Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Nagraj: Nagayan: Varankand and Grahankand


Nagayan is a limited series of the Nagraj franchise which retells/adapts the Ramayan into the Raj Comics universe. However, Nagayan does not happen in the 'contemporary' Nagraj time line but in the future in year 2023.

The artwork for this series is done by Anupam Sinha and is what Nagraj fans have come to recognize as quintessentially Nagraj. The drawing is imaginative and full of detail but does not render human figures realistically. If I were to describe it in one word, I'd call it 'bulbous'. There is an abundance of roundness in the artwork.

The plot also is quintessentially Nagraj. Nagraj plots have a template. It is this – Nagraj is faced is some sort of a supernatural foe. Nagraj spends his time dueling with this unworldly monster and uses all his powers one by one. But obviously the monster doesn't die. But in the process, Nagraj is able to discover the 'rules' according to which the monster functions (it may be made of ice and hence can be killed by fire) and subsequently thinks up a flaw in these rules. Nagraj then uses his powers to kill the monster. Nagayan follows the same template.

Where Nagayan differs is in trying to retell the Ramayan. So in Varankand and Grahankand, we see Nagraj (Ram) and Dhruv (Lakshman) being trained by Baba Gorakhnath (Vishwamitr) in use of divine arms and ammunition. Then they go to the swayamvar of nag-princess Visarpi where they defeat Kroorpasha (Ravan) and Nagraj marries Visarpi. In between we also have Mahatma Kaaldoot getting angry at Nagraj destroying the divine sword and we have the Dhruv-Kaaldoot samvad, a counterpart of the Lakshman-Parshuram samvad.

But the comic follows Ramayan only loosely. Nagraj is not loyal to just one wife but ends up marrying two women by a quirk of fate. Visarpi is not the subservient Sita but an assertive and powerful nagrani. Overall, the women characters are much more independent (although still stereotypical) and this is to be appreciated.

I also liked the way the character of Ravan has been interpreted. Nagpasha, Nagraj's arch rival is split under the effect of Black Powers into three. Kroorpasha – pure evil, Suptpasha – pure laziness and Bheerupasha – pure fearfulness. Clearly the analogy is to Ravan, Kumbhakarna and Vibhishan. I had never thought of these three as aspects of the same psyche in Ramayan but now that Raj Comics gives us that pov, it's worth a thought. (cf. The four hobbits and gollum can be seen as aspects of the same psyche in LOTR.)

I would have liked these stories more if the artwork was better. On my Raj Comics scale, I rate them 7/10 mostly because of the plot.

Principles of Usability

I have written earlier about intuitive uesr interfaces. In that article I argue that a large amount of human behavior is learnt and there is nothing intuitive about it. Hence we should drop the notion of intuitiveness when we design user interfaces. Instead we should design interfaces based on the principles of efficiency.

A user interface is more usable if it allows the user to accomplish the desired task:
  1. in minimum time possible
  2. with least effort. Effort can be measured in the following ways:
    1. Physical effort: clicking, typing etc
    2. Mental effort: a) Searching (less is good) b) Memorizing (less is good)
Related:

Monday, August 25, 2008

Nagraj: Atank-harta Nagraj: Teen Sikke


Teen Sikke is the next comic in the Atank-harta Nagraj series of the Nagraj franchise. It continues the tale of Nagraj as he tours Europe on a mission to clean world terrorism. This time Nagraj is in Italy.

The artwork on this comic is dark and gritty. Lalit Sharma's penciling makes it a wonderfully noirish and sinister work. I like his new Nagraj. He looks far more young, more believable and a lot more dependable than Anupam Sinha's. Also this Nagraj and his snakes are far more sinister than ever before.

Raj Comics continues to be confused between crime and terrorism even in this comic. Nagraj is trying to eradicate the mafia from Italy. The fact that mafia is a crime ring and not a terrorist one escapes the writers.

As has now become the norm with the Atank-harta series, characterization is strong, which makes these comics readable. I really liked the character of Jhappi Singh, who is a voluble Punjabi taxi driver in Italy. His loud-mouthedness leads to a lot of amusing situations in the storyline.

It is useless to rate Raj Comics on my personal scale since all of them will get lumped together on 2/5 (time pass). Hence, I will rate them on a new Raj Comics scale from 0 to 10 which is a lot more quantitative than my personal one.

Rating: 7/10

Related:

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Dharm


Banaras, Varanasi, Kashi – the oldest seat of the mighty Hindu Dharm. In that holiest of cities resides Pandit Chaturvedi, true to his dharma, strict of his rituals, he is the epitome of sanatana dharma in the city. Other pandits fear and envy him, people in power respect him, his word is the law. All because there is not one more steadfast in religion than Pandit Chaturvedi.

