Friday, September 29, 2006

Deepa Mehta's 'Water': 4 stars and no, it's not derogatory!

The DVD of Deepa Mehta's 'Water' arrived at my office a couple of weeks ago. But I just did not get around to seeing it. To be honest, I had the impression it would be a grim and depressing film on a meaningful subject. Something you rarely get 'in the mood' to watch.

I was wrong. 'Water' is a stunningly beautiful film, sensitively shot and well acted. Yes, the plight of widows sent away by their families to lead a colourless and hopeless existence in ashrams is a sad one. Especially that of the 8 year old child widow who does not even remember getting married. But it's a tale well told, and conveys a message without being a 'message film'.

Art without being arty, which is truly rare and wonderful.

The story in brief: Chuhiya is a little girl who finds herself 'widowed' at the age of 8. As per the traditions prevailing then (the film is set in 1938), she is sent away to a widows' home in Benaras. Her arrival stirs something in the inmates of the home - most of whom came there at about her age and saw their lives pass by, unfulfilled.

Particularly poignant is the old lady who keeps dreaming of eating laddoos - the last time she had them was at her own wedding decades ago. Apparently widows were not even allowed to eat 'fried foods' like halwa, puri or jalebis...

But this is no bleak house, thanks to some memorable characters. Madhu didi is the old and hypocritical 'ruler' of the house. She has no qualms in sending out the young and beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray) to sethjis who pay for use of her body. In Kalyani Chuhiya finds an 'older sister' like figure and although Madhu didi claims 'hum bhi aap ke amma jaise hain', the mother figure for the little girl is actually the silent but strong Shakuntala (Seema Biswas).

Enter Narayan (John Abraham) - a young man who has just completed his law exams and is deeply influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. Including the idea that widows can and should remarry. He meets and falls in love with Kalyani, and offers to marry her. Shakuntala rebels against tradition and liberates Kalyani from the ashram to pursue her love. But life is not so... beautiful or fair.

Without giving away further details let me just say that all does not end well and yet the film concludes on a hopeful note.

Living upto its name, water is almost like another character in the film. I especially liked the way Narayan used the poem 'Meghdoot' by Kalidasa to express his love for Kalyani.

Also interesting is the attachment inmates show towards pets (Kalyani and Chuhiya to the dog Kaalu, Madhu didi to her parrot). A beautiful way to depict how every human being needs to love and be loved - by someone.

Sarala - the little girl who plays Chuhiya - is absolutely amazing. She is innocent yet unsubmissive.

There is scene where she is asked to stand on top of Madhu didi, pressing with her little feet the old lady's creaking bones. The hijra Gulabo (played by Raghubir Yadav) offers her a puri. Madhu didi snaps,"Widhwa kab se aisa khana khaane lage?"

The angry little girl blurts out that she will eat as much puri as her heart desires in Kalyani's wedding. The old lady declares such a thing can never happen. The little girl insists it will and jumps up and down on the old lady, screaming hysterically. The effect is very powerful.

However in this - and many other instances - a lot is lost to a non-Hindi speaking audience because of the poor sub-titles.

Lisa Ray as Kalyani is also extremely good. She has been to acting school since her last movie and it shows! You might argue she is too refined and too much of a china doll to play the character but except for her Hindi sounding faintly accented now and then I thought she was perfect.

John Abraham is decent, Seema Biswas outstanding.

In sum, a movie worth watching. Made with passion, perseverance and against all odds, I give it 4 stars. And yes, you can hope to see it at your local theatre soon... Or can you? While 'Water' is set to release in India shortly I am sure there will once again be problems...

The controversy
'Water' was originally to be shot in Benaras in the year 2000. Protests erupted and a mob destroyed the film set, charging that the film depicted Hinduism in a poor light. This was after the script was cleared by the I & B ministry. So it was more like in-principle opposition to the idea of the film, that too being made someone who had already raised the hackles of traditionalists with 'Fire'.

Although the NDA government declared filming could go, they created bureaucratic hurdles which actually made it impossible. It was a harrowing and financially devastating experience for the film unit and the director, personally

Although the governments of West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh offered Deepa Mehta blanket approval to film in their states, she chose to pack up and put the film on hold. She explains the decision in an interview to Movieweb:

I said I really didn't want to do it until I stopped being angry, because I was so upset and so disturbed by what had happened... It took about 5 years for that anger to dissipate. Once it did, it didn't take very long to put the film together again. There was no way that we could shoot it in India because we couldn't get insurance. So we decided to shoot it in Sri Lanka.

Yes, that accounts for the strange sight of palm trees swaying in the distance in otherwise believable sets of the Benaras ghats. But given the circumstances, I won't quibble about that!

I think it was important for this film to be made - for reasons of creative and artistic freedom. And it turned out better for going through this trial by fire. The original cast - Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das and oddly enough Akshay Kumar - had to be changed. But knowing that, not for a moment do I feel 'oh, they would have been better'.

Deepa Mehta herself acknowledges she grew and changed over the period. Hence while the script remained the same she changed her approach. She let the camera and actors convey emotions and relied less on dialogue. Which was a very smart thing, cinematically speaking.

The question remains, is 'Water' derogatory to Hindus and Hinduism? Quite the contrary!

I am an Indian, a Hindu and a woman. As I watched the film two thoughts crossed my mind:
a) How lucky I am to be born today, and not 70 years ago
b) How much India has changed - and mostly for the better - since the period depicted in the film.

In fact the film made me feel positive about being a Hindu and a woman. Because in the span of about 3 generations we have been able to institute major and sweeping reforms in our society.

This is of course most true in educated and middle class homes - here widows lead fairly normal lives. They do not tonsure their heads or even wear white. And remarriage is not uncommon.

No doubt ashrams for destitute widows exist, and on many fronts, women still get exploited. Yes, child marriage continues but there is progress - the statistic is 1 in 18 in Rajasthan - the state with the highest prevalence. And technically, child marriage is illegal.

I wish that somewhere Deepa Mehta had acknowledged this fact. She ends the film with the statement:

"According to the census in 2001 there were over 34 million widows in India, many of them still living in conditions of social, economic and cultural deprivation".

There is more than a grain of truth in that - but the truth is multi faceted. It's NOT 1938 any longer. A line from the film maker stating the fact that child marriage is an illegal and declining practice, and 'child widows' like Sarala more uncommon than the norm, would not have hurt anyone. And surely enlightened a few.

Here's the line she takes in most interviews anyways.

Child marriages are illegal in India these days. That's why film is set in 1938 –there were child marriages prevalent then. Child marriages go back to 11th century, to Mongolian invasion – they would not rape or pillage women or youngsters that were married. So parents got their young children married, and it became part of the culture.

So you see, it's not all about religion anyways. A lot of our rites and rituals had a basis in something, then that basis was forgotten but the rituals continued. Especially those which were convenient.

As Narayan explains in the film..

When widows are segregated from their husband, family and property, they are: “One less mouth to feed. Four saris saved. One bed and a corner are saved in the family house. There is no other reason why you are sent here.” And while the treatment of widows is disguised as religion, he concludes, “it’s all about money.” These few sentences illuminate the situation in an extremely powerful manner.

And in the end of the film there is a short sequence where Mahatma Gandhi speaks. "Main maanta tha ki ishwar his sach hai... magar ab main maanta hoon ki sach hi ishwar hai."

How wonderful to belong to a religion which is not afraid to look its scriptures or traditions in the eye and say,"That commandment does not make sense for us anymore"!
Guided by their conscience and exposure to new ideas and ideals, the likes of Raja Ram mohan Roy had initiated reforms in Hindu society, decades before Gandhiji.

The lack of a 'single holy book' means that we Hindus can be more flexible and also re interpret what tenets to follow and which to drop by the wayside. If only other religions were that 'thinking'!

