The Beauty of Symmetry in The Grand Budapest Hotel

grand-budapest-hotelThe movie Grand Budapest Hotel is an ode to the visual power of symmetry. Wes Anderson’s latest is nothing but pure visual exuberance. Over years Wes Anderson has created his own style of filmmaking and has long established himself as one of the most influential moviemakers of the modern era. No wonder, so many top ranked stars have agreed to do little cameos in his latest. For some strange reason the movie reminded me of Abbas Kiarostami’s The wind will carry us.  Simply because watching that movie by the famous Persian director was also a strong visual experience.

TGBH_LOOK_VFX_02However, what really grabs one’s attention is the visual beauty that each and every frame of the movie exudes. Almost every frame looks like a perfect picture postcard. In fact, in the age of 3-D, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ sincerely attempts to remain 2-D and exploit its beauty in every possible way. The most interesting aspect in its cinematography is the symmetry in almost every frame. Every frame is just perfect. Different geometric shapes are just perfectly placed in almost each and every frame. Architectural Digest magazine has made an interesting attempt to understand and explore some of its sets. Swide magazine has tried to explore the sites that inspired the imaginary Republic of Zubrowka and the Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s said that the real charm of cinema is in the asymmetry. item5.rendition.slideshowHorizontal.grand-budapest-hotel-set-06-hotel-dining-roomThe reason why so many of us get mesmerized by 3-D images is because it reveals the unevenness – asymmetry of the world surrounding us in a very effective manner. It’s so much close to reality. On the other hand what Grand Budapest does very effectively is not to be real at all. It creates this wonderful world of symmetry and visual perfection and preserves it with care till the end.

But why? In fact, in the last sequence of the film there is a beautiful dialogue. Character of Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham) talks about M.Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and says, “..To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it – but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace! ” And at that moment it struck me, “that’s what the movie had been trying to do all the while…” – Sustain the illusion with grace, class and beauty, of a world that had vanished long long before we ever entered it!

Thanks you Mr. Anderson!

What’s wrong with ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’

mittyI recently watched Ben Stiller’s ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty‘. After I read on IMDB that it’s a re-make of an old movie with the same title, I managed to see the old one as well.

Well, to call it a remake is unfair. Except the name of the protagonist and his habit of daydreaming, nothing is common between these two movies. However, what I wish to talk about is the underlying message that Ben Stiller’s movie gives and my problem with that message.

(Spoiler ahead ****) The basic difference between the original 1947 movie and Ben Stiller’s movie is the conceptual treatment of daydreaming and hallucinations. In Stiller’s movie Walter Mitty is a a ‘negative asset manager’ at Life magazine. Life magazine gets sold and its new owners decide to close it. Walter Mitty (played by Ben Stiller) has to provide the negative for the photograph to be used as cover for the final print issue of the magazine. He needs to use a particular negative sent by a famous freelance journalist Sean O’Conell (played by Sean Penn) but somehow he isn’t able to locate it. To save his job Walter has to get the negative. In order to achieve that he embarks on an amazing journey to catch the eccentric photographer himself. The journey takes him to places as different and exotic as Greenland, Iceland and Afghanistan. However when his life takes this unexpected turn and becomes extremely exciting and adventurous, his hallucinations and daydreams take a backseat. In fact they disappear after a while.

In the older version (which was based directly on the short story wmitty oldritten by James Thurber) the daydreams stay very much a part of the protagonist’s life. In fact the whole idea of the story was that when life of Walter Mitty takes a mysterious turn he himself gets confused whether all that’s happening to him is real or a mere hallucination! Needless to say, till the end, the viewer is also intrigued whether all that’s going on the screen is real or is just another hallucination of the protagonist.

This is not the case with Stiller’s movie. Ben Stiller’s movie has over-philosophized the simple story-line and hence committed a serious mistake. The underlying message of the movie is that if you daydream a lot maybe your life lacks excitement, and so by making your life more exciting you can cure yourself of daydreaming. However there are two basic problems here. First, not everyone who does a mundane monotonous job (and that’s about several billion men and women on this planet) necessarily feels devoid of excitement in life. Second, not every daydreamer needs to be ‘cured’. In fact some daydreaming is rather good for creative thoughts. Research in psychology has suggested that ‘Positive Constructive Daydreaming’ plays an essential role in a healthy and fulfilling mental life. Here is a link to an excellent piece on Mind-Wandering by Maria Popova. Anyway, that’s a different issue altogether!

