Monday, February 27, 2006

Power women

Business Today magazine has pubished its annual list of 25 most powerful women in Indian business. Rather than individual names, the trends thrown up by the listing are interesting:

1) 14 of the 25 women featured are between 41-50
Says Swati Piramal,"Women typically peak after the age of 40 because they lose time in bringing up children."

Many of the high flying corporate women I spoke with last year for a Businessworld cover story on women managers echoed the same sentiment. While there were some who managed to have kids and get back to work with no interruption to their careers, others did take a break or slow down for a couple of years. But they had no regrets or sense of 'loss'.

Because whether you become a CEO at 37 or 43 does not really make a difference.

Although as per BT statistics, the 'average age' of its list is declining every year. In 2003-4 it was 48.88, in 2005-6 it stands at 42.67.

2) 11 of the 25 women on the BT list are from the banking industry

Yes, ICICI Bank contributes 4 out of the 25 (5 if you count ICICI Pru Life), but clearly women are making a mark in banking. There are a few other names which I think could have made the list but perhaps BT wanted to give representation to more industries.

Interestingly, Media, Entertainment and Advertising - which are perceived as being sectors where women dominate/ are very visible/ 'have lots of opportunity' - actually account for just 4 out of the 25.

And in all cases the women are owner-entrepreneurs - Radhika Roy (NDTV), Ekta Kapoor (Balaji), Preeti Vyas Giannetti (Vyas Giannetti Creative), Shobhana Bhartia (Hindustan Times).

Remember the furore remarks made by Neil French created last year?

3) 12 of the women on the BT list are MBAs.

Look more closely and 8 of the women in banking are MBAs while 2 are from Delhi School of Economics (Renu Karnad of HDFC and Manisha Girotra of UBS). Kalpana Morparia is the only non-MBA, non-eco grad (she holds a law degree and had joined the bank's legal dept back in 1975).

While these statistics do not mean that all women MBAs who enter finance will scale heights, they do point to an environment which is more enabling and offers more equality of opportunity than industries like consulting or marketing.

Is this becoming an influencing factor in the kind of career women graduating from b school are choosing? I'd certainly like to know from some of you!

If image is everything...
Here is a statistic which the magazine did not compile but which I did: 15 of the 25 women featured are wearing saris. That includes all the women in banking except for J P Morgan's Vedika Bhandarkar in salwar kameez.

The only two women who have chosen distinctly Western clothing are Pepsi's Punita Lal who appears in semi casual and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw who is photographed in a proper business suit in the 5 page spread devoted to her.

I have nothing against the sari - it is a very elegant dress. However, fewer and fewer women below 35 are opting to wear saris to work on a daily basis.

So I wonder if, say 5 years from now, 60% of the women on the BT list would be seen in saris. And if not, would they opt for salwar kameezes or Western style business suits? And if salwar kameez will it be the traditional style, dupatta et al or something more on Indo-Western lines??

Meanwhile brands like Allen Solly have launched women's Western wear formals and these are becoming popular with younger women.

But a well designed range of no-fuss salwar kameezes (less ornate and flowy) could give Western formals a run for its money. It's more comfortable - and suited to the average Indian woman's less-than-perfect body shape.

I know there are brands like W but we need more.

A couple of observations
If you are asked to pose for the cover of Business Today magazine, would you choose to wear the kind of clothes you regularly wear to work (printed or plain sari with border), or 'dress up' (sari with embroidery etc)?

This time, all 3 of the amazing women on the BT cover kind of looked like they were ready to leave for a party. Personally, I think they look far more elegant in the more sober clothes they have been photographed in, inside the magazine.

However one could argue the flamboyance on display just shows that they are secure enough to show off their feminine side. But yeah, quite different from Naina Lal or the ICICI women who (after years of gracing these covers) make way for a new set of faces.

Speaking of which, there are apparently 8 new names on BT's list. Which is great but as a reader you can't help wondering how these additions and deletions are made...

I mean sure, it's a 'subjective' list ( based on 'informal polling of consultants, headhunters, analysts, know-it-all corporate types' - says the magazine). But a small 'kahan gaye woh log' section might be of help in putting the disappeared names into perspective.

For example, Hema Ravichander quit as HR head of Infosys to become an independent consultant. But what happened to some of the others? Did their companies go downhill, or did the editor just say, "Yaar wahi chehre dekh dekh kar bore ho gaye hain."

Either of which I guess is a valid enough reason...

With International Women's Day approaching, you will see and hear more of these women soon. But as Britannia CEO Vinita Bali said to BT, after visiting villages around Muzaffarnagar in UP where she saw as many girls enrolled in school as boys,"You can talk about women in powerful positons in business but the real changes are things like this, which didn't happen 50 years ago."

Very well said.

P.S. All pics used here for purpose of illustration only - they are copyright Business Today. I would gladly link to their website but it happens to be password protected.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Malcolm Gladwell Blog

Wow! PSFK reports that Malcolm Gladwell now has a blog.

Gladwell is one of my favourite authors and thinkers. Accessing his thoughts and ideas - beyond the New Yorker pieces and books he authors - is obviously going to get readers like me excited. But more than that, I like the fact that he is planning on this being a two-way process.

Writes Gladwell:
In the past year I have often been asked why I don’t have a blog. My answer was always that I write so much, already, that I don’t have time to write anything else. But, as should be obvious, I’ve now changed my mind.

I have come (belatedly) to the conclusion that a blog can be a very valuable supplement to my books and the writing I do for the New Yorker. What I think I’d like to do is to use this forum to elaborate and comment on and correct and amend things that I have already written.

If you look on my website, on the "Blink" page, you’ll see an expanded notes and bibliography, which mostly consists of copies of emails sent to me by readers. Well, I think I’d like to start posting reader comments for everything I write, and this is a perfect place for that.

There are also times when I think I’ve made mistakes, or oversights, and I’d like to use this space to explain myself and set things right.

Every author and writer will have to move towards this line of thought. That readers can and do provide information, insight and even corrections.

That despite a blog being 'unpaid' writing it does add value to one's writing.

And that a blog can be used to 'test market' one's hypotheses or thoughts (until the time it becomes too popular and therefore a direct competition to the mainstream media which pays our bread and butter).

In return, all that an author would ask is that readers provide feedback and criticism in a rational and constructive manner. Whatever the 'provocation' or difference in opinion may be.

Surely that's not asking for too much...

Debo jeet gaya

...And here are some observations about reality show finales

- Approximately 1 hr and 46 minutes will elapse between the time the host first announces, ab kuch hi der mein aapko hum batayenge ki 'India ki voice' kaun hai... And the actual announcement

- That a 'chhota sa break' will last for 6 minutes and 21 seconds. After all, the channel has to make hay while the TRP shines (and make up for several low years)

- That the final two are completely unrecognisable from their original selves thanks to 'make overs'. (A sign of having well and truly arrived is that you are now no stranger to the world of streaking and hair colour!)

- That every time a personality who is at least 5 years older than the contestant the simple rule is: lunge for their feet. They may claim to hate this but... Why take chances.

- That with all the mutual backsratching going on, every major and minor personality called on stage is going to have no back problems - for some time to come.

- That you can call a show that is telecast with a 2 hour delay 'live'...

In addition, specific to the Zee show
- The announcement of results resembled an annual school Sports Day function with the number of wellwishers, hangers on and actual stakeholders crowding onstage at the very end.Even Brij Mohan Munjal as he announced results of the 'kumptition" reminded me of an avuncular old school principal.

- That in the end I have this teeny weeny doubt about whether Assam and NE really did manage to swamp the voting earlier. In the end Debojit won by a slim margin of 50.42%.

Yes there are supposed to be auditors but... Didn't it make for a much bigger 'story' this way?

As close to 5.5 crore votes were cast yesterday that's a cool Rs 30 crores plus which goes into the pockets of Zee + Cellcos. Controversy sure helped to fuel those numbers!

- Noted in the closing credits two gentlemen under the heading 'Reality Director'. What exactly do these people 'direct'? How to pit one kid against the other - and other such spontaneous events?

- For the first time I heard both Vinit and Debojit - I think they're both competent singers and I have no problem with Debojit winning. He deserved it as much as the other finalist.

But it was Himani who I think was truly outstanding and as Alka Yagnik said, she will go a long way. I never saw any shows with Nihira or the others so I cannot judge how good they were but I have no doubt in the long run (say 5 years from now) the 'winners' of these reality shows may not achieve as much fame and fortune as some of the others who also competed.

Already, it is clear that Qazi - who was a great performer in the context of Fame Gurukul - cannot repeat his magic outside the sets. His first video is a disaster thanks to lack of singing talent, atrocious dress sense and endless narcissism which is now irritating rather than endearing.

I think the Sa re ga ma winner and also-rans will fare better because the show roped in so many big names from the world of music as mentors. And they will promote their personal favourites - which outside of the show format is a good thing.

