Gigernama / 'A man dressed in black with a tube under his arm'

On May 12, 2014, about half a week before the Lok Sabha election votes were to be counted, ahead of the result that would catapult the BJP to power with an overwhelming majority in the lower house of Parliament, H.R. Giger passed away. I didn’t hear about it until two days later, on May 14. I remember dropping whatever I was doing – which was quite a bit because Counting Day was almost upon us – rushing over to the Sunday Magazine desk and pitching an obituary for Giger to Baradwaj Rangan. I was commissioned 20 seconds later, and I was done two hours later.

As far as I was concerned, it was very, very bad news. With his death, Giger’s repertoire was finished, complete, finito; there wasn’t going to be any more new material. I could complete his obituary in such a short span of time not because I was familiar with his creative output – familiarity would imply I understood what was going on; I didn’t. If anything, I was just a kindred soul – with many fears and terrors, and little faith in solace or hope. It was a world, and worldview, that Giger the artist had helped validate.

Yesterday, I’d met a friend for coffee and – as our conversation about the future of science journalism meandered on – we happened to be talking about sci-fi Netflix, Alejandro Jodorowsky and, soon, Giger. I don’t remember how we got there except that one of us had mentioned Dune and the other had been very excited to meet a fellow Dune fan. We hugged. After exchanging a few notes about having had a childhood equal parts traumatised and enlivened by the Necronomicon, my friend mentioned that there was a documentary about Giger released sometime in 2014. I couldn’t believe I’d missed it.

So yesterday, I completed all the tasks on my to-do list, grabbed some early dinner, and shut myself off in my room. I’d decided that for old times’ sake I was going to gift myself some masochistic mindfuck: I was going to watch the documentary, called Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World.

[One hundred minutes later] I’m incredibly glad I did.

[Early next morning] No excuse is weak enough for me to revisit, rediscuss, reanalyse and reconsume the brilliance of Giger – as if being able to enjoy an old and favourite track for the first time. And Dark Star was a fecund, almost extortionate, excuse.

For example, fifteen minutes into it, a few lines – spoken by Hanz Kunz, a poster-maker, and Leslie Barany, Giger’s agent – confirmed what I’d suspected about him for long: despite the intricate methods and symmetries depicted in his images, Giger didn’t have an artistic process; he intuited his symbols and their placement on his canvas. Barany: “I thought he was channeling something and I don’t believe in those things.” Stanislov Grof, a psychiatrist: “Giger was the medium through which Another World was introducing itself to us.”

That intuition was akin to a mysterious agent speaking guy through him, call it your subconscious or your true self or whatever. Giger really tapped into that, terrified himself with it, remained terrified with it as he worked; as he says, “When I put it on canvas, I have some sense of command over it. It’s healing for me.” Carmen Maria Scheifele Giger, his wife, says, “Giger’s art has the same effect as nigredo, the blackness, an alchemical ritual that begins by looking at the dark night of the soul.”

Li Tobler, Giger’s first partner and who committed suicide in 1975, embodied the struggle that he had won as a little boy of six – the struggle to recognise and acknowledge what it is that we’re truly afraid of, the struggle to not self deny, the struggle to honestly explore reprehensions. She had had a Catholic and puritanical upbringing but her lover was an artist so gleeful when, on the sets of Alien, he explains to someone that though he had to change the opening of the xenomorph’s egg from a vaginal slit because the producers hoped to be able to air the film to Catholic audiences as well, he was pleased that he could give the opening four flaps to “doubly offend the church”. But when he says in Dark Star that his art could not do much to help her deal with her depression, it’s as if his art was all he had to give her. That is a silencing moment.

H.R. Giger speaks in a scene from 'Dark Star'
H.R. Giger speaks in a scene from ‘Dark Star’

In fact, Giger had a rare set of privileges: to have been able to explore the darkest recesses of the human condition, to have confronted those demons through his art, and to have ultimately reconciled with the shape of those horrors. His paintings and sculptures extend us – the viewers – that privilege. Sometimes that makes me wonder if there is something to be said for the creative process Giger uses, if that takes away some of the edge since Giger has visualised his demons from scratch. Is he as terrified as one of his fans when he beholds one of his finished products? Or, to Giger, is the process of creating his demons more therapeutic than is the moment of beholding his demons frightening?

Nonetheless, his privileges prevail. As I wrote in his obituary, Giger’s extensive journeys through the wombs of horror revealed that rotting corpses and camisado surprises are not the stuff of fear. We are. Our terrors are of our own making – fevers about the peri-normal, about what we’ll find when we open new doors, break taboos, burst into life from tabula rasa unto the innate. Kunz/Barany: “His art has this quality, an element of reality combined with his own fantasies, and what makes it stronger is the reality, not the fantasy.”