Explaining the significance of the title 'Water' Deepa says:

Water keeps flowing but stagnant water creates problems. Many people in the film, which is set in the late 1930s, lived a rigid life as prescribed by a religious text more than 2000 years old... Traditions should never become rigid. They should flow like the good water.

So when the guardians of the faith start their protests - and I know they will - I would ask them to instead direct their energies to completing the process Raja Rammohan Roy and Mahatma Gandhi set into motion.

That would be the greatest service they can perform towards the cause of Hinduism.

Thanks to Lauren Kozak, Senior Manager (Online Marketing & Influencer Outreach) at M80 for couriering me the DVD of Water from LA.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Wanted: b school bands

If you're studying in a bschool and part of an on-campus band, get in touch! This is for a feature in JAM magazine. What's more, we may have a gig or two for you in the coming months.

All kinds of bands are welcome - not just hardcore rockers. Agar aap acche covers ya phir original Hindi stuff bajaate hain, that's cool by us too. Coz we would love to discover the next Bodhitree :)

Send in band and contact details to

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Online matrimony: a few surprises

That's a screenshot from popular online matchmaker

So far so good. HT reports that "online matrimony in India is becoming one of the fastest growing businesses, with a growth trajectory of as high as 90 per cent annually in some cases".

According to an Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) report on Matrimonial Search... in the fiscal year 2005-06 these services garnered Rs 58 crore, in the current year the amount is expected to cross Rs 98 crore. There has also been a surge in member subscriptions from 4 million in 2004-05 to 5.5 million in 2005-06. Membership is estimated to grow to 7 million users by the end of this year.

Several of these sites have received funding and now advertise on TV. Along with wider choice and more control to the actual bride/ groom than the traditional route or parent-centric newspaper advertising, some sites claim to be offering additional services such as profile screening. Not sure how they do this - and is it for the premium memberships only?

That said, my sole experience with online matrimony was registering a profile for a cousin whose parents were like, "Chalo yeh bhi try karte hain". But online matrimony is something you have to take charge of yourself. Responses started poured in but my cousin was painfully shy and did not wish to trawl through the humongous number of emails. I mean, she'd rather someone else did the dirty job for her.. which really does not work.

Online matrimony is a project just like offline matrimony. It requires considerable time, energy and capacity to reject/ accept rejection.

Another friend who got divorced some time ago put up her profile on a few of these websites. Her complaint is that guys are way too 'chipku' for her liking. "You exchange a couple of emails and a few phone calls and next thing you know the guy wants to fix a date to get married", she says.

After one marriage that ended painfully, she would rather get to know someone a little better than jump into another potential disaster zone. But the guys in their 30s who would respond to her profile are in a hurry to 'settle down' and don't seem that picky!

Of course the opposite attitude seems to prevail on 'dating' sites. Most guys on those sites are looking to have a good time ie get sex and do not hesitate to say so in their very first email. As if.. that turns on women. Especially when it's done with complete lack of style.

An interesting experiment was carried out by HT's Brunch supplement a few Sundays ago. One of their staffers registered two profiles on a dating website. One was an 'adventurous, fun loving, 'wants to live life to the fullest' type' and the other a more staid description.

Profile 1 was flooded with response (the sex variety) while profile 2 got barely a trickle. And a male journalist who registered his profile got.. absolutely no response.

Reminded me of my experience with starting India's first dating column back in 1994. 'Saturday Date' was a column I started in the 'Metropolis on Saturday' which featured profiles of young professionals who wanted to meet interesting people, but not necessarily get hitched right away.

The column only featured 4 profiles at a time - many were friends who were persuaded to try out something new. Response mechanism for the guys was simple: they printed their telephone numbers. For the girls, respondents had to write in, c/o the newspaper's address. I would actually screen them - chuck out the 90% rubbish that came in and hand over just a few decent/ interesting ones (rarely did you get both together!) to the girl in question.

And yeah, in the line of duty I too went on a couple of dates. Got bored out of my skull... but I guess someone may have found someone. And now, with technology enabling a far higher degree of pre-meeting communication, surely the 'success rate' is much higher!

The biggest problem
Back then, and even now, the success or failure of a dating/ matrimonial site hinges on one simple fact: how many girls are registering?

I think the 'open-to-dating' women have enough choices in real life, when they are in the college-age bracket. The trouble starts when you finish your education and into your second job by which time you may have a limited social life and little opportunity to meet new people. That's when they turn to matrimonial websites.

So dating sites suffer from an awful girl: guy - I think 1: 10 would be a fair estimate. Matrimonial sites, according to IAMAI stats have a gender ratio of 69% male, 31% female, which is far better.

But surprisingly, 37% of registered users on dating sites are between age 18-25... so I am guessing they are actually using it for dating purposes. But perhaps the 'matrimonial' purpose of the website cues that 'I am not that type of girl/ guy'. As in I may eventually wish to marry you.

What I did not understand however was this startling statistic:

Marital status
63% Unmarried
31% Married without kids
25% Married with kids
4% Divorced

Um... iska kya matlab? Why are only 63% of the people on a matrimonial website UNMARRIED? Yeh married with kids/ without kids ka chakkar kya hai?

And even if there were married types looking for someone to fool around with - or marry again - wouldn't they be more likely to masquerade as being 'unmarried' in the first place? So where and why this data is captured remains unclear.

The only plausible explanation is that these are uncles/ aunties/ didis/ jijajis of prospective grooms and brides. People like me, searching for other people. But still.. it creeps me out.

Will someone from the matrimonial industry please explain?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

RJ Regurgitation: 89.1 FM Dubai

The world really is a global village. This, I realised, when I received this email from a reader of my blog in Dubai. She writes:

Yesterday, I was listening to one of the radio stations here (89.1 FM) and the RJ was reading out (very badly) a movie review for Dor. As he was reading it out I realized that he was reading out your review, word for word.

"Since when did widows in Rajasthan wear dark blue clothes? I always thought they wore white! In fact, the clothes Meera wears after Shanker's death resemble a burqa more than anything else... and this to me seemed odd throughout the film.

I also felt that for the first time Nagesh Kukunoor has made a film which got caught up in exotic foreigner-friendly locations. That the backdrops got more importance than the struggle of the characters themselves.

And honestly, I wish he would at best make a cameo appearance and not actually play a part in every film. At the very least, he needs to lose that Hyderabad-meets-Hudson accent!"

This whole bit was said word for word. He did not acknowledge the fact that it has been taken from your blog or anything.

I felt this was a bit unfair, so I sent the radio station an sms saying that the review was copied from the blog Youthcurry and that I would let the author know about it.

The RJ calls me back in 10 mins saying " you wanted to talk to the author right? I'm the author. Go ahead. What do you wanna say?"

I told him that the review was taken from Youthcurry by this person who is the editor of JAM and he asked "Do you have any idea where Jam gets their reviews from? Do you know who writes it? We are part of the JAM *something* (I forget what) panel .

For a second I faltered thinking that maybe you had one of your reporters write it and the RJ might be of them. Then I remembered how he was reading the review. He could hardly pronounce the words correctly, and was obviously reading the review out loud for the first time.

So I called his bluff, and he then started talking about how radio is a free medium and that he can pick up anything from anywhere and say whatever. And that he writes for magazines as well and he never copies, but if a few words happens to come in here and there, that is not a big deal.

He tried to put it in my head several several times that it's not copying. I guess it may not be. But I still feel you should've been acknowledged or at least he could've said something like " According to this review from JAM mag..."

And the fact remains that he tried to pass off as the author. Which is a LIE.

Also, when I asked him for his name ( cos I really didn't know who he was, all the RJ's of this station sound the same and I had just turned on the radio at the time, I was driving home) he refused to say. Which I found to be an extremely immature and cowardly thing to do. His name is Harsha, if at all you're interested.

If what's happening is alright by you, ok then. If not, please do let the station know.

