Vantage point

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Tale of Two Lame Ducks

It is funny that both India and Pakistan currently have Prime Minister who are as lame-ducky as can get. And although everyone knows how powerless they are, nothing must sting them more than a foreign power nonchalantly underlining their status with a seemingly harmless gesture.

Manmohan Singh first. Everyone knows him as the benign caretaker. Dude couldn't even give a speech when he wanted during the trust vote. But a bigger slap in the face came from China who invited Sonia Gandhi for the opening ceremonies of the upcoming Olympics, but not Manmohan Singh. Considering how even enemy nations take protocol seriously, it is the unkindest cut.

Protocol also showed the utter irrelevance of Yousuf Raza Gilani in the scheme of things during his recent US visit. When he got down from the airplane there was, and this is hilarious, no red carpet, nor an ordinary carpet, for his walk to the gate.

Which of the two lame ducks should be more offended?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Many many years ago, I read a wonderful marathi short story. I am almost 100% positive it was by P.L. "PuLa" Deshpande. In that story, a writer writes a play which is quite serious, and possibly has some social commentary aspects to it. However, when the director and actors start performing the play, it seems like a comedy. So much so that when the play finally opens, the spectators are almost rolling in the aisles with laughter, and everyone is congratulating the playwright for writing something so hilarious. He of course is pissed off, because that is not at all what he had written.

I have been trying to remember the name of the story and the book it appeared in. Those of you more well read than me in marathi literature and/or PuLa books, please help me.

Update: Thanks for the help, folks. It is from Batatyachi Chawl. When I was trying to remember, I did think of the book. But the story did not fit with the chawl meme, so I thought I was mistaken.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Viet Cong

Q: Why did American soldiers use the name 'Charlie' to generically refer to Viet Cong fighters?
A: Charles seemed too formal

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Prakash Karat

It is not often that I quote Lalu Yadav, but he said it best - the Left, much like Sheikhchilli, cut off the very branch it was sitting on. By withdrawing support, and then failing to defeat the government in the no-confidence vote, they have made themselves look stupider than Sonia Gandhi when she orchestrated the defeat of the Vajpayee government in 1998, only to have them return to power with a bigger majority.

And today, the CPI-M has expelled Somnath Chatterjee from the party. Karat's stupidity tickles me no end. But it makes me wonder if the man is right in his head, and if his party is really suicidal enough to allow him to call the shots? When the CPI-M lead left won an unexpectedly large number of seats in the 2004 elections, they were sitting pretty. They got power without responsibility, and the speaker's post. A year later, Karat took over, and since then, the party has been self-destructing in a manner that makes the BJP look more self-preserving.

Now, I don't know too much about Prakash Karat, so I don't know if he has ever fought and won an assembly or parliament election in his life. Or if he is just a stuffy academic-JNU-type like Sitaram Yechury - as the marathi proverb goes - tending to sheep from the top of a camel. I am inclined to suspect he is more of the latter. And for the rest of the post, I am going to assume he is (someone correct me if I am wrong). It is puzzling why the CPI-M is being lead by such folks who have no idea about how electoral politics works. Such folks who loosely throw around the word 'revolt', as Karat did when he said the country would revolt if the UPA pushed the deal through in the event of losing the trust vote. The likes of Karat and Yechury would rather be born in China or Soviet Russia, where you can rise to power without the inconvenient task of convincing people to vote for you. They probably fantasize about a mass revolt by the unwashed proletariat which will topple the current order and catapult them to top posts.

As much as I disagree with folks like Jyoti Basu, Buddhadeb, and Somnath Chatterjee, they at least have the cojones to fight elections, and have a firmer grasp of reality than these chai shop jholawalas. And yet, it is the veteran parliamentarian Somnath who has been kicked out by Karat for merely wanted to be an impartial speaker as per tradition.

This is rich. And as someone who believes that India would be better off without communist parties pushing their misguided agenda, I actually welcome the rise of these head-in-the-cloud types within these parties, at the expense of the feet-on-the-ground types. They can hasten the decline of the Indian Left.

So let a thousand Karats blooms.

Review of The Dark Knight

I have never seen a movie being as sold out in this country in my two years here, as The Dark Knight. A few days before release, all the friday shows were booked. And we only managed to find tickets for 12:40 am on Saturday, and had to stand in line for good seats. Thankfully, it was worth it.