Unlike the old days when big singers and composers zealously and jealously guarded their own territory, the new lot has (willingly or unwillingly!) accepted the recognition and promotion of young talent as part of their portfolio. It's no longer seen as a personal threat.

More talent, more variety, more voices - we as audience could not ask for more!

Friday, February 24, 2006

Reality Bites

This time, last year, all of India was talking about Indian Idol. Abhijeet ya Amit. Why was Rahul Saxena eliminated. And so on and so forth.

Well, this year Idol has been qute thanda so far. A recent online poll by JAM magazine threw up some startling statistics. 82% of the jammers who took the poll said they had not seen a single Indian Idol episode. 13% said they had seen a few while about 5% were avidly following the show.

Even my maid and daughter who were avid Indian Idol fans last time, aren't tuning in. Poor TRPs confirm the general lack of interest.

An Optimum Media Solutions report noted that last year the 7 January episode of Indian Idol notched TVRs of 6.8, while the 5 March finale saw a surge in the ratings to a whopping 15.3

In January 2006 Indian Idol 2 ratings were on an average a miserable 3.31. A host of stars have been roped in to add 'buzz' - the latest being Will Smith. But it seems like too little, too late.

Sony took it for granted that we would tune in to Idol part 2. The promotion and build up this time was pretty low key. Plus, in the meantime they flogged the vapid Fame Gurukul which threw up a joker of a winner in Qazi.

The dark horse
And what they had not counted on at all - Sa re ga ma pa Challenge from Zee. The once staid show decided to go the SMS way. In addition they introduced the concept of music directors acting not just as judges but mentors with the creation of 'gharanas.'

These moves have been controversial (loyalists say the show was better in its unadulterated format). And they have created controversy, which is always a great boost to ratings.

Sa re ga ma not only achieved a TVR of 3.53 in Jan 2006, it outdid Indian Idol in the buzz factor.

The drama so far: One of the judges Ismail Darbar staged a walk out. Then the contestants staged a walkout.

The core issue has been SMS vs Talent.

Darbar was peeved when his favourite Nihira was voted out by the public.

Can't people recognise quality when they hear it? Just because Nihira can't wear revealing clothes or dance, should she be eliminated? Is that how we have ever judged our greatest singers, like Lataji?

Darbar later returned to the show - many cried this was a mere publicity stunt.

Then, Himani, Hemchandra and Vinit staged a walkout claiming they had been threatened by ULFA militants who supported the 4th contestant Debojit. They too returned to the show. But the issue of Debojit proceeding into the finals based on a huge number of regional votes has now caught fire...

Sa re ga ma pa? Na!
Here's my take on the subject, elaborated in my column on published yesterdayThe ‘finals’ of any sporting event is fraught with glorious uncertainty. Anybody can win. Even if the contest is lopsided, even if one team is far more fancied than the other. Upsets can and do happen. And that’s why we tune in.

The finals of a ‘reality show’ however, are quite a different story. Friday (tonight) is the final showdown on Zee’s Saregamapa Challenge . But no matter how well 17-year-old Vinit sings, the result is a foregone conclusion. His rival Debojit has been getting a record breaking number of SMS votes for many weeks now. Nothing wrong with that, except that 80 per cent of those votes come in from Assam. And Debojit is Assamese.

I’m not saying Debojit is untalented. But is he the most talented? We’ll never know, because a huge number of people are choosing to vote not for ‘India ki Voice’ but ‘the boy from Assam’. Without giving the other contestants a fair hearing, a sporting chance.

In that sense, the show is truly mirroring reality. India votes for its singers the way it votes for its politicians! Merit matters less than the fact that the candidate is from my mohalla/ community/ state.

You can read the rest of the column here.

The reactions
Arunima wrote in to say:

I completely agree with you that in Saregamapa the voting pattern for Debojit is somewhat not acceptable as he is getting the votes mainly from the northeast region and not from the whole of India. But why single out Debojit? What about the others?

Basically at the end of each show every contestant used to request his/her home state to specifically vote for them . It is another story that the response was not so overwhelming everytime as in the case of Debojit.

The fact is for all reality shows like this the home state always plays an important role in a contestant' s win or lose.. Again on the other hand contestants from the south never get any votes from their home state because people from the south do not watch Hindi programmes. In a country as diverse as India if diversity plays such an important role in hampering someone's ambition and hope then there is no bigger tragedy than this...

A valid point. Women were not considered 'talented enough' to play in orchestras. When the auditions were held from behind a screen, where the performer was not visible, the percentage of women musicians in orchestras went up quickly from 5% to 50%!

This is an example used by Gladwell in his book 'Blink' which looks at the complexities behind snap judgements. In the orchestra case, the maestros would have been entirely unaware of the flaws in their judgment. They would have been outraged at the suggestion that their decision-making was compromised by sexism.

Now theoretically we could put all participants behind a screen and let people vote for the best voice. But then it would be a radio show, not a TV property.

While Zee could not have engineered votes from Assam (that happened spontaneously) they have certainly capitalised on it by announcing the same on every episode...

What can be done
Sameer Pant sent in a sensible suggestion:
Even in Olympics events, when multiple judges are givine marks to contestants, the highest and the lowest mark givers are eliminated and an average of the rest of the marksare taken. This is done to remove any bias a judge might have for or against any particular contestant. The same could have applied here.

The votes from the state giving the highest and the lowest votes should have been eliminated and then the average should have been taken.

Magar wohi baat hai - show mein spice kahaan se aata.

Aur na mujhe aise strange emails aatey: " It is an article written by an idiot. I am astonished... Use your brain. Is Assam a part of India or what? For people like you the North East is always sidelined. Rubbishhhhhhhhhh."
I'm sorry but the conspiracy theory does not hold

The Indian government has made a mess of the North East situation, no doubt. But I and millions of other Indians think of Assam as just another state in the union of India. We don't not vote for Assamese singers because we are against their place of origin.

Many of us simply don't want to waste 6 bucks. For any singer, from any region.

Bottomline: Ultimately, the feeling is that neither Vinit nor Debojit deserved to get so far (Himani, Nihira and Hemchandra were more talented). Those who've been following the show say Vinit too garnered votes through means other than pure talent (apparently by making up some stories about a 'lady love').

But hey, these are 'reality' shows and the reality is that people want to discuss how unfair this one's elimination was and how badly that judge behaved. Because these are 'hope operas'.

And whatever the means a contestant can use to awaken emotions enough to vote for him - he or she uses. That's the way the show is designed.

At the end of the day, no one really loses. Most reality 'stars' end up earning big bucks through playback singing and live shows. Instead of struggling for years and years like the singers of a previous generation. And simply for that, I say, these shows raining down on us are a good thing.

Life is not fair - that is reality. Neither are reality shows which are actually not real at all...

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

IIM Calcutta - what happened?

Life is full of what ifs. What if I had attended IIM Calcutta instead of IIM Ahmedabad? The earth would not have moved of course, but it was one of the reasons I paid a visit to IIM C a couple of days ago. That, and professional curiosity.

IIM Calcutta is the 'original' IIM. The first one that came into existence. And yet, despite its MIT lineage, the glorious headstart and impressive enough alumni network, it is now considered to be behind not just IIM A but IIM B. What happened?

Well, I can't provide a conclusive answer but here are a few quick impressions. I know my IIM A background may be held against me but in my defence I would like to point out I write about bschools and hence make it my business to gather first hand information about as many as possible.

So this is about more than mera bschool tere b school se accha kaise. For the most part!

Joka, here I come
The postal address of IIM C mentions 'Diamond harbour'. In the course of a 200 buck taxi ride from Howrah station, you get the full 'experience' of Calcutta. Past the amazing British zamaane ka buildings including the Governor's mansion and the India Government Mint.

Past trams, markets and streets and streets of grimy looking structures which look like they haven't been painted since 1947. The scenery does not improve until you reach the IIM C gate.

Inside, is the most beautiful holiday resort you can check into for two years. Yes, I heard of the 'lakes' but imagined they would be ponds. This is breathtaking.

So are the flowers. I'm told they bloom, all year round.

The whole atmosphere is friendly, not intimidating. And here, yes, I will have to compare with IIM A. I remember the first time I walked into that campus, climbed up the Harvard steps and viewed the Louis Kahn plaza. I felt awe. I felt humble, insignificant.

In time, the maze of red brick buildings became more familiar and well loved than home. But a sense of this being a larger than life institution remained. That sense is missing at IIM C.

It may sound superficial to say that architecture can make so much of a difference in making or breaking a brand but it's true. When a newspaper has to choose a stock photo to go with any article on MBA, what does he or she do? 98 times out of 100 the photogenic IIM A makes it to print.

And with many other b schools from MDI to MICA also choosing the red brick look, it's more subliminal brownie points for Brand IIM A.

Looking deeper
IIM C grads themselves admit (and proudly so!) that the institute is extremely laidback. Not just in terms of atmosphere but academics. Even in term 1 only 75% attendance is mandatory.