The metal in his paintings and sculptures twisted and bent in ways that no metalsmith would attempt to achieve. Semblances of humans, human forms, caught up in the workings of otherworldly engines, monochrome lips and spring-loaded breasts grafted around solenoids, crania tubula labia shot through with tentacular electric cables, Tesla coils and Jacob’s ladders of homuncular bullets. It was easy to get lost in this frightening order of symbols, for each one of us to behold this visage and to take away a seedling of serial nightmares. Giger’s visualisations were all together pareidolia as public good – where except faces you saw something you didn’t want to see, something you’ve known all your life but hidden away…

And in Dark Star, Giger himself looks terrified, as if he knows something is coming. There is a remarkable scene where his assistant says Giger’s house is big enough for the ageing artist to disappear into, to become one with the house itself, that he can’t be found unless he wants to be found. Right after that, the cinematographer goes looking for Giger in the house, slowly exploring passages, corridors, crawling with building apprehension through tubes crisscrossing the house in much the same way Giger contemplated perinatal misgivings.

It can be difficult to communicate the brand of horror that Giger stood for, a deep existential visceral soulful tension, an unassailable yet unspeakable awareness of a darkness, a knot of shame festering in our hearts and minds. But explore Giger’s house with the impending frightful sight of a terrified old man who’s seen the faces of hell and it will unseat you somehow. Whence that fear, that anxiety? What do we fill in the blanks of our reality with?

Featured image: H.R. Giger in a scene from Dark Star.

Caste guilt

This is the age of the start-up, not megaliths. Remember T-Rex did not survive evolution. It is unlikely that religions organised like T-Rexes – most of the Abrahamic religions fit this description – will survive an era of fast change.

The T-Rex did evolve in the first place because the evolutionary pathway existed for it to, and what it didn’t survive wasn’t evolution but a meteorite strike. What is only true is that T-Rex-like creatures couldn’t re-emerge after the strike because the evolution of other creatures had moved on and because the world had changed.

The quote above is from a piece on the supposed guilt Hindus have because their spiritual ancestors were the progenitors of casteism in India, by R. Jagannathan in Swarajya. Excerpt:

Put simply, just as it is foolish to blame Africans for giving us AIDS, it is pointless blaming Hinduism for caste, even though this is where it may have originated. Where caste originated should not be a source of perpetual guilt for Hindus. It is now everybody’s problem, not Hinduism’s alone.

I’m not sure if Hindus are blamed because their forefathers did something or because Hindus continue to perpetuate their beliefs, disenfranchise the weaker sections of society and, increasingly today, subject them to majoritarian justice. If anything, I regret that my Hindu forefathers did what they did but I’m certainly neither ashamed nor guilty because of it.

Jagannathan also writes that, like the deras have done to Sikhism, Hinduism should loosen up and allow individual caste groups to function by themselves because this could only benefit the religion.

Hindus are comfortable with caste, and those who want to remain in it should be free to do so. It does not matter if castes become separate religions, retaining only a loose link with Hinduism; it does not matter if groups that are currently identified with Hinduism want to break away, and seek minority, non-Hindu status, as some groups within the Lingayats want to do. If the Ramakrishna Mission wants to be treated as a non-Hindu denomination, why not allow it to do so? It will not actually become less Hindu because of this nomenclature change. In fact, it could become more innovative and grow faster.

From what I’ve understood, one of the biggest ways in which casteism is evil is that it ‘locks in’ its adherents into certain social classes that individuals inherit from generation to generation, and can’t escape easily from. So the only Hindus who “want to remain” within the folds of casteism and who would “be free to do so” are the upper-caste Hindus. This is why the Dera Sacha Sauda flowered – because, to paraphrase Jagannathan, it offered a “casteless” form of Sikhism to Dalits, a ladder to use to climb through social and power structures, increasingly dominated by the upper-caste Jats and Khatris.

In all, the piece is very interesting because of its novel use of metaphors – borrowed from adaptive systems like evolution and capitalism and applied to regressive systems like caste – and because at its heart it seems okay with there being a caste system, just not in the form it’s prevalent at the moment. That’s just wishful thinking because, to those suppressed by their bond with the caste system, being able to live under a more liberal and progressive form of the practice (if such a thing is possible) would be nigh indistinguishable from being liberated altogether.

Of armchair critics, journalists and sportspersons

You remember the criticism that former Indian men’s ODI cricket captain M.S. Dhoni received when a member of the press, Sam Ferris, asked him a question about his retirement during a presser, got invited to the front by the sportsman and got snubbed in front of everyone? Shortly after, Arun Venugopal wrote an open letter to Dhoni on ESPN Cricinfo:

At worst it was a clichéd question – if it makes you feel better the media gets clichéd answers all the time – but not one that deserved the patronising response it got. All it needed was a straightforward answer – “I don’t have plans to retire yet”, or “I will make it public when I plan to”, or even a “no comment,” if you really didn’t wish to answer it. You probably expected an Indian journalist to ask the question, because you trotted out the response anyway.

I don’t speak on behalf of all the journalists; I speak merely as one of many. You are free to ascribe any intent to any question, but our job is about seeking answers and reporting on them just as yours is playing cricket. Some would accuse us journalists of taking ourselves too seriously. I am all for taking the mickey, pulling a leg or two – just so long as mutual respect and professionalism is a two-way street.


Now, I grant you that playing tennis can be physically excruciating, that almost nobody likes getting unsolicited advice, that Wimbledon’s strict dress code for playing women is stupid and that hecklers are jerks.

