Blockers


Yet another movie that I elected to see on a flight.

I take quite a while to choose a movie to see, especially when there are hundreds available. This time around, I wanted to see a funny comedy kind of movie, and “Blockers” fit the bill.

I do not know or understand how Indian parents in the U.S. deal with the phenomenon of “prom night” when seniors graduate from their school, and go partying all night, often drinking alcohol, smoking drugs, and having sex with their pre-chosen mates. There is nothing like a “prom night” in India or Singapore, I have never heard of one.

“Blockers” is all about three parents who know each other from their daughters’ kindergarten to their senior high school graduation, and who wish to stop their respective daughters from having sex on their prom night. It is funny, it is comical, it is witty – whatever you want to call, but it is also a learning experience for both parents and daughters as they discover key aspects of life in the process.

The parents obviously get stressed out totally trying to figure out what their daughters are up to, and once they discover their plans, swing into action and that leads them into a wild goose ride all over town, with funny consequences. The movie is full of life – the American way of life – and revealing to a non-American how life could get thrilling in America!

I am not sure we need prom nights in our part of the world, wherein the entire objective seems to be focused on losing one’s virginity as a prelude to starting off adulthood, or college careers. It is no secret that most schools have widespread alcohol and drug use in the U.S. (and in most other countries). But “prom night” is designed to be a social coming of age occasion for boys and girls, with high-speed networking, drinking and drug use in a ball room setting with lots of dancing to invigorating music. While I am not going to judge morals here, the need for the focus on sex can be debated, and in that sense, I empathize with the plight of the three parents who come through as very close to their daughters, caring for them every minute, to the extent that they start annoying them.

Indian parents can sync with such feelings for sure (and most Asian parents do). It is an emotional grasp of feelings which are hard to describe – love, affection, the fear of letting go, the lack of recognition that the kids are no longer kids – they have almost become adults and can make their own decisions, et al. It is very challenging when that happens to us, and I enjoyed every moment of the movie when the parents have to deal with their own plight. The feeling of insecurity dawns on the parents – that they are no longer in control of the lives of their own daughters, and that upsets them seriously.

In the U.S., apparently it is not unusual to have sex at the age of 17 or 18 between consenting teens – happens all the time, and gets intensified as one gets into college. It is probably used as a “get to know” the guy or the girl before engaging in a lifelong relationship. I understand it is getting to be prevalent at least by early twenties in India, where the parents do not condone such behaviour. Again, I have no personal views on such “acts” of convenience while preparing for life. It is not an issue of moral judgement, it is a personal choice which every teen on the verge of adulthood needs to reckon with – at least in the U.S. social life context.

The eventual adjustments that the daughters in “Blockers” movie demonstrate touch your heart. They all come back to their respective parents, reconcile with them, and then leave for their respective universities of choice. Parents will remain worried, for sure. That is the nature of parents, nothing much can be done to reduce their anxiety when the kids go far away from them. However, they find solace in the fact that their daughters can make intelligent decisions for themselves, and work through the vagaries of life, and navigate their future, while staying connected amongst themselves and with their parents.

I liked the way the movie concluded. It was intimate, it was personal, it was touching. Parents are parents, and their position cannot be compromised. They will care for their kids, come what may. Mother remains a beacon of comfort and solace for her kids. Father remains a beacon of strength, though one of the strong fathers in the movie breaks down often!

“Blockers” is a good movie that one will enjoy just for the funny language and rapid action scenes which constantly keep shifting from one scene to the next. It is entertaining. It is revealing – about the trust between daughters and parents. It is more revealing about parents than anyone else.

Enjoy “Blockers”.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

14th July 2018

 

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The Commuter


This is a full action-packed thriller movie enacted almost completely on a train in New York city which is headed to a faraway suburb. All the action happens on the train, and Liam Neeson is at his best trying to figure out the mystery, a role for which he is one of the best actors available. He has a heavy set, thinking face and you do not expect a fast movement from him. But he delivers some knock-out punches on the train and is also attacked vigorously by much younger men.

For an ordinary salesman on his regular commute home, and that too for a guy who has just lost his job with a mortgage to pay and family to cater to, it is all too much. One can witness the turmoil in his face when some lady offers him USD 25,000 for a seemingly innocuous job on the train. But his acceptance of that money puts him (and a number of his fellow passengers) at great peril; it also leads to the murder of a few folks on the train.

We have a saying – one bad thing leads to the next one, the same leg gets hit twice, etc., That’s what happens to our hero on the train after his sordid office experience that particular day when he got fired from his job, replaced by a woman with not much experience but at a far lower salary. His long experience did not count! And then comes the long ordeal on the train for which he was not at all prepared – no one can be, of course. A series of events on the train leads him to nowhere, and he is being challenged by the mysterious lady on the train who gave him the money to find someone on the train.

