Thursday, February 28, 2008

Inside the Topper factory: Bansal classes in Kota

Comments to my last blog on Topper TV have been a bit emotional. On the one hand there is SR who feels "the idea shouldn't be to coach them for exams but rather to teach them something". However he goes on to add that Topper TV is obviously catering to the prevailing system and that is topper oriented.

Yeah, otherwise it would have been called Knowledge TV, right?

Ram (who is perhaps associated with the venture?) wants to know why I could not make a comment on the content of the show, instead of the presentation.

The show is about learning science, and not acting. The IIT Professor she picks on is an expert in his field, and not in acting. The anchors tried to teach for the first time at a very lower level and under 1000 and one odd restrictions imposed by the TV channel (e.g the “red shirt”).

The impression I got on the content was a televised version of what's in the textbook. No great innovation in making it easier to understand or remember. But hey, those of you who've actually attended such classes (in school and in coaching) are welcome to add your more informed opinions to the debate.

I just felt a lack of passion, and connection with the student. Maybe it's just the initial stage fright of being on national television?

I would only like to add that teaching is an art. The best teachers need not be highly regarded academics, or from IITs. The best teachers are those who know
their subject AND communicate it interestingly and effectively. And a teacher who changes lives is one who exudes passion, and a sense of empathy.

Anyhow, inspired by this whole topper business I am putting up a piece which looks at life @ India's most successful topper factory - Bansal Classes in Kota. It's based on a long chat with my cousin who spent 3 years at Bansal's (2004-7) but did not make it to IITs (well, technically he did on second attempt but with a rank of 4000 plus he could not get an IIT seat). He is now in BITS Goa and has no regrets.

Thought this just might help some of you considering studying @ Kota or curious to know wahan aisa kya khilate hain :) I for one found what it all quite fascinating!

Lastly, I have not made any value judgements - about whether coaching classes are a good thing, bad thing etc etc. It's all from the horse's mouth, relayed to you 'as is'.

What they really teach you at Bansal classes
- Rashmi Bansal

As such no school syllabus teaches you to think along lines of competitive exams. For that you have to join a coaching class and today, Bansal's is the most preferred.

Why? Because in all 1538 Bansal students got selected in IITs in the year 2007. The secret of their success is 'pre selection'. Admission to Bansal classes is based on an entrance exam after class 10. There are 2 exams - the first is around April 15th, just after the 10th Boards. This exam is called 'Bullseye'.

The second entrance is in the first week of June. This exam is called 'Acme'. It is better to give the first exam, as you will have a 2 month advantage and also, first batch students get the better teachers. Second exam is of course an option for people who have missed the first one.

Majority of students who make it to Bansal's are from CBSE or ICSE board. In my time barely 2 students from state board made it! But even for CBSE students the Chemistry portion is tough as what we are taught in school is not enough.

Yes, there are 15 day crash courses to help you get into Bansal classes such as 'Garg classes'. Not only do they coach you for the Bansal test, they teach you 2-3chapters of their study material so you can score better in the first few weekly tests. Yup, it's one hell of a competitive environment.

You see the 'merit rank' that you get in Bansal entrance determines which batch you get. The top rankers are part of the 'elite' batches which get the best teachers. Of course the ranking has to be maintained by your performance in weekly tests. You get a cumulative ranking based on scores of past and present tests. Those who scored less in the entrance and therefore got a lower batch do have a chance to move up.

But in general, the elite batches have an edge. The catch is you don't know what rank you've got until you've paid your fees in full. By which time it's a fait accompli.

Aspirants can take heart from the 2007 topper Achin Bansal. He is a fresher who joined in S4 batch, which is one of the lowest. But he had worked his way up to A1 batch by class 12. It's rare, but it can happen!

The Grind
There are two kinds of students - freshers and 'droppers'. Freshers are those attempting JEE for the first time, droppers are those who are repeating a year to give it again. Some join Bansal's dropper batch directly and for them there is an entrance test called 'Sterling'.

In the past people would drop upto 3-4 years and keep trying for JEE. Often they repeated to get a better rank. But with the new rules you can only give JEE twice.

In class 11 - which consists of 'freshers' , the topper batch is P1, followed by P2 and so on upto P6. At the next rung are batches Q1 to Q6, similarly R and then S (upto S6). That is 24 batches of freshers in all. Then you have an additional 9 batches who join through the 2nd test are numbered from J1 to J9. In 12th standard the batches are numbered A1, A2 and so on with A 1 being the cream of the class.

Before 2007, more droppers used to get selected than freshers. Now that you can't keep giving JEE, the ratio has improved.47% of selections were freshers and 53% were droppers. Among freshers, most of those selected were from the top 6 batches ie A1 to A7. In batches after that only 2-3 students got selected. There are 75 students in every batch.

Fresher classes start at 2-2.30 pm because officially morning is 'school timing'. Of course no one attends school, we use that time to do homework of 'DPPs' (Daily Practice Problems). The toughness of these problems rises to maddening heights. Of course now that JEE pattern has changed solving these problems is not so important, now many students don't take them as seriously.

Droppers have no school issue - they study all day. Classes start at 8 am, batches are named X, Y and Z (there were 8 batches per series in my time!)

