Thursday, December 20, 2007

Essential Evil

Every non-trivial effort requires coming together of resources. Nothing is achievable unless things from many quarters gather at a place to make it happen. Does it also entail an essential evil?

If you came to know how much thought it takes me to structure up this one piece of writing, without losing the fluidity of thoughts (assuming that it does have a certain degree of structure and fluidity of thought), it would no more appear to you worth anyone's while to write it. To me, the thought behind this one post might be pretty massive. What portion of that gets transmitted to you could be a very trivial portion of that. For most, the sheer length of this piece must be an insufferable deterrent from reading it. For other more tolerant of my readers, I already am known as pretty verbose, even though, the fact is, I work quite hard to walk the line between orthogonality and seamlessness between each successive sentence. If I was to do some cost benefit analysis of my investment on this, the only thing that would justify my putting in so much serious effort into this would be many many people reading it, to compensate for the attenuation that the communication of my idea suffers while reaching its each individual reader. I have a fair idea that the general number of people who really even visit my blogs is rather small. In such conditions, it becomes difficult to justify so much writing.

That was just for example. Economy of scale rules as the cardinal rule for justifying any non-trivial effort. The need to scale up things before one can invest effort into a project, and the number of good things that are prevented from happening due to a way never being found to find this economy of scale for that idea, is a rather peculiar aspect of the way we human-beings work. And I feel, it's not just about humans, but about the way the whole nature works. This lies behind much wastage, much misery and violence. I wonder if this dichotomy of attenuation of effect of any deed, and its compensation by scaling up is the root of many, if not all, evils. Let's talk about it here.

As another slightly bigger example, in Rhythmica, I have always been extremely conscious of how much effort each performance takes. The efforts vary from plain donkey-work to those requiring immense talent. There are people with rare talents involved in the coming up of a programme. It involves a full month or more of gruelling preparation for them to prepare a programme. Often, I get quite taken aback to find the attitude with which our esteemed audience receives us. For most of them, it's just a bunch of 'smart' people performing on stage. Hardly anyone is quite aware of either the effort or the artistic aspect of the performances. Of course, there is another quite opposite kind of people who think that Rhythmica is a substandard team doing crappy Hindi film songs. Their demand is of a much more artistically dense performance, comprising of original compositions, and definitely not of Hindi film songs. On the other hand, Rhythmica and its members enjoy a fair degree of celebrity status in IISc campus, from what I have observed. People don't look at them as artists or musicians. They look at them as popular people. Girls in Rhythmica enjoy tremendous attention from guys (not necessarily because they are very attractive looking, or even talented). Similarly, some guys in Rhythmica are indeed looked at with some interest by other girls. The rewards of being talented gets processed into something quite different from mere admiration of talent. Again, the picky observers take it as an evidence of how Rhythmica is a pop band which gives a damn about the quality of music they do, and runs after popularity, and that's what they get. Rhythmica, for such people, is an obnoxious idea. When this name is spelled, they flinch, and turn up their noses.

For both these kinds of onlookers, one thing about Rhythmica that never gets seen is the effort and tremendous talent that makes each of its programmes, and what it really is, that makes it worthwhile for such a big team of researchers to put in so much effort. For most of them, it's the popularity and celebrity status that, in reality, comes merely as a by-product of the performances. Fans give that kind of an attention liberally; critics hate Rhythmica for the very same thing. Both are pretty happy about their impression about what really makes Rhythmica exist.

Each soul in Rhythmica knows that it's not the fan-following or the envy that Rhythmica enjoys which keeps Rhythmica going (though Rhythmica often says something to that effect during its vote of thanks after every performance). People will find it impossible to believe that Rhythmica has many shy and introverted people who wouldn't open their mouth to speak, but who get passionately drawn to everything musical. Rhythmica does need an audience to keep performing. But what they would ideally wish to have from their audience is sincere praises and honest criticism; not fan-following or turning up of noses. I think Rhythmica knows it's not going to get what it wants from anyone. So, it has learned to get contented with what it gets -- fan following and turning up of noses. Ideally, a more knowledgeable audience would have been as effective in keeping Rhythmica going. In its dearth, Rhythmica does well with something else. For Rhythmicans, Rhythmica is a place to listen to, learn, and do music. That's the soul of Rhythmica. For others, it's a thing of idolisation or flinching about. Both are meaningless from Rhythmica's point of view. But, it brings in funds and visibility, which are as necessary for the survival of the team.