What promises to be a funny story about a daydreamer turns out to be a story of discovery of self. That’s the problem with the movie. The story and it’s treatment are not bad, in fact some sequences are truly breathtaking in visual sense. However, the script doesn’t remain loyal to it’s original premise and that’s where the movie falters.

Is Kejriwal asking the right questions?

Academic literature on Idea Generation and Creativity emphasizes heavily upon asking the right questions. Quality of solutions depend on the quality of the definition of problems. In this light I would like to discuss the recent developments in Indian politics.

Rise of ‘Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’ and Arvind Kejriwal has been a remarkable event in recent history of Indian politics. Mass excitement that his rise has generated can only be compared to the rise of V.P.Singh in late 80s to take on mighty Congress party. I mention V.P.Singh because that’s the only political movement I have seen in my life. Within a year’s time since its establishment Aam Aadmi Party has not just become a formidable force in the state of Delhi but has managed to form the government as well. On one hand rise of ‘Aam Aadmi Party’ is the proof of robustness of India’s democracy and the efficiency of its electoral politics. On the other hand, it’s an interesting example of innovation and creativity within the political space.

This year, there will be general elections in India. Enthused by its unprecedented success in Delhi AAP is now aiming higher and is trying to make its presence felt across India. However what has caught my attention is the initial steps taken by AAP government in Delhi. Let’s talk about free 670 litres to each household. First of all, this is only for those households that have meters installed for water. This automatically discounts lower middle class, poor class and people living in slums who don’t have proper access to water. Another step is that of reducing electricity tariff. Electricity tariff in Delhi has been questioned in past and there is every reason to suspect the veracity of claims by the electricity distribution companies. In fact, Prashant Bhushan, the second most important person in AAP has been fighting for quite some time against high electricity tariffs. But once again, is high tariff the real problem or is it just the part of the problem? There are several residential zones in periphery of Delhi, where regular supply of electricity is a problem. The consumer doesn’t want only low tariffs. Consumer needs regular electricity at a reasonable rate. The solution that AAP has been seeking doesn’t address the problem in its totality.

And finally Lokpal. Creation of a quasi-judiciary system to take on corruption. It’s continuously argued, “Lokpal will fight against corruption”. That’s where the problem lies. When one says, ‘fight against corruption’ the subtle assumption is that corruption is some external entity against which we have to fight and eradicate. The problem is, corruption resides right within us – among us. People who take bribes are also part of us and people who give bribes as well. If the system is faulty you don’t create more system. Moreover, appointment of Lokpal – not by public but by a selected few – makes it even more vulnerable to becoming a political tool rather than an effective system.

In 2011, when the Lokpal movement was at its peak, I was in India and I happened to interact with some Law students about effectiveness of Lokpal. When I presented these arguments their only reply was, “You are right, but what’s the alternative?” And I didn’t have an alternative. But, lack of an obvious answer doesn’t mean you should stop asking the question or switch to a question where answer is rather more obvious. The risk I see in priorities of AAP is that, despite all good intentions it might be trapped in ‘easy solutions’. Such solutions give a false sense of action and progress instead of resolving problems. If AAP really wanted to emerge as a strong, honest and sincere alternative, they should have rather opted for harder solutions and asked deeper questions. Being creative demands greater perseverance and making tougher choices.

Get Well Soon, Tito!!

Tito VilanovaCouple of hours ago FC Barcelona’s President Rosell and Technical Director Andoni Zubizarreta announced that Tito Vilanova, Barcelona’s coach, was leaving his post because of the relapse of his illness. In the year, 2011, while Pep Guardiola was still the coach of Barça and Tito was his able assistant, the news that he had been detected to have parotid gland cancer had hit Barcelona badly. It affected Guardiola and many of the players of the team. However Tito recovered and in May 2012, when Guardiola announced his departure, Tito (in the same press conference where Guardiola was bidding adieu) was declared to be the new coach of Barcelona. When Guardiola left, Barça fans, the culés, were disappointed because the most successful coach in the history of Barcelona was leaving the club. Some fans really doubted Tito’s ability to manage all the stars in the team and keep them disciplined while some others felt reassured that Barça’s beautiful touch-and-pass attacking football will not be affected because Tito Vilanova will build up on the same legacy, as he belonged to the same school of football philosophy as Guardiola.