XXXX (name withheld)

Well, it's not OK and I am letting the station know by printing this letter on my blog. It would be funny if it were not so... unethical. To use the word 'I' and rattle off someone else's thoughts and views shows such a paucity of brainjuice that I have nothing more to say.

Google scripting and google journalism is NOT ok. Not for a college project, not in print, not on radio.

Will 89.1 FM care to lay down this law for its RJs?

Monday, September 25, 2006

When did I join the Indiatimes 'Community'?

The 'About us' section on Indiatimes states:

Indiatimes is the most popular Internet and mobile value-added services destination for the global Indian.

Covering everything from art to airlines, Indiatimes is taking the digital age into people's lives, influencing the way they live and respond to changing times, work and transact. In a short span, we have created multiple relationships with millions of users.

That's great - but I am not one of those millions of users... and hence see no reason why my last post on Ford Fiesta is linked from Indiatimes Broadband's homepage, under the "Community" section.

Click on the screenshot to enlarge pic

Now you might say I am being sticky here... Indiatimes may argue I should be happy they are sending additional traffic my way - an attitude shared by most large media houses.

DNA also does something similar although they only provide links to blog headlines. Here too, I think they should clearly label the section as 'What bloggers feel or have to say' about current issues. In the way Mumbai Mirror specifies w.r.t.'Blogger's park': a 'daily column on what the worldwide web is talking about'.

The bottomline is - link to stuff I write. That's fine by me. Coz I link to stuff published by your journalists every now and then - credit it to them and comment on it.

Accord me the same privilege. But don't co-opt me into your community without my knowledge or consent.

That's borderline unethical - same as Fiesta's advertising strategy. In a world of global Indians, it won't be seen as a value add. Trust me!

And I know you will soon yank the link off.. but this is not a one-off complaint but a policy issue. Please take it seriously!

Ford Fiesta - 'go fida' but not on the mileage!

It's exactly a month since I got my new car and what can I say? The Ford Fiesta drives well, looks great and feels good. My cousin who owns an Ikon - and is far more knowledgable than me in this area - went gaga over it. Especially how silent the engine was.

So net: net I would recommend the car to anyone looking to buy/ upgrade in the Rs 6-6.5 lakh range. Maybe you could consider diesel - I did not because the price difference between diesel and petrol is around Rs 1.2 lakhs (including the extra interest cost you'll be paying). And even though I use it a fair bit, by my calculations, it would take 3 years before the diesel car 'makes more sense'. By which time I might want to trade this in - who knows.

Anyhow, the reason I am writing this is the ads I am seeing on sites like this one extolling the Ford Fiesta entering the Limca Book of records for its amazing mileage. The 'Max mileage marathon' was a first of its kind in India, and recorded the longest distance ever travelled on a single tank of diesel and petrol.

Here's a news report of the event:

The marathon was held at the 4.226 km high-speed track at the National Centre for Automotive Testing (NCAT) at the Vehicle Research & Development Establishment (VRDE) in Ahmednagar. The entire event was monitored and supervised by the Federation of Motor Sports Association of India (FMSCI) and representatives of the Limca Book of Records.

The Ford Fiesta 1.4 litre Duratec Petrol was flagged off by Singh, joint director VRDE at 12:37 p.m. July 29. After travelling continuously for 1,183 km, the car finally ran out of petrol at 10:11 a.m. the next morning, nearly 22 hours later! The car extracted 22.43 km from every litre of petrol.

The Ford Fiesta 1.4 litre Duratorq TDCi Diesel, flagged off at 12:40 p.m. on July 29, travelled nearly 29 hours, before finally running out of fuel at 5:23 p.m. on July 30, after covering 1,570.8 km. The car returned an astounding average of 31.48 km per litre.

But what purpose did this serve, really? Here's the carefully worded statement given out by the event organisers:

A brainchild of Autocar India, the Max Mileage Marathon was organised with the objective of proving that ideal road conditions, skilful driving and modern engine technology can result in huge fuel savings, thereby contributing positively to national savings. The marathon also brought into limelight the vast difference between ideal road conditions and real road conditions that could result in potentially high fuel efficiency.

Hormazd Sorabjee, editor of Autocar India, while receiving the certificate from Limca Book of Records, commented, "Through Max Mileage Marathon, we wished to demonstrate that good driving conditions, combined with sound driving skills, and high-performance modern engines have the potential to considerably increase fuel efficiency and result in savings for the car owners as well as lower the burden of fuel bills for the country."

Wonderful. But we all know road conditions are far from ideal in real life. And so, a clause should have been laid down by Autocar prohibiting this kind of banner advertising:

How far can you go at 31 km per litre ?

Fiesta enters Limca Book of records

Mileage for 1.4 TDCi Duratorq 31.468 km/litre

Mileage for 1.4 Fiesta Duratec 22.43 km/litre

To take a test drive sms xxxx

The irony of it all is that a misleading ad is appearing on a portal popular with advertising and media types - www.exchange4media. There isn't even a star saying 'conditions apply', perhaps because unlike print there is no corner you can hide those necessary but minor details.

In the current dratty road conditions my Ford Fiesta petrol 1.4 gives around 9 km per litre. That might go up to 10 someday at best. In fact, the fuel guage is electronically calibrated to project how many kms the car will run every time you fill petrol. And that guage has been calibrated at 9 km per litre, as far as I can tell.

I'm not complaining, because I was aware the Fiesta is not a car offering fuel economy. In fact my purana Esteem does much better on that front. I just don't see the point of a company making tall claims. Record apni jagah par hai but none of us is planning to take a spin on the high speed track in Ahmednagar.

In fact, even the practice of highlighting the 'highway mileage' of cars (as tested by auto magazines) is not of much use to prospective buyers - 95% of whom will use it mainly in the city under more taxing traffic and road conditions. But all manufacturers are doing it... and no one seems to be complaining.

So while Ford Fiesta diesel advertises 18.3 kmpl as the mileage (with a * specifying on the highway, as tested by Autocar India), a hoarding by Hyundai Accent CRdi claimed something like 27 kmpl! And the Pope just agreed to convert to Islam...

Ironically, Ford is also advertising the 'Fusion' as a no-nonsense car. Then why this nonsense with Fiesta... ?

And I think Autocar India has to take some responsibility. After all, their fair name is being misused, in a sense. I am not a hardcore car enthusiast or subscriber of auto magazines but as an ordinary person who bought a car recently, I feel that the consumer's interest should be placed ahead of carmakers.

A starting point would be to prevent the hijacking of a technical record for commercial purposes.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Extra! Extra! Read all about it... for free

This morning a rep from Hindustan Times rang my doorbell. "Aapka ek saal ka subscription khatam ho raha hai... "

Yeah... so is there a new offer, I ask.

"Haan.. picchle saal aapne Rs 449 ka scheme liya tha. Aur humne sau rupaye refund kiya tha. Is saal 350 mein do saal ka subscription de rahe hain".

Wonderful. A newspaper for 50 paise a day. I will probably end up making more in these two years by selling the paper in raddi than HT makes from me. If you add in the cost of the reps visiting my house for renewal, and the delivery charge HT is paying the chap who brings in the paper they are pretty much giving away the paper FREE.

Anything, for readership. After DNA pipped them in the recent NRS survey they are obviously eager to hang on to their existing subscribers.

Of course, DNA is also in the same 'free' boat. On Sundays, the paper is impressively thick, with the regular stuff plus a kids supplement and a full-fledged Femina-type women's magazine. All this for two bucks but wait, in case you have subscribed then it's Rs 199 for the year. And in case you are an ICICI Bank card holder, like me, you might currently be getting it free in any case.

I guess all this is necessary when you are at war with the well entrenched Times of India. Which is making a little more money off the cover price of Rs 4 (with Mumbai Mirror worth Rs 2 'free' inside).

