Month: May 2016

Playing The Numbers Game

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

As I write this, the previous government has been voted back in to power in Tamil Nadu with a result that was last seen in 1984, during the time of M.G.Ramachandran, who, to date, is held as the greatest Chief Minister the state has ever seen. Once the victory and lead was sealed, the national news channels, who had spent the morning poring over multiple analyses, voter mindsets and trends as numbers danced on the screen, switched to telecasting scenes of victory and the jubilance which had pervaded the air around the winning candidate’s office. Reporters bravely stood in the midst of party workers who were working up a frenzy dancing, and shoving sweets in each others mouths. The scenes being played in the regional television channels though, are a little different.

For the last fifteen odd years, the morning of the day the state election results are declared in Tamil Nadu sees a flurry of activity across all its regional television channels. It didn’t matter that their regular programming was general entertainment or films, for on the day of the results, each channel considered itself to be the foremost authority on the numbers that would determine the future of Tamil Nadu’s government. They have experts, hosts, scrolling numbers and expensive productions. They are also the products of political parties, which is why when counting begins, the hosts and political experts on the show talk with great gusto. However, by the time counting stabilises and a winner emerges, in what feels like a twisted reality show, hardly two channels continue their telecast of the election results.

In the year 2006, when the DMK and its allies won in Tamil Nadu, Sun TV (DMK sided) pressed on about the ‘fair verdict’ and the ‘victory of the masses’ while Jaya TV (affiliated to the AIADMK) if my memory serves me right, had shifted to black and white MGR films. Similarly, in the year 2011, the AIADMK was voted into power with a sweeping majority, winning 203 out of 234 seats. As the results were brought into light, Jaya TV declared victory a good one hour before official results were announced, and instead of discussing vote numbers, began a fresh conversation about the greatness of the new Chief Minister, and the good that she was going to do to the state. Sun TV and Kalaignar TV on the other hand, switched from election result analysis to award show reruns. This convenient switch in programming during results day is now a common joke, to the point where people now predict it the moment a slightest trend or lead shows up.

This year though, apart from the fact that the people didn’t bring in the ‘other’ Dravidian party the way they had been all these years, the channels belonging to the losing parties didn’t back down and change programming. Some channels showed delayed numbers which were favourable to the party it was aligned with, some others took the numbers out but persevered with their opinions. Some even started putting out the correct numbers and admitted failure (albeit after crying foul play), which was radical considering the denial we were used to. That television channels continued with election broadcast, I suppose is a good sign, a sign of fledgling maturity that is beginning to show in people, perhaps. I must admit though, it also felt a little odd – after all, what is results day on Tamil television without a disconnected programme showing you how to make the perfect paruppu vadai? I was thinking about this out loud when the internet pointed me to a channel which is the namesake of a certain actor turned politician, whose party had a terrible run this year. This channel, after insisting that no party had won any seats, shifted to a show which detailed the most authentic way to cook brinjals. All was well with the world again.

Tech and Chips

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}
Last week, I had all four of my wisdom teeth extracted, an occasion which demanded rest, food that had compulsorily been through a blender, a heady cocktail of pills, and finally, a comedy series that would help numb the pain. The show I watched through this week, swollen mouth and all, was Silicon Valley, and while it wasn’t as effective as ibuprofen, it certainly helped.

Silicon Valley traces the trials and tribulations of four programmers who are trying to make it big in the heart of the tech world. Richard Hendriks (played by Thomas Middleditch, who looks to be the most interesting mix of Hugh Grant and Hugh Laurie) is a programmer who works in Hooli, a software company in Palo Alto during the day, and spends his free time after work, building his own programme, Pied Piper, in an incubator house set up by a big talking, bossy entrepreneur who hasn’t really achieved anything, Erlich Bachmann (TJ Miller).

silicon valley gif

Richard is awkward in the worst way, and completely incapable of holding a conversation with any of his co-workers, so when he tries to tell people about Pied Piper, he is ridiculed instead. His colleagues, in a bid to see if they can humiliate him further, test the programme, only to be blown away by the efficacy and complexity of Richard’s code. As more colleagues gather to see what the fuss is about, one of the business development associates , Jared (Zach Woods) sees the potential in Richard’s code to potentially alter the industry, and takes the matter up with the CEO of Hooli, Gavin Belson (Matt Ross). Before Richard can understand anything that’s going on, he’s whisked away to the CEO’s room, and is offered ten million dollars, on the spot, to sell the code to Hooli. Around the same time Gavin Belson makes the offer, a famously eccentric Venture Capitalist, Peter Gregory (played by the Late Christopher Evan Welch) contacts him, and tells him that he will fund two hundred thousand dollars for a small stake in the company, which Richard will be CEO of. Richard, who has never been confronted with this kind of money or attention, is forced to make a decision which can change his life – sell out, or believe that he can make his own fortune? Richard, after considerable thought and vomiting, opts for the latter.

