33 Years of Nayagan and its lasting impact!

(This post was written for the News portal The News Minute and first appeared on the 24th Oct, 2020 and it can be read here.)

I remember the episode very well. Nayagan had just released for Deepavali in October 1987. There was no pre-release hype then as it is the case for new releases nowadays. However, the poster depicting a clean shaven Kamal with a bloodied nose intrigued us. To us, it was a “Kamal” film and in those days, we invariably caught up with all Kamal films.

Three of us friends watched the film at Anand Theatre in Madras and after watching, we walked down the stairs. The usual quick post-mortem of a film after watching it was missing and the mood was sombre and reflective.  There was an adrenaline rush inside among us with chests all pumped up.

We got to the gate and hailed an auto to get back home. As was wont those days, the usual argument with the auto driver about “meterukku mela pottu kudunga” ensued. Just this time, there was a sense of belligerence in us.  We were not in a mood to succumb to the auto driver’s fleecing tactics.

Writer Balakumaran style dialogues flowed from the three of us in turns. “Niruthanum. Ithu ellathayum niruthanum. Ethukuyya meterukku mela pottu kudukkanum? Ungalaala Madras pere kettu poyiduchu!’ (Everything should be stopped. Why should we pay above the meter? It’s because of you that the name of Madras is spoilt) “Nee enna vena sollikka. Meterukku mela pottu kudutha varum, illa varaathu” (You can say whatever you want, if you don’t pay extra, the auto won’t come) said the auto driver. This ticked us off completely. We got into the auto and told him “Vandiya police stationukku ottuyya’!  Innikku oru vazhi paakaama vidarathu illa!” (Drive the auto to the police station. We have to resolve this today). Clearly, the film had awakened the sleeping Velu Nayakkar in us!

The above is a factual narration and not an imaginary story. I heard similar episodes from others too. The story of a slum dweller taking on the system and becoming a towering and benevolent don, that too in an alien land, which is what Nayagan was all about, clearly touched a raw nerve with Tamil cinema goers.  One the one side, if the character had such an impact on many of us, on the other side, the way the film was made had a huge impact on Tamil film aficionados.

Just the opening shot of a boy running with the sound of his huffing and puffing in the background blew us away. Within a few minutes we could realise that we were not watching another regular film. This was when we watched Nayagan the first time. Once back in college after Deepavali holidays, we would watch it many times over and keep talking about different aspects of the film endlessly. I guess it was not just us. I have often seen many Tamil filmmakers in the past three decades saying that Nayagan was one of the most influencing films in their lives and career. Tamil cinema, in that sense, can be divided into “Before Nayagan” and “After Nayagan” era in terms of filmmaking.

Starting from Kamal’s acting, his get-up, Mani Ratnam’s staging of scenes, PC Sreeram’s epic camera work (for which he got his first National Award), Ilaiyaraaja’s magical score, Balakumaran’s earthly writing, Thotta Tharani’s art direction, the acting by the supporting cast like Saranya, Janakaraj, Delhi Ganesh, Karthika, Naasar and others, and finally Mani Ratnam’s style of filming – it was a case of all the elements coming together impeccably with precision.  Nayagan sowed the seeds for “The Mani Ratnam film” as we see it now.

Months after Nayagan’s release, even as it ran for silver jubilee in theatres, the film kept coming back in our lives.  So, for our engineering college cultural festival, when we were thinking of a theme for our Tamil skit, we hit upon a novel idea. “What if a Nayagan like character lived amidst us in the college?” was the starting point. The next few days in the evenings extending to night we sat to write the script.  Since we had decided to base the play on the movie, we just had to plug in local issues within the movie template rather than re-invent the wheel.  We didn’t realise that we had stumbled upon the now famous Lollu Sabha format then.

Velu Nayakkar in our play was a local don in the campus. Students knocked at his doorsteps to get their college related problems “sorted” out. He helped all students but at the end could not prevent a “CUP” (which was the slang for “arrears” in our times) for his own son. That was the one line concept. We started filling in the scenes.  Campus politics, tyranny of the mess food, unfriendly and strict professors all found their way into the script.

Having fixed the flow, we got down to writing the lines paraphrasing the original film lines so that people could relate to it easily. We scanned the town to lay our hands on the audio cassette of Nayagan film soundtrack to get the lines right. Those were pre-Google times.

The skit was a resounding hit and we won the first place. Bolstered by the success, we went on to stage a few more plays but the first Nayagan experience still remains etched in our memories just like the film is, even after 33 years!

Coming back to the scrape with the auto driver, when we told him, “Vandiya police stationukku otuyya”, he turned around coolly asked, “Entha station? Ashok Nagara? K.K.Nagara?” (Which station? Ashok Nagar or KK Nagar?) We should have known that the auto driver would have also watched Nayagan a few times and was imagining himself as another Velu Bhai who was not going to take anything lying down!

Pic credit: New Indian Express

Tanishq Ekatvam – Anatomy of the Campaign!

When you read this, I am sure you will be familiar with the latest product of the “Outrage factory” in India. Tanishq, Tata’s crowning jewel other than TCS provided the raw material this time. The outrage was around an ad which was put out to kick off its new Ekatvam campaign. The company soon pulled down the ad bowing down to the social media outrage but not before it went viral and divided popular opinion.

As a standalone ad, (see here) I personally liked it. The story is consistent with the purported theme of the campaign, where “the beauty of oneness” was being promoted. Oneness in this case was conveyed through the coming together of Hindu and Muslim faiths after a marriage between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man in this case.

There was predictable outrage following the ad where many questions like “Will they show a marriage of a Muslim girl and a Hindu boy?” and “Why are they showing as if the Muslim parents were doing a favour by following the girl’s traditions” and so on. I am certain that if the ad was shown as above, there would have been exactly opposite questions. Newton’s third law – “For every action is there is an equal and opposite reaction” and Whataboutery are the cornerstones of today’s outrage factory.

