Sunday, January 29, 2006

If music be the food of love (Part I)

This post by Charu finally got me to write down this (two part) piece, which I’d been planning to write for weeks now.

Carnatic classical music has evolved and grown over centuries to become what it is today. In this piece, I’ll walk through some of the aspects of the historical influences on this music form, and the influence of royal patronage and different“shisya paramparas” in the development of this musical form.

It remains the classical music form of Southern India, and its growth was seen in all four southern states. The “bhakti movement” (effectively from the 10th to the 15th century) served as a strong catalyst to promote growth of Carnatic music, just like it did for Hindustani music. It also resulted in a form of Carnatic music called “bhajana sampradaya”. In Karnataka, two groups were instrumental for the growth of the music. The Vaishnavite dasas wandered the countryside composing hymns and songs on Vishnu (or his avatars), in relatively simple Kannada (stepping out of the Sanskrit based compositions that dominated religion). Foremost amongst these was Purandaradasa, considered the “pitamaha” or “grandsire” of Carnatic music. He is credited with organizing early lessons in music (sarali varase, janti varase through alankaras and geetas), and also composed hundreds of short songs (kritis or just “dasa sahitya”). A number of other dasas also composed numerous songs. There was also a parallel Saivite movement, the veerasaiva movement, where Basaveshwara, Akka Mahadevi and numerous other veerasaivas composed simple songs (vachanas) in Kannada, in praise of Siva. Though vachana sahitya is not very popular today, dasa sahitya remains highly popular in Carnatic concerts, and is also still sung by folk singers. This form of lyric was not set to a specific raga, but musicians were freely allowed to express the lyrics in any raga of their choice. Modern dasa sahitya is often sung in ragas that were adapted directly from Hindustani music (Sindhu Bhairavi, Kapi, Behag), but traditionally dasa and vachana sahitya were sung in Carnatic ragas that have direct folk origins (Ananda Bhairavi, Natakurunji, Neelambari, Aarabhi, Nayaki and such other ragas), and still are by folk singers. This form of music was not rigidly bound by rules, but remained within the classical form. Their contemporary bhakti composers in Andhra composed in Telugu, and foremost amongst them was Annamachari. Many of his compositions were lost until relatively recently, when hundreds of his songs were found (in inscriptions on plates) buried in a cave. But the music these were set to was lost. His songs were popularized in recent times by Balamuralikrishna. In Tamil lands, the Nayanars and Alvars were instrumental in spreading and developing music (and much of Carnatic music has been influenced by the traditional pann system of Tamil music).

Both western and Indian classical music forms have benefited enormously and grown due to royal patronage. Carnatic music was widely patronized by the Vijayanagar empire, which was the dominant empire in Southern India during this time. Though it existed during an early time during the development of Carnatic music, it left behind a rather unique legacy. Vijayanagara fell in the late 16th century, but much of their empire was left in the hands of their former generals. The Wodeyars ruled Mysore, while the Nayakas began to rule Madurai and Tanjavur. The language of the Vijayanagara court was Telugu, and Telugu became the language of poetry and music in Southern India, and so many composers started composing in Telugu. Their successors, the Nayakas and the (early) Wodeyars continued to patronize Telugu. So, Telugu remained the de-facto court language for nearly 500 years, till the 17th century.

Much of the prolific growth of this music form during the 17th-19th century was in the Cauvery belt around Tanjavur, and thanks to this little twist of history, a vast number of compositions were written in Telugu, which has remained the major language for this form of music. An interesting aside is that the Marathas (starting with the Venkaji) came to rule Tanjore, displacing the Nayakas. But they did little to meddle with local customs, and many of them became great patrons of Carnatic music, and may perhaps have influenced the adoption of bhajans by North Indian bhakti saints in Carnatic music.

