The state of the Tamil film industry

I’m going to write down a few thoughts about the current state of the Tamil film industry. I am going to be commenting on a bunch of themes, but primarily I will be commenting on some of the things that have changed and what has stayed the same. I will be grouping my ideas into two categories: the good and the bad.

What needs improvement

Let’s start off with the stuff that needs improvement. This is done first because I think there is a big issue that is facing Tamil film today:

Gender inequality is a big, big concern

Now, I know this occurs in not just this industry, but in film industries the world over. However, I sincerely want the Tamil film industry to improve hence I am making this commentary with regards to this specific industry. The different roles that actors and actresses play vary starkly when you look at gender. Many of the roles that are played by men are the roles of heroes and villains. These characters are the main driving force of the story. In fact, most stories are shown from their perspectives. The heroines in a movie? Almost all the time, they are relegated to three roles: the damsel in distress, the love interest, or some sort of sexual object in a dance number. Note, that sometimes, a heroine will take on more than one role over the course of a film. But let’s take a look at these roles for a moment shall we? None of these roles serve a particularly important role in the film except for the damsel in distress. The dance number role could easily be removed from the film. The love interest role can be useful to a film, but in most Tamil films that I have seen, it’s kind of like a third wheel that has been bolted onto a bicycle: it serves a purpose, but its absence won’t be missed. Then there is the fact that strong-willed or independent heroines are kind of rare in Tamil films. When I try to think of exceptions to this trend, I can only come up with two. First, there is Bhavani in Bhavani IPS where we see the actress Sneha play a police officer in the lead role of an action film. The second exception is in a film I saw a while back where the main villain was a female crime lord. Other than that, the roles of the heroines are almost always relegated to damsel in distress or love interest. The heroine isn’t out there kicking ass and taking names. She isn’t the one who saves the day. Usually, she is some meek or shy person who is only interested in loving the hero and is perfectly content with sitting on the sidelines for most of the film. If that doesn’t happen, then she is treated as somebody that can be kidnapped by the villain and must be rescued by the hero.  This infuriates me to no end. Of course, Tamil film isn’t the only industry that is guilty of this. Hollywood does this to a large extent as well, but the difference is that in Hollywood, there is a much higher percentage of films that feature strong female roles. These types of strong female roles are severely lacking in Tamil films. Where are my Tamil equivalents to Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games, Ripley from Aliens, The Bride from Kill Bill, Sarah Connor from Terminator, and Hermoine Granger from Harry Potter?

Next, let’s examine the disparity between the career lengths of Tamil actors and actresses. The career lengths of Tamil actresses are MUCH shorter than Tamil actors. How is it that Rajinikanth or Kamal Hassan have multi-decade careers in acting but many actresses don’t? The main answer here is marriage. Once an actress gets married and has children, it is game over for them in the industry. They are expected to end their careers in order to focus on family and children. The actors? Nah they are good. Even if they get married and have a family, they are still free to continue their career. The actresses never get this chance. A good example of this is Jyothika who stopped acting once she got married, but her husband Surya still appears in films. Very few of these actresses ever come back once their kids are old enough that they can resume work. The only exception that really stands out in my mind is Sridevi.

Another thing that also needs much more improvement is the progression of the romance subplots that occur in movies. In many films, the romance goes something generally along the lines of the following. The guy sees a beautiful girl somewhere and falls in love with her at first sight. She does not reciprocate or is unaware of his feelings. The guy then becomes a creeper and follows her to various places, maybe even standing outside her house. Usually, the girl develops mutual feelings if she sees the guy doing something nice like helping some neighbourhood kids. The important thing is that she sees a few acts of kindness, not the guy persistently being nice. She falls in love based on a narrow sample set of kind acts. On the other hand, if the girl does not reciprocate when the guy confesses his feelings, the guy seems to think that this is a license to keep stalking, bothering and sometimes harassing her until she likes him. The baffling thing is that script writers think that this is what it takes to win the girl: if you harass and stalk her enough, she will fall in love with you. Personally, I am fine with most of the general structure of the romance subplot except for the stalking, constant badgering and harassment until she falls in love with you parts. This is not the type of thing you want to legitimize in films especially when there are reports stating that this often happens in real life to women in India. Romance structures need to be improved to a point where there is much more respect towards the heroine.