My take on the ad itself is that it was a well thought out plan. The campaign was launched during IPL just ahead of the festivals which is peak season for brands like Tanishq. And during this period and particularly during IPL, it is important to cut the clutter. One way of doing it is to make a nice commercial but with a contrarian story line. It helps the ad to stand out and also ensures it goes viral. That’s what happened with the Tanishq ad. Today for most marketers, the starting point of a campaign is to make it “Go viral” and if it does, it is the ultimate take away for the bucks spent.  So, kicking off a controversy through the ad is one established method of making it go viral. Many companies in the past have done that and Tanishq is no exception. I had written about this in one of my earlier posts “Stir up to sell” and if you haven’t read that, please do read here.

It is unfortunate that the company decided to pull down the ad. At the same time, it is easy to criticize the Tatas for succumbing to social media pressure in taking that decision. But I believe that it was a pragmatic choice. Already the business is reeling under the after effects of Covid with showrooms just being opened up. And the peak season is just ahead of the company. At this time, it makes no sense to do grandstanding risking the safety of its retail staff and properties.

At the same time, due to the heat the ad cranked up, the ad went viral and more people have seen than probably originally envisaged. The ad and the brand have become talking points for weeks over and even this blog would not have been written if the ad showed a plain vanilla oneness story!

This post though is not about the journey of that particular ad. I wanted to use the window the ad provided to look at the strategy behind the campaign itself.

As I mentioned earlier, the campaign titled Ekatvam has been kicked off by Tanishq just ahead of its biggest season. In North India, the festive season around Navaratri and in particular Diwali/Danteras are peak seasons for buying gold jewellery. And any serious brand would not like to miss out on this high stakes season.

At the outset, Ekatvam seems to be a brand building exercise to build on its core values of “Trust” etc. So far so good. After having seen the ad that sparked the controversy, I went to Tanishq’s website which also showcases the Ekatvam campaign. And here’s the thing! It says “Tanishq presents Ekatvam – the beauty of Oneness!” It says the “thought” being, “Beautiful things happen when people come together. But today, we’re asked to stay apart, keep a distance and be safe. While we continue to do this, through compassion, empathy, hope and care, we’ve come together when it was needed the most.” And goes on further. “The beauty of oneness. One as humanity. One as a nation. Ekatvam. A confluence of India’s finest craft forms, intricately knitted into one stunning collection, bought alive by our skilled Karigars, where similarities and differences all become one!”

Beautiful thought and an excellent copy. However, if this is the Ekatvam (confluence of India’s craft etc.) Tanishq wanted to promote, where does this aspect come out in that ad? It is common marketing wisdom that when a company launches a campaign, it is showcased consistently across media platforms may it be Print, TV, Web site, Digital etc. I don’t see that being followed here. While the website talks of the campaign being a noble effort to bring together different craft forms and craftsmen, the TV commercial tries to convey oneness by bringing faiths together.  If you look at the print ads, the one in North India (see below left) is consistent with the theme in the web site. However, the print ad in South (see below right) doesn’t explain anything about Ekatvam beyond the tag line of “the beauty of Oneness” and looks more like a “Sales promotion” ad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, this brings back to my original hypothesis that the controversial ad was part of a game plan to “Stir up to sell”. The brief it seems was to deliberately bring in the Hindu – Muslim angle and showcase the oneness. And probably the company sort of expected the backlash. In any case, backlash or not, the ultimate objective was to make it go viral and maximise the bang for the buck. The outrage factory in my opinion completely missed this point and effectively contributed in making the ad and the brand top of the mind for few weeks.

What the controversial ad would do to sales would be an interesting thing to watch in the coming weeks. While some commentators feel that it may affect the retail sales a bit, I reckon it may not do much damage.

In final summary, just as you shrug off a lean business period after lock down and get into a peak season phase, why would you launch a CSR kind of corporate campaign of Ekatvam?

Post script: Another innocent question to the makers of the ad. When you wanted to showcase Hindu-Muslim confluence, why would you choose a Kerala family as a backdrop when the ad is in Hindi and aimed at festival season (Diwali) in North of India?

The “Singhamisation” of police!

If the alleged gang rape and subsequent murder of a young girl in Hathras, UP was not terrible enough, the post death handling of the situation by the UP Police was even more horrendous. It is still bewildering, that someone suggested or ordered a midnight funeral for a murdered victim by the police instead of handing over the body to the parents! 

If that was in Hathras, UP, can anyone forget what happened in Sathankulam in Tamil Nadu, few months ago? In a bizarre case, a father and son duo were beaten to death under custody in Sathankulam police station. For what? For apparently violating lockdown rules!

Last year, in Hyderabad, the police killed the suspects involved in rape and killing of a vet in an early morning encounter which seemed like a scene lifted straight out of a Rohit Shetty (Hindi) or a Hari (Tamil/Telugu) film!

Add to this, the Sushant Singh Rajput case which was hogging media headlines till recently where the police of one state has been in logger heads with another.

Welcome to Singhamisation of Indian police. What is common in all these and more is the crying need for police reforms in India, a long neglected issue by any government of the day.

In our country, the commentariat often talks of the demand for reforms of all types – Economic reforms, labour reforms, judicial reforms, education reforms and so on. But seldom do we get to see the demand of police reforms in the same intensity. And I have always wondered why. As per a data point, roughly 9% of GDP is lost every year on account of poor law and order!  And if you remember, GST as a tax reform was introduced because it was believed that it will improve the GDP by up to 3%! And here we are talking about three times that!

In India, maintenance of law and order hangs in between the clichés of “Law and Order is a State subject” and “Law will take its own course”!  Law and Order which is one of the deliverables of the police is a state subject. States are run not just by ruling party at the centre. Few states are under the main opposition party, few by smaller opposition parties and many are ruled by regional parties. This situation exists at any given point in time. So, every party worth its salt has a stake in maintaining law and order and therefore interest in keeping the police under its thumbs.

I really don’t know when the last time a government seriously intended to initiate police reforms in the country. Even the Supreme Court directive of implementing the Prakash Singh recommendations in Prakash Singh Vs Union of India case in 2006 I believe has not been heeded to. The fact is no Indian state has fully complied with the recommendations. In irony we can say that police reforms is one subject in which all political parties are on the same page!