Mention must be made though of Oothukadu Venkata Subbaiyar (or just Venkata Kavi), who lived in the mid 1600s in Tamil Nadu. He was a composer who composed in both Tamil and Sanskrit, but his Tamil compositions were of the highest order. His compositions went on to inspire many composers to compose in Tamil. The biggest legacy in music though was left by three composers, known as the “trinity” of Carnatic music. These were Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dixitar and Shyama Shastri. Of these, Thyagaraja undoubtedly had the greatest impact. He was a telugu speaking brahmin who lived in the Tanjavur region (Tiruvarur), and composed prolifically almost exclusively in Telugu. However, it was not just his prolific ability to compose that resulted in his compositions coming to dominate the form of music. He was also a true music evangelist, and had many, many disciples. They continued to popularize his compositions even after his death, and this “shisya parampara” spawned a legacy hard to surpass. It became another reason why Telugu remains the most common language heard in Carnatic music. Thyagaraja was also partial to the raga Kharaharapriya, and it’s many offshoot ragas (janyas). Thanks to that, this raga and its offshoots have come to exceedingly dominate carnatic concerts.

It was around the same time as Thyagaraja that Dixitar and Shyama Shastri also lived. Dixitar composed predominantly in Sanskrit. He composed in a vast range of ragas, across the spectrum. Though he did not have the army of disciples Thyagaraja had, his legacy lived on mainly through his own (extended) family (with Ambi Dixitar being prominent), who went on to have many disciples, who continued to sing and popularize his songs in concerts. Shyama Shastri composed in Sanskrit and Telugu, however, only 47 of his compositions still survive today. His “shishya parampara” was far more limited.
These composers however were masters of the kriti/keertana form of composition, and given the sheer volume of their legacy, and their vast number of disciples, this form of music went on to dominate Carnatic music.

In the next post, we’ll look at some more recent historical developments in Carnatic music, and look in to the prevailing “hypothesis” that this music form is largely performed by brahmins, and the evolution of the modern concert format.

(note: this is not a very comprehensive post, so I hope some of the comments go in to areas I didn’t touch upon).

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Everything Scientific Vol. VII

Apologies for not blogging much over the past (very busy) week. But to make amends, I’m back with another (short) edition of some of the latest, best or quirkiest research breakthroughs about all things scientific.

A world of resistant bacteria

Antibiotic resistant bacteria are becoming increasingly more commonplace. Most pathogenic bacteria are resistant to one or more antibiotics. There is the real danger of many pathogenic bacteria developing resistance to even the most recent antibiotics, and this would mean that treatment for infections we consider commonplace would no longer be easy. Often, the resistance is due to improper use of the antibiotics (not completing a course is a common cause), since even if a couple of bacteria mutate to accommodate the antibiotic, soon they dominate their systems. But one never thinks of soil as a source for resistance. Yet, only a miniscule fraction of all bacteria are harmful, and there are thousands of species that don’t harm us, but are there every where. Some researchers went about and isolated 480 different species of soil bacteria (mostly harmless to humans), and analyzed if they were resistant to any antibiotics. What they found surprised them. Nearly 25% of the bacteria were resistant to seven antibiotics, another 20% were resistant to eight, and almost all of them were resistant to more than 2 antibiotics. Many usual suspects like tetracycline and ciprofloxacin were useless against many of these bacteria. Some were even resistant to vancomycin (one of the “gold standard” antibiotics). It didn’t matter if the antibiotic was of synthetic or natural origin (one would assume greater resistance to natural origin antibiotics, due to greater exposure to these). This clearly shows that the level of resistance to antibiotics in the environment is much higher than suspected. The authors suggest new ways to study antibiotic resistance, new approaches to make new antibiotics, and combination therapeutics.
Science 20 January 2006:Vol. 311. no. 5759, pp. 374 – 377

A mammoth task

Understanding extinct species has been a challenge, because most of the information is restricted to fossil remains. But genome sequencing of these species do reveal tremendous amounts of information. The problem remains that most fossils are poorly preserved, with most of the DNA lost, oxidized or fragmented, with the additional fact that extracted DNA will have huge amounts of bacterial, fungal or human contamination (it’s from the soil after all). However, fossils from “permafrost” regions can be very well preserved because of the extremely low temperatures. Researchers found some mammoth fossils in permafrost, and managed to extract DNA from them and then sequence the genome. Their studies clearly show that elephants diverged from mammoths around 5 million years ago. But more importantly, they’re one of the first to complete the genome sequencing of a long extinct species, and might be pioneers in the field of paleogenomics. Our understanding of long dead species, and their evolution in to modern ones, might just take off.
Science 20 January 2006: 392-394.

