Thursday, June 27, 2013

Questionable Names

There are only four people who relish the prospect of asking sadistic questions. They are: the teacher, the philosopher, the quizzer and the nation-wants-to-know kind of TV anchors. Everyone else just dreads the prospect of facing the question mark.

Although it’s a much reviled piece of punctuation, the Question Mark commands and demands attention, by intriguing and intimidating the respondent. Its sheer ability to befuddle people is the single biggest reason for its deployment in creating best seller book titles and blockbuster movie titles.

When Agatha Christie hurls a ‘Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?’ at us, we are shocked out of our wits just like an ill-prepared student taking the IIT-JEE. We desperately flip the pages hoping to find the answers for three questions: Who the hell is Evans? What is it that ‘they’ want to ask? And why didn’t they ask Evans?

When Philip K Dick teases our minds with ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ we feel as inadequate as an intern on her first day of work. And a nervous query pops into our heads: can Androids really dream considering they are supposed to be machines?

Being a sci-fi novel that explores the Android-like behaviour of humans and the human-like behaviour of Androids, note how Philip manages to achieve his goal of sucking us into his world with a mere title!

Back in India, the Manoj Kumar thriller ‘Woh Kaun Thi?’ was the first ever Hindi movie to use a sawaal as the title. The air of mystery posed by the question helped the film to smash all box office records.

The Naseeruddin Shah starrer ‘Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai’ was the first flick to leverage the possibilities offered by rhetoric. The unusually long title captures the angst of the protagonist and draws the viewer into the heart of the debate that Albert Pinto has about capitalism.

‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ and ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’ are some more celebrated examples in the rhetoric genre. The rather annoying song ‘Who Let The Dogs Out?’ and American clothing brand ‘Guess?’ are visible demonstrations of the pulling power of question-themed names in other categories. Which brings us back to the same old query: Why did the chicken cross this road? And why aren't many more joining it?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Banned at birth.

There may be a billion things wrong with India but we have one privilege that not many nations have. We have the freedom to name our babies any which way we choose.

We can call someone ‘Ravan’ without raising the hackles of the saffron chaddiwalahs. We can write a song on ‘DK Bose’ without fear of censorship. We can proudly give ourselves the surname ‘Chutiya’ without worrying about sounding offensive. We can contest polls as ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Hitler’, ‘Stalin’ or ‘Latrine’ without causing a stink.

One cannot dream of such liberties even in the USA. The recent episode of a New Jersey dad being denied custody of his four children, thanks to his penchant for giving Nazi names, is a tiny taint on America.

You’d be surprised to know that many so-called developed countries have regressive name censorship regimes. New Zealand leads the pack by religiously issuing a list of taboo names, every year. Among the ones they deemed unacceptable include very civil monikers like ‘Majesty’, ‘King’, ‘Justice’, ‘Queen Victoria’, ‘Knight’ and ‘4Real’. Clearly, there’s no justice for real in Kiwi land.

The Germans are worse. Forenames are cleared only if male names feel masculine and female names appear feminine. Nothing in between ever gets the nod. Not even unisex words such as ‘Rain’, ‘Mist’, ‘Shine’, ‘Magic’ and ‘Love’. Now you know why Germany never produces a Magic Johnson.

Iceland is, by far, the most restrictive. Parents have no other option but to choose from a sarkari menu card of 1853 female and 1712 male names. What that means is a Cecilia, Celina, or Camelia are OUT, as Icelandic doesn’t have the letter C. In case you’re wondering, “then how come ‘Iceland’ contains ‘c’?” Well that’s because the locals pronounce ‘Iceland’ as ‘Island’!

Even Sweden has a pre-approved list of 7000 names. Any deviation requires special permission. Elisabeth Hallin and Lasse Diding protested the silliness of the law by naming their child ‘Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116’ (apparently pronounced ‘albin’). The government authorities didn’t see the humour in the proposal. They simply declined it. The couple had to finally settle for Albin Hallin. So the bottom line is, when naming babies, always go by the book.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Wimpy Before Psycho.

