A few days ago I was lying down on my living room floor, reading the weekend paper. The afternoon sun streamed through and lit up the gray foam mat. In that quiet moment my thoughts drifted… To someone who had been lying in a similar posture.

What must’ve it felt like? Hands clamped behind the back, shoulders slowly getting yanked out of their sockets, with those whose duty was to protect and serve sitting on top of him… casually applying the full pressure of their bodies. Just the thought made me wince.

I stood up and went to the kitchen sink. As the glass filled up with water I wondered how he must have suffered for those excruciating 8 full minutes and 46 seconds. Gasping for FIVE HUNDRED AND TWENTY SIX SECONDS.




“During the first half of the 19th century, Mississippi was the top cotton producer in the United States, and owners of large plantations depended on the labor of black slaves.”


My mother had a number of Hindi phrases, generally deployed when a point was needed to be made succinctly. One was:

“Jis pe beetay, wo hi jaaney”

Which roughly translated to “Only he who suffers, understands the pain”. I teased Mama ji whenever she used it. She would smile back – I assumed she was acquiescing to going a little over the top.

But she was right – I could not.. can not imagine.. what George went through that afternoon, face down on the tar, with that merciless knee on his throat.


The most harrowing part of watching his murder was not his soft-spoken cries, or the callousness with which he was strangulated, or that it all transpired in broad daylight with full knowledge of the smartphone recordings taking place, or that the year was over half a century after the Civil Rights Act had passed (and over a hundred and fifty years after President Abraham Lincoln declared all men on United States soil to be free) .

The saddest thing was to see a beautiful 6’6”, broad shouldered, forty six year old man call out for his mother. There on that tar… suffocating in broad daylight, after giving up on pleading with those who had sworn an oath to protect and serve, while getting his life casually squeezed out of him… George Floyd called out for his Mama.

His Mama who had died two years ago.

Thankfully she was not alive to watch that travesty unfold. What she would have had to go through, had she lived to witness her baby’s cold blooded murder, is something I dread not even imagine.

My favorite scene in Game of Thrones? Hodor!

First of all spoiler alert.. If you’ve not caught up with GoT, do so.

Ok.. My favorite scene so far in the series is the one where the mystery behind Hodor’s moniker is revealed.  I found it better than the scene where Cersei plans and extracts her vengeance; even better than the scene where Ramsay finally gets his comeuppance; or anything else.  Why?

  1. George R.R. Martin introduced a back story for a character that could have just been a simple pawn.  For the purposes of moving the story forward all that was required of that character in that scene was someone to hold the door.  Hold it for a little while; let the bigger characters get away, and then die.  That was all that was needed for the arc of the story.  Instead – he introduced a character with a back story.
  2. Not only did he add his back story, he nurtured it for six whole seasons.  SIX BLOODY SEASONS!  He nurtured the character for so long that by the time the turn in his tale came around, he had become part of the background.  All he had done until that point was utter a single word over and over and over and over..
  3. And when the viewer had been lulled to sleep with this character’s arc, he dropped the bomb with the panache of Frederick Forsyth or Philip K. Dick.  It was revealed that not only had Hodor dedicated his entire existence to a single solitary purpose; his mission had been handed to him through a fracture in the fabric of time.  In that single scene a simple pawn was transformed into someone who was morally superior to the kings, queens, princes, and royalty surrounding him.  And in the manner in which George R.R. Martin unfolded Hodor’s backstory made the viewers ponder upon the mobius strip nature of time.

Mobius Strip



Whats going on in the NBA Playoffs?


It was exciting to see my Golden State Warriors start the NBA playoffs with a straight 4-0 series win over the Trailblazers.  In the next round when they repeated the 4-0 streak it was exhilarating.. Even when they beat Spurs in the first couple of home games, getting a 2-0 lead, it seemed like we’re getting a strong footing for the series.. getting us on a strong footing to meet the Cavs in the finals and avenge last year’s devastating loss.

But when we won the third game at the Spurs home field and got a 3-0 lead something felt off.  We had won 11 games in a row in the finals.  This was not like the regular season where we were playing regular teams.  This was in NBA’s western conference finals.  We were playing the cream of the crop.  And demolishing everyone in our path.  And no one had been able to pick up a single game.  What the hell was going on?