Reducing chemotoxicity

One of the big problems with cancer chemotherapy is the massive death of non-cancer cells in the treatment process. This nasty “side effect” often devastates many surviving patients. The problem is that most drugs also reach many other cells on their way to the cancer cells. Much of this problem would be abated if the drug could be directly delivered to the cancer itself, but specificity has been the bane of the industry for a long time. Some breast cancer researchers tried something different. The mammary gland provides a different route for tumor access, since the mammary duct network terminates in the nipple. So these researchers directly injected chemotherapeutic drugs in to the mammary ducts (they tested this in mice). Their results were more than encouraging. Though the effectiveness of the drugs administered this way were similar to traditional IV administration, the toxicity seen was substantially less. This is extremely promising initial work (though there are differences in the mammary system of mice and humans, and so much work needs to be done) in at least the breast cancer field.
Cancer Res. 66, in press (2006)

Ethanol, energy and environmental goals

Ethanol is increasingly being promoted as a viable, renewable “biofuel”, with greater amounts of ethanol being blended with petroleum. But important questions need to be asked before this. Is this process “energy positive” or “energy negative”? Does ethanol take more energy (read petroleum) to produce than it saves when being blended with petrol? After all, though ethanol is produced from crops (and is renewable), energy must go in to make it (remember the law of conservation of energy?). So, is it really a viable long term option? Some researchers have gone ahead and looked in to this (in an article I just finished reading). Here, researchers rigorously estimate the energy and environmental costs of ethanol produced from corn (the biggest source in the Americas). They compare different methods used to estimate energy costs from ethanol. A couple of earlier studies had suggested that ethanol production is actually energy negative. However, these researchers show that these two studies incorrectly assumed that ethanol coproducts should not be credited with any of the input energy. Their rigorous study concludes that current methods of ethanol production result in only about 5-25% of the energy being renewable (the rest being petroleum or gas). In addition, the greenhouse gas emission differences (benefits) were small, and not substantial. However, using new technologies and practices, such as sustainable agriculture and cellulosic ethanol production substantially improved both net energy efficiency and emissions. Clearly, this needs to be kept in mind, while planning to expand on the biofuels industry, and can result in greater energy security for a country when planned and understood right.
Science 27 January 2006:Vol. 311. no. 5760, pp. 506 – 508

That's it for this edition of Everything scientific, which will be back again in a few weeks, with more scientific goodies.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Happy hour: And how do we smell?

Some of my colleagues work on olfaction, and understanding how we manage to smell. So some of their work got me thinking about how this elementary sensory process occurs.

How do we manage to detect and discriminate between many, many, many different types of odors? How is it even important to us?

It’s something we rarely think about, and take for granted. But think about even modern life without smell. We don’t realize it, but the olfactory system, the system dealing with smell, controls many physiological processes, including regulating various hormones. Smell also has emotional responses (fear, happiness or repulsion) directly associated with it. And taste is highly dependent on smelling the food. In addition, smell also has reproductive functions, better understood in rodents or flies, but perhaps just as important in humans as well.

The process is clearly important, and was even recognized by a Nobel prize in 2004 (for Axel and Buck).

But how does this process occur?

We’ll just keep our understanding to mammals (yup, that includes us) and avoid the just as complex and fascinating system in insects or birds, or fish or amphibians (yes, fish can smell too. The famous Pacific Salmon swim thousands of miles away, but come back to the place the very were born in order to spawn, tracking their way back by smell).