The rest of the show is a painfully honest account of the amount of trouble involved in actually setting up a business. Richard has to deal with Erlich’s bossiness, the constant bickering of the two other programmers in the house, Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) who are automatically absorbed into Pied Piper once the funding comes through, and the fact that Gavin Belson is working around the clock with a giant team of programmers to reverse engineer the Pied Piper algorithm.

The show has great comic moments, and the chemistry between Dinesh and Gilfoyle as two people who love to hate each other, is particularly excellent. Perhaps the only fault I can find with Silicon Valley is that despite the abundance of phallic humour, there is close to no female casting. There are no female programmers, and save for Peter Gregory’s assistant, Monica (Amanda Crew), and in the second season, Laurie (Suzanne Cryer) who plays Gregory’s successor. One of the show’s creators, Alec Berg, was asked the same question in a conference recently, and he insisted that the reason for that was because of the actual disparity of women in the tech world. It was evident that they weren’t in love with the world they were showing on screen, and he went on to say that it was screwed up (with an f).

I have to say though, as screwed up as his world is, it’s a lot funnier than the one we’re living in.

{Silicon Valley is available on the HotStar app, and is telecast on Star World Premiere HD}

Mum’s The Word

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

Growing up in Chennai in the nineties, watching American television, there was a large cultural gap between my world, and the world I saw on screen. It took me some time to understand the way things worked in the west, but what remained for me, the greatest conundrum of all, was the American mother. I was raised in a protective household, typical of most nineties middle class households in the city, so the fact that mothers in the west let their teenagers make their own choices in life was something I found both confounding and exotic (I’ll also go on record to state that I’m glad that my mother didn’t let my foolish teenager self make any).

Although I am now grown up (I think), the television mom continues to be a subject of endless fascination for me. There are a fair number of TV moms who I believe are interesting, but the most interesting, hands down, is Cookie Lyon of Empire. Cookie, played by Taraji P. Henson, is a former drug dealer who spent seventeen years in prison to ensure that her husband could fulfil his musical dreams, seventeen years away from her three young sons. When she returns, her sons aren’t the wide eyed little boys who saw her off at the courthouse anymore, and worse, they don’t understand the reasons behind her absence, and don’t respect her. In the first season of Empire, when she returns from prison to meet her family, her youngest son, Hakeem, isn’t impressed. “Do you want a medal?” he asks. Cookie, instead of crumbling like most TV moms would, goes after him with a broomstick, automatically qualifying her to be the greatest mother on television today.

Cookie is a mother in a dysfunctional family, and while mothers like her are few, dysfunctional families on television are a dime a dozen, with the Tanner family being a notable one. Full House was a show I watched a lot growing up, and I lapped up the squeaky clean humour and the saccharine life lessons. It embarrasses me today, but I know I have plenty company, after all, why else would there be a sequel, twenty years later? Fuller House sees the eldest of the Tanner clan, DJ (Candace Cameron), take on the mantle of single mother of her three children. The show has its flaws, and banks on nostalgia value, but what was interesting was that unlike Full House where it was the children taking on life lessons, it’s the adults. DJ is no perfect mom, and stumbles aplenty while trying to raise her boys. We live in a day and age where everyone seems to have a Instagram perfect life, so watching DJ take on failure was endearing.

My favourite crazy family though, has got to be The Simpsons. Its slapstick humour is timeless and the long running show has won numerous awards with plenty laying claim to Homer Simpson, the dull-witted protagonist, as their life guru. Surprisingly, there is hardly any talk about Marge Simpson, the matriarch of The Simpson family. Although the character was originally designed to be the stereotypical American housewife, Marge’s disposition to handle anything that life throws at her, and her towering blue hair ensured that she’s one of a kind. Despite all the trouble that her husband and children create, she doesn’t lose faith in her family, and handles them with a little love and a lot of patience – which, as any mother (animated or otherwise) will tell you, is the secret to success. Happy Mother’s Day.

{Empire is on FX, Fuller House is on Netflix and The Simpsons is on Star World HD}