The quintessential Rajini movie

Recalling the superb writing in ‘Annamalai’, which is an epitome of the trademark Rajinikanth movie.

So, ‘Annamalai’ and I both turned 28 this year. That doesn’t mean it was the only Rajini movie I grew up with. In fact, my childhood was lucky to witness the great Rajini decade with a spectacular set of blockbusters (‘Annamalai’, ‘Baasha’, ‘Muthu’, ‘Padayappa’, ‘Thalapathi’ to name a few :)). However, I pick out ‘Annamalai’ here because it really conceived (or at least redefined the way we know it) the idea of a Rajini movie. I can’t offhand recall another well-written Rajini movie in the last three decades. ‘Baasha’ is the second in-command in some ways yet far far away.

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‘Annamalai’ is supremely well-directed and well-acted but its main success is due to its writing. I revisit it every and now then and I must say that time stands frozen in front of this spectacle. The story is loosely based on ‘Khudgarz’ and the adapted screenplay credits are shared by Suresh Krissna (SK) and Shanmughasundaram (SH) (with ghost inputs from Ananthu, K Balachander and the superstar himself). You can really sense from the writing the writers’ respect for the Rajini movie and their intimate knowledge of its inner workings. More importantly, it is their realization that the best Rajini movie happens when put the story before Rajini. If you are wondering why the recent Rajini offerings don’t match up to their nineties’ counterparts, you have your answer.

SK and SH know that one of the most irresistible aspects of a Rajini movie is his introduction (he plays the titular character but by now, you’ve guessed that). And what a legendary one it turns out to be. We wait in anticipation (pretty much like the Sarath Babu character) to a get glimpse of the superstar. He stands still amidst a celebration facing away from us. The music already cues us in, leading to a high as we yearn to see his face. Then, he turns towards us with his ever-awesome charismatic smile and launches into the ultra-catchy ‘Vandhaenda Palkkkaran’.

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Even better is how the writers shape the supporting characters. We are introduced to Rajini’s family — a doting mother and a younger sister. We sense how close Sarath Babu is with Rajini’s family. We are really zoned into the fact that the house is everything to them. This emotional investment is what makes us cheer for Rajini in the second act of film. When he is betrayed, we feel as if we have been wronged and swear revenge (as ‘Vetri Nitchyam’ plays in the background). It would go on to set a precursor for many such songs like ‘Vetri Kodi Kattu’ from ‘Padaiyappa’.

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Speaking of songs, ‘Annamalai’ is that rare Rajini movie (the ones at least after nineties), where songs are neatly woven into the narrative. My vote goes to ‘Rekkai Kattu Parakadhu’, where Khushboo remembers the simple man that Annamalai was (whose innocence she fell in love with). Heck, even the heroine is written beautifully — her education and real-world awareness is brought out in a very crucial scene. Barring the subplot between Rajini’s daughter and Sarath Babu’s son (once again, ‘Padaiyappa’ takes a similar route), everything is organic and everything fits.

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Last but not the least, the writers realize any Rajini movie must be filled with grand Rajini moments. This is where they really cut loose and there are many to choose from. Be it the auction scene where Rajini takes a jibe at Radha Ravi (who’s fantastic) or the scene in Sarath Babu’s house where Rajini swears revenge, each one has become such an integral part of the Tamil pop-culture. However, my top three Rajini moments have to be — the escalator scene where we Rajini climbing up and Sarath Babu climbing down, the one where Rajini sees another milkman and realizes how his life has changed and finally, the way he swaggers with “I am Bad Man” in the climax. It’s all Rajini-mania!

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So the next time someone says a Rajini movie is all about style, please do refer to them the wonderfully written, deeply affecting and totally rewatchy worthy ‘Annamalai’. It will go down in film history as a seminal thesis with title — “how to make great cinema with a great crowd-pulling star”.

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Conversations on Michael Madana Kamarajan

Sai: Finally, I managed to arm-twist Karthik (Ramalingam) into discussing one of Tamil (even Indian) cinema’s finest comedies and our all-time favorite — “Michael Madana Kamarajan” (MMKR). Let me start with a very popular question: who is your favorite character among the four?