In mammals olfaction starts in the nasal cavity, just beyond the nostrils. Here, a plethora of volatile molecules (the odorants) are detected by the olfactory epithelium. This structure is as fascinating as it is complex. It is enervated by thousands of nerve cells, called neurons. These neurons end in fine structures called cilia, lining the olfactory epithelium, where the odorant molecules can be picked up. Now, there are specific proteins called odorant receptors. These are large proteins found in these neurons, and these proteins can bind odorants. The fascinating theory (and theory in science does not mean an idea or hypothesis, but something that has a lot of scientific evidence to back it up. Gravity, relativity and evolution are theories) is that each one of these neurons has only one type of odorant receptor.

Here’s where it starts to get complex. There are thousands of neurons spread across the olfactory epithelium. Humans have about three hundred different odorant receptors (mice or dogs have even more). So, there are at least three hundred different types of neurons (with one type of odorant receptor each) in the epithelium. Each odorant receptor can bind not one, but many (specific) different odorants, but with different affinities. So, lets say the rose odorant molecule is bound by a set of ten different odorant receptors. The remaining 290 don’t bind it. But even these ten bind it with different affinities. So this creates a fine tuning that enables difference between many many times more than 300 odorants that can easily be detected.
What happens next is the key. These odorant receptors in these neurons bind an odorant. The neurons are long cells, going deep in to a brain region called the olfactory bulb. They end here in structures called glomeruli. Each type of neuron (with one odorant receptor) ends in a specific glomeruli.

But what happens when the odorant binds? How is the message actually transmitted?

Here’s what happens. When the odorant molecule binds that odorant receptor in the neuron, it triggers a few adjacent proteins, which go on to cause the synthesis and release of small molecules, called second messengers. These number in the thousands for every single odorant molecule that binds. So, there is a natural amplification. These molecules travel down the neuronal cell, and cause it to release a neurotransmitter (seen those ads on TV, for anti-depressant drugs, where a cartoon of one molecule releasing a thousand molecules happens? That stuff is real). These released neurotransmitters can now go across and bind their own specific receptor proteins, which will trigger an influx or efflux of positive or negatively charged ions (sodium, potassium, chlorine, calcium), through ion channels.

This creates a potential gradient, and this electric current is what’s transmitted to the brain for processing.

More modern techniques are now revealing that each odorant molecule actually “lights up” or works in different parts of the brain, by furiously triggering transcriptional events. This results in a chain of reactions, with specific proteins being made, activated, removed or inhibited. The brain then forms a specific memory for an odorant, registers it, and subsequently remembers it for future reference.

And that’s how we remember one smell from another.

What’s equally fascinating is that this olfactory epithelium is a region of constant churn. Most neurons don’t regenerate. If neurons in most of your brain die out, they wont come back (and this is what happens in Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease, or just plain old age. Neurons die, don’t come back, and we lose brain function). Not in the olfactory system though. There are specific “neuronal stem cells” that constantly replace dying olfactory neurons. Normal neurons suffer constant abuse (some nasal inhalers are especially nasty in killing olfactory neurons), but many are replaced.

Replaced, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until we die. But the battle is a struggle, and replacement often cannot keep up with destruction, so we suffer losses in our sense of smell.

But smell we do, and life’s that much better thanks to that!

Postscript: I purposely avoided the just as fascinating processes that pheromones participate it.

Monday, January 16, 2006

A quick buck, and learning more

A quick buck?

This little story came back to me last evening. It happened some 14 years ago. Dusshera time, and I was spending my holidays with my aunt and uncle in Calcutta. Lots of pujo festivities all around, a great atmosphere in a great and friendly city, and a good bit of rain.

I used to walk around in the evenings, to explore the surroundings. This was along a little road a couple of kilometers from New Alipur (where my aunt and uncle lived). This road gently sloped down, to reach a small trough, and then gently went uphill again. The road (like many roads then in Calcutta) was in a typical state of semi-repair. It was motorable, but only in second or third gear. Anyway, at this trough, the road really didn’t have much tar on it. There were some very large stones covering the potholes there.

One afternoon it rained like it can only rain in Calcutta. A torrent of water filled the streets, and like always, the streets remained flooded. Feeling adventurous, I went out after the rains stopped, and walked by that street. And there was quite a spectacle happening there.

