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.

Workflow: Making a mailer

Some of you might remember that, well before Infinite in All Directions, a friend and I used to send out a science newsletter called Curious Bends. After quickly raking in a few hundred subscribers, both of us lost interest in sending the newsletter even as we continued to believe that doing so would be a valuable service. One of the reasons it may have stopped – in hindsight – is likely set-shifting. From next week’s newsletter:

… the newsletter didn’t take a hit for lack of time as much as for the cost of switching between tasks that require different aptitudes. Psychologists have a name for this phenomenon: set-shifting. Research has shown that when a person switches from one task to another, there are two kinds of costs. One is the cost of readjusting one’s mental settings to be ready for the second task after the first. The other is the erosion of our efficiency at performing the second task due to ‘leftover’ settings from the first task. And these costs are exacerbated when the tasks get more complex. In effect, I skipped the newsletter because the second kind of cost was just getting too high for me.

Now, I don’t want that to happen with Infinite in All Directions because when I do compile and send it out, I have a gala time as do many of its subscribers (based on the feedback I’ve received – but feel free to tell me I’m wrong). And this is now making me think harder about mitigating the costs, or even prevalence, of set-shifting.

One way out, for example, is for me to reduce the time it takes to create the newsletter. Right now, I send it out through MailChimp, which has its own editing and formatting tools/area. I didn’t choose MailChimp as much as I chose the email newsletter as a medium through which to deliver information. And my workflow goes like this: See a link I like → Save it on Evernote → Make some points on Evernote → Port them at the end of the week to MailChimp → Format the newsletter → Send → Copy the email and reformat → Publish on The Wire (WordPress).

Now what if I could use one tool – like iA Writer (and its amazing transclusion feature) – instead of two (Evernote + MailChimp) so I can publish what I compile via the same platform, while you – the subscriber – receive an auto-compiled list of posts once a week via MailChimp? I.e.: Ulysses/iA → WordPress → MailChimp. It sounds quite appealing to me but if you think I’m missing something, please let me know.

Featured image: A few server racks with disks and switches. Caption & credit: Alex/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Thanksgiving turkey and drinking water

Saw this 20-something-second long video going around on Facebook and Twitter:

By itself, the video, produced by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, tells me nothing apart from what I shouldn’t be doing, no reasons or explanations. Versions of the video were also carried by The Guardian, USA Today, Reuters, NBC NewsWashington Post and Scroll. (Disclosure: I work for The Wire, which competes with Scroll.) So I went looking – and found the answer on mental_floss:

The instant the frozen food hits the oil, the ice crystals melt, then momentarily sink. This exerts an upwards force on the oil. An instant later, these small sinking bubbles of water boil, expanding as they heat up and adding further force to the oil. This bubbling and forcing the oil upwards creates an aerosol of boiling oil and air violently shooting up out of the pan and towards the other parts of the kitchen.

I believe this also has a technical term, though it seems forced: ‘boiling liquid expanding vapour explosion’. The explosiveness arises from a process called flash evaporation (*junior year thermodynamics memories*) – when the pressure surrounding a liquid is suddenly reduced significantly, causing some of the water to instantly turn, or ‘flash’, into vapour (Business Insider has the video explainer). Because gases occupy more volume than liquids, flashing can also be interpreted as an explosive expansion.

One useful application: In most desalination plants around the world, salty water is passed through a throttling valve that converts some of it into salt-free vapour, which is condensed into potable water. The remaining salty water is then sent through another throttling valve at a lower pressure to repeat the process. This is called multi-stage flash distillation. Other applications: fire extinguishers and pressure cookers being able to let off steam. Some unfortunate ‘applications’: boiler explosions and rapidly worsening accidents involving tankers.

Relevant to the case of the frozen turkey: water boils at 100º C and oil boils at 450º C – both at atmospheric pressure. So when the turkey is dipped into a vat of very hot oil, the ice crystals falling off into the container sink beneath the oil but begin to boil on the way because of the oil’s temperature. Because water is denser, the boiling water remains trapped under its hot oil ceiling, although it’s also expanding because of the heat. At one point, the ceiling ruptures and the water flashes out, carrying some oil with it. The real problem begins when the oil is splashed into the fire below the container. Then, as mental_floss writes, “in a matter of seconds after putting your dinner on, your dinner has destroyed a large amount of your property and a significant portion of your, well, life.”

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

Reporters in Delhi should get a wintertime allowance

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

I recently moved out of Delhi. The air made it easier to decide to leave. What I’ve learnt is that a source of amusement to many friends in the country’s south is actually a nightmare up north, where a five-minute stroll outside can leave you with an irritated throat, watering eyes and the feeling that something is burning its way through your nose. In the week right after Deepavali, you woke up in the morning smelling something toasty; the view through your window was always more orange than it ought to be. You couldn’t go to and return from work without feeling short of breath – irrespective of how you travelled.

The effects of the disaster are undoubtedly classist – and sometimes more than they need to be. Recently, Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced that air purifiers would be installed at a few major traffic intersections around Delhi to clean up the air. Sarath Guttikunda, a scientist and environmental activist, wrote for The Wire about how insipid the idea is. His article highlights the vacuity of Kejriwal’s desperation, that he would resort to a downstream solution that would affect so few people in the city instead effecting something upstream – at the sources – that would help everyone. What about those who can’t afford air filters? What about those who live on the roads?

