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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Filmi professions – just how professional are they?

I’ve been watching too many old movies (is it even possible to watch too many of those?) and couldnt help but notice their take on science. No matter what the protagonists’ field of research – be it a mysterious formula, nuclear science, or medical research – the 1950s to 1970s scientist always works in a lab that looks like a shiny version of my high school Chemistry laboratory!
As a scientist myself, I am mystified by filmmakers’ strange addiction to chemistry labs that are carefully stock-piled with glassware and multicolored fluids! Here are a couple of quick examples:
A scientist trying to harness solar energy (Madan Puri in Blackmail) should not be working in a Synthetic-chemistry lab straight out of the 1920s! He needs heavy equipment and sophisticated machinery - NOT glassware.Scientist in Blackmail

Here’s another scientist (Shashi Kapoor in Abhinetri) working in a chemistry lab. His lab is more sophisticated than usual - it comes equipped with a couple of microscopes (encircled area) in case he wants to go check his bright colored fluids under the scope!
Scientist from Abhinetri
Even doctors conducting medical research arent exempt! Here’s one doctor (Shashi Kapoor again, this time in Prem Patra) whose lab definitely needs more “biological” equipment: prem_patra_2_cropped
Hollywood scientists too, shared the passion of their Bollywood brethren for chemical laboratories. Remember Fred MacMurray in The Absent Minded Professor or Cary Grant in Monkey Business?
Advent of new technology hasnt improved matters. Now, science laboratories onscreen look like they belong on the sets of Star Wars or require the knowledge of rocket science at the very least!
Such misrepresentation can be quite amusing even though it stretches my suspension of disbelief to breaking point. One instance though, drives me nuts with exasperation (and envy, I must admit) – the “science” in CSI. Not only are their labs super clean, they also possess magic machines that produce results at the touch of a button (wish my experiments would work like that) and faaast! And look - they still hang on to the time-honored tradition of bright-colored liquids!
CSI laboratory
In case you’re wondering what real-life labs look like - here’s a chemistry and a biology laboratory:
A Chemistry Lab
A Biology Lab

I am sure this phenomenon isnt confined to science alone, but extends to all professions that movie-makers arent aware of and do not bother to research. So how about sharing your take on how Bollywood/Hollywood/small-screen treats your favorite profession? Do you find it amusing/interesting or do the inaccuracies drive you nuts? What things about your profession do you wish the media would highlight?


  1. I work in a museum (and have a brief background in libraries too) and am usually just pleased that either appears in a Hindi film at all. However, I did rave on and on about how silly the depiction of the museum is in the heist in Dhoom 2.

    Re: Hollywood and other non-Indian cinemas, I have learned to try to take the "it's just a movie" approach - and anyway, how exciting would it be to watch me use a computer to design a label or do research? Museums and their work are almost always depicted as stodgy, static, boring, irrelevant and dealing with the past - and are often even used as a metaphor for such - and that bothers me waaaay more than the inaccuracies in depictions of the actual work.

    My favorite moment from any film or tv show re: museums: in an early episode of Friends, Ross talks about getting a beeper. Joey wonders what a paleontologist needs a beeper for, and Monica says "Dinosaur emergencies: 'Help, come quick, they're still extinct!'" Hee.

  2. I'm a librarian - and like Beth - I love when libraries show up in movies! The only filmi library scenes I can think of off the top of my head are from Lage Raho Munnabhai and the library love song in 1942: A Love Story.

    As for Hollywood, my favorite library depicition has to be from Party Girl, which not only gets a lot of things right, it also makes library work look both as fun and as dull as it can be.

  3. So cute! I didn't know you were a scientist! Thanks for sharing. I do think Bollywood doesn't show the professions in most of the films though.

    My occupation is just a boring payroll processor.

  4. Lol this is a great post.Bollywood scientists never seem to know what they're doing till an explosion or a pop sound happens, though Madan Puri takes the award for coolest glasses-wearing scientist!

  5. I only wish I had a profession.

    If I ever do, it will DEFINITELY involve vials of brightly colored liquid though.

  6. LOVE this post.
    I am an auditor, and I always love how all businesses, real estate and whatnot are sold for "hundreds of crores" these days, were " 1-50 crores" in the 90s, "lakhs- 1 crore" in the 70s, and so on. Also love how financial and security systems are hackable entirely by playing (badly made) animations and powerpoint & flash presentaions- that one hasnt changed in the past 15 yrs.

  7. How true! I remember one film where Madan Puri was playing a medical doctor and to let the audience know that, he was dressed in a white coat with a stethoscope round his neck - while receiving guests for a tea party at home!!

