An Assignment For Physics Lovers From 15 Park Avenue


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In a country obsessed with politics and religion, it is quite rare to see any movie paying attention to science and scientists — that too fine attention. 15 Park Avenue (2005) by Aparna Sen is one such movie, which had received the National Film Award for best feature film in English.

I liked this movie for several reasons besides its screenplay and artistic merit. The foremost reason is that it brings nearly all my favourite actors and actresses under one roof — Shabana Azmi, Konkona Sen Sharma, Waheeda Rehman, Soumitra Chatterjee, Kanwaljit Singh, Rahul Bose, Dhritiman Chatterjee to mention only a few. And all of them performing under the expert direction of Aparna Sen who has shown her calibre more than once with movies such as 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981),  Yugant (1995), Paromitar Ek Din (2000) and Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002). What more could one ask for?

Another reason is that it presents Shabana Azmi as a physics professor, teaching relativistic quantum mechanics to college students. Wow! And if you follow my arguments further below, you would be convinced that Aparna Sen has done this in full sincerity and honesty, giving attention to very fine details. So there are no loopholes left which could have turned her efforts into a laughing stock. This deserves appreciation because whenever mainstream Bollywood movies talk about physics, they talk about krypton bomb, and when they discuss chemistry, it is only about laughing gas.

There is nothing extraordinary in the disappearing boundary between arts and sciences, especially when we had Leonardo da Vinci and Johannes Vermeer. In contemporary Bengali literature, several times I have come across short stories and novels where the protagonist was a science professor — physics, mathematics or chemistry — and the writer had given enough illustration to convince the reader that it was indeed so. We do come across Ramdhari Singh Dinkar and Hazari Prasad Dwivedi writing about physics, though only in the context of religion, philosophy and science.  Otherwise, for some strange reason, Indian artists in general shy away from science.

Anyway, let us return to 15 Park Avenue. As the third reason I share with you a scene from this movie where Shabana Azmi is introducing Schrodinger’s equation to her students. At the same time, back home her sister Konkona Sen Sharma who is suffering from mental illness is being ‘treated’ by a tantrik, at the behest of her mother Waheeda Rehman. This illustrates the conflict that India is fighting everyday in the 21st century. On one side she boasts of technological and scientific advances on various fronts, and on the other still fights with superstition, dogma and rituals. It is indeed distressing to see India, which once advocated reason and logic, being entangled in a mesh of ignorance and rituals. As Shabana’s voice intermingles with that of the maid, you begin to realize the complexity of Indian society. You begin to question whether it is at all possible to separate the two Indias from each other, and to transform the one which is holding the whole nation back. The inertia is too strong to fight, as this half does not want to be educated, illuminated or reformed — simply because it is convinced that there is nothing wrong in its methods.

Finally, the study room of Shabana Azmi is a visual delight for any physics lover. You can easily appreciate the fact that the room has been meticulously arranged to make it appear convincing. You see no less than three photo-portraits of Albert Einstein, the face of 20th century physics. Not only that, the various books arranged in shelves are devoted to physics alone — modern physics to be precise. Of course, you could argue that Aparna Sen might have gone to a university library and asked the librarian to give her books on physics. However, I prefer to give her more credibility than that. Now, here is my assignment for physics students, teachers and lovers. See the clip below carefully — very carefully — and check how many book titles can you identify. Following is the list of books that I could identify. Then I checked the titles on Amazon and noted their authors. Needless to say, in case of any errors, please do point them out. And do add the titles you could identify.

1- About Time — Paul Davies (this is the book lying on Shabana’s desk)
2- Determinism in Physics
3- The Quantum Universe — Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw
4- Einstein and Religion — Max Jammer
5- Shadows of the Mind — Roger Penrose
6- Chaos — James Gleick
7- Physics and Beyond — Werner Heisenberg
8- Elementary Mechanics — John G. Papastavridis
9- Feynman Lectures on Physics — Feynman, Leighton and Sands
10- Neil Bohr’s Times — Abraham Pais

11- Genius: Richard Feynman and Modern Physics — James Gleick

8 thoughts on “An Assignment For Physics Lovers From 15 Park Avenue

  1. sumandray

    I am tempted to watch this movie.
    My observation however, is is not about the movie but on the observation made on the post about the conflict in our society.
    I believe that our society is going through a transition where we are discarding our earlier ways of life and adopting imported one. I have said discard because we are repeatedly reminded that everything about our way of life is a pagan way without any scientific basis and staying attached to those makes us appear primitive. While change is inevitable, managing change is a daunting task and more so when we don’t believe or trust on the existence of any strong reformers.

    In our lifetime we have seen our vertical connection system with our elders via joint family has almost but disappeared. families have become small and satellite.

    With the breaking down of our religious system, the sages and and the pundits lost power to de-stress someone in distress by giving hope even if those were false. Our ancestors used to free themselves (somewhat) of stress by leaving it to the God to deal with. We try to deal with it ourselves all the time as we no longer believe in God and end up with stress related illness.

    The influence of our education doesn’t allow us to self talk to our brain and get things done as our ancestors did nor can we get the benefit of the placebo effect like them since scientific mind does,t let us believe in the rituals.

    On the other hand we are not able to reach out to the psychiatrist as they do in the western societies due to social stigma.

    The statistics tells us a lot about the impact of this conflict.

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      Many thanks for such a wonderful analysis. First and foremost let me clarify that this movie does not deal with this issue. The remark that you are referring to was made only that particular scene when watched in isolation from rest of the movie.

      No, everything that we follow is not primitive. Example could be given of traditional medicine and home remedies. At the same time we cannot deny that malpractices do exist in our society mostly promoted by quacks and tantriks. People in rural areas suffer more on account of non-availability of facilities. Now this is the biggest problem, and here you have hit the bull’s eye — how to differentiate between the two — what is fraud/fake and what is genuine traditional knowledge.

      I also agree that change is a slow process and hence we can still carry hope. Note that this movie was released about 15 years ago. Though we may not see drastic changes in society as yet, still people are more aware these days than 2-3 decades earlier.

      All your comments are valuable and do not leave anything to be added.

  2. Durga Prasad Dash

    A couple of days back I watched ‘A Beautiful Mind’ – A biographical film about John Nash, a mathematician who won Nobel prize for Economists in 1994. The movie is also a commercial blockbuster and won a few Oscars. In India, most of our biographical movies are about cricketers or movie stars, who area anyway already popular.

    WE need more movies/tele series like above and hope they become popular to among the Indians addicted to politics or cricket.

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      O my God! I can’t believe this! What you said is precisely the subject and theme of my next post. And my argument there is exactly the same as you say. Please do visit again.

      I would also like to draw your attention to the fact that the movie “The Man Who Knew Infinity” based on perhaps the greatest Indian mathematician S Ramanujan was not made in India, but Britain.

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