And to top it off, on the other side of the country, our arch nemesis – the Cavs were bulldozing through the titans that were in the eastern conference finals.  They had not dropped a single game on that end.  Most recently they had humiliated the Celtics with a 44-point defeat, while playing in Boston.  I can’t imagine being a Celtics fan watching that game.  From the very first quarter they had an almost 2:1 score against the Bostonians, at one point having a 50 point lead.  You’d have thought this was early in the regular season where a top seeded team was playing an inexperienced crew.  But this was the best team in the eastern conference playing the second best.

The Cavs and the Warriors have not dropped a single game in the playoffs on either side of the country.  I’m excited to see what will happen when they meet.  But it does make me wonder what the hell is going on in the NBA?  How is there such a disparity between the top two teams and the rest?

Is this capitalism at work?  Are the Cavs and the Warriors creating dynasties by simply paying top dollar to accumulate talent.

A quick search showed me that the Cavs were indeed the team that spent the most on their talent (  But they were not paying their players that much higher than the other teams in the top.  E.g. the Trailblazers, the #2 team in terms of compensation, had paid their players 8% less than what the Cavs had paid.  And the #5 team, the Spurs, were paying their players 13% less than what the Cavs were shelling out.  So not that much of a difference between the compensations meted out by the top teams.  Nothing to justify the slaughter that was being observed in the playoffs.

  1. Cleveland Cavs – $128M player salaries
  2. Portland Trailblazers – $119M
  3. Detroit – $115M
  4. LA Clippers – $114M
  5. San Antonio Spurs – $112M
  6. Memphis – $110M
  7. Toronto Raptors – $108M
  8. Golden State Warriors – $107M
  9. Orlando – $104M
  10. Charlotte – $103M

And on the other hand the Warriors were actually not even in the top five (were at #8).  A few of the teams that they had crushed/were crushing in the playoffs were actually paying their players more than the Warriors (i.e. The Trailblazers were paying their players 11% more than the Warriors, and the Spurs were paying 4% more).

So its not capitalism at play.  Something else is at work.  I’m not sure what it is.. But am curious to find out…

Bob Dylan smashing boundaries (one verse at a time)


Woke up this morning to the news of Bob Dylan getting the Nobel for Literature!  How cool is that.  But of course, some writers were not happy… Rabih Alameddine tweeted: “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars”

I can see Mr. Alameddine’s concern.. If a musician nabs the prize, what about folks like him.  But to me, and thousands of other Dylan fans, he is not just a musician – he is a poet..  As comfortable with capturing the essence of a moment in a Haiku like song, as with a Homeric ballad that meanders through scenario after scenario – weaving a tapestry better than most authors.

A detailed analysis of why Dylan deserves the Nobel is akin to describing why water quenches thirst.  But I will give a few examples of my favorite Dylan songs.


The Minnesota Haiku

Went To See The Gypsy‘… The first time I heard it I became a fly on the wall at this big chain hotel.  Brought into the audience of the Gypsy.  Watching his fake smile.  Listening to his false, saccharine pronouncements.  Rooting for the protagonist to escape.  And as he returned to the hotel room, I was hooked – not knowing what lay ahead.  And then, the twist.  The anguish of coming face to face again with the false prophet, transformed into a moment of serenity.   I was there.  Watching the sun come rising from that little Minnesota town.

To me it was a Haiku as beautiful and as tender as any that Basho wrote.


The Ballad of the Jack of Hearts

The song starts with a description of the festival.  A normal carnival, as normal as a carnival can be.  And then the Jack of Hearts is introduced.  A quotidian interaction with a passerby.  Then a scene change to a card game, introducing  Lily – the love interest.  And then in quick succession Big Jim – the king of goons, and Rosemary – his lady are brought into focus.

Then a passing interaction between Big Jim and Jack of Hearts.

Then the backstory.  Scratching under the surface of Rosemary & Big Jim’s supposed perfect arrangement.  And then there is shadowy reference to the hangman.  Nothing is described, but the presence of doom looms.

By this time the listener is hooked.. Homer or Scheherazade could not tell a tale better, or keep the reader engaged as well.

If this is not literature, I don’t know what is.
I don’t think this is just a win for Mr. Dylan.  I think it is a win for the Nobel Prize Committee.  Kudos on having the courage to give the prize for literature to a poet (who happens to be a musician).