I believe that the cornerstone of any police reform needs to be “Independence” and “no Interference”. Unfortunately, the institution of police has been used by the ruling class as an instrument of exercising power and control. So much so that in any government the Home Minister, under whom law and order and therefore the police comes, becomes the De facto No. 2. Not the finance minister or the minister holding any other economic portfolio.  The big question is, will any party coming to power would ever give up on keeping the police under their thumb? If our armed forces can be reasonably independent though reporting to a civilian government, why not the police?

The next key focus in police reforms I believe, must be around recruitment, training and compensation. We must not forget that people in the police force have not been dropped from heaven. They are all from the same society as we are. And they read the same WhatsApp forwards as we do. So their world view is shaped and influenced in the same manner as ordinary people. And hence they have their own biases. We saw how this kind of biases come in the way of effective policing even in a developed and mature society like America.  I am talking about the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis when a police man was kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes even when Floyd was pleading for his life. The key is proper recruitment and training where one’s personal biases do not come in the way while discharging public duty.

Though policing is a highly stressful and high pressure job in India, the police are inadequately compensated. And that’s a major reason for not being able to attract bright people to join the force.  Adequate and attractive compensation will also reduce the menace of corruption that exists even at low levels. So, the combination of reformed recruitment, proper training and attractive remuneration will go a long way in the police discharging their duties in a more professional way.

Coming back to Singhamisation of police, whether films depict life or life follows films is an unending debate. The reality could be a mix of both. If you see Indian films, there was a time long ago, when they usually featured bumbling cops who will reach the scene at the end when everything was over. Then there was a phase where cops were usually of the corrupt variety who will be siding the villains.  Presently it is the Singham era, where cops are this macho super heroes and “Naan Police illa, porukki” types. They deliver justice in their own way and if that means taking law in their own hands, so be it.

And this is what we see in real life as well which is what I call the Singhamisation of the police. Incidentally, the common man in the street who is just interested in timely delivery of justice and not necessarily in the method, loves this. But the point is, if we have to prevent another Hathras or a Sathankulam, police reforms is the need of the hour and not Singhamisation.

Incidentally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi while addressing a bunch of IPS probationers recently, told them not to be influenced by films like Singham. After having initiated bold reforms in agriculture and labour, the time has come for Modi to take up police reforms as well. Then he doesn’t have to worry about Singhamisation of police!

SPB – Thank you!

This piece was written for the News site – The News Minute and was carried on 26th Sep 2020. It can be read here:

https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/why-spb-special-everyone-radio-smartphone-generation-133954

It must be around the mid ‘70s. On Sundays, our whole family used to crowd around the radio and tune into All India Radio, Trichy, after lunch by 1 pm sharp.  Between 1 to 2 pm, the station played the latest Tamil film songs and at the time, it was the only opportunity to catch up with newly released songs. I remember vividly that in that period, for many weeks, almost all of the 10 songs being played were sung by SP Balasubrahmanyam, and that too for different music directors. If our growing up was cheerful and with verve, SPB had a role in it.

Between the ‘70s and ‘90s in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, if budding male singers had an inspiration, it was only SPB. Almost all the orchestras of those days had one singer who tried to sing SPB’s songs in his voice. So “his” voice was all over the air. For all of them, SPB was a role model not just for the music but also for the way he conducted himself with utmost humility. This probably came from the belief SPB had, that he was indeed blessed and gifted.

By his own admission, SPB was not a trained singer. As a child, he did not learn any form of classical music, though he had the opportunity to learn from his father, who was a Harikatha exponent. So, genes did play a role in shaping SPB as a singer. But unless told so, anyone who had the opportunity to listen to the thousands of songs he sang will never believe that he did not have a classical music background and that all his singing was self-made.

Though there are many, if I have to pick one album of SPB to demonstrate his variety and versatility, it will be Payanangal Mudivathillai, a film with a singer as the protagonist.  I must add here that Payanangal Mudivathillai is also a film that showcases Ilaiyaraaja’s range as a composer, and it is with him that SPB had the best of partnerships.

Just listen to the songs in that album. On one end, you have the song ‘Raaga Deepam’, a classical number based on the raga Hamsanandi with a grand aalaap right at the beginning. At the other end, you have a song like ‘ ‘Hey Aatha Aathorama’ which falls in the genre of a typical dappankuthu song. In between, you have the evergreen classic ‘Ilaya Nila Pozhigirathu’ which is a melody in the western classical mould. And other gems like ‘Thogai Ilamayil’, ‘Mani Osai Kettu Ezhunthu’, ‘Saalai Oram Solai’ and finally the pathos filled song —  ‘Vaigaraiyil Vaigaikariyal’.

All these songs in the album — of which some are solo acts — are of SPB. Not just in terms of genre, even the emotions conveyed in each of the songs are different. The texture of SPB’s voice for each of these songs is different. If one were to use millennial lingo, SPB kills it. To me, Sankarabharanam in 1980 and Payanangal Mudivathillai in 1982 were landmarks in SPB’s career which elevated him from being called a good singer till then, to a great singer.

SPB’s voice may not have been very unique, but his voice quality was. His voice would never waver no matter what pitch he sang in. In live shows, SPB used to do his own improvisations at the end of the song to end with a flourish. In the beginning, I used to have my heart in my mouth when he, on his own, took the song to higher octaves, only to land safely back with the pitch intact, much to my awe. And I am certain that SPB was improvising spontaneously on stage as every time he would do it, he would do so differently even for the same song. Just listen to his different renditions of ‘Sundari Kannal Oru Seydhi’ in stage shows.

Kamban veetu kattu thariyum kavi paadum” goes a popular saying, meaning “In Kamban’s house, even a loom will pen a poem”. Similarly, SPB paadara paatula irumalum thaala kattukkul irukkum. In SPB’s songs, even his coughing (Remember the songs ‘Dorakuna Ituvanti Seva’ or ‘Mani Osai Kettu Ezhunthu’) will be on beat and within the time signature. So precise was his singing that he hardly skipped a beat or distorted the pitch.

