Saturday, December 20, 2014

PK: Simplicity is not a simple thing

PK has been released just for a day and most people are out - intoxicated, as if "Pee Ke" aya hua hai. But like any other creation of art, a movie too can't be expected to touch everyone in the same way. Though mostly people are awed by the simple depiction of complex things, a very minuscule section of audience has found it, "even worse than a high school production", "just like OMG", "having a pathetic climax", "over hyped", "preachy", etc. Well, as I just mentioned any piece of art, and a good one that too, is expected to evoke extreme reactions, like Hyder did in the recent past. So there's nothing to debate about. 

PK is indeed worse than a high school drama which has more twists and turns and perhaps a better story. Yes, it neither has a good climax and I do accept that some good porns may have better climax. And yes, it's preachy, anything said against the convention sounds preachy. After all who wants to pay money to attend moral science classes when Astha and other channels offer everything free on air? And, yes, it's perhaps nothing more than OMG packaged and marketed in a better and suave way. So no debates on these points. Period. 

PK just reminded me of a few lines from Tagore, few of his songs, which have always inspired me. held me from breaking down, checked me from being insensitive, grounded me, handled me, saddled me tight for a bumpy journey, yoked me hard to the work-horse of my life, which just make me feel happy.

The first one is this line: Sahoj kotha bolte amay bolo je  / Sahoj kotha jay na bola sahoje. You ask me to say simple things? But simple things can't be said so simply!!

I'll just give one example how one very basic and fundamental but very complex phenomenon about the evolution of a language is depicted in the movie. PK, having learned a fully developed language (Bhojpuri in this case) in just six hours (in perhaps a pure theoretical way), finds the use of the same word in various unrelated and seemingly opposite situations very hilarious. He refers to the Hindi word "Achchha", which can be used in anger, tension, contemplation and suspicion. Most of the modern Indo-Aryan languages has this word, and use it almost in similar ways. It comes from the Sanskrit astu, meaning, let it be, be it so, or just a reality or mere existence (coming from asti, which is akin to Latin est, Old English ist and the present "is" in modern English). But how a word which etymologically means "is" expanded to express exclamation (Achchha!! Mamata didi has said she loves Modi!!) , interrogation (Achchha? How much did you say Mamata didi has sold her paintings for?) and anger (Achchha, Mamata didi has again blocked all roads in Calcutta,grrrrrrrrrrr) is indeed how languages have evolved over the years, and something which actually evokes surprise, when looked at logically. 

To elaborate more on this phenomenon, let me plagiarize Aurobindo's thoughts.

In the early days of human civilization whenever man wished to have words for abstract things, like strength, power etc., his readiest method was to apply simplistic ideas of physical actions.  Many words for strength across all languages had originally this idea of a force or injury because that was what it meant to the early humans to secure their existence and prove their strength and superiority in this world. The same is true for the Indo-European (IE) languages (Latin, Greek, German, English, Farsi, Sanskrit and all North Indian languages including Hindi/Urdu)

Let's consider all the related Sanskrit (Skt.) roots damsh, dams, daksh. The various words which evolved from these roots have quite diverse meanings. 

daksha, from the root daksh, means dexterous, intelligent, strong etc. in Skt., akin to Latin dexter, Greek doxaall meaning strong.

damsa and dasra, from the root dams, mean wonderful deeds in Skt., coming from the original IE dans meaning to teach.

dasha, from the same root dams and damsh, means state or condition of life in Skt., akin to Latin decet, Greek decto, all coming from the original IE dek meaning respect, gain.

Another meaning of daksh is to hurt and that of dams and damsh is to bite, akin to Greek dakno.

Similarly the root kri in Skt. means to do, but also means to hurt. The Skt. kratu means resolution, power and is akin to Greek kratos meaning strong. It comes from the original IE root kert from which also come the Skt. kartati and Greek korno, meaning to cut.

So it can be seen that the original and nascent word for cutting, biting, hurting etc. evolves gradually to mean strength, power, resolution, respect etc. It also means to teach or to direct (original IE dans and Skt. dish). 

In all these major languages, the simple physical meaning of the words gradually gets complicated, profound, philosophical meanings. 

That's what has happened everywhere in all civilizations, culture, religion. So what we see now, in religion, culture, music, art, fashion, is a very convoluted and complex understanding of some very basic and simple concepts. Most problems in our society would be solved if we onion-peeled the complex layers and saw only the nascent simple thing. 