Then one day, the pandit's daughter brings home an infant, who she claims to be a Brahmin's son, abandoned by his mother. The pandit's wife is overcome with love for the child and manipulates Pandit Chaturvedi into adopting him. The Pandit has doubts, about the birth caste and origins of this child but as the child grows up in his house, he becomes extremely attached to him.

And then, another day, they discover that the child, named Kartikey by Pandit Chaturvedi, is actually a Muslim's son. The pandit casts him aside like a torn rag, and does penance for this ghor paap committed unknowingly by him. He cleans his body through rituals but is not able to clean his heart which reverberates with the sounds of the childs laughter day and night. Troubled, he embarks upon the most difficult Chandrayan vrat. Religious riots break out in the city and there is fire and blood all around. Panditji successfully completes his vrat but purity of heart remains an unachieved goal.

The movie is one of the most powerful I've ever seen. Of course, it is not dealing with a new topic. However, the plot point that it hinges it's message on, is really powerful. It drives home two points very effectively. One, there really is no difference, by birth, between a Hindu child and a Muslim child. Two, no amount of ritualism can bring real purity to your heart if you're drowning in violence and hatred and doing nothing about it.

Pankaj Kapoor is one of the best actors India has seen. He is natural in his role as a Kashi pandit in this movie. He is stern, powerful, respectable, yet caring at the same time. When the rioting mobs stand down even at one stern gaze by Pandit Chaturvedi, it is believable.

Cinematography is exquisite. I never knew Kashi could look that beautiful. The visuals are very powerful and the music aptly supports the screenplay.

My rating: 4/5 (Recommended)

Friday, August 22, 2008

Movie Watching Experience at Maratha Mandir Mumbai

In case you're looking for the schedule or show timings or something -- they don't publish it on the net. Maratha Mandir is NOT a multiplex. So enjoy the real retro movie going experience, locate show timings on your local newspaper and drive all the way to the theater wondering all the time if the show is housefull. Yeah, no advance booking either! (Added after noticing and a lot of people were landing on this post looking for show timings. :) )

For those who don't know what Maratha Mandir is, it is the famous movie theater in Mumbai, near Mumbai Central, that has been running DDLJ for nearly 13 years continuously now. The day I went there, the movie was in it's 370th week. But sadly, I was not able to watch this legendary movie in this legendary theater. Instead I watched Bachna Ae Haseeno.

The whole movie watching experience was extremely nostalgic. Maratha Mandir still sticks to its roots. The ticket counters (khidki) are literally windows in the wall with the the ticket vendor sitting in a small cabin behind it. The balcony ticket cost 65 rs. The ticket itself was an unintelligible piece of newsprint in orange color. Other tickets were deep blue in color. The insides of the theater were decorated in the style of rich 70s movies. Glass and wood instead of the modern plastic and aluminum one sees at multiplexes.

As I walked into the hall I realized that they still had those old style seats, the ones which the theater staff folded up after each show. The ticket was so unintelligible that I actually HAD to go to the attendant to know where my seat was. He looked at the ticket with his little torch and then targeted the beam towards my designated seat. I promptly went and sat there. The cinema hall was air conditioned and CLEAN. The national anthem was played before the movie and everyone stood up for it. Then the movie began. People actually whistled when Bipasha Basu came on the screen. Gradually the movie proceeded towards the interval. People came out and had chai, samosa and popcorn. (The samosas sucked big time, by the way.) When I came in I noticed couples in the corner seats. No points for guessing what they were doing when the lights were out. :)

In all, it was a wonderfully nostalgic experience. I don't think I've been to a conventional cinema hall in over four years. (We did that in the first year at college when multiplexes were still a novelty.) I think multiplexes are just too bland and don't offer the rich movie going experience that cinema halls of old used to.

Getting Visa at Mumbai Consulate

As many of you would know, I recently went through the visa experience. Except for intense moment of irrational panic, the process was smooth as butter. Of course, I was applying for a student's visa and there is not much that can go wrong there.

The visa day began early in the morning at 5:30. I did my morning routine and checked out of the hotel at around 6:15. The reason I had to check out was that Mumbai hotels have a check out time of 10:00 AM and I was not sure I'd be back by this time. I then took a taxi to Mumbai Central where I put my luggage, including my cell phone into the railway cloak room. Cell phones are not allowed at the consulate and you have to make your own arrangements to leave yours out.

I then took a taxi to the consulate which is only a 10 minutes distance from Mumbai Central. I reached there a little before 7:00 AM. The first set of interview letters indicate 7:30 as the start time but there already was a huge crowd at the consulate. This included not only the applicants but also their family members. The atmosphere was tense, and everyone appeared slightly frightened.