Cars would cautiously descend the street, to reach the trough, by which time the water would be well over knee high. Before the cars could ascend the trough and go up the street again, they would become waterlogged and stall. This was a source of much merriment for all.

But there were a group of intrepid youth, who looked like college students (or who should have been in college), four in all, who were there ready for rescue. They would stand by the side, watch a car sputter and stall, and then rush in to rescue the hapless driver, extricating the car. Typically, the driver would hand out a few currency notes in gratitude, which these guys would happily accept. And all would be well again.

I took the same walk the next day, after the water had receded, and walked by the trough. I noticed that the large stones in the potholes had vanished.

It could be that they had been washed away by the rains. But the stones were so large and heavy that it seemed highly improbable. It could also be that the youth were helping out purely from altruistic reasons (like most Calcuttans would).

Or it could be that the youth (who were probably local) had planned it all and removed the stones. They’d have known that the cars would have no idea how deep the water could become, would hit a deeper pothole, and stall. Then they could rescue the hapless drivers and at the end of the day have a sizeable income. Not a bad day’s work by any means.

I don’t know which reason was true.

Anyway, as I look back, there definitely was a good bit of entrepreneurial energy in those youth. The same entrepreneurial energy you see all around in every corner in India. But did they use their energy to create a little racket of their own, and make a quick buck because of temptation, or because largely the barriers to entry for any legit enterprise were (and largely are) too high and it’s just easier to create these little rackets?


This little story is quite related to my earlier post on teachers and education. Champa Mahila Society (CMS) is this wonderful organization which (amongst other things) has a bunch of schools in the sundarban region in Bengal. The local government school there is in rather terrible shape (in terms of the education imparted). CMS started a program for dropout girls in the area. The girls are provided with food, clothing, education, vocational training and they also enjoy games and cultural activities. The girls in this school absolutely love it there, and so do their parents. The school started off for 30 girls, and now there are close to 150, and the parents want the poor, exhausted, stretched CMS folks to start more of these schools.

The purpose of these schools, as mentioned earlier, is for dropout girls to get back in to school readiness, and then go and join the government school. But here’s what happens. The girls either never leave this school (until they’re older), or the go join the government school, and then drop right out and come back to join this one. Here they have a great learning environment, and learn a ton of stuff. There’s little they gain from being in the government school. The whole situation now has become farcical as little girls some six or seven years old are enrolled in the CMS school by their parents who pass them off as “dropouts”.

Ask them (as my friend Swati did, on her visits there) and they grin sheepishly and say that the girls are not going to learn any thing in the government school, so they might as well be here and learn something.

Six year old dropouts indeed.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Happy hour: Nobels that could have been

There have been some remarkably productive scientists who, in the course of their careers managed to come up with not just one but many path breaking findings, each of which could have won a Nobel prize. Yet very few of them actually won more than one Nobel prize in science. Marie Curie won a Physics Nobel, and a Chemistry Nobel seven years later. Bardeen won two Physics prizes, while Fred Sanger won two chemistry prizes, the first in the fifties for work on the structure of insulin, and the next in 1980, for his work on DNA sequencing). Linus Pauling won two, one for Chemistry and another for peace!). Here are some people who did win a Nobel, but only once. They perhaps should have won another for some other equally (if not more) epoch work.

Albert Einstien, the obvious name on the list, for the theory of relativity. Relativity at that time was so controversial that the Nobel committee didn’t recognize him for that. They gave him a Nobel for discovering the photoelectric effect, another seminal (but perhaps less impressive) discovery.

Linus Pauling (yes, he could have had three Nobels!), for postulating molecular origins of diseases. Or yet another one (a fourth), for discovering alpha helices (any one studying protein structure will tell you how elementary and important that is). One of the greatest scientists of the last century for sure.

Francis Crick, another phenomenal scientist, whose explanation of the genetic code being a triplet code (with three DNA molecules coding for one amino acid, in a degenerate code) revolutionized chemistry and biology and our very understanding of the basic molecules of life. Crick changed his area of research every ten years or so, and contributed phenomenally to anything he studied. His last efforts (before he died) he was studying the nature of consciousness.

