How to be illogically ‘Activist’

Hey, I have nothing against activism or activists. Activists are a great part of civil society and democracy – they’re what keeps the system going, but still, when someone has an opinion; it irks me that they don’t think it all the way through.

Sample some writing by two such activist types.

The first is an open letter to Amitabh Bacchan written by Mallika Sarabhai about his endorsement of Gujarat, the second is a review of ‘My Name is Khan’ by Jawed Naqvi. Take a look at the article by clicking on the link and I’ve reproduced Mallika’s letter below:

Greetings from a Gujarati.

You are indeed a fine actor. You are an intelligent man and a shrewd businessman. But should I believe in your endorsements?

Let’s take a brief look at what you proclaim you believe in (albeit for huge sums of money). BPL, ICICI, Parker and Luxor pens, Maruti Versa, Cadbury chocolates. Nerolac paints. Dabur, Emami, Eveready, Sahara City Homes, D’damas, Binani Cement and Reliance.

And now Gujarat .

I wonder how you decide what to endorse. Is your house built with Binani Cement? Do you really like Cadbury’s chocolates or do you have to resort to Dabar’s hajmola (whose efficacy you have earlier checked) after eating them?

And having endorsed two pens, one very upmarket and one rather down, which one do you use? Have you, except perhaps for the shooting of the ad, ever driven or been driven in a Versa? Do you know whether the Nerolac paint in your home (you do use it don’t you?) has lead in it that can poison you slowly as it does so many people? Or are the decisions entirely monetary?

It has been reported that no direct fee will be paid to you for being my Brand Ambassador. So, with no monetary decision to guide you, how did you decide to say yes? Did you check on the state of the State? I doubt it, for the decision and the announcement came from one single meeting. And I somehow doubt that you have been following the news on Gujarat closely.

So, as a Gujarati, permit me to introduce my State to you.

Everyone knows of our vibrancy, of the billions and trillions pouring into our State through the two yearly jamborees called Vibrant Gujarat. But did you know that by the government’s own admission no more than 23% of these have actually moved beyond the MOU stage? That while huge subsidies are being granted to our richest business houses, over 75000 small and medium businesses have shut down rendering one million more people jobless?

You know of Gujarat ’s fast paced growth and the FDI pouring in, you have no doubt seen pictures of the Czars of the business world lining up to pour money to develop us. To develop whom? Did you know that our poor are getting poorer? That while the all India reduction in poverty between ’93 and 2005 is 8.5%, in Gujarat it is a mere 2.8%? That we have entire farmer families committing suicide, not just the male head of the household?

You have heard of how some mealy mouthed NGO types have been blocking the progress of the Narmada project, how the government has prevailed, and water is pouring down every thirsty mouth and every bit of thirsty land. But did you know that in the 49 years since it was started, and in spite of the Rs.29,000 crores spent on it, only 29% of the work is complete?

That the construction is so poor (lots of sand added to the you- know- which cement perhaps) that over the last 9 years there have been 308 breaches, ruining lakhs of farmers whose fields were flooded, ruining the poorest salt farmers whose salt was washed away? That whereas in 1999, 4743 of Gujarat ’s villages were without drinking water, within two years that figure had gone up to 11,390 villages ? (I can not even begin to project those figures for today – but do know that the figure has gone up dramatically rather than down.)

With our CM, hailed as the CEO of Gujarat, we have once again achieved number one status – in indebtedness. In 2001 the State debt was Rs.14000 crores. This was before the State became a multinational company. Today it stands at Rs.1,05,000 crores. And to service this debt we pay a whopping Rs7000 crores a year, 25% of our annual budget.

Meanwhile our spending on education is down, no new public hospitals for the poor are being built, fishermen are going a begging as the seas turn turgid with effluents, more mothers die at birth per thousand than in the rest of India , and our general performance on the Human Development Index is nearly the first – from the bottom. One rape a day, 17 cases of violence against women, and , over the last ten years, 8802 suicides and 18152 “accidental “ deaths of women are officially reported. You can imagine the real figures.