The Teaching
The main thing is mental toughness and keeping yourself motivated. If you fall behind, you fall behind. You may be lucky and find a sympathetic teacher but mostly you're on your own.

There are all kinds of teachers.

For example there was a Physical Chemistry teacher who was a 25 yr old Chem Engineer from IIT Bombay. He was rumoured to earn Rs 1 lakh a month and they'd also given him a Tata Scorpio. Last heard he had left Bansals to pursue a course in fashion design having obtained an AIR 2 in a national level entrance exam. (yeah, ironic isn't it!)

Also one of the 'maverick' but good teachers, like Mr.Narendra Awasthi aka "Sodium" who taught Physical Chem has left (current whereabouts not known). Mr Jeevan Jyothi Agrawal aka "JJ Sir",an excellent and extremely committed Maths teacher as well as a good human being, has left to teach at "Allen's", a very famous medical coaching institute at Kota. He was the one from whom I received max guidance during my 3 yr stint.

So quality of teachers and teaching keeps changing.

Teaching method is quite informal. There is an a/c in the class but it's never switched on. It's only a showpiece. Also, the original Mr Bansal only teaches Maths. His brother manages the admin.

A roaring business
When I gave the Bansal exam in 2004, 5000 students took the test. Of which 2000 got in. Now they are taking in more students. Currently there would be around 10,000 students in Bansal classes. Of which 2800 would be 'droppers', 3000 would be the class 12 fresher batch and rest would be class 11 freshers (3800 or so in number).

Earlier there were 75 students in a batch.Now we have 85 to 90 in the topper batches and 120 to 150 in lower batches. They have 2 buildings in which classes are held. The new one has classrooms where 150 students can be seated.

When I joined 2 years back the fees per year were Rs 35,000 p.a.. Then it became Rs 50,000. Now it is Rs 60,000. Which means an estimated turnover of Rs 60 crores. Two years ago their official turnover was Rs 18 crores. And I forgot, they have a correspondence course called 'Locus' as well.

Bansal's main centre is Kota - that's where close to 1400 of the 1538 selections are from. There are only two 'branches' - Jaipur and Ajmer. Of these Jaipur is bigger and more preferred (had 154 selections vs 8 in Ajmer). Jaipur and Ajmer branches are generally offered to those who don't make it to Kota.

Incidentally, the 1538 selections includes 60 SC/ ST students as well.

Bansal selection break up:
top 100 JEE ranks: 32 students
top 1000 JEE ranks: 250 students rest rank far lower.

My rank was 4800, there were 860 Bansal students above me, Of course at 4800 I had no chance of admission to an IIT. I eventually joined BITS Goa.

The only other JEE coaching class of any repute in Kota is Resonance. They take in 10,000 students and boast of 800 selections but there are hardly any in the top JEE ranks. Also only about 450 of the selections would be through classroom coaching, rest are people who are in Bansal or other classes but took up one test series from Resonance.

Most students give both Bansal and Resonance entrance tests and prefer Bansal if they get both. Resonance tries to lure you by offering scholarships. They have a hostel called 'Lakshya' where they offer some of the toppers a free stay, provided they keep up their performance . Resonance has hardly any selections in the top 100 but many in the top 1000 (includes both classroom and test series). There are also institutes like Career Point and Insight.

There are barely 300 girls at Bansal classes. ie around 8-9 per batch. The front row is reserved for them.

There are a lot of students in Kota from UP and Bihar. Mr V K Bansal is not very pleased with the Bihar students. A couple of years ago they burst a rassi bomb in one of the toilets, But it must be said Biharis are generally intelligent, good in Maths.

Life in Kota
Bansal does not have any hostel facility. This means booming business for private hostels and PGs. A room close to Bansal can cost Rs 4000 p.m. And this is a tiny room converted from a kitchen. You can get a better room in Vigyan nagar for Rs 2000-2500 p.m. and Talwandi for Rs 1500 p.m. But living in Talwandi wastes time as you have to cross a highway and the signal does not work there.

Yeah, every minute counts!

Hostels are more or less the same. They charge Rs 6000 p.m. for lodging, food, washing clothes. Food starts out ok then deteriorates.Many survive on Maggi - they keep a gas in the room. There is a hot water problem in winter. Often the solar panels don't work. Then people skip baths or heat water with a rod.

On Sundays the mess has a holiday. The only decent restaurant close by is Eatos. Many prefer to eat at thelawalas or then at places like Saat Handi, Maheshwari etc further away. There is a new trend where sometimes mothers come and stay with the kids to ensure they have no 'food problems' and can concentrate on studies!.

Bicycle theft( from landlord's homes, hostels and even parking lots of coaching institutes with security guards is a very common phenomenon). Students are therefore advised to buy second hand bicycles only which are readily available everywhere.

Then there is the issue of attending 'school' . Most people join DAV public school - they actually ask for your Bansal admit card at the time of admission. Of their 400 class 12 students, 350 are from Bansal. Of course they are phantom students and they populate imaginary divisions. We only go for practicals once in a while. You wake up in 12th class around Jan-Feb and cram for exams.

