Once Upon A Time, In A Galaxy Not So Far Away…

The universe is an infinitely vast entity, almost as big as Antilla. That hasn’t stopped humans throughout the ages from trying to understand its secrets, resulting in theories that range from the mythical (“The earth is a ball of snot inside the nose of a sleeping giant.”) to the scientific (“Atoms are the building blocks of snot.”).

It is this spirit of curiosity that is the star of my latest TV addiction, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. It is a follow up to Carl Sagan’s 1980 series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which brought science to massy television – something long considered impossible, given that the source material features exactly zero Kardashian booty.

The 2014 version aims to repeat that feat and make science cool again, which is why they got the internet’s favourite astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, to host it. Tyson is the Will Smith-meets-Morgan Freeman of science. He seems like the kind of guy who’d spend his day neck-deep in equations that look like Elvish to us muggles, and then take on a beer-chug challenge at a bar in the evening (and win, because he’d know the optimum angle at which to hold the mug so as to minimise Spillage Coefficient. Then he’d trash-talk the loser with something like “Your mother’s so large that black holes cannot escape her gravity.”)

Fun fact: Cosmos is executive-produced by Seth MacFarlane. Yes, the same Seth Mac Farlane responsible for a gag that consisted entirely of Family Guy characters vomiting on each other for two whole minutes. And yes, the same Seth MacFarlane who opened the 2013 Oscars with a song dedicated to Hollywood’s most famous breasts. So naturally, you’d expect the Big Bang to be shown as a giant Peter Griffin fart, and Pluto would be the Meg of our solar system.

Sadly, that isn’t the case. With eye-popping visual effects, animated stories and a tight script, Cosmos is what the meme generation describes as ‘science porn’, except that you feel no shame at the end of an episode. (I don’t understand this current fad of adding the word ‘porn’ to describe anything that looks drool-worthy. Seriously, stop tagging photos of things like cheesecake and calling it ‘food porn’. That just maligns the good name of porn. Also, don’t ever google ‘food porn’ with Safe Search off. You’ll never look at glazed donuts the same way again.)

I wish schools in India would take some time off from stuffing kids’ bags with lead bricks, and use shows like Cosmos as teaching aids. The country could do with some nurturing of scientific talent – we have enough social media evangelist ninja potato whatevers – as opposed to an overworked, blinkered teacher reducing the greatest minds and discoveries of our species to “Learn this equation. It will come for 15 marks in board exam.”

Cosmos works because along with facts, it brings you the stories of the ambitious, brilliant and flawed geniuses behind those facts. For example, for most Indian students, Isaac Newton was reduced to a set of three equations – a bunch of letters and symbols that they remembered but didn’t fully understand, like Ke$ha.

Now consider his story, which will count for nothing in a board exam, but is fascinating nonetheless. A premature baby, he would go on to battle bipolar disorder and silly English hairstyles, while also laying the foundation of the modern world by inventing calculus. The math of his time wasn’t advanced enough to support his work, so he just invented a whole new branch of math. Normal people would’ve given up and gone out to catch the plague or whatever it is that they did for fun back then. Oh, and he did this before his 26th birthday. (By that age, I’d learnt to not throw up after drinking, which is almost the same thing.)

The only problem with Cosmos is that it’ll make you want to smack people in the face. It’s because you’ll watch stories about how we came into being, of the forces and coincidences that led to this moment where you’re able to read this text because we figured how to control sub-atomic particles and make them carry data, of bloody wars and heroes whose exploits are a mere blip on the timeline of the universe, of suns a million times larger than ours, and as you’re appreciating the enormity of it all, some client will start acting like it’s the apocalypse, all because his logo looks 0.05% smaller than usual. See, that’s why we need to make science cool again – so that kids don’t grow up to be that guy.

(Note: This is my HT column dated 22nd June 2014.)

Welcome To The Life And Times Of Jhakaas Bauer

Indian TV has never shied away from breaking the mould and exploring different genres, such as mythology, mythology for kids and mythology featuring steroid shipments masquerading as actors. But the one thing that it has been missing – apart from creativity, bearable performances and production design that doesn’t cause epilepsy – is a solid action-espionage thriller. That may just have changed with the launch of Anil Kapoor’s 24, described by the Hollywood press as, “Why aren’t they dancing to Jai Ho yet?”