Then, there is the other stereotypes that most heroines need to fall into. The main ones I am talking about are: light skin and high pitch voices. Apparently, if you don’t have either of these qualities, you are not cut out to be an actress. Of course, I acknowledge that everyone wants to see a beautiful actress on screen. I do too. But I have seen tons of beautiful Indian women who don’t have light skin and who don’t have high pitch voices that look attractive enough to be actresses. Related to the above is the disparity of requirements for looks between actors and actresses. My sister summed this one up pretty well when she asked my mom the following question: “Why are Tamil actresses always so pretty, but Tamil actors are always so damn average looking?” She raises a good point. Young, new, aspiring Tamil actresses are expected to be: well proportioned, light skin and a good looking face. Heck most of the time, all you need to be is thin and light-skinned to land a job as an actress! Now let’s look at many young actors: any skin colour counts, any body shape counts, and as long as you don’t have any scars or deformities, any face will do. This disparity is quite something isn’t it?

What has improved

If after the above rant, you are still with me, let’s take a look at the improvements in the industry. There are many things that have improved  from the late 90s until now (2013).

More Diversity in Plots, Settings, Genres

Plots, genres and settings have diversified greatly. It used to be that most, if not basically all, Tamil movies would take place in India (particularly the state of Tamil Nadu) and follow a basic story structure: there is a hero who squares off against some villain. The hero always has a love interest and there are two plots: how the hero defeats the villain, and the romance between the hero and the heroine. Often, the two plots are either interwoven with one another such that one influences the other, or they run in parallel with minimum impact from one plot to the other. Of course, you throw in some fight scenes and dance numbers into the film as well. Now, I am not saying that all films were like this, but most had this structure. Recently though, I have noticed that films are getting a lot more diverse in their settings, plots and even genres. Let’s start off with setting. Over the past few years, I have started seeing an increased amount of films that are set in places like New York (and some other parts of the USA) and Europe (particularly London, UK). These films have some or all of the characters as Indians living abroad. This is such a wonderful thing to see. It allows films to show people back in India how Indians abroad are living and it gives Indians abroad some connection to the films. I’ve also noticed fantasy settings as well such as Aayirathil Oruvan, which takes place in an expedition in a more exotic, mysterious part of India. There is also Raavanan, which takes place deep in the jungles of a national park in India.

We are also starting to see much more diversification in plots and genres. There are new genres being explored. For example, there is Enthiran which involves an Android as one of the villains and is a great foray into the science fiction genre. There is Naan-Ee (where the hero is reincarnated as a house fly) and Aayirathil Oruvan (a very Indiana Jones style film), both of which are fantasy films. Then there are the plots. They are becoming much more diverse and have started diverging more often from the plot structure I highlighted earlier. I remember watching a couple of films where the heroine was absent completely and I remember a few films where they did not have any dance numbers. The names of these films don’t come to mind at the moment, but I recall that they came out in the last 5 years or so.

Better Visuals

The Tamil film industry has been a bit slow on the uptake of HD in my opinion. Without a doubt, they have been shooting in higher resolutions than HD already and have been using digital for a while now, but HD has not trickled down to consumers. Almost all films are still released exclusively on DVD. However, there are signs that change is coming. There are a bunch of films, both new and re-releases of old films, that are being released on Blu-ray so that audiences can watch them in full HD. There is still a ways to go until all films get Bluray releases, but at least they are making an attempt to get there. The other improvement that is the most noticeable in the visuals department is the huge improvement in the technical quality and frequency of computer generated imagery in Tamil films. I used to cringe slightly whenever I saw the greatest and latest Tamil film use visual effects that Hollywood thought was new maybe 10 years ago. But today, it seems that the visual effects industry has matured greatly and the computer generated imagery in modern Tamil movies is almost on par with Hollywood. There is still a noticeable gap between Tamil films and Hollywood, but the gap is much smaller today than it was 10 years ago. Some examples of the great work produced by the Tamil visual effects industry are Enthiran and Naan-E, both films who rely heavily on computer generated images that are almost on par with what Hollywood has to offer.

Diversified Sound

The songs used in Tamil films have always had a number of genres, but recently I have noticed that there are more genres being used. Electronica sounds are becoming a lot more prominent and as a big fan of electronica, I am ecstatic about this. It’s great to see music composers start playing with even more genres. Even the underscoring that occurs in scenes to highlight emotions has diversified in terms of sound. It used to be that if there is a sad scene or one that is heavy in emotions, the underscoring relied heavily on some sad, distant voice to create the atmosphere. Today, I see films using more diverse instruments to create that atmosphere without relying on that distant voice

Conclusion

I think overall, the Tamil film industry has improved greatly over the last 10 years or so. Yes, some major issues exist, but I think recent films (last 3 years or so) indicate that these issues are becoming overcome (albeit slowly). I am hopeful and I look forward to seeing how the industry changes over the next 10 years.