I joined the queue. There were two students standing in front of me. A girl and a boy. The boy was dressed all in formals and even wore a tie. I suddenly became very conscious of my own t-shirt and jeans. I looked around. Everyone was dressed in formals. My own screwed up reasoning (this isn't really an interview, just an appearance at a govt. office to get something done) had led me to my casual attire. I wondered for a moment if this would jeopardize my chances of getting a visa.

The girl in front of me had a three page print out in her hands titled “Frequently Asked Visa Questions”. She was busily cramming these up. Again, I wondered if I was under prepared for the interview.

They started letting people in at 7:15 but it was a long queue and I got in only at 7:40. Went through the security check and the fingerprinting. Then waited patiently for my token number to be called. Fortunately the waiting area was air conditioned. :)

My number was called at 8:20. Four people had been called together at the same counter. The person in front of me entered with a subservient “may I come in sir” and spent a lot of time animatedly explaining himself as the consular officer became somewhat agitated. This scared me. No good to have the consular officer in a bad mood.

I myself entered without any formalities and just said a polite 'hi'. The officer started with the usual questions. “Why do you want to study in the US?”, “Which university are you going to?”, “What are the other universities you'd applied to?”, “What degree is this going to be?”, “Where did you do your bachelors from?”, and “Who is going to pay for this?”.

I don't see why those questions would require any sort of preparation. He didn't even ask me if I was going to come back or not. (I guess with Indian students they just assume otherwise.)

I was out at 8:40. Called up people at home to tell them I'd got the visa.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Atank-harta Nagraj


Atank-harta Nagraj is a special series featuring Nagraj in the Raj Comics universe. The series outlines the adventures of Nagraj as he travels around the world on his mission to end terrorism. The series is being published as a sequence of two part stories. The first of these happen in Spain and the next ones are set in England. I think these comics depict cataclysmic changes that are happening with Raj Comics in particular and Indian comics in general.

Much Improved Artwork
Raj Comics has clearly switched to computer assisted inking and coloring. They have also started publishing on smoother paper used by the American comics industry. The result is a much better artwork from a technical point of view. The whole feel is that of a glitzy, professional work. But that isn't all, the artwork has also improved in a non-technical way. The artists are playing around more with frames. They seem to have learned that comics should never text what it can draw. For example, the fact that Nagraj keeps an extra change of clothes in his belt is now shown though pictures and not dialog.

The anatomy of the characters has changed. The bodies are not that exaggerated now. Faces are better drawn and it is actually possible to tell them apart at places. There is a lot more 'style' to the whole production.

Change in Genre
Nagraj comics were, till now, largely superhero fantasies. In each comics Nagraj was faced with a villain with supernatural powers. And in each comics he was able to defeat them by outwitting them in some way. However, Atank-harta series brings back the detective Nagraj. Some Nagraj comics were written in detective style very early on in the franchise. This series revives that. Nagraj is following crime in Europe and follows clue after clue to unearth the various terrorist groups. The villains are criminals or terrorists and there is nothing supernatural about them.

A Lot more Character
Raj Comics has never really concentrated on character. True, the recurring characters do have their quirks but characters that appeared only for a comic or two were merely voiceless monsters. This changes with Atank-harta Nagraj. The characters of his villains are developed in detail. Lot more dialog is involved in developing the storyline.

More than a Plot
Raj Comics was largely about the plot. With this series they are coming out to address several other issues. These comics on terrorism actually have a moral – that not all members of a community are terrorists just because some of them are. Combined with enhanced character development these stories become a lot more lasting than the usual ilk.

Indian Superiority
These comics have an easy sense of Indian superiority. No more are we trying to copy the west – we already have. We can now settle down to tell our own story. Nagraj, the sole Indian character in a European setting is morally superior to everyone around him. The foreigners look up to him for leadership. Instead of the usual exoticisation of the west prevalent in Raj Comics, this series is at ease with the foreign setting. Foreign places and customs are depicted as matter of fact rather than as spectacles. A lot of Indianisms are thrown in. For example, a Spanish girl reminisces about her grandmother applying oil to her hair – a stereotypical bollywood image. When the Big Ben gets into terrorist trouble, someone in the crowd wonders if they should hand 'nimbu-mirchi' on it. :) Signboards and notices appear in Hindi where ever the reader is supposed to read them. The skin color of all characters is the same, irrespective of nationality – brown.

Overall, I was very impressed with this series. It is a huge leap in quality from what Raj Comics usually published both in terms of writing and artwork. In fact, it is actually at par with or better than many of the America comics I have read. (I would rather read Nagraj any day than, say, Witchblade.) I personally think Raj Comics has a lot of potential, if only they'd get the right exposure. Good luck to them for the future.