The Mirror has gone to town with its readership stats (8.8 lakhs), making it the 'second most widely read paper in the city'. Of course, it's also the second most widely unread paper in the city. While TOI's readership in Mumbai is pegged at 16.7 lakh readers, MM's is just about half that. Which means close to 50% don't open it at all! That's why there's a new offer where you can choose your free paper - if you don't fancy MM you can ask for the Maharashtra Times.

On the other hand, there is a trend where magazines are upping their prices. India Today - which I pick up once in a rare while and then wonder why?? - is now 20 bucks. A recent issue had a 'free' Nature's Basket granola bar. Mine happened to be nibbled upon... or dismembered by natural causes. Either way, I did not consume it and neither did I find much to consume in the magazine. Which I may add, had way tooo many layers of plastic even for my far-from-activist level of comfort.

The bottomline is - magazines are threatened by newspapers, newspapers by satellite TV, satellite TV by internet. And the internet by its ever changing self.

So everyone is encroaching into the other's territory. Newspapers are doing the lifestyle stuff magazines did; NDTV is looking more like MTV with its never ending KANK specials (a full half an hour was devoted to the making of 'Where's the Party'). And honestly, it was... perhaps the Abhishek effect... but rather watchable.

So we at JAM too have been affected. Everyone is going 'youth' - or at least youthful. I mean youth is hardly a 'niche' anymore, it is the market everyone is desperately angling for.

And that - coupled with the 'free mein lo' trend - is making life a little more difficult, or a little more challenging for people like me. Depends how you wanna look at it... More on this, in the days to come.

No one has the answers - except to sigh "ah, mobile!". If only we could all convert our content to caller tunes and charge 15 bucks to download it and 30 bucks a month to 'rent' the same.

If only...

Friday, September 22, 2006

Dor - 3 stars

Have you ever seen a film which your head says is 'good' but your heart does not embrace? Dor is a film which did that to me.

The story is simple but intriguing enough. Two young men go to the Gulf on work, leaving behind their young wives. The unforeseen happens... Shanker Singh topples (or is pushed off?) the balcony of the house they share. Aamir is convicted of murdering him and sentenced to death.

But under Saudi Arabia's Sharia laws, Aamir's wife Zeenat has a ray of hope. If Shanker Singh's widow 'forgives' the accused and signs a maafinama, his life can be spared. The film is about Zeenat's search for the wife, knowing only that she lives somewhere in Rajasthan. And on the basis of a single picture.

So yes, the story is 'different' but... It's somehow unconvincing. Zeenat is 100% sure that 'mera Aamir aisa nahin hai' - that Shanker's death was a 'haadsa' and not a murder. But we never know, really.

That's the big issue - there are smaller ones as well. For instance, since when did widows in Rajasthan wear dark blue clothes? I always thought they wore white! In fact, the clothes Meera wears after Shanker's death resemble a burqa more than anything else... and this seemed odd to me throughout the film.

I also felt that for the first time Nagesh Kukunoor has made a film which got caught up in exotic foreigner-friendly locations. That the backdrops got more importance than the struggle of the characters themselves.

And honestly, I wish he would at best make a cameo appearance and not actually play a part in every film. At the very least, he needs to lose that Hyderabad-meets-Hudson accent!

Gul Panag as Zeenat is an excellent choice but someone other than Ayesha Takia should have played Meera. She is not bad, but not all that great either. Shreyas Talpade plays a 'bahrupiya' and his role is to add some lighter moments to an otherwise ekdum serious film.... So serious that the lead actresses don't even wear any make up. Shreyas has performed well.

Actually, 'Dor' reminds me of the kind of films which were made in the 80s and dubbed 'feminist'. Zeenat comes to Meera to ask for her help, but ends up liberating her. Convincing her that her life is hers alone to live and that she must make her own decisions.

And yet, unlike Iqbal, you can't feel good at the end of it all... So watch it if you will, I just can't recommend it too strongly.

P.S. Also releasing today isKhosla ka Ghosla. The film gets 4 stars from JAM - read the review here.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Lalu ban gaya gentleman?

He came, he spoke, he conquered. Read what I think of Laluji's maiden b school appearance here.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

In defence of yuppieness

In March 2004, I wrote a piece titled ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of yuppieness’. It was a deeply personal 1500 words and inexplicably, touched a chord in many, many readers.

Two key observations I had made:

1) The decision to do an MBA is more about external validation than internal conviction. The first validation occurs when you are accepted into the programme, the second when someone offers you a fantastic salary on passing out.

2) I'm not saying "Damn placement!" But let MBA students also be exposed to non-conventional choices…“ What makes us tick, what makes us passionate, fulfilled and happy? … If the answer is 'leading and managing corporations', are there any challenges beyond our usual frame of reference that we can explore?

Well, Sanjeev Chandran, an IIM A alumnus who currently works for ICICI Bank looks at the other side of the coin. A recent post of mine received this comment:

"MBA's are highly overrated. I wish magazines would cover people who actually make a difference rather than those who pass exams and then sell soap or shuffle money around for the rest of their lives."

Sanjeev wrote me an email which I share with you. He feels such comments are far too common nowadays:

There's a general impression which is conveyed which disparages the MBA community. These constitute two broad thoughts:

1. What a waste of intelligence that you sell "soaps"- as if it were this useless thing and doing nuclear research was the only sensible thing to do.

2. Walking down the trodden path is wasting your life - This has become especially prevalent in the last few years with cases of some IIM graduates choosing to start a business immediately on passing out and OOPSing (Optnig Out of Placement) rather than going to a corporate job. And the general impression given is that by joining the corporate world one

A. is doing something useless which adds no value to anyone

B. has sold out to Mammon and

C. is not repaying a debt to society (which one owes because one was in an IIM) because one earns a lot of money (and sometimes, by implication - hence one should be ashamed of oneself)

Sanjeev’s take on this.

"I never understand why selling soaps is considered such a stupid thing to do. Someone has to do it. And it isn't just about you paying the Rs 10 for the soap - it is about ensuring that you get that soap and that Rs 2 sachet of shampoo in the remotest of villages in India - a distribution nightmare- which those same "selling soap" people in HLL, Colgate, P&G struggle with every day and solve- so that you and I get that soap when we want it as also does "Radha Bai" living in one of the 600,000 villages in India.

Also the point that MBAs work only for money and make no difference to society seems a narrow view point. I work for ICICI Bank. I am not directly involved with retail loans- but the reality is that we have changed the face of consumer lending in India. Sure, we make money on it. But millions who otherwise could not have dreamt of owning a house till they retired today have one when they are 35. Has that not added value to society?

I am involved today, among other things, in rural insurance and we have insured a large number of people - insured their lives, their loans and their health. People have used this insurance to get themselves treated for serious diseases at small hospitals and nursing homes. It has enabled some people to repay loans when an accident occured. Some farmers were not destroyed financially when it did not rain and their crops were destroyed. We have actually made a difference to all those lives.

Yes, while doing this business, I looked at profitability- because if I didn't, this service would not last for a long time. Yes over the last couple of years, I got a salary raise, a bonus and a promotion -for doing a good job in this area. But that doesn't take away from the fact that thousands have benefited because of the work we have done. I have gained personally- so have a large number of the rural populace. What better example of win- win could there be?

I believe as an MBA, now working for almost seven years I have made a huge difference to people's lives. Most of whom I have never even met. And I am fairly certain that most of my batch mates have done the same - directly or indirectly.

Yes, at some times (in fact, I would say quite often) there is unnecessary corporate hype which disguises the actual work being done. Some crazy organizational structures and procedures can often make one pull one's hair in frustration. And yes, people here do make money!! Unfortunately, most people tend to see only the huge salary figures and the comfortable lifestyles- not the actual impact their work makes.

I am proud to be an MBA- and that too from the finest college in India. If I do nothing else but what I have done till today - and if there is a judgement day- then just my work till now will give me enough reasons to hold my head high in front of the Judge."

What I think
Sanjeev has raised some important points Yes, someone has to sell soap, as well as home loans. And this job can be imbued with meaning if you see it – at some broader level - as reaching hygiene to the masses, or making the common man’s dream come true.