    And while on Madan Puri, I love his baker/chef cap in the screencap from Blackmail - a true absent-minded scientist?!

  8. Hmm, speaking of scientists/research, did you ever catch Pankaj Kapoor in 'Ek Doctor ki Maut'? I remember my mom especially interested in watching it, as she was a scientist herself.

    Well, I am a print features journalist but apart from identifying with Konkona in Page 3 (only Madhur Bhandarkar movie I didn't mind watching), the TV journalist clan seems to make for more exciting and sensationalised viewing - er, Zayed Khan in Mission Istantbul, anyone?!

  9. Being a mom is my main job (I also freelance write) but the movies tend to get that job mostly right. Except for the part where the kids go to sleep.

  10. My favorite filmi libraries are Bobby and Lage Raho Munnabhai And for Hollywood, it's Desk Set. :)

  11. Everybody, thanks for chiming in with your take on filmi professions.

    Beth, I've always thought museum work must be fascinating. Not only do you guys get to spend time with all those artifacts, you also know about their fascinating histories! Cant understand why they are depicted as boring.

    And thats a great Monica quote - that gal certainly knows how to cut a man down to size! :-)

    The LRMB library was pretty realistic, wasnt it? And I looooove Desk Set (and pretty much everything with Tracy-Hepburn in it).

    Filmi Girl, I love libraries - all those books to choose from!

    A lot of 80s-90s college romances feature libraries too, but my favorite library scene is in the Hoshwaalon ko khabar kya ghazal from Sarfarosh. And Party Girl sounds fun - have to track it.

    Nicki, you're right about Bollywood not showing too many professions on screen. Law, law enforcement, espionage, medicine, science, and teaching, though, get sufficient screen time. But none of them appear to be even close to reality!

    Rum, I was sadly disappointed when I found that I had to actually pay attention and understand what was going on in the lab! But my biggest disappointment was that none of the scientists are goofy or absent-minded in real life. Gimme a filmi scientist anyday!

    Memsaab, aww your profession is movie critic (a very benign and benevolent one!) and that already involves lots of bright color! ;-)

    Shweta, you mean it isnt that easy to hack into banks and carry out computer heists? :-( And here I was thinking about retiring in comfort after acquiring some ill-gotten gains from such an enterprise! ;-)

    Ruchi, where was Madan Puri doing that? And he is cooking up a potent brew of solar energy, so his baker's cap is justified. Isnt it sad that movies and fiction have employed so many absent minded scientists that there are no real-life ones left anymore! :-(

    Priyanka, I'd really like to see Ek Doctor Ki Maut. From what I've heard, I wouldnt consider it very true-to-life, either. What did your Mom think? And yes, journalists seem to lead either more exciting or more sleazy lives on-screen than even I can swallow!

    Ajnabi, what do the films get wrong - the fact that kids sleep at all or that there is peace when they do? ;-) I've always found filmi mothers way too patient and loving! Dont think I'll be ever be so saintly.

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  13. lol, I have a feeling that my mom probably enjoyed it given that unlike me, she's probably seen (and remembered)all of ten Bollywood films to date - her quest has always been to see 'realistic' Bollywood films which probably explains her limited interest and consumption.

    She's a botanist/ecologist though and it just made me recall the famous Professor Parimal Tripathi, 'ghaas phool ke afsar' from Chupke Chupke:) Ah, the double life of academics moonlighting as thespians/drivers in their spare time! Otherwise, academics usually make an appearance as laughable college-teacher caricatures, superfluous background material while the boy and girl spar in college classrooms, labs, and canteens before falling in love and making college redundant altogether...

  14. I think the film was Ek Baar Kaho, in fact it is mentioned on your blog, so you must have seen it! But then again it wasnt the most memorable scene of the movie, which was otherwise quite nice!!

  15. Thanks for the library film recommendations! I'll have to track those down and do a more thorough investigation of my filmi profession! :D

  16. theBollywoodFan, you're right about technology in movies needing to be ahead of times. James Bond's toys, for example, always make me laugh. But some of the early James Bond movies had gadgets that are reality now (GPS, fancy listening "bugs", etc.)!

    Was the game recommended in Bachna... rated "M" on basis of violence or other adult themes? If the former then in a Bollywood movie that should be perfectly OK as I dont think most Indians object to their children seeing dishoom-dishoom! I was quite amazed to see Indian movie programs on TV here rated PG, while in India all kids watch these.

