Movies And Research

Being from Tamil Nadu, I am naturally somewhat obsessed with movies. I eagerly wait for the next release and watch almost all the Tamil movies that are released in Madison. This isn’t a lot since only big budget movies get released in Madison. The first tamil film that I watched in the US was, unfortunately, Kandasaamy. Even being poor grad students, my friend and I caught a taxi and travelled many miles to see this film. For those who have seen the film, do I need to say anything? For those who have not, the less said about the film the better.

The thought struck me one day that being a researcher and being a new actor is pretty much the same thing. Yes, yes, I know its a ridiculous comparison. Where are the dancing dames and fainting fans in research? 😀 But humor me as we take a look at the surprisingly similar careers of both.

Unknown face. As an actor, you start out basically as a nobody. Your first goal is to star in small plays, dramas and short films. Sometimes you enroll in acting classes and theatre academies to get the basic skills needed. In this phase, you hope is to basically do good enough work that you will get noticed by some big director or producer and get roped in to make a full-length film.

It is similar for someone aspring to do research. You start out as a grad student working with a professor. Of course, there are steps previous to this where you hope to strengthen your profile to get into a good school, and work with a good prof. But let’s ignore those complexities for now.

As a grad student, your job is to work with your professor to do quality research and publish papers on your work. Again, you are looking to do the breakthrough work that really gets you noticed. Papers that no one reads are not papers at all, so you are looking to have some impact and generate discussion around your work. In most cases, it is impossible to know beforehand which paper will really take off; you just have to try your best with each paper.

Up-and-coming talent. You’ve acted in your first full-length feature film, congratulations! Now you are officially an actor, and if you’re good in your first movie, that movie becomes what you’re known by (e.g., Jayam Ravi). However, the industry is ultra-competitive, and just one good film is not going to take you anywhere, although it is an excellent start. You start to act in more films, balancing the need to do commercial films to bring home the moolah while hoping for that rare good script that gives you the next breakthrough.

For a grad student, if your first publication is excellent, it establishes your reputation (ah, the guy who developed X). Now you’re expected to continue the great work and publish more good papers. One good paper will not be enough for graduation, much less a professorship or a top-notch industrial job. You continue to work, hoping for more breakthroughs so you can graduate and get a good job. You try to balance regular projects that are reasonably easy to get published, with radical long-term projects that pay off heavily if published, but might never get published.

Note how in both roles, perception matters a lot; your work is good only if people notice it and are excited by it. A film that no one sees, no matter how technically good, won’t do you any good as an actor. A publication that no one reads, no matter how good, will not benefit you as a budding researcher.

Known talentYou’ve acted in a couple of breakthrough movies that have firmly established you as an actor. You are now routinely considered for leading roles in big films. You heave a sigh of relief, as you’ve made it from obscurity to relative fame. You’re not yet out of the woods though; there are half-a-dozen other good actors that are all hoping to be the next big thing competing with you.

At this point, your role shifts to networking and making sure that people in the industry don’t forget you. You go to all the big gala events and make sure you are seen with the right crowd. You do ads and modelling in order to remain in the minds of the general public and the industry big-wigs.

As a grad student, you’ve now graduated with a couple of outstanding publications and are working as a post-doc in a university/industrial lab. You’ve have a number of good publications, but so do the 100 or so PhDs who are competing with you for the countable-on-one-hand top positions in academia and industry that open up each year. You keep publishing, and attend conferences to network with other researchers.


Established. You’ve acted in a number of movies and half a dozen breakthrough roles. You have enough good movies that Vijay-TV can cover the screen with shots of you from your different movies. You no longer have to worry about money or roles; both come to you automatically. Now your chief role is to carefully pick out roles that will take you further and expand your prowess as an actor.If your interests span beyond acting, at this point you typically look to direct/produce a film which carries forward your own vision. This is significantly riskier than acting, since you can incur heavy financial losses if your film bombs.

You’ve published excellent papers as a post-doc and obtained a professorship at a top university. As an assistant professor, you work your rear end off in order to establish yourself as a leader in your field. Simply being well-known isn’t enough; your papers must define the sub-field if you want to be retained. For the next six years, you aim to collaborate and work with good grad students to publish as much high-quality work as you can.

Veteran. Congratulations, you’ve finally made it! Your name has been carved into cinema history. People all over the world know your name. People fight to get the chance to work with you. Accolades and awards shower down upon you with no effort on your part. Any sentence that starts with “Cinema legends like.. ” automatically has your name in it. You can be picky and choose the films you want to do.

You’ve finally got tenure. Now nobody can fire you from your professorship until you retire or die (whichever comes first). You can work on whatever it is that you want. You have no boss and nobody to answer to. You have grad students working with you to take forward your vision in your field. Funding and money is plenty. Companies request you to be on their boards. You give keynote talks at conferences where you were eager to publish as a grad student. Life is good.

Congratulations on making it so far in this ridiculous comparison 🙂 These comparisons, at this high level, are applicable to any profession where is some amount of creativity and art involved. These professions are inherently risky; there is no guarantee that the next song/film/venture is going to work out. But then, I believe that is why they are so rewarding; the feeling that your work matters, and you are really making an impact on the world. The feeling when people you look up-to complement you on your work. The feeling when you see your work out in the world and your name in the big bright lights.


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