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Karthik: Popular as it may be, that’s not an easy one to address. Each one of them is so well etched out with all i’s dotted and t’s crossed. Since at its core MMKR is an old school madcap comedy, it is very tempting to pick Kaameshwaran who has the most laugh inducing situations and lines. But to be fair it is really the interplay between the whole cast at large (how well the writing lets them cut loose) and the aptly written scenarios for these characters. If at all an answer is mandatory, it is a close call between Kaameswaran and Subramaniya Raju with the needle tilting slightly towards Kaameswaran.

Sai: I am so glad you brought in Subramaniya Raju. One of the lines that crack me up in every viewing is when he tells Khushboo — “En paer Madan, aana surukkaama Subramaniya Raju” (loose translation: “My name is Madan but my nickname is Subramaniya Raju”).  

Karthik: That’s definitely one of the character-trait defining lines, that we can see in abundance throughout the film. These lines exist even for the minor characters. One example is Bheem boy who has this very unusual trait of watching cartoons and doesn’t think twice about jumping out of a window (and later exclaims “Jolly! Jolly!”). What do you think about this aspect, Sai?

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Sai: I would generalize a bit and say character introduction is easily a great aspect of this movie (like any self-respect masala movie). When we first see Palakkad Mani Iyer for instance (‘Delhi’ Ganesh), his love for Vethalapaaku (betel nut) is immediately established. Later, this becomes a motif and the loss of his betel nut cache (which he fondly calls ‘chella petti’) is used to move the story forward. Similarly, when Manorama and Santhana Bharathi are introduced, their greed for wealth and prosperity is immediately established. Now that I think about it, the movie has a huge ensemble (comic) cast for its time. Karthik, how do you think they managed to pull this off?

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Karthik: That’s something I myself wonder quite often. Let’s start by applauding the casting coup which is a Himalayan feat, right from managing dates to making sure everyone is excited about the film. It is worthwhile to note that there is not even a single supporting character or even an extra in the film who does not make an impression. For instance, we still remember the guys who are just passers-by in the wedding scene saying ”But they can’t be so mean”, since it is placed in between a scene that has already acquired your undivided attention. All credit goes without any doubt to the writing of the film, be it the screenplay or dialogues. Actually when I come to think of it, it is very difficult to differentiate the effect of the screenplay and dialogues in this film. They are so intricately woven that if you pull one line or action out,  the structure would fall (alluding to Salieri’s comment about Mozart from Amadeus).

Sai: Yes, your point about screenplay and dialogues is spot on. But I think the music (especially the background score) also plays a significant role in binding these things together. What is your take on that?

Karthik: Do we have 5 hours (laughs)? Yes, the music sort of acts as a glue here and does much more than that. It is such an integral part of the narrative that you cannot think about any scene without the score at that precise moment coming to you right away.

 

Typically, the purpose of the background score in any film is twofold. One is to say things or set a specific context that words can’t really do. The other is to set the pace the scene or the film in general. What is interesting in this film is that the background score actually complements the plot points and even gestures the twists and turns in the film (also literally). The most memorable piece of music in the film is not the usual dramatic music that plays when Madan’s father meets with an accident, but the portions where the henchmen continually follow the wrong Kamal. There is a shot where the henchmen miss Madan and start following Kaameshwaran when he is going to the grocery store and we can see his scooter front tyre moving and at that exact moment, Ilaiyaraaja decides to go into the theme associated with Kaameswaran. To add coherence to the film as a whole, he places themes from songs that are yet to come in the film, to establish character relationships. The scene with Kamal and Urvashi fighting and then agreeing for marriage has bits of Kaameshwaran’s theme as well as a motif from “Sundari Neeyum”.

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Sai: Thanks for those really great insights into the score! I think Kamal is one writer-director who always threw a gauntlet at Raja. Though this movie doesn’t warrant songs as such, he throws a screwball like situation, which Raja transforms to the mind-blowing “Paer Vachaalum”. I mean what is not there to like in this song; if you close your eyes and listen to it, it is a melody at heart. But the visuals transform it to something else; watch out for Santhana Bharathi hitting Venniradai Murthy with a ‘urattakattai’, Kaameshwaran shouting ‘Bheem Boy’ and the talkie-like detours. It all comes together as a cohesive whole.