That SPB could maintain his voice timbre intact for over five decades is a marvel! Even after crossing 70, he could sing romantic duets for stars a third of his age. If there was a silver lining in his passing, it is this. That till he breathed his last, his voice never gave way and remained one that was energetic, mellifluous and more importantly, youthful.

I come back to the emotion. That as a singer, SPB had a great voice is well known. But, inside him there was a great actor too. Probably it’s got to do with his dad’s genes again. Harikatha is one form where the performer needs to sing and act on stage.  This was what helped him shape the emotions while singing songs of different moods – from a peppy ‘Oruvan Oruvan Mudhalali’ to a lullaby-like ‘Kana Kaanum Kangal Mella’ with equal elan.

SPB probably loved acting. I heard from one of my friends in the Kavithalayaa unit that director K Balachander used to say, ‘Avan oru bayangara nadigan da’, referring to SPB.  Not surprising that KB regularly gave him breaks in films and TV serials, whether it was the hero role in his own production Sigaram, or a doctor’s role in Manathil Uruthi Vendum. The actor in SPB also manifested when he was dubbing for Kamal in Telugu films in the beginning. If actor Kitty’s ‘pasu thol porthiya puli’ type villain portrayal in the film Sathya became a big hit, half the credit goes to SPB, who dubbed for him. Eventually, his acting skills enhanced his style of singing.

Getting the essence of the emotion of the song and delivering it with a pitch-perfect voice consistently, that too cutting across genres, is what made SPB the versatile singer he was. That’s also why he endeared himself from the radio generation to today’s mobile phone generation.

Just the other day, I was watching a clip that was circulating on WhatsApp groups where SPB as a guest in a reality show was holding his own with that peach of a melody song ‘En Kadhale’ from Duet. At the end of the song, almost everyone onstage was in tears, including the celebrity judges, participants and the audience. But, SPB himself, while making everyone else cry, was smiling all through the singing. A similar feeling has dawned today. A whole generation of people feeling sad today on his passing but SPB himself, the happy-go-lucky-type person he was, will be cheerful wherever he is.

Musicians are blessed. They don’t go away. They stay with us through their renderings. So will SPB, who will be with us through ‘Malare Mounama’, through ‘Sankara Nada Sareera’, through ‘Ithu Oru Pon Malai Pozhuthu’, through ‘Tere Mere Beech Mein’, through the many other hits he has belted.

Should we mourn SPB’s death? Maybe, we should just celebrate. Celebrate his music.  The forty thousand-plus long list means a celebration that goes on for long, for us and for many generations to come. For now, thank you SPB, from the bottom of our hearts. For the music and for being the human you were.

The Social Media monster!

What is common between CU Soon and The Social Dilemma that have hit the OTT platforms in September in the space of few weeks in India?

CU Soon is a Malayalam feature film that is streaming on Prime Video. The film has opened to positive reviews for its novel screen based way of presenting a thriller. In the film, most of the time what we see is characters talking to us through chats and video calls. The film poses as a love story but is essentially a thriller revolving around illegal flesh trade.

On the other hand, The Social Dilemma is an English documentary film which is streaming on Netflix now.  The film traces the evolution of social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, Google and the likes from being “useful” tools in the beginning to becoming the “monsters” they are today! The film talks through a bunch of people who were associated with these social media platforms in the past but now horrified to see the monster they have let loose into the society.

Coming back to the question of what is common in these seemingly disparate films, it is the feeling you get once you have finished watching them.

In CU Soon, Fahadh Fazil who is the one who helps in cracking the mystery of this mysterious girl, is actually a software geek. Just by spending hours and hours in front of his computer screen and by tracking the digital foot print of people concerned in various platforms.  When the film is over, you get a frightening sense of the digital footprint one leaves behind these days! In the chase for likes, comments and shares there is a whole trail of personal happenings, dates, pictures, videos, check ins, check outs, our personal likes, dislikes, dispositions, our political leanings that we leave behind for anyone to track.

In The Social Dilemma, we are told how we are manipulated without us being aware. That social media platforms use our habits and preferences to monetise, is now a well-known fact. But what is chilling is when these come out as insider accounts as a well thought out strategy.  Of how these companies which started off well with noble and pious intentions of “Connecting people” have gradually moved away to “making us the product”. Of how they simultaneously straddle between “utopia” (doing good things, bringing people together, connecting in times of crisis and so on) and “Dystopia” (pushing selective stories and fake news that feed off your preferences)

“It’s a disinformation for profit business model” says one of the interviewees referring to the social media behemoths. “It’s a marketplace that trades in human futures” indicts another. Being a documentary, the narrative is in the format of many interviews where the interviewees deliver many “Shock and Awe” moments through quotable quotes like these. And at the end of which all, you get a sense of betrayal and a bitter taste in the mouth.

After watching these, how many of us would shut down our social media accounts after knowing well the ills?

 How much of social media is too much?

I don’t think there is too much of a problem if Facebook props up ads of stuff we would like to buy based on our preferences we have professed through our likes and comments. After all, advertising has been a source for revenue in conventional media as well and we are used to that. Of course the digital platforms allow for customised, targeted advertising based on our profiles. And ultimately purchasing something after watching an ad is a personal choice.

However, the recent increase in the angst against social media platforms I believe, has got to do with how they have taken the role in shaping the political destinies of nations. As it is shown in the documentary, these platforms push stories without realising if they are fake or genuine by just feeding into our beliefs and choices. As it is, psychologists say that humans suffer from “Confirmation bias” and as per dictionary it refers to the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. For a platform like Facebook or Google, it becomes very easy to sense one’s leanings and feed appropriate stories to build in on this confirmation bias. The stories could be fake as well.

The traditional media like TV, Radio or Newspapers also feed stories by way of opinion pieces, news clippings and so on which also play a role in influencing our thought process. But the key difference is, here it is a one way process. In social media vehicles, it is a two way process. Meaning, everything happens in a customised fashion based on our likes and dislikes on what we transmit. As per those Ex-team members who were interviewed as part of “The Social Dilemma”, in social media platforms, manipulation is by design and not by default.

