Patna, we have a problem

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In how many ways can Indian movies mangle science and technology? Krish Ashok counts. 

Illustration: Samia Singh

PICTURE THIS scene. Ominous, foreboding music accompanies the still of a steaming coffee mug. A hand picks it up. It takes aforementioned coffee mug to a mouth topped by a luxuriant moustache, a moustache whose very shape is the signature of the man known to his fans as “The Captain”.

Our hero takes a sip and then the camera pans to his fingers that are typing furiously on a white keyboard. His fingers furiously type out several letters, which to a trained eye (read a lifeless geek’s eye), look like random letters followed by the occasional thump of the Enter key.

In dramatic fashion, the camera angle suddenly shifts itself to the ceiling, from where we now gaze upon what mechanical engineers call a “top view”. We see the Captain’s set-up. A flat screen monitor (this was 2002, when LCD panels were between a Ferrari and an Audi in terms of affordability) accompanies a mousepad and a cordless phone. The camera now starts rotating, adding nausea to the tense environment already created by the ominous music.

Now we zoom into the display and green text scrolls rapidly as the Captain looks on grimly. A list of names now comes into view, scrolling to high frequency digital beeps of the kind normally not heard on desktops. Our man settles on one name, V Arumugam, and that brings up his passport-size photo and his “bio-data”. Every line of V Arumugam’s resume appears to the sound effect of a dot matrix printer. The camera now zooms in on the field “Location” and it reads “Trichy”. All of this would have been riveting stuff if one had not noticed the User Interface of this state-of-the-art corruption database that our man was using. It was Windows Media Player (WMP). And unbeknownst to the good folks in Redmond, Microsoft WMP had an embedded database of all corrupt politicians in Tamil Nadu.

Meanwhile, in Tollywood, Indian hackers use Microsoft Excel to hack into Pakistani computers while horses slide underneath moving trucks to come out unscathed. Bollywood, of course, takes the cake (and the bakery) for spectacularly dumbastic portrayal of science and technology. If students wish to extract painful revenge from science professors, all they need to do is ask them to watch Love Story 2050. Take every example of bad science and technology in the history of Bollywood and pack it into one black hole of a disastrous movie that sucks in the energy of the audience at the speed of light, and you have Love Story 2050.

Windows Media Player to launch rockets, MS Excel to hack, ageing software that can reveal what an infant will look like in 20 years

One can keep going on with examples, but that’s not the point of this essay. There are broadly six kinds of bad science in Indian movies:

FORENSIC FRAUDONOMICS Investigative science so advanced that it’s beyond belief (and common sense). Hidden cameras will often include vantage points from several angles. In 1080p HD.

MEDICAL MALAPROPISMS Memory retrieval using scary, needly apparatus placed on head (Karz) and heart revival using a combination of hero’s hands and persuasive dialogue. Bullets can remove brain tumours. Also, every birth in an Indian movie involves intense labour pains and a normal delivery. Statistics be damned, Indiwood has deemed Caesarians unwomanly.

FUTURISTIC FAUX PAS The future as imagined by someone about a 100 years in the past. While being brain dead. Love Story 2050.

ALTERNATIVE PHYSICS The villain’s sidekicks violate several laws of physics, especially in the area of conservation of energy and transfer of momentum. Mithun outran electrons to save his girl. And who doesn’t love X-ray goggles, the dream of every adolescent boy in India.

TELECOMMUNICATION TRANSMOGRIFICATION Cellphones tend to behave in strange ways, and if one is Balakrishna (Tollywood), your loyal village citizens can cling on to a tower and use the power of their collective mind to block an outgoing call from the villain’s phone.

SOFTWARE SENILITY Windows Media Player to launch rockets, MS Excel to hack, ageing software that can reveal what a two-day-old infant will look like in 20 years (rather often used on passport- size baby photos of the heroine. Unclothed). In short, lending a sense of balance to the global opinion that India is good at IT.

THIS IS not to say that Hollywood gets it right. Most mainstream Hollywood blockbusters tend to go easy on the details but come nowhere close to the sheer Unscience of Indian movies. Ever wondered why? Between India and China, we practically produce an epidemic of PhDs and masters graduates in science and not to mention a bubonic plague of engineers every year. You may propose that as movie watchers, we have a far greater tolerance for fantasy and are willing to suspend disbelief like the proverbial pornstar-clothes-pizza-guy scene. Perhaps it’s in the nature of Eastern or Oriental philosophies to inculcate this innate acceptance of Lady Illusion (aka Maya memsahib) but that somehow seems too contrived a reason to me. How is it that there’s been little or no improvement in the portrayal of technology in the last couple of decades? Surely literacy has improved and the audience is better exposed to Hollywood fare?

How about we dig a little deeper and look into the credits section of Hollywood movies that get science and technology dead right. It is not uncommon for Harvard or MIT professors to be “consultants” for big budget movies made by people not named Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay. In fact, the slick gestural User interfaces from Minority Report were designed by folks at MIT after extensive research and they are more than just the CG that we see in the movie. Several prototypes exist in reality. What’s my point? I don’t think Bollywood or Kollywood has the culture of inviting scientists or technologists to provide accurate detail.

And that’s not the end of the story. Think about the movie industry’s support ecosystem here. It’s extremely top heavy, with film stars, directors and music makers hogging most of the revenue while everyone else has the sort of job that most Indian parents would go on a jihad to prevent their kids from picking as a career choice.

And that’s why, despite spending Rs. 170 crore, a rather famous robot will still “stream the ultrasound over the WiFi”

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