The Transcontinental Journey Of Words: “Khaki” & “Sicario”

The first time I saw the State Farm Insurance ad on TV I laughed out loud.. “Khakis” has since become a running joke for me and my wife (and probably for thousands of other folks based in the US – Just do a simple Google search on “Jake from State Farm” and see the memes that pop up).


Recently something I read made me think about the origin of words; how they travel across the globe; and end up in the most non-obvious places.

Word #1:  Khaki

The punchline for the joke in this ad (i.e. “Khakis”) in the United States refer to a type of trousers.  Boring, beige, yawn-inducing trousers that are de rigueur in corporate environments.  Named after the dull brownish-yellow color that this breed of pants conforms to.

How that word came to the American shores is unknown.  What I do suspect is that it came via Britain.

The British had stumbled upon the word sometime in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries when they were ruling over India.  It was based on the Hindi word “खाकी” that referred to that very same dull-brown color in the Indian subcontinent.  It became the color of their military clothing back in their Colonial days.  Khaki uniforms draped the British soldiers in World War II.

Maybe the Americans saw the Brits fight shoulder to shoulder with them in WWII and liked the color of their uniforms.  Maybe they liked the sound of the word, as they heard it pronounced, drenched in the British accent.  How it made the transition from the battlegrounds of Europe to the conference rooms of America is anyone’s guess.

The word is derived from the word “खाक”, which means “dust”.  It has an Urdu sound and a solemn feel.  Reminding us what we are made of, and what we will become.  It probably came to India via the Mughal rulers, a few centuries prior to the Brits.

The Persians brought it to India, the Britishers borrowed it, and as it is used in America one can picture dust storms on vast Indian plains… (Except when Jake from State Farm utters it.. Then we just chuckle).


Word #2: “Sicario

Last year one of my favorite movies was this narco drama – Sicario.  It was set on the southwest border of the US and depicted American agencies’ attempts to outsmart Mexican drug rings.  I had written a blog post on it just before the Oscars.


What I had not covered in that post was how the word ‘Sicario’ had sounded like a word from my mother tongue.  It had sounded like “शिकारी” (pronounced ‘Shikaari’), a Hindi word that means ‘Hunter’.  What was interesting was that ‘Sicario’ also meant ‘Assassin’ in Mexican Spanish.

I was astounding that two words that sounded alike in completely different languages, also meant roughly the same thing in each.  Hindi and Mexican Spanish – there was no common thread between the two languages in mind.  Yet, in both the word referred to someone out on a hunt.

In my mind the Mexican region was culturally as far removed from the Indian diaspora as possible.  There were no trade, no immigrations between the two countries, no historic wars or treaties, or any other connection that could have linked the two cultures to each other.  Yet we had somehow used the same word, with the same sounds, with the same meaning to describe something.

Then I came across a book on the origins of Spanish and realized that Spain had once been invaded by the Moors, who came from northwest Africa but had been influenced by the Arabic culture.  These Spaniards had brought their language to Mexico, and with it the Arab influences from the Moors.  In India there had been a Mughal rule for a few centuries prior to the arrival of the British.  During that epoch the Indian languages had been influenced by Persian and Arabic and every other language that had swirled in the middle east.  So there was a possibility that the Arabs and Persians who had influenced Hindi had also influenced Mexican Spanish (via Africa and after a much more arduous crossing of the Atlantic).

Upon arriving in America I had loved the familiarity of Mexican cuisine, as it was very similar to Indian food I had enjoyed growing up.  I was happy to have potentially stumbled on something connecting our languages.


Variations Of A Language

I recently read an obituary about a wonderful gentleman, late Dr. Braj Kachru, a friend’s loving grandfather.  Dr. Kachru’s life’s work was proving that Indian English was not an impure varietal of British English, but a separate language in its own right.  In the 1960s he had gone about the scholarly task of proving it, piece by piece.  He showed that Indian English was a different language which had evolved with influences of Sanskrit, Urdu, and Persian among others.  Dr. Kachru went on to become an editor of the Oxford Dictionary and the President of the International Association of World Englishes (IAWE).

He proved that the languages that had blown across the Indian subcontinent over centuries of its existence had made ‘Hinglish’ what it was.  And the erratic and circumlocutous journey of these two words made me yearn for diving deeper into his research.  It would be fascinating to see some of the threads that he had uncovered to prove his hypothesis.  I’m excited to see what else lies in store…








Let The NBA Hunger Games Begin!

“Yank Draymond Green out” whispered Coriolanus Snow..