Is there a better and more simplistic way to explain such a complex thing than it was done in PK. And you say it preaching? The nakedness or the mismatched dress of PK are so simple symbols of the simplicity which forms the core of the film. Have you noted that PK came naked, but went dressed and when he returned to the Earth, RK (Ranbir) was naked, but PK was still dressed. That says all about the central idea of the film. Once you lose the simplicity it's so hard to get it back.

Then there's this Tagore song which I like very much. The concluding lines are:

Tomay niye khelechhilem khelar gharete,
Khelar putul bhenge gechhe pralay jharete.
Thak tobe shei kebal khela,
Hok na ekhan praner mela -
Tarer bina bhanglo, hriday-binay gahi re...

There were times we were engrossed in play
Till all toys were pitilessly dashed by a tempest.
We have had enough of playfulness-
It is time for one soul to meet another.
My severed lute-strings have lost their function,

But my heart shall emulate the melody...

When PK says that there's no language in his planet and that everyone directly communicates with each others mind, it's as if Tagore's words are being paraphrased, "we've had enough of playfulness; it's time for one soul to meet another..." 

Just imagine a world where everything is truth by construction. You directly read what's there in someone's mind and don't need to articulate your thoughts through sounds and gestures, which are always different, thus divisive, as is in today's world. A no-language-world is as Utopian as a single-language-world, but still, if we fantasized on something why not something that's correct by construction?

Now let me touch base little bit on some of the things which could have been better. The climax was actually very bad and overtly dramatic. But then when so much money is involved, the makers  had to play safe to some extent. Having said that, I should also say this, that many legendary movies or novels didn't have any story or climax. What was the climax in Pather Panchali. Isn't the story of Romeo-Juliet a single line? What's special about the story of Life is Beautiful? And Meghaduta? Happy New Year or Chennai Express had such strong story lines, but then that's also unacceptable to many. So it's not the story that matters. It's the way the characters get you involved with them, make you believe in them, feel happy and sad with them, that matters to the audience. 

Was it preachy? Every movie preaches because the bad always loses. How many movies have you seen where the villain is made to win? So let us not talk about whether any movie is preachy or not.

PK is a fantasy movie, showing on your face what you are and what you could have been too. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The not so good effects of Cab-age

In the nineties if you wanted to get Venture Capital (VC) funding for your start-up, you had to be located preferably in the San Francisco Bay Area, better known as the Silicon Valley, in California, and surely working on something hi-tech. That was the time when companies like Google and Amazon, which changed our lives in ways beyond fathomable some fifteen years ago, were founded and funded. 

A fast forward to the present times. VC funding has changed a lot. You no longer need to be working on something hi-tech in some latest and greatest cutting edge technology to get VC funding. Nor do you have to be located in the Bay Area. Companies like Flipkart, Snapdeal, Myntra, Red Bus and many others have proved that VCs have really "globalized" and that their focus has changed too. Flipkart et al may not be working on the latest technologies, but they are indeed changing lives in India like perhaps Google and Amazon have been doing for the past one decade. 

One more genre of start-ups is getting lots of funding. They are the new age cabbies.

Gone were the days, anyway, of those black and yellow cabs (if not in other cities, but surely in Bangalore) you would wave your hands to stop by the road. We were already in the age of the radio taxies. But they were often not metered and there was always a grey area about the final amount you would pay. Often the drivers were not reliable. As a solution for all the maladies came the new age app-based cabbies, very much like saviors. You could now book a cab in just a few clicks on your smart phones. You would know exactly how much you have to pay. The drivers would be well mannered, reliable, always under surveillance and hence, surely trustworthy. They wouldn't charge you any thing extra. People across the country were just waiting for such a thing to happen. We were elated. Gone are the days, we all thought, of cab menace. The growing demand for such cabs excited the VCs, who started pouring in funds into it. Taxi4Sure, Ola, Uber and their likes made news with series of fat VC fundings. We all expected things to change for better. That's when there was a twist in the story.

With the aggressive advertisements of throw away goodies and amazing experience, a huge number of people really got interested in using cabs more and more. Some deals sounded so attractive that people even started using cabs in stead of their cars. That was indeed a great thing, given the state of the already congested roads in India. But, as the going says, nothing is fairy tale in this world.