The scale of changes that will have to be implemented implies that Delhi’s wintertime pollution problem will maintain its classist manifestation for a few years at least – assuming that the changes are implemented at all. To quote Guttikunda, they are broadly to increase the quality of public transportation and reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills. Now, the issue here is that – assuming you’re a middle-class person with a job that pays 25k to 75k a month – unless your boss is perfectly reasonable and considerate (or is a Kejriwal under pressure to be seen to act), you’re not going to get time off work unless the pollution makes you really sick (i.e. enough to have you bed-ridden for the day).

Delhi has four popular public transportation options: auto, bus, metro and cab (Ola/Uber). There are also rickshaws but they operate over shorter distances. Only the metro is immune to traffic jams; the others contribute to and are stuck in one regularly, especially when going from south Delhi, east Delhi and Gurgaon to central Delhi in the morning and the other way in the evening. If you want to get to work on time, the metro is your best option. Even then, however, given the number of stations together with the size of the city, your odds of finding a metro station that’s close to home as well as close to where you work are really low. You’re going to have to walk, or take an auto/rickshaw, through the crappy air over the course of a few arduous minutes.

What’re these daily minutes of exposure going to do, you ask? Deepak Natarajan, a cardiologist in Delhi, has a list of diseases likelier to beset you after short-term exposure to heightened PM2.5 levels:

  1. Acute myocardial infarction
  2. Unstable angina
  3. Increased likelihood of heart attacks by 8-26%
  4. Heightened risk of thrombosis
  5. Endothelial dysfunction,

and a host of other cardiovascular ailments. As Natarajan writes, air pollution kills more people every year than AIDS and malaria. The next time you’re walking through the smog, feel free to imagine you’re walking through a cloud of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

Circling back to the fact that there are no laws securing anyone’s choice to not work – or at least to not have to visit the workplace – with that bilious overhang: consider the plight of journalists. Reporters among them have an especial obligation to spend time on the outside, and the more seasoned among whom hardly ever think about the pollution as a vocational hazard. It’s a job that requires a modicum of physiological fitness that’s simultaneously almost never discussed. In fact, the conversation is swept away by the pretext of a ‘reporter allowance’. I used to receive one at The Hindu, a Rs 1,600 to cover intra-city travelling expenses. But it could cover very little that my salary (then at Rs 30,000) already hadn’t. And this was in Chennai, where the cost of living is lower than that in Delhi.

(Just the way poverty makes all the small, niggling issues in life seem more maddening, a rapidly shrinking set of class-sensitive solutions available to those labouring in wintertime Delhi can drive people similarly close to the edge: such as auto-drivers refusing rides to certain areas, a perpetual shortage of buses and surge pricing. We all know these are not immediately fixable, so how about doing a Kejriwal and heading downstream to check in on your local news-bearers?)

The reasonableness and consideration of your supervisors and employers matters in this context because Delhi’s pollution becomes easier to live through the more privileged you are. And if your editor isn’t considerate enough, then she’s probably assuming pollution affects you the way it does her, which isn’t good if she lives closer to central Delhi. Many media houses*, almost all government offices and all the more-genteel things are located towards the centre, a.k.a. Lutyens’ Delhi, which is marked by open spaces, abundant greenery, its radial outlay and wide roads – all contributing to the reduced prevalence of dust. The cost of living drops as you move further away from this area (with a marked drop once you exit the radial areas). This means the hierarchy in a journalist’s workplace is likely to be mirrored by each employee’s residence’s proximity to Lutyens’ Delhi – evidently, a proximity by proxy to healthiness.

And privilege, as has often been the case, often blinds those who enjoy it to the travails of those who don’t. In this case, it is established by having access to the following (at a cost that doesn’t burn holes in clothing):

  1. A house in a clean neighbourhood away from dusty roads
  2. Abundant greenery in your immediate neighbourhood
  3. An air-conditioner
  4. Air filters/purifiers/fresheners
  5. A car to commute in
  6. A proximate workplace
  7. Clean, well-maintained public spaces
  8. Sufficient time and/or resources to keep the house clean
  9. Affordable medicines and medical assistance

Without access to them, daily life can be quite disorderly, unfulfilling and hard to establish a routine with – especially if you can’t really live dirty without such a state of affairs taking a toll on your productivity and peace of mind. As a result, Delhi’s pollution imposes high entry barriers for healthy living on its residents – barriers that become less surmountable the farther away from the city’s centre you are (to add to which you spend longer to get to the city’s centre). And if you’re a reporter, you’re likelier to have it well and truly harder than most others of your means, thanks (in sum) to central Delhi being cleaner, areas farther more removed from it cheaper, air pollution being easier to live through the more privileged you are, and there being no laws to secure your right to a clean working environment.

To address these issues and even out inequities, reporters in wartime wintertime Delhi should receive an additional allowance as well as shorter and more flexible working hours. Other staffers should also be allowed to work from where they feel comfortable apart from receiving an allowance that will help cover medical expenses, to begin with. (These measures make immediate sense for online news establishments comfortable with decentralised work environments – but they aren’t to exonerate newspaper offices that are used to having everyone work out of a common newsroom.) Those who can’t or won’t should be kept mindful of what they’re asking their journalists to give up and compensate them accordingly as and when the opportunities arise. And even so, no amount of fondness or pride for situating themselves in the national capital can save journalism establishments from the steady toll the city is taking on their journalists.

*Offices are becoming more spread out – but that doesn’t matter.