The Places I Want to See

By the end of April, I will be graduating from university after having spent 5 years at the University of Waterloo learning the dark secrets of software engineering. I have a few months (basically until mid-late August) of free time before I start my full time position at Microsoft. This is probably the best chance I have in life to get some travelling done and see the world before I am bogged down by work commitments, life commitments, etc. So the following is a list of places I want to see and rationales for why I want to see them:

Sri Lanka

My native land! It’s been 10 years since I have last visited there. I still have a lot of relatives in Sri Lanka who have not seen me since I was 12. I am definitely eager to see them again. Also, the country is absolutely beautiful. I got a few chances to see the beauty of the country in my last two visits there, but I want to have at least one trip where I can spend some time visiting the beautiful beaches, mountains and forests that are present in this island nation.

Maldives

When I was little, I spent about 1-2 years here because my parents worked for a local hotel in Male. I don’t remember much about my life there. I remember the home we had there, but that’s about it. I do have photos of my sister and I swimming in the turquoise water and running along the white sandy beaches. I want to go and see this country that I spent a period of my life in. It also helps that my dad wants to go and visit it again. He has some fond memories of working there.

Australia

I have a ton of relatives in Australia. In fact, I have a bunch of nieces and nephews that don’t even know I exist because I have never visited them before, and they have never visited me in Canada before. Also, considering the fact that the rest of my immediate family has gone to Australia and I am the only remaining person in my family who has yet to set foot in that country, it is high time that I go there for a visit. Not to mention the fact that Australia has a crazy amount of biodiversity and beautiful landscapes that I am dying to see.

Singapore and Malaysia

Singapore is probably one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to. It is very modern, diverse and clean. Honestly, I would not mind moving there and living there for the rest of my life. It is probably the best place I have ever visited. I have never set foot in Malaysia, but I have heard that the country is beautiful and the people are incredibly friendly.

India

Despite the fact that I am of South Asian descent, I have never set foot in India. I don’t have very many relatives there so my parents never had that good of a reason to go visit the country. Despite the recent negative press about India, I would love to go there. This is the country that gave birth to multiple religions, and is the home of over 20 distinct languages and hundreds of dialects. When you have this much diversity packed into one country, it is hard not to be interested in visiting it. There is also a large amount of landscape diversity in this country. There are jungles, tropical forests, mountains and deserts. A visit here would also let me explore some beautiful Buddhist temples as well. Buddhism is probably the most appealing and interesting religion that I have ever encountered, and going to Buddhist temples in India would definitely help me study this religion some more. India is also a country of extremes. There is a rising middle-class in the country, but many parts of the country are still impoverished and lacking infrastructure. I want to see for myself how India and Indian society is coping and attempting to fix this problem.

Japan

As a big anime fan, it goes without saying that I would love to visit Japan. But, I would not go just for the anime. I have not been to that many countries where English is not the primary language. In fact, I think Sri Lanka is the only country I have been to where English is not the primary speaking language. Also, Japan would be the first country that has a homogeneous population that I would have ever visited. It would be interesting to explore the culture and interact with the people of a country where being a person of South Asian descent is incredibly rare. Without a doubt there would be a language barrier, but I think that would make the trip even more interesting because I would have to put in a lot of effort into the interactions with the local population and I believe that would be incredibly satisfying. Also, Japan’s Shinto religion is quite interesting with a diverse mythology. There is also the fact that like many countries in the region, Japan has some beautiful landscapes and scenery that I would love to check out.

South Korea

I am somewhat familiar with South Korean pop culture, especially considering the fact that I have a bunch of k-pop songs in my music collection. Also, I have watched a number of K-Dramas so I am somewhat familiar with customs there. But watching it on TV is one thing and actually experiencing it in person is another thing. But K-pop and their culture is not the only thing that I want to explore in South Korea. This is a country that is still technically at war with North Korea, and I want to talk to people there to see how they feel about it. Also, a visit to the DMZ is also in order. Finally, I think what is most interesting about South Korea is that this is a country that went from a poor society to a highly industrialized, high-tech, wealthy society in a matter of decades. It would be interesting to see how such a rapid increase in wealth is impacting the people of South Korea. For many youth, they have only ever known middle-class, developed life. However, their grandparents can still remember the Korean War and the times when South Korea was a poor country. I have read a bit about the subject, but again, reading it is one thing but actually experiencing it is another.