Karthik: Totally! And for someone like me whose biggest grouse with Tamil cinema has been the pre-climax song, this one actually leaves you wanting for more and drives the narrative with greater pace than even a scene. If you come to think of it except “Sundari Neeyum” and “Rum Bum Bum” (both of which provide proper transitions in all fairness) every song advances the story. “Kadhai Kelu” is the front runner in this category. It is such a pleasure to see a writer- director-composer trio trusting the audience so much that they decided to set the context for the story in a song and begin the film with it. This film did way back in the early 90’s in this regard what films like “Gully Boy” are doing now and what the kids call going “right into the action”. Why only music, I feel that the film doesn’t slack in any technical department, and each person from the crew pulls their weight ably.

I think we’ve cut the film wide and deep, but comedy films have this repeat watching value and I think MMKR is right at the top of the list along with say an “Andaz Apna Apna”, “Padosan” or “Kadhalikka Neramilla”’. What do you think makes us forget the nuances every time we watch and completely surrender to the fun/nonsense?

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Sai: I will start by saying something controversial. I think as long as a film keep us engaged, we don’t care all that much if it is interesting as cinema. It’s easy do this in comedy — write a solid script and bring in actors who actually could do comedy (like Nagesh or Mahmood). Just see the influence of MMKR. Crazy Mohan and Kamal made a comic career out of it with successful spiritual sequels like “Panchathandhiram” and “Kaathala Kaathala”. Later, Sundar C took a leaf out of their book and made fantastic comedies like “Ullathai Allitha” (which, by the way, is a loose remake of “Andaz Apna Apna”). Good comedies are hard to come by but when they do, they hang in for a long time.

Thanks a lot for your time, Karthik! Really enjoyed this discussion.

A Starter Pack for Malayalam Movies

This conversation aims to provide the reader a guided tour of some of the finest malayalam movies (especially from the eighties to the nineties).

Gayatri: I’ve recently discovered the fantastic world of Malayalam cinema, mostly by watching recent releases. I haven’t really found the right way to navigate the archives though, so I asked Sai for a guided tour.

Sai: Gayatri, welcome to the club! I remember being in your shoes in the first few years of my undergrad (incidentally, in Kerala). That was really the period where I got exposed to Malayalam cinema. One aspect that really stands out (for me) is the quality of mainstream movies there. I mean, there are movies which a majority wouldn’t believe can be made in the commercial space but are being made and run to packed houses.

I am elated to give you a tour but I am curious to know how you would want it. In particular, what fascinates you the most in a movie — is it the writing/direction/acting/music/cinematography?

G: It’s amazing how unusual and gutsy so many of the storylines are, even in some pretty ancient movies. I guess that’s what interests me the most. Let’s try this, imagine a friend who’s never watched Malayalam cinema and has a pretty bad opinion of the whole industry, thinks it’s a bunch of lousy rom-coms. What’s one movie you would pick to change their opinion?

S: I would go with two movies — Nadodikkaatu and Anantaram. The former is a comedy of desperation and the latter is a stunning formal experiment. Both these movies released in the same year (1987) and were commercially successful, which is a testament to the fact that eighties were indeed the golden period of Malayalam cinema.

Nadodikkaatu is a probably a first of its kind even in South Indian cinema. It presents characters whose plight should ideally make us cry but instead makes us laugh. At surface, it is the story of two unemployed youngsters Dasan (Mohanlal) and Vijayan (Sreenivasan) who are conned by people around them — the house owner, a middleman who promises to land them in Gulf (read Dubai), their smuggler boss and finally, a local politician. The movie is so entertaining that it is easy to overlook the sad undercurrents. Dasan is unable to take care of his ailing mother. Even the supporting characters (e.g., the heroine) toe the poverty line. Dasan and Vijayan are in fact a stand-in for the educated and unemployed youth of that time. They continue doing odd jobs to make ends meet. (Tidbit: The episode where they try their hand at a dairy business (with a ‘Delhi’ cow) and their subsequent trip to ‘Gulf’  is one of the most sustained stretches of farce I’ve seen.) Entertainment that says something and is about something is an elusive holy grail that filmmakers keep chasing. It’s interesting that this movie found it many decades back.