Occassionally there are CBSE 'raids'. But you generally come to know in advance and rush to school, complete the books etc. Another school called 'IL' was raided and shut down Now the school is derecognised but Bansal has taken over the building and holds classes there!

Due to these raids no CBSE school is ready to give fraudulent admissions so people are increasingly opting for Rajasthan Board or National Open School.

Perseverance is most important. Living in Kota on your own, many deviate from studies also. There are lots of net cafes, pool and gaming parlours. The non serious types spend 2 years doing masti, roaming on their bikes and bunking classes.

Other Coaching Classes
In Hyderabad Ramaiah is the most sought after class. They take 150 students, of which 130 students clear JEE. They have stringent rules, including studies from 4 am! Classes like FIIT JEE are known more for correspondence material than classroom now. Even Bansal students join for correspondence and then the names overlap in the list published by different classes, Brilliants is a similar story,

Mention must also be made of Vidyamandir Classes based in Delhi. It is run by three brothers and takes in the creme-la-creme of students in Delhi and adjoining areas like Faridabad and Gurgaon.The focus is mostly on self study and classes are held only twice a week for which students come from as far as Faridabad.

The entrance test is the toughest of any JEE coaching institute in India as they want students who can do everything on their own. 140 out of 160 VMC students clear JEE every year. For those who don't make it, their study material is freely available in the market for couple of 1000 bucks.

But obviously with all these classes it's more about PRE selecting students who are likely to succeed.

And here's a newsflash: At the end of the day IITs call upto JEE rank 7200 for counselling and classes can claim all of these as 'selected' candidates. The last decent course ends around rank 3500.

Therefore the numbers claimed as 'successful candidates' by coaching classes is far higher than those who actually get an IIT seat.

Another point to note:
One disadvantage of studying at Bansal is you can't compete for your home state colleges. Your 'home state' becomes Rajasthan as that is where you gave your board exam. So getting into a good college through AIEEE score (where state rank is considered) is next to impossible.

Lastly, in the last one year Bansal's has increased the intake substantially. The toppers come there anyways, there's no harm in admitting more and letting them live the dream. Why give other coaching classes any business?

Disclaimer: Although we share the same last name I am in no way related to Bansal classes!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

And now, 'Topper TV'

Just noticed the test signal of 'Topper TV' (Tata Sky channel # 570). This is a whole new channel dedicated to tutoring science students of CBSE class 10 & 12.

It is decades since I myself gave a Board exam but here's what I felt after watching it over an hour or so.

The chemistry class 12 episode featured covalent bonds, amorphous and metallic crystals and so on. Most of the lesson consisted of the teacher reading out the TV version of a powerpoint slide. To prevent students from falling asleep he had worn a
bright red shirt and some fancy graphics jump across the screen from time to time.

The 'Exam Special' on polynomials and quadratic equations was a little better. A lady in pink salwar kameez (Priya Venkatraman) was the presenter. The speed at which sums were being solved was a little fast (those in the thick of it may feel differently!).

The helpful part was the constant references to what Qs were likely to appear and tips on how to write your answers (eg include steps as there are marks for steps).

However it all seemed quite far removed from Greycells18 co-founder Sricharan Iyengar's assertion that 'Topper' would feature a group of 'star teachers' who have been carefully identified.

With exceptional track records - iconic and inspirational – these individuals come armed with experience gathered from teaching in the best institutes of the world, coupled with a passion for their subject. This team will present modules to students in the simplest manner.

Yes, the "educators" of the channel include Chandralekha Singh, PhD from University of California, currently teaching at Pittsburg University; Shankar Venkatagiri, Phd from Georgia Tech, currently teaching at IIM Bangalore; and so on. But I can't help think that it might be better to get famous coaching class teachers instead. Because they have far more passion, enthusiasm and a more individual style.

Topper TV is free to air till April 15. There is also a website with online tests and an 'ask the expert' feature. The TV + website package is being called an "Integrated Learning System". I guess students would be asked to pay in various ways, in due time.

Topper TV can't replace the traditional coaching class model and for that reason I see the website being more useful than the TV version. The average student would attend school, then go for classes, come home, eat, and put on the TV to relax a bit. Not watch sums being solved...

But who knows. Maybe the point is like joining a gym. You do it but don't necessarily work out everyday. Parents will make all kinds of investments in the interest of educating their kids.If all the neighbours have a subscription, dijiye humein bhi!

And TV has such huge reach - so it makes sense vs an only-internet offering. Can't recall the name of the company but there was precisely such a dotcom in 1999-2000. Now defunct, of course!

As for me, I will switch to Topper TV anytime I have difficulty falling asleep :)

Friday, February 22, 2008

Oops he did it again!

I first saw this video on the TV unit of the treadmill in my gym. There was no sound, only visuals and this is what it looked like:

A man in a Greek lungi and Jesus-like hair, complete with crown of thorns, showing off a scrawny, Wipro babysoft chest. ("I know Mummy, I really should have had my Horlicks!")

So I came home and searched for it on Youtube. The song is called 'Soona Soona' and it's from his new semi-classical album. The video is described as 'Krishna meets Christ meets Eros' (which explains the peacock feather on his back I guess!).