In contrast no one would dream of bunking in the early weeks at IIMA. Weeks which feel like 'Survivor' episodes although it's rare for anyone to actually get 'eliminated'. But everyone has a few of those nightmares....

In 1991 - when I got my call letters - IIM B was also laidback and less competitive. Except it was considered to be far far behind IIM C. It was, in fact, known as the 'public sector IIM' because that's where its grads generally got jobs.

Then, several things happened. A director who was earlier a faculty member at IIM A fiddled around and made the B program more 'tough'. More importantly, Bangalore's rise as an 'IT capital' saw its stock as a city zoom while Calcutta was stagnating. Placements at IIM B caught up with A and C to a large extent.

Then, circa 2000, a Business Today survey made IIM B the 'no 1' b school in the country. A ranking no one believed but had its shock value.

The next year, A regained its no 1 position but B was now ranked ahead of C in almost every survey. Yet, IIM C and its alumni remained complacent. 'Who believes these surveys anyways?' was their defence.

Which is true but a combination of all the above factors led to a 'tipping point'. Students who had the choice started opting for IIM B to C. Guided by buzz from seniors and advice from coaching institutes.

Having recently visited IIM B I would say there is a sense of forward movement, new ideas, new initiatives on that campus. The PGPSEM program - a 3 year part time course for software professionals is a big hit and will soon be extended to Hyderabad and Chennai. IIM C too has several executive programs but none is a brand name as such.

IIM B has set up an Incubation centre funded by Infosys' N S Raghavan, IIM C has a centre for entrepreneurship and innovation but it seems to be a far more armchair variety than hands-on.

Bangalore being a far more happening city also has an impact in terms of attracting faculty. The faculty list at IIM C is over 90% Bong. Now you can argue that is because Bengalis are one of the few communities naturally inclined towards academics. But the faculty at both IIM A and B is far more mixed.

So it does appear as if sentimental attachment towards Calcutta might be a deciding factor for an academic choosing to work at IIM C. And that very factor may put off others. A friend who taught at IIM C for some time found the city rather dead and oppressive.

That's changing, with Calcutta - and Bengal in general - now playing 'catch up' with the rest of India. But the Joka campus also needs to join that game.

Er, world class?
Whatever the intellectual prowess of IIMC may be, some of the infra structure sucks big time. The hostels are shocking - ancient, lower middle class looking structures.The rooms are tiny- you can barely fit in one bed, and study table. The corridors are full of wooden racks where junta's underwears and banians hang to dry.

Yeah, one of the hostels is 'co ed' (but there's a separate wing for girls - they don' actually have rooms next to each other). That one seems to have rooms with modest balconies. But the overall impression is 1960s, Marxist style living quarters. Peeling paint, rust, lack of maintenance.

IIM A dorms were, in contrast, far better. Even there, much needs to be done to upgrade the old campus housing upto the standards of the new campus. But at IIM C I think entire hostel blocks need to be demolished and rebuilt.

Meanwhile, adding a few modern amenities like a washing machine and mini fridge wouldn't hurt. To attract international students - as IIM C hopes to - these changes will be absolutely necessary!

I am sure had I joined IIM C I too would have fallen in love with the place, mosquitoes et al. I too would have fine memories of the 'Howrah Bridge', friends made, times shared etc etc.

I know a bunch of you are going to be quite upset by now... And that the average IIMC grad believes he or she is special, creative and different compared to the supposedly driven, structured and soulless types from IIM A.

But, to a dispassionate and outside eye, there is a lot that can and must be done to the campus. Rankings aside, IIMC needs to regain its clout, become a leader in certain chosen spheres. Right now it appears content to follow where others dare to tread.

A quick example: IIM A starts a PGP X program (1 year MBA for execs with 7-15 years experience), IIM C follows a few months later. Does it matter who gets there first? Hell, it does!

Perception is reality when it comes to any kind of brand. And right now IIM C seems more slothful than swift. More content to rest on past laurels than carve out a vision for the future. It's time the institute and its alumni wake up and kick some serious butt.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Pyaar ke asli dushman

"So, tell us about the funkiest thing you have ever done on Valentine's Day" was the question on Go 92.5 FM's "Mumbai Voices" on V Day.

Here is one of the 'funky' answers from a female caller...
I got my medical reports yesterday, it had my ECG. So I decided instead of buying a card or flowers let me give this CD to my boyfriend so he can watch my beating heart.

While host Tarana thinks it's sweet, co-host Jaggu is not too impressed and comments:"You could also look at it as recycling medical reports!"

There's another caller who relates how her friend mentioned that her dream guy would come on a white horse and sweep her off her feet. And what do you know, the boyfriend actually hired a safed ghoda so he could propose to her.

"But what if the horse pooped in the middle of the road?" asked Jaggu. "This is the reason you don't have a girlfriend!" cries an impassioned Tarana.

And the debate continues. To celebrate Valentine's Day - or not to celebrate - depends on whether you are a Taraana or a Jaggu.

The important thing is you should be able to celebrate it - if you wish to. And this year, despite the usual threatening noises from the moral police things were peaceful, with a couple of notable exceptions.

If you ask me, however, I would say the biggest pyaar ke dushman aren't these anti-love protestors and activists but Parents.

It is amazing how few Indian parents - even today - know about the special person in their son or daughter's life. There are multiple reasons for this, depending on what kind of parent you happen to have.

a) The Nahin, nahin, kabhi nahin type: This is the old fashioned breed which will simply NOT consider the subject with any kind of open mind. The kids figure out from an early age that if they get into a relationship, sneaking around is the only sensible strategy.

Attitude towards Marriage: Hum hi decide karenge. Apne hi caste ka hona chahiye. Jab raaz khulta hai there are only two options: break-up, or elopment.

b) The 'You can be friends but...": A little more open-minded, though not out of choice but because zamaana badal gaya hai. The parent does not mind the kid having friendships but 'within a limit'. . Which means, look -don't touch!

Nope, no point spilling the beans here either until you are sure he/ she is THE person you wish to spend the rest of your life with.

Attitude towards Marriage: May be openly or secretly heart broken if kid decides to have 'love marriage' (esp with a boy or girl from a different caste). But will accept the decision eventually.

c) The 'It's OK but settle down first..": A variation of the above, this parent positions his or her concerns in the form of the harmful effects a relationship could have on the kid's psyche and studies. So they advise,"In cheezon ke liye aage poori zindagi padi hai, abhi to padhai ke din hain..."

Attitude towards Marriage: If the kid were to conveniently fall in love at age 25 with a well settled office colleague they would happily give their blessings. In fact they would secretly be happy to not have the headache of finding someone suitable...

d) The 'We're cool with it' types: They exist, but in a minority. The Westernised parents who see nothing wrong in having more than one relationship before marriage (and are cool even if you choose to indefinitely postpone tying the knot).

Attitude towards Marriage: It's your life. But if you really want to - we could step in.

So what kind of parent am I going to be, I wonder. Hopefully 3.5. If my daughter lied to me, it wouldn't be too hard to tell... I cooked up enough stories in my own youth! So honesty would probably be the best policy.

On the other hand I would be unhappy if she went in for a series of shallow physical relationships. I think social pressures and protective parents do make young people in India think twice about casual sex and that is not such a bad thing.

But ultimately, parents and society imposing their will on the youth does not work. They will go through an experimental phase and arrive at a value system of their own. One that may actually be far more 'conservative' that you'd expect.

Although once again, the term conservative means different things to different people... In Bangladesh, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission recently asked mobile phone operators to discontinue late night free-call facilities. As a newspaper editorial elaborates

The commission has taken the step after receiving 'numerous complaints from parents and guardians on the ground that the late night free-talk facilities were causing moral degradation and change in the behaviour-pattern and life style of the young generation besides hampering their studies and disrupting disciplined and routine life.

Note that complaints were supposedly received from parents and not Islamic fundamentalists alone.

So like I said, zamaane se aap lad lenge. Magar pyaar ke asli dushman... unka kya?

Monday, February 13, 2006

Cartoonists on the Danish cartoons controversy

Nearly all cartoonists worth their salt have enraged some portion of their readership, often when religious symbolism was part of the cartoon... This said, readers should know that cartoonists working for mainstream American newspapers--and there are more than 80 around the country--generally try to avoid negatively caricaturing any group just to make fun of them.
- Signe Wilkinson, Pulitzer prize winning cartoonist with the Philadelphia Daily #

It can be argued that the editor of Jyllands Posten committed an error in judgement in publishing cartoons of the Prophet. But let us leave that aside for a moment and examine what a cartoon sets out to do in the first place.

An editorial cartoon, also known as a political cartoon, is an illustration or comic strip containing a political or social message, says Wikipedia . Most editorial cartoons use visual metaphors and caricatures to explain complicated political situtations, and thus sum up a current event with a humorous picture.