Nolan had done a tremendous job of de-kitsching the Batman franchise in Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight just continues where the first movie left off, both literally and figuratively. By now, everyone and his uncle must have said this - the movie squarely belongs to the late Heath Ledger. The least of his accomplishments in the movie is that he is unrecognizable. I doubt if even his mother would have recognized him as The Joker unless told in advance that it was him. What makes his performance outstanding is the unmitigated evil he portrays. Pure, dark, unabashed, unapologetic, and even arrogant evil. Ledger's Joker is not interested in money, as he amply demonstrates while setting fire to a mountain of cash, mouthing the destined-to-be-memorable line - This city deserves a better class of criminal and I'm gonna give it to them.

Another memorable line from the movie comes from Albert (Michael Caine) who says - Some men aren't looking for anything logical. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn. Ledger's triumph lies in making the Joker conform completely to this description. The Joker is scary. Not the "oooh, don't turn the lights off, the Joker will come get me" scary, but a much scarier kind of scary. Although you know that this is after all a superhero movie, and the good guy will win in the end, he makes you suspend your rationality long enough to think that there's no way the Batman can beat this evil genius. I don't know what the rules for posthumous Oscars are, but he is sure to get it. As tragic as the fact is that Ledger won't be around to bask in the glory of his greatest role, even more tragic is the fact that if he does win the Oscar, there will always be an asterix next to it saying "posthumous", thereby causing some cynics to speculate that it might have been a sympathy award.

The rest of the cast, although spectacularly overshadowed by Ledger, still does very well. Christian Bale continues his good work, though frankly, his role in this movie was more of a supportive character. It is good to see that the one blemish from the first movie - Katie Holmes, is no longer there, and Maggie Gyllenhall slips into Rachel Dawes' skin quite comfortably. Gary Oldman was good too.

But the other two top class performances are by Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, quite understandably backed by some excellent dialogues. Another line from the movie that tickled me came when one of the guys working for Wayne Enterprises figures out that Bruce is Batman, and demands money from Lucius Fox (Freeman) for keeping his mouth shut. Fox, with a very amused look on his face says -

Let me see if I get this straight. You are accusing your client, who is one of the most wealthy and powerful men in the world, of being a rogue vigilante who runs around at night beating mobsters to a bloody pulp with his bare hands…and your intention is to try to blackmail this person? [pauses] Good luck.

And as my frequent quoting from the movie must have made it obvious, I think the dialogues in the movie are one of its greatest strengths.

The movie does have some minor flaws though. For one, it is too long. I have no problems with a movie being long if the story justifies it, but the whole Hong Kong sequence was completely unnecessary and could have been edited out.

Another complaint I have with the movie is the portrayal of Harvey Dent. Aaron Eckhart is one of my favorite actors, but Dent left me feeling disappointed. Especially because I have read The Long Halloween, the graphic novel from which the movie is loosely inspired. In that book, Dent is shown as always having a streak of vigilante-ism in him, and his transformation into Two Face is understandable. In the movie, that transformation seems very stilted and sudden. And the blame lies, not with Eckhart, but with Nolan and the writers for not fleshing his character out as well as they should have.

But these are minor irritants. Overall, the movie is superb, and worth watching more than once.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Excessive Romanticization of Israel's Spine

Four years ago, I wrote a post about how several people (usually Hindu) in India talk about Israel with misty eyes. How resolute Israel is, how strong they are and how uncompromising their attitude is when dealing with terrorists. They wince at the BJP's IC-814 Kandahar capitulation, and talk glowingly about the Entebbe raid. India, they argue is a soft state, and we should learn more from Israel about how to deal with terrorist blackmail. Back then, I wrote the post after Israel had completed a bargain with terrorists, clearly to the terrorists' advantage. They had released 400 prisoners (mostly terrorists) in exchange for one hostage and some dead bodies.

Well, it has happened again. This time, there isn't even a single living Israeli hostage. Hezbollah just gave Israel dead bodies of their soldiers, and in exchange, Israel handed over some dead bodies, and released 5 dangerous terrorists, including one man who killed a 4 year old Israeli girl with his rifle butt.

Yes, releasing the terrorists after the Kandahar hijack was wrong, and negotiating with terrorists is wrong. Let us focus on that. Let us not over-romanticize Israeli policy.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Please Stow Your Falcon Under Your Seat

My mom is flying Etihad Airways to come to the US, so I was on their website checking out baggage regulations. And I made a phenomenal discovery. It would seem that people flying Eithad are known to frequently travel with falcons. All airlines have pet-specific policies, but the Etihad Airways page on the subject has a bit too much information pertaining to falcons. In fact their Pets section starts with addressing the important falcon issue before moving on to other pets -

To be accepted as checked baggage, charge for one falcon (which is considered 3 kilos) is 3 times the normal excess baggage rate of the journey.

None of the other airline websites I checked seemed to be this obsessed with falcons. But wait. It gets better. Many airlines allow dogs or cats to be taken as cabin luggage, with certain restrictions. Of course, many airlines allow helper dogs for blind people. Not Etihad, though. They do not allow any animals in the cabin. Not even for blind/deaf people.