Anantaram, on the other hand, is far from being straightforward. It tells two related stories but it’s hard to tell which part of these stories is real and which is cooked up by the narrator (Ajayan, played by Ashokan). He tells us two stories from his life — one followed by the other. Both these stories have similar characters (they revolve around the same woman played by Shobhana) but the narrator reveals different shades of them in each story. Heck, even the narrator’s perception of himself changes considerably in the second story. Is he psychotic? Is he lying? Is he making a fool out of us? The movie does not provide any answers but I will leave you with the stunning climax that has a boy who climbs up and down a stairs. In the upward phase, he counts odd and in the downward one, he counts even. Perhaps, it’s a way to tell us that the reality is a superset of incidents from both the stories but it can never be recovered. Interestingly, the director Adoor Gopalakrishnan called the movie “an organized dream made up by the narrator’s conscious mind ”.

What do you think about these movies, G?

G: Ooh, Sai, interesting. I really like the comedy in Malayalam cinema, although that might just be a personal preference, so I will watch the first movie when I need a pick-me-up sometime. The second one is actually more intriguing, the sort that motivates me to watch movies in this language I don’t even understand. You won’t believe the amount of time I’ve spent hunting for subtitles to some of these movies.

So you mentioned the 80s being a golden period, and I’ve read that a couple of decades after this were swamped with rom-coms. Do you remember any of these for being exceptional, doing something funky?

S: Haha, finally! 🙂 Yea, getting subtitles for some of these old movies (even the popular ones) is incredibly hard. In my case, once I learnt the language (in speaking fluency), things became much smoother.

I will tell you a specific kind of movie (we could call it a genre) which I like a lot: they start off on a lighter/happier note and then go on to become gut-wrenching tragedies. One film that I find very interesting in this genre is Kireedam which starts off with a happy family headed by Achuthan Nair (played marvelously by Thilakan). Achuthan is a sincere Police Constable and wants his son Sethumadhavan (Mohanlal) to become an inspector. That’s really Achuthan’s height of ambition. The movie makes us spend time these characters — Sethu has a loving mom and he is engaged to Devi (the daughter of his maternal uncle).  

That’s when tragedy strikes. Sethu gets involved in a fight with a feared criminal and injures him. His life would never be the same again. He goes on to lose his loved one, shatters his father’s dreams and his family dynamics go in for a toss. This is beautifully depicted in the song “Kanneerpovinte” where we see that his life has literally become empty. At a philosophical level, it’s just the way life foils our plans but to see it on screen is extremely depressing!

Would you listen to “Kanneerpovinte” and get back?

G: I like the song, but I think I’ll have to watch the movie to understand what you’re getting at. Yeah, I watched this movie Thenmavin Kombath which had a similar structure – they use these humorous/romantic sketches to lay out the characters and setting elaborately (not for half an hour or an hour but 2.5 hours, for god’s sake, until you think the movie is ending soon) before introducing some serious conflict extremely late into the movie. I watched it with a friend, and she said that this is typical of older Malayalam movies. It’s interesting and seems to draw from oral storytelling traditions but I must say I prefer a tighter, shorter story. Speaking of which, you’ve mentioned before that Mollywood is, or used to be, closely associated with Malayalam literature. Tell me a little more about this?

S: Oops, my bad. The song is pretty symbolic actually — in the sense that there is a scene where he (Mohanlal) walks down a road and there is emptiness on both sides. It signifies the emptiness in his life at that point but yes you really need more context from the movie.

Yes, I have studied this genre (comedy-morphs-into-tragedy) for quite a while now and I think it works very well since it amplifies the tragedy/conflict. I will tell you an interesting fact. Thenmavin Kombath was remade in Tamil as Muthu with Rajinikanth as the lead (playing Mohanlal’s role) and naturally they wanted some Rajini-isms. Hence, they added a heroic flashback portion where it is revealed that Rajini is indeed the boss and the other guy happens to be one of his aides. TK was comparatively more grounded and it had beautiful cinematography (K.V. Anand won a National Award).

