Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Time When Scandal Drove and Science Took Backseat...

Saw an interview of Nambi Narayanan on TV yesterday. One of the most talented scientists ever born in our country. And also one who was the most vilified wrongly for political gains. With decades of experience behind him, he was heading a prestigious project of ISRO when he and some others were arrested in 1994 for suspected espionage charges. Even before the court took up the case, media pounced on it and pronounced the accused as wrong doers. Espionage case or chaarakkesu as Malayalam media termed it, was celebrated by all when the involvement of two ladies from Maldives gave it a sexual angle.

The presence of a top cop who was close to then Chief Minister was used by opposition and factions within the ruling party to revolt against him. CM had to resign following allegations that he was aiding the accused. Case was transferred from local police to CBI. They found out that the case was false. Media, public and politicians were dissatisfied and wanted a reprobe. When State Government ordered local police to take up the case again, all accused approached Supreme Court. In 1998 SC cancelled the probe and directed the government to compensate the accused for their physical and mental sufferings -which was never done. Another direction from SC was to probe and bring the culprits who were responsible for fabrication of the case, which also is not done yet.

If we go in depth, we can find many behind the screen maneuvers that made the case sensational in public eyes and pronounced Nambi Narayanan and co-accused as monsters who betrayed the nation. Media gave enough publicity by peddling half truths and outright,  made up lies just to increase their circulation. Rivals of CM- in his own party and opposition used the oppertunity to evict him out of power. And we the public, ever hungry for scandals, fell for the propaganda.

But why this false accusation was made first of all? The Wikipedia page of Nambi Narayanan give the crucial clues. I will reproduce the excerpt below:

"In 1992, India had signed an agreement with Russia for transfer of technology to develop cryogenic-based fuels.The agreement was signed for Rs 235 crore,when the US and France were offering the same technology for Rs 950 crore and Rs 650 crore respectively.Documents show that US president George H. W. Bush wrote to Russia, raising objections against this agreement and even threatening to blacklist the country from the select-five club. Russia, under Boris Yeltsin, succumbed to the pressure and denied cryogenic technology to India.To bypass this monopoly,India signed a new agreement with Russia to fabricate four cryogenic engines after floating a global tender without a formal transfer of technology.Isro had already reached a consensus with Kerala Hitech Industries Limited (Keltch) which would have provided the cheapest tender for fabricating engines.But this did not happen as the spy scandal surfaced in late 1994."

When we take into consideration the fact that Nambi Narayanan was the head of cryogenic in ISRO, dynamics become clear.

What were the ramifications of the scandal? ISRO, a premiere research organization lost its credibility within and outside India. Several breakthrough technological projects were delayed or stalled pulling Indian space research back, severely hampering national development. Scientists were generally considered unreliable by public. Science as a discipline, lost its sheen. Youngsters found a profession in research in India unsafe, giving one more excuse for brain drain. Ultimately we, Indians lost.

It took huge hard work of decades and today ISRO is back in limelight with the phenomenal success of Mangalyaan. You may think on this great occasion why I am retelling this sad tale. Its not for taking the gleam out of victory celebration. This story should be engraved on all of our minds, so that we as a nation, irrespective of our ethnic, cultural and ideological differences, stand behind the people who are striving to make a positive difference in our lives.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Njaan: A Relevant Movie by Ranjith

Njaan is a period movie directed by Ranjith based on the novel 'KTN Kottur: Ezhuthum Jeevithavum' (KTN Kottur: Writings and Life) by T P Rajeevan. Previously, Ranjith had directed Paleri Manikyam, based on a novel by the same writer. I am yet to read the novel, so whatever I write here is based on the experience of movie alone. Njaan is the story about a person who lived in pre-independant India with several talents, but was unable to achieve the greatness he was supposed to.

Movie has a very loose, nonlinear narrational structure. It starts when Ravi, a young professional and a blogger who writes with the pen name Kottur, decides to write a play based on the life of KTN Kottur, his inspiration. He is backed by a theatre group headed by actor Joy Mathew. The life of Kottur is slowly uncovered to the viewers.

The movie deals with many themes. I felt it predominantly dealt with the role of individualism in a social setup. Kottur is portrayed as a visionary. But he fails when his compatriots try to bracket him as per their needs. They fail to see that he is not an idealist. He himself claims to be a humanist. His works are mostly romantic in nature. His descent to an alcoholic, an introvert and finally a fatalist has to be viewed in this angle.

One negative point of the movie, I feel is the endorsement of this fatalism. Instead of portraying fatalism with contempt, as a logical conclusion of the descent, the movie tries to romanticize it. That bogs down the narrative towards the end of the movie and makes a mess. Another negative point is that the movie never tries to uncover the writer in Kottur. It undermine the characterization significantly.

