foreign publication or found scattered across the Indian media landscape, so covering ISRO has to be a full-time job that leaves room or time for little else
  • Information, and even commentary, will flow freely when everything is going well; when shit hits the fan, there is near-complete silence
  • In similar vein, journalists publishing any criticism of ISRO almost never hear from any officials within the org.
  • (A relatively minor point in this company) I don’t think anyone knows what the copyright restrictions on ISRO-produced images and videos are, so much so that NASA’s images of ISRO’s assets are easier to use

+ I say this without disparaging the journalist, who must have worked hard to cultivate such a network. The problem is that ISRO has constantly privileged such networks over more systematic engagement, forcing journalists to resort to access journalism.

The Oedipal intrigues of Indian cinema and if they undermine hope

British film critic Nicholas Barber has a fantastic insight in this review in The Economist. The gist is that increasingly more productions, especially from the West, have plots that ‘evolve’ to until they become some sort of a family dispute. Barber cites famous examples: Star Wars, Jason Bourne, Sherlock (by extension, Elementary), Goldfinger, Spectre, etc. Some plausible reasons he offers:

It’s not too hard to see why such universe-shrinking appeals to screenwriters. Drama is fuelled by revelations, and there aren’t many revelations more momentous – or easier to write – than, “I am your father/sister/brother!” Giving the protagonist a personal involvement in the plot is also a simple way of raising the emotional stakes, as well as making him or her more sympathetic to the viewer. Most of us will never be lucky enough to blow up a moon-sized space station, as Luke Skywalker did, but we all know what it’s like to be angry at a parent or resentful of a sibling.

But I suspect that there is more to this trend than narrative expedience. The new spate of universe-shrinking, of plots driven by personal animus, could well be a sign of how narcissistic our culture has become, and how desperate film and television studios are to please fans who are obsessed by their favourite characters. But it’s also a symptom of globalisation: now that studios are so reliant on overseas sales, they don’t want to risk offending foreign markets. It’s safer to be personal than political.

I disagree with Barber’s larger point because I think he might be projecting. Numerous episodes of Sherlock are concerned with family but only if that’s what you choose to take away. Instead, Barber appears to be picking on themes and in the process betraying a personal dislike for them. He may also be cherry-picking his examples; his review itself in The Economist has been prompted by one episode of one TV show.

Obviously this made me think of Indian cinema and if it’s been guilty of the same tactics. Of course it has and there are innumerable examples across eras. One that most ground at me was (spoiler alert) the very-recent Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru. But then the occasion also merits some introspection about the place of the Indian family and its sensibilities. Barber thinks more western creators are resorting to, as one comment points out, “Oedipal intrigues” because producers expect them to find more favour with western audiences. Similarly, what kind of “Oedipal intrigues” does the Indian audience like? A tangential take on this line of thought: what possibilities do “Oedipal intrigues” violate? For example, Barber explains how Luke Skywalker’s humble origins – which the audience may have been able to connect better with – are outwindowed when you realise he’s the brother of a famous princess and the son of the series’s greatest villain. Similarly, what possibilities offered by Indian cinema have been undermined by its own “Oedipal intrigues”?

The only thing that comes to mind is its treatment of women. Perhaps you can think of something else as well.

Featured image: A still from the film Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru.

Bollywood, Kollywood, etc.

Southern India is fertile territory for film-makers. Its 260m inhabitants are richer than the national average, and prefer content in regional languages to Hindi, Bollywood’s lingua franca. Ageing cinemas bulge to breaking-point: audiences turn into cheering spectators and drown out the dialogues. Living superstars have temples named after them; fans bathe huge garlanded cut-outs of actors with milk to pray for their film’s success. Pre-screening rituals include burning camphor inside a sliced pumpkin before smashing it near the big screen to bring good luck. It is unsurprising that five of Tamil Nadu’s eight chief ministers have been film stars or scriptwriters.

This is from an article in The Economist that touches upon a point highlighted most recently by Kabali but not as much as I’d have liked, although this line of thought would’ve been a digression. The article remarks that Bollywood has been in a bit of a “funk” of late, having “recycled” the same stars repeatedly. It’s not just that. Notwithstanding the vacuous rituals, South Indian cinema, at least Tamil cinema, has also been more comfortable taking on touchy topics, and plumbing depths that are both sensitive and nuanced (as opposed to dealing with full-blown controversies), a sort of privilege afforded no doubt by an audience able to appreciate it. This isn’t to say Tamil cinema doesn’t have any problems – it has its share – as much as to point out that it has been able to touch upon societal ills more often and better than Bollywood has been able. For further reading, I recommend Karthikeyan Damodaran’s assessment of Kabali (which includes an instructive review of the caste-focused hits of Kollywood). If you have more time, Vaasanthi’s wonderful book Cut-Outs, Caste and Cine Stars: The World of Tamil Politics is a must-read. It takes great pains to document the seeding of political power in the aspirations of Tamil cinema. A short excerpt:

Once the country attained freedom and the Congress came to power in Tamil Nadu as well, puritans like [C. Rajagopalachari] and Kamaraj who were at the helm of affairs, completely disowned the contribution of cinema to the movement. Rajaji’s rival Satyamurthy, a Congressman of great imagination and vision as far as the visual media’s impact was concerned, had in fact built up a very powerful group of artists. With the rapid electrification of rural areas under Congress rule, cinema halls and films became accessible to the rural population. Thanks to touring cinemas, even the most remote villages could soon be reached by this medium.

The Dravida Kazhagam activists, many of whom were talented playwrights, recognised cinema’s potential and very deftly used it for their purpose. At first they were scriptwriters working for producers and had no control over the medium. But they could project their ‘reformist’ ideas and insert dialogues critiquing Brahmins, religious hypocrisy, untouchability and other controversial subjects. They rode on the popularity they earned from cinema as scriptwriters and saw in the medium potential to spread their message. [R.M. Veerappan] recalls that Annadurai thought ‘the revolutionary ideas of Periyar should be told through plays. And decided to write. He as an actor himself and expressed great affinity towards fellow artistes and supported and praised them in public. The Congress, on the other hand, only made use of the artists like K.B. Sundarambal, Viswanath Das and others, but their status was not enhanced. All theatre artistes including S.G. Kittappa, who was a Brahmin, were looked down upon and were not respected.’

Featured image credit: Unsplash/pixabay.

If Rajinikanth regrets some of the roles he played, and other questions

Featured image: An illustration of actor Rajinikanth. Credit: ssoosay/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Read this about the Dileep-Kavya wedding and the crazy thing the groom said about the bride and why he was marrying her (protecting her honour, apparently). Reminded me of the widespread misogyny in Tamil cinema – as well as the loads of interviews I daydream about conducting with the people who both participate in and create one of my favourite enterprises in India: ‘Kollywood’. So many people have so much to answer for: fat jokes, moral policing, stalking, the so-called “amma sentiment” (nothing to do with JJ), love, superstitions, punch-dialogues, etc.

(What follows is by no means exhaustive but does IMO address the major problems and the most well-known films associated with them. Feel free to pile on.)

Fat jokes – What do actors like Nalini, Aarthi Ravi and Bava Lakshmanan feel about elephant-trumpets playing in the background when they or their dialogues have their moment on screen? Or when actors like Vivek, Soori and Santhanam make fun of the physical appearances of actors like Yogi Babu, Madhumitha and ‘Naan Kadavul’ Rajendran for some supposedly comedic effect? Or when actors like Vadivelu and Goundamani make fun of dark-skinned women?

Moral policing – Applies to a lot of actors but I’m interested in one in particular: Rajinikanth. Through films like Baasha (1995), Padayappa (1999), Baba (2002), Chandramukhi (2005) and Kuselan (2008), Rajini has delivered a host of dialogues about how women should or shouldn’t behave, dialogues that just won’t come unstuck from Tamil pop culture. His roles in these films, among many others, have glorified his stance as well and shown them to reap results, often to the point where to emulate the ‘Superstar’ is to effectively to embody these attitudes (which are all on the conservative, more misogynistic side of things). I’d like to ask him if he regrets playing these roles and the lines that came with them. I’d be surprised if he were completely unconcerned. He’s an actor who’s fully aware of the weight he pulls (as much as of his confrontation with the politician S. Ramadoss in 2002, over the film Baba showing the actor smoking and drinking in many scenes, from which he emerged smarting.)

(Oh, and women can’t drink or smoke.)

Misogyny – Much has been written about this but I think a recent spate of G.V. Prakash movies deserve special mention. What the fuck is he thinking? Especially with a movie like Trisha Illana Nayanthara (2015)? Granted, he might not even had much of a say in the story, production values, etc., but he has to know he’s the face, the most prominent name, of the shitty movies he acts in. And I expect him to speak up about it. Also, Siva Karthikeyan and his ‘self-centred hero’ roles, where at the beginning of the plot he’s a jerkbag and we’ve to spend the next 100 minutes awaiting his glorious and exceptionally inane reformation even as the background score strongly suggests we sympathise with him. Over and over and over. What about the heroine’s feelings? Oh, fuck her feelings, especially with lines like, “It’s every woman’s full-time job to make men cry.” Right. So that’s why you spent the last 99 minutes lusting after her. Got it. Example: Remo (2016).

Stalking – This is unbelievably never-endingly gloriously crap. And it’s crappier when some newer films continue to use it as a major and rewarding plot-device, often completely disregarding the female character’s discomfort on the way.