Amid this mixture of doubts and hope, support and skepticism and against an overly aggressive Real Madrid led by José Mourinho, Tito Vilanova took charge. The first half of his first term silenced his critics and skeptics. Barcelona reached Christmas with more points than it had ever done by that time in its history. In fact many Madrid fans, including its coach, had admitted that Barcelona had already won the League title. The New Year didn’t begin well. Tito Vilanova had a relapse of his cancer and had to spend two crucial months in New York recovering from his illness. His illness badly affected team’s performance in all competitions. Barcelona still managed to win the league though. But Barcelona’s performances by the end of the year didn’t satisfy fans.

Tito also had to suffer constant comparisons with Guardiola. Despite their similarities in playing styles, Guardiola and Tito have been two very different individuals. If Guardiola had been an example of elegance, poise, obsessive adherence to the philosophy of the game, Tito was more pragmatic, self-assured, precise, direct and (to an extent) silent. Tito didn’t have eloquent justifications for his strategies, nor he had mesmerizing oratory skills; he was a coach who spoke players’ language. He handled wonderfully, when it came to avoiding controversies and   playing mindgames with Mourinho.

Everybody expected Tito to start afresh, consolidate his work and take Barcelona to new heights this year. With a shaken Madrid under change and Neymar’s arrival every Barça follower thought that this was going to be Tito Vilanova’s year. Barcelona was in a position to pick up from where it ended last year, build up on it and keep winning games and trophies. At least that’s what die-hard Barça fans expected.

However, when it was announced today that Tito is leaving, it has left culés in a state of shock and profound sadness. This is truly the end of Guardiola’s legacy. Nobody knows who will be the next coach, but he definitely won’t belong to the core group that took Barcelona where it is today.

Whether under new coach Barcelona wins trophies or not, doesn’t matter. All the victories and losses are irrelevant and unimportant as there is only one victory that now really matters, and that’s Tito’s victory over his illness.

Get well soon Tito,

Tito_Vilanova_(2012)

(Written on 11:49 pm, 19th July, 2013)

Is Dhoni the Best Indian Cricketer ever?

MS Dhoni

 

My generation has been very lucky to see a wonderful evolution of Indian cricket – from talented underachievers in 90s to ruthlessly invincibles now. The oldest memories of cricket that we have are the ones of India winning 1985 Benson & Hedges World Series. Back then India was an underdog in most of the competitions (1987 World cup was an exception, where we were favorites). Despite being World Champions in 1983, nobody really was scared of India. In fact against Pakistan, (especially when playing at Sharjah), India used to lose even before taking the field. Still, World Cup of 1983, Rothmans Cup of 1984 and Benson & Hedges Series of 1985 were examples of the potential, the Indian team had. From a talented underdog, India declined to a moderately talented underachiever during the first half of 90s. During those days Indian team was mostly ‘Sachin et al’. A Sachin century was enough for us to forget the pains of defeats. However, it all changed at the beginning of the new century, when Sourav Ganguly took reigns of Indian Cricket. Ganguly changed the very body language of Indian cricket. Under Ganguly the team ‘looked’ like winning.

And then arrived Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Initially he reminded everyone of a young Kapil Dev. Not because both of them were from a non-metro Hindi belt city, but because of the similarity in terms of fearlessness and disregard for batting technique. Some even compared him with Virender Sehwag for the apparent disregard for traditional batting manual. Dhoni was flamboyance personified. I had seen him first in a triangular tournament played in Kenya, between India A, Pakistan A and Kenya. India A had defeated Pakistan A in the final and Dhoni had caught everybody’s attention with his strokeplay and long hair.

However Dhoni has proven himself to be lot more than mere flamboyance. Good sportsmen become great by conquering pressure. Captaincy brought the best of Dhoni out on field. Dhoni the batsman and the wicket keeper had already had a great impact on Indian cricket. But Dhoni the captain, changed his image and his influence completely. As a captain he not only showed how well he handled the pressure, but he also showed what a shrewd reader of the situation he was. Dhoni has always trusted his instincts. Some of his instincts have even baffled others. So many of his gambles have paid off, one has to accept that they are not sheer gambles. Rather, he reads the situation better than anybody else. How can you explain his decision to give the last over to little known Joginder Sharma in the final of the inaugural World T20? Or how can you explain his decision to continue with Ishant Sharma in Champions Trophy final against England?