But tell my why, it’s different from what Dhoni did – or even hilarious, as The West Australian claims – when another sportsperson, Kim Clijsters at Wimbledon, invites a critic from the stands to show him why he can’t play tennis and that that disqualifies him from offering suggestions from his seat. I say it’s worse, too, to make a point about some in-game strategy against a monumentally weaker opponent as well as to state that suggestions are not welcome, and that if they still seem forthcoming, they will be turned into jokes at the makers’ expense.

Does this mean journalists or critics can run their mouths against sportspersons? Absolutely not: they must recognise that the people on the field are trying to do their best and that no one’s trying to be lazy or a fool. However, the compact doesn’t end here: sportspersons must also recognise that not all journalists or apparent bystanders are fools or trolls. If they’re asking questions or making suggestions that the sportsperson disagrees with, then they can be asked to pipe down (if that’s appropriate), be told that the question/suggestion is meaningless or ignore it entirely.

“Ignore it entirely?! You think that’s easy?!” Of course not, but that doesn’t excuse you when you don’t do it; in fact, by all means, ask for brownie points that you held your composure and answered levelheadedly.

There is something to be said against criticism that does not emerge from lived experience – but it does not apply all the time, especially in situations that have acquired a diverse set of nuances. Not all pursuits are founded on physical labour. This is why armchair critics are not always privileged or in the wrong – and this is why you can’t always score an argumentative point by pointing out that one is an armchair critic. An extreme example: Much as some sportspersons might like to decry or even deny, the outcomes of some games can be predicted using techniques that ignore individual choices and rely instead on statistical possibilities that emerge from macroscopic analyses. This is why you have strategists who may themselves be lousy at playing a game but are quite good at predicting how it will evolve. You’ve watched/read Moneyball, you know what I’m talking about.

Finally, Clijsters was doubly wrong to have invited over that man in the stands onto the court, squeezed him into an outfit many sizes smaller and played against him. Irrespective of the validity of his suggestion, Clijsters turned him into a joke. I only applaud him for having been a sport about it, and not Clijsters because what she did was immature. I’m not sure if that man’s suggestion – something about playing a “body serve” – was valid but the question asked by Ferris was both politely phrased and perfectly valid. Neither non-participant deserved what they got – from the sportspersons, the media at large and from a majority of the video’s consumers.

What it means to give fucks

I need to write what I’m going to to remind myself, and perhaps others, of a few things. In the last few weeks, it became important for me – as a member of the community of liberals in India – to give a fuck about the many lynchings throughout the country, typically perpetrated by Hindu mobs against Muslims and Dalits for producing, carrying, transporting or consuming beef. While neither being a Muslim/Dalit nor eating beef is illegal in India, as Mitali Saran so astutely pointed out on July 2, falling in either category has increasingly meant that its members should abide by the mob’s justice. To protest these lynchings, thousands of citizens in 10 cities across India participated in protests organised on June 28 and July 1. On June 29, after the first round of protests, the country’s prime minister for the first time denounced the lynch mobs. It felt like something had happened – although not as much as anyone would’ve liked.

In this environment, it was so easy to find relevance, to easily strike up conversations with people and opine on Twitter and my blog, and have it read and talked about. Now that things have subsided just a little, it feels to me as if I’m emerging from within a mist into an area of rarified air, where I can feel the struggle for relevance returning to me. I’m the science editor of The Wire, which – I’m no longer unsure of uttering – has a formidable science section (if you’re willing to ignore the ebb-and-flow nature of its publishing cycle). As much as I’m proud to be able to say this, I wish I could bring you inside my head and show you how difficult it is to maintain it. Here’s a preview.

(It’s a ramble. You’ve been warned. You don’t get to complain at the end that I’ve rambled.)


One of the biggest demands running a science section will make on you is to be excited from within, without external motivations, to be continuously awed by incremental advancements in research and discoveries because that is how science progresses. In a country whose news diet is fed by political and economic developments that move along as if they’re being chased by dogs, covering science sticks out like a sore thumb: it continues to move along at the pace at which it must; what makes this worse is that in order for science to remain popular as an intangible commodity – at par with the fervour with which political news is consumed, for example – it demands that the appreciation of it increase. How is that ever going to happen?

I’m writing this to remind myself that it is not just science-that-affects-the-people that counts even if these are the science stories that sell more than others. I’m writing this to remind myself that, in fact, it takes a certain problematic attitude to market science stories. For example, I have felt shame at having prostituted stories about LIGO-India by pointing it at chest-thumping jingoists who always have such a remarkable appetite for all the good things Indians have done. I’d like to remind myself that, when I feel depressed and worthless, I write stories about ISRO (usually critical) knowing full well that having that four-letter acronym in the headline is enough to propel a story into The Wire‘s daily most-reads. I’d like to remind myself that it often feels offensive to be committed to a story that you know isn’t going to perform well but that you’re going to have to do it anyway because it will hopefully benefit someone. I’d like to remind myself of how difficult it can be to be this way.

(At this point, I’m not sure how many will agree with me when I say that people with mental health issues shouldn’t get into science journalism without thinking twice – although this post hasn’t really been about getting people to like me.)