I was thinking – why couldn’t she find that person if she wanted to eliminate that person so badly? Why would she use Liam Neeson and in the process, also eliminate perfectly normal commuters? But it is the way the movie is scripted and directed – not much of a logic in the way it has been constructed.

This is not a movie that I would seek out and go see in a theatre. I saw the movie on my recent flight, selected it because it appeared to be an exciting thriller. However, I need to say that “The Commuter” is not a great movie with a great plot and direction. I saw it primarily for Liam Neeson’s acting, but he can’t do much if the plot is weak or has no logic, right?

While there is not much of a rationale in the manner in which the movie plays out, I liked the way Liam Neeson handles the pressure of his role – what if this were a true story which it very well could be? Then we would need a Liam Neeson who at the purported age of 60 in the movie (he is actually 65 now) could deal with enormous pressure without breaking, and execute his mental plan with agility though many a time he appears rather confused with the way things are turning out. There is not one dull moment in the flow of the movie directed by the famous Spanish Director Jaume Collet-Serra. I saw the movie non-stop, not even looking around the plane – all the time wondering what is going to happen. Where is this mysterious person who has some prohibited data so desired by his/her potential killers, that they would go to any extent to kill him/her even with all the collateral damage and a huge train accident. Why do they want him/her killed, and why can’t they find him/her by themselves if that person is on this specific train, etc.,

The movie shows every inch of a typical New York commuter train, and it is hard to miss anything as the director and the cameraman are indeed spending all their time in the train! They even show the undercarriage of the train as Liam Neeson had to hide, hanging down on the undercarriage almost touching the ground. There are unbelievable scenes like separating the carriage in which several people are held together from the racing train which has no driver as he has been eliminated. Liam Neeson proves that he was a cop before becoming an insurance salesman.

The worst surprise happens when Neeson’s own past police colleague turns out to be the perpetrator of the vicious crime on the train, but that is for you to see, right?

Have a wonderful weekend folks,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

7th July 2018

 

Set it up


This is a new Hollywood movie which was just released in June 2018. I was surprised I was able to see it on my Netflix account so soon, and discovered later that the movie was indeed released by Netflix itself. So, Netflix is in the movie business by itself, and could eventually give a run for the major brick-and-mortar movie studios which have dominated the movie business for so many decades. No wonder Netflix stock is skyrocketing – going up all the time.

As usual, I am not writing much about the movie itself or its actors themselves. My observations on this nice movie are manifold from a generic observer point of view. Don’t get me wrong, this is an enjoyable movie for a nice evening with your beau, sipping tea (sorry, no alcohol), and there are many Hollywood movies of this variety which is categorized as romantic comedy.

My first observation is about the new millennial work culture at the cost of building personal relationships, indulging in hobbies, or even doing what one wishes to do in their spare time – simply because there is just no spare time available in this culture which is all about getting ahead in career in the quickest time possible by doing things which pleases the boss all the time – basically at her or his beck and call, doing things which one would not do in ordinary course of life. This is just plain stupid – one has to build his or her own life in the way he or she likes it, and not be commandeered every minute by some reckless and heartless boss. The millennials  would lose their mind and heart and start following their bosses in their life as well, which would be a disaster.

The second observation is about the bosses themselves, who are expected to be professionals and not some jerks throwing things around their office, and insulting their workforce, especially their executive assistants. Apart from matters of the heart and sensitivity towards other human beings, the conclusion is that the bosses in this movie exhibit characteristics which are completely unacceptable in today’s modern digital economy. Bosses nowadays are becoming “facilitators” rather than aggressive commanders of their workforce army, which itself is increasingly becoming agile. So, how can a modern day boss in a New York office be portrayed as someone so reckless? The movie has a boss who insists that her assistant should go and get her dinner irrespective of the late hours – why should the assistant do what a delivery agency should be doing? Why should the other assistant (for the male boss) bring coffee for him every day? Or, juice!!!

The third observation is the mistaken (in my opinion) demonstration of how easy a typical young American falls in love right after the first date and then they immediately progress to the next stage. While it may be true in a sense (I don’t know myself what I am saying here!!!), I believe that people are a little more measured than shown in most movies in rushing towards the inevitable act. While school romances are common, after a few years people do become sober, and do not really trust their first instincts. They would examine more, check out the background of each other, see whether there are common interests (though the two bosses do not demonstrate any of these characteristics and still fall in love), and if they really want to enter into a casual relationship (the movie does show the scene in the assistant’s home when both are eating pizza and then the girl just goes away though the guy is inching towards a potential kiss – he doesn’t show his inclination though). I think this was one of the best scenes when two peoples’ collusion does not descend into a physical relationship though the situation and environment favours one. I liked the way the girl assistant moves on with her thoughts after the pizza dinner – and she also looks at the guy somewhat adoringly.