But, I suspect, this is organization specific. ICICI Bank is a company which topnotch MBAs join for quality of job and exposure – not because they offer the best pay packet or post you to London/ Singapore. Moreover, it was originally a development finance institution, which metamorphosed into a bank. And I think this gives it a unique DNA.

The question is – would Sanjeev feel similarly had he worked for Citibank, ABN Amro or Lehman Brothers? Honestly – I think the answer would be no. In fact, had Sanjeev been associated not with rural insurance but credit cards, I doubt he would be feeling as good about his job. The simple reality is credit cards are a convenience but they are ruining a lot of people’s lives.

And that’s the story with many a company MBAs choose to work for. What’s more, you are generally doing a job which has been done before. Systems are set, the wheel is turning…increasing the market share of soap X or paint Y by 2% in northern region might be my achievement of the year. And I don’t think that is achievement enough.

Even in home loans, I think really bright minds must find a market solution to the biggest problem urban India faces today: Slums. People who can afford prepaid mobile phones - and haftas to slumlords – can pay installments for their homes. And I am sure it will happen one of these days…

And it may be an MBA like Sanjeev who finds an economically feasible way to make this a reality. In an organization that encourages innovation and can see ‘wealth in waste’, so to speak.

On the other hand, I'm not saying MBAs have to serve only the bottom of the pyramid. Look at the contribution Phaneesh Murthy made by joining an Infosys at a time when marketing software was about as unglamorous as Ajay Devgan before he married Kajol.

This article in Businessworld some years ago, sums up the story:

When he left IIM-A, FMCG was big. The Nirma versus Hindustan Lever battle was drawing to a close; most people from the top of the class headed for a Lever or a Britannia. Phaneesh made the first unconventional decision of his life. He chose Sonata Software, a start-up in a tiny industry.

To put things in perspective, TCS, a $1-billion company today, had a turnover of $15 million in 1987. "I did not find soaps intellectually stimulating. I wanted to do product management. In soaps or industrial products, most of the product definition is rarely changed. In software, you can use the customer feedback to improve the product," says Phaneesh.

In Sonata, he also started on his first Mission Impossible. Design and sell a software for the Indian market. All the heroics were in vain though. The Indian IT industry was undergoing a disruptive change.

Apparently an ad in India Today caught his eye:

It was a two-page recruitment advertisement for a company called Infosys. There was a small line at the end of the ad: "We also need a marketing manager for the US. Should be willing to relocate and travel extensively." The position did not require major qualifications. "I said this is a company that needs some serious marketing help. For every other post advertised they had at least a paragraph of qualifications!"

The article credits Phaneesh with creating the 'two cultures' of Infosys. The process-driven, conservative software developers... and the more customer-facing culture that he developed, which resulted in Infosys being able to command a far higher price for its work

In 1996, that point was proved. For the first time Infosys went head-to-head with a formidable consulting firm - Cambridge Technology Partners (CTP). The contract was for about $9 million. CTP bid $8 million. Phaneesh and his team's math: total cost, including profits, of $4 million. The majority was for quoting this price.

The sales team figured it would be a mistake: the client would think they had no idea of the project's complexity. So the team doubled the bid to $8 million. Infosys got the project. It was a crossing of the Rubicon. Infosys could beat the heavy guns at their own game.

OK - we all know the Phaneesh Murthy @ Infosys story had a sour ending but it seems to be a great example of an MBA 'making a difference'. And not necessarily in the social sector. There are, of course, many others.

The bottomline is I have nothing against MBAs earning a lot of money (if their work results in profit for their companies, they certainly a share of the spoils). But I would disagree with the notion that ‘most of my batchmates’ have made a huge difference to people’s lives. At least not yet.

But I know many are thinking about it.. and that’s a start.

Lastly, one can argue that the notion of 'making a difference' is pretty arrogant to begin with. I mean, who are MBAs, to stake such a claim anyways?

But then arrogance is ... natural to MBAs. So kindly don't mind it!

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Pyaar ke side effects - 4 stars

This morning I had no idea who Saket Choudhary was. Now, I bow this rocking young writer-director. Pyaar ke side effects is yet another film Bollywood should be proud of. A truly modern and witty take on man-woman relationships in yuppie India.

Perhaps faintly inspired by a couple of Hollywood films but on the whole so very fresh and original! So who is this Saket Choudhary? Well, the only info I could dig up on him is that he co-wrote Santosh Sivan's Asoka (a film I could barely sit through).

That was in 2001 - God knows what he was doing for the last 5 years. Perhaps biding his time, waiting for his talent to be recognised... And hats off to PNC for putting faith in him.

Right from the little Delhi vs Bombay jokes to the odd collection of friends and sidekicks (great casting!), the film manages to ring true and yet entertain. Commitment phobia is not a new theme - several recent Bollwyood films tried to explore that theme - but they fell flat. Remember 'Home Delivery'... and worse, 'Neal and Nikki'?

The plot
Sid (Rahul Bose) is a DJ playing at Trisha (Mallika Sherawat's) wedding.Witness a scene which goes something like this :

A white sheet is dangling and from it jumps down a fully decked up Trisha

Sid: You're running away from your own wedding?
Trisha: Haan..I don't love him, how can I marry him ? Accha chutta hai, rickshe ke liye?
Sid : Don't be silly.. pyaar shaadi ke baad ho jayega (hands her the change)
Trisha (thinking): Taht's true.. Mere mummy-daddy ke saath bhi to yehi hua tha. Pehle shaadi, phir honeymoon, phir bacche, phir pyaar...

She decides to go back and they exchange goodbyes. A few minutes later she is seen running past Sid and friend Nanu, even as she assures 'taiji' on her cellphone: "Main paanch minute mein aa rahi hoon.|"

And that's the tone throughout - comedy without slapstick, questions and issues minus self importance or gravity. Although Trisha is a central character, the whole film has been written from the guy's point of view... And that makes it different and interesting.

Pyaar ke side effects include 'marriage' - that's what Trisha wants after she's moved to Bombay, met and fallen in love with Sid... 3 years after her original flight out of the mandap. But Sid is not so sure... yet he agrees. And what follows is Engagement ke Side effects which include the pain of selecting an engagement ring and meeting 'papa'.

Following permafrost conditions from daddy's side and an unfortunate (but funny)accident on the golf course, the couple breaks up. Trisha starts hanging out with the same guy she ran out on - a 'Vivek Chadda' looking Jas Arora - while Sid has coffee conundrums with 'Baby doll vol 3' (an item girl played by Sophiya Haque).

There are some side plots - the hilarious roomie Nanu (Ranvir Sheorey) who hates changing his underwear and thinks the fact that superheros never marry is a good argument against the institution of marriage as a whole. Then there's Sid's sister
(Taraana Raja) and brother in law Kapil, Nanu's kooky girlfriend (Sapna Bhavnani) and a wooden chest.

A scene in a club where Sid, Nanu and Kapil are hanging out after the break up is particularly funny.

Girl to Sid: come, dance with me
A few minutes later : "OK bye.. I gotta go home."
Sid : " You have work tomorrow?"
Girl: " NO.. I have school...My boards are starting on Monday.. "

All the actors were excellent in their parts, of course there are kisses - including one underwater - but Mallika is very believable in her single-Mumbai-chick role. The fact that she is taller than him, earns more than him but still loves and wants to marry him is a new and refreshing representation of a woman in Bollywood.

So, what's the verdict?
Almost all reviews I've read say the ending's a farce and give the film around 2 stars. But I thought it was all pretty cool and so, without nit picking and fault finding - because I enjoyed the movie and am pretty sure you will too - I give PKSE 4 stars. Do watch it!

And Saket Choudhary - he is definitely a guy to watch out for!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Outlook b school rankings 2006

I picked up Outlook's 'India's best b schools' issue as a matter of routine. And opened it with the usual 'let's see where they screwed up' kind of attitude. Just past experience - coz year after year these surveys never fail to disappoint.

