Mani Ratnam at 40!

(This article was written for the news portal The News Minute and was carried on the 20th Jan 2023 and can be read here.)

Tamil cinema, for as long as it has existed, has been ruled by its stars. From MGR-Sivaji and Kamal-Rajini to Ajith-Vijay now, stars in pairs have consistently held sway over the Tamil audience and the industry’s market dynamics. But even amid this, once in a while, you see the ascent of a director who makes a mark with his indelible style of filmmaking. In the years of 1960s and 70s, it was CV Sridhar who emerged as the first director whose films were sought after by filmgoers — especially the women. K Balachander would be the next, making his presence felt in the 70s and 80s, followed by Bharathiraja in the 80s and 90s. All of them brought a distinctive and signature flair of filmmaking to Tamil cinema. Then came Mani Ratnam.

If direction originally meant putting together dialogue-heavy melodramatic performances and incorporating song and dance routines into a well-written screenplay, Mani Ratnam changed all that. Cinema is a visual craft, and it required this filmmaker to reaffirm this once and for all. Not only did Mani Ratnam have an ineffaceable style of his own, but he even went on to establish cinema as a director’s medium — where elements like writing, music, performances, cinematography, editing, and so on come together as per the director’s vision.

The Mani Ratnam era, which started way back in January 1983 and is today 40 years old, is still going strong. The history of Tamil cinema can never be written without Mani Ratnam featured as one of its main protagonists. In fact, when most filmmakers in Tamil either came from a theatre background or after assisting other directors, Mani Ratnam — barring his family’s association with film distribution — eased into the scene without such baggage.

A director of a film, in my opinion, is akin to a conductor of an orchestra. A conductor doesn’t play any instrument by herself, but her main role is to bring the written musical score to life. Similarly, a filmmaker’s role is to bring a written script to life on the screen by tapping into the talent of their actors and technical crew. A good director taps into the talent of the team, while a great director stretches its potential to newer heights.

Mani Ratnam’s oeuvre will tell us that he is among those ‘great’ directors. Whether it is PC Sreeram, Santosh Sivan, Rajiv Menon, or now Ravi Varman, their stints as cinematographers in Mani Ratnam films remain high up on the list of their best work. The same is the case with the music of Ilaiyaraaja and AR Rahman, or with Kamal Haasan and Abhishek Bachchan in terms of acting performances.

One could argue that Mani Ratnam always works with the best in the business, and therefore it is a no-brainer that the output turns out to be excellent. But here’s where the requisites of a good orchestra conductor come into play. Legendary composer Pierre Boulez had this to say of the Berlin Philharmonic: “That’s an orchestra of rampant individuals, who want to feel fully realised. But if the person up on the podium isn’t giving them a collective focus, then they are rudderless and bereft.” Mani Ratnam has been right up on the podium, giving a collective focus to the talented crew members, the result of which we have been seeing in his filmography.

In his very first film Pallavi Anu Pallavi, Mani Ratnam was lucky to work with some of the best in the business. Balu Mahendra as the cinematographer, Ilaiyaraaja as the composer, Lenin as the editor, and Thotta Tharani as the art director is a dream team to have for any debutant filmmaker, that too in his 20s. It is often said that “luck favours the brave”. But in Mani Ratnam’s case, one can conclude that luck also favours the talented, the prepared, the focused, and the instinctive. And these are the attributes that shaped his craft.

If the film Nayagan (1987) is what brought Mani Ratnam to the fore and made him the “Mani Sir” we know him as today, signs of his strengths were visible in his earlier films as well. Even his very first film, Pallavi Anu Pallavi, had dealt with a young man’s sensitive relationship with a lady who is married and separated from her husband, while already being committed to another woman. In the subsequent years in his career, portraying complex relationships sensitively would become Mani Ratnam’s calling card. Incidentally, no other filmmaker has told the story of a relationship between a mother and a little girl with intellectual disability, with as much finesse as Mani Ratnam did in Anjali (1990). Similarly, few filmmakers have portrayed the dynamics between an adopted child and her parents with the sensitivity of a Kannathil Muthamittal (2002), a film I would regard as Mani Ratnam’s best.