Fourth observation – this movie is all about “setting up” two people who would not have normally met, and also impacting their hook ups by making them say or do something which accentuates their desire for each other. This is called “cyrano” after the 19th Century play called “Cyrano de Bergerac”. It was the first time that I came across this special word which connotes setting up two people to do something, directed by somebody else who knows them both.

So, all in all, those are my generic observations. The movie itself is a good time-passer with pleasant happenings, zero violence, quick comedy situations, fast paced actions on an entirely social front, good direction, and good story line. My wife and I liked it, but we were not over-awed by the movie. I was surprised to see its good reception, however.

Enjoy your weekend with some good movie folks,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

30th June 2018

 

Jurassic Park in the Gold Class


Someone close to me gifted two “Gold Class” tickets which cost SGD 39 apiece (around USD 29), which is a big price to pay for seeing a movie – for comparison purpose, the standard movie ticket in Singapore costs SGD 13 or USD 9, so we are talking about a three-fold increase in price. I was wondering what to do with the tickets, as I am not an avid cinema theatre goer – if I go to cinema twice a year, that would be considered special! Finally, I thought it would be better to go and see what is this gold class all about for myself, and I asked my wife to join me. There were only four movies available in the gold class category, and three of them were useless, so I was forced to select “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” which I would not usually select, as I think the whole movie series is escapist and does not reflect reality. Except to see the dinosaurs of a foregone era in action via animation – we all know it is not real, and dinosaur eggs do not exist.

However, we finally landed in the gold class lounge, and were not surprised to see the special lounge facilities with plush sofas, magazines to browse through, personal butler service, and a variety of food to order from. There were not many viewers in the gold class at 10 AM on a Saturday morning, though slowly the theatre filled up to some 70% capacity. We enjoyed the luxury of the place of course, and ordered some coffee and snacks to be served 30 minutes after the movie started. I have never witnessed such facilities in a cinema theatre, though I have heard of the same. I have always thought “what a waste of money”. I could not just throw away the two tickets however.

We walked into the theatre and found our seats – very plush and as good as a first class airline seat, almost fully reclinable with fully stretchable horizontal leg/foot cushions. They even provided a blanket – well I don’t use blankets even in an airconditioned bedroom, and I felt it odd that people were covering themselves with blankets – may be several of them were planning to doze off in the comfort of the luxurious seats!

Our coffee and food arrived (there was a call button that we could press to get the butler to come and attend to our needs) after a reminder, and it was not bad, indicating that the theatre considers us as our regular patrons. There were several folks who ordered wine and beer (at 10:30 AM!), and enjoying the tipple. Almost everyone had ordered food.

Between us and the next seats, there was considerable distance, so people could chat without disturbing others. It was indeed a very good experience for both of us who have not seen anything like it yet, except the regular cinemas which are already pretty good with good seating in Singapore. The gold class signifies something more important in a rich society – that people aspire for exclusivity, and are willing to pay for it. But, if you ask me if I would go again to the gold class, my answer will of course be a categorical “no”, as I do not see value in it apart from the luxury quotient.

Hey, what about the movie itself?

Well, my one single sentence about the Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom movie is that the various dinosaurs, and especially the very intelligent raptor, have acted better than the human actors – they are a class apart, and hi-tech animation has delivered phenomenal results. There are many thrills, twists and turns in the movie, but these are to be expected. But the movie descends into what I would call utter nonsense when the bad guys capture these majestic animals, bring them to California, and try to auction them to super villains from around the world. Come on!

In the normal course of events, this movie would be missed out completely. But kids might like the fantastic animation and dinosaurs running around, trying to communicate with each other and with our hero in the movie. Adults would find this sequel some utter nonsense with no sense or direction. Notwithstanding the animation, the movie lacks a substantive story line which is somewhat believable, so that the path can suitably be laid out for the next one due in 2021. Unfortunately, it is not the case with this movie.

So, the only benefit of seeing a useless movie is the environment in which we saw it – and that is the beautiful gold class. While I am not suggesting you should go for this luxurious experience, if and when you choose to do so please ensure that the movie choice is absolutely right and melds with the environment in a way which makes the overall experience that much more memorable.

When we walked out of the gold class, we were wondering what happened to that experience.

Cheers, and have a good week ahead,

Vijay Srinivasan

24th June 2018

 

La Femme Nikita


It appears that I have fallen in love with French movies and their mysterious directors.