Cartoonist Wilkinson notes, "The (Danish) cartoons were criticizing violence and suicide bombing in the name of Islam."

That, I think is a reality and cartoonists have every right to touch upon the subject. However, I do think using the metaphor of Mohammed was avoidable.

In a well reasoned article Hesham A. Hassaballa argues, "These caricatures of the Prophet is akin to publishing a cartoon of Jesus Christ as a Catholic priest being dragged away in handcuffs for sexually abusing a young boy. Christ is wholly innocent of the crimes committed by a minority of Catholic priests against young boys…”

However, he adds,"The Muslim reaction went way too far. Most definitely Muslims have a right to protest …but to torch a Danish embassy (Syria), throw eggs at a Danish embassy (Indonesia), take over a European Union office at gunpoint (Gaza), and even beat two employees of the Danish company Arla Foods (Saudi Arabia) is completely unnecessary and--dare I say it--barbaric".

Or, ‘self prophetic’ as this cartoon puts it – brilliantly.

I quite like this one too, and in fact would have loved to use something like this in the next JAM (after all, we are the only Indian magazine which publishes cartoons on its cover!)

But no, ‘judgement’ prevailed and we went with Brad and Angelina (I mean the Indian version – Abhishek and Aishwarya).

I think a cartoon commenting on the extreme reaction to the cartoons is definitely within the ambit of free speech. But given our country’s peculiar brand of ‘secularism’, even that is not a good idea…

You can see a bunch of brilliant ones - like this one - here

Daryl Cagle has a great blog running on the issue as well, from a unique point of view. That of the professional cartoonist.

And now, some serious observations
Hesham Hassaballa observes, "While I think it was wrong for the Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten to publish those cartoons, it cannot be denied that newspapers in Arab and Muslim countries have published cartoons that were offensive to non-Muslims, especially Jews."

This is an important point. In fact, let’s look at the issue more deeply. Muslims enjoy the right to practise their religion in democratic societies such as Europe, USA or India. But wherever they are in a majority, people of other faiths must abide by their rules. And these rules have a religious basis.

And this extends to an extreme level, as this news report makes clear:

Saudi Arabia police razes makeshift Hindu temple
RIYADH: Saudi religious police have destroyed a clandestine makeshift Hindu temple in an old district of Riyadh and deported three worshippers found there, a newspaper reported on Saturday.

Members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or the religious police, Thursday stumbled across a room converted into a temple while raiding a number of flats suspected of being used to manufacture alcohol and distribute pornographic videos, pan-Arab Al-Hayat said.

A caretaker who was found in the worshipping area ignored the religious police orders to stop performing his religious rituals, the paper added. He was deported along with two other men who arrived on the scene to worship.

Frankly, I don’t even remember this news being covered in India, leave alone any protests. And to think that despite this kind of attitude we invited King Fahd to be the chief guest at our recent Republic Day parade.

In a multi-cultural, globalised world Muslim societies cannot expect other faiths to ‘understand’ their sentiments. Unless they take some trouble to understand and live in a spirit of tolerance with these other faiths. Or even dissenters within their own faith.

The harassment of Aligarh Muslim University student Farah Khanum is a recent case in point. .

Farah was threatened by a section of the AMU students, who claimed they were interpreting what is moral in Islam, says, “Over a period of time, they had been harassing me and demanding that I quit wearing jeans and t-shirt and don a dupatta.”

Newsflash: Every Indian citizen has certain inalienable rights and freedoms.

Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that Aligarh Muslim University – despite its nomenclature - cannot be given the status of a ‘minority institution’. Whichever way that controversy is resolved, the imposition of a dress code on the women studying at AMU would be unconstitutional.

Apply one standard!

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Tim Rutten noted: Nothing ... quite tops the absurdity of two pieces on the situation done this week by the New York Times and CNN. In the former instance, a thoughtful essay by the paper's art critic was illustrated with a 7-year-old reproduction of Chris Ofili's notorious painting of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung. (Apparently, her fans aren't as touchy as Muhammad's.)

Thursday, CNN broadcast a story on how common anti-Semitic caricatures are in the Arab press and illustrated it with -you guessed it - one virulently anti-Semitic cartoon after another. As the segment concluded, Wolf Blitzer looked into the camera and piously explained that while CNN had decided as a matter of policy not to broadcast any image of Muhammad, telling the story of anti-Semitism in the Arab press required showing those caricatures.

He didn't even blush.

No Indian publication - with the apparent exception of the Patna edition of the Times of India – has published the original Danish cartoons.

But this morning pg 14 of the Hindustan Times cheerfully carries a 2 column technicolour picture of ‘Bharat mata’ – the recent controversial painting by M F Husain ‘depicting the nation as a nude woman on a scarlet canvas with Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Gujarat and Goa inscribed across her body’.

No, it didn’t offend me – but the fact is some Hindu organisations have protested and the painting was removed from the auction. So technically, reproducing the image could have offended others.

And printing the cover ofthis magazine could, as well.

In the same edition of the newspaper, Vir Sanghvi, editor of HT writes

Of course we should be sensitive to religious sentiments. Of course we should try and avoid giving offence. But these are not absolute rules. If we do cause offence, then we are still within our rights as citizens of a free society to do so. And the people who are offended should simply avert their gaze.

I completely agree. But let this principle apply universally…

Breaking the silence
As Mr Sanghvi notes,
Liberal Hindus must end the double standard of the secular mindset and speak out as loudly against Muslim fundamentalism as they do against Hindu extremism.

If we do not do that, we discredit the whole concept of secularism. More important, we admit that our liberalism is not an absolute value but a convenient stick to beat Hindu extremists with while making shameful and unnecessary compromises with minority intolerance.

Well, I have taken his advice and added my voice. Please do not attempt to shout me down – as always, rational and well-reasoned arguments and comments are welcome!

And no, I will not 'balance' my views by also ranting against Hindu extremists in the same breath because that is irrelevant in the present context.

All cartoons featured here are copyright of the respective cartoonists and courtesy

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Depression - it could happen to you

I did not know Perwez Shahabuddin but two of my very dear friends did. An IIT Delhi graduate, MS and PhD from Stanford, Professor at Columbia University, Perwez committed suicide in a Days Inn motel room in November 2005.

A copy of the book 'Final Exit' was found by his body. This is a 'how to' manual for terminally ill people who want to end their life. Of course, people use it to learn about painless ways to commit suicide as well.

His wife says Perwez had called that evening asking if he should bring home some groceries. The family cannot believe he would have taken his own life. But the police say that the professor's computer indicated he may have been planning this 'final exit' for a long time.

Last night television actress Kuljeet Randhawa was found hanging from the ceiling of her Juhu home. Again, there is disbelief among family and friends. They had no idea she was contemplating such an extreme step. But then neither did those who knew IITian Vijay Nakula.

Kuljeet was a close friend of model Nafisa Joseph, who committed suicide in 2004. Before that there was Natasha Singh. And of course there are many, many less high profile cases of suicide in the newspapers everyday.

All these individuals suffered from clinical depression. In some cases, they successfully 'hid' it from the world. In Nafisa's case, she was actually under treatment. But none of them ever imagined aisa mere saath ho sakta hai.

But, it can
A few years ago I read about how depression would overtake heart disease as the world's number one killer disease. I laughed back then but here's the deal:

Approximately 20-25% of women and 12% of men will experience a serious depression at least once in their lifetimes. Of those who have experienced a major depression once before, approximately half may experience it once again.

I have. And I know many of you will as well. Which is why I am sharing with you today something that I wrote shortly after Nafisa Joseph's death - a year and a half ago.

I publish it now because I think it's time we shake off the stigma attached to any form of mental illness. The fact that I waited so long to share my experience shows that even in my mind, the doubt of 'log kya kahenge' exists.

Yes, I was once depressed. I kicked it. It wasn't easy but I emerged a better and stronger person for it.

Know that it could happen to you. Know that you too can kick it.Don't hesitate to seek help. Or to reach out and help others. This, is my way.

Inside the Black Hole and Beyond
- Rashmi Bansal
originally written, August 2004 (but never before published)

Every act of life, from the morning toothbrush to the friend at dinner, became an effort. I hated the night when I couldn't sleep and I hated the day because it went toward night.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby

Astronomers define the Black Hole as a region where matter collapses into an object so massive and dense that nothing, not even light, can escape its gravitational pull. Depression is something like that.

A hole in your soul which sucks in and obliterates all that you are, all that you lived for - love, learning, laughter. It’s the human mind, collapsing into something so massively negative and dense that nothing, not even hope, an escape its gravitational pull.

And sometimes it seems like there’s just one possible escape from the pain. Suicide.

Those of us who have not been in this state of mind cannot begin to imagine what it feels like. Those of us who have, say a silent prayer for Nafisa and keep our secret. In another time and that faraway, forlorn place, the thoughts that crossed our mind… We lived to tell the tale, but never actually tell it.