MacGuffin, as any Hitchcock buff will tell you, is a misleading device that drives the plot forward and is invariably forgotten by the end of the story. The stolen cash in Psycho, the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, the Golden Eye in GoldenEye and cricket in the IPL are classic MacGuffins.

In strict Hitchcockian sense, a working title (the decoy name of a movie prior to the release) is but a MacGuffin. Let’s examine ‘Wimpy’ to illustrate the point. If you were a curious onlooker and you happen to stroll into the shoot of a film called ‘Wimpy’, the last thing you’ll expect to see on screen is a macabre thriller named ‘Psycho’. That deception was what Alfred Hitchcock wished to achieve with his lame working title. He used the same technique once before when he deployed the very yucky ‘The Man in Lincoln’s Nose’ for ‘North by Northwest’.

Finicky directors who hate revealing even a whiff of their plot usually resort to working titles. Clint Eastwood famously chose ‘The Cut-Whore Killings’ for ‘Unforgiven’. Christopher Nolan picked ‘Rory’s First Kiss’ to keep the ‘The Dark Knight’ fan boys at bay. Woody Allen actually experimented with ‘Anhedonia’, ‘It had to be Jew’, and ‘Rollercoaster named Desire’ before settling on ‘Annie Hall’.

Some film makers like to drop a teensy hint about their story with working titles. When Garry Marshall hid ‘Pretty Woman’ from the public gaze with ‘$3000’, he was alluding to the going rate for uppity escorts. Mani Ratnam selected ‘Traffic Signal’ for ‘Yuva’ as Green, Red and Orange represented the three shades of characters in his Hindi flick. When Gautham Menon recently code named his movie as ‘Nithya’, he was actually clueing ‘Ninaivelaam Nithya’ - the romantic movie with the Illayaraja song ‘Neethaane En Ponvasantham’ - that later became the title of his Tamizh padam.

‘Snakes on a Plane’ is one of the rare movies where the working title perfectly matched the final title. In quirky India however, actual titles are consigned to the status of working titles whenever a producer finds a suitably marketable name. ‘Gyaarah Chalis ki Metro’ is a case in point. It was replaced by the very crass KLPD!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Code of Code Names

May was a rather dramatic month. Batku called it a day. Guruji and Jack dragged the Helicopter down. Raavan and Shining glittered but didn’t strike gold. Chashma looked listless. Model didn’t live up to his billing. Dada was caught out. Rotru, Mowgli and Kavala were jailed. While Monkey and Pagadi danced away to victory.

If that sounded like a load of gibberish to you, it obviously means that you haven’t kept pace with the bookie code names conceived for IPL 6.  In case you’re curious: Rotru means cry baby and it can only refer to India’s most famous slap victim. The rest of the names are fairly decipherable once you get the drift.

Employed first by the military during the World Wars, clandestine euphemisms or cryptonyms have come a long way.  The code names today rarely reek of seriousness. A tinge of humour is the flavour of our times.

Sample these from the United States Secret Service: George Dubya Bush, not exactly known for holding his drink, was given the ‘Tumbler’ moniker. Dick Cheney, a lover of fishing and spinmeister par excellence, earned the ‘Angler’ tag. Barack Obama was called ‘Renegade’ which literally means ‘Christian turned Muslim’. And Richard Nixon, best known for the late night break-ins into the Watergate hotel, was fortuitously named as ‘Searchlight’!

Companies are equally funny when it comes to code names. When Microsoft employees were surreptitiously referring to Windows 95 as ‘Chicago’, the cheeky folks at Apple called their competing product ‘Capone’ after Al Capone, the mafia boss who tormented Chicago. Likewise, spunky Facebook has picked ‘Buffy’ for its secret new phone. ‘Buffy’ as everyone knows is the ‘vampire slayer’. The allusion here is to the blood sucking evil Google!

Not every one fancies a funny code name. Google has a glad eye for desserts - which explains why they chose Cupcake, Donut, Éclair, Froyo (Frozen Yoghurt) Gingerbread and Ice Cream Sandwich for the various avatars of Android. Mozilla has a thing for national parks. Intel, Microsoft and Blackberry love place names. Mac OS X has a fixation for animals. ‘What about Indian companies?’ you may ask. Well, our covert names are among the world’s best-kept secrets.