I watched the pilot this weekend because I’m lonely and I have no friends and was appalled at the treatment. For example, Jai Singh Rathore (Kapoor) did not once use the words ‘parampara’ or ‘dahej’ and his wife (Tisca Chopra) had the audacity to look directly at his face, without using a sieve in the moonlight. Ridiculous. The script for a truly Indian show looks like this:

EXT. STREET – DAY

11:45 a.m.

Jai Singh Rathore grimaces, jumps into his car and speeds off.

11.46 a.m.

Jai gets stuck at Juhu Circle. “Aye Sonu Hendsum”, says a eunuch. Jai grimaces.

2.03 p.m.

Jai walks into office, carrying his spine which popped out thanks to a pothole in Jogeshwari. He snaps it back into place and grimaces.

Jai: There’s a threat to our young PM candidate’s life.

CUT TO:

Shots of everyone in office reacting to the news – Jai’s partner, his assistant, his boss, the peon, the coffee machine, the toilet, Chotu from the tapri downstairs – everyone.

We come back to Jai’s face.

Jai: Never mind. They shot him during our 47-minute reaction sequence.

24 also showcases a young, single, handsome Prime Ministerial candidate with a political veteran for a mother and a brother-in-law who is a family embarrassment. (The similarity ends there though, because this character does not look like he’s losing ground to Captain Genocide.)

A lot of thought goes into naming characters in this genre. The protagonist has to exude manliness to the point where he belches propane, hence the name Jai Singh, which literally means Victory Lion, followed by Rathore, which translates to ‘Leonidas was a pussy’. The young PM’s family is rich and powerful, so they’re called Singhania, because it reeks of influence, as opposed to say, Nair, which reeks of chartered accountant. This is a slight departure from the classic Bollywood portrayal of Singhania, defined as “A cigar-puffing tycoon in a silken robe, whose daughter calls him ‘Deddy’.” I was just glad that Jai’s daughter wasn’t called Sonya. That’s his way of ensuring that she doesn’t grow up to be a socialite.

We haven’t contributed much to espionage literature either. The west regularly churns out bestsellers with names like The Iron Curtain Conspiracy Apocalypse: Operation LuftwaffeValkyrieErdingerSchweinsteigerDasAuto, centred around a combat-hardened veteran with a troubled past, i.e. Major Jake ‘Alliterations Are Awesome’ Johnson, who is brought in for one last mission because if he doesn’t do it, the Nazis/Russians/Arabs/Ajit Agarkar fans will turn the planet into a giant ashtray. In the middle of killing tanks with daggers fashioned from drinking straws, he comes across Rita Rack, a blonde code-breaker ninja with Hawking’s IQ and Scarlett Johannson’s bottom, who provides valuable assistance by sleeping with him and then wondering what trauma hides behind his default steel-grey eyes. At some point, they need to hack into something, so a maladjusted computer genius writes a complex worm that makes the NSA look like a Rediffmail user, and then goes back to exchanging fluids with his Japanese body pillow girlfriend. In a thoroughly gripping climax, the super soldier saves the world from total annihilation by killing Osama Bin Hitler Communistovsky at the last second. Then he grimaces. For those of you who think this is predictable, I hope you enjoy your book by a Bengali about Bengalis who’re wondering what it means to be Bengali.

The problem has been that Indians don’t have the coolth to pull off espionage. We say things like, “The name’s Bond. Ab pyaar ki pungi bajaa de.” We’re also odd when it comes to gear:

Q: Here’s an invisible Aston Martin with a new force-field that can deflect RPGs.

Indian Agent: Pliss to install nimbu-mirchi also.

Our beaches don’t support the classic Bond-girl-emerging-from-the-sea sequence either. What you do get is Shailesh, Sachin and Pakya, fingers intertwined, showing off Dollar under-viyar and basically being an uglier One Direction. But everything said and done, hopefully 24 will create a new genre on Indian TV known as ‘Not Horseshit’. Or as Jack Bauer likes to say, “Jai Ho.”

(Note: This is my HT column dated 6th Oct 2013.)