“But Sir, it was LeBron who walked across a fallen Draymond…” replied Seneca Crane.


Snow became icy.

Seneca gulped.

He gave the orders to his minions to yank Green out of the next game.

With Green sitting out the next game, the Warriors fumed.  Just at the unfairness of it all.  The Cavs pumped their chests and thrashed the off-kilter Warriors down.

Yet the Warriors fought.

Towards the end of the next game, even though trailing by insurmountable odds, they gathered their strength… and they tried to persevere.

It did not look like they would win.  But what if they did?  They had pulled miracles off before…

A bead of sweat ran down Seneca’s temple once more.  Dreading the cup of hemlock.

The gamemakers were given the nod.  Warrior Curry was yanked out.  Lifted in nets with choppers, as the rest of the Warriors looked on with anger.


President Snow got his 7 game series.  The two extra games with ads paid with gold.

Now we stand at the precipice of the historic game.  Cavs frothing at the mouth.  Warriors holding each other – Strength in Numbers!

May the odds ever be in your favor Warriors!



Trump can definitely make America great again (but for himself)

Recently a few things have come out about Mr. Trump’s track record that don’t augur well for America if he is to become President:


  1. How he ran the Trump casinos:
    • When he was pitching the first casinos to investors, he said “It will be the best”.  (does it sound like “Make America Great again”?)
    • Over time he built three casinos in Atlantic City.  None of them logged a single profitable year (between 1997-2002).
    • During the time when the Trump casinos were making losses, revenues at other casinos in Atlantic City were rising by ~18%.
    • When the casinos eventually went bankrupt, many local small business owners who were suppliers and contractors got the brunt of it.  For example Beth Rosser remembers how her father’s business, Triad Building Specialties, ended up getting 30 cents for every dollar owed to them after protracted “renegotiations”.
    • Between 1996-98 the company posted combined losses of $148 Million.  During those three years of operation, Donald Trump drew a salary and bonus payments amounting to $8 Million.
  2. The modus operandi of Trump University:
    • A class action law suit has been leveled against Trump University (established ~2005) by disgruntled people who attended its investment seminars.
    • One of the employees of Trump University, Mr. Ronald Schnackenberg, has testified in the class action law suit.
    • He has testified that “Based upon my personal experience and employment, I believe that Trump University was a fraudulent scheme, and that it preyed upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money.”
    • The university organized 3-day seminars where attendees were promised to learn Donald Trump’s investment secrets.
    • “I can turn anyone into a successful real-estate investor, including you.” was a quote by Mr. Trump used in marketing. (Has a ring of “Make America Great Again”, no?)
    • But in fact Mr. Trump “‘never’ reviewed any of Trump University’s curricula or programming.”
    • The material was developed by a 3rd party vendor that develops material for motivational speakers, and.. ahem.. timeshare rental companies.
    • The attendees never heard about his secret sauce for investing from him.  They did however get to take photographs with a life-size cutout of him.  Groovy!
    • There was a sales playbook that was provided to the staff to give them step-by-step instructions to help them master bait-and-switch tactics.
      • An example: “Don’t ask people what they THINK about something you’ve said.  Instead always ask them how they FEEL about it.  People buy emotionally, and justify it logically.”
      • Another example: “If they can afford the Gold Elite, don’t allow them to think about doing anything besides the Gold Elite”… How sweet!  They must really care about the people they’re trying to help.
    • In his testimony Mr. Schnackenberg recounts an experience with a couple.  And the man was on disability insurance,
      • “”After the hard-sell sales presentation, they were considering purchasing the $35,000 Elite program.  I did not feel it was an appropriate program for them because of their precarious financial condition.” Far from being commended by his bosses for his honesty, Schnackenberg said that he was reprimanded.  Another salesperson then talked them into buying the $35,000 program after I refused to sell this program to them.”



There seems to be a pattern here.  Finding a downtrodden demographic, selling big dreams, running the game for as long as possible, then making off, leaving others holding the bill.

Now with his imminent G.O.P. nomination he seems to be repeating his process, just at a massively larger stage, and with much more dire consequences.

He has identified his demographic – honest, hard working Americans who are disgruntled with their falling wages, with their jobs being eliminated by technology & outsourcing, and with the status quo.

And he has made an incredible promise to them (“Make America Great Again”).

And he has roused their anger because he wants them to FEEL that he is their answer.  Not THINK about his track record.  Whether he can actually deliver on the problems he is promising to solve.