Even in Pagal Nilavu (1985), which was just his third film, his command over storytelling was evident in the way the screenplay would seamlessly shift between the stories of four different sets of characters (Murali/Revathi, Sathyaraj, Radhika/Sarath Babu, Goundamani/Isari Velan), while bringing some of them together in between. He would develop this technique later through films such as Iruvar (1997), Aayidha Ezhuthu (2004), and Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018).

In Mouna Ragam (1986), which is Mani Ratnam’s fifth film, there is a scene in which the mother tells her daughter to go to the bedroom for the ‘first night’ after marriage. To this, the daughter asks her mother if she would have told her to spend the night with an unknown man two days ago, before the wedding. We knew then that a master storyteller was here.

Mani Ratnam developed a new syntax for filmmaking, where along with powerful storytelling, the depiction of each frame counted. The staging of scenes, framing of visuals, and song choreographies are all by design and never by chance.

When we saw how a young Velu Nayakkar (Kamal Haasan) in Nayagan dealt with the request of a young girl in a brothel to let her study for the next day’s exam, we understood what it meant to ‘stage’ a scene in cinema. In the same film, when we saw the top angle shot of Velu Nayakkar relaxing with his wife and two kids on a bed, and had a premonition of what was coming next, we realised the impact of ‘framing’. When we saw how the song ‘Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu…’ was shot in Thalapathi (1991), we understood what song choreography is and how it can be more than just a filler in a film. Mani Ratnam, the craftsman, had arrived.

The women characters in Mani Ratnam’s films deserve a special mention. Even in terms of their thinking, most of them were ahead of their times. Whether it is Divya in Mouna Raagam, Anjali in Agni Natchathiram (1988), Shakthi in Alaipayuthey (2000), or much later Tara in O Kadhal Kanmani (2015), Mani Ratnam’s women are consistent in the way they assert their agency.

It is not that Mani Ratnam doesn’t have any detractors. Some say that the lighting in his films is too dark, the dialogues are framed in a staccato style, and his settings too urban-centric. These criticisms could be partially true, but are also a bit uncharitable in my opinion. In fact, the idea that his frames are dark-lit got stuck after he and Sreeram used some experimental lighting techniques in Agni Natchathiram. His other films don’t use this technique. Besides, at a time when heavy dialogues defined Tamil cinema, the casual conversational style of characters in Mani Ratnam’s films had actually come as a whiff of fresh air. And yes, his movies have been predominantly set in cities, but it is not that people outside of cities and big towns don’t understand or like his cinema.

If there is one major critique of his films, it is that he doesn’t push the envelope in terms of addressing political conflicts head-on, and is content with telling the story of a relationship while keeping the conflict in the backdrop. Many of his films are set against real political issues such as the Kashmir conflict in Roja (1992), the North East issue in Dil Se (1998), communal strife in Bombay (1995), the Sri Lankan Tamil armed struggle in Kannathil Muthamittal, and so on. In all these films, you can notice that Mani Ratnam uses the conflict only to set the context for the film and shies away from dealing with it. I reckon that this could be a strategy to play safe when crores of rupees are involved in the making of a film, and therefore, he would rather play safe than invite the wrath of a section of the audience.

At some point after the success of Roja, which was well-received even outside Tamil Nadu, Mani Ratnam wanted to make films for the national audience. In that sense, he had already become a ‘pan-Indian’ filmmaker back then. This move, however, didn’t work well for him when films like Dil SeYuva (2004), and Raavan (2010) didn’t fare that well at the box office. One felt that Mani Ratnam conceived those films in Tamil but made them for a Hindi audience, the result being that they worked neither here nor there. But it appears that he soon realised his misstep, and post-Raavan, he was back to making films mainly for the Tamil audience.