On the connection to literature, M.T. Vasudevan Nair (affectionately called MTV) has to be credited for establishing this and improving the overall quality of Malayalam cinema. MTV is indeed a seminal chapter in the history of Indian cinema. Arriving from a strong background in literature (Jnanpith Award Winner) and anticipating the terseness of the Bharathan-K.G.George-Padmarajan era, it didn’t take MTV that longer to find his footing in cinema. Let me talk about Thaazhvaram, which is a spaghetti-western (!) written by MTV and directed by Bharathan. At the outset, it’s your standard revenge saga but the way it plays out is beautiful and gripping. In particular, most of the action is not shown but left to our imagination. One thing that fascinates me in this movie is how the characters are written, especially the female lead. In particular, we are told information in bits and pieces — only so much that is needed to move the story forward. This is very economical storytelling.

G, what is your general take on books being adapted into movies?

G: If you ask me whether I’ve watched a movie or a show, I’ll very likely respond with ‘No, but I’ve read the book’. I think that’s because I’m more comfortable with that medium – I can handle violence, cheesiness and other dangerous things much better in print than on screen. Other than that, both media are powerful in their own ways. But enough! I’m supposed to be asking the questions here 😀 Speaking of adapting books into movies – have you watched Chemmeen?

S: It was a nice role-reversal for me (laughs). For me, it’s quite the other way round. Cinema comes first for before all other mediums. Now that I think about it, I think all my current interests of music, literature and theatre sprouted from Cinema.

Yes, I have seen Chemmeen but haven’t read the book by Thakazhi (again, a legend). I remember the stunning climax. In particular, there used to be this myth in the fisherman community on chastity — if a woman cheats on her husband while he is at sea, he would be consumed by the sea. It is quite regressive seen from the vantage of today (probably any day :)) but I like how this myth was explored in a coastal setting (which makes it almost real).

Maybe I am digressing a bit but Manichithrathazhu does something similar as well. It takes this age old myth of a dead person’s spirit inhabiting a (vulnerable) living one and places it in the contemporary world of psychiatry (read psychosis, neurosis, split-personality disorder). The result is a science-cum-superstition fiction that strikes a balance between traditional beliefs and scientific thought. Making such a movie is like walking on a tightrope; overplay the science, you dismiss the superstition. Overplay the superstition, you end up dismissing science. You really need solid writing to handle this.

G: Hmm, it’s quite an art.

So, you’ve given me quite the list of movies (and subtitles) to hunt down. Most of these are older movies though, and Mollywood is only growing more edgy today. Perhaps we should save that for another post but before we end, can you tell us about a couple of your more recent favourites?

S: Good luck with your hunting! I will pick two (like I have done almost always on this thread). The first is Bangalore Days. In terms of story, it is a typical feel-good fantasy but the beauty is in the filmmaking (both writing/direction). One particular scene that stood out for me is when Kuttan (Nivin Pauly) gets out of office in the late afternoon. He sees a school going girl selling flowers and buys some from her. She has this elated smile, thanks him and leaves. Now, this definitely is a very well directed scene: in terms of framing/staging. But you might ask what it does to move the story forward? Perhaps nothing but these nuggets of nothingness give a slice-of-life feel to the proceedings. Just just beauitiful!

The second is Maheshinte Prathikaram. The title makes us expect a classic revenge saga but the movie that plays out hardly is. Instead, it has stupendous stretches of comedy — involving a series of phone calls, references to Mammotty/Mohanlal and Mahesh’s photography skills. The movie is so enjoyable at surface that it’s easy to overlook the dense layers. For example, the slippers shown to us in the first scene go on to play a major role in the proceedings later.

I would happily settle for this quality of mainstream cinema any day!

G: Alright! Let’s wrap up here. Note to the reader: if you’ve gotten up to this point in our conversation, you probably want to try a couple of these movies. If you want to stay on the right side of the law – Maheshinte Prathikaram is currently available with English subtitles on Netflix (at least in the U.S.) and so is Angamaly Diaries, a FABULOUS movie that kicked off my interest in Malayalam cinema. Anyways, thank you, Sai, for letting me pick your brain. This is a great haul!

How to pick it?

A few days back, I was talking to someone about Mohan (the actor) and ended up wondering what was my favorite Mohan song. It is a very difficult question whose difficulty is enhanced when the SPB-Ilayaraja filter is applied. First, there is ‘Ilaya Nila’ where the Flute sways in harmony with the Electric and Bass Guitars in the second interlude. Then, we have ‘Sangeetha Megam’ which is one of those Raja songs which gives you so much joy even in the first listen. Thinking of joy, there is the legendary ‘Paatu Thalaivan Paadinal’ where SPB’s singing of the Pallavi matches the drunken antics of Mohan that lead to the song.