You have said that you are our Ambassador because we have Somnath and Gandhi. Somnath was built for people. Gandhiji was a man of the people. Do the people of this State matter to you? If they do, perhaps your decision will be different. I hope you will read this letter and decide.

In warmth and friendship,


So let’s begin with Mallika’s letter.

Amitabh Bacchan is a well known actor, he endorses a range of products on television. I’m not going to contest the list – but here is the rub, Mallika asks – should she (and also the people of Gujarat) believe in his endorsements? I have a problem with the framing of this question.

Does the fact that Amitabh Bacchan endorses a bunch of products also mean that he has to believe in them? Let me explain. Acting is a trade, a business – models do commercials for money and so does Amitabh Bacchan. Unless you truly believe that Amitabh Bacchan also did every single film of his because he ‘subscribed’ to everything his character/role said/did on screen; this strikes me a ridiculous argument.

An advertisement is an advertisement; yes the media has great power to influence and all that; but does endorsing a product automatically translate into belief? (I’m not getting into the Nerolac question – lead poisoning, citation?)

Next, Amitabh Bacchan said he would endorse the ‘Gujarat campaign’ without any money, so? If Amitabh Bacchan felt that he wants to endorse Gujarat because of Somnath and Gandhi (note, not Modi) and without money; is there a problem with that intention?

Mallika also points out Gujarat is in a state of  indebtedness, this advertisement would have influenced tourism and income (positively) – strange then, that the rant is about Gujarat’s problems and the attack is on a minor effort to help. Most interestingly, if anyone has taken note of Amitabh Bacchan’s political inclinations – whatever they might be, they are certainly not Modiwards at any rate.

And while on the subject of endorsement, why not also attack Kiran Bedi for endorsing Fair and Lovely, surely that was a more upfront endorsement for colour-based discrimination by a woman icon of this county. Or is it that – Amitabh Bacchan supporting Gujarat’s tourism is a larger issue than fairness creams? Or maybe Kiran Bedi’s was an endorsement and Amitabh Bacchan’s was a carefully orchestrated mind game of support to Modi? I don’t about you – but to me this is far-fetched.

Mallika says Amitabh wanted a tax-free screening in Gujarat, a Rajyasabha seat for his wife, and free land for a film city. We don’t know the source of this information. Even if Amitabh wanted a tax free screening of Paa in Gujarat, so what? A lot of film stars request similar things from a bunch of CMs, is this any worse? Paa was a decent film. I don’t know about the other two claims, aside of the fact that it is hearsay. I have a problem with the wording and argumentation of this letter.

Moving on to Jawed Naqvi’s review of My Name Is Khan. MNIK is not a great film, it is barely a good film. The second half is longer than it should be  and stretches beyond imagination. The Khan has overacted and Kojol isn’t convincing. I’ve seen the film. However, MNIK is not a pro-saffron brigade film. That is my problem with Jawed Naqvi’s take on MNIK.

Second, Narendra Modi’s politics is not only about stereotypes. In fact, stereotypes are quite the secondary theme of his politics. The closest thing to stereotypes in Modi’s politics is xenophobia – a fear of the ‘Other’; which is a theme that MNIK manages to address fairly well. Modi’s politics is hate politics, it is an anti-minority stand that functions through many ways and stereotypes are one of those ways, certainly not the only way.

Thirdly, in the film – Khan does not let the FBI catch a bunch of angry muslims who were protesting Modi and Bush. He catches sight of a bunch of Islamist extremists.  I want to know – if you feel angry about the plight of Muslims in Gujarat, Palestinians or Kashmiri’s should you be plotting to blow up Americans or Hindus in India? Is that the answer?

Surely, Mr. Naqvi recognizes that as they are Modis so there are mullahs. Opposing Modi doesn’t mean you should not oppose a mullah.