Just saw this 1990 movie by the famous French director, Luc Besson. His style is unlike that of the usual movie directors – he has a thriller concept and builds it around a main character in a rather fast-paced manner, and the movie sequences that fall out of his camera seem to be stylish with a nice merger into the overall concept. There are many directors who are famous for their directorial output and class of movies. But if you wish to witness style in action, go for Luc Besson, who has been called the Steven Spielberg of French cinema.

La Femme Nikita is about a fierce drug-addicted girl (very young) who was caught in a drugstore robbery and assault, after having shot at a policeman. She is uncontrollable and gets angry very fast, and is rather violent even in prison. The government decides that they would fake her death and recruit her to be a secret assassin for a super-secret government agency. She is trained rigorously and then sent out into the society. She has no feelings of a normal woman. The whole story is about her discovering her feelings of being a woman and falling in love with a commoner. At the same time, the government does not let her forget her past and her commitment to be an assassin. As you can see, the conflict which then arises is too much to handle.

The destruction of the soul of a young girl by drug addiction and violence is followed by a similar destruction of her soul by the secret agency which makes her commit crimes and assassinations. She cannot escape from her government handlers, and have to do their bidding via phone calls received at odd times. All these activities create suspicion in the mind of her new lover, who becomes rather worried for her safety. The nice thing is that this guy continues to lover her instead of chucking her out of his apartment. She could have secured a nice life with him – someone she dearly loves – but fate would have some other roadmap for her.

I felt bad that she had to go away from her new found love because she wanted to be away from it all – all the violence and destruction. She wants to have a normal life, having discovered her potential as a young woman of substance. Unfortunately, her secret agency handler is not in a position to let her go of her own accord. More assignments are coming her way because she was really talented – as a killer.

La Femme Nikita is a psychological thriller and it is not beyond the realm of reality. Anne Parillaud has delivered a great performance as Nikita (she is actually the wife of Luc Besson at that time), with emotions clogging her face when she had to obey the agency’s orders. Tcheky Karyo as Nikita’s government handler is amazing – he rarely shows any emotions in his stoic countenance, and carries out his task without a trace of smile or sorrow. Except in the last scene! Jean Hugues-Anglade as the super market billing counter guy comes in a simple role but establishes his credentials by his love and affection for Nikita, and for letting her go towards the end as she will not be safe in Paris. Amazing cast of actors chosen by Luc Besson. I will be remiss if I do not mention Jeanne Moreau who as an instructor at the secret agency transforms Nikita into a beautiful woman.

The psychological transformation of Nikita is captured wonderfully via Luc Besson’s skillful direction and editing. Her vulnerability is portrayed in an elegant manner despite her violent tendencies which she exhibits in ample measure towards her training instructors at the secret agency’s school. Anne Parillaud is simply an amazing actress who transforms herself into the character of Nikita in a seamless manner and delivers an outstanding performance as a drug addict, a violent killer, a lover, a woman of substance, and a romantic whose love life goes awry at the end.

I bet you would like to see this 28 years old movie if you have not seen it. Enjoy it and let me know if you like it.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

10th June 2018

 

“Raazi” Movie Review


In Singapore movie theatres, they show English sub-titles for Hindi movies. This has been a motivator for me to go to theatre sometimes, as it is really hard to get English sub-titles except for Netflix movies. For other language movies, the sub-titles are generally in Mandarin, not useful for me. I am yet to learn Mandarin despite a quarter century of exposure and experience operating in largely Chinese markets. In the meanwhile, everyone is already speaking in English in all these markets!

My wife mentioned to me that the “Raazi” movie has been received rather well by movie audiences and it would be interesting to see a Pakistan-oriented movie in a spy thriller setting. I thought it is not a bad idea to sacrifice one late evening for such a thriller and so we went yesterday for what indeed turned out to be an excellent movie with some very good acting. I do not go for the usual Bollywood and Kollywood movies as mostly their focus is on escapism and violence combined with some salacious romance. I can count the number of movies that I have seen in a theatre over the past decade.

I liked “Raazi” which in Hindi means “Agree”. While I do not understand its literary impact, I believe this word implies the acceptance of the “spy” actress in the movie, called Sehmat, of the wish of her father – to go into Pakistan as a spy for India. Alia Bhatt has delivered a stunning performance as a young college-going girl who transitions herself successfully into a spy, while performing the chores of married life in a Pakistani army family. The director has done a great job of pulling together a spy thriller without showing bombs going up everywhere, except in the last 10 minutes of the movie.