Sydney Brenner (who won the Nobel in medicine for his genetics work on organ development and programmed cell death) could have shared one with Crick for working out the genetic code with him.

This is just the starting of the list. Can you think of a few more names that could easily make this list? (And include Economics in this list too).

Monday, January 09, 2006

And how do teachers become accountable?

Most of us know that the state of education (or even literacy, which is a very different thing) in India is abysmal. The literacy rate (which comes with the usual fudge factor, and “if you can sign your name you’re literate”) in India is still around 70% for men, and 55 or so percent for women. Most of us have different opinions on why this is so, and different opinions on how to fix it.

There are grand suggestions that all education in India be privatized (since parents prefer private schools anyway, given that most government schools are pathetic). Others want a rapid and massive increase in the money spent on education (currently ~4% of the GDP), or private schools bearing the burden and expense of mass education. Some others want higher salaries and better options for teachers. The first suggestion, of superceding the government completely in all education is quite impractical. In fact, the countries with the best educational levels have excellent public school systems (even the United States) which does serve especially the neglected or poorest sections of society. As far as spending goes, India’s spending is decent (when compared to most countries), and falls in between the middle spenders and the high spenders. And there’s no reason to believe that the same bureaucracy that hasn’t delivered in 58 years is suddenly going to do so. The money spent is probably not going to reach its destination. It hasn’t so far. Even though on paper there’s a primary school within 5 km of every village in most of the country the results are not impressive. And it would be against basic liberties to require private schools to bear the burden of mass education. As far as the third goes, actually government teachers are rather well paid. A teacher can expect to earn about Rs. 10000 a month, with some additional perks. Surprisingly, most private school teachers (especially in smaller schools, which form the vast majority) earn between Rs. 3000-Rs. 6000. Yet, their performance is far better. Why is that?

At a very basic level (with out going in to other aspects) it boils down to two factors: accountability and power.

Government schoolteacher jobs are highly coveted positions, and here’s why. If you are a government teacher in a village, you’re amongst the most well off, and the most powerful. And you don’t need to do any teaching in your life if you don’t want to.

The position is yours for keeps. Appointments are highly affected by political or organizational connections. Once appointed, it’s almost impossible for you to be dismissed from service. There is little in place in terms of inspections (with inspectors actually having the power to dismiss teachers). Teachers are transferred routinely, but if the teacher is “connected”, he/she can avoid transfers, or transfer himself to the neighboring village, 3 kilometers away, and continue to be incompetent. There is no requirement that the teacher actually completes any part of the syllabus given, nor is there any incentive for students of a teacher to “pass” or “fail”. There are many reports of teachers never attending a single day of school, or even them having hired proxy’s to teach in the class (while they run their family business or whatever). Teacher absenteeism is massive (in some states absenteeism is up to 40%, with even more teachers present but not teaching). In contrast, in a private school, even for a teacher earning Rs 3000 a month, if the students perform badly, or there are clear cases of incompetence, the teacher is sacked. There’s no shortage of graduates in the country who want to teach. How good the education they impart is, that is a different matter. But we’ll keep the litmus test for now to students “passing” or being functionally literate.


Government school teachers also happen to be extremely powerful. Why? Because amongst other things, they become election poll officials during elections. And the schools under them become election polling booths. Clearly, the power they wield during an election is obvious. The teacher’s union is not just a small vote bank, but can actually determine the outcome of elections.

Power, and no accountability.

But how can this be fixed? The government has a number of proven and successful options. The first is obviously greater involvement of parents in the running of schools. If there is a parent association (at village levels) actively involved in the school’s functioning, with the power to question or even suspend teachers who do not attend classes or teach, teachers will be forced to do their jobs. Accountability is enforced, and learning indexes dramatically improve. Another proven method are different types of “voucher systems”. An example of a voucher system would be that all poor parents are given a “cash voucher”, with the clause that it can only be redeemed (for it’s value) as school fees for their kids. The parents would be free to enroll their kids in any school, but those vouchers can only be used in lieu of school fees. If there is a surplus, it cannot be encashed. This way the money is used in education alone.