Mr. Jawed’s next problem is oversimplification. Khan’s mother (in the film) tells him there are two types of people; good and bad. Yes there are. This has nothing to do with autism. This holds true for normal people too. In bad times, it is what people do with their anger (and shades of grey) that make them do good or bad things. You could be angry about Palestine and take up arms or you could join a peace movement. Go ahead – classify. Good or Bad?

Indeed it is nonsense that MNIK suggests that outrage against Palestine and the Gujarat pogrom is shared only by Muslims. The fact that the movie brings the journey of one Rizwan Khan to the media (in the movie) implies that the message “of peace and that all Muslims are not terrorists” goes out to those who watch television in general – unless in Mr. Naqvi’s world only Muslims watch television.

Why Mrs. Khan asks Naqvi – why not? All over India and the world many women out of choice adopt their husband’s last names. There is no indication in the movie, that Mandira (Kajol) does this out of anything but choice. If the argument is that women should not have to change their names, that is a valid argument for another day. A lot of much married women don’t change names and many do because they’d like to, or because tradition says so and they haven’t actively had a problem with that.

The problem with the Naqvi point of view is that it berates a brave film. A long, not very great – but still brave film.

It was in India that the screening of Anand Patwardhan’s War and Peace was banned. Take a look at the progress – Karan Johar (a mainstream  family-drama film making director) makes a film about religious profiling.  I think that is great news. Just as Obama becoming president – sure Obama hasn’t done as much as he could about de-nuking the world and Karan didn’t make a perfect film. Does that mean we should turn away from the progress? I don’t think so.

Two Videos and a Service

Two videos I highly recommend watching, if you have the time…

The Aurora video on the future of web user experience is here.

Also check out this lecture debunking myths about statistics in developing countries, its long but brilliant.  You’ll need FLV Player to watch it on your computer – which is available for free here. Or just watch it online.

Incidentally I found this video on the YokWay social network, which is one of the better content geared social networks I’ve seen lately. Its in Beta currently, I have 10 invites to give out though, so comment and let me know if you want one.

Update : Part two of the Aurora video is online now here.

Another Update: All four parts of the Aurora Series are online here, courtesy Lifehacker.

Finding Liberty in WALL-E

The Mises blog published a scathing critique of Wall-E, an animated film about garbage and the future last week. In principle I agree with the critique, I enjoyed it much more before I watched WALL-E though. The film does make a statement about lifestyle, consumption and even obesity, I would hesitate to call it anti-capitalist or anti-liberty though.

It is easy of course to suggest that the definition of capitalism relies on the idea that it breeds corporate monopolies like Buy’n’Large. The trouble is with this sort of association. ‘Free Markets’ are not about single large corporations taking over the world, they are about small competitive enterprises. Anti-trust law is a free-market phenomenon to that extent.

To me the homogeneity aboard the axiom, where everyone wore red or blue, drank the same food and had little time to pursue creativity or innovation was as real an analogy as one could get to Stalinist Communism or Communism in China before they ‘opened up’. The problem with centrally planned States is that they decide (representation does not work for the economy as it does for politics) for the people, centrally planned economies choose prices (leading to disastrous consequences) , decide what needs to be produced and also as history tells us- decide what people’s careers, lives and even homes should look like.

The problem is not ideological- its economics. When people vote for communism, they vote for central planning. Look at Zimbabwe (where people have NOT continued to vote for central planning) where one dictator decided expanded public expenditure was a good thing, printed money and drove up the money supply to inflation rates well past the 1500 % mark. People cannot predict the price of bread in Zimbabwe beyond 1 hour.

WALL-E is also a story about love. It is also about how people and in this case robots always gather together to fight authoritarianism. Certainly its message to ‘return to agriculture’ carries an ‘environmentalism’ tag as did the lovely animated movie ‘Happy Feet’; and neither is very pleasing when you know that most environmentalists lie about virgin forests, global warming, bio-fuels and waste!