Well, I must say that this year's Outlook effort is better thought out and likely to be a little more helpful to students. I still disagree with the survey on a few points - but overall there is improvement.

a) Year after year survey rankings suffer when some well known institutes refuse to participate. Most notably, the IIMs had decided to stay out of all rankings a couple of years ago.

Solution: IIM A volunteered information. CFore - which conducted the survey for Outlook - used the Right to Information act to get data from the other IIMs.

b) What about Bajaj and FMS? One or the other usually refuses to participate because they score very low in parameters like infrastructure.

Solution: University departments have been listed separately. The bad news is, no scores are provided. Sadly, this means that UBS Chandigarh - which ranked # 11 last year gets slotted as the no 3 'univ department'(below JB and FMS). Not fair, I'd say.

Also, nowhere do we get a sense of where the univ depts stand with respect to the entire universe of b schools. In fact, to avoid controversy, an 'overall' ranking has been provided only for the top 10.

There are separate rankings for the 'top government aided b schools' and 'top 50 private b schools'. (click to see enlarged pic - scanned from mag as results will be available online only from Oct 16)

I like the idea of comparing apples with apples and oranges with oranges. The trouble, however, is that a student is equally willing to bite into either the apple or orange - all he/ she wants to know is: how sweet is it?

And herein lies the crux of the issue. This survey is based almost entirely ie 88% on facts. And 12% on a subjective parameter called 'recruiter satisfaction'. Fair enough (although satisfaction can also broadly be gauged by the fact that a company is coming back year after year to recruit from a campus).

But what about intangibles like 'brand value' and 'alumni network'? They are not factored in - as far as i can see. A way has to be found to quantify and include this X factor - and I think it must be given a weightage of around 20%.

Otherwise the advantage certain b school brands have over the other will never truly be captured... Compartmentalising is convenient but dances around the problem instead of tackling it head on.

The overall rankings
Which Outlook did not publish.. but which can be compiled on the basis of the scores provided. When you mix up the government and private b school rankings the top 25 looks like this (note: univ departments have not been given scores and hence not included in this list).

Figures alongside are composite scores.

1 IIM A (1446.4)
2. IIM B (1219.2)
3. IIM C (1193.8)
4. MDI (1138.2)
5. IIM L (1002.7)
6. XLRI ( 894.1)
7. IIFT ( 873.1)
8. NITIE ( 841.1)
9. SPJain ( 803.8)
10. ICFAI Hyd ( 800.3)
11. IIM Indore( 777.4)
12. SJSOM ( 764.5)
13. IMT G'bad ( 748.4)
14. NMIMS ( 733.0)
15. IMI Delhi ( 727.5)
16. XIM B ( 726.2)
17. Alliance ( 719.1)
18. Welingkar ( 706.2)
19. IIM K ( 658.0)
20. TAPMI ( 640.8)
21. Bimtech ( 634.0)
22. Nirma ( 614.3)
23. IFMR ( 593.3)
24. IIMM ( 579.7)
25. LBS ( 575.9)

A few observations:

1) MDI consistently manages to be ranked # 4. But as far as students are concerned, it's IIM A, B, C and L - then XL, SP, and MDI. In fact on IIT campuses students generally apply only to the '4 IIMs' (not even I and K) and rarely if ever to MDI.

2) IIM Indore or SJSOM would be preferred by most over ICFAI Hyderabad. In fact, despite scoring well on a large number of parameters, ICFAI to my mind does not belong in the top 10 for the following reasons:

- Placement performance is merely 138.2. In comparision, IIM Indore is 222.2, SJSOM 199.1, XIM B 188.8, IMI Delhi 163. The ICFAI Hyderabad class size is 700 which in itself is not a bad thing but certainly puts a lot of pressure on placements, especially quality of job.

You have only to compare the list of companies and designations of jobs offered at their flagship Hyderabad campus with the same at IIM Indore to realise the difference. For example UTI Bank offers 'Deputy manager' positions at XIMB but 'Executive' positions at ICFAI Hyd.

- ICFAI scores when it comes to 'intellectual capital'. While I think their case study initiative is commendable, the books and journals they publish - what I have seen of them - are less than impressive. One can, of course argue that almost all research generated from Indian b schools (IIMs included) is unimpressive. Then, why give an institute brownie points for churning out such material in larger quantities than other b schools and help it achieve a higher ranking?

- ICFAI has an independent entrance exam, which last year attracted 30,000 students. The buzz is that 'almost everyone' gets an interview call. Which may be an exaggeration but certainly the selectivity ratio is not very high

Secondly, not only must you travel to Hyderabad, you pay 3000 as 'interview processing fee'. So imagine, a cool Rs 3-5 crores is in the ICFAI kitty even before you join the course. This is not a practice one associates with institution of repute. Especially given the high course fee charged in any case ! (Rs 5.5 lakhs excluding boarding/ lodging)

3) IIM Kozhikode has been ranked no 19. It won't affect student interest in the campus ('IIM is after all IIM yaar') but it helps answer the question: I or K? Clearly Indore has established it is # 5 in the IIM hierarchy.

So yes, IIM K ranked # 19 appears absurd but, seen objectively, it should be a wake up call to the institute. Sure, it has the IIM brand name but that should not make it complacent.

Kozhikode appears to have a problem with intellectual capital. In fact, there's been an exodus of sorts last year. Notice the lack of full time faculty (barely 25%). Strangely enough the 'academic background' of the guest and adjunct faculty remains undisclosed on the website although I can tell several are professors at other IIMs.

K and I also suffer on industry interface. As Premchand Palety rightly observes in the opening essay 'The New Badshahs':

A major reason for their bad performance is location disadvantage. For effective industry linkages, any B-school should be near a corporate hub. Explains Pritam Singh, ex-director of IIM-Lucknow, "To achieve excellence, a B-school must have a business lab, like medical colleges have hospitals, that provides real-life exposure to live cases and projects." In light of the experiences of IIMs in Lucknow, Indore and Kozhikode, he questions the government’s wisdom in starting a campus in Shillong.

4) There are some absences in the Outlook survey, notably: all IIT b schools except for SJSOM, Symbiosis and related instis, and MICA.

If RTI could be used to extract info from IIMs, I think the same should have been done for IIT SOMs. If I were an engineers an IIT SOM would rank far higher on my list than several institutes outside the top 10.

Symbiosis, it appears, declined to volunteer information - although it has given an ad in the issue. They're smart enough to know they cannot repeat the no 4 ranking achieved in the Business Today survey.. so better to not be featured at all than explain an inglorious tumble.

Also, there is a separate feature on ISB, there is no mention of Great Lakes. I guess in times to come 1 year programs will be included in rankings as a separate list.

So what would I do as a b school director?
1) Add international linkages - exchange programs for both students and especially for faculty. That's one area MDI has absolutely cracked - it has a clear 70 point lead over rivals like XL and SP and all IIMs except A, which is almost equal.

I also think the ranking of the institutes you tie up with for exchange progams should be taken into account in some manner. Otherwise the parameter could lose its meaning.

2) Get an international accreditation. It's not easy, of course but MDI scores here again, with both Equis and AACSB accreditation.

3) The one thing you can buy with money is infrastructure - buy it. Most b schools are doing it in any case as the 2006 business school ratings of the All India Management Association (AIMA) published in Business Standard notes.

However, going forward we need to ask some questions: if a laptop for every student is fast becoming a norm, need we list computer: no of students ratio as a parameter?

And well, I could go on and on. But suffice it to say that if the recent Business Today b school ranking got an F, the Outlook survey gets a passing grade - but not distinction. Some of you may think I'm being too generous but I feel, taken in entirety, the rankings and the accompanying articles provide some perspective to the current b school scenario.