The cost, of what a Trump presidency will be to an average American, is still unknown.  To be fair, it is also unclear how the other candidates will solve the problems that Mr. Trump has touched upon.  But what is coming to light based on this new information is that if he does come to power, based on his track record, there is a low probability that he would solve these thorny issues out for the American public.  There is a possibility that they will be the ones left holding the bill.

What I am certain about however, is that Mr. Trump will come out on top.  Just like every other time.  If elected President, I think he will definitely make America great again… But mostly for himself.




  1. NY Times Article on his Atlantic City Casinos (by Russ Buettner and Charles V. Bagli):
  2. New Yorker Article on Trump University (by John Cassidy):
  3. Image of Trump’s illustration (by Mark Reeve):



My Oscar Pic(k)s: 6. Sicario

<Previous Pic(k): The Revenant>

Finally, we are at my final pick for this season!


Unlike some of my other picks, many of which were made by a few of my favorite directors or touched issues close to my heart, this movie was something I had not heard of before.  A friend was in town and he, like me, is a major movie buff.  He had heard good things about this and we decided to check it out.  And this turned out to be one of my favorite movies of the year!

It is a narco drama set in southwestern US and Mexico.  There are two main protagonists, Emily Blunt’s character – a local police officer who falls like Alice, deep into a rabbit hole of FBI workings; and Benicio del Toro- a mysterious “consultant” hired by the FBI.  And the story is really their two stories.  And it is told in two distinct parts.  The first half of the movie seems to be depicting Emily Blunt’s perspective.  Later, well into the second half, the point of view changes to that of Benicio del Toro.


There is yet another character in this movie – the terrain.

Roger Deakins, the brilliant cinematographer, uses these beautiful aerial shots to depict the worlds on the US and Mexican sides.  These rolling scenes of the urban and rural landscapes showcase the similarity, the proximity, and the stark differences between the two worlds.  That, to me, was the most breathtaking part of this movie.

Another aspect of the movie that was jaw dropping was one of the last sequences where everyone on the FBI squad gets into these tunnels at the Mexican border at night.  Everything changes to a first person narrative seen from within night vision glasses.  That took me into the action like nothing had done before.

And even within this sequence, there were two different perspectives – one of Emily Blunt (fumbling through the tunnel using a green and grainy night image enhancer), and that of the Benicio del Toro (a professional thermal imaging visual aid).  So that even within that part of the narrative we can see how each of these protagonists have a completely different view of the situation.

Nominations: Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound Editing.

Verdict:  I think it should pick up the Oscar for Best Original Score and Best Cinematography.

My Oscar Pic(k)s: 5. The Revenant

<Previous Pic(k): The Big Short>

The Revenant:

Before we get to the Revenant, I’d like to take a step back.

Blog_Revenant 4

Actually, many steps back.  It was 2001 or 2002, while I was living back in Boston.  On a winter afternoon walking back from the Pru I popped into the video store located at the corner of Dartmouth and Newbury.  Browsing through the maze of shelves, a red and black VHS cover caught my eye .  The three actors on the cover looked very different from each other, but together they shared something in their gaze.  The description on the back sounded intriguing as well, so I rented it.  I watched it over the next day or two, and was completely blown away.

Amores Perros was a visceral ride that took three disparate storylines in Mexico City, and threaded them together in a unique way.  The three intertwining tales were of a good-for-nothing twenty-something who hussled his way to make a quick buck, a gorgeous supermodel whose billboards lorded over the crowded city, and a mysterious vagrant who survived by living off scraps that others discarded.  The title of the movie translated to “Love is a bitch” and it was via each of the characters’ relationships with dogs that their stories tied to each other.  To appreciate how beautifully the stories had been weaved together I had to watched the VHS a few more times.

And the soundtrack was raw and visceral at times, and sparse and introspective at others.  When I tossed the tape into the bucket on the video store door,  I could not believe that it was the first movie that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu had made!  I became a believer.  And till this day Amores Perros remains one of my favorite movies.


Then over the next many years came movies like 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful in slow succession. Each one well made.  Each one stirring.  Each one cemented my faith in his craft.

Then last year came Birdman.  I wasn’t sure about it, but had gone to see it just because it was made by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.  And what a treat it was for me!  It was unlike any of his other movies.  Unlike any movie made by anyone in fact.