However I think one could find liberty in WALL-E. What could be more libertarian than a fight for choice, a fight against authority (or authoritative robots)? What could be more libertarian than love?  On balance I think its better to spend an afternoon watching beautiful animation which teaches children to defy authority than to quibble about a film’s political message- when all it takes to change minds on most issues, is a wee-bit of research.

Cinematic Counsel

Want to make a documentary without a studio, professional help and on a laptop? Its not as difficult as it sounds. All it requires is some monetary investment and a bit of study. Here’s what I learnt when I started on the typical shoe-string budget documentary.

  • Spend some time thinking about the film. Why do you want to make the film? Who is your audience? What are the key themes? Do you have enough footage? If not, will you be able to get enough footage? I wrote down my answers. You can try using this Film Template.
  • Watch other documentaries, small films and read anything you can on the subject of your film. Download all the documentary manuals and editing guides you can find and read those as well. I spent over a month just reading before I actually got down to editing.
  • The toughest thing is to get right is audio:
    • Do not compromise on external mikes, especially if you are making a documentary. Foley artists are generally not an option in a documentary.
    • Sound is also the least correctable. Audio editing suites including SoundForge and Adobe Audition 2 only amplify sound or reduce it- that includes background noise. Try and minimize on the background sounds, you’ll thank yourself later- it’ll save you edits and possibly sub-titling as well.
    • Download and install the free and excellent Audacity. Audacity might not do as much as the professional suites do; however its a great tool to learn the basics with. Once you know how to manipulate the sound envelope, you can graduate to more complex sound editing packages.
    • I played around with tracks from the 25th anniversary edition of Cafe Del Mar. Stick to instrumental- helps you tune your ear into sound better.
    • Use VLCC media player, plays any format including several raw data formats. That means it can play media directly from your cam without any encoding or conversion.
    • Install the K-Lite Codec Pack, to make sure you have all the possible audio and video codecs.
    • Get an audio/video conversion application. Google for some of these, to start with: Any Video Converter Professional, Media Coder, Moyea, MuvAudio2, Proletary and SUPER. Between these tools you’ll manage to convert from all commonly known media formats including IPod movie, flac, aac, ogg vorbis, .mov, .avi and so on.
  • If you use a camcorder:
    • Use one that has a one-touch DVD burn and a HDD with at least 30 GB space. Video occupies a lot of space.
    • Get an external HDD with a casing and a fire wire port cum cable. Dump all your video on it and keep it carefully for edits later. 120 GB should do nicely. Do this even if you have DVD backup. NLE platforms work better with external HDD than DVDs.
  • Carry DVD-R with you:
    • As many boxes as you need. Its a small investment, around 720 rupees for a pack of 25. This is especially important if you’re shooting in way-out locations, small towns and such.
    • Make sure you use branded DVD with at least the standard 4.7 GB capacity. It is not nice to have a cam full of footage and nowhere to dump it.
  • Use a tripod and a monopod if you can.:
    • Don’t attempt to film long speeches, community meetings and such with your shoulder and hand. Its tiring and very probably the video will turn out poorly thanks to all the movement.
  • Avoid panning and zooming too much:
    • Its hard to resist but too much of zooming can ruin a perfectly nice video sequence.
    • Concentrate instead on the composition of the shot, focus on the object and move the camera only when you need a change in your story.
    • It helps to write out a rough sequence of shots before a shoot. Think about how many CUs and ECUs and mid-shots you need. Its worth the effort.
  • Create a script/story board/edit log:
    • The story board is the most powerful tool to aid in the making of a good film.
    • Choose any method you are comfortable with: draw, use a template or use OmniCodex. OmniCodex is freeware and is meant to be a notes-taking application. If you use text-only storyboards try it- the only limitation being its inability to use graphics. I merely add a reference to a graphic/clip on my HDD.