This movie is all about human emotions and patriotism, rather than bombing each other. The most outstanding performances in this movie are by Jaideep Ahlawat who acts as the Intelligence Bureau head who uses Alia Bhatt (I am using actual names) as a spy. Notwithstanding his initial doubts, he demonstrates a quiet confidence on the capabilities of his newest lady spy, and his trust was not misplaced. Even he is astounded by her effectiveness as a spy in an alien setting, and that too as the wife of an army officer. While the army family is all about attacking India, Alia Bhatt is all about her patriotism for India and the task handed over to her by her dad. She stays true to her objective, despite the love she develops for her new husband, Vicky Kaushal, who delivers a subtle and conscientious performance in a difficult role in which he had to balance his love for his new charming wife and for Pakistan.

The movie revolves around these key characters who are very well directed by Meghna Gulzar. I liked some of the thrilling situations in which Alia Bhatt finds herself in, mostly caused by her actions as a spy who executes her training in the field amazingly well with dedication and quiet efficiency. There are close calls, of course, like when an army file was missing and people come looking for it while Alia Bhatt was copying information from it and sending to the Intelligence Bureau in India.

After every major action that Alia executes, like when she almost kills the household head servant, she comes back home and explodes her emotions in the bathroom. This was an outstanding performance by Alia Bhatt, who did not expect that she would be a killer one day, and that too so soon. She is not able to stomach the emotions and needs help – probably from her parents, but they are not in close proximity to her – they are in India and she is in Pakistan. Alia also murders her own brother-in-law who is another army officer who starts to develop some suspicion on her. All these critical actions are unavoidable in her spy role, as otherwise she would have been exposed. The emotional outburst is a natural outcome in her role as a young and inexperienced spy, and she demonstrates it well. Another instance worth watching is when she really discovers the gold mine – the plan of Pakistani Army/Navy to attack the Indian Aircraft Carrier, INS Vikrant. She is overcome emotionally, almost paralyzed, but rushes to send this hugely important information to her Indian intelligence handlers.

There are lapses in the movie – several of them, but one noticeable issue is how come a Pakistani army officer comes into India so easily and gets married and goes back? How is it possible for Alia to escape so easily when the entire Pakistani Army and Pakistani Intelligence are looking for her?

Nevertheless, this movie is a successful one due to the power of its direction and the choice of its cast. All actors have performed well together and there is a subtle tension which runs in the background which has been knit rather well.

I would suggest that you see the movie – it is different from the usual song and dance movies of Bollywood, absorbing, thoughtful, well acted and well directed. I am giving it a 4 Star rating (I rarely give 4.5 and never a 5).

Have a wonderful weekend, folks.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

2nd June 2018

Lost in Translation and Lifelong Monogamy


It is hard to understand the 2003 movie “Lost in Translation” directed by Sofia Coppola which won the Academy Award for the Best Original Screenplay, and many other awards. Award-winning movies, in general, are difficult to understand as they convey a deeper meaning of ordinary life that cannot be easily grasped by one and all. Such movies can also be generally interpreted in different ways and there is usually some mystery around them.

“Lost in Translation” has no structured presentation as a movie story. It is about two souls – one old and the other very young – who are lost in themselves, but in a foreign land – in this case, Tokyo. The title is also a pun on the Japanese language which none of the main characters in the movie understand (all being Americans). I felt that the movie had nothing going on for quite a while, and suggested to my wife that we should see something else on Netflix. She also felt the same way for quite some time. However, we finally persuaded each other that we must see such a well-awarded movie to its end and see what really happens towards its end. And, what did we see at the end – nothing, yes, simply nothing. There is no conclusion, and not surprisingly, there is no beginning and no middle as well!

Deciphering the movie’s message depends on your understanding of the American culture, way of living, and its psyche about relationships. It happens to be vastly different from Asian way of living. Lifelong monogamy has much less significance in America than it is in the East. We can see the challenges that Bob Harris (Bill Murray) has in his life with his wife of 25 years who is far away in the U.S. He struggles with his forgetfulness (about key dates in his daughter’s life), his wife’s curve balls (like when she says that he can stay back in Japan if he likes Japanese food so much), the difficult long-distance conversations he has with his wife, his comments about children, etc., In our lives, all such things are considered normal – we have issues with our spouses and our children, who doesn’t, but yet we proceed living our lives in the best way we can. Not that there absolutely no distractions or temptations, but we reconcile with our choices we made so assiduously in our lives, and realize that any deviations could cause untold hardships to our families. It must be the same way for Americans, but it sometimes appears so easy for them to deviate from a straight line of a solid family orientation.