Folks with B.P. and cholestorol problems swap stories. Slipped disc slips into conversation easily. Diabetics don’t shy from describing their condition. Bet you know more folks suffering from all of the above than you can count on the fingers of your two hands.

But do you know anyone who has been or currently is clinically depressed? You probably do, except you don’t know it.

Astronomical black holes cannot be seen directly (they emit no light, remember!). But they can be detected by their effect on surrounding clouds and stars. The walking and talking human black hole is similar. Rarely will you get a direct confirmation or admission of what’s going inside such a person’s head. ("He/ she seemed so normal…" is the common refrain of near and dear ones).

But there always are a number of indirect signs and signals. Except, with each of us luxuriating in our own little worlds and feeding off our own little problems, who was really listening? And even if someone did listen what would their response be beyond trying to ‘cheer you up’.

It doesn’t work and after a while, the world will conclude you are happy to be unhappy and command you to "Snap out of it". As if the clinically depressed person doesn’t want to.

Remember the black hole? Logic doesn’t work in that zone. Willpower is not enough. Depression is a medical condition.

It’s a permanent fog in the head caused by a chemical imbalance. The neuro transmitters that regulate emotions, reactions to stress, and basic drives like sleep, appetite, and sexuality aren’t doing their job. If it were that simple, you could simply pop a pill and get over it, like a stomach upset. But, the physical symptoms are rooted in psychological ones.

Clinical depression is literally seeing the world through a pair of dark glasses that distort and colour with gloom your view of everything – including yourself. It’s this distortion that causes the chemical balance in the first place.

The cycle feeds on itself and soon enough the negative 'spin' you give to everyday events and interactions develops a force of its own. You are, effectively, trapped in that metaphysical black hole.

Why we actually don these blinkers is the subject of intense research. Genetics plays a role, as do personality traits. Introverts, perfectionists, and over-achievers are all more prone to depression. So are creative people – like artists and writers. By these yardsticks, I was a sitting duck.

And if that weren’t enough, women are twice as likely to develop a major depressive episode as men. However, they’re also more likely to recognize the problem and seek help for it, which is what I did.

To cut a long story short, a dapper doc diagnosed the disorder as ‘dysthmia’. Never heard the term, have you? Well, get this. It’s a low grade, chronic form of depression. Not as severe as ‘major depression’ but something that stays with you so long you just assume you’re 'like that only'. Dysthmics even appear to function normally, they just don’t feel excited or happy about anything. Actually, they mostly don’t feel at all.

The medication doc prescribed was great. No it didn’t give a 'high' but it was like taking a mood elevator upto the very tippy top of the Petronas Towers. Emotionally Teflon coated, I felt like a whole new person. But that was part of the problem. I didn’t want to be another person. I wanted to be ‘me’.

That’s where the 'talking it out' bit kicks in. Cognitive behaviour therapy makes you realize the negative patterns of thinking you’ve entangled yourself in. And bit, by bit, a skilled professional can help you unravel the mess.

An important lesson I learnt: finding the right psychotherapist is like finding the perfect pair of jeans. If the first pair you try doesn’t fit, you don’t give up, right?

Well, the second shot hit bulls eye, and thanks to a very empathetic and perceptive counselor I became aware of the importance of 'self talk' . The constant chatter in our heads that most of us are barely aware of, but which shapes how we think about ourselves. And therefore feel, and act. A depressive state arises when our internal 'critic' becomes vicious and literally attacks us.

The result of this constant negative feedback in our own heads is low self esteem - feeling worthless and hopeless.

It doesn’t matter how beautiful, rich or successful you might appear to the outside world. Or how ‘strong’ you have always seemed to be. In your own thoroughly warped view of the world, your life sucks completely.

The other trap you’ll find a clinically depressed person in: 'learned helplessness'. For example, after several failed relationships, you might be convinced that 'no matter what I do I'll never be in the right relationship'. And lo, it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. When, with the help of therapy, a depressed person is able to generate alternative possibilities and explanations for why things happen, he or she begins to at last see the light.

Until then, words like 'always', 'never', 'perfect' and 'impossible' dominate your thinking. When you screw up on something it’s 'I’m a complete idiot' or 'I’m never able to get things right' and not 'Oops, I goofed up this time'. Recognise and clamp down on the use of this 'all or nothing' vocabulary and the entire perspective changes. This is but obvious to 'normal' people but a huge revelation when you are in the twilight zone.

Of course, nothing is as simple as it sounds. You can accept these arguments at an intellectual level and still be unable to actually 'change' or adopt new patterns of behaviour.

It’s a slow, sometimes frustrating process but one that gradually builds the emotional velocity to escape from that black hole.

And one fine day you realize – “I did it!”

Like diabetics who need to watch their insulin levels, a person who has once been depressed always needs to be vigilant. Because there are times when you can sight that black hole in the distance. It’s only human to feel sad and low at times, but relapsing into the old and negative patterns of thinking is what you constantly have to guard against.

Rediscovering the people, places and passions you really enjoy is one habit you have to carry on. With me, that meant reconnecting with the one thing that had always made me happy but which somewhere along the way I’d lost faith in – writing. It also meant making the time and effort to meet with friends I had lost touch with, and to keep the ‘crazy’ side of me alive.

As for the Black hole. As in metaphysics, so in astrophysics. There are no absolutes. After nearly 30 years of arguing that a black hole destroys everything that falls into it, Stephen Hawking recently admitted he was wrong. It seems that black holes may after all allow information within them to escape.

It is in fact now believed that the black hole eventually shrinks to a tiny kernel, at which point a growing torrent of radiation begins to leak out. So, if an object falls into a black hole it is not completely obliterated. Instead, the black hole is altered as it absorbs the object.

Something similar holds true for the human soul. You emerge from the ‘black hole’ not as a diminished but a different, often much richer and more empathetic person. The old Rashmi would never have shared this experience. The new one has.

Because there are too many people out there I can recognize now, spinning in their private black holes. Unable to open the door when opportunity, and happiness comes knocking. "It’s not the end of the world", I want to say to them all.

Why me, is a question many of you must be asking. Well, as a wise man once put it: "One ceases to recognize the significance of mountain peaks if they are not viewed occasionally from the deepest valleys."

The view from up here – it’s truly beautiful.

Useful: Identifying clinical depression

Facts about depression:
- According to the WHO unipolar depressive disorder is the leading cause of disease burden or DALY (disease adjusted life years) for females globally.

- Nearly twice as many women as men are affected each year. Some of this is accounted for by frequent changes in hormone levels of women (eg depression is common at the time of menopause or after childbirth).

- Men may be less willing to acknowledge their emotional symptoms and more apt to suppress their depression through the use of alcohol or other substances. In such cases depression can be "masked," or viewed only as alcohol or drug dependency/abuse rather than as clinical depression.

Research indicates that depression onset is occurring earlier in life today than in past decades.

- Upto 2.5 percent of children and 8.3 percent of adolescents in the U.S. are believed to suffer from depression.

Depression helpline numbers
Sumaitri (Delhi): 2371 0763
Sanjeevani Society for Mental Health (Delhi): 4311918/ 4317285
The Samaritans (Mumbai): 23092068
Prerna (Mumbai): 25905959
Maithri (Kochi): 0484 2396 272 (/3)
Sneha (Chennai): 28273456

Alternatively, ask your family doctor to refer you to a mental health professional

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Jal - damp squib in concert

A band has a couple of hit songs. It decided to quickly 'cash in' by giving a bunch of concerts. Now this never really happened in India, until now. What's more it's Pakistani band 'Jal' that's leading the way.

It began with 'Woh lamhe' setting the charts on fire. Then came Aadat, and Jal became more than a one-hit wonder. Next thing you know, the band is on a blistering schedule of concerts all over India. 20 performances in 25 days flat - in the current month.

So far, so good. The trouble is, the band is making a huge mess of it. As they airdash from Delhi (3 Feb) to Bangalore (4 Feb) to Rourkela (5 Feb) - the same feedback echoes from across venues. Jal is a disaster. The band is simply unable to hold - let alone enthuse - the crowd.

Delayed, lacking energy and spunk, poor choice of songs, poor singing contributed in making the first half i.e the Jal half of the show worth not even the cheap entry fees that were being charged.
- report from IIM Bangalore festival, Unmaad (4 Feb)

An identical scenario was replayed at NIT Rourkela the next day. The band arrived 4 hours behind schedule to start the concert scheduled for 9 pm at 1 am! The 3000 strong crowd was somehow held together with the NIT band 'Euphony' putting up an unscheduled performance. The crowd grew restless and angry, hungry and cold.

And yet, when Jal finally arrived, the crowd stood up and roared - forgetting about those frozen fingers and toes. All was forgiven, as junta swayed to 'Woh lamhe'. And then, the trouble began.

The band sang some of the other, relatively unknown songs from their album. Slow ballads, all sounding the same. Smart alecs called for the 'Taansens' to stop their torture. Many in the audience got up and left - after all, they'd heard the one song that really mattered.