The misses in Mani Ratnam’s career have been few and far between. Even in the films that didn’t do well, there could have been issues with the content but his command over the craft was unmissable. His later films such as Kadal (2013) or Kaatru Veliyidai (2017) are examples. With his last outing Ponniyin Selvan – 1 hitting the bull’s eye in terms of critical acclaim as well as box office response, he is firmly back in business as a filmmaker who is still on top of his game. It is therefore that his coming together with Kamal Haasan years after Nayagan, for a film after PS-2, seems to be such an appetising proposition for Tamil cinema.

Cinema is the art of balancing the 3 C’s – content, craft, and commerce. I don’t know of many directors in Indian cinema who have managed this balancing quite well. Mani Ratnam has not only mastered this, but has done it for forty years now with a fourth C — consistency.

Carnatic Music’s “Ageing” Conundrum!

The ‘Season’ has almost drawn to a close in Chennai. Of course, the ‘Season’ here implies the Carnatic music season, also called the December music season or the Margazhi festival. When the Season comes to an end in Chennai, offshoots of the same prop up in other cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, etc… In fact, as I write this, Margazhi Mahotsavam – a mini-Carnatic event is going on in Mumbai, where I live presently.

The last time I attended the Season in Chennai was in 2019. The 2020 Season got marred by Covid.  The Season made a comeback in 2021 and one could almost enjoy the season “online” except for the canteen. So, this year’s festival (2022) is a return to the Season we all know in its full pomp and glory – Full-fledged Kutcheries in sabhas and auditoriums where we can see the artists in flesh, listen to the music in real and of course savour the delicacies in the canteens in person.

I don’t know how the Season went off in Chennai this year. From whatever little I gathered from the media, it seems that the response from the rasikas was quite overwhelming and the Season has been a roaring success.  Yet, I feel that Carnatic music is in the throes of an “Ageing” conundrum which is what I want to talk about in this post.

Are today’s youth attending Carnatic music concerts? I don’t have a conclusive view on this yet but, my question arises from the signals I get while attending concerts. In Mumbai, in the last few years whenever I have attended Carnatic concerts, the audience comprises freshly minted senior citizens mainly, some super senior citizens, a relatively smaller bunch of those in their 50’s, and then kids in their teens who are probably still learning Carnatic music (before the 10th/12th bugs hit them). One can hardly find people on the right side of youth (the 20s/30s) or the wrong side of youth (the 40s).  Even if they are, they will be few and far in between. But you can find these groups in cinema halls, in live music shows and stand-up comedy gigs.

Now, I am not sure if the scene is any different in other cities. When I used to attend the Season in Chennai, the situation was quite similar. Having said that, it is not my case that Carnatic music has no appeal among today’s youth and hence it has no future. In fact, it is the contrary mainly for two reasons.

One, in the last two decades, there has been a huge influx of exciting talent in Carnatic music which is a very encouraging sign. This has completely demolished the arguments of the 80s that Carnatic music faced an existential crisis. Today, Sanjay Subrahmanyan who is only in his mid-50s is looked upon like a veteran a la Dhoni in CSK. That Sanjay keeps evolving himself to be in tune with the rasikas of today and tomorrow with his engagement style is another matter. The Sabha schedule is packed with concerts by those who are in their prime youth. So, it is not that the youth are not taking to Carnatic music.

Two, as I mentioned before, the younger generation of today is taking up learning Carnatic music in a more enthusiastic way than it was in my generation. So, it is not “uncool” anymore to learn Carnatic music. Particularly the NRIs have been trailblazers in this regard with a lot of fresh talent in Carnatic music coming up from among the NRI youth.

It’s clear, therefore, that while Carnatic music is not an anathema for the youth, I find them reluctant to spend time attending typical Carnatic concerts. Therefore, the questions are – what are the reasons for this phenomenon and what can be done to correct the situation?