What is the way out? As mentioned in the documentary, you cannot put the genie back into the bottle. But I do believe if nations come together with a political will, these platforms can be made to stay away from politics. And as social media users, it will keep us in good stead if we ourselves do not depend on these platforms for consuming political news and stop sharing anything and everything of politics that come our way without putting our own fact check filters.  The positives of social media have been well documented. Now those are being overtaken by the negatives, it appears.  The bottom line is, the Lakshmana rekha needs to be drawn by us for ourselves.

Now that I have watched this documentary The Social Dilemma on Netflix, I have just received a mail from Netflix prompting me to watch “The Great Hack” – another documentary that unravels the manipulative power of social media!

The New Age Circus!

Circus – as we know it traditionally as a form of entertainment, may be on the decline. But a new age Circus has taken centre stage now and is threatening to overtake all forms of entertainment on offer. And that’s the TV News media circus.  Ever since the explosion of satellite and cable TV in India, there has been an explosion of TV channels in India in general and the News variety, in particular. A Wiki entry says that there are 400+ TV channels just for News in India presently, all clamouring for a share of the viewership pie.

With that kind of competition, survival needed a re-engineering of the News broadcast model. And that’s when most of the channels modelled their News programming to present wholesome entertainment. Today, if there are different options in channels like GEC (General Entertainment Category), Sports, Children entertainment, Religion & Spirituality and so on, for the grown up man, (I am not being sexist here. Just that I believe more than women, men tend to relish the entertainment on offer on News channels) News channels are a new category of entertainment that can be called as NEC (News Entertainment Category).

For the past several weeks now, this category has been buzzing with activity after the unfortunate death of Sushant Singh Rajput. Much has been written about how the goal posts in this case have shifted from suicide to abetment of suicide to murder to financial fraud to nepotism to drug consumption with the latest being Bollywood’s connection with the drug mafia. This unravelling of the story has been partly driven by a vigilante TV media which is conducting its own trial every night during prime time. It’s unfortunate that the TV media and not the investigating agencies has been in the forefront of setting the agenda of this case and every turn has been a result of some expose or other by the TV media.

As a result, what we see today is a competition among channels through orchestrated leaks and PR stunts to set the agenda for investigation.  Today, the Rajput case which was just pursued by one channel or media house in the beginning has now become an obsession for most channels/media houses. The result is a full blown war among channels, media houses and its star anchors and them taking sides depending upon what suits them and their TRPs. So, when Rhea Chakraborty gives interviews to a few channels, the other channels label it as a PR stunt to extricate herself from the case. And when Kangana Ranaut talks to few channels on nepotism, other channels label it as a distraction exercise and so on.

There are those who are integral part of the media but not part of the Rajput saga who have been critical of the tamasha going on in News channels. And they have also blamed the viewers of their choices which as per them is responsible for the degeneration of TV News channels. As per me, they only reflect the “these grapes are sour” sentiment. If they had got an opportunity to be part of the saga, the commentary would have been different.

There is no doubt that the Rajput case has heightened interest on TV news for many in India, going by the BARC statistics before and during the Rajput saga. A channel like Republic Bharat has managed to become Number 1 in Hindi News category dislodging Aajtak just during the Rajput saga! I do not watch Republic TV these days. But many do. And that’s why it is the leader in English News category by far. As kids, we liked watching a Circus. And as adults, many enjoy watching TV News which is increasingly resembling a Circus.

In this News age Circus, the reporters are like the poor animals which are paraded to perform certain items in front of the crowd. Today, the reporters are pushed by their bosses to get sound bites and capture sensational visuals which are put on a loop on TV.  Some of the guests in debates are akin to Jokers or buffoons in a Circus who are there to provide comedy relief.  At times from across the border. They are routinely insulted and howled upon. The spokespersons of the parties are according to me like the trapeze artists in a Circus.  They do the fine balancing act irrespective of the situation, swinging from one position to another as per the need and continue to “hang in there” during the heated debates.  The anchor is the ring master who is often seeing cracking the whip.

What I am trying to say is, as viewers we have long before concluded that News is another form of entertainment and is consumed as such. So, if a particular channel or show is high on ratings, it is because it is considered more entertaining than others. This doesn’t mean that we like that style of journalism. For consuming actual News or for high quality journalistic insights we have our own other sources in the media.

TV channels are sustained by TRPs – Tamasha Rating Points, I mean. And in every genre, the clamour for TRPs has brought in a big shift in programming content. In General Entertainment, from sober family value serials to “Saas Bahu” sagas and Big Boss shows, in Cricket from classical test/One day matches to T20s, in Children entertainment genre from pious Tom & Jerry cartoon types to High Octane adventure shows, in Music category from concerts to Reality shows filled with drama. The genre of News is not an exception. Hence the change from staid reporting of events of the day with visuals to noisy and sensational shouting and screaming matches around events.

The traditional Circus may be on the wane and struggling. But the New Age Media Circus is alive and kicking. And you get to watch that every day, 24*7 that too from the couch of your drawing room. And as a viewer do not have any other pretense about it.

Nate Silver, an American writer and editor famously said, “A lot of news is just Entertainment masquerading as News”.

How wrong he was!

All News is just Entertainment masquerading as nothing!

Cartoon credit: Satish Acharya

“JUST” learning to live during the pandemic!

Vijay Yadav* is a small time vegetable and fruit vendor who has been carrying out his business in Mumbai since 2 decades now.  Ever since the lock down, in our apartment complex, he is one of the suppliers of fresh vegetables and fruits. Twice a week, we place order over WhatsApp to him and he delivers the same at the parking lot of our building. He informs us the due amount on WhatsApp and we pay the amount due to him through Google Pay.

22nd Aug, 2020 was Ganesh Chaturthi. Due to the current pandemic situation, we couldn’t go to the local market for Pooja related shopping (different types of Flowers, Garland…) on the eve of the festival. When we were wondering what to do, Meena*, our regular flower seller informed us to our pleasant surprise that she will home deliver whatever flowers and items we need and asked my wife to send the list over WhatsApp. On the 21st evening, the list was delivered at our ground floor. She informed us the amount and we made the payment to her through PayTM.