I just don't see this taking off... Once again, the guy who is so good at Bollywood side of his career is making a hash of it by trying too hard. Semi classical + Soft romance + Corny costumes is like Paratha eaten with Strawberry and Vinegar.

In effect it's one of those vanity albums which won't sell but will have people nodding, arre yeh to classical bhi accha gaata hai. Is liye kapde pehen kar bhi gaya ja sakta tha!

Then there's Amit Sana (the guy who lost to Abhijit Sawant in the Indian Idol finals some years ago). He's out with a new song, imaginatively titled Yaadein, and a new image to go with it. The nerd look is replaced with contact lenses and shoulder length locks. Yep, long hair is the killer makeover option for any and all young Indian men these days.

Anyhow, on a first listen the song was okay - not too memorable but he sings well. Trouble is it's all too dark. See the girl hasn't just left the guy - she's left this world. And they tell us how, in the video.

They're in this under-construction building. He puts a blindfold for her (how smart is that!). She is laughing one moment and the next oops! The babe has fallen right off...

Actually, it's like one of my worst nightmares come true. So many times I shuddered at the thought of walking out of the human-size slit in the wall right next to my room in dorm 11 @ IIMA.

Getting back to the song, it's neither a feel-good love song or a 'Woh Lamhe' which is essentially a dance number with lovey dovey lyrics. This is aaaaargh main lut gaya...

Enough said. Back to the treadmill for now!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Indian Premier League: Money Talks

The bidding for players at the Indian Premier League yesterday, along the lines of European football, has every newspaper this morning in a tizzy.

And of course, MS Dhoni being 'bought' for Rs 6 crores by the Chennai franchise is something to marvel at. But the Economic Times takes it over the top with this page 5 headline: 'Mahi stumps Mukesh at Cheque point'.

The chief executive officer of the Men-in-Blue Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who has been bagged for Rs 6 crores for the cricket league, has overtaken Mukesh Ambani, chief of India's largest private sector company in terms of compensation.

The next para goes on to say "The comparison is not apt but on a per hour basis Dhoni will be paid more than Mr Ambani.." Blah blah blah. If the comparison is not apt, why make it? Just because you have a calculator?

And by this calculation over the 44 days of the tourament in 20:20 format Dhoni will make Rs 56, 818 per hour while Mukeshji, who drew Rs 30.46 crores through salary, perks and commissions last year would have earned Rs 34, 771 per hour.

In case of Dhoni, by the way, the calculation 'discounts the actual time that Dhoni spends on the field for Chennai...". And of course the time he spends in training, sleeping, eating and merely being alive so he can play.

Not sure how Mukeshji's time has been accounted for. What part of his life is treated as being 'on the field'?

The point being that a person is the sum of his or her parts. The one hour that a cricketer or a consultant can charge is a reflection of who he is and what he can do. And that is a result of so many things... including how many hours of sleep he can get in a night!

And three paras into this oh-so-breathless story the writer drops a googly: We are, of course, not accounting for the dividend payout to Mr Ambani as the promoter of Reliance Industries... or the fact that he regularly features in standard lists of world's wealthiest tycoons.

And so it goes. There is no reason a story so bereft of purpose deserves half a page in the country's largest pink paper. At best, it could have been a small box item, a tongue in cheek kind of observation made as an aside.

The Salary Circus
Actually, the media is currently completely obsessed with salaries. The result is every employee is convinced the guy in the next cubicle or the neighouring industrial estate is earning twice as much as me.

Yes, salaries are rising and there are some folks getting paid what seem like princely amounts. And I say seem because hello, one crore buys you a flat in Ghatkopar these days.

A couple of months ago Business Standard released its anual 'Richest Indians' listing based on data from publicly listed companies. The survey noted that the number of senior executives earning more than Rs 1 crore annually increased to 576 from 442 in 2005-6.

HR consultants quoted by the paper admit this number would be twice as much if you include senior execs from unlisted companies, consultancies, foreign banks and such like. They estimate that the top salary in sectors like retail and management consulting could be anywhere between Rs 5 to Rs 7 crores.

But as R Suresh, MD of executive search firm Stanton Chase observed in BS: "The share of 'salary' as an element of the overall compensation plan is dwindling". Read the fine print. It's all about perquisites, stock options, share of profits, deferred payments and of course perfomance bonuses (esp. relevant in investment banking).

Compensation is stuctured in complex ways to beat the taxman. At the end
of the day it's the lifestyle enjoyed by the individual which matters.

To that extent there are thousansds of crorepatis who just do not get reflected in official salary statistics. From our grubby politicians and public servants with mountains of cash to the exporter in Ludhiana whose firm earned an 8 crore profit last year but whose 'salary' is something like 3 lakhs p.a.

Even the smallest businessman debits almost all his living expenses to the company and draws a relatively modest salary. And remember dividend which is non-taxableand taken full advantage of!

The other asset a smart businessman builds is valuation for the company as a whole. If you really want to be 'rich' the only way is to take the risk of building a successful, publicly listed or privately tradable company.