And it was not only the happy songs. There’s so much melancholy in say a ‘Nilaave Vaa’ which portrays the dynamics of the Mohan-Revathy marriage. She is the ‘Nila’ (the distant moon) and he sings in yearning for her. Then, we have the legendary ‘Pyaasa’ tribute ‘Naan Paadum Mouna Raagam’ and the tragic ‘Vaigariyil Vaigai Karayil’.

Overall it is really hard to zero in one song from this trio. Hence, I came up with the following shortcut which is one of the very few songs that Yesudas sung for Mohan. This is one of those songs where you don’t need any instruments and the tune will hold up on its own. Don’t let the video spoil your experience of the song and if you do make it till the end, there is S. Janaki singing like a child! 🙂

 

UB Theory Weekly – Week 27

Hi all,

The 27th Theory Weekly Meeting will happen this Friday (i.e tomorrow) between 4:00 – 5:00 pm at 203 Davis Hall (Theory Lab). I will give the following talk:

Coding Theory in the Era of Distributed Storage Systems
The problem of designing error-correcting codes for Distributed Storage Systems has received a lot of attention lately. The focus of this talk will be two broad topics that cover a good subset of the literature in this area:
1. Codes with Local Repair Property: I will start with the idea of ‘Locality’ and talk about the progress in this area with recent results by Gopalan et al.
2. Codes with Exact Repair Property: I will start by motivating the idea of ‘Exact Repair’ followed by describing recent results in this area by Ye-Barg and Guruswami et al.
I will also present simple constructions in both the regimes. The first few minutes of the talk will be an introduction to Coding Theory in general.

If Sita visits Krishna’s abode?

The 1996 movie ‘Gokulathil Seethai’ explored this intriguing question in a fairly convincing way. In this post, let me draw your attention to an extraordinary musical moment in it — ‘Gokulathu Kanna’.

At a high level, this song considers the scenario in the title. Nila (Suvalakshmi) is the stand-in for Sita and wonders what she is doing in Gokulam (actually referring to Rishi’s (Karthik) house). By the second stanza, she describes Rishi’s womanizing and drinking habits (with a secret admiration for him).  Let’s pause for a moment on these two lines:

போதையிலே நின்றானவன்
பூஜைக்கின்று வந்தானவன்

This is the exact time when Rishi enters the frame of the celebration and guess what? He is carrying a glass of alcohol (a perfect sync!).

Rishi then launches onto the next stanza and now it is obvious that he has feelings for Nila. But still there is an air of indecisiveness, which is cleared when Manivannan (playing Rishi’s dad) launches into the next stanza. In particular, he asks him to leave all his bad habits (see the following lines), reassuring that Sita is the right one for him.

கோகுலத்து கண்ணா கண்ணா
லீலை விடுவாயா
கோகுலத்தில் சீதை வந்தால்
நீயும் வருவாயா

Overall, this song shows us three things:

  1. Nila’s respect and admiration for Rishi, hinting that it could turn into love.
  2. Rishi’s feelings for Nila and his indecisiveness, since he is portrayed as a Man-Child.
  3. Manivannan’s approval for Nila and Rishi’s togetherness.

This, indeed is the crux of the movie (from what-we-saw-so-far to what-we-will-see) and is causally tossed off as yet another song. Unsurprisingly, this is what makes this song endlessly fascinating to analyze!

UB Theory Weekly – Week 26

Hi all,

The 26th Theory Weekly Meeting will happen this Friday between 2:00 – 3:00 pm at 203 Davis Hall (Theory Lab). The schedule will be as follows :

2:00 – 3:00 pm – A talk by Chaowen Guan. The abstract of this talk in his words:

This talk will be demonstrating the connection between the complexity of evaluating polynomials and integer factorization, which was first done by Lipton. We  will show a more general result by highlighting the importance of of a global bound on sufficiently many distinct roots of the polynomial. In particular, we can derive tradeoffs between the randomized complexity of factoring and the number of distinct roots. At last, we will also show what could the actual ”defenses” of factoring against efficient attacks.