Respect for mothers – I hate this for two reasons. In Kollywood pop culture, this trope is referred to as “amma sentiment” (‘amma’ is Tamil for ‘mother’). It plays out in Tamil films in the form of the protagonist, usually the male, revering his mother and/or mothers all over the place for being quasi-divine manifestations of divine divinity. It began with Kamal Haasan’s Kalathur Kannamma in 1960 (though I’m not going to hold that against him, he was 6 y.o. at the time) and received a big boost with Rajinikanth’s Mannan (1992). But what this does is to install motherhood as the highest possible aspiration for women, excising them of their choice be someone/something else. What this reverence also does is to portray all mothers as good people. This it delegitimises the many legitimate issues of those who’ve had fraught relationships with their mothers.

The Moment When Love ‘Arrives’ – Stalking-based movies have this moment when Love Arrives. Check out the cult classic Ullathai Allitha (1996), when Karthik Muthuraman forces Rambha to tell him she loves him. And then when she does, she actually fucking does. The Turn is just brutal: to the intelligence of the female character, to the ego of the male character (which deserves only to be deflated). But thanks: at least you’re admitting there’s no other way that emotional inflection point is going to come about, right?

Endorsement of religious rituals/superstitions/astrology – Sometimes it’s frightening how casually many of these films assume these things are based in fact, or even in the realm of plausibility. Example: DeMonte Colony (2015), Aambala (2015), Aranmanai (2014), Sivaji (2007), Veerappu (2007), Anniyan (2005), etc.

Punch dialogues – Yeah, some actors like Vijay, Dhanush, Ajith, even Siva Karthikeyan and *cough* M. Sasikumar of late, deliver punch dialogues on screen to please their more-hardcore fans. But the more these dialogues continue to be developed and delivered, aren’t the actors and their producers also perpetuating their demand of mind-numbing levels of depersonalisation from the audience?

Obsession with fair skin – Apart from the older fair-and-lovely criticisms, etc., some movies also take time out to point out that an actress in the film is particularly fair-skinned and deserves to be noticed for just that reason. Example: Poojai (2014), Maan Karate (2014), Kappal (2014), Goa (2010), Ainthaam Padai (2009), Kadhala Kadhala (1998), etc.

Circlejerking – The film awards instituted by the South Indian film industries are like those awards given to airports: a dime a dozen, no standardised evaluation criteria and a great excuse to dress up and show off. On many occasions, I’ve felt like some of the awardings might’ve better served the institutions that created them if they weren’t given out in a particular year. Another form of this circlejerk is for a mediocre or bad film to have multiple throwbacks to its male protagonist’s previous films and roles.

Miscellaneous WTFs

Manadhai Thirudivittai (2001) – For completely rejecting the idea that a woman has feelings or opinions about something that affects her

Endrendrum Punnagai (2013) – For a male protagonist who never feels the need to apologise for his boneheadedness and its emotional impact on other people

Kaththi (2014) – For portraying a female lead prepared to be part of a strike that cripples an entire state but is okay being slapped by random people

The actor Santhanam – I’ve always found that Tamil cinema’s comedians and comediennes are among the industry’s best actors, and Santhanam is no exception. He’s been extremely successful in the last five years, and it’s been evident of late that he now wants to make it big as a hero. Good luck! Except what hurts is that he’s trying to be the painful-to-watch hero: engaging in stalking, delivering punch-dialogues, telling women what they should or shouldn’t do, etc.

It is as the art critic John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing (1972) – with the following prefix: “In most of Tamil cinema…”

… men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

‘Don’t Move Away’

I listen to a lot of music but can’t pretend to have a deeper appreciation beyond how each track makes me feel. A day that begins with Maharajapuram Santhanam’s rendition of Endaro Mahanubhavulu in the morning could transition to Machine Gun by Noisia by late afternoon and on to Een Geldersch Lied by Heidevolk after dinner. But for the last few days, this wayward procession has been hijacked by Thalli Pogathey (Don’t Move Away), a single released from the upcoming Tamil film Achcham Enbadhu Madamaiyada. It’s been composed by A.R. Rahman with lyrics by Thamarai, and I think they’ve both surpassed themselves. Here’s the track followed by some of my favourite lines from the lyrics (0:33-1:17):

Kannellaam neeye thaan nirkindrai / கண்ணெல்லாம் நீயே தான் நிற்கின்றாய்
Vizhiyin mael naan kobam kondaen / விழியன் மேல் நான் கோபம் கொன்டேன்
Imai moodidu endraen / இமை மூடிடு என்றேன்
Nagarum nodigal kasaiyadi pole / நகரும் நொடிகள் கசையடி போலே
Mudhugin mele vizhuvadhunaale / முதுகின் மேலே விழுவதுனாலே