Brevity v. concision

To be perfectly honest – and I’m sorry in advance to those I think I’m going to offend – this abdication of science’s essence, of incrementalism more than anything else, is evident on both sides of the story: among readers as much as among producers. Newsrooms usually don’t introspect on why run-of-the-mill science stories don’t sell and how the can be made to, but this is hardly new. What is new, at least to me, is the surprising number of science writers and journalists obsessed with

  1. Science as it intersects with politics and policy, and
  2. Writing long-form pieces over shorter ones, especially about (1)

At this point, I couldn’t give less of a fuck for longer pieces, especially because they’re all the same: they’re concerned with science that is deemed to be worthy of anyone’s attention because it is affecting us directly. And I posit that they’ve kept us from recognising an important problem with science journalism in the country: it is becoming less and less concerned with the science itself; what has been identified as successful science journalism is simply a discussion – no matter how elaborate and/or nuanced – of how science impacts us. Instead, I’d love to read a piece reported over 5,000 words about molecules, experiments, ideas. That would be real science journalism, and really brave, too, for a writer to have been able to undertake such a thing.

I would love even more to read a 1,000-word news report on molecules, experiments and ideas. I want more reporters to struggle with introducing, explaining and dissecting them in a thousand words (here’s a challenge) because pieces of this length, more than anything else, allow editors to commission them more often, on a broader variety of things, and present them to the audience more frequently. Instead, a long-form story takes weeks to produce and can’t be paid for more than twice or thrice a month (unless you’re very-well-funded). And most of all, I fear that in seeking the glory that comes with stringing together 5,000-10,000 words with cogency and concision, reporters are forgetting the place of brevity as well.

Personal impact

I’m writing to remind myself that it’s okay to be selfish and that this entails the taking of two steps. First: to recognise, and help others recognise, that humankind’s scientificinvestigation of the natural universe – by which I mean the use of a certain method improved over millennia of study – forms a substantial portion of the materials of our cognition, sustenance and advance. Second: to recognise, and help others recognise, that science, as in the use of certain methods to elucidate the truth of something, ought not to give any fucks about being of relevance to us. While this may seem obvious to some, I don’t think enough of us have internalised this to the extent that we ought to. Consider the following example.

I’m writing this post to remind myself that it’s okay to want to write only about particle physics because that’s all I’m interested in reading. That it’s okay to want to write only about this even if I don’t have any strength to hope – that quantum chromodynamics will save the lives of Dalits, that Feynman diagrams will help repeal AFSPA, that the LHC will accelerate India’s economic growth, that the philosophies of fundamental particles will lead to the legalisation of same-sex marriage. I’m writing this post to remind myself – and anyone else willing to listen – that I haven’t been presented with any evidence whatsoever to purchase my faith in the possibility that the obscurities of particle physics will help humans in any way other than to enlighten them, that there is neither reward nor sanction in anxiously bookending every articulation of wonder with the hope that we will find a way to make money with all of our beliefs, discoveries and perceptions, that we will cure poverty, eliminate terrorism and conquer other worlds with it.

I may be a romantic fool to think so but we haven’t been in wonder freely. We should.

A fourth culture

The division of our culture is making us more obtuse than we need be: we can repair communications to some extent: but, as I have said before, we are not going to turn out men and women who understand as much of our world as Piero della Francesca did of his, or Pascal, or Goethe. With good fortune, however, we can educate a large proportion of our better minds so that they are not ignorant of imaginative experience, both in the arts and in science, nor ignorant neither of the endowments of applied science, of the remediable suffering of most of their fellow humans, and of the responsibilities which, once they are seen, cannot be denied.

– Charles Percy Snow, 1963

In the imagination of a developing nation, however, a marriage between the two cultures has translated into more of a constant, droning yearning, almost like a waterfall, where thinkers and doers alike expend their potential energy in attempts to make their scientific endeavours cascade into political relevance. It doesn’t feel like an equitable union – but more like the desperation to reconcile with a hegemon. In the 58 years since Snow’s famous Rede lecture, many public intellectuals have assessed why Snow’s Utopian vision of the world didn’t come true by 2000 like he had said it would; even others have stepped forward to identify a third culture – apart from the science types and the literary types. In the 1960s, Snow said it could be the social scientists. In the 2000s, a science journalist named Peter Dizikes claimed that the literary agent John Brockman had “promoted the notion of a ‘third culture’ to describe scientists – notably evolutionary biologists, psychologists and neuroscientists – who are ‘rendering visible the deeper meanings in our lives’ and superseding literary artists in their ability to ‘shape the thoughts of their generation.'”

However, all three cultures seem to exclude those enterprises that don’t seek to better the human condition, as if there could be nothing loftier than pandering to the needs of humanity alone.

(Perhaps this obsession is fuelled by the conviction that without humans, the universe itself would not be able to contemplate itself, that without the technologies (which are, by definition, scientific knowledge applied to the benefit of humankind) and without the social and political organisation that has allowed me to access them, I wouldn’t be able to contemplate my own duties in a post-two-cultures world. But this sort of an argument is neither here nor there.)

Time to start the day. First item on the todo list: “Edit article about whales”.

Featured image credit: raczi25/pixabay.