Sadly, at this point a fuse blew out and so did my patience. I too left the venue.

Deliver or else...
A much anticipated show turned out to be a huge letdown. And I think Jal is squarely to blame.

First of all, professioanlism demands that the band arrive on time. That you were in Bangalore the night before is not an acceptable excuse. Don't commit, if you can't manage the logistics.

The band later claimed they had been told by their event management company that Rourkela is only a 4 hour drive from Calcutta. Yeah right! It takes close to 8 hours - by train. Given the road conditions in Orissa, it actually took them 14.

Secondly, having arrived at the concert - at least then, the band should have given the audience paisa vasool. If you are a relatively new band with only a couple of hit songs, fine. Showcase them. But be open to singing other popular songs to keep the crowd on its feet.

As Prasoon Gupta reported for JAM from IIM Ahmedabad's Chaos festival where both Jal and another Pakistani band Strings performed:
Somehow, it was Strings which made the day – not only did they sing their originals but they even performed a medley with songs from DCH, Sholay, etc. and the crowds kept tapping their feet....Strings carried along the cricket mood into their erformance too – they not only spoke of ongoing matches but also played a little cricket right on the stage and hit many balls into the air for public.

Contrast that attitude with Jal, who chose to sing a sonorous new composition they'd penned in memory of 'earthquake' victims.

Given that Jal were charging around Rs 2.5 lakhs, the organisers effectively ended up paying them about a lakh of rupees to hear two hit songs. That's about 10 minutes worth of 'entertainment' and another 1 hour of we-sing-you're-forced-to-listen.

Repeat value
You get away with it once... But if you're in this business the fun lies in being called back again and again. And that is definitely not going to be the case with Jal.

This is especially true of the college circuit.There are 7 IITs, 6 IIMs and 18 NITs -all of whom hold festivals with big enough crowds and budgets to hold pro-nites. This year Jal and Sivamani/ Indian Ocean have been permanent fixtures at a large number of these fests. Past favourites include Euphoria and the old warhorse Parikrama.

Given that these fests mostly take place between Dec-Feb, there's a cool Rs 50 lakhs or so to be made over these 2 months if a band does about 20-25 such concerts. The issue is that even if one band performs very well, the college would like someone different the next year. Which is why Jal was snapped up at all venues.

But given that Euphoria has a reputation for pleasing the crowds, the wheel will turn full circle and they will be in demand next year once again. Jal, certainly won't.

The Atif Aslam angle
Of course, part of Jal's desperation lies in their need to be seen as the 'real' Jal, minus their lead singer Atif Aslam.

Aslam started his High School in PAF College Lahore, where he played cricket and became interested in music. He paired with a guitarist named Gohar Mumtaz, and the two performed for their college and at restaurants, later calling themselves "JAL" which means water.

The pair recorded Aadat together - it became extremely popular. But then Aslam left Jal and went solo with an album called 'Jal Pari'. The songs Woh Lamhey, Dil Haarey on this album were smash hits. Later, Mahesh Bhatt asked Atif Aslam for permission to use 'Woh Lamhey' in Zeher and the rest is history.

Meanwhile 'Jal' with Gohar Mumtaz and band members Farhan, Shazi also released an album with Woh lamhey, Aadat etc. So who is the real 'Jal'? Did Atif 'steal' Woh lamhe? Or did he, as a co-creator, simply exercise his rights?

Since the issue remains unresolved, the producers of Kalyug cleverly included both Aatif and Jal's versions of Aadat in their film. Mukesh-Anil, Atif-Gohar - the battles continue...

Bottomline: Jal is talented enough to survive without Atif . But talent alone is not enough. By being greedy and unprofessional on their concert blitzkrieg the band is losing fans and goodwill.

Their own lyrics sum up the current sentiment, "Na jaane kab se umeedein kuch baaki hain..."

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Khaali bore dopaharon mein

Every city, every town, every gali, koocha, mohalla has some new experience to offer. And that's how I found myself in Konark theatre in Rourkela, watching my first (and most likely last!) bhojpuri film: 'Daroga babu, I love you'.

Actually, it was Fate that dragged me in. I was merely taking a pic of the poster - which was quite fascinating in itself. I mean where would you find a poster which mentions credits for nirdeshan (direction), sangeet (music) and 'maar dhaad' (I guess they mean action sequences but note the literal meaning!)!

Anyhow, the manager noticed me and struck up a conversation. "Accha, aap Bombay se hain?" He too had a brother in Sion Koliwada, in the 'film line'.

Then, he said, "Aaiye na, dekhiye...". And I found myself walking up to the balcony, where he assured me 'ladies log bhi hain'. Yeah right!

The movie had started. An old lady was praying to a tulsi plant - asking for God to give her son a good naukri. Enter son: Maa hamaar naukri mil gavat (subtitle: I have got a job!).

A few push ups and running races later, son acquires a vardi. Camera focuses on his badge and then cap and then he puts on the most important accessory: a pair of dark glasses.

Next scene: villain is introduced. A man with a 'Mangal Pandey' moustache sticks a stainless steel sword into some random villager's stomach. Bright red 'blood' drips from the instrument which appears to be longer than the line at the Food Bazaar check out counter on a Sunday.

Next scene: heroine is introduced. Daroga babu alights from a bus, only to collide with girl on a scooter. The usual pleasantries are exchanged. Girl calls him 'goonda, badmaash - dekh kar nahin chal sakte kya?" Hero is already naming their children.

Cut: Daroga babu enters the police station. Here, he has two bumbling assistants called 'Loncha' and 'Kharoncha'. A nubile nymphet arrives at the police station to deliver lunch to her bapu. The real purpose of her existence is to bung in an item number.

At this point I sneaked out of the theatre and into the sunshine. And I couldn't help but wonder, "In the India of 2006, why would such pea-brained, predictable, poorly made films have a market?"

Bhojpuri on a roll
Well, they do - and a big one. Trade analyst Taran Adarsh says , "Most Bhojpuri films are made in small budgets, usually Rs 20-30 lakh, and they fetch Rs 1-2 crore."Several of these films are grossing 10 times their production costs. A good film can even make a profit of Rs 10-12 crore..."

The hero of this film, I have learned, is one 'Manoj'.

In 2005, Manoj, a struggling singer, debuted in sex comedy Sasura Bada Paisewala. The film ran for more than 50 weeks in Varanasi and Kanpur in UP and for 25 weeks elsewhere. Sasura... made with a modest budget of Rs 30 lakh, grossed a stupendous Rs 15 crore. Manoj’s other films such as 'Daroga Babu I Love You' then went on to do a business of Rs 4 crore and 'Bandhan Tutey Na' has already made Rs 3 crore.

Now Manoj would never ever make it as a Hindi film hero. He is just too ugly. But that, I guess is part of his charm. He is the kind of guy your taxi driver in Mumbai or factory worker in Ludhiana could look at and say, "This could be me".

The women, in contrast, can be called 'pretty'. At least they have no spare rolls of fat jiggling around. And they use 'Fair and Lovely'. So the ugly hero gets the soni kudi. Excellent form of escapism.

The world depicted in 'Daroga babu' is completely alien to you and me. Which is why it probably appeals to the target audience. In a world where everything is in flux, maybe the 'formula film' offers comfort to migrant Bihari labourers who appear to be the primary target audience.

Greatbong puts it superbly in a post on the same subject."This was bound to happen with Bollywood totally losing its touch with the Hindi heartland and instead catering to the multiplex-going city slickers.

Who really cares about 3 friends who go to Goa in a Mercedes and "break up", like girlie men, on some trivial issue? Not someone who has spent the whole day walking in knee-deep dung in a cowshack."

Fine - but this is what I don't get. Manoj recently declared,"Gone are double-meaning dialogues, lack of a coherent storyline and poor technical quality. The films are slicker...".

Er, if this is slick, I wonder what Bhojpuri films used to be like earlier! The point however is that 'upgrading' too much Bhojpuri films makes no sense. As actor Ravi Kishen puts it, "Bhojpuri cinema is like home-cooked food".

If the sets and actors and locales improve too much - will it be any different from their 5 star cousins - the Bollywood film industry? Except for the language, that is. And Bhojpuri is really more like a dialect of Hindi, rather than a complete bhasha in itself.

And once costs go up - with actors dancing in Switzerland instead of random maidans and mountains - will it remain as profitable a proposition?

Bhojpuri vs Bunty
A recent BBC article noted that Bhojpuri films are beating Bollywood releases in the Hindi heartland. "Both (Daroga Babu and Sasura Bada...) did more business in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh than the A-list Bollywood releases, Bunty Aur Babli, a version of Bonnie and Clyde, and Mangal Pandey - The Rising, about the 1857 Indian mutiny".

Sure. But the fact is in towns like Rourkela there is no 'family crowd' at the dilapidated, paan stained, A/C-less theatres. Where stall tickets sell at an amazing 10 bucks and balcony for a princely 15.