Kenya

The news really does not paint Africa in a positive light. Poverty, civil wars, famine, disease, death, etc. If the media is to be believed, living in Africa is a terrible experience. Now I don’t doubt that that is true for some places, especially in regions like Congo. But, through the many Africans that I have met in my lifetime, I can safely say that people from Africa are friendly, hospitable and great to hang out with, which means the continent must also be the same. I have heard good things about visiting Kenya so it is the first country in Africa that I want to visit. I want to see how Africa is doing (even if it is an incredibly narrow and limited view that I will be getting) and interact with the people there. Who knows, maybe once I visit Kenya, I will come back to see other countries on the continent.

Latin America

Latin America is an interesting mix of people and culture. From what I have seen of pictures, a lot of South America is a mix of the old and the new. It is a mix of colonialism heritage and Native American heritage  What better place would there be to see multiple perspectives on history than Latin America? Also, not to mention the fact that the region is home to some of the most astounding places that this planet has to offer such as the Amazon rain forest  the mountains of Peru, Machu Pichu, etc. I picked Latin America in general because I have no idea what country to specifically visit, they all offer something unique. Heck, if I do visit there, I might just hop around to a new country or city every couple of days to ensure that I can see a good chunk of the content.

Thoughts on a Facebook search engine

Today, I spent a good chunk of an hour trying to dig through various friend profiles to find this single video that one of my friends made that had a bunch of graduation-related photos. I was on a nostalgia trip and I wanted to dig it up again. However there was one major problem, Facebook’s Timeline layout (at least as of now) is a mess when you are trying to find this one specific photo or video. First, you cannot filter out everything but videos, nor can you filter photos/videos by the people who are tagged in them. This makes looking for this stuff a nightmare and eventually I just gave up. Also, this is not the first time I have had to dig up something old that was buried on my timeline or on some friend’s timeline. Once, I was digging up a post on my timeline, and the best I could do was to scroll down and hope I would eventually find it. I knew who posted it, but I couldn’t remember the date of the post, which made it difficult. I did find it eventually, but it took about 1.5 hours.

This got me thinking. The thing about Facebook’s layout is that it is currently optimized for the most recent items to have the highest visibility. This is evident when you look at the Timeline’s chronological ordering or your News Feed’s chronological ordering. (Note: the News Feed is not strictly in chronological order since it does also sort by how important or popular Facebook’s algorithms determine a post to be. That means an older post with a lot more activity in terms of comments would appear higher than other things. But for the most part, it is safe to assume that it is indeed chronological). For 99% of Facebook’s use cases, this is the optimal way of laying things out. Most of the time, one logs onto Facebook to check the latest updates from their friends, not to go digging through old content.

But there is a problem here. Currently Facebook is relatively young. In a few years, say 4-5 years, people are going to start wanting to look at their old content. Examples include photos, links and status updates. But, Facebook in its current state is incapable of serving those use cases. The best way to go about it would be to take a Google search engine approach. Why not be able to search posts, photos and videos using things like keywords, tagged people, location and date ranges? Of course, one does not need all of Facebook to be searchable. Many users would probably be content with being able to search their own content and perhaps that of their friends. Facebook can implement privacy controls so that people can control what content from their timelines shows up in search results. Of course, like most major features that are added to Facebook, you can bet there will be a huge privacy outcry, which is something that Facebook will have to consider.

I would implement this myself as a side project. However, there is a very real possibility that such a project would be in violation of Facebook’s Terms of Service because I would have to scrape and index content that is not accessible outside the Facebook platform. Not to mention that I would have to deal with the issue of storing the indexed data. Facebook most certainly would not be pleased if I stored it on my own servers, nor would any of my users be please because there are legitimate privacy concerns here. These are problems that will probably take a lot of time and effort to navigate around. Honestly, it is not worth it for a side project. Perhaps I can just implement it to index only my own timeline data? This means that I would have to create a dedicated search website, which would need to be hosted on my own servers. A Facebook app would probably be able to dodge some of these concerns, but I would still be unable to cache indexed data without violating the Terms of Service. I would have to do live queries to Facebook as I am returning search results, which would be slow and bandwidth heavy. The third option, which skirts around this issue though it probably is a legal grey area (see FB Purity case), is to create a Google Chrome extension or Firefox plugin that would store the indexed data on the user’s local machine. This means that there are no queries going to a third party service. Now, the data is being kept on the client machine, which means I would have to encrypt it. Also, performance is bound by the client machine. These are two problems that make implementing something that exists the grey area of Facebook’s Terms of Service, a not worthwhile endeavour.