    And I havent watched Afsana Pyaar Ka though I always wanted to! :-(

    Priyanka, you wrong Bollywood. They didnt always neglect the teaching profession! 50s and 60s had hero/heroines who were teachers. Sunil Dutt made a career out of his pretend-teaching all through the 60s (he didnt become a permanent filmi dacoit till 70s) and Dharmendra did a lot of "serious" teacher roles in 60s as well! I even remember a few 70s films (Vinod Khanna-starrer Imtihaan and some Jeetendra-starrer, too) made along the lines of To Sir With Love.

    Ruchi, if it was Ek Baar Kaho then I can see why I missed it - Madan Puri (inspite of big glasses and stethoscope) cant take my attention away from Naveen Nischol!

    Filmi Girl, please do, and then recommend some great library romances/mysteries/comedies!

  17. I take back my comments, you are indeed right:) I clearly based my observations on watching too much 80s-90s. I am not familiar with the 50-60s although how can one forget Vinod Khanna in Imtihaan and the unforgettable 'Ruk jaana nahi'? Thanks for updating me!

  18. Did laboratories in the 60s/70s look like as they do now?? Maybe the films just show how it looked like back then.

  19. Anonymous, you're right. Laboratories in 60s and 70s did not look exactly like today's labs. A physicist or a biologist though, would have found it really hard to carry out their research in the chemistry lab that they got in all the films! Even among chemists, very few (only organic synthetic chemists) would know what to do with the kind of equipment shown in filmi labs.

  20. For a minute this post made me feel nostalgic about my old job as a bio lab tech, where, although I did use a lot of glassware and pipettes, I worked with very few colorful liquids and no microscopes. Then I remembered how bad I was at that job. It turns out that it's not a good idea to be an absent-minded scientist, since you might end up, say, repeatedly spilling mutagens on yourself, forgetting to add one of the ingredients for your PCR analysis so that you get no results when you run the gel the next day, or being so lost in your thoughts that you jump and break important stuff whenever someone talks to you. Good times.

    Now I work in the legal field, where the actual work I do isn't even remotely close to TV or film portrayals of legal work. (Of course, that's probably a good thing, since reading, typing, and thinking aren't the most exciting activities to watch.)

  21. My favorite is how they depict army officers (as the heroine's Dad of course)as half-crazy-super strict-dictators all the time. I won't even go into finer details like always being in uniform, and or wearing the wrong uniform or insignia..


  22. Cindy, sounds like you'd be perfect for a filmi scientist - you can have all the colorful liquids you want, then! lol By the way, did you really use glass-ware for PCR and running gels?

    I think the most watchable profession apart from the performing arts is cooking - almost everything else is either too mundane/routine (cooking is mundane only when you have to do it yourself!) or too unpleasant (I'd class surgery and pathology as that) to watch. And thats probably why everything on screen is rendered so colorful and so totally un-lifelike!

  23. Veena, welcome to OiG.

    Its so true about army officers and policemen. I know several of the former and have never seen any of them in uniform nor have they ever struck me as more dictatorial than other people! I cant of course, distinguish between right and wrong uniforms and insignia like (I suspect) the majority of the film-viewing public - which is why film-makers get away with them!

  24. Hmm, it's been a long time since I thought about my lab work. I know we used a fair amount of glassware, since I was in charge of washing it up at the end of the day, but I'm having a hard time remembering what we used it for. I think we used beakers when we prepared the agarose gel solution, and I think we also used glassware at some point in the process of extracting DNA from leaf samples.

    Actually, some parts of that job would have filmed pretty well, since I worked with lots of varieties of colorful vegetables that would have looked nice on screen and did everything from installing an irrigation system and measuring fungal lesions on tomatoes to doing impressive-looking stuff with PCR analyses and gas chromatagraphy. In theory, it was an interesting job.

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  26. Cindy, your research sounds fascinating, but as one who's done enough PCR and chromatography, I can heartily concur when you qualify it with the "in theory" apellation!

    theBollywoodFan, I am still waiting for invisible 3-D monitors I saw in Paycheck to come on the market! ;-)

  27. ha ha, I'm a film maker. And I must say, filmi labs look so much more exciting than real ones, don't they? I'd go for colored liquids and glass beakers anyday on a shoot. :-)

    Must be exasperating though, for you as a scientist.

    As for museums, I love all those red laser beams, that will cut up a person if he crosses them, and how thiefs always manage to crack them with incredible acrobatics. I get scared to put my hand across open refrigerators in supermarkets, certain that one of these days I'm going to get beamed. Too much film watching :-)

    Lovely post.

  28. Banno, thanks.

    "filmi labs look so much more exciting than real ones" - they look like high school labs (in other words, boring ;-D)!