 

Dhoni is not speculative or lucky, he thinks and reacts differently to situations. Same is true for his technique. He has at times been criticized for lacking in technique in his batting.  However with poor technique one cannot manage to have the average in 50s after playing more than 200 One-Day Internationals. Dhoni has a different technique. It’s neither as elegant as that of VVS Laxman nor it is as perfect as that of Rahul Dravid. Still it’s different. It’s his own and it has been very effective.

Apart from being a successful captain, batsman and wicket keeper, Dhoni has been able to create an aura of invincibility around himself and around the team. He didn’t have to build the team from scratch, like Sourav Ganguly, still he has managed to take the team to a new level. Even as a batsman, time and again Dhoni has shown, what a fantastic finisher he is, in limited overs cricket. Whenever he is on field, the Indian fan feels relaxed and calm. Last night during the final of Celkon cup, even when India had lost 9 wickets and still needed 20 runs, Indian supporters were calm.  Nobody doubted India’s victory as long as Dhoni was there. (Look at the two videos embedded below)

Sachin Tendulkar is the greatest batsman to have ever played the game and Sourav Ganguly was probably a better captain than Dhoni. Still, his insticts, his spontaneity, his understanding of the game and his ability to handle pressure situations, make Dhoni probably the best cricketing mind, India has ever produced!

100 Years of Indian Cinema – The Creative Roots

Advertisement of First indian movie, 'Raja Harishchandra', appeared in Bombay Chronicle on 3rd May, 1913.

Advertisement of First Indian movie, ‘Raja Harishchandra’, appeared in Bombay Chronicle on 3rd May, 1913.

Precisely 100 years ago an unabashed dreamer – a crazy genius, Dhundiraj Govind Phalke released a silent movie, “Raja Harishchandra” at the Coronation Cinema, Mumbai. Many great institutions start with a dream. Quite often a shameless – fearless dream and an equally fearless dreamer. Dhundiraj, better known as Dadasaheb was one such dreamer. The story of his travails and troubles have been very beautifully captured in Marathi movie ‘Harishchandrachi Factory, released in 2009.

Dadasaheb Phalke had to beat several odds. There was very little that could be called resources. He didn’t have properly trained talented actors. But above everything else, performing arts in general, had very little social approval. Also, whenever a new medium or a new technology emerges, society always resists to accept it. Dadasaheb was intelligent enough to understand these issues. But, he was crazy enough to ignore them and that’s what made him brave enough to go ahead with his project.

Dadasaheb Phalke - Working

Dadasaheb Phalke – Working

Interestingly, Dadasaheb was the first Indian who made an entire feature with an all-Indian crew. He was neither the first maker nor the first exhibitor. A year before the release of Raja Harishchandra, another movie maker Dadasaheb Torne had made a movie called ‘Pundalik’ with the help of British cinematographers though. Dadasaheb Phalke got inspired to make movies when he went to a screening of a silent movie titled, “Life of Christ”.

If movies were already shown in India, what made Dadasaheb so special? Well, precisely what made many of his successors like Raj Kapoor, Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy, B. R. Chopra, Yash Chopra or even Manmohan Desai, successful and special. Understanding Indian audiences and its sensibilities. When Dadasaheb Phalke saw “Life of Christ”, he immediately imagined a film with Hindu deities and characters from Indian mythology. Because somewhere deep down he knew that  it would work. Most of Dadasaheb’s movies were about Hindu deities. In his movies when Lord Krishna or Rama would appear on the screen, people would stand up or bow down in front of the screen. Interestingly, the foreign movies continued to be exhibited in India. But Dadasaheb always thought that despite them being interesting enough, those movies could never strike a bond with Indian audiences. His movies created a national frenzy. When ‘Harishchandrachi Factory’ was released in Chennai (erstwhile Madras) there were traffic jams. His movies, ‘Lanka Dahan‘ and ‘Krishna Janma‘ were in circulation for almost a decade. In fact, he understood the economics of Indian movies very quickly. He realized that there is one class of audience that would never like his work and he never bothered to cater to them. He hardly ever advertised in English newspapers. He always tried to appeal his audiences through vernacular media. In the movie ‘Harishchandrachi Factory’, he is even shown coming up with promotional schemes like free pair of clothes with the movie ticket. All this made the movie a commercial success. Raja Harishchandra’s success allowed Dadasaheb to keep making films and probably that’s what planted firm roots of our Film industry.

Sources:

1. Indian Film, by Erik Barnouw and S.Krishnaswamy. Columbia University Press, 1963

2. Raja Harishchandra

3. Dadasaheb Phalke – Wikipedia