The Moon impact probe that went up on the PSLV C11 mission along with Chandrayaan 1. Credit: ISRO

For space, frugality is a harmful aspiration


‘ISRO’s Chandrayaan-2 mission to cost lesser than Hollywood movie Interstellar – here’s how they make it cost-effective’, staff, Moneycontrol, February 20, 2018. 

‘Chandrayaan-2 mission cheaper than Hollywood film Interstellar’, Surendra Singh, Times of India, February 20, 2018. 

The following statements from the Moneycontrol and Times of India articles have no meaning:

  1. The cost of ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission was less than the production cost of the film Gravity.
  2. The cost of ISRO’s Chandrayaan 2 mission is expected to be less than the production cost of the film Interstellar.

It’s like saying the angular momentum of a frog is lower than the speed of light. “But of course,” you’re going to say, “we’re comparing angular momentum to speed – they have different dimensions”. Well, the production cost of a film and mission costs also have different dimensions if you cared to look beyond the ‘$’ prefix. That’s because you can’t just pick up two dollar figures, decide which one’s lower and feel good about that without any social and economic context.

For example, what explains the choice of films to compare mission costs to? Is it because Gravity and Interstellar were both set in space? Is it because both films are fairly famous? Is it also because both films were released recently? Or is it because they offered convenient numbers? It’s probably the last one because there’s no reason otherwise to have picked these two films over, say, After Earth, Elysium, The Martian, Independence Day: Resurgence or Alien: Covenant – all of which were set in space AND cost less to make than Interstellar.

So I suspect it would be equally fair to say that the cost of C’yaan 2 is more than the budget of After Earth, Elysium, The Martian, Independence Day: Resurgence or Alien: Covenant. But few are going to spin it like this because of two reasons:

  1. The cost of anything has to be a rational, positive number, so saying cost(Y) is less than cost(X) would imply that cost(X) > cost(Y) ≥ 0; however, saying cost(Y) is greater than cost(X) doesn’t give us any real sense of what cost(Y) could be because it could approach ∞ or…
  2. Make cost (Y) feel like it’s gigantic, often because your reader assumes cost(Y) should be compared to cost(X) simply because you’ve done so

Now, what comparing C’yaan 2’s cost to that of making Interstellar achieves very well is a sense of the magnitude of the number involved. It’s an excellent associative mnemonic that will likely ensure you don’t forget how much C’yaan 2 cost – except you’d also have to know how much Interstellar cost. Without this bit of the statement, you have one equation and two variables, a.k.a. an unsolvable problem.

Additionally, journalists don’t use such comparisons in other beats. For example, when the Union budget was announced on February 1 this year, nobody was comparing anything to the production costs of assets that had a high cultural cachet. Rs 12.5 crore was Rs 12.5 crore; it was not framed as “India spends less on annual scholarships for students with disabilities than it cost to make Kabali“.

This suggests that such comparisons are reserved by some journalists for matters of space, which in turn raises the possibility that those journalists, and their bosses, organisations and readers, are prompted to think of costs in the space sector as something that must always be brought down. This is where this belief becomes pernicious: it assumes a life of its own. It shouldn’t. Lowering costs becomes a priority only after scientists and engineers have checked tens, possibly hundreds, of other boxes. Using only dollar figures to represent this effort mischaracterises it as simply being an exercise in cost reduction.

So, (risking repetition:) comparing a mission cost to a movie budget tells us absolutely nothing of meaning or value. Thanks to how Moneycontrol’s phrased it, all I know now is that C’yaan 2 is going to cost less than $165 million to make. Why not just say that and walk away? (While one could compare $165 million to mission costs at other space agencies, ISRO chief K. Sivan has advised against it; if one wants to compare it to other PSUs in India, I would advise against it.) The need to bring Interstellar into this, of course, is because we’ve got to show up the West.

And once we’re done showing up the West, we still have to keep. Showing up. The West. Because we’re obsessed with what white people do in first-world countries. If we didn’t have them to show up, who knows, we’d have framed ISRO news differently already because we’d have been able to see $165 million for what it is: a dimensionless number beyond the ‘$’ prefix. Without any other details about C’yaan 2 itself, it’s pretty fucking meaningless.

Please don’t celebrate frugality. It’s an unbecoming tag for any space programme. ISRO may have been successful in keeping costs down but, in the long run, the numbers will definitely go up. Frugality is a harmful aspiration vis-à-vis a sector banking on reliability and redundancy. And for fuck’s sake, never compare: the act of it creates just the wrong ideas about what space agencies are doing, what they’re supposed to be doing and how they’re doing it. For example, consider Sivan’s answer when asked by a Times of India reporter as to how ISRO kept its costs down:

Simplifying the system, miniaturising the complex big system, strict quality control and maximising output from a product, make the missions of Indian space agency cost-effective. We keep strict vigil on each and every stage of development of a spacecraft or a rocket and, therefore, we are able to avoid wastage of products, which helps us minimise the mission cost.