There may be other options as well, that are just as successful. These have been successfully implemented in different parts of the world to varying degrees, and have been successful. Gurucharan Das and Amartya Sen are just a few amongst many who have argued for such reform in their columns or writing.

But how can any such policy be pushed forward in the Indian "system"? The teachers (as a single entity) are important for politicians, who are likely to be disinclined towards giving parents more control (this could cost them their seats). If parent bodies are formed in villages, will they be truly democratic? Will the bureaucracy honestly handle a voucher scheme, or will it be mired in inefficiency and corruption? Will teachers themselves try to oppose a voucher scheme (since that means the school will have to shape up or close down).

Open forum: How can these basic changes be implemented within the Indian system? These changes (I believe) are far more important and effective and likely to have bigger consequences than privatizing all education, or doubling the spending on education.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Happy hour: the best science fiction last year in the movies

This week’s happy hour is just a bit of fun, and more fiction than science. Sometimes the dividing line between science and fiction is pretty thin, and no one’s understood that better than the writers in Hollywood. There weren’t too many good science fiction movies last year, but there were a few surprisingly good ones there. Here’s my little list the best sci-fi efforts (from amidst very slim pickings) in 2005.

Serenity: This was certainly one of the surprise packages of the year, and my pick for the most satisfying sci-fi flick of the year. It came with no expectations. I almost thought it would turn out to be a B-grade sci-fi flick, or just a glorified serial that should never have left the SciFi channel, but it turned out to be a fairly entertaining flick with some interesting concepts (and a predictable but entertaining plot). This is an old fashioned science fiction movie, about a large Alliance ruling the galaxy, who want things their way, and every one placid but happy, and a bunch of rebels who want people to be thinking, different, human individuals. River Tam, now rescued from the Alliance mind washers by her brother, and is the link between the Alliance and the rebels, and holds the answer to their questions as well. Guess the rest, or better still, watch it if you haven’t.

Batman begins: OK, Batman’s not really science fiction, but most of his gadgets, and all the villains definitely belong in the realm of science fiction. The Batman movie series started off outstandingly, with Tim Burton’s efforts in the first movie, and Jack Nicholson superb as the Joker. But it went down hill from there, and Christopher Nolan did exceedingly well to redeem Batman’s image with this caper. Ra’s Al Gul was not scary enough, but the build-up of Bruce Wayne’s early life, and his transformation in to the bat was great. And Cillian Murphy did well as the crazy neurobiologist Jonathan Crane (the Scarecrow). Excellent stuff.

War of the worlds: This was one of H.G. Well’s most popular novels. It came with a reputation, and lots of expectations. It needed something special. Spielberg tried to make it special, and partly succeeded. The movie had fantastic special effects. The aliens and their spaceships were superb. The screenplay was tight and fast. Tom Cruise was, well, Tom Cruise. The Church of Scientology must have been delighted. Tim Robbins played the scary stranger he always plays. But Dakota Fanning continued to annoy (does any one remember “Baby” Shalini in some Indian movies), and remained such an over smart brat that you ended up leaving the movie hall wishing that the aliens had got her before they all died. Why Spielberg didn’t take some cinematic liberties with the book and get rid of her beats me.

The disappointment of the year? Undoubtedly Fantastic Four. It had great potential, and was one of the best Marvel comics ever. There was no shortage of material, or villains, or plot, or even characters to develop. DNA alteration leading to super powers. FOUR different heroes. A super villain. Space research. Jessica Alba. But it turned out to be an at best average caper that had decent special effects, some good action, but missed all chances of making it to the list of memorable comic book movies.

Postscript: King Kong and Sin City almost made this list, but they aren’t really science or science fiction, so I had to give them a miss. I also must be the only person who hasn’t seen March of the Penguins, which, if it was as good as people said it was, would have made the list, and it’s really natural science and not fiction! And X-men III must definitely be the most awaited comic/ Sci-Fi movie of 2006.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Spaghetti, western and classic

Wish you all a very happy 2006.