I got the rude shock when I used Uber for the first time. Uber has already made roars in the west, trying to put the conventional cabbies off their jobs and attracting the wrath of the cab-unions in the US and Europe. Many people in the Bay Area are said to be preferring Uber to their own cars, given the hassles in parking cars in cities like San Francisco. I was excited about using Uber. I downloaded their app in my smart phone and booked a cab in just a few clicks, as expected and the cab too came on time. But while boarding the cab I was suspicious as there was no way to figure out if it was an Uber cab. The name "Uber" was written no where on the body of the cab. Neither was any identity card of the driver displayed in the cab, as has been the norm in most of the radio cabs. Perhaps Uber doesn't fall into the category of radio cab - it's app cab -, I thought. The only thing that gave me some confidence that the cab perhaps belonged to Uber was the iPhone the driver used to click the "Start" button before pressing on the gas pedal. So it was very clear that Uber doesn't conform to any of the norms that we were getting used to with the advent of the radio-taxies. The trustworthiness of the driver was a question, as was also the cab itself. It could have been any car, not even the one authorized by Uber. What authorization process does Uber follow? I did have the question in my mind. Soon a friend of mine told that once he had got a Meru Cab when he had booked an Uber. The driver of the Meru cab told my friend that he was authorized both by Meru and Uber. Not much later did we hear about an Uber driver raping a lady in Delhi. We came to know that that particular cab didn't even have the GPS system by which each cab is supposed to be tracked every moment by the operator. If the cab had the GPS and had Uber tracked it, as we expect from these new age cabbies, there wouldn't have been the rape. It's fairly a simple technology to figure out something amiss when a car suddenly stops (as it stopped when the driver raped the lady) for a long time during a trip in the middle of the night. So my suspicion of the first day of my experience with Uber about their authorization process and the trustworthiness of their drivers was not baseless.

Secondly, Uber doesn't have any customer care number. So if you're stuck with any problem you're at God's mercy. I heard when an Uber cab booked from Delhi airport declined to go to Noida and the passenger was dropped off in the middle, he could do nothing. Worse, the minimum charge was deducted from his credit card and he had to exchange many mails with Uber to get a closure on the issue. It's ridiculous to not have any customer care number.

Well, so how good are the other operators. All are facing tremendous teething problems and the customers are at a loss in many places. Meru has been advertising that if you pay through their wallet (sort of a prepaid system where you load a "wallet" with some amount and you've a cash less ride) you get a 30% discount. I loaded Rs 1100 into Meru wallet using their app. I received confirmation from credit card about the payment, but even after a day my wallet showed zero. In between I made a trip on Meru. Forget 30% discount, the driver insisted I pay him cash as my wallet didn't show any balance. Upon getting through their customer care after half an hour, during which I was seated inside the car, and shouting at the lady on the other side of the phone I got down of the car without paying anything to the driver. Even after a day, during which I tried reaching their customer care number of times, the wallet showed zero balance. Even now I don't know what has happened to the money that was charged by Meru but which seems to have gone into a black hole. The customer care was totally ignorant and I was asked to get in touch with credit card company to sort the issue.

Let's talk about Taxi4Sure now. They have really great deals, some of which are supposed to be cheaper than auto fares. Well and good. I was excited again, as I'm always a very pardoning and patient customer. I downloaded their app. It displayed that the nearest cab was 15 mins away from me. I was very happy. Wow, I said to myself. When I clicked on "Book" it said "Sorry". I kept on trying many times and every time it told the nearest cab was just few minutes from me but never could I book a cab. Here again it raises serious questions about the technology support. Such things ought to make me suspicious about their motive. 

I personally haven't used Ola and Mega for quite a while since both of them had failed to send cab and I had a terrible time at the last moment, struggling to arrange for alternative. What was atrocious was their inability to arrange for an alternative, leaving me in distress. But that was before the apps came into vogue.

I hope these are really teething issues and they may learn from their past mistakes. Nevertheless, the customer can't be made subjects of their beta testing. There's no doubt that consistently across all the operators, they lack several basic things and proper technology support. It's a question if they are trying to optimize their cost and knowingly ignoring several things or they are really trying to cope up with teething problems. Only time will tell. Till then, customers have no way than to get harassed and cheated.