IIMs pe gussa kyun
I do wish, however, that Outlook would stop making statements like this:

Experts agree that while institutions like IIMs played a big role in raising the standards of management education and curricula, they gave little thought to the creative use of ecology on campus and connecting the students with nature. The new-age business schools have stepped in fill that void.

Evidently, the writer has not visited an IIM campus!

Then there's the anguished "Dalit students still get a raw deal":

...Students belonging to the SC/STs, who pass out of premier institutes like the IIMs, are still at the bottom of the heap when it comes to remunerations...The average salary for Dalits is at least Rs 2 lakh per annum less than the institute’s average and normally a Dalit is the recipient of the lowest salary offered at the IIMs. For instance, while the average salary for all students at IIM-A was Rs 9.7 lakh, the figure for the reserved category students was Rs 7.8 lakh.

So what is the point being made? That the highest paid jobs should also have quotas for reserved candidates? The article concludes that the differential is mainly attributable to lack of soft skills. But as a Dalit who graduated from IIM L points out:

Although IIMs offer special sessions for Dalits to tide over these problems, Doss admits that in an extremely competitive environment, there is a stigma attached to attending such remedial sessions, and most Dalits choose to give it a miss.

One question I would like journalists to ask is whether private b schools - on their own - are making any efforts to add diversity to their classrooms in the caste context.

If they can claim to emulate Harvard or Wharton in other areas -how about this one?

Sorry for the goof-up...
And finally, only Outlook would have the guts to acknowldge this error: a 2 page 'ad' by Amity cleverly disguised to look like two regular pages of the magazine. And its placement at the very beginning of the survey story makes it all the more misleading.

The following clarification has been published on their website:

On pages 28-29 of Outlook magazine dated 18th September 2006, there is an advertisement titled ‘Amity – Leading the pack.’

This is a paid advertisement released by the Amity Business School, Noida which was carried inadvertently. This, in no way, represents Outlook-C Fore survey.

The Amity Business School, Noida is not amongst the Outlook – C Fore rankings and, in fact, wasn’t included in the survey. The school has been refused approval by the AICTE which has been challenged in the courts. Right now, the matter is sub judice.

We regret any confusion that the advertisement may have caused to our readers.

The clarification will be carried in the next print issue as well. And for that sincerity, so rarely seen in a big media house, we must be grateful!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

'Hutch Tuesdays'

Bet you have seen the hoardings and ads for the Hutch 'Tuesdays' offer. Tuesdays are the slowest day of the week for most malls and multiplexes, so any promo that revs up sales would be welcome.

What's more, it's a simple buy one, get one free deal applicable at Dominos, Barista, Fame and several other interesting outlets. But I don't have the full list and so I go the Hutch website in search of what's on today. Forget being highlighted on the homepage, you can't find a whiff of an offer - anywhere on the site.

OK, so someones remembers getting an sms from Hutch, we check it and call 123500 for details. And manage to download the 'm coupon'.

Now to contact Domino's. Again we check for the number on the net and call the Prabhadevi outlet. After much deliberation, the voice at the other end declares, " We don't deliver". Uh, Domino's does not deliver? Then what does it do??

The mystery is solved when they explain this is actually the Khar outlet. OK, so we dial Prabhadevi. There is more confusion at their end regarding the offer. We are about to abandon the search for cheesy nourishment on a night-when-we-will-be-working-late when someone finally gets it.

And in another 20 minutes, the pizza should be here. Or will it? The suspense continues. Thank you 'Hutch Tuesdays' for adding a little excitement to our dreary lives.

As if hanging from the office staircase to receive your faint signal... was not enough.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Jeans not allowed - what next?

Guttural manly voice :

Swapna sundari wearing maxi
Getting out of a yellow taxi
Walks into a club
Paagal ho gaye sab
Surprisingly.. she chooses me.

Squeaky high pitched female voice

Is that a pen in your pocket mister? Or are you .. just happy to see me ??... Lexi pens, now, in every paacket in your city

This ad for Lexi pens (listen to it here) plays day in and day out on the radio and I am not sure what to make of it. I mean it's silly enough to pass off as humour and yet.. in a country where colleges are banning jeans because :

a) it ensures discipline
b) low waist jeans and short tops represent a threat to collective morality

It shouldn't be long, before 'pens in pockets' get the axe ...

And what about toothpaste? Colgate Maxfresh gel with cooling crystals has a radio ad which goes something like this :

Woman interviewer : I see you are an MBA.. that means Married but Available

Flustered man: Um.. but..

Woman interviewer: I want you to work under me... So would you like to be paid in kind.. or kind?

And there's another version of that where a girl goes to buy a movie ticket and the guy at the counter says he has two.. but only if she agrees to sit next to him.

Not sure whether this will help the product.. considering that this is not Italy where even waiters look like they just stepped out of a movie set. But hey, toothpaste is becoming a risque item - parents, guardians and principals please note. Who knows what impressionable young minds are thinking as they brush each morning...

And of course mints.. they need to be banned too.Now that Polo is running its 'sabse bada hint' campaign. Kya pataa kaun kise kya hint de raha ho...

Bottomline : Sex can and is used to sell anything and everything... On the other side, the powers that be are trying hard to hard to sell 'decency' as a virtue. Confusion nahin hoga to kya hoga?

Ab Lexi pens ko hi dekh lo.The TV commercial is the 'wholesome' type. Mummy in a sari, cute kid, chacha. The radio ad on the other hand is about swapna sundari and not so subtle double entendre. It's all about tailoring the message for the audience.

The parallel with real life couldn't be more apt. All that parents and principals can demand is 'appear wholesome' in front of us. Peeth peechey kya ho raha hai.. woh to khuda hi jaane. Which seedha saada kid metamorphoses into 'studboy18' or 'ilikeithot21' while chatting late into the night - kya pataa?

The age of 'multiple personality on order' is upon us. As the Fastrack guys put it: 'How many you have?'

Omigod that was one of those ads... wonder if colleges would like to consider banning watches on campus as well?

Friday, September 08, 2006

The perils of user-generated content

'Keep an eye out for fashion and capture it on your Nokia camera phone. From clothes to accessories and personal style statements. Click anything you think is in vogue.'

That's an invitation from Nokia 'Eye on Fashion', which was one of the official sponsors of the Wills India Fashion Week. As brand-linked consumer promotions go, it's a good idea. But here's the problem:

1) Are the people getting clicked giving their consent?

I would think the answer is no, in many cases. And this applies especially to girls - like this one featured on page 1 of She appears to be simply walking down the road when one Gopal Raghuwansi clicked her on his camera phone and susequently uploaded her pic on the site.

I know this is very common. Ask any young and decent looking woman and she will tell you there are innumerable occassions when she wonders :"Is he sending a message or trying to take my picture?"

Believe me, it can creep you out, especially when the person taking the picture has *that* kind of studied casual look. The same which guys who brush past you in the bus usually have.

Of course the guy taking the pic may not have evil intentions. One young man once showed me a bunch of pics he had clicked of women, sitting in coffee shops. It was just a kind of 'timepass' - a thumb sport of sorts.

On the other hand, he could have been telling his friends 'this is my latest girlfriend' but one loser can usually smell another. I'm sure they'd know.

I don't know what the law says about this kind of photography in India, but as a company Nokia should not be encouraging it. At the very least, they should advise people who will participate in the promo on the need to get permission from the subject being clicked. It might be hidden away somewhere in the 'terms and conditions' but I could not see it.

In any case, something so important should not be hidden away in the fine print.

Also, I wonder whether the same rules apply to the 'citizen journalism' variety of photography and this kind of promo linked photography.

Today, when any kind of major news event such as the London bombings or the Mumbai train blasts occurs, some of the best pictures and videos are taken by ordinary people who happen to be there and possess camera phones. These images are often widely distributed - I'm not sure how many individuals get paid for rights. But you could argue - even if they get paid - it's a visual slice of history.

