Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Vishy Anand fails the test

Yesterday, Viswanathan Anand capped a disappointing performance in his World Championship match against Boris Gelfand by playing out a draw that felt like a defeat. Vishy has been undisputed chess World Champion for five years. He won the title in 2007, defended it the following year against Vladimir Kramnik, and again two years ago in an exciting match against Veselin Topalov. In both those playoffs, Anand went into the match as an underdog or, at best, a very narrow favourite. His third defence was supposed to be easier, since he faced the relatively low-ranked Boris Gelfand. It hasn't turned out that way. The 12 match series started with six draws before Gelfand took the lead in the seventh. Vishy played brilliantly to equalise with white pieces in the eighth. Three more draws followed, leaving the players tied at 5.5 points with just one more game to play, a game in which Anand had the advantage of white.
The champion produced a novelty on the sixth move that put Gelfand in the tank for nearly an hour. Anand had given up a pawn, but gained compensation by messing up his opponent's position. None of Gelfand's pieces could move freely, his bishops were tied up behind doubled pawns, and Anand had all the initiative.
On his tenth move, Gelfand offered Anand two pawns in return for freedom of movement. It wasn't necessarily the best play available, but the challenger made it in the belief, correct as it turned out, that it would throw Anand off his prepared line. Between moves five and ten, Anand had been comfortably parlaying a line analysed carefully with his seconds in preparing for the world championship. He was banging out his moves instantly while his opponent had to improvise on the board. It was the equivalent of being in a section of a maze that Anand had traversed dozens of times, but which Gelfand was trying to figure out as he went along. After move ten, both players were in an unfamiliar section of the maze.
Gelfand had been put to a huge test, and had seemed for some time to be sinking into a mire of self-doubt and despondency,  but had emerged creditably.
He was, nevertheless, under some time pressure and a pawn down. He now had to simplify the position and hope his paired bishops would compensate for Anand's small material advantage. On his twelfth move. Gelfand offered an exchange of queens as part of his simplifying tactics. Anand had two options: the first was to take the queen and go into an endgame in which he couldn't lose, but had a very small chance of winning. The second was to reject the queen swap and instead push his queen sideways one square. That would create a double-edged position in which Anand had a far greater chance of winning, but could lose if he played a couple of sub-optimal moves.
The queen exchange was what a club class player like myself would choose almost every time. Not having the ability to think through every possible variation in complex positions, I would take the no risk - low reward option and try to press home that pawn advantage in a simple endgame. I would expect a World Champion to pick the slightly riskier move.
Anand played safe. He exchanged queens and, a few moves later, the consensus among experts was that there was about 95% chance of a draw and a 5% chance of Anand winning. That 5% chance, I figured, was sufficient for Anand to keep the pressure on Gelfand. It's difficult, psychologically, to play when you know your best hope is to draw. On move 20, Gelfand pushed a pawn and seemed immediately to regret it. Horrible blunders have been made under the pressure of playing in the World Championships, blunders no Grandmaster would make in less important games. It seemed possible the challenger would crack.

After playing move 22, though, Anand offered a draw. It left the commentators gobsmacked. Accepting a draw would have been bad enough, but offering a draw? Come on!
Chess etiquette demands players don't continue games when a draw is almost inevitable; but this was the final game of the World Championship, and the challenger was behind on material and in some time trouble. Nobody would have blamed Anand for pressing on at that stage. Offering a draw in that position was being Mr. Nice Guy to a ridiculous degree.
Maybe it wasn't just out of niceness. Anand, in the moments he spent at the table after the truce was signed, looked spent, almost dazed. Maybe he just ran out of steam. Which isn't a happy thought either.

