The Roller Coaster Experience

I am not a big roller coaster person. I can get on some of those benign ones (OK you can call them kiddie coasters) but if it’s anything like the Hulk ride at Universal I stay away. I just don’t feel I need to get my heart rate up that high. I am a runner. My heart rate’s just fine thank you very much! But I do enjoy the ones I ride. I think it’s worth the thrill.

A trip to India gets you a similar experience. Almost everything about this country is unpredictable: the people, the traffic, the weather (more about that later), the punctuality (ahem!). The whole package is one wild ride.

It starts at the airport. You stand behind the line at immigration, eagerly awaiting to get past the dim ambience and the depressing officer, get your luggage, get in that ride and see your family members. You are the next person to be called. And suddenly, much like the roller coaster’s hard-right turn, a large “connected” family is escorted to the officer by an airport employee. Your blood pressure rises, but everybody else is enjoying so why bother.

Having been used to the very loose concept of timeliness in India, you think when someone says they’ll meet you at 8:30 he really means 10am. So imagine your surprise when at 8:20 he calls you and says, “Sir I am outside the gate”. Just like when you start to think “oh how many more curves and drops” on a coaster but it slowly arches around the corner for you to see the station, much to your relief and leaving you with the thought, “this ain’t so bad, we can do this”

When you’re driving on the highway at 80-100 kmph and you see a truck perpedicular to the road, poised to cross, the driver looking left and right, as if to wait until the high speeders pass. But you know deep inside that his mind and his foot are on different continents, because his truck is moving barrelling forward without a care in the world. If you didn’t know any better, you would crash into him head on at 60-80kmph. Much like on a roller coaster where you can see a dead end or broken tracks and we’re hurtling towards it, only to stop within inches.

Your friends want to hang out and down a few cold ones (with temps in low 40s, you won’t mind a lot of those ‘few’). You end up at this scruffy looking building, thinking “Huh! This is modern India?”. But when you enter the restaurant it’s so cool inside it’ll put some of the best bars in Manhattan to shame. And the food hits it out of the park. Similar to the rickety coaster you fear getting on, but leave thrilled enough to want to go back.

Finally, the people. You come across these saintly people you would want to worship. And then you find these  douchebags who are only alive because it’s illegal to kill them. No really, I want an open discussion on that law. It’s like on the coaster, one minute you’re climbing up the rails, viewing a different perspective of the world, and plummeting down the next, blood rushing to your head.

One thing’s for sure. There’s never a dull moment in this country.

The Magnum Opus

I finally watched Bahubali – The Conclusion (BB-2) this weekend, a little more than two weeks after it hit the screens worldwide.

My first reaction on exiting the theater – wow!

But this is not a post about the technical aspects of the movie, or how a regional film family pulled off the greatest commercial hit in the history of Indian cinema. Just do a google search on Bahubali and you’ll get reams and reams of content on that.

This is purely my reaction to, and opinion on the finished product.

To be honest, I was suspect about this movie. Not its success – the hype-meisters had taken care of it long before its release. But in general I am a bit circumspect about Indian period movies – real or fiction. I am yet to watch one that blows my mind. And yes, that includes BB-2. They usually tend to tip the balance: either grossly underwhelming or extremely over the top. Great visuals are crippled by a weak story. Great stories are corrupted by visuals unabashedly ripped-off from Hollywood or downright atrocious stunts and action sequences: we’re obsessed with one man shows than collaborative efforts. And yes, BB-2 suffers from this malaise as well.

There’s also a problem with the ‘critical’ viewer in India (including yours truly). We watch Hollywood movies quite extensively. Our bar is set higher, hence. Inevitable comparisons follow. It is easily forgotten that Hollywood has the benefit of decades of advanced CGI technology and a highly mature industry. Its audience is different too, more discerning and a lot more educated. So I’ve come to the conclusion that I shouldn’t even be comparing BB-2 with any Hollywood movie. It would be wrong on my part.

I looked at it purely from a layman Indian’s perspective. Someone that is not fortunate enough, or doesn’t have access to these foreign blockbusters. To such people, this movie is mind-blowing.

The average Indian movie-goer absolutely loves superhero actions; I suspect there are deeper (and worrying) psychological connotations behind this but that’s for another day. BB-2 more than gratifies them in this regard. The visuals are out of the world. Undoubtedly the best I’ve seen among Indian movies.

The story is tight as well – standard Indian masala but woven very well. All the nava-rasas are present from love to sex to valor to revenge. The actors acted out of their skin: the fierce but vulnerable Ramya Krishna, evil-personified Rana, the loyal Satyaraj, the defiant Anushka and of course the main protagonist: Prabhas. Kudos to all of them.

Where I really found a problem in this movie is the pace. It may not be the maker’s fault but BB-2 fails in this regard. Let’s break the story down into 2 parts: the flashback and the avenging. The flashback takes up almost 80-85% of the movie, leaving very little time for the son to avenge his father. The last 30 minutes of the movie goes at such a frenetic pace that it seems rushed, like a mad sprint to the finish-line in a marathon, if you pardon my running analogy.

I distinctly remember looking at my watch a couple of times, well into the second half and thinking “We’ve still not killed Amarendra Bahubali. When are we getting the retribution?”. I believe the director got so engrossed in trying to exalt the father, and thus generate the sympathy for his death, that he overlooked the fact that there’s a son out there waiting to kill the conspirators.

I hear Mr. Rajamouli is considering making the Mahabharata into a movie. I look forward to it. To me, as to many Indians, the Mahabharata is the greatest story ever written (sorry Tolkien, Lucas and Rowling). In order to bring that to life, his pacing needs to be spot on.