On the other hand, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), comes through as a vulnerable, unhappy married housewife, who has not figured out what to do with her own life. She is unsure of herself, and does not know what to do next. She wanders around Tokyo in an almost aimless manner. Her husband is a celebrity photographer, who is always busy, and I wonder why he brought her along to Tokyo if he is always going to be away on assignments. She is left all alone in her hotel room, but it does not jell when the director shows that she has a number of friends in Tokyo – that comes through as unbelievable. Scarlett Johansson delivers a good performance in her role, but she pales in comparison to Bill Murray who delivers an outstanding, seasoned performance as a lonely rich Hollywood actor who has lost it all, though he has money and family. When he gazes through the night sitting in the hotel bar, it is so very communicative – he has a forlorn face, completely lost and lonely, and really sad and totally tired. He ignores the other bar drinkers and does not connect with anyone else easily. He is not connecting with his apparent fame and recognition anywhere in the world.

So the movie is about these two lonely people essentially who hook up in the hotel bar and develop what appears to be a platonic relationship which allows them to enjoy each others’ company while exploring the nightlife of Tokyo. It is indeed cool that two people who are separated so widely by age can reach a silent understanding of each other and then go on to eventually share their thoughts in an intimate fashion. It is rarely the case when anyone will easily open up their most personal views to a total stranger. But it happens in an almost effortless manner between Charlotte and Bob, and several times I thought that Charlotte desires a physical relationship from her longing look at Bob.

After seeing the movie, and thinking for a while, I am getting a bit more clarity on the director’s intentions and messaging. This is a movie for Americans as it almost perfectly reflects the issues and challenges that they face in their married lives (recall both Bob and Charlotte are married folks but yet totally lost and lonely, even with reference to their respective partners). Their ability to resolve those issues and challenges is always almost messed up due to the distractions that life throws at them – in this case in a remote country with a unique language, wherein one’s perceived loneliness can only increase!

Interesting though complex movie, but too slow moving for my taste. Both Charlotte and Bob do not attempt to resolve their problems by talking their issues out with their partners, and I wonder why. May be then there is no story for the movie!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

19th May 2018

 

Salt Mango Tree


I felt only shame after viewing this Malayalam movie “Salt Mango Tree” on NetFlix along with my wife.

While there are many positive things I can say about my birth country India, there are equally many bad things that exist even today in modern India. I feel very proud when I see global corporate CEOs from India (far outnumbering many other countries), over 100 satellites being placed successfully in orbit by one single rocket launch by the Indian Space Research Organization, the very optimistic young generation in the entire world which India has in abundance, and so on and so forth – it is a rather long list of achievements by India and Indians in a short span of just six decades.

However, the things which went wrong over these same six decades, and which continue to hamper the potential and growth of India still bother me a lot. These should bother all well-wishers of India. What I am referring to here are things like corruption, lack of guaranteed, affordable and accessible education for all, lack of universal healthcare for all citizens, lack of safety and security for women and even for very young girl children, and lack of world-class infrastructure and facilities all across the country including uninterrupted access to electrical power, potable water, proper roads, high speed internet, etc., etc., Though there have been some improvements in the past few years, what India needs cannot be met with incremental enhancements of existing infrastructure. India needs to do what a China has done in the past 30 years of relentless public investment in a non-bureaucratic manner with the sole intention of enhancing the livelihood of its people. Communist China has done a far better job than a democratic India, and I am not going to listen to the democratic nonsense that many armchair philosophers expound on the superiority of democracy. Everything in the corporate world is measured on budgeted outcomes, why not in government and governance?

The movie “Salt Mango Tree” describes one facet of India’s systemic failure in providing quality education for all children. Parents have to run around for getting admissions to prestigeous schools, and are totally stressed out in the process. They have to perform better than their children in school admission interviews. What about children of hawker stalls and poor people? How will they get admission in such schools if the criteria is based on how well the parents perform in interviews? How will they speak in English, let alone come well dressed and well groomed for such nonsensical interviews?

I was seriously embarrassed to see how the movie portrays the anguish of both the parents, who struggle to make a living and save money for their only boy. The movie strongly hints about the so-called “donation” which is nothing but a bribe which parents have to offer to schools. When parents give up on the due process in getting school admissions, they turn towards short cuts such as bribe, and this practice continues throughout the life cycle of their children, embedding and validating the need for systemic corruption. Why would anybody outside the Indian system believe that our quality of education is good and impeccable, on par with the developed countries? Making an incorrect comparison with the IITs and IIMs is wrong, as the folks who get into such schools do so entirely on merit, and they go on to change the greater world in many ways. They are focused on making wealth and very few dedicate their lives to fixing the systemic issues of governance in India (I personally know of only one such classmate).