So the potential theatre audience for 'Bunty aur Babli' in buntyandbabli towns was quite limited. Here, 'decent' people watch movies on CDs or wait for the cable wallah to show them.

There are no plans to upgrade 'Konark' - the manager does not think there is a market for a better theatre with pricier tickets. And perhaps he's right. If the girls at NIT wish to see Rang de Basanti, they'll have to do it in Calcutta or Bhubaneshwar...

Meanwhile, Bhojpuri films with evil zamindars, daroga babus and gaon ki goris continue to be a great business proposition. And a reminder that all is not candyfloss and Chopragloss in this, our wide and varied country called India.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Swear word mil gaya

We hold these truths to be self evident: That all words are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights among which is the right to life — to simply exist free of harassment; liberty — the right to be seen and spoken freely and used whenever deemed desirable. And happiness — the special joy that comes when they happen to say best what is in one's heart.
- The Bawdy Manifesto

Why do people swear? Most people start because it makes them feel cool and grown up to use 'forbidden' language. But in time, these words become a sort of short-code to express certain emotions - anger, frustration, amazement.

Swear words are extremely 'all-purpose' and can usually be moulded to fit into any mood or situation. As Bawdy Manifesto believes, "Few other words have their force, directness, or clarity of meaning".

While all cultures and languages have these words, some use them more freely. And the use of swear words in art forms like music and movies remains a contentious issue.

Hollywood uses swear words - so does the music industry, especially with the advent of rap and hip-hop. Parental concerns are addressed by rating films using expletives PG-13 or R. And albums with the 'parental advisory - explicit lyrics' sticker.

Gaali gaali mein shor hai...
No new information so far - so why write about it now? Well, two reasons. As film makers seek to make movies which reflect 'youth culture' how do they get around this problem? You want dialogues which embody how people actually speak but if you do that, the censors will go bleep bleep bleep!

The scriptwriters of Rang de Basanti solved this problem by getting creative. They coined entirely new phrases like 'Teri maa ki aankh' and 'Behn de takey' to convey the actual swear words... And it was pretty amusing and effective I must say!

On the other hand the song 'Sutta na Mila' by Pakistani band Zeest - a current campus cult - actually uses MCs and BCs and gets away with it because it's been 'released' only as an MP3. XLRI band Bodhitree's song GMD (G**** mein Danda) is also quickly spreading from PC to PC.

Whether you like it or not, it is a trend to take note of. I've explored the issue in greater detail in my new column on Desi bands to swear by

Beyond the literal
Personally, I'm not into swear words - or smoking - but I quite like these songs for the spirit they represent. The words, I think, simply add an extra 'underground' appeal. Part of the overall package.

As lyricist and lead vocalist Skip of Zeest says, " I created this satirical, comical, slang song just for fun, but I always wanted to compose a song that could reflect my life story and that of other optimistic losers too. The song is so popular only because every average “tapori bachcha” can relate to it".

Here's to more songs by unknown, talented bands, outside the realm of ishq vishq pyaar vyaar. Songs with or without swear words that junta can relate to!

Friday, February 03, 2006

Should IIMs go 'global' - 2

The war for 'talent'
If the IIMs wish to scale intake of students, they need additional teaching talent. And that is an extremely scarce resource...

Can IIM professors be ‘world class’ on Third World payscales? Mukesh Ambani certainly does not think so. At a recent Board of Governors meeting he asked the institute to 'prepare the ground for compensating faculty adequately in line with other leading global business schools.'

Because, at current payscales, an IIM professor with 20 years experience gets paid far less than what a 24 year old earns as starting salary on passing out of the institute.

As IIM Calcutta’s Prof Anup Sinha bluntly puts it, “In India, you are either very passionate about teaching, or probably you didn't land up the job you wanted so you decide to hang around teaching in a b-school… teaching is not very financially rewarding.”

Of course, academics is not the most lucrative career option anywhere in the world. But the disparity between IIM payscales and corporate ones is so high that it definitely turns off those inclined towards the profession at entry stag. And erodes the self esteem of those who, despite it all, choose to go the academic way. Certainly not the best of HR policies!

Kellogg Dean Dipak Jain believes that the promotion system in Indian
institutes needs changes. " Every professor gets the same compensation as the other. Incentive system must change if these institutes have to be on global scene."

The other issue is that too much emphasis is laid on being a 'career academic'. Most IIM profs would not have significant corporate experience before doing their PhDs. In a practitioner led 'science' this is a disadvantage.

What's more, IIMs are simply not open to the idea of mid-career shifters. People who may have spent say 15-20 years in the industry and now wish to shift out of corporate life and into academics full time. Yes, there are 'visiting professors' with such backgrounds but to join full time a PhD is a minimum qualifying criteria.

And there is definitely a 'we need to protect our turf' mindset because of which this is unlikely to change. Although as J. Philip, Director XIME points out: In the first wave of Directors and senior Professors at IIMs, one would notice a good number of non-Ph.Ds, starting with K.T. Chandy and Hiten Bhaya of IIM-C, Ravi Mathai of IIM-A, N.S. Ramaswamy of IIM-B, Professors Nitish De and Iswar Dayal of IIM-C, and many others...."

Attracting international students
This brings me to the last and crucial ingredient required for a top quality institute: top quality students.

The 'global brand name' the IIMs have today rests to a large extent on the laurels of its graduates. In this, the selection and filtration process has played a crucial role. There are those who argue that inputs at the campus 'hardly matter' given the fact that this is the creme de la creme of the student population.

But I for one am not so cynical. The 'exposure' combined with 'opportunities' is what produces the X factor.

One of the only drawbacks of studying in an IIM is the lack of diversity in the student population.

A huge number of IITians and engineers, sprinkling of C A s and BComs and a tiny number of ‘others’. Any top 20 b school in the US would, in contrast, attract a far more heterogenous and multicultural population.

Well, student exchange programs at IIMs have led to a significant ‘foreign student’ presence on campus in recent years. But would any of these students consider joining for the entire 2 year program? Probably not. Unless IIMs move up significantly in Global Business School rankings. And there - is another BIG anomaly.

Foreign rankings - far from perfect
As detractors gleefully point out from time to time, IIMs feature 'nowhere' in the world B school rankings. For example, IIM Ahmedabad was the only Indian b school to feature in the top 100 of the Economist Intelligence Unit rankings.

Shameful, you say? Well dig a little deeper and here's what you find. If B school rankings conducted by Indian magazines are flawed - this is no better!

The Economist arrives at its rankings by studying 4 broad parameters:
1) open new career opportunities and/ or career advancement (35%)
2) personal development and educational experience (35%)
3) to increase salary (20%)
4) potential to network (10%).

Each parameter has sub-parameters:
eg Open new career opportunities (33% overall weightage) is comprised of:
Diversity of recruiters (25%)
Number in jobs three months after graduation (25%)
Jobs found through the careers service (25%)
Student assessment (25%)

If you compare the ranking of IIM A (ranked 69) with Stanford (ranked 4), IMD Lausanne (ranked 5) and surprise! IESE Business School - University of Navarra, Barcelona (ranked 1) there are some shockers.

IIM A scores the HIGHEST possible rank 1 out of 100 on some criteria ('opens new career opportunities') and the LOWEST possible rank 100 out of 100 on other criteria (student quality and diversity).

As only 1% of IIM students are 'international' a low rank in 'diversity' is understandable. But quality? The applicant to places ratio at 532: 1 is the highest among all colleges!However, one component of student quality is 'average GMAT score' - which is not applicable to IIMs.

This, I'm guessing, means we score a zero in an area which counts for 12.5% of the "Personal Development and Educational Experience" parameter which has an overall weightage of 35 out of 100. Which is like leaving one 4 mark question in a paper of 100 marks for no fault of your own...

Then the Economist (which of all publications should know better!) uses a dollar scale to compute the 'increase in salary' parameter where again IIM A ranks a miserable 100th out of 100. Wouldn't use of purchasing power parity make far more sense?

With more global placements, exchange programs and even foreign languages being taught on campus (that is a criteria!), the IIM A rank should see a significant jump. But it will take time as the EIU methodology takes a weighted average of 2005 (50%), 2004 (30%) and 2003 (20%) data to provide a rounded picture of the school.

In the meanwhile, IIMs need to swallow their egos and do some lobbying with the Economist and other ranking agencies to correct these anomalies.And also look within to see where they can effect changes and thus improve their ranking (the alumni networking parameter for example).

These efforts should not be seen as 'beneath our dignity'. Rankings greatly affect the perception of how 'global' our institutions are. We must accept that and learn to play the game.

If that results in an IIM making it to the 'top 25', we will find both internal and external validation without having to physically go anywhere!

Making India the hub
The bottomline is, just because there is 'demand' from UAE, Sri Lanka, Mauritius or even Singapore to set up IIMs, does not mean we actually need to do so.... The mountain need not go to Mahomet.