But the one point that really spoiled the movie for me was the lead actor. Dulqar Salman, though the guy has evidently tried very hard, is unable to do justice to the role of Kottur that require a certain depth, a capability to make the viewer aware of the impending doom. That's a pity, because all the supporting cast were too good.

Kottur is actually a place in Calicut district. Names of several neighboring places- Neduvannur, Koottalida, Perambra etc., that keep on appearing in the narrative confirms that. Then how come the slang that people speak is that of furthur north, mostly that of Payyannur? Also geography of the location and the presence of theyyam performance is curiously indicating a place near Payyannur.

Njaan is definitely a brave attempt by Ranjith and an important one too as the questions raised by the life of Kottur has contemporary relevance. The movie scores on several other elements like great camera work and a narrative that is multilayered. It is a must watch for people loving serious cinema.

Indian Takeaway- In Search of an Identity...

Last year I happened to read an incredible book by Monisha Rajesh in which the British Indian journalist goes on a journey through the length and breadth of India in trains. It turns out to be a self revelatory experience. Now this 2008 book, Indian Takeaway is much similar. Here, a Scottish journalist of Indian origin, an amateur cook, travel across India cooking British food for locals. He does it in the belief that this exercise can reveal his true identity.

Hardeep Singh Kohli is a journalist and TV personality. He is also an amateur cook. He was brought up in Glasgow by his immigrant parents. In his childhood, to his surprise, he was treated as an outsider due to his Indian ancestry. But his views, interests and allegiance were very British. This duality made him undertake a journey through different cities of India, and cook a British dish at each city. Read the book to find out if anything comes oyt of this exercise.

First thing that strikes the reader about this book is the honesty that the writer brings on the table. About his feelings, cooking, family, culture, things he sees and has to undergo on course, Kohli writes openly. There is an incident in the book where he is not sure about his train reservation and worries about journeying in third class. Any other person would have sugar coated the whole thing, but Kohli doesn't. He openly declare his fear of 'the girl who is eating mango and the old woman who sleeps on floor'. At first I felt it insensitive, but who am I to judge!

Second best are his descriptions- about journey, places, people and more importantly about food and cooking. He masterfully builts up the atmosphere, so that the reader finds it easy to understand his thinking. There is a liberal dose of humor sprinkled in the narrative. Some of it works, but some falls flat. Certain anecdotes and attempts on word play, doesn't gel with the content of the book. Another major issue for me was 'the Kohli Family Trivia' which severly hampers the flow of the book in many places.

Overall I felt it to be an interesting read and may be of interest to foodies and travel enthusiasts, though the final outcome, whether Kohli was able to find out who he really is, turned out to ambiguous.

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Chewing Gum of a Movie...

"Why is this movie called Chewing Gum?"

We were on the middle of watching the dvd of a recent Malayalam movie taken on rent when my wife asked me.

She continued. "There seems to be no connection between this title and movie."

I tried to stiffle a yawn and replied.

"After the first few minutes the whole flavor is lost and it becomes a tasteless, sticky mass of infinitely stretchable matter. We have spent some money on it, however unsubstantial it may be, and are reluctant to spit it out. But we don't want to eat it as it is indigestible. Finally we chew it on for some more time hoping may be a surprise flavor is released, though its dead sure that won't happen. Chewing Gum is the most apt title for this movie."

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sapthama Sree Thaskaraha: Ocean's Seven in Thrissur

My title doesn't imply that this curiously titled Malayalam movie is copied from any foreign flock. As Mohanlal tells in an old movie, all thieves in the world has similar face and it is horrible (bheekar hai), all heist movies tend to have similar elements. To make it entertaining every part of the heist has to be made convincing- motive, planning, execution and improvisation. Another uphill task is to make audience root for criminals.

Director Anil Menon, whose début, critically acclaimed and commercially successful North 24 Kaatham, was a fine specimen of road movie. This added my expectations when I entered the hall to watch Sapthama Sree Thaskaraha. The movie is a riot. Each scene, even the ones with serious tones, ends in situational humor. The characterisation is top notch. Actors have done a wonderful work, though I feel Venu's role was a bit underwritten. Another noteworthy aspect is the location. Cultural capital of Kerala and the the unique slang of the place is put to good use.

One minor issue that I felt was in the improvisation part of the heist. In every good heist movie there is a point were an unexpected hitch stall the robbery. Thieves either makes a change of plan then and there or sometimes they might have considered this issue already and smartly execute the plan B, involving the audience only at the end as part of a big revelation. This is supposed to be the twist that significantly contribute to the drama and thrill. This movie doesn't employ it and tries to introduce a twist after the robbery happen. This move in my opinion slightly hamper the effect.