    • Write a script, learn the symbols and the verticals. The level of detail doesn’t matter. It helps to put ideas on paper.
    • Keep an edit log, make a text file and put down what you worked on today. Make it complete with the sequence and clip details. Makes you feel accomplished and gives you a good starting point for tomorrow.
  • Invest in a good video editor:
    • No freeware application has really great NLE capabilities.
    • If you’re new to film making get hold of a copy of Adobe Premier Pro, else stick with one of the Avid distributions, Avid Express Pro is my favorite.
    • NLE suites are expensive, but its a one time investment. If you’re a student you can get discounts.
    • The advantages of using a professional NLE are many. There are many options, lots of templates, complete manuals, online tutorials and simply so much more you can do with them.
    • Buy keyboard stickers for NLE keyboard short-cuts. Or print a cheat-sheet. Editing with the keyboard saves more time than you’d imagine.
  • Scout around the web for plug-in SFX. There are some excellent freeware ones available.
  • Video:
  • Key Shots:
    • Spend some time defining your opening shot.
    • Pay attention to the title and the credits. Remember to credit most people who helped you with your work, unless you have a credit line limit. Roll/Crawl are good title and credit effects- stick with those unless your film has flashy effects too.
  • Cuts:
    • Begin with rough cuts and refine and refine and refine.
    • If you have several clips: Re-name your clips. Arrange them.
    • Edit the clips first before you attempt to put them in a sequence.
    • Remember the best editing is invisible editing. Your cuts should appear in the final product as no cuts at all!
  • Use bins:
    • Most NLE suites including Avid distributions use bins. The word bin comes from older film-holding bins that were used before everything went digital.
    • Think of a bin as a place to hold and categorize various shots/clips/footage. Once you understand bins- create as many as you think will be useful.
    • There is no limitation to how you use a bin. My bin list usually includes:
      • Archive Bin: Here is where I dump all the original footage I have not used/will not use.
      • Current Cuts Bin: The current edits.
      • Final Cuts Bin: The final edits.
      • Format Cuts Bin: Any edits that have been formatted with special effects/purpose etc.
      • Selects/Storyboard Bin: The edits/clips that are key to the story/script and storyboard
      • Generic Bin: This is usually titled this way: Title of project-Generic Bin. It holds all those clips that don’t go anywhere else. Like a temporary workspace.
      • Title, SFX & Transitions Bin: Edits that are titles/special effects or dissolves/cross-fades and other transitions between clips/scenes.
      • Trash Bin: Trash. Why keep a bin, then? One important lesson with editing is never to completely trash your source footage. No mater how awful, you might need it for a filler/fade-out/black space and so on. The same goes for a script or a storyboard. Use cross-outs for text you don’t want. Don’t delete.
      • Video Bin: This is where all your raw footage goes. Its from where you pick out clips. Like a video clip repository for your film.
  • Make sure your system has the following:
    • A complete Java distribution: To run effects
    • A mouse: An optical/wireless one if possible. If you’re editing from a laptop the touchpad is lousy to lasso and make fine edits.
    • A flash-drive USB 2.0: With at least 4 GB of space, to move large video files when all the cables refuse to work.
    • Good external speakers, a mic and headset: So that editing music is easier. Voice overs also work better this way.
    • A fire wire cable: To capture video from your camera. Cheaper than a video capture card.
    • At least 2 GB of Ram: With 256 Mb or more dedicated to video memory. You can set this up in the BIOS.
    • Get a reasonable graphics card. Try Nvidia and make sure both OpenGL and DirectX (the latest versions) run on your system.

Happy filming!

PS: The pictures from top to bottom feature the following: 1) The Adobe Audition 2.0 waveform edit view 2) A Sony Camcorder with a HDD 3) A Non-Linear Video Editing Suite 4) An Avid Editors Keyboard 5) A four-pin fire wire cable.

PPS: Those of you who haven’t heard of Give Away Of The Day, visit the site. They feature some great paid software given away for free everyday. In the past they’ve featured flash converters, video converters, slide show builders and other audio and video editing tools.