One in a thousand

Couldn’t pull myself away from reading Rajini Krish’s posts all of yesterday. Context: Krish, or Muthukrishanan Jeevanantham, an MPhil student at JNU, reportedly hung himself to his death on the morning of March 13, 2017 (I say ‘reportedly’ because Krish’s mother has alleged that it couldn’t have been suicide). After reading his posts – on Facebook and his blog – I wrote about them for The Wire here. I couldn’t add a paragraph in it because the copy had already been passed to the editor and was being processed for publication, so I’m putting it down below. It’s about an intricate relationship between equality and self-respect, particularly epitomised by India’s elderly (though not always): when their children get married and split off into nuclear families living separately, it has become a matter of self-esteem in many households for older members to be seen to be independent, depending on no one else for their living but themselves. Similarly, in Krish’s story, he recalls a conversation he’d had with his grandmother, Sellammal, in Salem (where he lived) before he moved to Delhi. He asks Sellammal why she has to make her living cleaning “kid’s asses” at a local school, earning a paltry Rs 750, when she snaps back:

“Paiya [boy], don’t talk too much like a big man, We old people have some reasons to work here, and I don’t want to disturb my sons. That’s why I [sit] in silence, always in my room, though my sons are nearby.”

In the Tamil film Aayirathil Oruvan (‘One in a thousand’, 2010), which explores the adjacency of freedom and self-respect, a historical war between the Pandyas and the Cholas has ended with the Cholas going into hiding. When their hideout is finally discovered by three adventurers, they are appalled by what the once-resplendent kingdom has been reduced to: a collection of a few hundred people living in squalor underground, with no apparent sense of dignity and with the false belief that they are still revered by the world outside. At one point, the Chola king sings a song telling the visitors that, though it might appear humiliating to preside “over a kingdom of skulls”, and for his ‘subjects’ to see him so, his people and he have been carrying on because they are used to their freedom to determine their own fate – and intend to hold on to it even when they emerge from their cocoon. And for as long as such a deal doesn’t seem to materialise, they will continue to be the way they are. The song is called ‘Thaai thindra mannae‘ (‘The earth the mother ate’) – and its last four verses (before the final refrain) are heartrending. The lyricist was Vairamuthu.

I can only offer two lines of the four in scant consolation to the spirit and soul of Rajini Krish.

Endro oru naal vidiyum endrae iravai chumakkum naalae, azhadhe / The day holding on to the night in the hope that it will dawn someday, don’t cry

Endhan kannin kanneer kazhuva ennodazhum yaazhae, azhadhe / The youth who would cry to wash away my tears with yours, don’t cry

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.

We did start the fire

This is one of the dumbest things I’ve seen done in a while:

The Asian News International network tweeted that a group of Indian priests had performed a long yagya in Tokyo for the express purpose of purifying the environment. A yagya (or a yagna, although I’m not sure if they’re the same) typically involves keeping a pyre of wooden logs lubricated with ghee burning for a long time. So a plea to the gods to clear the airs was encoded in many kilograms of carbon dioxide? Clearly these god-fearing gentlemen insist that they will accept only the gods’ solutions to their problems – not anyone else’s, no matter how motivated. I dearly hope that, if nothing else, the event will create an ironic awareness of what’s at stake.

At least the other shit-peddlers back home have had the sense to not force the cow piss down our throats (ignoring the massive public healthcare and R&D funding cuts, of course). If my ire seems disproportionate to the amount of pollutants these yagnas will have released, it’s because I fear someone else will get ideas now, especially those aspiring to get into the record books. (How often have you heard the anchor on Sun TV news croon at the tail-end of the segment at 7 pm everyday, “XYZ கின்னெஸ் சாதனை படைத்தார்” – “XYZ set a Guinness world record”?)

Featured image credit: kabetojamaicafotografia/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

A return to Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco. Credit: Sud Foto/Sergio Siano, CC BY 2.0
Umberto Eco. Credit: Sud Foto/Sergio Siano, CC BY 2.0

Why he was my favourite and why I think he’s irreplaceable

The first time I read Umberto Eco, I thought to myself – How could one guy know so much? It’s obscene, the amount of detail in his books. First there was Foucault’s Pendulum, with more than its share of Latin American mysticism and continental conspiracy theories, and then The Name of the Rose, with page after page of the history of the Catholic Church and its various schisms (in the order of my reading). If Eco had been in his twenties or thirties today, he’d have been on Adderall all day and on the Internet all day to have been able to write either of the books – or any of his other works of fiction, for that matter, only a few of which I’ve been able to finish. Barely.

But I loved him. Despite the fevered ‘ramblings’ he’d sometimes launch into in his stories, the things he wrote – which I’ve only ever been able to call his “imaginary astronomies” (a term he coined) – fit together. There was an unbroken coherence carried through the books, an undisputed convergence of thought. Three things about the way he constructed his narrative, across hundreds of pages, is what I also tell people to keep in mind when they ask me if they should write a book: 1) be able to describe the entire premise in one not-too-long sentence, 2) know from the get-go what it is that you’re writing about, and 3) bloody well stick to it no matter how much you think your readers will enjoy your indulgences.

This is why Eco is a difficult read, not a bad read – not a bad read by far. The unwavering intensity of his writing, and of his commitment to seem to be chronicling something (that could have happened in the past or in the future, notwithstanding the use of pseudoscience*) as opposed to be vainly conjecturing something, is what made his fiction worth committing to. This is why his ramblings weren’t ramblings in a real sense of the word; they formed a necessary part of the overall context in which his plots were situated. (And I believe The Name of the Rose was as big a success as it was because it had all these things going on and a Perry Mason-esque murder mystery.)