On 22nd Aug was also our Avani Avittam (Janeu changing ceremony) for which our regular Cheenu vaadhyar (bhatji) sent us the YouTube link to join him. From home, we completed the rituals and promptly sent the Acharya sambavana thro Google Pay.

In between we had to consult for a routine ailment with our Homeopath doctor.  We did the same over phone. He said he will send the medicines to our house within 1 hour. He has a tie up with Swiggy and the medicines were delivered at our doorstep. The doctor gave his UPI id for transferring his fees, which we did.

What is common in all these? It is that we and the other parties involved were able to carry on with life even during the lock down period without stepping out of our place, fairly smoothly. And if you look at it closely, this was made possible through a combination of Smart phones, Bank accounts (to which we could transfer the money) and more importantly the UPI platform through which we could transfer money real time into bank accounts of beneficiaries.

It was Dr. Arvind Subramanian, Ex-Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India who in his 1st Economic Survey document coined the term – “The JAM Trinity” and said that the potential of Jan Dhan Yojana, Aadhaar and Mobile phone could be harnessed to plug subsidy leaks and ensure a more targeted delivery to those needy.  This was the beginning of Modi’s 1st term during which, the government gave a huge push to opening Bank accounts for the poor through the Jan Dhan Yojana and also advocated the use of Aadhaar for identifying the needy.  However, in the aftermath of Covid-19, I would tweak the JAM Trinity and say that it is the “Quad of JUST” which is helping to keep the bottom of the pyramid afloat during the pandemic.

If you look at the examples I have provided at the beginning, you would realise that even with the unexpected strike of the pandemic, what has been sustaining at least some fraction of the economic activity is a combination of

J (Jan Dhan Accounts) – through which we could transfer money to beneficiaries who are not so privileged like Domestic helps, small time vendors and so on.

U (UPI Platform) – without which money transfer to bank accounts through mobile wallets like Google Pay or PayTM for example, couldn’t be so easy and swift.

S (Spectrum) – as in the advent of 4G which has made data usage cheap and ubiquitous in India

T (Technology) – Without which all these would not have been possible at all.

In this four, I would like to focus on the UPI bit. United Payment Interface (UPI) developed by National Payments Corporation of India was launched in India in April 2016. But it was post the Demonetisation that UPI as a tool got its fillip in terms of adoption and usage. Just look at the numbers. From just 21 banks who were part of UPI in 2016 when it was launched, today it is more than 140. The transaction volumes have grown exponentially from 2.06 mn. in Dec 2016 to 1.49 bn. in July 2020. And in terms of revenue, it has gone up from Rs. 13.17 crore to Rs. 29.05 Lac crore in the same period!!

It’s been so much of a runaway success that Google (which is part of the UPI through its GPay product) has written to US Federal Reserve Board urging it to build a similar faster payment service platform in the US citing the case study of UPI.

As documented very well by Shankkar Aiyar in his book, The Accidental India, in post Independent India, almost all of the successful economic transformations happened as an answer to a crisis. Similarly, the success of UPI in India also, could be pointed towards the cash payment crisis situation that resulted due to Demonetisation in November 2016. While Demonetisation might not have yielded the originally intended objective of the government namely to suck out the black money from the system, I feel that it has delivered or still delivering other positive outcomes.

Among the top is the formalisation of the economy which is a Work in Progress. The huge success of UPI has made conducting business smoother and easier even during lock down times even for the micro business community. At the same time, the added benefit is the expansion of the formal economy where less and less transactions happen through cash.

The last few months ever since the pandemic struck, have been testing times for any country and its economy.  It’s my feeling that after the initial complete lock down phase of two months, Indians have accepted the reality and have started looking at ways and means of getting on with their lives even without any dole from the government in the form of cash support. Purely from the stand point of micro businesses, they have all tried to adapt their business models to at least survive and stay afloat. Accepting orders through WhatsApp, doing home delivery and equipping themselves with online payment options are some of these adaptations. And these may very well stay even after the pandemic is over. In that sense, while the media commentary (when not busy with Sushant Singh’s death that is) could be around doom and gloom due to Covid in India, the common man has learnt to live during the pandemic with the “Quad of JUST” and will to survive.

Postscript: Way back in November 2016, in the aftermath of Demonetisation I had written a post titled Cash Mukt Bharat (Read here) where I had fantasised of an India where cash transactions have reduced completely by 2025. We are in 2020. Looks like many things mentioned in that post have already become a reality.  Amen.

*All names changed.

Pic courtesy: Yourstory.com

Ram Mandir and the Positioning battles!

“Positioning” in my book is one of the most important and enduring concepts of marketing. How you position your brand in the minds of the consumer, leads you to all the other elements of the marketing strategy. Any lack of clarity or misstep mid-way on how your product is positioned in the minds of the consumer, is usually reflected on the poor or waning market share of the product. Why am I referring to the concept of positioning which is already well known, in the context of the Ram mandir?

In the run up to the Bhumi Pujan for the Ram mandir at Ayodhya which took place this week on the 5th of August, it is interesting to see how most of the mainstream political parties fared in the positioning battle. I would group them as winners, losers and neutral based on how the parties reacted to the event.

In the positioning battle, the foremost winner is of course the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party had made the Ram mandir its existential issue in the 80’s with which it could rally the Hindu vote.  Now in power for the second consecutive term in government, the party got a golden opportunity to make good the promise to build the mandir by way of a favourable Supreme Court verdict.  It must be noted that though the temple construction was made possible due to the Supreme Court verdict, in the minds of the party’s voter base, it is the Narendra Modi led government which has made it possible after such a long wait.

Therefore, it was expected that the Prime Minister Narendra Modi would lead from the front in being a part of the historical Bhumi Pujan. For those who scorned at the leader of a secular country being present at a Hindu religious event, the answer lies at the core of BJP’s positioning strategy. That is of the only party in India to represent and protect the “Hindu Hith” (Hindu interests).  So, why would Narendra Modi let go of an opportunity like this being a ardent Hindu to be out there to leverage on the positive public sentiment emerging out of the Mandir construction?