Rhythmica is small fish. I took the example, because I have seen it from close quarters. The phenomenon I wish to talk about is rather more general, and as I said earlier, results in much hypocrisy, wastage and violence.

There's been some buzz in the glossy newspaper supplements about how unfair the film industry is to actresses, when it comes to remunerations. It seems that the heroes charge over 15 crores per film, while the heroines charges a paltry 2 crores! The figures are so unreal for us! Somehow, we might manage to get brainwashed into talking about the unfairness. But is that the starkest of all facts about this whole business when most of us can't even comprehend the magnitude of these sums? It's similar to making two villagers argue about whether Sun is further away or Moon, when none of them has ever set his foot out of his village. And yet, such chit-chats fill so much journalistic real-estate. Who one star is going out with; which director is tying up with which actor; their foreign trips; even their cosmetic exploits(e.g. 'what I always keep in my handbag.'). We get to know, and are interested to know, about every trifling gossip that concerns film-stars, absolutely regardless of whether they contain even a speck of reality. SRK's 6-pack abs, Shahid-Kareena MMS smooch, and subsequent breakup (both events incidently closely preceding two of their joint releases), are things which can make such gossips go around as to eventually result in massive amount of commerce happening as a result.

Film-stars are talented people, who work very hard for what they earn. Even if their acting skills may often be questionable, the amount of work they put in, either for maintaining their good-looks or in making a film, is phenomenal. But, to say that people pay them for that, would be simplistic. It may be true that they do deserve such massive remunerations for what efforts they put into their work, but it's not true that they do get paid for that. They don't even get paid for entertaining people. They get paid for setting up an environment of unreal glamour in the world. On screen, on newspapers, on film-magazines, they look like what people would like to
look like. In tingling the fantasy of people that it's indeed possible to always look glamourous; that's it's possible for at least someone to go through the unbearable pain of multiple love-affairs and breakup; that for some, sex is -- far from being an extremely inaccessible pleasure -- a botheration, a daily chore. If one puts one bit of serious thought, a lot of it is what they work a lot extra harder to make us believe in. And whether we believe all that or not, the beast inside us does get tantalised by that possibility. I feel, that's the singlemost reason why celebrities get such huge fan-following and money.

I hope, with many of the above examples, I have succeeded to bring out a common pattern. The pattern is the following: A person becomes an expert, and works hard for something. To sustain in that activity, the work needs to be sold to someone. Usually, the buyers of that work don't have the slightest understanding or appreciation of the core input of the work. However, the expert in question finds out something else about the work they do, that appeals to the buyers of the product of their work or expertise. That something is most often something far far below the real content of the work, a by-product which is not related fundamentally to the spirit of the work, but relates to some lower end wants which are by and large unsatiated for most people -- good looks, attention, sex, and in some cases, money, fame and such things (which we already are brainwashed to look at as liquid resources that can buy us the above mentioned objectives -- good looks, attention, sex).

Earlier, I alluded to the extra hard work that actors invest in putting up an image of a glitzy life full of fashion, romance, and sex. That, in part, is the explanation for the wastage that the above pattern causes. This phenomenon is in no way restricted to the world of glamour. A similar waste of effort happens wherever something needs to be sold. Motorbikes should look muscular because they are an ultimate representative of the male vanity. Cars of today employ sophisticated (and expensive) technology into features which are nothing but vain and ornamental. The differentiators between most high-end commodities sold in market are not functional, but ornamental. In short, quite pitiably, it appears that most major activities depend on their being bought by a large number of people whose requirements are restricted to a very limited set of animal-like urges -- greed, vanity, sexual lust, viciousness etc. Every product has to be packed up in those glitzy, vulgar foils, however noble and elevated their core spirit might be. An exemplary example of this is our dear Hollywood actresses baring themselves for such noble causes as eco-friendliness, prevention of cruelty towards animals etc.