And this is why I was really saddened to hear of his passing. To me, he was the master and (once*) sole practitioner of a style that brought an immense, unbridled existential multiplicity – as a personal sense of ourselves can often be – together with great writing. And if he’s gone, so is this style diminished.

On the role of silence in communication

His far-ranging interests stemmed from what he was essentially interested in: the use of not-necessarily self-contained systems of signs to convey meaning, and their points of failure (obviously vastly simplified). This could be in the form of investigating the role of a language in shaping a culture, the culturally agnostic and psychologically cognisant placement of signages in public transportation, the anatomy and function of television advertisements to engender demand, even tracking on generational scales the rejection of various hypotheses in the natural sciences.

At a lecture Eco delivered at the Italian Association of Semiotics in 2009, titled ‘Censorship and Silence’, he touched upon something very relevant to incidents playing out in India at the moment.

The error made by La Repubblica in its campaign against [Silvio] Berlusconi was to give too much coverage to a relevant story (the party at Noemi’s house). If, instead, it had reporter something like this – “Berlusconi went into Piazza Navona yesterday morning, met his cousin, and they had a beer together … how curious” – it would have triggered such a series of insinuations, suspicions, and embarrassments that the premier would have resigned long ago. In short, a fact that is too relevant can be challenged, whereas an accusation that is not an accusation cannot be challenged.

The authoritarianism of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government has resulted in a strong polarisation of the national political scene as well as of India’s mainstream media. It’s impossible to write something without being forced to take sides – and should you still remain defiant, a side is cast for you as being the right fit. And in this acerbic environment, debate is exceedingly impossible: your suggestions are already insinuations, you already owe someone an apology. In place of Berlusconi seen getting a beer with his cousin at the Piazza Navona, there’s a student named Umar Khalid studying at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and who may have been involved in a debate about whether Afzal Guru was a martyr (even if he had been engaged in one, it shouldn’t matter).

In fact, the extent to which the false equation of Islam with terrorism has been entrenched was demonstrated by Khalid’s language, specifically in a statement he issued when he ‘emerged from hiding’. He said, “My name is Umar Khalid but I am not a terrorist.” (Emphasis added.) Saying ‘and’ in the place of ‘but’ would’ve strengthened the assertion (that being Muslim has nothing to do with being a terrorist) while using ‘but’ allows for the interpretation that Khalid is an exception.

… as a result of noise, we have a deliberate censorship – this is what is happening in the world of television, in creating political scandals, and so forth – and we have an involuntary but fatal censorship whereby, for reasons that are entirely legitimate in themselves (such as advertising revenue, product sales, and so forth), an excess of information is transformed into noise. This (and here I am moving from communications to ethics) has also created a psychology and morality of noise. … This great need for noise is like a drug; it is a way to avoid focusing on what is really important. Redi in interiorem hominem: yes, in the end, the example of Saint Augustine could still provide a good ideal for the world of politics and television.

(Redi in interiorem hominem is Latin for ‘return to the inner man’.)

One of the most fascinating things I learnt when working at The Hindu, Chennai, was of an entity called the filler. Before joining the The Hindu, and having been an avid reader of the once-vaunted newspaper for many years before my employment, the distinction between more important and less important articles was made only in terms of how much space they occupied and what graphic elements accompanied them. But looking at the newspaper from within the organisation, I found that some of the smaller articles, the fillers spanning about 150-300 words, were sometimes used to fill the odd gaps but otherwise contained nothing of substance.

Television channels do this, too – plugging moments of what would otherwise have been filled with silence with stories-that-aren’t-stories. These usually take the form of wild speculations, claims backed by little evidence, extrapolating data so it seems to suggest a conspiracy, or simply letting a news anchor with scant regard for the gravity of her/his position rant on live TV. Eco closes his essay with an invitation to examine the “semiotics of silence in political debate – in other words, the long pause, silence as creation of suspense, silence as threat, silence as agreement**, silence as denial**, silence in music.” (Emphasis added.) I’m anxious that the more we move away from being comfortable with silence, the more we’ll cede control of a powerful instrument of discourse to the Authority. Even now, we rally to raise our voices and register ourselves in the face of an outrage at JNU, perpetrated in full by a political hegemon adept at deflecting criticisms with claims that are not claims and with accusations that are not accusations. With noise.

*I say ‘once’ because of the rise of Steven Erikson, but then I also say the style honed by Eco is diminished by his passing because epic fantasy fiction, which Erikson writes, is yet to receive mainstream literary recognition.

**Both of which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has signalled by not uttering a word of condemnation against recent and flagrant cases of (physical and mental) violence incited by members of his party.

Playing villains, he made a giant of himself

Christopher Lee at the Aubagne International Film Festival in September 1996. Credit: Charmich/Wikimedia Commons, license
Christopher Lee at the Aubagne International Film Festival in September 1996. Credit: Charmich/Wikimedia Commons, license

The Wire
June 15, 2015

When the first installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy was released in 2001, it introduced a whole new generation to the ageless charms of Christopher Lee. Far removed from the often campy Dracula that an earlier set of filmgoers loved him for, he played the ‘white wizard’ Saruman with an electrifying dignity, brushing the character with a majestic flavour of evil. It’s hard to imagine many other actors being able to do that without outright vilification.