There were also those who felt that a spectacle like this could have been avoided when the country is fighting a huge pandemic. I feel that from the party’s point of view, re-scheduling the event or making the event low key due to the pandemic would have dented its Nationalistic positioning. “When the time is considered to be the most auspicious for starting the work of the Ram temple, why should we dilute the importance of it due to a virus? That too a virus of Chinese origin?” would have been the thinking among the stake holders.  And not to forget the urgency to complete the temple construction and throw it open before the end of the term in 2024.

In my opinion, it would not have done any damage if the party had somehow got its Ram mandir mascot Lal Krishna Advani to attend the function at Ayodhya. In fact, the presence of Advani alongside Modi on the stage would have added  heft  to the event.

If BJP was the foremost winner, the foremost loser in this battle is obviously the Congress. After having positioned itself as the bulwark of secularism in the country, what did it do now? One by one, its party leaders on cue talked about Bhagwan Ram, Ram Rajya and so on. Starting from Priyanka Gandhi to Rahul Gandhi to other leaders like Kamal Nath, Manish Tiwari, Digvijay Singh, there was a virtual stampede to appropriate Lord Ram and even take credit for the temple construction. In the voter’s mind, the “Hindu” space is clearly occupied by the BJP. By trying to be a political “Me Too” (borrowing the phrase from Barka Dutt) in that space, can Congress ever be able to woo the Hindu voter base? On the contrary, it might have ended up alienating its Non Hindu voter base. How will that section of the voters trust Congress now to be their saviour? In fact, this re-positioning could lead to Congress being neither here nor there. In my opinion, Congress should have just said that it respects the SC verdict and happy that it is being implemented.

The other prime loser is the Shiv Sena. Shiv Sena has been in the forefront of the Ram mandir movement from time immemorial.  Its leader, the late Bal Thackeray was positioned as the “Hindu Hriday Samrat” for the longest time. So, here was the chance to cement its positioning as a party that stands for Marathi interests locally and Hindu interests nationally. And accordingly, its leader Uddhav Thackeray should have pulled all strings to be there on the stage at Ayodhya on the 5th August.  Even if that was not possible, the party should have at least been generous in supporting the event. Instead, it chose to make a “sour grapes” statement denouncing the conducting of the event in the midst of Covid!

Apart from the BJP, the other winner in my eyes is Asaduddin Owaisi and in turn his party, the AIMIM. And here’s why. His is a party with a core Muslim voter base back in Hyderabad. So, in line with this positioning he stuck to his guns of strongly condemning the Prime Minister for being a part of such a Hindu religious event in a secular country. This would keep his positioning among his voter base intact and in the absence of alternatives, can help his base expand outside of Hyderabad.

Apart from these winners and losers in the positioning battle in the aftermath of the Bhumi pujan at Ayodhya, I would say there were parties who didn’t gain or lose. These are parties like the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu (just issued a statement congratulating the PM for the foundation stone laying ceremony), Mamata’s TMC (Issuing a plain “Unity in Diversity” message), Janata Dal (United) in Bihar (keeping silent), Mayawati’s BSP (crediting Supreme Court for paving the way for the temple construction) and DMK in Tamil Nadu (remaining silent). In doing what they did, they chose to remain consistent with their respective party’s positioning in the minds of their voters.

Like for brands, being consistent with its positioning is crucial for political parties as well. A mid-course correction in positioning can be undertaken as a strategy but, the new positioning cannot be a poor “Me too” of the market leader. This is what Congress is attempting and in doing so, is walking straight into to the trap “positioned” by the BJP!

Cartoon credit: Satish Acharya

NEP 2020 – Not a T20 in the making!

Two weeks ago, when I wrote a post that “Marks do matter”, I didn’t realise that a New Educational Policy (NEP) was soon going to be unveiled. The post was purely for the season.  If you haven’t read it, please read here. There was an overwhelming response to the blog with many readers agreeing to my proposition that, in the present scheme of things in India at least, marks do matter. I also understood that it is rather a grudging acknowledgement under the circumstances and not a wholehearted endorsement with glee. Most of us, having been on the rough end of the mark stick some time or the other in our lives, have been yearning for a different system of evaluation for the longest time.

Ergo, when the NEP was announced by the government last week, my primary interest was to see how it handles the “marks” conundrum. NEP has been in the works for a long while. I am aware that even among the sympathisers of BJP and Narendra Modi, there was a tinge of regret and disappointment about the government not making any progress on the education front during its first term. Frankly, I haven’t read the full policy document and have just read the highlights few times over. It is quite technical and without the domain knowledge, I haven’t managed to fully comprehend the implications of some of the proposals in the long term. But from what I read, see and hear, seems it is a well-intentioned policy framework and if followed through with meticulous execution, our country may be a different place in the next two to three decades.

Having said that, I would like to focus on few issues which bother me as far as education system in India is concerned and how this NEP tackles them. First, the issue of many education boards.

“Your daughter is in which class?

6th Std.

Which board?

CBSE. What about your son?”

This conversation must be very familiar to many. The latest class divide in urban/semi urban middle class society these days is manifested in the board of the schools in which children study. In the 70’s and 80’s, when I was growing up, this was not a talking point at all. Most of us were going to schools affiliated to State board with some going to CBSE board schools. However, post liberalisation and rise of aspirations and income levels in general, there is a clamour to put children in schools which are not State board schools. So, while CBSE and ICSE board schools are the ones which are sought after, the newest craze in town are the IB (International Board) schools. I am aware of the scorn State board students are subjected to, when they go for higher studies. The question is “Do we need different boards” that sow the seeds of a divide and discrimination in the society. Is there a case for a country wide uniform system of education whereby all students go through the same system without differentiation?

This is a tricky question to answer. At the outset, it may seem that the answer is obvious i.e. to have a uniform system that doesn’t differentiate and doesn’t end up discriminating students. In Japan, the Japanese rue the very standardised and uniform education system they have in their country. One of my Japanese friends use to say that their schools and colleges were like assembly lines. The output in terms of specifications are exactly similar because of which there is no diversity of thinking or ideas in Japan. So, the answer I believe is not in just one common board which has a standardised syllabus across the country. But continuing the existing system of different boards with a wide gap in standards and levels may not be the answer as well.