All that earlier talk about the west must lead to a review of a classic western. John Wayne was the first undisputed king of the western, but there the story and scenes remained within a formula. There were numerous classics by other actors, who were better known though for other roles. Gregory Peck was outstanding in “Makenna’s gold", and the underappreciated but fabulous “The gunfighter”. But the actor who left the longest lasting impression in Westerns was undoubtedly Clint Eastwood, who became the man with no name (long before Dirty Harry came along and changed things).

The stand out movies of this series were the Sergio Leone trilogy “A fistful of dollars”, “For a few dollars more” and “The good, the bad, and the ugly” and Eastwood’s own directorial venture, the superb “High plains drifter”. Now all of these became cult classics on their own right. They’ve been remade or adapted endlessly (not the least in Bollywood, with dozens of “inspired” movies like “Joshilay” or a dozen Feroze Khan flicks). High plains drifter was technically the best movie, and really indicated how good a director Eastwood would eventually become. A fistful of dollars really started out the theme in Western cinema, adapting Kurosawa’s classic “Yojimbo” to the 19th century southwest United States. The good, the bad and the ugly was probably the most entertaining of the lot. But my own personal favorite remains “For a few dollars more” (FAFDM).

This was a classic tale that would inspire (and be suitably adapted by) Ramesh Sippy to make one of Hindi cinema’s most popular classics, Sholay.

The story of FAFDM is rather simple. There’s a ruthless renegade outlaw, El Indio (Volonte), a bandit feared by all, who breaks out of prison and with his gang is on a rampage. Eastwood is a bounty hunter who now goes after the biggest game of them all, El Indio. On his way, he meets another bounty hunter, the shrewd master Colonel Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef), who is also after the bandit. There’s little in the basic plot that’s not routine. But the story itself weaves around little twists, and unexpected turns. And the pace is slow and drawn out. There’s plenty of time for the viewers to get in to the three main characters’ skin, and begin to understand them. And there are more than enough classic moments.

Colonel Mortimer, we learn, must have started off as an upshot gunfighter. But he’s mellow now, and coldly calculating. It’s not how many times a person shoots, or how fast he shoots, but how well he shoots that’s important. Shoot once, but shoot to kill. Eastwood’s Joe is more reckless, ready to head right in to the heart of danger. The little scene of confrontation between the two has been ripped off in at least half a dozen Hindi movies. The scene where Eastwood shoots off Cleef’s hat, and keeps shooting it off as it lands and is going to be picked up by Cleef. And then, when the hat is out of pistol range, Cleef takes out his modified pistol, takes close aim, and shoots half a dozen holes in Eastwood’s cap, not letting it touch the ground. Familiar?

An uneasy alliance forms between the two, and the set out to outwit and capture El Indio, as the try to out wit Indio as well as each other. There’s intrigue, double-dealing, long, drawn out conversations with many slow pauses, and gunfights with just the right amount of tension built in. And there’s a bank heist, with strategy not inferior to any heist classic.

The cinematography was pioneering at that time, and this movie really was where those long, low-angle shots really became staple fare for all future westerns. But perhaps most memorable was the outstanding music score of Ennio Morricone, which you’ll recognize even if you haven’t seen any of these movies. You would have heard it in a hindi movie or ten.

Eastwood and Cleef were probably the inspiration for Jai and Veeru (of course, rivals and uneasy partners here became buddy-buddy in Sholay). Cleef’s character was split in to two to create Jai’s character and Thakur Baldev Singh’s character. But the stand out character was certainly El Indio. He became Gabbar Singh. From the jailbreak, to ruthlessly shooting down his own men, to pausing and swatting down an insect, to the nervous, hysterical laughter and moments of mania, it’s all there.

This movie has long become staple fare for any lover of Westerns. And what was great about the movie was not the plot. It was the whole atmosphere, and little details amidst the grime.