So the remaining option is to wait for Facebook to do it. Now why wouldn’t they have done it by now? Search engines, crawling and indexing data and extracting useful metadata out of data is a very challenging technical problem to solve and it requires a lot of resources. Google has hundreds of thousands of servers to digest, store and serve the data that powers their search engine. It’s a very expensive system to maintain and would require a lot of developer resources to build. Let’s be honest, this would serve about 10% of the current use cases of Facebook. The cost-benefit trade-off here does not look very appealing. Now mind you, it could be a lot more appealing once it is deployed because people might actually want to use it. But for now, it definitely does not make sense for Facebook to commit enormous resources to such an endeavour.  But, I remain optimistic that they will do it eventually. After all, I’m fairly sure they already have a bunch of the infrastructure and technology necessary, to do the search engine, already powering their business intelligence and advertising systems.

Eureka Seven: Ao…. Umm, what just happened?

So I just finished watching the final two episodes of Eureka Seven Ao that aired yesterday. Let’s just say I am stunned. Not stunned in a good way mind you, I am stunned in disbelief. There is only really one sentence that can sum up my feelings about this show: “Bones! What was the point of this whole series?” I am totally baffled as to how this series turned out considering the fact that the director of this series is the same one that did such a stellar job on Eureka Seven. It’s like he forgot the great job he did on the original.

Let’s start off at the beginning shall we? When Eureka Seven Ao was first announced, I was bouncing off the walls. Its precursor series, Eureka Seven, is easily one of my most favourite animes that I have ever seen. Heck, it’s one of my most favourite TV series that I have ever seen. When the first couple of episodes aired, I was a bit let down. The series got off to a fairly rocky start. However, I ignored the rocky start because let’s face it, the original Eureka Seven also got off to a rocky start as well. However, the premise and the characters showed enough potential that I hung on after those first few episodes.

So after about a dozen episodes, the series really did not pick up. This should have been the first warning sign for me. I was still just as confused as ever about what was going on, the show did not do much to explain things and the writers were still throwing new plot lines, characters and concepts at me. I still kept watching though. Why? Well it really seemed like the plot was starting to pick up. Some of the characters were being more fleshed out, major players in the show’s world were moving and interacting, and the show’s animators were delivering some great action sequences.

By the last few episodes, things did not really improve. Most of the major characters were not as fleshed out as the characters in the original series were. Some of their motivations were still baffling (and this was when there were only like 3 episodes left). People were constantly switching sides without much thought. Hell even sides were switching sides. Plot lines, problems and character relationships that were introduced were not developed or closed at all. In fact, almost all of the things that the writers of the show introduced were practically just left dangling by the 24th and final episode. In fact, looking back, it feels like the writers just tossed in as many things as they could to see what would stick and did not spend much effort to think about how they would resolve all these things that they introduced.

The ending was absolutely abysmal. I won’t spoil it here, but let’s just say that the ending undoes and basically cancels out everything that has happened in the show thus far. It left me in disbelief and wondering, “What was the point of watching those past 23 episodes when the ending just makes it all void.” Now I know some of you readers (if there are actually any of you reading this blog) who are thinking that its more about the journey than the ending. That would be fine and all if the journey wasn’t confusing, underdeveloped and generally feeling lacking. Even if the journey was good, the ending is just so deus-ex machina and so poor that it negates all the positives that could have been gained from the journey itself.

So my final verdict about this show? Skip it please. Also, skip the Eureka Seven Pocket Full of Rainbows movie. Just watch the original Eureka Seven TV series then go on your merry way. I want 12 hours of my life back.

SkyDrive + C# + Windows Desktop

For my 4th year design project, I was tasked with building a way to communicate with SkyDrive from a Windows desktop application that is running C# on the .NET 4.0 framework. I thought this would be a fairly straightforward affair since Microsoft is responsible for both SkyDrive and C#, so surely there must be a fantastic or at least usable C# library that I can use. Unfortunately there isn’t.

After digging through the Live Connect API documentation, I came to the depressing conclusion that the only way I could communicate with SkyDrive, and any other Windows Live service was by using the WebClient class and using REST to make requests to SkyDrive. Then, I would have to grab the JSON response, parse it back into an object graph that I could use in C# and work from there. What is more unfortunate is that the documentation provides some very nice examples using the LiveConnect client and C# for Windows 8 Metro apps and Windows Phone apps. There are even nice examples using the LiveConnect client for Objective-C (iOS) apps and Android apps!

Searching Codeplex also does not bring up anything promising. There is one library that someone has been working on, but it is in Beta and has been not updated since August 2011. So, for all those developers scouring the internet and are looking for some way to easily integrate their desktop applications with SkyDrive, your best bet will be to write your own boilerplate to create REST urls to access the data and JSON parsers to interpret the data sent back.