One of the main reasons I have heard is that Carnatic as a style is too slow and so not so cool to follow. And it is also difficult to appreciate the nuances of the music unless one has some basic knowledge. I agree that there is a need to de-mystify Carnatic music among the masses. Here I find attempts of some of the mainstream Carnatic musicians like Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Sikkil Gurucharan, and Vijay Siva to constantly explain the influences of Carnatic music on film songs in a simple, lucid manner through their YouTube channel, very laudable. This creates interest even among those who don’t know Carnatic music. The availability of social media platforms has also helped them to reach their content widely. Another person who has been putting conscious efforts to de-mystify Carnatic music is Subhasree Thanikachalam. She and her team have been doing these themed concerts where they present a typical Carnatic Kutcheri format but with popular film songs with simple explanations.

Then there is the “Agam Model”Agam is a rock band that came into the scene ten years ago and soon earned the epithet of “Carnatic Progressive Rock”. Today, I find that this band is extremely popular among the youth. In their concerts, Carnatic is nicely blended with metal to give a very high energy and frenzied experience which the youth of today seem to lap up. On stage Agam’s lead singer, Harish Sivaramakrishnan is like the pied piper of yore making the audience sing along to his tunes which are even Carnatic based. I was surprised to see youngsters finishing the lines of popular kritis like Ranga Pura Vihara ( A Muthuswamy Dikshitar Kriti immortalised in our souls by M.S.Subbulakshmi) and Manavyalakinchara (A Tyagaraja Kriti in the mellifluous raga – Nalina Kanti) (Check out the clip here) which are of course the band’s most sought-after numbers. Their rendition of these kritis has garnered huge hits on YouTube as well. I am told that Agam has a cult following among senior citizens as well. So, is creating a Carnatic-based genre where Carnatic vocal is fused with Western music riffs on guitar and western percussion an answer to the conundrum?

I am certain that there is no one answer.  With the advent of technology and with Senior citizens increasingly relishing watching concerts online from the comfort of their homes, soon Carnatic music may be facing the same “Theatres VS OTT” conundrum as the film industry. It is therefore high time that the practitioners of the Carnatic genre gave some thought and find ways and means to get the youth to the Kutcheri halls and solve this “ageing” problem.  In Tamil, one is called a Karnatakam type, if he is old-fashioned. Carnatic music should not slip into that definition if it is not already.

Cartoon courtesy – Keshav from The HIndu

India in 2023: Heads or Tails?

2022 just got over and as I sit to pen this blog on the 1st day of 2023, I am trying to recall the mood that was prevailing at the same time last year.  For all practical purposes, the stand-out sentiment at the beginning of 2022 was that of “Relief and Hope”.  Covid was just receding. Right through the last quarter of 2021, lockdowns were relaxed in the country, festivals were celebrated with gusto and normalcy was returning by and large. Almost the entire country was covered by the vaccination program by December.  There was relief and hope that things in the new year could only get better.

At that time, nobody thought that a war would actually break out and pour water on the collective hopes of the entire world. Russia invaded Ukraine and as we speak, the war is still on.  What was expected as a swift and big recovery of the global economy post-Covid didn’t happen. In today’s situation, a war between two nations doesn’t affect only those two nations. It pilfers to other nations as well, with a result we had the after-effects of the war being felt by nations across the globe.  Inflation has hit never seen high and with the US exporting inflation, the dollar has strengthened against most of the currencies worldwide.  The result was there to be seen in the last three months.  Economic growth has substantially slowed down and the expected post-Covid Uptick has evaporated into thin air. In summary, what was touted to be a year of recovery and swift growth, ended up being one of the worst years for the world. “Permacrisis” – meaning an extended period of instability and insecurity is the term being conferred upon the year 2022. Who would have expected this back then in January 2022?

I am now trying to recall what the mood was at the beginning of the year 2021. Coming at the back of a full year ravaged by Covid and lockdowns, it was expected that with the rollout of vaccination, the ebbing of the virus and countries attaining herd immunity we will soon see the back of the Corona Virus and get back to an Off line living from a completely Online living. However, that was not to be. We soon started facing the virus in its different variants, the effect of which was more lethal. 2021 also continued to be a year of woes except for some improvement in the last quarter of the year. Again, what started as a year where the dark clouds were seen to be disappearing ended up being an extremely challenging year for the world.