Coming back to IPL, sports is big business and sportsmen draw high compensations because they have a limited period of peak performance. Some may go on to become actors or commentators but most will build a nest egg which they can live off post 40.

Let's hope once IPL actually kicks off we see great cricket. Instead of calculations of how many rupees each ball bowled by Bhajji costs!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Jodhaa Akbar humour

Jai Arjun Singh has a hilarious review of Jodhaa Akbar. He admits - tongue firmly in cheek - that parts of the review are 'as authentic a representation of the film as the film itself is of the Mughal era'. In his own words..

To prove that he is worthy of ruling the country, Akbar then takes on a wild elephant in a scene that is reminiscent of Hrithik’s superhero-racing-the-horse in Krrish. But what really puts his courage to the test is when he agrees to wed the Hindu princess Jodha to complete a political alliance: her long list of demands includes the right to sing bhajans loudly in the next room while he is discussing matters of state with his viziers.

Sadly the marriage remains unconsummated because by the time J and A have finished removing all those layers of jewellery they are no longer horny and only wish to sleep...

That last bit struck me as I was watching the film too. Many comforts of life were missing in the 16th century - flush toilets, electricity, Kellogg's cornflakes. But surely they had the concept of 'night clothes'? On some three different occasions Jodhaa falls asleep in full bridal armour.

The other amusing thing in the film was how the rajas and ranis would suddenly call out for all hangers-on to recede into the background when they wanted a moment of privacy. And the phrases they used included: 'Takliya', 'Hadde faasal' (in the Mughal court) and 'Ekaant' in Rajputana.

And celebs of today claim they have no privacy!

Anyhow, the JAM team has put together a 'Mind It' version of Jodha Akbar - a series of spoof wallpapers (we call them 'eyestoppers'). Check them out here.

What's more you can also buy this 'Yoda Akbar' T shirt designed by JAM.

Just thought I'd let you know!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

IIM -----> Ganjundwara

Books by IIT and IIM grads about their work-in-progress lives are now an established genre of writing. So I won't refer to the new effort by Rohithari Rajan as 'another one of those'.

I think each of us has an interesting story to tell and so is this one. The trouble lies in the way it's told. First of all the title: IIM ----> Ganjundwara (yes, that's the way it appears in print!). Reminds me of a flowchart - dry and logic driven. And that's how most of the book comes across: no heart, all head.

IIM ---> Ganjundwara is the story of two young IIM A grads who are sent to live in a village as part of the famed HLL sales training program. The 'training' is more about just dealing with the culture shock, experiencing what it's like to live in rural India. Of course, a couple of projects do need to be completed and here the idealistic Shyam decides they will take up something which will actually 'make a difference'.

The main problem is most of the book is written in third person, instead of flowing along easily and conversationally. To give you an example.

Dacoity is unheard of nowadays, we are told. All the big bandits and their gangs surrendered to the government and became politicians. Safer, more glamorous, and the money is better.

"Understanding the role of caste politics is very important to understand the region," continues the BDO."Each village is dominated by some particular caste." There are Jat villages, Mohammedan villages, Brahmin villages, and village dominated by one or the other of the innumerable castes and sub-castes that make up the complex rural Indian social structure.

And that's the second problem: the language. The BDO speaks in pure English, like Nandini Sardesai lecturing at St Xavier's college. And so it is with Martand Tiwari, the sarpanch of village Ranpurgaon, who is their host. And his brother Anuj who becomes their friend. The use of a few Hindi or Bhojpuri words and phrases would have made it so much more genuine!

Lastly the character of Shyam - the trainee who suffers the rural stint with our protagonist (don't know his name, not sure if it was mentioned anywhere even!) He is this idealist and was a little too cardboard. It's like he was being set up to meet a certain fate (will not say more, read the book if you wish to know!).

And no, there's no Brokeback Mountain happening here, in case you were wondering. That would have been too too much for fair and lobhely loving Ranpurgaon.

This could have been a great book with better writing and tighter editing. As it is, worth a read if you are curious to know what rural marketing and Project Shakti is really about.

However IMHO the definitive 'what it's like to work at HLL' book remains 'Earning the Laundry Stripes' by Manreet Someshwar. That also has a couple of chapters on the rural stint at Etah. Sadly this delightful book is not available at most bookshops - at least I have never seen it.

Speaking of IIT-IIM type books there is also 'Joker in the Pack', sent to me by Ritesh
Sharma and Neeraj Pahlajani a couple of months ago. Guys, I'm sorry I did not review it although I did read it. Again, I can see a lot of effort went into it but the final result kind of left me cold. I did not care about Shekhar Verma and what he went through.

And I felt you basically 'educated' the reader about what life in IIM Bangalore was all about Instead of - for those couple of hours - immersing me in that world. But again, if I were a wannabe MBA or a nostalgic alum, I may want to read it. Especially for an insight into the current placement circus!

I think it's simply project report and PPT hangover. Maybe they should start a new variation of the classic WAC course @ IIM: "Wannabe Authors & Communication".

Saturday, February 16, 2008

MTV Roadies vs [V] India's Hottest

It's 8 pm on Saturday. On the two big music channels of India, there's anything 'but' music.

