Monday, January 25, 2010

3 Idiots - Philosophically Advancing or Populist?

I was finally able to watch 3-idiots a couple of weeks back. The movie is pretty hilarious, music is amazing and everyone has done a very good job. I think you can find much detailed review of the movie elsewhere and I am going to focus only on the philosophical thinking advanced in the movie.

Before I start I want to make a few points clear. Firstly, many people believe that they are practical and they do not believe in any orthodox philosophy. In such a thinking, the role of philosophy is only for preaching others. I have argued earlier that philosphy is an abstraction to deal with the complexity of the world and so everyone has it. Secondly, philosophy is an abstraction of the world that people use for making principles and simplifies/catalysis/accelerates achievement of one's objectives. So keeping track of one's goals/objectives is also very important. This trade-off of objective vs principles has been talked a lot by Amartya Sen in his work in welfare economics and philosophy. In his recent work on the "Idea of justice", he talks about the trade-off between "Niti" (dharma/principles) and "Nyaya" (actual realization of justice). He has also argued against the take away point from Gita that "dharma is the only important thing" (citation slipped from my mind).

The 3 idiots is a broad criticism of the traditional thinking of Indian parents and teachers. It tries to highlight a more pragmatic and effective philosophical approach to current world. The 3-idiots reflect three different ideologies in form of three different characters:

1. Worrying about the fruits of a labor without thinking about the labor: The character is only interested in the job after study and not interested in the study itself. While clearly an illogical principle, focussing only on study is also not tenable. If I am going to study thermodynamic principles, should I completely shut off my mind on how it is used or can be used in future. If one's objective is to make money, thinking about its application is also pretty important.

2. Doing something other than what one is good at: This is talking about the trade-off between specialization and diversity. Clearly there is not much harmonization in the two extremes of the wild life and the engineering. However, this difference will get significantly blurred if it was a science subject like physics and an engineering subject like metallurgy. In one gets more specialized by focussing on more narrow issues, probably that is also pretty bad. Actually much of the interesting stuff is discovered through cross-discipline thinking.

3. Do what you love: Well clearly love is held at such high esteem that this principle is almost unassailable. The vague description of love makes it even more so. But let's ask if love is the most primate element or is it a developed feature. Well the ardent believer of "love is god" will argue the former point and considering the vague-ness of "god" and "love", this is almost unarguable. I believe that love for work is a developed feature that is mostly obtained through critical thinking and implementation of the ideas.

While all the three viewpoints advanced in the movie reject some obvious extremes of existing thinking, the proposed one does not sound much philosophically advancing. Actually I am more worried about supplanting one philosophy with another without talking about the goals/objectives. The critical thinking which is far more important that debating about philosophy is completely left out. So the movie does a pretty bad job of bringing out a good philosophical discourse and highlighting the importance of critical thinking.

Clearly the movie does an excellent job of rejecting different approaches advanced by parents and teachers. And in that sense I feel that movie was really aimed to satiate the populist and rebellious nature of the youngsters.

Overall I liked the movie but I certainly believe that the movie could have done a better job of bringing out a better discourse among the youngsters (not that I feel old myself :))

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Oye Bihari!

The new bill proposed by the Maharashtra government will require new applicants for taxi permits to have stayed in the state for 15 years and be well versed with one of the local languages. While I am not a constitutional expert to say if the proposed law violates right to free movement or puts undue burden on right to occupation, it makes me think on the issue of identity in India.

People in India are very interested to know everything about you. And of course that being too hard, people resort to knowing abstract details about you like which state you are from, what have you studied, where you work. Most of time such information is more than enough to fit you in a category after which no question is asked. Once in a while, the provided information creates a paradox in the questioner's mind which is often then resolved by assuming that the other person is lying. In short, people in India are well versed with knowing you in quite detail once a set of key properties are given.

The categories in themselves are not the end. They are values attached to these categories. So this means that if you say "Bihari" a number of things have resonated in other person mind. One of my friend in Mumbai says a "Bihari" reminds him of the "ghar ka naukar" and the "chai waala". For some others, it reminds of "extreme poverty", "goonda gardi" and "obscene corruption". It is hard for me and many other biharis to figure out which bracket they are in when none of such brackets sound appealing.

Beyond categorization and value assignment (which are mostly of academic interest), people often take one more step and insult others. Such insults can be hurled to you in form of distasteful jokes or worse .. just bad comments. On some argument one person told me "saala bihari kahin ka". Off course I never voluntary talked to him ever after that.

While I had the benefit of ignoring people with bad sense, I wonder how many others have that advantage. For many the livelihood depends on such people and ignoring them is not an option. To destroy your self pride to feed one is then the "smart move".