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Pal: Geeks Rise to Fame in Indian Cinema

October 26, 2010

In one catastrophic scenario, foreign powers are poised to attack India. In another predicament, a child disappears, and his distraught parents are left with nothing more than a cherished photo to remember the boy by.
These two pivotal problems frequently appear in contemporary South Indian films, and are increasingly being resolved by the same unlikely hero – the software engineer.

He fearlessly hacks into complex systems to block the alien invasion. Or feeds a photo of the lost child into a computer, which miraculously spits out an up-to-date image of the boy – down to the clothes he is wearing.

“In India, the new movie icon is moving from the macho man to this suave computer guy,” said Joyojeet Pal, of the ATLAS Institute, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and NYU-Poly, who spoke at the Institute recently.

“There is a magical quality attributed to the machine,” he added during his talk titled ‘Of Mouse and Men: Computers and Geeks as Icons in South Indian Cinema.’

Computers are instrumental to breaking gender, class, and power barriers in Indian cinema, said Pal, who surveyed 91 films for his research.

As South India has deeply profited from the technology boom, computers have become an emblem of wealth and success. But in cinema, its mystical powers grow – allowing villagers to succeed in urban settings, geeks to seduce previously unattainable females, and women to integrate the workforce.

In an Indian film, “if the woman is working, it’s usually because the man has failed – the brother is a drunkard or the husband has died,” said Pal. “And when a woman is in a man’s type of profession, that invariably means something bad is going to happen. But now, if computers are involved, women can work.”

Pal peppered his talk with clips from various films where the computer is cast in a leading role. In one, a father once shunned walks through the streets glowing under the community’s approving eyes after his son nabs a job at a software company. In an Indian adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, a rural woman carries her family out of poverty after she rises from secretary to software engineer.

And when the computer itself enters the screen, the drama intensifies – even if the task at hand isn’t as daunting as the theatrical lighting and spinning camera may suggest.

In one film, the object of the actors’ intense focus turns out to be a Windows Media Player, Pal said to audience laughter.

But the iconic computer doesn’t lead all characters to triumph. In another film, a mother boasts about her son, who allegedly works for a software company called “Cyber Wave” in the United States. But her son’s masquerade unravels when it is discovered that “Cyber Wave” is actually a club where he tends bar. 

While these films mirror many of the evolutions in Indian society – and indeed may be facilitating them – they remain aimed at attracting an elite, urban audience, Pal added.

“The computer and knowledge economy have been the equivalent of a lawyer or other forms of empowerment in the US,” he said. “Being a software engineer means being some kind of perfection.”

Pal's talk was sponsored by the Development Studies Program.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Alexandra Ulmer ’11