In case of a promo like 'Eye on Fashion' - that's not the case. The guy clicking the pic hopes to gain commercially - there are prizes to be won including designer clothing, Nokia 7360 or 7370 fashion phones. One lucky bum will even get a luxury handset - the 'Sirocco'.

2) The second worry is the Quality of the photos featured.

They are absolutely pathetic! Flip through the 11 pages online currently and at least 33% of the pics are self-portraits of guys wearing sunglasses. One even described himself as 'Googgles clothing'.

Other 'style statements' include a little girl in a shiny 'I want to be on Boogie Woogie' dress and a lady working in a tea garden. Frankly, the tea picker has more attitude than most of the jignes and bhaves types on the same page... All in all, not what Nokia probably had in mind when it conceived of this contest!

The other not-so-surprising fact is that the pic of the girl in pink has received 5263 views and 4946 votes. Whereas the boys on the same page mostly have votes and views in double digits. This says something about the profile of :
a) netsurfers
b) people who click camera phone pics and submit the same

Both are still predominantly male... and so lacking in style they wouldn't recognise a 'style statement' if it planted a slobbery wet kiss on their forehead!

Wheat vs chaff
The idea of 'user generated' content is a great one. And it works when you have millions and millions of people contributing such content - like at From a mountain of boring / mediocre trash you find a few gems and the system is designed such that users push these gems up to the top of the pile.

But when the number of users you attract is fairly low... you don't have enough gems. And the trash attracts more trash and repels people who actually have quality content. Because you haven't created an environment where the ego-driven creative types would like to showcase their work.

The problem is compounded when the site has a commercial angle. Take Sunsilk Gang of Girls. Extensively advertised, beautifully designed. But the blogs on the site? A couple are barely okay, the rest are simply not happening!

I say this not out of the haughty attitude that all blogs must be deep and meaningful. Teenage girls will write about crushes, cruel parents and pimples. But there are trendsetters and influencers who can write and express themselves well - and hook readers. Those girls are not patronising the site. And that cannot be a good thing for the brand!

So what does one do? I think you cheat a bit. Employ a few good writers to set the right tone for 'user generated' sites. Of course, what they write should not be all stiff but if you can get that 'amateurly professional' vibe you will attract more content along the same lines.

In fact I am even more convinced of the need for such a strategy, after recently covering a bunch of entrepreneurs setting up 'Web 2.0' companies in India for Businessworld magazine . These include soon to be launched social networking site, consumer search engine and review site

The Mumbai edition of Burrp has been up and running for 3 weeks now but generating those user generated reviews and reccos appears to be a very slow process! At the very least, if I were running Burrp I would hire a trainee, give him/ her a digital camera and go shoot all the restaurants being written about!

Not to undermine the importance of user participation and contribution... but from long experience with JAM I've learnt you have to tweak it and channel this raw energy to get the best possible results. In short, even user-generated sites need great editors...

I could write a lot more on this subject, and I will one day. But right now, it's time for some lunch!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Singled out

DNA reports:

The new face of Mumbai — young, single, and independent — wants to make it big. But it is a tough task in a city that seems to have no room for them.

In a market where demand exceeds supply, singletons have the toughest deal. They are at the bottom of the list of desirable tenants for housing societies that govern the affairs of buildings in the city.

Hmm. The more things appear to change, the more they don't - at some level. What do housing societies fear? That singles will spoil the 'peace'. Play loud music, bring home boyfriends and girlfriends, host late night parties. Basically, do a whole bunch of things that Mr & Mrs Solanki in apt 2b never had a chance to do in their youth. Or perhaps did, but gave up after they 'settled down'.

Of course many Indian singletons simply go to work, come back, eat a tiffin and crash out in front of the television. Just like boring old people. But society waale sochte hain, why take a chance ?

Sameera Khan, a researcher with the Gender and Space Project at Pukar, said, “The city is becoming exclusionist. Anyone who does not conform to people’s social standards is not accepted.”

I think the problem is now magnified - because of the sheer numbers and a shift in attitude. Ten years ago if you were young and single, you lived in a hostel or as a PG. If you were really lucky your company provided a shared accomodation ('chummery').

Now I notice a lot of young people prefer to share a flat with a few friends, rather than suffer odd rules and curfews at a hostel. Or the cramped lifestyle and general lack of privacy in a paying guest arrangement. Sharing a flat is sometimes cheaper, sometimes more expensive than other options.The more important thing is the freedom it accords you - and the fact that it feels like a 'home'.

The home bit is crucial because the average working professional may be single for a while. I remember most of the girls who completed their MBA with me got hitched by the time they were 25. So their single-and-alone-in-Bombay stint lasted just about 2-3 years. And the guys within 5 years of graduating.

That would still hold true for many today. But a larger prportion of the young, working population is waiting longer. For this bunch, 30 is the new 25. Hence the rising demand for single accomodation.

The answer, perhaps, is to have separate housing societies only for young and single people. "No kids allowed. No married couples allowed. No aunties in polyester salwar kameez allowed." Only dogs, dudes and live ins!

But seriously, we need to become more tolerant of people with different attitudes and lifestyles. Shaadi must not be a be-all and end-all. Actually, it isn't. Once married, the next worry everyone around you has is: "bacche". And once you have that there are not so subtle hints that the child needs a sibling. And so it goes until these kids are married and reproducing...

On a related note, I must bring up this peculiar tendency people have to bring up one's marital status. In a context where it is utterly irrelevant. Two b schools I was invited to speak at recently introduced me as 'Mrs Rashmi Bansal' and it bugged me slightly. Not enough to take it up with the organisers, but enough to write about here.

So marry - or don't marry. Either way that should not be of concern to your landlord. As long as you pay the rent and don't store RDX in his house. But, that kind of 'live and let live' spirit is still rare.

The question is: twenty years from now when you are Mr & Mrs Solanki in apt 2b - will you have it?

Friday, September 01, 2006

'Student' politics

'Age no bar for DUSU Polls' reports the Hindustan Times

The presidential candidates of ABVP and NSUI for Delhi University Students Union - Gargi Lakhanpal and Amrita Dhawan - are doing their graduation for the second time. Amrita, who is a commerce graduate from Bharti college, is pursuing an undergraduate course in History from the same college...

Gargi, on the other hand, first completed her Bachelor's degree in History from Lakshmi Bai college and then went on to join Aurobindo College last year for contesting the DUSU joint secretary's post, but did not appear for her exams. This year she has enrolled for BA with Aditi college saying it is more 'professionally oriented'.

Yeah, especially when the 'profession' she has in mind is a career in politics. Apaprently she tried to join a post-graduate course, but failed and hence settled for undergrad.

Two questions come to mind:
a) Why are such applicants admitted? Obviously under union pressure
b) Can we call such people 'students' at all?

I mean the primary goal of ordinary students is to study. Which is obviously the last thing on the minds of these people. Naturally they are disconnected from the real concerns and issues important to genuine students.

It's a vicious cycle. Genuine students keep away from politics. So these fake students step in to fill the vaccum. Seeing the kind of 'leadership' which exists, even the few genuine students who may contemplate standing for elections are scared away. And the rot continues.

As the HT article notes, most 'student leaders' are in their early 30s! NSUI, has therefore set an 'upper age limit of 27. But NSUI office bearers are all over 30 or nearing it. ABVP doesn't even pretend to have an age limit. The state gen. secy Nakul Bhardwaj told HT: "You can be a student at 40 too."

This ridiculous annual exercise - as well as the tragic muder of a professor n Ujjain by 'student' leaders - prompted me to write this column for

It's called 'Students, politics and career paths'.

On an unrelated note: The HT website is not very helpful. I can't provide a link to the article quoted above because I can't find it - either on google or HT online. I trawled through their epaper archive but while I could view the article there I could not copy-paste it (that 'function is disabled') or link to it.

It would have been faster to type in the relevant paras - which is what I finally did. Web edition ka kya fayda?

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