I looked at the NEP for its take on the boards. Education being in the concurrent list, first of all there cannot be a single National umbrella structure that can be implemented across the country. So, the NEP talks about the need for each board to ensure equivalence of academic standards and text books with a common core material and supplementing with local flavour and context and so on. I believe it is a via media solution to retain diversity with some commonality. In addition to this, one key point according to me, is the compensation of teachers and staff in State board schools. In order to ensure there is no discrimination in output (quality of students), there should not be discrimination in input (salary levels of staff).

The second issue is regarding the medium of instruction in schools. The NEP proposes that the medium of instruction until 5th standard and preferably till 8th standard and beyond will be preferably home language/Mother tongue/local language. It was later clarified that it is not a mandate but is left to the states to imbibe this guideline. English medium Vs regional language in today’s aspirational India is again a symbol of class divide in the society. In one of my earlier posts (Read here) I had argued that it is time to make English the common medium of language across the country. English may be a foreign language but it is the unifying language in India today. Like it or not, English has become the door opener for opportunities. While I agree that it is good to ensure a child’s proficiency with her mother tongue, making it the medium of instruction may be counterproductive.

And lastly, coming back to the “Marks system”, the NEP doesn’t seem to provide any alternatives but for changing the grading system so that the final board exam is not a make or break effort for the student. It says, “Board exams will be made easier, as they will test primarily core capacities, competencies rather than months of coaching or memorization.” It also talks about a more comprehensive and multi-dimensional approach to student assessments.  This is very good in intent and I think all parents and children would be keen to see how this works in real life.

Based on what I have comprehended so far, the New Education Policy signals a clear intent to bring in a paradigm shift in education in India.  It aims for a long term directional shift and so is a test match and not a T20 in the making!  Now, the devil is in the execution.

Pic credits: The Hindu

Marks don’t matter?

It is that time of the year. Results of the board exams of children who have given their 10th and 12th exams in the different boards are coming in. Following the announcement of the results is a surfeit of posts on social media that “Marks don’t matter” largely from those who are doing well in life now without top scores to boast of, when they were in school. And there are many who tend to agree with that premise.

Yes, a student’s future and success in life in the end don’t really depend on his or her scores in the school. It depends on a combination of factors, academic brilliance being just one. At the end of the day, your quality of work on the job counts if you are to be counted, which eventually paves the way for an individual’s growth. There, the school or college mark sheet or the CGPA is not going to help. Even as an entrepreneur, one’s ability to handle the day-today challenges and still come up with creative solutions matters more for success than the grades one got in Physics or Econometrics in school or college.

Having said that, is that so straight forward as it sounds? Well, not really. Access to better opportunities come through better educational institutions. The gateway to get into those revered institutions is the mark sheet. In a country where the aspirants are way too more compared to the seats available in good schools, marks come as the saviour for getting an entry. Once you are into a top rung college, the competitive environment plays a huge role in shaping one’s world view, outlook and aspirations.  The collective quality of an institution in turn then helps to attract companies seeking top notch talent.

There is also another gateway other than marks to get into some of the Ivy schools which is, through the bank accounts of parents. Those who are with privileged backgrounds and have enough money in the bank can of course also get admissions into some of the top schools even with average marks. In this discussion, I am not considering such class of people. I am referring to the average middle class and below type of people, while making the case for importance of marks.

While arguing for “Marks don’t matter”, the most popular example often touted is of Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft. But Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard without completing his course to start Microsoft with some of his friends. So calling Gates a “school dropout’ is a misnomer. And where does Microsoft corporations recruit its people?  From some of the really top institutions of course all over the world. And who do they recruit? Toppers of course. I have not seen Microsoft having a quota for bottom of the pile students or institutions.

There could be few others in India and outside who might not have been toppers or even passed their grades but have become extremely successful in life. There could be examples from the field of sports, literature and arts. But these are a different variety of people who had those respective skills and accordingly chose those areas to excel. Again, there could be eminent sportsmen who didn’t focus on studies but excelled in their sport of choosing. These are all exceptions and exceptions cannot be the rule.  We are talking of the majority who don’t have “other” special skills to pursue them as passion. A Sachin Tendulkar or a Kamal Haasan who didn’t complete even their schooling but still who came out toppers in their chosen field, cannot be given as examples for talking down the importance of formal education.

There are often examples of successful entrepreneurs and businessmen which are given to drive home the point that even without academic brilliance (read as scores), one can reach a level of success. These are again exceptions and for every such successful person there are thousand other instances of those who have lost their way since they did not do well in their studies.

If marks really don’t matter, why are college admissions based on marks? Why are screening candidates for jobs in campuses happen based on marks? As long as supply exceeds demand by a long distance as the case it is in India, marks will continue to play the role of the numero uno filter.  As I mentioned earlier, good marks ensure access to good institutions and thereby the probability of one’s success becomes higher. Probably once you are in a post graduate level, the actual scores or ranks do not matter. But till that level, your grades continue to be an active filter that separates those who make it and who don’t.

As a parent of a school going child, I am equally frustrated by the rat race over marks that determine the career path of a student. The cut offs in some of the top colleges in India can drive you towards insanity. Couple of years ago, the cut off for the B.A programme in Lady Shriram College, Delhi was 98.75%. Recently, admission for a coaching class in Mumbai starting April 2021 got closed last week in flat 30 minutes as parents rushed to ensure their wards got admission in that coaching class. So, apart from colleges now, even for admission to coaching classes, there is a rat race. And why? Just to ensure children get higher and higher marks that will enable them to secure admissions into some of the better colleges we have.

I agree that it is not fair on the part of the world to put pressure on children that marks are the ultimate. But equally, “Marks don’t matter” is a fallacy propounded by those who choose to ignore the ground reality in India. For the middle class and the aspiring class, the chasm between their dreams and reality can be bridged only if their children study and study well. So for this group, marks do matter.  It may not be end of the world if one doesn’t score enough marks. Just that the struggle gets more intense and the probability of success gets lower.

#Marksdon’tmatter may be cool as a trending hashtag once a year. For rest of the year, M A R K S D O M A T T E R.

Original Image courtesy: The Quint