In the interest of promoting diversity, IIMs can have a quota for international students other than NRIs (say 10%) and charge them higher rates (like state univs in the US do). But care must be taken to ensure they meet a minimum GMAT score and other stringent qualifying criteria.

The trick is to attract a big enough pool of applicants so you are able to pick up the cream. And for this a large scale communication and branding exercise would be required.

And yes, IIM B does need to worry about whether the Singapore foray will add to its aura or dilute it... If it does not have the resources to invest in a proper campus, it should take care to state upfront that it is planning a 'contact center' for its e-learning courses. Because the word 'campus' conjures quite a different image.

Let's also maintain a perspective on the earning potential of this exercise. According to TOI "IIMB's Singapore dream is expected to fetch the institute surplus revenues of Rs 2.5 crore over the next three years — funds that could be used to open more IIMs in India".

That kind of money is hardly sufficient to think of setting up new campuses but certainly can be employed to spruce up the existing ones to 'global' standards.

The red brick buildings at IIM A for example still look extremely photogenic. But take a closer look at the hostels and many of those 30 year old structures are in fact in bad shape. Especially when you compare the old campus with the shiny new one that's come on the other side of the connecting tunnel.

I'll stop before I get into arbit CP mode...

The point is that 'IIMs going global' is a case study in itself. Hope many ideas and appproaches are used - simultaneously - so that the IIMs move forward and take their rightful place under the global sun!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Should the IIMs go ‘global’? - 1

IIM B Global Plans get Green Signal

Words mean different things to different people. Take the term 'global'. If you were on an IIM campus and a student commented the lecture he just attended was 'global', it would hardly be a compliment to the professor.

Global, in IIM lingo, is shorthand for general gas. And that is what appears to be dominating the current debate on whether IIMs should – ironically- go ‘global’. There is the IIMs-owe-it-to-India camp vs the India-owes-it-to-IIMs camp. But, leaving ideology aside, does globalising make sense?

Yes and no. IIMs must become players on the global stage. Whether they need to physically step out of India to do that is the question that needs to be asked.

‘Global’ campuses
Let’s start with the IIM Bangalore proposal to ‘set up shop’ in Singapore which is how this debate was sparked off in the first place.

First of all, is it viable for the IIMs to set up full-fledged physical campuses abroad? I don't think so. When INSEAD entered Singapore it had committed to spend $35.5 million (60 million Singapore dollars) to set up a campus which would rival its 2.9 hectare campus in Fontainebleau. The campus was to be built in 4 phases - and will be fully completed only by 2016.

To be seen as 'world class' an IIM B satellite campus would have to do match INSEAD. Was that what they had planned? Not at all. The foray abroad is meant to be a revenue earning opportunity, not a drain on the resources of the mother brand. Way back in July 2005 reported:

Now IIM-B - the business school in India's Silicon Valley of Bangalore - hopes to export its strength in business strategy and finance by offering an online EMBA programme, targeted for November or December, at its Singapore campus.

The initiative will be hosted at Bhavan's Indian International School, with the institute sharing its lecture halls, seminar and conference rooms, library and computer centre.

"The EMBA course modules would be taught online, with nearly all the faculty members, in terms of teaching staff, working out of our Indian campus," says Prakash Apte, director of IIM-Bangalore. "But we're also looking at hiring locally-based faculty members depending on demand," he adds.

Such a strategy certainly makes sense but more from a ‘business’ point of view than as an institution. Dr Apte admitted that, “Although we're reaching out to the entire region, a large proportion of the students are likely to come from the Indians living and working around the region.”

The added attraction: the IIMB course is expected to cost less than those offered other foreign players in Singapore.

And that, I think is the problem. As long as IIMs continue to be seen as a value-for-money MBA education mainly by Indians – whether based in the country or overseas – IIMs will never be truly ‘global’ players.

Thought leadership
"If you look at the global environment now, India is fast becoming an economic powerhouse. There is a great interest in the knowledge of the Indian economy, in Indian companies and the peculiarities of the Indian market. And this is what we can provide better than Chicago GSB or INSEAD. Fundamentally, this is where our strong value-proposition lies."

That statement by Dr Prakash Apte sums up the opportunity for the IIMs. Suddenly the spotlight is on India. We are being seen as the Next Big Market for everything from automobiles to apartment complexes. Multinationals are dying to understand what makes India ticks. Can IIMs be the ones to enlighten them?

Take outsourcing, for example. Since India is at the forefront of this business revolution, logically, an IIM professor should have seized the opportunity to become an internationally renowned expert on the subject. It hasn’t happened – for two reasons.

Much of the research at IIMs is lacking in contemporary relevance. Some of it is also lacking in academic rigour.

Secondly, even the research output which is worthy of recognition rarely creates the desired impact. That’s because while they may teach the subject, IIM professors are loath to ‘market’ themselves or their work.

It’s a chicken and egg problem. As one IIM professor puts it, "If I were to propound a management theory based on karmayoga, it would have religious connotations. If the same idea of being ‘committed to the effort, not the accomplishment’ was propounded by a professor from Harvard it might well be seen as pathbreaking."

So yes, IIMs lack in source credibility as ‘thinktanks’– hence their research is not taken seriously. But it would take just 2-3 outstanding individuals to break this perception. Of course, they would necessarily have to be not just brilliant academics but persuasive communicators and networkers as well.

Easy to advise, of course...
There are other important issues... Such as attracting quality faculty and a diverse student body. More on those and other challenges, in my next post.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Can't feel it... so far

"We asked a few people about the new English news channel Times Now and here's what they said..."

Silence for 5 seconds

"Have you heard of a news channel leaving people speechless??"

That was an ad for Times Now ("Feel the News") airing on Go 92.5 FM over and over again as I made my way home. Well, I did tune in but am far from speechless. In fact, I have quite a bit to say.

I know Times Now has been on air for just a few hours but their promos have been 'barking' for a while now. And in light of Malcolm Gladwell's 'Blink' I think first impressions must be taken note of. So here are mine.

The Promises
For weeks, Times Now promos have been promising: no bullshit, no yak yak, news of relevance to you, etc etc etc. So what is their idea of what news is relevant to you and me?

8 pm
While all other news channels were discussing the airport modernisation bids a guy in a grey suit and pink tie on Times Now gravely holds forth on Iran.

Soon after CNN IBN started flashing 'Airport staff to go on strike from 10 am tomorrow' and minutes later NDTV followed. No update on Times Now ticker.

9 pm
It's Newshour with Arnab Goswami and Mini Menon. But first, some loving and lingering shots of our shiny new studio.

Now, for the airport bids and other important stories but first, we must tom-tom our 'exclusive': The Anatomy of a Killing.

Which is? An audio transcript of Abu Salem planning a murder. It is so shocking and chilling that several page and Bollywood personalities have to be interviewed to tell us how shocking and chilling it is. Such as Anil Dharker, Kabir Bedi and Shyam Benegal.

OK, now we can get on with the news. But only for a bit. After that we will get back to Abu Salem and then discuss what we just showed you sometime ago with the help of experts who are with us in the studio.

Experts in what? Appearing on television. Yes, on DAY ONE they had who else but the all-weather, all-season, all-topic, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-in-one and one-in-all studio guest: Mahesh Bhatt.

So much for Arnab's promise of 'no talking heads.."

The Questions
These might just be first day hiccups. Things will probably get better. The weekend shows seem very promising!

But right now it looks like this: You're cooking a magnificent meal for 18 months. All the fancy china is in place. The guests have assembled. But when you lift the lid the food is just OK. Nothing extraordinary.

Firstly, why the Abu Salem story. Is anyone shocked to know that mafia dons are 'heartless', use bad language and order the hitmen to kill anyone who comes in the way?

Secondly, must a news channel have a 'sensational' story on the day of its launch? Even if the story is irrelavant on that particular day?? When HT used similar tactics for its launch edition in Mumbai (the Salman-Aishwarya transcripts), the paper was soundly criticised by Times.

Of course, the Abu Salem tapes are apparently 'genuine' - they have been submitted in court as proof so there are no 'privacy' issues. But the question is: who cares? He has been extradited and is now behind bars.

The real fugitive from justice now is Dawood Ibrahim...

On the plus side
Times Now is a polished product - the graphics, music and overall packaging is pretty cool. Although some might call it 'dhinchak'.

Arnab did a good job of pinning down aviation minister Praful Patel (poor fellow must be exhausted with all the 'exclusive' interviews he was giving on the same day within minutes of each other!).

There are some interesting shows and 'big stories' being advertised in the days to come...

Times Now's stated vision is to: "Create the second generation of TV news in the broadcast space....With a focus on involving the consumer more closely in the news experience, the channel’s unique programming wheel blends the urgent news needs of the urbanite".

Well, good luck! On my part I shall keep tuning in and let you know when I 'feel' something!

Disqus for Youth Curry - Insight on Indian Youth