I understand that to say that the same thing might also be behind a lot of violence is rather daring. But it's unfortunately the case, as I look at it. The limitedness of what most people really care about to a small set of animal urges gives rise to the massive area of marketing. Marketing is a lot about lying. It's not true that for most, having a very attractive and sexy girl getting irresistably attracted to him rests on his choosing to buy their product -- be it a shaving gel, or a motorbike. The products often don't fulfil these requirements. They just kindle them, with the assistance of a lot of marketing. I am not making a value judgement on marketing. Being presentable is one thing -- a good one. But telling a lie about the product's capabilities is another. And filling a person's field of vision with pictures of an unreal, fantastic world, is quite another. As an example, the complete and honest statement of facts about a shaving gel to a potential client might be something like this:
"We are one of the top selling brands in this field. So you may like to believe that we are a good shaving gel. You would like to know that according to our survey, the success of our male customers with women is a good 0.01% higher than those others. As per our preliminary counting, there are just 10,000 other factors in a man which might be responsible in his effectiveness with women, we can assure you that by using our product, you stand a good 0.000001% extra chances than your competitor in scoring with the lady of your dreams."

However, it is but sure that no shaving gel manufacturer ever conducts a survey as to how many of their users really get beautiful girls twining themselves around their body, just because their cheek is smoother, or because they know that this dude shaves with XXX brand.

I am not condemning marketing. I am trying to point out the element of exaggeration and lie inherent in marketing. It's not necessarily with the object of deceit, but possibly for the purpose of presenting the best face. We all do it at various levels. Product manufacturers just do it a million times more than us.

What does it all have to do with violence?

The principles of a capitalistic society are pretty plain to state in a few words. Work hard for money, and get rich. The benefits to the society are an obvious by-product of your honest work. The bad thing about capitalism is that it's a very natural system. Nature works in a capitalistic way. And our instincts are well-tuned to it. But not always in a way that makes use of it to the fullest, but in a way by which we are susceptible to play into the hands of anything that projects competition as a sacrosanct concept, which projects not being a winner as a sin, which adds to our fallacy that not getting the best in the world is the end of the world and life for us. This is a basic instinct we have inherited from olden ages when it was indeed a hard enough thing to survive, and hence was correct to make a go for whatever best was available. Now, survival is no more an issue for most of us; hence logically, this instinct is vestigial. But our instincts to look at every advancement in resourcefulness with the same urgency as if it were a life and death matter, hasn't died down. Quite unnaturally, this instinct is the prime target of all players of a capitalistic market. People who work on the leading edge of things -- who work on matters requiring large amount of effort and resources to come together -- for them, it might still be a matter of life and death to be the best in their respective fields. But for most other people lower down, nothing is so urgent. Their lives are hardly ever so exciting or active that anything they can ensure their existence or extinction.

Marketing people regularly tell two lies to them. One, that they can do things that can change their lives drastically. Two, that it's very important for them to do it. Till this point, the job a marketeer seems very similar to that of a counselor. A counselor infuses hope and motivation in a person to do something meaningful. The difference between a counselor and a marketeer lies in the last word -- meaningful. A marketeer will try his best to completely upset what a person considers meaningful. If a marketeer had his way, a naive subject would get brainwashed completely to completely throw away his whatever existing value system, replacing it with what the marketeer wants him to believe as valuable. Then, the subject would spend all his efforts in acquiring the commodity.

Perhaps, the above picturisation of marketing may seem over-dramatised. For each isolated case, it's true that it's upon the subject to protect himself from falling for false promises. But in reality, marketeers are tremendously successful in pushing into our hands, goodies we don't really need. The landscape in front of us is so full of sceneries which sellers want us to see and believe in that our defense systems against these canards fail sooner or later, because there are just too many of them. The neon lights flashing from the advertising billboards are so flashy that one can't see the stars, the moon, and whatever is naturally beautiful. Marketeers, to an extent, are right in claiming that they never removed the needles we are looking for for. All they do is to make the stacks of hay higher and higher from which we have to find out those needles.

