Vijay Narayanan on October 22nd, 2011

This morning I helped an elderly couple pick their first ever smartphone. It was a wonderful experience; eye-opening at times.

I have known them for a while, and they have been telling me for a couple of months that they wanted to buy an iPhone. I had asked them to wait until Apple launched their newest phone. My first suggestion would have been the 3GS. With the introduction of the iPhone 4S, Apple has dropped the price of the 3GS to nought. And since the people in question were not very tech-savvy, I figured the 3GS would be an excellent first phone and it required no initial outlay.

However they were Verizon customers already, so the 3GS, which is AT&T-only, was immediately ruled out.

Naturally, my next suggestion was the iPhone 4. Yes, the Verizon store did have a number of Android devices on display. But their son had told them that Android would be very complicated for them. In any case, I am aesthetically and now morally ;-) opposed to Android.

I should have suggested the 4S, but didn’t want to push it for two reasons. Firstly, the iPhone 4 is “similar in many respects” to the iPhone 4S, and is comparatively less expensive. Secondly, the folks in question are Korean and they have a thick accent; I wasn’t sure of how much use Siri would be to them. Oh, also they could get the iPhone 4 right away.

Jane took the demo iPhone 4 in her hands. I explained the home button to her, and how everything was an app. I showed them how to make a call. She wanted to take a picture, and I showed her how the Camera app worked.

Her next question was, “How do I find out where the nearest, hmm, department store is?” Well, we were standing right next door to a Target, but hey!

So I showed her how to do a Google search with Safari, or search for a place using Maps.

I must admit this was a bit of a downer for her. Her reaction was “Oh, this means I must do a lot of typing!”

The iPhone 4S was right there. I told her, “Well, you might want to give this a try.” Her husband stepped in and said, “I am not sure if this will be useful for us. It might not work with our accent.” I was glad he understood my concern.

Jane wanted to give it a try nevertheless. She held the phone close to her face, and said, “Would you please tell me where the nearest department store is?” Her husband smiled, “You don’t need to be so polite to the phone.

But Siri was already at work. “One moment. Let me get your location…

A few seconds later. “I found seven department stores close by. I have arranged them by distance.

I could see that they had made up their mind. I was enjoying this quite a lot. So much that I didn’t mind that Siri had slapped my wrist for underestimating her ability.

Next. “Would you please tell me what is playing at the Ambler Theater?

Siri thought about it, but could not understand fully. Maybe she was overwhelmed by Jane’s politeness!

Another try. “Ambler Theater showtimes.

This was more to Siri’s liking. She pulled up Google search results for the search query.

Next. “Remind me to go to the dentist. Monday morning. 10 o’clock.

Siri: “I have added this item. I will remind you. Is this OK?

Next. “Remind me about Josh’s birthday. November 4.

Siri: “I have made an appointment at 9AM on November 4, 2011. Is this OK?

Jane put the demo phone down, walked up to the counter and said emphatically, “White iPhone 4s. 16GB. When can you deliver it?”

May the 4S be with them!

P.S.: I remember listening to Harold Hambrose a few years ago at a conference on bringing digital innovation to inner cities. At the time, the city of Philadelphia was rolling out free Wi-Fi throughout the city and had expected that this would help people living in poorer neighborhoods to take part in the digital revolution. Harold predicted correctly that this was bound to fail. The free Wi-Fi didn’t work at most times, and when it did, it was poor at best. Harold’s reasoning was that when introducing a product or a service to the uninitiated, if those that it was intended to serve found it lacking, they would never take to it; in fact, it might have the exact negative effect on them, reinforcing their belief that technology is designed to be inaccessible. He aptly compared it to Elaine’s idea of giving muffin stumps to the homeless in The Muffin Tops episode from Seinfeld.

A5 processor. Spanking new 8MP camera. iOS5. All these mean nothing to someone buying a smartphone for the very first time. But being able to talk to your phone asking it to remind you on your grandson’s birthday; you cannot place a value on that. I felt like I was in a MasterCard commercial. Thank you, Siri!

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Vijay Narayanan on October 21st, 2011

[To Gokul]

In his review of The Godfather, Roger Ebert explains why we are enamored of the movie’s characters:

We tend to identify with Don Corleone’s family not because we dig gang wars, but because we have been with them from the beginning, watching them wait for battle while sitting at the kitchen table and eating chow mein out of paper cartons.

But however much we identify with the characters, we the audience are always watching them through the eyes of an outsider. And that outsider is Kay Adams, portrayed by the wonderful Diane Keaton in an understated (and sadly, underrated) performance as Michael’s girlfriend and later, his wife.

The movie can be described as a series of unfurling climaxes, each one more poignant than the previous. It reaches its crescendo at the very last shot, when after Pete Clemenza kisses Michael’s hand calling him “Don Corleone”, Al Neri walks up and shuts the door on Kay at the very moment the truth dawns on her.

To me, this image of Kay, one of helplessness and horror is priceless. It is haunting not just because I / we, as the audience, feel a sense of betrayal.

Up until the scene where Connie’s son gets baptized, the audience knows about as much as does Kay. At that point, however, we realize Michael’s ruthlessness, a fact confirmed by the following scene where he gets Carlo killed. Kay knows none of this. Indeed, she only has Michael’s word (“Is it true? Is it?”). She is our on-screen alter ego, yet she knows less about the goings-on than we do. It is at this point that our heart goes out for her. That moment when she recognizes her husband’s true character, we as the audience feel helpless, almost as if we were tasked with breaking a piece of bad news to her, and yet she could surmise that her worst fears were indeed true.