Sir Christopher Lee passed away on June 7 in a hospital in London due to respiratory problems and heart failure. He is survived by his wife Birgit Krøncke and their daughter, Christina. He was 93 – fully 69 of which he had spent as an actor, starting with small roles in action films to finally playing the bloodsucking Count in the cultic Hammer Horror films, Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, memorably, Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun, Count Dooku in Star Wars Episode II and III, and, of course, Saruman in the movies based on JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth epic.

Lee was also a popular fixture in horror films in the 1950s to the 1970s, often appearing as characters whose places in the literary canon were as revolutionary beings, great influencers of the zeitgeist. In fact, the list all of his roles will be powered with what appear to be minor ones – in keeping with how Hollywood for long treated science-fiction and fantasy films – with a few major forays here and there that received mainstream acclaim.

From 1950 to 1977, Lee appeared in a host of monster films, playing Dracula eight times for Hammer (1958-1973) and in the regrettable Fu Manchu productions. Although all of the Hammer films fared well commercially, Lee went on record to state that he was emotionally blackmailed into starring in them – principally because the producers ran out of money and would ask Lee to think of all the people he’d put out of work if he backed out.

His Dracula was smooth – in one film, he only hissed – but he had come to hate the lack of challenge. In this time it was as if the pithy roles Lee was being offered insulated him from the acclaim he was starting to receive from the rest of the world. In fact, a film he did in 1970 – The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes – pushed him to refuse being typecast in the future as an ‘evil heavy’, as Christopher “The Count” Lee, and eventually to leave England altogether for America in 1977.

Thus it was only in the 1970s and the 1980s that he started playing characters that would define his legacy the way he wanted. In 1973, Lee starred as the defiant Lord Summerisle in Robin Hardy’s cult classic The Wicker Man, playing a deranged nobleman who has convinced those on his estate of Summerisle that a willing human needs to be sacrificed for every season the local harvest fails. In 1974, he got to play the memorable villain Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun, where he very nearly stole the show from Roger Moore’s James Bond.

Ian Fleming – whose step-cousin Lee was – conceived of Scaramanga as a crime-hardened Cuban rowdy. But what Lee ended up playing was a villain with great charm and finesse.

Lee took pride in his versatility. In an interview, he once said, “If you’re going to be a real actor, you must possess great versatility, otherwise you’re not going to last very long” – so much so that, to illustrate, he hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live in 1978 with the greats John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray. Lee later said that before he went onstage that night, he’d been more terrified than before any of his films until then.

A man of many parts, Lee spoke German, French and Italian fluently, could sing (he was a great heavy metal fan and releasing an award-winning metal album called Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross in 2010) and fence, and boasted of an impressive variety of wartime experiences before he took to acting as a career.

In the early 1940s, after brief stints in the Finnish army and the British Home Guard, Lee volunteered for the Royal Air Force. Before he was seconded to the Army after the Allied Invasion of Italy in 1943, he was nearly killed twice, came down with six bouts of malaria in one year and received two promotions. In late-1944, he was promoted to flight-lieutenant and sent to Air Force HQ, where he participated in forward planning and liaison. In the last few months before he was discharged and the war was winding down, Lee was attached to the SAS and was part of a team tasked with hunting down and interrogating Nazi war criminals – a job that took him to various concentration camps around Europe.

However, he never spoke about his services in the Special Forces. Sample this now-famous exchange, as details,

When pressed by an eager interviewer on his SAS past, he leaned forward and whispered: “Can you keep a secret?”

“Yes!” the interviewer replied, breathless with excitement.

“So can I” replied a smiling Lee, sitting back in his chair.

His career started to flag around the 1990s – not because of the quality of his acting but in terms of the frequency with which he did great films. A notable release in this period was Jinnah, with Lee playing the titular character of the founder of Pakistan. He considers the film his “most important”, “in terms of its subject and the great responsibility” he had as an actor.

Lee’s career was revived spectacularly in 2001 with the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, in which he played Saruman. There’s an oft-overlooked aspect to this character in the movies: the only other ‘important’ villain in them was Sauron, and he did not possess a physical body, did not command a physical presence. Yes, there were the orcs and the ghastly lieutenants (like the Mouth of Sauron), but as far as a visual focal point of intimidation in the movies was necessary, Lee’s Saruman provided it. Until his death in the first scene of The Return of the King, he was the greatest threat and remained the face of the enemy.

The Return of the King was also a tribute of sorts to Lee’s continued support and endorsement of the fantasy genre through the decades. Even if the Marvel multiverse and the Harry Potter series today tower over other films in terms of earnings, and production houses have become more favourable in terms of sponsoring sci-fi and fantasy films, a part of the support for them can be traced to the success of Peter Jackson’s films: The Return of the King was in fact the first fantasy film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, in 2004.