So as soon as I saw the first trailer of ‘The Revenant’, I knew it was THE movie I wanted to catch on the big screen this season.


And as expected, it was spectacular!  From the opening scene to the closing credits, what amazed me the most was the amazing beauty of the American continent.  Alejandro Gonzalez and his star cinematographer Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki had painstakingly recreated the life that the frontiersmen must have lived in the 1800s.

There were so many shots that transported me to a different time and place.  Shots of frigid, yet gorgeous landscapes across which the characters made their bone chilling treks.  Moments in dark, blue nights when warm orange hues of campfires reached beyond the curtain.  Mornings in snow packed mountains where time seemed to pause, and the only sounds one heard were of snow melting into water.

I learnt later that in order to get the right feel, Alejandro and Chivo had decided to shoot completely in natural light.  They had lugged the entire production kit and kaboodle up to the northernmost parts of Canada, edging close to the Arctic region.  They had gone so far up north that they only had a few hours of daylight to shoot everyday.  And because of this they had run over the allocated time.  The season had changed before they could wrap up their shooting.  And then in order to complete the movie they had to take the entire production down to the southern tip of Argentina, where the weather and geography was akin to what they had up near the arctic.  Just for the effort they put into the film, and for the results they were able to conjure I think the movie deserves an Oscar for cinematography.


Yet this movie was unlike Alejandro Gonzalez’s previous movies – the storyline was very simple.  There were no multi-threaded narratives as in Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel.  No delving into inner conflicts as it was in Biutiful and Birdman.  The Revenant was a very straightforward, linear tale.  I was expecting it to be a little more layered.

And the main character that Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed seemed very one dimensional.  He had grit, no doubt.  But there was nothing about him that did not meet the eye.  Even the relationship between  and his son’s character, upon which the entire conflict with Tom Hardy’s character had been based, seemed superficial.  Maybe not enough time was spent building that up.  Or maybe I just didn’t get it.  Either way, if there was a depth in their father-son bond, it had not been made apparent to this viewer.

I did like how Tom Hardy had portrayed his character.  One could see a new layer of him with every unfolding act.  There were times when one felt that they were close to getting why he was who he was.  There almost were moments of sympathy and respect when towards the end he refuses to plead to DiCaprio’s character.

All in all, it was the best cinematography I have seen in an Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu movie.  However, the story was simplistic.  But then again Chivo had once mused that the language of film was further from the language of theater and closer to the language of music.  So Inarritu may be evolving closer to that ideal after all.


Nominations: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Actor (DiCaprio), Best Supporting Actor (Tom Hardy), Best Cinematography, and a bunch of others for sound/production/special effects.


Either this or Sicario should win the award for Best Cinematography.  This could even win for Best Direction and/or Best Supporting Actor (for Tom Hardy).  Not sure if it deserves the award for Best Actor though (sorry DiCaprio)!

In terms of Best Movie I don’t think it is in the same league as some of the winners from the last few years (i.e. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman or Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity). But when we compare it to the other contenders in this year’s pool it does seem to have a strong chance.

Next Up:  My takes on Sicario.


Post Script: By the way, the video store did not survive the onslaught of Netflix.  Today I can see that there is a fancy Mexican eatery, standing there in its stead. “Mexican bites in a swanky, Gothic lounge” – reads its description.  When I told this to my wife she noted that it could have been describing Amores Perros itself 😀


My Oscar Pic(k)s: 4. The Big Short

<Previous Pic(k): Mad Max – Fury Road>

The Big Short:

Having had 70% of my savings wiped out in the financial crisis of 2008, having lost my job as the consulting firm I worked for cut its costs, and later having worked with small business owners who suffered due to tightening credit as banks shored up TARP bail out money to improve their balance sheets and secure their bonuses; I was intimately aware with the tsunami that shook the global economy eight years ago.  Through the following years as I had tied my belt and picked myself up, I had tried to piece together the thread on how I had been caught so completely unaware when something of this magnitude was sneaking around the corner.


I had gradually learnt about how everyone from the executives on Wall Street, to the Congress, to the Fed had fed the fire with one basic assumption – that real estate prices could only go in one direction – Up!

I had learnt that over the years leading up to 2008 the Fed had continued lowering interest rates and getting plaudits for keeping the US economy forging upwards (the biography of Alan Greenspan that came out just before the crisis was actually entitled”Maestro”).  The banks on Wall Street had extended cheap credit to finance the unprecedented real estate boom.  And everyone in this machinery had gotten richer.