The Godfather is a cinematic masterpiece on so many levels. Indeed I feel that the Academy should have made a special exception and given the movie several Oscars for Best Picture alone; one of which is just for this shot.

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Vijay Narayanan on October 5th, 2011

Christmas Eve 1987 will forever remain etched in my mind. I was four years old. And it was the first time I witnessed my mom, a strong-willed lady, cry. MGR had died.

I did not understand back then why anyone would feel so strongly about the passing away of another person they had not even met. As I grew older, however, I came to appreciate the treasured place MGR had carved for himself in the hearts of millions of people. It transcended the mere notions of a showman, a matinee idol, a do-gooder, a rebel, or a successful political leader. MGR was an idea, larger than life; he was not just a dreamer, but also a dream; even during his life, people truly believed in his legend, because he was, in their eyes, perfection personified; and hence a God.

I often wonder if MGR had received intimations of his imminent immortality, for he got a lyricist to pen these lines for one of his most famous songs, and then lived them out:

இருந்தாலும் மறைந்தாலும் பேர் சொல்லவேண்டும்;
இவர்போல யாரென்று ஊர் சொல்லவேண்டும்.

Many people exert some kind of influence on our lives. But only a select few revolutionize it to the extent that they cause a shift in the time continuum, thus causing after eras that would have been unimaginable before their advent.

Steve Jobs was one such rare revolutionary. May his soul rest in peace.

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Vijay Narayanan on September 19th, 2011

Summary: Technically brilliant, historically inaccurate, well-packaged fantasy tale of a man on a singular mission — to kill Vasco da Gama.

What I liked

  • Packaging: Movies set against a historical backdrop can quickly turn into documentaries, and thus risk putting audiences to sleep. At times, the audience might choose to entirely shun such a movie without even making an effort to understand it; case in point: Hey Ram. I presume therefore that the prime question that would have confronted the makers of Urumi must have been around striking the balance between fact and fantasy. There is no right answer to this. They could have chosen to please the art house crowd and the dabblers in history (yours truly would like to believe that he belongs to both categories). Or they could have chosen to play entirely to the galleries (mind you, the movie was made on a big budget). Urumi’s success rests on this intricate balance, and one must commend the writers for believing in the adage “The perfect is the enemy of the good”, for I found the movie impressive on multiple levels.
  • Cinematography: Of course, it is a Santosh Sivan movie. How else could it have turned out? One could watch the movie just for the lush green scenery. (The dialogue, “Enga Simran akka nadikka kooda vendaam. Avanga poster-aye naanellaam rendara manineram paarthukitruppen!” comes to mind.)
  • Casting: Expanded below.
  • Prithviraj – Prabhudeva duo: Prithviraj excelled as Kelu Nayanar, but Prabhudeva as his friend Vavvali was, I thought, a casting coup. The reasons are obvious. Kelu has but one objective, on which he maintains a laser-sharp focus. In this sense, he is like a samurai, wherefore emotions are alien to his task, and by extension, to his nature. Vavvali, while valiant and supportive of Kelu’s mission, is essentially a lighthearted person, and displays a lot more sensitivity. The character could have easily been framed as just a sidekick, but the screenwriter must be thanked for giving it depth. The movie enhanced my respect for Prabhudeva’s acting skills.
  • Genelia: Genelia D’Souza plays Arackal Ayesha, a princess who, like Kelu, wants to avenge her father’s death, her target being da Gama’s son, Estevao. And just like Kelu, Ayesha portrays just one emotion — anger — and Genelia brings this out through her expressive eyes. While her on-screen time is considerable, her dialogues are comparatively fewer. But who cares… this is Genelia!
  • The supporting cast, notably Jagathy Sreekumar, Nithya Menon, Arya in two delightful cameos, the person playing Chirakkal Thamburan and both the da Gamas, pere and fils.
  • Songs: The good ones, at least. Though the movie has many songs, I can recall only two that were long. I was particularly impressed by the number of genres the songs touched upon. Kudos to the composer. My personal favorite is the delectable Chinni Chinni Minni Thilangunaa, sung by Manjari.
What could have been better
  • Screenplay: This should really be filed under the “What I liked” section as well. The movie can be split into three segments – the first hour which introduces the plot, the characters and their motivations. This part moves at breakneck speed and was the one I liked best. One can sense the drop in pace over the next 45 minutes to an hour, as the story meanders. At least one song (featuring Vidya Balan as an oracle) could have been omitted. The pace then picks up for the climax, but it still doesn’t equal the first hour.
  • Background score: Was good in parts, but I had the distinct feeling that Ilaiyaraja would have had a field day with this kind of movie, and would have made a number of scenes stand out even more.
  • Factual inaccuracies: I have a list that is longer than this review, but I’m not going to belabor this as I appreciate the constraints the filmmakers must have had to operate under.
I have not watched Pazhassi Raja yet, so I cannot compare it to Urumi, but I must state that the latter is one of the better movies I have watched in recent times. Even if you are like me and have only a fleeting knowledge of Malayalam, the movie is still worth a watch. Highly recommended!

Vijay Narayanan on August 29th, 2011

An excellent short film — a beautiful tale, very well told.

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Like Robert Browning wrote:

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made