On [V] India's Hottest 3 guys and 3 girls are on display. In the 'packaging' byte the guy is only shirtless. The girl, in a red bikini and a lot of suntan oil looks like she is auditioning for a low budget porn film. She has extra red lipstick, and she's making those kind of faces while some liquid rolls off her mouth.

You get the picture.

Okay, that's only a 1 minute segment, now the judges are asking her a few questions. She is asked to dance. The dress is shiny and poured on but hey, it's only 6 inches above her knees...

On the neighbouring channel, MTV, a bunch of boys have stripped down to their underwear. One of them is rather paunchy and is trying to cover up by folding his arms around his stomach.

And in this 'undress' mode, they are answering G K questions. Like which real life hockey player was the role of Shah rukh Khan modelled on, in Chak de India. Blank faces, mostly. Are they clueless or just concentrating on keeping their stomachs sucked in?

The show, incidentally is MTV Roadies 5.0. And I see very little 'road' on the show. It's a reality show, Survivor style.

Anyhow, the point is India seems to have moved into another zone. A few years ago, when MTV Grind was telecast late in the night I wondered, when will people in India ever agree to wear short, tight clothes and get themselves filmed for national TV?

I think that day is not too far off now...

And no, I am not making any kind of value judgement here. It's more about changing values.

So far, doing something to 'get ahead' has been acceptable. Girls will wear bikinis for a 'Get Gorgeous' kind of contest because they want to become models and that's part of the deal. India's Hottest promises Rs 5 lakhs to the winner and possibly a career in glamour.

Roadies is kind of pointless in that sense. The winner is doing it mainly for the experience, and the possibility of winning money. Only Rannvijay from Roadies 1 went on to become an MTV VJ. Winners in the last 3 years had their 15 minutes of fame and faded into obscurity.

And for those 15 minutes they are willing to shed their inhibitions and their underwear. The irony is that if you ask a junior to do this kind of thing in college, it's called 'ragging' and you could go to jail.

But all's fair in historical love stories, and reality television!

Jodhaa Akbar - 4.5 stars

Who knows if there was ever a 'Malika-e-Hindustan' called Jodha. Whether she was Akbar's wife or Jehangir's.

All we know is Akbar was a relatively benevolent Mughal emperor who married a few Rajput princesses. And picking up that thread Ashutosh Gowariker and scriptwriter Haidar Ali have spun a eyeball-popping epic love story.

Sure, it's long. It's melodramatic. It's totally filmi. But unlike Asoka, where I wanted to walk out of the theatre in the interval, Jodha Akbar holds your interest. And that is chiefly because of two reasons:

a) Hrithik Roshan: No idea what Akbar looked like but Hrithik carries the role on his sinewy shoulders with amazing strength and style. He is regal and yet human. No other actor could have done justice!

b) Aishwarya Rai: Extremely beautiful, graceful and also convincing (in her last few films it's evident - acting karni aa gayee hai). The role she plays is a little 'too good to be true'. I mean a princess who is an expert in sword fighting, who places two conditions before the Emperor of India prior to marrying him, and cooks better than the palace bawarchis.

Guess they had superwomen in the medeival ages as well...

And ultimately this is one of the underlying themes of the film: the Empowered Woman.(Do not read on, as there are some spoilers. However it's hardly a 'suspense' film so what does it matter :)

Starting from the name of the film where 'Jodhaa' precedes Akbar, the Rajput princess is shown to be a lady with a mind of her own. Of course, Akbar is depicted as far more noble than he must have been in reality. Would the 'Emperor of India' really say ok, I won't consummate this marriage until I have 'won your heart'?

And there's absolutely no mention of the famed harem of wives and concubines. It's as if Akbar is a modern day lover with modern day values. Chalo chhodo, picture hai. The idea that 'shaadi karke aapne mera fateh kiya hai, magar dil nahin jeeta' is interesting.

Then there is a scene where Jodhaa is standing at the window and a bare chested Akbar is doing sword practice. His body is absolutely magnificent and Jodhaa is obviously feeling the heat. The idea that a woman also needs to be 'turned on' is kind of radical. Not only for those times but even today, for many in our country!

The other recurring theme is Hindus and Muslims co-existing in peace. And especially in the context of the Muslim being 'ruler'. The reason Akbar agrees to marry Jodhaa is political - he thinks it will make him more accepted as 'Indian'. He also agrees to two conditions put by her prior to the marriage:

a) 'I will remain a Hindu and retain my rehan, sehan and other cultural traditions. I will not be forcibly converted.'

b) 'I will be allowed to have a small temple in my mahal in the Mughal palace'.

Again yeh real life mein nahin hua. The Rajput princess Akbar is known to have married was called Marium uz Zamani after she became his wife.

However in the context of the movie, it's all quite believable. The entire 'Akbar as tolerant emperor' is brought out through Jodhaa. There's none of the stuff we learnt in history books - Din e elahi, Tansen, Birbal etc.

The fact that Jodhaa 'feels married' only when Akbar applies sindoor to her forehead raises an important point: you can attempt to convert a person in the external sense but not from deep within. Hence you may as well let her be...