I am not going to describe the movie here, but the message from the movie cannot be more impactful – to get quality education in India even at the primary level (starting at Kindergarten) today, parents have to prepare well, get trained, perform very well in school admission interviews, and be ready to offer donations. This is not the case in any one of the developed nations of the world. If India wishes to achieve the status of the top 5 countries of the world (not just based on GDP), it has to pay serious attention to education, healthcare, quality of living, public infrastructure, etc., and follow the model of either the Nordic countries or countries like Singapore, where public systems by government trump even the best quality of private systems (which are also available but at a tremendous cost). If India cannot invest at least 5% of its national budget on improving public Education and another 5% on public Healthcare, then the future generations will continue to suffer.

The focus outside India today has turned positive about India after a long dry spell of negative media coverage about the bad things happening in India. I have seen that over the past quarter century (most of which I have spent outside India), and it sometimes used to pain me. I am out of it now and immune to the negative coverage on India. I look for some positive news on India every day. The political news is not encouraging. As I wrote in a recent blog post, my experience in Bangalore traffic in the midst of visiting foreigners was not positive. The “East Asians” detest infrastructure problems as they have long been used to good infrastructure and environment. I make it a point not to bad-mouth India in any manner to them, and I try to keep my views to myself. I tend to talk about the positives and push the envelope for their next visit.

However, as I write here this evening, it pains me again to see that India has not changed in fundamental public services.

Looks like this will be the situation in our life time.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

29th April 2018

The Mechanism


Institutionalized corruption has been the bane of good governance in most developing countries. Even in developed countries corruption masquerades as expensive lobbying, with quid pro quo for almost all favours done by the powers that be. Unfortunately, corruption is instinctively embedded in human psyche – the premise is that almost everyone has a price, like everything has a price, and provided that price is paid, that everyone is available to provide a service. It sounds obnoxious and bothersome to say the least, but it is a practical reality most of us have encountered in our lives. There is no denying it, it is very rare for a person not to have experienced or seen it.

When corruption is institutionalized in the system, like it is feeding upon itself in embedded circles, then we have a very serious and dangerous problem to handle and fix. When public money (basically taxpayers’ money) is siphoned off by government-owned companies through the well-oiled system of awarding contracts at inflated prices to chosen contractors, who then reward the politicians and ministers who appoint directors on the board of these companies via a money laundering scheme, then corruption is well entrenched. It is not possible to eradicate the scourge of corruption irrespective of change in governments or officials. The law enforcement becomes part of the system as it comes under the Justice Ministry, which is just another government machinery to ensure that the above-described system stays in place.

“The Mechanism” is a Netflix serial which just started running – it is about the systemic corruption in Brazil, which is still playing out in real life. You might have seen that the ex-President Lula da Silva has been arrested and sentenced to years in jail, and his successor Dilma Rousseff is also facing corruption charges. I have been seeing the serial for the past couple of weeks, and it has got my full attention. I can visualize how the same system would work out in other countries that I know of.

What surprised me in the serial is the passionate commitment of the law enforcement officers and their loyalty to each other as they fight the corrupt villains together sometimes, and on a disjointed basis on other times. It is funny to see how the lead officer fights off the prosecutor during a press conference. At the end of the day, it is all about human emotion, and how that plays out while the almost real story spins out of control. The Mechanism also shows how important it is to have an impartial judge who carefully evaluates the evidence before signing off the search and seizure or arrest warrants. When someone cannot be bought, then the story turns in favour of ultimate justice.

Many of us have experienced the most simple variety of corruption – like the official at the property registration office demanding a cut before registering the sale or purchase of property, or the driving license official asking for a price, etc., Many of us have only “read” about institutional corruption – how public funds that otherwise could be usefully deployed to pay for much needed infrastructure or citizen services, are tapped by unscrupulous public companies and politicians which keep developing nations poor for ever. This is a sad story playing out in most countries. There are only a very few lucky countries which do not have this plague afflicting their system of governance.

I was never that much interested in Brazil, but The Mechanism brought Brazil right front and centre – a fascinating country indeed. It is the 8th largest economy in the world with more than 207M population, and a GDP per capita of over USD 10K. It is the largest economy in South America and prior to 2012, it was one of the fastest growing economies in the world, meriting its inclusion in the McKinsey BRIC group of countries.

Large countries do have large problems, and Brazil has not been an exception.

Corruption has roiled the country out of shape over the past several years, damaging the presidencies of multiple presidents. It is always surprising to find that the pressure to maintain the status quo is just phenomenal – as we see in The Mechanism, the previous Attorney General (called the “wizard” in the serial) tries to negotiate a deal with the incumbent Attorney General on behalf of the 13 corrupt contractors who, he maintains, are crucial for the survival of the Brazilian economy! And, when that pressure builds up all the way to the President of the country (as is shown in the serial as well), then one can imagine the enormous stress that can be applied on honest law enforcement officials and judges.