During and after starring in the Middle Earth epics, Lee donned the role of the antagonist Count Dooku in two Star Wars films, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). Also in 2005, he played Willy Wonka’s father in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He later said in an interview to Total Films, “Johnny Depp, as far as I’m concerned, is Number One of his generation; there’s no one who can touch him.”

Lee was a product of the ‘old school’, a generation given to resilience and forthrightness, possessing a commitment toward once-commonplace ideas like waiting one’s turn. It’s hard to say if that’s what led to more than six decades of Hollywood success or if it was the other way round – but it doesn’t matter. Lee remained an actor until the day he died (a month ago, he’d signed up for a Danish film). He was proud of the wide variety of people he got the opportunity to play, to work with giants ranging from Laurence Olivier to George Lucas to Tim Burton. And through all the years he, with quiet dignity, made a giant of himself.

Why Indian science projects must plan for cultural conversations, too

The Wire
May 18, 2015

What should be the priority for science in India? Nature journal published answers from ten scientists in India it had asked this question to on May 13. One of the scientists was Prof. Naba Mondal, a physicist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and he said India has to “build big physics facilities”. Prof. Mondal is true in asserting also that there aren’t enough instrument builders in the country, and that when they come together, their difficulties are “compounded by widespread opposition to large-scale projects by political opportunists and activists on flimsy grounds”. However, what this perspective glazes over is the absence of a credible institution to ratify such projects and, more importantly, the fact that conversations between the government, the scientists and the people are not nearly as pluralistic as they need to be.

To illustrate, compare the $1.5-billion Thirty Meter Telescope set to come up on Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, and the Rs.1,500-crore India-based Neutrino Observatory, whose builders have earmarked a contested hill in Theni, Tamil Nadu, for a giant particle-detector to be situated. In both cases: Hundreds of protesters took to the streets against the construction of the observatory; the mountain’s surroundings that it would occupy were held sacred by the local population; and even after the project had cleared a drawn-out environmental review that ended with a go-ahead from the government, the people expressed their disapproval – first when the location was finalised and now, with construction set to begin.

“To Native Hawaiians, Mauna Kea represents the place where the earth mother and the sky father met, giving birth to the Hawaiian Islands,” says Dane Maxwell, a cultural-resource specialist in Maui, in Nature. For the people around the hill under which the INO is to be constructed, it is the abode of the deity named Ambarappa Perumal. In both cases, the protests were triggered by anger over the perceived desecration of their land land but drew on a deeper sentiment of ‘enough is enough’ against serial abuses of the environment by the government

But where the two stories deviate significantly is in the nature of dialogue. On April 23, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs organized a meeting for both parties – locals and the builders – to attempt to reach a temporary solution (A permanent alternative is distant because the locals are also insistent that something must be done about the other telescopes already up on Mauna Kea). Moreover, the American government invited an expert in the local culture – Maxwell – to advise its construction of a solar observatory, in Maui.

Obviously, it helps when those who are perceived to be desecrating the land are able to speak the language of those who revere it. This kind of conversation is lacking in India, where, despite greater cultural diversity, there is more antagonism between the government and the people than deference. In fact, with a government at the centre that is all but dismissive of environmental concerns, a bias has been forming outside the demesne of debates that one side must be ready to not get what it wants – like it always has.

During the environmental review for the project, in fact, scientists from the INO collaboration held discussions in the villages surrounding Ambarappar Hill in an effort to allay locals’ fears. As it happens, scientific facts have seldom managed make a lasting impression on public memory. In my conversations with some of the scientists – including Prof. Naba Mondal from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, and director of the INO collaboration – one question that came and comes up repeatedly according to them is if the observatory will release harmful radiation into the soil and air. The answer has always been the same (“No”) but the questions don’t go away – often helped along by misguided media reports as well.

On March 26, Vaiko, the leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party in Tamil Nadu, filed a petition with the Madras High Court to stay the INO’s construction. It was granted with the condition that if construction is to begin, the project will have to be cleared by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board – the state-level counterpart of a national body that has already issued a clearance. But chief among consequences are two:

  1. Most – if not all – people have a dreadful impression of government approvals and clearances. Nuclear power plants often have no trouble acquiring land in the country while tribal populaces are frequently evicted from their properties with little to no recompense. The result is, or rather will inevitably be, that the TNPCB’s go-ahead will do nothing to restore the INO’s legitimacy in the people’s eyes.
  2. Even if they’re dodgy at best, the clearances are still only environmental clearances. A month after Vaiko’s petition mentioning cultural concerns was admitted by the High Court, there have been no institutional efforts from either the INO collaboration or the Department of Atomic Energy, which is funding the project, to address the villagers on a cultural footing. In Hawaii, on the other hand, the work of people like Dane Maxwell is expected to break the stalemate.

There is little doubt, if at all, that the TNPCB will also come ahead waving a green flag for the INO, but there seems no way for the INO collaboration to emerge out of this mess looking like the winner – which could be a real shame for scientific experiments in general in the country. When I asked environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman if he thought there would ever be any space for a science experiment in India that would hollow out a hill, he replied, “I think the neutrino [observatory] will get built. You should not have any fears on that count. I’d rather it doesn’t. But I think it would be unfortunate if it does without so much as an honest debate where each side is prepared to live with a scenario where what they want may not be the outcome.”