Lastly the photography, the sets, the costumes and the overall canvas painted by the creators of the film is compelling in its grandeur. You finally feel okay - Bollywood can do it all as well (or even better!) than Hollywood. The Azeem o Shaan Shehenshah song and the battle scenes have sooo many extras you wonder how hey must have managed it all!

And hence for the scale, the style and the sheer poetry of the film I give it 4.5 stars. By the way, in my book, that means the film is 90% perfect - despite the length and the Troy-inspired climax.

I can't understand the likes of Khalid Mohamed who has given it a rotten '2 star' rating in today's HT. You can almost see him smirking as he asks: "Is Jodhaa Akbar a romantic dopiaza or Mughal history biryani"?

Khalidbhai, it's just entertainment. Aap aisi picture bana ke dikhao, phir baat kariye!

The only problem is: when will Jodhaa Akbar hit multiplexes? Both Adlabs and Cinemax have boycotted it so far...

Update: Check out another interesting review of Jodhaa Akbar on Club JAM.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Finding your inner receptionist

Week after week Lucy Kellaway writes on work and life for the Financial Times and she does it with a rare insight and humour. Her latest column 'Happiness is finding your inner receptionist' is another amazing read. And it set me thinking.

Lucy writes about a friend who's held a succession of powerful jobs in the media. On the cusp of 50, she decided to become a receptionist. Yes, a receptionist. And, she is happy.

Writes Lucy: What impressed me most about her satisfaction was how it contrasted with the dissatisfaction of almost all my other contemporaries. One word describes how most of us in our late 40s are coping with far more interesting jobs: badly.

In varying measures we are susceptible to boredom, fear, exhaustion and frustration. We've all been working for an eternity as it is, but we now realise we'll have to go on working until we are 70 at least and so there is still a long way to go. In all it is not pretty. We feel we ought to leap, but don't how and don't know which way to go.

Actually, all around me there are people feeling like this. And they're not just in their late 40s. They're in their 30s, or even 20s. Show me more than 2 out of 10 folks truly happy in their current jobs!

Quoting a Harvard Business Review article, Lucy notes: The rest of us are falling for the most common misapprehension of mid-career crisis - which is to think this is the beginning of the end. Instead the magazine insists that we have more opportunities than we used to...

Hearteningly, the HBR reminds us that even though some doors may be closed at 50, in reality there weren't so many open ones at 25. This is a truth that we tend to forget: most people are in a rut from the start, blindly pursuing careers with no idea of what the other options were.

Lucy admits that when she was in her 20s she didn't feel that she was deciding rationally between hundreds of possibilities.

I was simply trying to do what I thought was expected of me, and what my friends were doing. My motivation was to do it better than a tiny handful of people I considered to be my rivals.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

I'm not saying you need to go and become a receptionist asap. The point to note is that with time priorities change. The very high bar we set for ourselves gets lowered. Life becomes more about the journey than the destination.

But it happens when it happens. Meanwhile, keep smiling as you stay miserable!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Why do we blog?

Last week I conducted a 'blogging workshop' at IIIT Hyderabad. My second such workshop - the first being at IIT Kharagpur last year.

Each time I was wondering: kya karoon. Should I treat it like a 'creative writing' workshop? Or like a seminar - repare a ppt on blogging and bombard the audience with my gyaan and fundas for half an hour?

As it turned out, we ended up having an interactive session both times. At IIIT we had a computer with a net connection hooked up to a projector and so we viewed and reviewed the blogs of anyone and everyone who wanted feedback.

First of all, I think blogs fall in two categories:
a) Personal: something you write for yourself. Like a personal diary, a collection of random thoughts or observations about specific people and events in your life.

You may like to keep this completely private or share it with some of your friends. In any case, the subject matter would not be of interest to the general public.

b) General: something you write which you want to build readership for. This is a one-person magazine which may contain personal opinion (any good blog does!) but on subjects of interest to people other than your friends.

Of course I believe that even such a blog must essentially be written for yourself. Not for a potential audience. Because only when you are true to that spirit will you attract an audience in the first place.

But is life really that compartmentalised?

X has a personal blog and is so 'not bothered' about traffic that he does not even host a sitemeter. But certain posts he does want a wider audience for. "Should I start a separate blog for that?"

My pov: That makes sense and I see many people with multiple blogs. But can you really manage it? Judging by the frequency of posting most people find it difficult to maintain even one. So I for one would not advise!

Y has blogging for a while but stopped a few months ago because he got bored of it."I keep repeating myself.. the topics.. even the phrases I use. So what's the point?"

My pov: Y happened to be a very talented writer. Actually he struck me as one of those super-intelligent guys who could probably do one or the other thing very easily. And hence, it's not even a case of writer's block. He just finds blogging is no longer fun and neither a challenge.

So no big deal - stop blogging! It's not a baby you have to be responsible for, your whole life.

Z posts short stories on his blog but only one every few months. "I want them to be perfect.. so I keep working at it."

My pov: The quest for perfection is pointless! And more so on a blog. Better post something half baked than keep a perenially cold oven.

Ultimately blogging is not a popularity contest. So please, if you're on a campus where 'everyone has a blog' don't fret about why you aren't getting enough visitors or comments.