The scene of all-pervading urgency, which capitalism and the aggressive marketing entailed in it cause, create such a stampede as surely accelerates the economy, but creates a society which is disoriented and frizzled. A place, where lots and lots of things are done by people enslaved by false promises and false urgency created by those more capable ones, who consider it their right to enslave others through sophistries of marketing. That's the way capitalism contributes in creating a violent society, because slavery, wrapped in how many ever layers of sophistries, is a violent act. I consider it redundant, after so much explanation, to elicit examples of how this results in 'real', visible violence. I leave this exercise to the esteemed reader.

It's now customary for me to make a clarification at the end of any such piece of writing I do, that I am not speaking against capitalism. And hence, the reader shouldn't hurry on to conclude that I am not a socialist (which my being a Bengali seems to make it rather likely). The above writeup was merely an attempt to put into paper many questions which I have in my mind about these things. Here goes the summary:

To gather resources to do non-trivial things, one needs to gather takers. Marketing is a prime force to do so. Lying and deceit has become primary tools for marketeers to gather takers. Each act of deceit is pardonable in isolation because it after all never forces the buyer. However, cumulatively, everybody doing aggressive marketing creates such a clutter that the really meaningful pursuits of life hardly ever get a thought; and sooner or later, we all fall into a pattern of pursuing things which really don't satisfy any of our deep requirements and are really difficult to achieve. This increases efficiency. But most of our energy goes into wasteful and violence pursuits.

I will soon devote another post to pen down my imaginations of an alternative world. A world where benefits don't suffer tremendous attenuation in reaching its subjects. The fact that most of us aren't capable enough to look for anything more meaningful than what others force us to look for is the prime justification behind con-marketing. Had we been able to really find out for ourselves what really matters to us -- just a hypothetical case -- what would the world have been like? I will ask this question, and try to conjure a hypothetical answer in a piece coming soon.

Right now, I am too tired. I don't think I was very clear. :( It's too complicated a topic. Will refine it later!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

My Two Pence to a Good Movie

I watched Aja Nachle on December 5. It's a good movie.

Good story. Good direction. Clean. A steady flow. Good screenplay. Terrific lyrics.

Rakhna samjhal ke yeh pather
Kal ko woh din bhi ayega
Jab pather honge yeh makan
Inki bhi hogi ek zuban

Damn good!

Reading further may be a spoiler. Carry on at your own risk.
I was initially afraid that that it would turn out to be one of those movies depicting a wannabe dancer, her ambitions smothered by the ruthless society, finally finding her way to name and fame. I really get repelled by that idea now.

Instead, it showed mellower thoughts. An established dancer's wish to fulfil her late master's wish. Her struggle to achieve something emerging from love and respect, not from ambition. The leading character isn't shown as a typical ultra-feminine male-basher. She's a courageous and graceful lady who behaves like a lady, and beats the shit out of the bad guys in her own way. She is a mother of a kid, and isn't shown to be younger than 40 + something Madhuri would look. She nevertheless looks quite beautiful. Her acting is good, and dancing is definitely better.

Some beautiful things are shown happening. For instance, a guy who's declared ultra-boring by his wife decides to make himself over. Though, this topic may look comic and cliched to most, I guess, it's more grave than most of us wish to realise, particularly in middle-class families. For a change, the topic was given the kind of treatment such a serious topic deserves -- a serious one.

The background of the movie is a small North-Indian town named Shamli. It deals with small-town issues which concerns a large majority of the Indian population.

The climactic half-hour ballet shown in towards the end of the movie was eminently artistic -- terrific choreography, beautiful expressions, story-telling, cinematography and art-direction, and music. It was grand and pompous. And yet, something was quite realistic about it.

With many such out-of-the-way nice things about it, I think, it mayn't have shocked even the makers of the film when the film bombed. Indian public has little tolerance for things which deviate from their narrow perception of entertainment. In our cracked society, the metropolitan gentry doesn't identify with the outlook of the small-town populace. And the small-town populace are too displeased with their reality to want to see any of it on screen, even if it's done with finesse and affection.

Notwithstanding box-office response, notwithstanding reviews, I would advise my friends to go and have a look at the movie. It's a nice movie, and quite entertaining, with not a dull moment anywhere.