When no loans were left to make in the credit worthy tranches, Wall Street had moved down to the sub-prime cadre.  Congress had mysteriously slacked regulatory requirements to an extent where people didn’t even need to show proof of their salaries when applying for a loan.  Real estate agents had made a fortune by making loans to people who could not afford them.  Ratings agencies had turned a blind eye and rubber stamped crappy loans as ‘AAA’ grade.

And eventually when no loans were left to make even in the sub-prime tranches, financial instruments were crafted to allow betting on bets.  The same crappy loans were repackaged over and over again until skyscrapers of cards dotted the US (and global economies).

And then the unthinkable had occurred – Real estate prices had started to fall.  And we know the rest.

The Movie:

I knew that Michael Lewis had written an account of a few people who had seen the signs of this craziness and had made a fortune by betting against it.  I had been meaning to read it.  But I was not sure how someone could take that story and adapt it into a screenplay for the silver screen that won’t make the audience sleepy.  So when I learnt that Adam McKay had been given the baton to make this feature, I was super interested.  He was the guy behind comedies like Anchorman and Talladega Nights.  Not sure if I’d have selected him for making a serious movie like this.

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And boy, how wrong was I.  He not only made the movie easy to understand for non-financial folks, but he did so with panache.  My favorite parts of the movie were these cut-aways that he deployed.  Short scenes that went tangentially off the main narrative, and used the most unlikely of celebrities to explain complicated financial concepts.

For example there was Anthony Bourdain explaining how crappy sub-prime mortgages were packaged up into new instruments called CDOs.  It was kinda like him putting yesterday’s stinky fish into today’s stew and calling it “Chef’s Special”…

Another example was Selena Gomez and behavioral economist Richard Thaler explaining ‘Synthetic CDOs’ while sitting in a casino.  They equating these instruments to people standing next to them making bets on the bet that the two of them continuing their winning streak on the casino table.  And the onlookers next to them making bets on those bets, and then those next to them making bets on those bets.  And how when Selena and Thaler eventually lost a hand, the entire lot of gamblers in that casino came crashing down; the final bet thousands of time larger than the bet that was made on the table itself.

There was another cutaway where a supermodel sat in a bubble bath and explained mortgage bonds.  I didn’t really get that one though.  I guess mortgage bonds are way too onerous even for a cutaway (or maybe I was just too distracted :-D).

Overall I thought that these cutaways were brilliant ploys to educate everyone on ploys that were devised by Wall Street to obfuscate their workings.

The quality of the acting was not bad, but nothing to write home about.  Five years down the line, I will remember the cutaways, but not the thespian talents of Steve Carell or Christian Bale in this movie.

By the way there was one thing that did not sit well with me – the movie’s attempt to portray these protagonists as heroes.  Were they really that different from the bankers and realtors involved in the crash?  Or were they just smarter than them and making their millions/Billions in a different manner?

Overall the movie exposed many of the ugly cracks in our financial system.  It ended with an few sobering notes that we should think about – (1) there may be another crisis brewing, (2) the banks that were too big to fail in 2008 are now even bigger, and (3) not a single person in the entire private-public machinery that caused this crisis was penalized.

Nominations: Best Director, Best Picture, Best supporting actor (Christian Bale), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing.

Verdict:  It should win the award for best Adapted Screenplay.  I think it was a very important movie that everyone has a duty to watch, but in terms of cinematic value not sure if it deserves an Oscar.  The direction was innovative but not sure it was award worthy.

Postscript:  In addition to this there are a couple of other movies that complete the picture of the 2008 financial crisis.  I highly recommend watching these as well:

(1) ‘Margin Call’ – shows the perspective of a bank that had bet the house on the real estate build up.  And what they did over the course of the next 24 hours after realizing that most of the loans sitting on their balance-sheets were crap.


(2) Too Big To Fail – shows the perspective of Hank Paulson, the Treasury Secretary during that time.  It shows how he had to negotiate with multiple stakeholders globally, and slowly guide the massive ship that is the US economy in a way that prevented it from becoming a Great Depression.  It is an eye opener into all the moving parts that constitute the global financial system, and how working with execs of major financial institutions can be like playing nanny to a group of spoilt and entitled children.


Next Up:  My takes on The Revenant.