There will now be a tie-breaker of four rapid games. Anand is generally considered among the two or three best players in this format in history, so everybody expects him to win. However, should he lose, I will not mourn, though I've been a fan of his for the longest time. To be a World Champion, after all, is not just about gaining a point more than your opponent, it's about courage, imagination and determination. I'm afraid Viswanathan Anand failed that test yesterday.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hugo and The Avengers: A kind of magic

They say Hollywood's a machine, but no machine would have greenlighted the 170 million dollar budget of Martin Scorsese's Hugo. The cast features no big box-office draws and, while Martin Scorsese might be the greatest living American film-maker, he has yet to deliver a blockbuster hit in forty years of making movies. Hugo is not only set in the past, but seems in some ways a throwback, filled with simplistic characters and stock situations, and adhering to a convention, questioned by Milos Forman's Amadeus and taken apart by Derek Jarman's Caravaggio, that period films set in continental Europe must be peopled by British accents. Reviews have said Hugo is Scorsese trying his hand at a children's film, and perhaps they've said this because of the simplicity of the storyline and the fact that the main character, Hugo Brevet, is a young orphan, but the film offers few thrills, and the mixture of history and fiction at its heart is hard for children to appreciate.
Who, then, is Hugo made for? It is made for people like me, adult bibliophiles and cinephiles. For people like myself, and there aren't all that many of us, as proven by the film's dismal box-office numbers, Hugo is magical. It takes us back to a time when entire new worlds opened up through books. The last time I felt that way was while reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude at age sixteen or seventeen. Hugo brings back that magical newness in combination with the most unchildlike of emotions, nostalgia. We feel like the food critic from Ratatouille who, on taking a bite of the dish of the film's title, finds himself, suddenly, unexpectedly, transported back in time to a precious memory from his rustic childhood. Scorsese orchestrates this play of magic and nostalgia by exploring more flamboyantly than anybody has so far the extravagant visual possibilities offered by 3-D 2.0 (the sweeping opening shots of Casino were impressive enough, but they don't hold a candle to Hugo's breathtaking aerial view of Paris that moves seamlessly into a bustling railway station before following the main character through a succession of intricate corridors leading to rooms leading to ladders leading to more corridors), while telling an intimate story made from an old-fashioned mix of sentiment, comedy and coincidence. It's a unique and unrepeatable melding of past and future.
Briefly, now, to the story itself (spoiler warning): In 1931, an orphan named Hugo Cabret lives in secret within the walls of  Paris's Gare Montparnasse. Hugo has taken over his uncle's job of keeping the giant clocks of the station ticking, in the hope nobody will realise the alcoholic uncle has vanished. He feeds himself by stealing, and also pinches widgets from a toy store in the station's concourse to repair an old automaton that his father was trying to fix before he died. Hugo is caught by the store owner, who turns out, in the end, to be a once-renowned film-maker named Georges Méliès.
Méliès is well-known to film buffs as the pioneer of cinema as fantasy. His most famous movie, made in 1902, involved a journey to the moon. By the time the first World War broke out, Méliès was out of fashion. He had to close down his studio, sell off his props and his beloved automatons, and even hawk his negatives for the silver that could be extracted from them. He ended up running a toy store much like that the one depicted in Hugo.
In the early days of cinema, the days of Méliès pomp, the medium enchanted adults, made them feel like children. Scorsese replicates some of that enchantment felt by early viewers of cinema. But in telling the story of Méliès after his downfall, he reminds us of the dangers inherent in using a technology that is improved constantly and makes what went before feel dated. Books don't date the way films do. Of course, language changes and literary fashions change, but we don't find Arthur Conan Doyle's fiction awkward in the way Méliès's films look awkward today. It's impossible to say which film will age badly and which film will stay vital: who would have predicted, around the time Scorsese made his first film, that Singin' In the Rain would still seem like a masterpiece in 2012 while My Fair Lady and West Side Story would be virtually unwatchable? There is a warning inherent in Hugo that not only will the magic we feel watching it today not be replicable by films until another radical breakthrough in technology is achieved, but it might not be experienced by succeeding generations watching this same film.