If I didn’t know Sivan was saying this, I’d have thought it was techno-managerial babble from Dilbert (maybe with the exception of QC). More importantly, Sivan doesn’t say here what ISRO is doing differently from other space agencies (such as, say, accessing cheaper labour), which is what would matter when you’re rearing to go “neener neener” at NASA/ESA, but sticks to talking about what everyone already does. Do you think NASA and ESA waste products? Do they not remain vigilant during each and every stage of development? Do they not have robust QC standards and enforcement regimes?

Notice here that Sivan isn’t saying “we’re doing it cheaper than others”, only that doing these things keeps the space agency “cost-effective”. Cost-effective is not the same as frugal.

Featured image: The Moon impact probe that went up on the PSLV C11 mission along with Chandrayaan 1. Credit: ISRO.

Gods of nothing

The chances that I’ll ever understand Hollywood filmmakers’ appetite for films based on ancient mythology is low, and even lower that I’ll find a way to explain the shittiness of what their admiration begets. I just watched Gods of Egypt, which released in 2016, on Netflix. From the first scene, it felt like one of those movies that a bunch of actors participate in (I can’t say if they perform) to have some screen time and, of course, some pay. It’s a jolly conspiracy, a well-planned party with oodles of CGI to make it pleasing on the eyes and the faint hope that you, the viewer, will be distracted from all the vacuity on display.

I’m a sucker for bad cinema because I’ve learnt so much about what makes good cinema good by noticing what it is that gets in the way. However, with Gods of Egypt, I’m not sure where to begin. It’s an abject production that is entirely predictable, entirely devoid of drama or suspense, entirely devoid of a plot worth taking seriously. Not all Egyptian, Green, Roman, Norwegian, Celtic and other legends can be described by the “gods battle, mortal is clever, revenge is sweet” paradigm, so it’s baffling that Hollywood reuses it as much as it does. Why? What does it want to put on display?

It surely is neither historical fidelity nor entertainment, and audiences aren’t wowed by much these days unless you pull off an Avatar. There is a glut of Americanisms, including (but not limited to) the habit of wining one’s sorrows away, a certain notion of beauty defined by distinct clothing choices, the sole major black character being killed off midway, sprinklings of American modes of appreciation (such as in the use of embraces, claps, certain words, etc.), and so forth. And in all the respect that they have shown for the shades of Egyptian lore, which is none, what they have chosen to retain is the most (white) American Americanism of all: a self-apotheosising saviour complex, delivered by Geoffrey Rush as the Sun god Ra himself.


There seems to be no awareness among scriptwriters angling at mythologies of the profound, moving nuances at play in many of these tales – of, for example, the kind that Bryan Fuller and Michael Green are pulling off for TV based on Neil Gaiman’s book.

There is no ingenuity. In a scene from the film, a series of traps laid before a prized artifact are “meant to lure Horus’s allies to their deaths” – but they are breachable. In another – many others, in fact – a series of barriers erected by the best builders in the world (presumably) are surmounted by a lot of jumping. In yet another, an important character who was strong as well as wily at the beginning relies on just strength towards the end because, as he became supposedly smarter by appropriating the brain of the god of wisdom, he gave himself a breakable suit of armour. Clearly, someone’s holding a really big idiot ball here. It’s even flashing blue-red lights and playing ‘Teenage wasteland’.

Finaly, Gods of Egypt makes no attempt even to deliver the base promise that some bad films make – that there will be a trefoil knot of a twist, or a moment of epiphany, or a well-executed scene or two – after which you might just be persuaded to consign your experience to the realm of lomography or art brut. I even liked Clash of the Titans (2010) even though it displayed none of these things; it just took itself so seriously.

But no, this is the sort of film that happens when Donald Trump thinks he’s Jean-Michel Basquiat. It is a mistake, an unabashed waste of time that all but drools its caucasian privilege over your face. Seriously, the only black people in the film – apart from the one major guy that dies – are either beating drums or are being saved. Which makes it all the more maddening. Remember Roger Christian’s Battlefield Earth (2000)? It was so bad – but it is still remembered because at the heart of its badness was an honest, if misguided, attempt by its makers to experiment, to exercise their agency as artists. A common complaint about the film is that Christian overused Dutch angles. I would have wept in relief if the Gods of Egypt had done anything like that. Anything at all.