Real thoughts on reel…

Today, after many a year I watched a Tamil film. It was worth it. The film ‘Anniyan’ directed by Sankar, starring (as I learnt) the Tamil film industry’s new find Vikram is well- bizarre, complicated though not terribly original. ‘Anniyan’ translates into ‘The Other’ or a ‘Stranger’. The film deals with different issues at many different levels. On the face of it, it is the story of a TNB (read Tamil Nadu Brahmin) with a multiple personality disorder, fueled by the anger he feels at the Indian way (aka Babudom, sloth, corruption, miles and miles of red tape and such) and rejection by a long time love. Read the review here.Of Ambi’s (the goodie Brahmin lawyer) two personalities, the dangerously dellusional Anniyan is the one I have a few comments on. We all feel like Anniyan at times; we feel like killing people who cheat, bribe, circumvent rules and are decidedly unfair to us more often than not. Anniyan acts on that feeling. He believes literally, that the scum of the Earth must be wiped out. So he goes out to dispense justice to those who have been wronged including his waking self. His form of justice is murder. One particular scene in the film, shows Anniyan confessing his crimes to members of the public who applaud him.

This is what makes me a little sad. I know it was just a film. We know, however, that cinema more than anything else has the power to influence people and their thought processes. Is this what people ought to applaud? Even if we have a defunct system of law, even if the police is corrupt– is murder the answer? This is more than taking law into your hands- it is indicative of several other things.

Another scene shows the law and order situation improving dramatically- ostensibly thanks to Anniyan and people’s fear of him. Even if this were so- it is sad. Should people be honest and correct merely out of fear of punishment or out of a true realisation of the wrong they commit and the advantage they themselves shall have given a situaton where people were law abiding?
For starters that India needs heroes, its people are looking forward desperately to a leader on horseback who will deliver people from their suffering. This is not a good thing- like a friend of mine says: A nation that needs heroes suffers from a desperate lack of institutions of civil society. Secondly, every hero of this sort is authoritarian not democratic. He will enforce his will upon people. And what begins with a pro-people idea will soon deteriorate into a hungry quest of power. That Anniyan and his ways of justice do not leave Ambi even after Ambi undergoes treatment is indicative of how deep this vein runs.The second concern I have is of Ambi’s belief that India’s problems has to do in principle with its people being uncouth. While it is true that Indians aren’t perfect- I think citizens of this country are cheated by the state. Capitalist governments the world over, tax and still dole out ‘welfare’ to their citizens. They can’t start spending on nuclear bombs till they have clean and ample public loos, good drinking water and a civilized standard of living. The people have a right to be angry. If the government takes away half my earnings in tax and gives me nothing in return why should they or indeed anyone else be surprised if I evade tax? Must we follow rules, because they are rules or because they make sense?

Vikram’s acting is simply superb and the matrix style fight sequences are a treat to any action-film fan. I enjoyed the popcorn and the music. It is just this little concern that pops into my head now and then- when such powerful metaphors are portrayed in a country where popular sentiment is often guided by cinema, cricket and a lot of blind adoration.

Cinematic Voyeurism

Last night I decided to be frivolous. That in itself is of course not a novelty- but the outlet of my wanting to be floosy, silly et al, was one I have never adopted before. I wanted to watch a movie. Now before you laugh, you must realize that it is extremely abnormal for me to go watch a relatively pointless mishmash of mush without returning and launching into a verbal/written scathing diatribe over the sad quality of artistic expression of all humankind. Yesterday was different. The movie was outrageous– complete with cartoon characters, balloons and beautiful people; the kind of reality that normal people never experience… Or hold on people like me never experience. What was fun was being out till 2 in the morning, with a dear friend (who became dear how I have no clue!) and just smiling. Sure I lost sleep and had a horrid broadcast in the morning… Sweet memories and songs playing in your head make the day worthwhile sometimes. Cheers, to the good times!

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