Dogs to lead the blind and/or deaf
We do not accept dogs to lead the blind or deaf for transportation in the cabin. However,the animal may be accepted as checked baggage in the cargo hold without charge. Any other animals must travel as cargo and are not permitted within the aircraft cabin or checked baggage.

Did I say no animals are allowed in the cabin? I was wrong. There is an exception -

The carriage of animals in the cabin is restricted to falcons only and is permitted on all types of aircraft subject to the following conditions:

Diamond First Class/Pearl Business Class
• Up to 2 falcons per guest (per seat) are permitted. Charge for each falcon (which is considered 3 kilos) is 3 times the normal excess baggage rate of the journey.
• Up to 2 additional falcons can be carried when an extra seat is purchased within same class. No excess baggage charges for the additional falcons will apply

Coral Economy Class
• 1 falcon per guest (per seat) is permitted. Charge for one falcon (which is considered 3 kilos) is 3 times the normal excess baggage rate of the journey.
• 1 additional falcon can be carried when an extra seat is purchased within same class. No excess baggage charges for the additional falcon will apply.

What could possibly motivate an airline to devise such an elaborate falcon policy? Why are falcons so special? Do people in the gulf have such a large number of falcons?

Friday, July 04, 2008

Thodasa Adjust

it is said that the underlying life philosophy of India and Indians is thodasa adjust or adjust maadi. Come to think of it, the Indian freedom struggle was the biggest demonstration of the thodasa adjust spirit.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Sitcoms and Movies

Here is a potentially disastrous bit of news. After the success of the Sex and The City movie, there are now plans to make a FRIENDS movie. Given how abysmal the last few (in fact last 6!) seasons of FRIENDS were, I don't expect the movie to be good.

But this got me thinking about a larger question. Is it a bad idea to make any sitcom into a movie? Or can a film adaptation actually work for some sitcoms? When I say "work", I mean the cinematic quality in my eyes, not box office success, which is a foregone conclusion for a hit sitcom.

And I have concluded that the quality of a sitcom-based-movie depends largely on one factor. Is the underlying storyline interesting and strong enough? Or so express it in programmer lingo, how important are the globally defined variables, as opposed to the locally defined variables?

Most sitcoms (especially American sitcoms) are written in a very modular fashion. Every 22 minute episode is written with a goal to make it funny and entertaining, independent of the other episodes. In fact American sitcoms are so gag-filled that often, short 15-30-60 bits are written to be funny independent of the rest of the same episode. Not that they all succeed, but that seems to be the attempt.

So given the modular nature of the 22-minute episodes, a movie is more often than not likely to resemble just a much longer episode. Unless..... there is a strong underlying plot (story arc) that moves significantly from episode-to-episode or season-to-season. That plot would then actually make a good film story over a longer period of time.

But American sitcoms rarely have a story arc for various reasons. So regardless of the quality of the characters, writing, acting, and direction, the film versions of most sitcoms will end up seeming like longer episodes. And not everyone can manage to create a 90-minute episode that will be absorbing. The one exception in my eyes - The South Park movie, which was a pretty good 90 minute episode. In fact even their Imaginationland story arc could make a decent "movie".

But as good as the South Park 90-minute episode was, it was still just that. An episode. It lacked the "global" characteristic that would make it an independent movie in its own right. Because there is no strong underlying storyline to the series that could be translated to the big screen. As good as the Seinfeld series was, its film adaptation will suffer from the same problem. Lack of a strong underlying storyline. So whether you watch Seinfeld or South Park episodes in chronological order, or randomly, it doesn't make too much difference to their entertainment value. Which is probably why Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David smartly and sensibly never made a movie, despite the massive financial potential of such a project (though on the Jon Stewart show, Jerry did say he wanted to make a 10-15 minute long epilogue episode, which would be great).

So as I think about this a bit more, I can think of only one good sitcom that could be made into an actual movie as opposed to a 90-minute episode. Arrested Development. As hilarious as its every episode was, there was a strong narrative that moved substantially as the series moved along. Watching its episodes in sequence increases its entertainment value exponentially, because there are a lot of jokes, themes and sub-plots that make sense only in the larger context.

Another reason that makes an Arrested Development movie likely to be more movie-ish than episode-ish, is that the series was abruptly canceled. The writers did try to tie some loose ends together in the final episodes, but it does seem as if there is a lot more of the overall story left to tell.

Which is why I am keenly looking forward to the Arrested Development movie, whose script Mitchell Hurwitz is working on.

But the FRIENDS movie? Brrrrrrrrr!