Back to BB-2, to me the best and worst parts of the movie were:

Best: The coronation setting and sequence. Such exquisite execution

Worst: The angry bird parallel at the end with soldiers bundled up and catapulted into the fortress from palm trees. Seriously! WTF?

The American Telugu Polarization

I’ve been living here in the United States for close to a quarter century, having arrived here less than a year into the Bill Clinton presidency. I was received at the Cleveland airport by a Bengali man, roomed up with a Mumbaikar for the initial few days and leased a rental studio with a Kannadiga.

Eventually, when we moved out of the studio apartment six months after, I had an all-Telugu set of roomies. The most amazing thing about the time that followed was the absence of that one social evil that plagues India more than anything else – casteism.

We never asked each other’s castes or made friendships based on last names. We were just a bunch of students away from their home country, come together for a common purpose – finish your Master’s, find a job and make it count.

Personally I have avoided caste like it was the plague. I was raised in a household that scowled at any discussion on caste, even though on occasion elders betrayed their preferences. Growing up in a cosmopolitan city like Hyderabad, and having friends that didn’t give a damn about my caste (or that of the others) laid a solid anti-caste foundation in me long before I landed on a Lufthansa 747 at Boston’s Logan on a chilly December evening in 1993.

Fast forward to 2017. Over the past 10-15 years there has been a massive influx of techie Telugus to the States. The inflow brought with it some much needed respite to India-starved long term residents: Indian grocery stores, restaurants, jewelry stores, temples, even specialty shops selling everything from furniture to beauty products to clothing. Some of the immigrants jumped into entrepreneurship, increasing the number of Indian-owned businesses. All in all, it was great for the economy in general, and fantastic for the Indian diaspora, which forms 1% of the American population.

Within the Indian Telugu community though, things soured. I’m not sure this happened with other Indian sub-cultures. Polarization based on region (Andhra vs Telangana) and caste (Kamma vs Reddy vs Velama vs You-Name-It) began finding its roots in cities with large Telugu populations. Multiple cultural organizations, split along caste lines, started dividing communities. The most vicious of these happened when a landmark split took place back in the homeland in 2014.

The formation of Telangana as a separate brought a cataclysmic change to the Telugu community in the US. Neighbors got alienated, friends grew apart and groups began to form contesting the merits and harms of the split. People that have lived in the US for ages, and that lost all connection with the home state began to fight for or against the split. Cracks appeared even in tiny, clean cultural organizations creating chasms that never existed.

I know. I’ve seen it first hand.

In a small city like ours, the lines have been drawn. Get-togethers are now parochial, conversations are petty and harmony has gone the way of the dodo. Mini-Andhras with all the evils are being formed, and cultivated, much to the community’s detriment.

It’s sad. But it’s true. And there’s no going back.

The only silver lining is that (hopefully) this evil will be contained amongst first-generation immigrants.

You can take an Indian out of India but you can’t take India out of an Indian.

The H1B Damage

I have to put up two disclaimers before starting this post:

  1. If you’re an Indian person offended by my opposition to the H1B program, don’t read further. Get out!
  2. What I write below does not apply to everyone. You know who you are.

The H1B program was instituted to bring in some the super-skilled, extremely talented, smart individuals to help out businesses in this country.

Every nation faces some resource crunch or the other from time to time. Wealthy nations face it more. They usually have a thriving economy, businesses ringing in profits quarter after quarter, products being released in a hurry but unable to push the R&D required to keep pace with development. The US has long had such requirement in various fields, mostly engineering related: automotive, industrial, construction and lately, computer science and information technology.

The candidates who are foreign nationals and otherwise not legally allowed to work in the US, usually have advanced engineering (or other) degrees, giving them the ability to analyze and solve complex problems. Most of the original H1Bs were foreign students who studied in US colleges for their degrees and went on to find a job to apply the knowledge they obtained.

That was how it was, until the turn of the last century. Some time in the late 90s and early 00s the game changed. Silicon Valley required hundreds of thousands of such people as technology leaped from its industrial confines into our homes. In order to build these amazing gadgets software companies needed programmers. With the education system in the US already on a downward spiral, it was much easier (and cheaper) to bring people from foreign countries to do the programming work for us.

Problem is, some of the companies entrusted with the job of finding the talent began to circumvent the rules. They brought in less deserving candidates using fake experience, and sometimes faking the candidates themselves in to this country. We ended up with tens of thousands of truly undeserving candidates learning on the job. They do a good job at work. It’s outside of the work that the damage happened.

Undeserving candidates, several of whom come from socially reckless backgrounds invaded the American society. These people usually pay no attention to culture, following rules or adapting to customs. Having come from generally underprivileged background back in their home country, they would splurge on cars, homes and other gadgets with their nouveau-riche status here in the US. It resulted in an unusual bloating of prices, culminating in the housing bubble that left everyone in the lurch. They may not be the single most reason behind the bubble, but their contribution is unmistakeable.

It has also resulted in a general soft-corner towards illegal immigration. See, if you are an undeserving candidate yourself, you’re more likely to condone an immigrant who just walked in without papers, rather than the righteous individual who earned his keep.

Another damage being constantly done to the American society – and one of my pet peeves – is the lack of assimilation. I could go on and one about the refusal to adopt new customs but I’ve already covered that enough.

There needs to be “extreme vetting” of the H1B program. Raising the minimum salary for H1Bs is not the answer. Businesses have to scrutinize every single hire (direct, temp, third party or even consultants) and make sure the candidates justify their position. Once you’ve identified the candidate is meritorious, maybe put them through some psychological evaluation to tune them to the American society and culture. Maybe even pay for the ‘Americanization’ of such candidates.