Blog because something inside you needs to be put into words. Yes, you can format it a little better, tag it, spread links and all that jazz. But ultimately it's all about love.

Do you love to blog?

Wanted: freelance web designer

This is for a personal project, a static low budget website which needs to be created in the next 3 days. If interested, drop me a line at rashmi_b at

Speaking of freelance projects I am looking for someone with experience of designing book covers as well.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The party ends?

ET reports: This may literally be a bolt from Big Blue! IBM is learnt to have delivered the pink slip to a sizeable chunk of its entry-level trainee programmers (ELTPs) across major offices in India.

Most of these ELTPs, who were engineering graduates, had put in nearly a year and were working in numerous technology practice groups under IBM India’s global delivery business.

Wonder whether this news is sending a chill down the spines of engineering students about to graduate. I've also heard of TCS showing the door to trainees who failed to clear the test after the training period.

IT companies are still recruiting in large numbers from engineering campuses. In the top end colleges like NITs they don't even have interviews, just a written test to clear. A significant number of people who join are doing so because:
a) I need one job in hand... but will keep looking for something better
b) Need a place to park for 2 years as I prepare for CAT/ GRE
c) No interest in core branch, would rather join software where work is white-collar and jahaan foreign jaane ka chance hai.

Which is all fine but now these folks will have to make more efforts to better acquaint themselves with coding and what not. Because companies are getting more stringent on the performance criteria.

What's intriguing is that companies get stringent only when times get slightly tough. With software margins being affected by the strengthening rupee, they are looking for ways to shave costs. In any time, good or bad, it's hardly advisable to keep people who don't meet your standards after training. But when there's a boom, you just sigh 'shortage of talent' and look the other way.

As far as students go, I think this is a positive thing. At least a few will think twice before taking jobs they don't want in the first place. And if they do join they will have a little less attitude and possibly learn more in whatever time they spend in IT.

As techie MS Vivek Chaitanya commented on the Jobokplease blog:

Due to competition, companies are campus recruiting students in 3rd year, 2nd sem itself. This is inducing recklessness in the students and slowing down their studies for in their final year. So there is no guarantee that the potential of the student at the time of campus recruitment is same as the potential once he finally comes out of his/her studies.

What say you, engineering junta?

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Coffee to bahana hai

I bumped into a friend who has just joined a mobile start up company at Barista in Phoenix Mills. "Aajkal yehi mera office hai," he grinned.

"Hmm.. investors ko bataana padega aap unke kitne paise roz coffee peene mein waste karte ho..."

He replied, only half in jest, "Rs 500 a day is a steal. When our office across the street gets ready we'll be shelling out Rs 1.75 lakhs a month on rent alone!"

Point to hai. Reminds me of the scene during the earlier dotcom boom when junta had made the Oberoi lobby and coffee shop their adda-cum-office. Paanch saal mein kuch progress hua hai: cheaper coffee and data modem cards to access internet anywhere. In the near future we'll see more of public wifi access.

Current hotspots for startup types include:
Just Around the Corner, Bandra
lobby of Marriott hotel
And in Bangalore, the Leela coffee shop

If you know of more, kindly enlighten.

Of course, coffee shops are not just the preserves of recently-quit-job-looking-for-VC types. There are many other species, and in fact each location has its own peculiar set of customers.

Barista Chembur: popular with MLM (multi-level marketing types). They make snazzy presentations which promise anyone can make 3 crores in 2 years if they work hard enough and get enough other idiots to join.

Barista & CCD Lokhandwala: The preferred hangout spot of filmi and TV wannabes. I suppose they actually hang out here waiting to catch the eye of some hotshot director, or at the very least Ekta Kapoor's casting crew.

Barista, Colaba (near Regal cinema): Always full of backpackers - has it got a mention in Lonely Planet yet? Possible description: 'A place where you can rest your dusty feet and use the free loo, for the price of one black coffee'.

At all Baristas, everywhere: Arranged marriage 'interviews': ladkas and ladkis who've located each other at Remember Konkona meeting Irfan Khan in Life in a Metro?

Of course usually there are parents and sometimes even extended family in tow. After a few pleasantries they move six tables away and give the boy and girl a chance to 'talk in private'.

Kuch nahin jama to you don't need to feel like a loser. It was just a casual meeting at a coffee shop!

Previous posts on coffee shops:
Coffee shop cribs
Barista bik gaya

Friday, February 01, 2008

Wherever I go...

'Sexiest Indian Women' follow. Before you jump to the wrong conclusion, let me explain.

I first noticed the Adword link on my blog.

Then it popped up in Facebook

And every now and then I see it on Club JAM.

I understand the importance of pageviews but does CNN IBN need to do this? Apparently, yes.

Incidentally, the link takes you to a slideshow of Indian actresses... technically the 'sexiest Indian women'. Very normal pictures compiled from here and there - not what the folks who clicked the link were expecting!

Speaking of which you don't expect to see Barkha Dutt on screen when a huge branding of Network 18 clearly proclaims who's paid a bomb to take over the TVs at Mumbai and Delhi airports.

Pic taken last month @ the Mumbai airport

Disqus for Youth Curry - Insight on Indian Youth