Had Méliès been alive, he'd probably have made a film like The Avengers rather than Hugo: a funny, action-packed, cutting-edge entertainer, an unabashed crowd pleaser. The budget for The Avengers, around USD 220 million, wasn't that much greater than the amount allotted to Hugo. For that money, we get an inter-galactic war; a proper good versus evil tale with the appropriate outcome after a frantic climax; a bunch of A- and B-list stars playing familiar comic book characters; and great 3-D, CGI and motion capture. Hardly surprising that The Avengers, like Avatar before it, will realise over ten times its budget. According to Holywood's rule of thumb, a film needs to take in twice its budget to show a profit. At the moment, Hugo has barely scraped past its production expenditure, and will probably never recover marketing costs. I'd like to thank all the people at Paramount Pictures who let their good taste over-ride their accounting skills.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Scam alert: Noise barriers

MMRDA has earmarked over 37 crore rupees this year for the construction of sound barriers on flyovers. The idea was mooted in 2010, and the following year, "Metropolitan Commissioner Rahul Asthana and former Municipal Commissioner Subodh Kumar went on a weeklong tour to Italy to study, among other infrastructure projects, sound barrier technology". Now that junkets are behind them, there will be a 'noise mapping exercise', from which MMRDA officials will receive a cut. Following this, the installation of the sound absorbers will provide an even bigger payoff. Once the barriers are in place, their dimpled surfaces will be leased out for advertising, as has happened on the J J flyover, the first in the city to be endowed with noise mitigating tech. Of course, sticking posters in front of sound absorbers renders them ineffectual, but their effectiveness isn't a real concern for the MMRDA anyway. The agency contracted to use that space for ads will also factor kickbacks to municipal employees in its budget.
Five years from now, the Suman Nagar and Navghar flyovers will be as noisy as ever, the city's visual clutter will have been augmented, and wallets of MMRDA executives and their favourite contractors will be considerably fatter.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The new Indian President: A matter of stature

The Congress is currently scrounging for votes from regional parties to ensure its candidate gets elected President without problems. Last time round, after negotiations with the Left, the party settled on Pratibha Patil, who is destined to go down as one of the least distinguished Presidents in India's history. After Ms. Patil, it is clear that moral or intellectual stature are not prerequisites for the post. Let me therefore suggest that physical stature should be a major consideration.
After all, the President's post is a ceremonial one; like British Royalty, Indian Presidents just have to turn up and look good. It's a pity, then, that we have chosen a succession of midgets for the job. Here is President Narayanan:

Bill Clinton looks like he might get a crick in the neck from looking down at our man. After Mr Narayanan came Abdul Kalam.

George W Bush isn't as tall as Bill Clinton, but that didn't stop him towering over the pint sized Mr. Kalam (whom Indians like to call Dr. Kalam, though he has no doctorate and has never published a single research paper in his life).
And now we have Ms.Patil:

President Obama's father was from Kenya and next to Pratibha Patil he looks like an especially lofty Masai. How's the weather up there, Barack?
So how do the two top candidates being considered by the Congress measure up? Hamid Ansari hasn't been photographed much with foreign dignitaries, but this picture of him standing next to Omar Abdullah inspires little confidence:

As for Pranab Mukherjee, I think it'll be great for the country if he were made President, mainly because it would remove him from the Finance Ministry, and prevent him from putting in place more ridiculous measures like the retrospective tax he introduced in his last budget. In the stature stakes, though, he is more or less in the Patil league. During his term as External Affairs Minister, it became apparent how vertically challenged he was when he met counterparts like Mr Qureshi from Paksitan:

Ms. Rice from the United States:

And Mr. Milliband from the United Kingdom:

For readers who have not met me, I'd like to clarify that I am short myself, and this post is not inspired by personal prejudice. But since we have a minimum height requirement for the military, why not apply it to the official head of our armed forces as well? There's no evidence that taller people make better soldiers, as the Vietnam war and General Giap make clear. But taller people do make better-looking Presidents, or at least less ridiculous-looking ones.