The serial is not over, and I have not seen all the episodes. But is easy to figure out the impact of corruption in the Brazilian society, as the water utility company which comes to fix a broken pipe in the serial demonstrates the corrosive influence of systemic corruption by passing off the work to a small time contractor who will then feed back the bribe to the company officials.

I have not seen serials on corruption – this is probably the first one. The creator of the series has done an amazing job (his name is Jose Padilha), and the key actors have performed exceedingly well, though personal animosities do take an overarching role disturbing the main theme of the serial. But let me forgive that distraction and focus on the positives of the serial!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

08 April 2018

 

Two Oscars


Yes, I saw two Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning movies this weekend!

One was “The Shape of Water“, this year’s Oscar Winner for the Best Movie. Before I get into some comments, let me mention one thing – while this is a fabulously directed movie (Director: Guillermo del Toro) and wonderfully acted by Sally Hawkins as the lead actress who is mute, it is still a fable – a story which combines an extra-terrestrial alien with Cold War secret experimentation and a mute woman who falls in love with the alien (as apparently she has not found love in her life). In my considered opinion, this movie is more about the kind of “eternal” love we all aspire for in our own lives. The fact that it happens between a scaled, terrifying creature and a normal human being creates an aura of romance, love, empathy and passion.

I was surprised with the level of nudity in the movie given that it would always be a sure bet for the Oscars. There are several scenes which does not require much imagination on the part of the audience. Nevertheless, the director has weaved such scenes beautifully into the overall storyline, so that we do not feel at all odd watching these scenes. That skill does not come easily to most directors.

“The Shape of Water” is a beautifully directed fantasy story, trying hard to connect with the reality of this world (or the world of the Sixties). It is hard to believe that two janitors in a super-secret military research facility could kidnap a well-guarded “asset” (as they call the creature in the movie), spirit him away without making much of a noise, escaping in a ramshackle van when the military should be able to send fast cars to chase the van and retake the “asset” – but that does not happen! After this miserable loss of the “asset” the director of the facility goes on a wild goose chase trying to find clues for the disappearance, and accidentally discovers the potential whereabouts of the “asset” in the apartment of the mute. The tempo builds up nicely, and like most everyone watching the movie, I was disappointed when the director of the facility locates the creature and shoots him. But then, the creature possesses “god-like” powers and kills the director, and escapes with his love mate (Sally Hawkins).

Good story, in parts totally unbelievable, but a love story with touches of reality and as I said, directed by Guillermo del Toro in an amazing way, leading to the Oscar win in the recently concluded event.

The second movie is “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri“. I was wondering what kind of movie would elicit such a long name. Frances McDormand who is the lead actress in the movie won the Oscar Award for Best Actress in the recent 2018 Oscar ceremony. She delivers what I would call a stunning performance as the aggrieved mother of a brutally murdered daughter, who demands justice from the police department in the small town of Ebbing in Missouri. There was not a sagging moment in this drama of a movie, and my wife & I enjoyed Frances’ acting thoroughly. She brings to life the real feelings of how such a mother who has unjustly and brutally lost her daughter would feel all the time. Her grief is demonstrated throughout the movie in subtle and sometimes not so silent manner. I was thinking “what has America come to and why is it so violent” – for a country which is #1 in the world in most social, economic and military parameters, why it does not dawn that violence is not the way forward in ordinary peoples’ lives and why police have to be so brutal in smashing normal people, and why racism rears its head on most occasions in their lives. As the police chief writes in his letter to the angry police guy on his team, it is more important to develop a sense of calmness, because thought flows through calm and hate needs to be removed from oneself who is performing service to people.

Frances (I am using the real name of the actress) delivers an amazing stand-out performance in this movie, and impresses even the police chief against who she had put up the three billboards demanding justice for her daughter. Her rage against injustice is palpable and dominates the movie.

It is normal for Frances to possess rage and feel angry all the time because justice has been denied to her daughter in her mind. It is proportionate to her loss. But what about scores of people (which includes cops) always feeling angry against everyone and everything around them? Especially in America. This is not healthy at all. Such angry folks resort to violence, and the damage they cause is disproportionate. In fact, in most cases, these people do not deserve to be angry, and certainly are not entitled to rage.

Overall, this is a good movie, though the issue of race has clouded its acceptance. Without going into that aspect of the movie, I can only state that Frances’ acting prowess has not ceased to amaze me – she is probably the best fit for the character. Even with some good Pinot Noir, the image of the angry Frances and her machinations to get the police to act, remain fresh in my mind as I am ending what has been a wonderful Saturday of movie-watching – the Oscar types!

See both these movies, they both are great.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

10th February 2018