Your image fills my eyes
I’m angered by my visions
I ask myself to close my eyes
Seconds pass, like a whiplash
They fall on my back

Vari vari kavidhai / வரி வரி கவிதை
Ezhudhum valigal, ezhudhaa mozhigal / எழுதும் வலிகள், எழுதா மொழிகள்
Enathu kadal pola peridhaaga / எனது கடல் போலே பெரிதாக
Nee nindraai, siruvan naan / நீ நின்றால் சிறுவன் நான்
Siru alai mattum dhaan / சிறு அலை மட்டும் தான்
Paarkiraen paarkiraen / பார்கிறேன் பார்கிறேன்

Like lines and lines of poetry
Painfully written, in unwritten languages
Vast like my ocean
You stood and me, a little boy,
Witnessed only the ripples

One thing I’ve noticed in the work of good writers and scientists (the people I often interact with) is that the littlest possible bits of information are often strung together to become a wellspring of ideas and perspectives. For all his musical genius, Rahman’s songs are a wellspring of emotions for me – sometimes they click, sometimes they don’t, but they’re all achieved with an economy of sounds. He seldom tries too hard (a surprising exception was Oru Koodai Sunlight from Shivaji), which I’ve come to believe is a desperation safer in the hands of those who have nothing to lose. In fact, Rahman is masterful at combining lyrical traditions with those forms of music in which they’ve seldom existed (as with Adiye from Kadal), and achieves that seamless weave with subtle, well-crafted interventions (best heard in Margazhi Poove from May Maadham) instead of just throwing them together (which may have succeeded with Melam Moge from Billa Ranga but didn’t with Yennai Arindhaal‘s title track).

And Thalli Pogathey is simply more of that mastery at work.

'Don't Move Away'

I listen to a lot of music but can’t pretend to have a deeper appreciation beyond how each track makes me feel. A day that begins with Maharajapuram Santhanam’s rendition of Endaro Mahanubhavulu in the morning could transition to Machine Gun by Noisia by late afternoon and on to Een Geldersch Lied by Heidevolk after dinner. But for the last few days, this wayward procession has been hijacked by Thalli Pogathey (Don’t Move Away), a single released from the upcoming Tamil film Achcham Enbadhu Madamaiyada. It’s been composed by A.R. Rahman with lyrics by Thamarai, and I think they’ve both surpassed themselves. Here’s the track followed by some of my favourite lines from the lyrics (0:33-1:17):

Kannellaam neeye thaan nirkindrai / கண்ணெல்லாம் நீயே தான் நிற்கின்றாய்
Vizhiyin mael naan kobam kondaen / விழியன் மேல் நான் கோபம் கொன்டேன்
Imai moodidu endraen / இமை மூடிடு என்றேன்
Nagarum nodigal kasaiyadi pole / நகரும் நொடிகள் கசையடி போலே
Mudhugin mele vizhuvadhunaale / முதுகின் மேலே விழுவதுனாலே

Your image fills my eyes
I’m angered by my visions
I ask myself to close my eyes
Seconds pass, like a whiplash
They fall on my back

Vari vari kavidhai / வரி வரி கவிதை
Ezhudhum valigal, ezhudhaa mozhigal / எழுதும் வலிகள், எழுதா மொழிகள்
Enathu kadal pola peridhaaga / எனது கடல் போலே பெரிதாக
Nee nindraai, siruvan naan / நீ நின்றால் சிறுவன் நான்
Siru alai mattum dhaan / சிறு அலை மட்டும் தான்
Paarkiraen paarkiraen / பார்கிறேன் பார்கிறேன்

Like lines and lines of poetry
Painfully written, in unwritten languages
Vast like my ocean
You stood and me, a little boy,
Witnessed only the ripples

One thing I’ve noticed in the work of good writers and scientists (the people I often interact with) is that the littlest possible bits of information are often strung together to become a wellspring of ideas and perspectives. For all his musical genius, Rahman’s songs are a wellspring of emotions for me – sometimes they click, sometimes they don’t, but they’re all achieved with an economy of sounds. He seldom tries too hard (a surprising exception was Oru Koodai Sunlight from Shivaji), which I’ve come to believe is a desperation safer in the hands of those who have nothing to lose. In fact, Rahman is masterful at combining lyrical traditions with those forms of music in which they’ve seldom existed (as with Adiye from Kadal), and achieves that seamless weave with subtle, well-crafted interventions (best heard in Margazhi Poove from May Maadham) instead of just throwing them together (which may have succeeded with Melam Moge from Billa Ranga but didn’t with Yennai Arindhaal‘s title track).

And Thalli Pogathey is simply more of that mastery at work.