 Update: Chief Ministers Jayalalitha and Nitish Kumar have put forward the name of P A Sangma as their candidate for President. Mr Sangma is the guy on the extreme left in the photograph below.I'm beginning to scent a conspiracy.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Tadao Ando at Godrej Culture Lab

Yesterday, at an event organised by the Godrej Culture Lab at Vikhroli, I had the pleasure of listening to a talk by Tadao Ando, one of the world's greatest living architects. Not having been to Japan, my knowledge of his work comes mainly from books, but what I've seen in photographs and read about him has impressed me greatly.
When I got to the venue half an hour before the talk was to start, there was a long queue of people waiting to get their copy of a big tome about Ando signed by the man himself. Each person bought a copy for 2500 rupees, wrote his or her name on a slip of paper, and handed these over once face to face with the master builder. He'd write down the name, make a little sketch, and sign. Architecture students obviously have much more money than art students. I can't imagine such a long queue to get a book signed by, say, Gerhard Richter, if he came to town. I could be wrong.
The hall filled quickly, and some, like my friends Deepika and Shireen, found that keeping a placeholder such as a handbag on a seat did not guarantee that the seat would actually remain vacant. The auditorium had some 300 chairs, and by the time Ando began speaking about fifty people were standing at the back. He spoke in Japanese, and was translated by an Indian assisted by a White man who appeared part of the Ando entourage. He was by turns funny, moving and incisive. He also dropped a few names, highlighted his own charitable contributions and made what seemed a strong sales pitch to the assembled Godrej brass.
Ando's approach is inherently modernist, but he imbues concrete with feeling and light and incorporates natural features into the complexes he builds. He balances needs of the market with a desire to preserve and reinvigorate nature; and employs art, culture and built heritage to attract people to locations and to make those who live and work in those locations feel emotionally connected to their surroundings.
Should the Godrejes greenlight a Tadao Ando build, it will be the most exciting architectural project the city has seen since Independence.
A bit about the Godrej land in Vikhroli: it is the biggest tract of its kind in the city and probably the most valuable privately-owned piece of earth anywhere in India. Back in the socialist days, during the Emergency to be specific, the Congress government passed a law called the Urban Land Ceiling Act. The idea was to take land from those who possessed more of it than they needed, and build on it homes for the poor and government employees. Nothing of the sort happened. Politicians made millions by not expropriating privately held plots, and by ignoring a provision that forced builders to turn over for public use 5% of all flats built on exempted land.
In the 30 years that the Land Ceiling Act was in the books, the government acquired just 260 odd acres of vacant land, and received less than 2500 flats from builders from the nearly 2000 acres exempted. The law was repealed five years ago, but there's a lot of litigation related to it still being heard by courts.
The Godrejes owned 3500 acres, and little of that has been taken over or sold. Despite a speeding up in construction, there's plenty left for an architectural landmark to be built.
Back in the socialist days, two films were made about slum residents, the first independent documentaries about the subject to be widely viewed: Uma Segal's Shelter and Anand Patwardhan's Hamara Shahar: Bombay, Our City. Both films contrasted the massive unused land the Godrejes were sitting on with the paltry dwellings available to those who couldn't afford flats. Shelter, if I recall correctly, used title cards that said, in rapid succession, Godrej and Hoardrej.
Having successfully kept the ULCRA demon at bay, will the Godrej clan now do something interesting with all that land, or will they follow every other developer in cramming it with malls, glass-front office towers and luxury residences? It's clear that a Tadao Ando project will not be as lucrative as one by Hafeez Contractor and his ilk. But hey, Parsis are different from Marwaris, Gujaratis, Sindhis, Marathis, Punjabis and all the rest, right? Parsis combine entrepreneurship with civic sense and good taste. They don't look solely at the bottom line. If Godrej will do nothing but build another Hiranandani complex, Indiabulls Centre or High Street Phoenix, there's truly no hope for this city.

Tadao Ando took a helicopter ride over Vikhroli and its surroundings and was excited by the mangrove forest, seeing it as an anchor around which an entire complex could be designed. Another proposal currently doing the rounds, directed at the government rather than private sector, also involves the use of mangroves and the city's coastline. It is currently on view at NGMA, and has been designed by P K Das with the backing of Shabana Azmi, who worked with Das on the beautification of Carter Road. If something like the P K Das plan actually makes it past the drawing board, and the Godrej family bites the Ando bait, Bombay could be substantially improved five years from now. Here's hoping against hope.