    Real labs can be as complicated or as simple as you like - there can be sophisticated instrumentation that looks like you need a an advanced degree in rocket science to use, laser labs with pulsing lasers that look like a scary discotheque, or simple ones like the ones in the pics I've posted. I just wish film makers had tried some of those variations, so we would have had a better record of older labs!

    "As for museums, I love all those red laser beams, that will cut up a person if he crosses them" - I think the beam doesnt cut them up, merely activates an alarm if the laser path is crossed. Lasers that can cut up people will damage the museum artifacts too. Same goes for supermarkets. So you neednt worry about being beamed. :-)

  29. What about the fact that even the most sophisticated Hollywood film would for years come up with a "green on black" computer screen, more recently changed to a black on grey/white, using the kind of screens and programs that I haven't seen since my BBC micro and VAX4 days from university!

    My physical geography lab never had all those fun liquids, but had all sorts of tools that would come in handy for a villain to slice up rocks.
    We did have a lot of large microscopes but the really sophisticated ones, with super magnifiers never looked like microscopes, rather a large box of metal with computer screens and keypads.
    And nuclear soil testers looked like huge metal tubes for draining waste water, and a portable siesmograph looked a tin suitcase you carried to school in India when I was little.

    Teachers in all those movies inevitably wore glasses, really ugly "culo de vaso" = glass-bottom ones. Teaching seems to make the eyes particularly weak!
    Of course, I partially watched an Aishwarya starrer called Shabd who tried to make up for all the fuddy-years of lecturing with a swing to some really negligible blouses with hipster sarees and a new one for every that would be a lecturer worth having!

  30. I thought the B/W screens were there because they were running "sophisticated" hacking software (written in BASIC, no less!) or searching very very sophisticated databases! ;-)

    I'd love to see your physical geography lab - sounds ideal for filming a villain's lair with weapons all close to hand!

    About teachers, I think the glasses were to age them and make them look "serious" and unglamorous. If you think Aish alone made up for years of behenji teachers, you should check out Sushmita Sen's chemistry lecturer in Main Hoon Naa for the latest in sexy saree-wear!

  31. I am not that up-to-date in more recent Bollywood years; I think I shall watch a clip to get the idea!

    No those green/black and white/ grey screens are not hacker stuff: But that is the idea they are trying to convey! (have hubby who goes into the DOS mode behind my XP)
    Next time they use a messaging/e-mail programme in a film, just check on the software used!

    Apple does spend a lot on ads though, cos in most newer films you will see a lot of apple-mac things lying around.

    Yes, Phy Geog or Geol labs with all their drills, (to say nothing of spades,shovels etc.) would make for some good dishum-dishum!

  32. VEry funny post..
    It looks so cute with sashi kapoor working in chemistry lab and all..

    BTW I love ur main blog pic that has the old is gold caption..its so insanely purrfect :)

  33. Bawa, try out this song from Main Hoon Na - it gives a good idea of Sushmita's saree-wear in the film. Aish's was probably more hip, but this isnt far behind and you can see why SRK goes weak in the knees everytime he sees her (wonder why that doesnt happen to her other students)! lol

    B, thank you so much! I spent a lot of time on those cycling blog headers and its nice to know that its noticed. :-D

  34. But - but- but- the shiny bottles full of pretty liquid!

    My personal gripe with CSI and all other cop shows for that matter is when they plug in the fingerprints/ DNA samples and get an immediate match. I know it's because they need to compress time but it's still hilarious.

    But usually I'm all good. It's a movie after all... even random office sets are insane, esp in Hindi movies - nobody ever works in an ordinary office with cubicles and things, it's always a major corner office with a bird's eye view of the Sydney Opera house or the London Eye or something.

    Le Sigh @ Shashi in his lab coat.

  35. Tell me about compressed time - wish my experiments could be compressed like that! And ya Shashi in labcoat is very photogenic but if any of my colleagues ran around shouting eureka over an Optical Density of 0.02 (thats what he does right after that screen cap in Abhinetri, and which implies that there is very little of anything at all in his colored tube) they'd be considered certifiable (of course, in Shashi its completely forgivable! ;-D)

  36. Ah, looks like you haven't seen the best lab of all... there's this old Biswajit starrer called Kahin Din Kahin Raat in which there's a mad woman scientist who spends all her time inventing ghastly ways to murder people. Poisoned fingernails, for one. That did rip me up. Hilarious!

  37. Mad woman scientist, poisoned fingernails?!!! This I have to see. But then again - Biswajit! :-(