Autowalas in Ahmedabad

The Benevolent Autowala Strikes Again

Had some really nice experiences with autowalas in Ahmedabad. Autowalas in most Indian cities are like vampires – they will dig their teeth into you and drink your money until you run dry. Not so in Ahmedabad. Here is a blow by blow account.

1. Autowala Number One: I walked about of the railway station and was not mobbed. Demurely, one autowala approached me and asked where I wanted to go. I told him and asked him how much he would charge. He told me he would go by the meter. He also explained the metering system. Ahmedabad autos have a very strange variety of meter. I'm not sure I have figured them out.

Anyhow, it was drizzing lightly and he made me walk as far away from the station as he possibly could. Then he began to search for his auto in the long line of parked vehicles of the same make. Slowly he grew more and more bewildered. When it became unbearable to stand in the rain anymore, I asked him what had happened. In a disturbed voice he told me that his auto had disappeared.

2. Autowala Number Two: So I hailed another autowala who promised to take me to the VFS centre in about 30 rs. From the map I knew that the center was about 4-5 KM away (and it was) so the price seemed reasonable to me. When we reached the place, it turned out that I could not locate it. The autowala immediately took command and asked around. Some people guided us to a passport center nearby. There people told us the location of the visa center. The autowala finally dropped me there.

Needless to say, he had to do quite a bit of extra running around in all this. Yet, he charged me only 30 Rs. He told me he felt satisfied only if the customer got to the right place. I thanked him as he went away.

3. Autowala Number Four: Why am I leaving out the third one? Because his story is the most interesting. I will narrate that in the end. Autowala number four I hailed as I came out of Sabarmati Ashram and wanted to go to ISCON mall. This one also decided to charge me by the meter. As we moved towards our destination the rain became really heavy. Soon we encountered a patch of road which was difficult to tell apart from a river. The autowala stopped, wondering whether to go across or not. I asked him if there was an alternate route possible. He thought a little and turned the auto around. We went round and round for a long distance and then encountered another patch of road which was indistinguishable from an ocean. I gave up at this point and asked him to take me back to City Gold, a multiplex near Sabarmati Ashram. At this, the autowala became suddenly talkitive. He thanked me many times for asking to turn back, saying that if I'd persisted he would have attempted to cross that ocean and would most definitely have got stuck or washed away. Then he began narrating anecdotes about how vehicles get washed away in heavy rains. Then he thanked me again.

He charged me only 60 Rs for a really long distance. In any other city I would have lost at least a 100 for nothing.

4. Autowala Number Five: This one I hailed to go from City Gold to the railway station. Nothing special about this one except, when it came to pay I just asked him how much (he said 30) and paid him. He apparently took offense at it and insisted (in fluent gujrati) that I take a look at his meter before I left. Well, what could I do, I took a look. :)

5. Autowala Number Three: Now he is the only one who duped me and that too in such an innovative manner that the entertainment was probably worth the cost. I got into his auto after coming out of the VFS counter on Ashram Road and asked him to take me to 'Sabarmati Ashram'. He drove for a few minutes and then asked me if I wanted to go to 'Bapu's Ashram'. Obviously, I said yes. He drove, and drove and drove. I began to get suspicious as Sabarmati Ashram is supposed to be ON Ashram Road (hence the name). Anyhow, after a REALLY long journey, he deposited me at the gates of, guess where, 'Asaram “Bapu” Ashram' :P

At this point I didn't even know whether to laugh or to shout at him. I asked him to take me to the right place and grudgingly sat through a rattle of profound apologies as he pretended to be embarrased of the whole incident. He swindled off a 100 from me this way but, I guess, left me with a story to tell. :)

Overall I liked Ahmedabad. They write a script I can read and speak a language I can vaguely understand. The city is much cleaner than I'd expected and the autowalas don't try to fleece you. The little amound of local food I had was good too. The only thing I missed were those infamous Gujju chicks who are rumored to be drop dead gorgeous and take only 5 minutes max to be pataofied. Didn't even catch a glimpse of them.

Wanted


Wanted is an action movie loosely based on a comic book of the same name. I have read the comic book before watching the movie and frankly, the movie does not live up to expectations.

For one, the movie deviates too much from the source. Now, that itself is not a bad thing. However, the ways the movie deviates are aweful. I hated the whole concept of the loom of fate. I think the original comic book idea of a secret society of super villians was much better. Second, the movie kind of fails to deliver the original message which, in short, is that the youth should be anti-establishment. The whole curving bullets idea was very corny and became ridiculous in the final scene. Also, it the movie doesn't deal with the protagonist wanting to go back to his former life at all.

My rating: 2/5 (Time pass)