With these beginning-of-the-year scenarios of 2021 and 2022 in perspective, I am trying to look around what’s the mood like as we start 2023. The Economist in its 2023 outlook article says that a recession in 2023 is inevitable with the world reeling from shocks in geopolitics, energy and economy. There seems to be no end to the Russia – Ukraine war at this point in time. While other countries have seemingly shrugged off Covid, China is going through one of its biggest Covid waves now. This has once again put global supply chains in a dizzy which is expected to have a telling impact on Manufacturing worldwide. Now, will this wave from China trigger a similar wave in other countries that have all opened up, is the big elephant in the 2023 room! The lingering war and the lingering Covid with their aftereffects are what are keeping global leaders and policymakers anxious and awake as we ring in 2023.

GDP growth projections for most countries, in particular, the developed ones are muted for this year. Among all this bad news, there are bright spots on the horizon. India is expected to be one such. Even in 2022, though we didn’t do as projected at the beginning of the year thanks to the war-induced uncertainties, India came off much better than most other countries. As per World Bank, the Indian economy has shown higher resilience to global shocks of late. Therefore, for India, as per experts, the outlook for 2023 is a mixed bag. It is expected to grow faster than most countries of significance, yet slower than what is expected of it if there are no external headwinds.

2023, therefore, is being ushered in with cautious pessimism, unlike the previous few years. If the previous years proved the pundits wrong about their positive outlooks, can we have the pundits wrong again in 2023? Can the headwinds as we see now, become tailwinds when we close the year?  If the reality tends to be different than what the pundits have forecasted at the beginning of the year, there are reasons for us to be hopeful as far as 2023 is concerned.

For India though, we seem to be in an interesting place. If the trend of pundits getting wrong continues i.e., the global economy gets over its problems and does well, we in India too stand to gain. If the pundits actually get it right, India is expected to be a lone bright star anyway.

We seem to be in a “Heads we win, Tails we win” situation.  On that positive note, here’s wishing all my readers a new year filled with happiness and peace.

Postscript: If you are looking at forecast for investing in the stock market, here’s one from Mark Twain.

“October. This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August, and February.”

Pic courtesy: avepoint.com

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2022 State elections – Takeaways from Takeaways!

Another round of state elections just got over last week in India and though it was a mini-round with just two states, we are already neck-deep into many analyses and takeaways from the results from commentators and experts of all hues. I don’t want to add to the clutter. However, in this post, I would like to talk about a few points that are flawed in my opinion, or totally skipped the attention of experts. Here we go:

  1. Anti-Incumbency is not a given: More often than not, the starting point for most experts in India when they forecast a party’s performance if in power is “Anti-Incumbency”. In India now, in the past so many years, many elections have shown that people just don’t vote out governments just because they are incumbent. People reward governments too by voting them again. BJD in Orissa, AAP in Delhi, TMC in West Bengal, and BJP in UP, Uttarakhand and Gujarat are all examples. However, it is only in the case of the Congress that Anti-Incumbency becomes a starting point. Recent history has shown that Congress has not been able to retain states based on their performance. (Punjab, Karnataka…)
  2. Picking the right previous vote share as a starting point: The starting point for any assessment of a party’s chances is its vote share in the previous election. Considering the fact India now votes differently for Lok Sabha and State elections (Read my post here), an apple-to-apple comparison for the 2022 Gujarat state polls must be the 2017 state polls. However, for Gujarat and in the present circumstances, I would like to make a logical exception. In Gujarat, whether it is the Lok Sabha polls or the State polls, it is Narendra Modi who is on the ticket. So, the starting point should be the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. In that election, BJP got 62.21% vote share and won 26 out of 26 seats. Specifically for Gujarat, my point is, BJP started with a very high vote share of 62% in the 2019 polls. With that background, considering the situation presently in the state concerning governance issues and so on, a drop of 10% vote share as we saw in the state polls is explainable.
  3. From the last elections to now, the situation is not static: For Gujarat, almost all experts predicted that BJP will return to power. But most “varisht partrakaar” I heard said that in the peak of the Modi wave in Gujarat in 2002, BJP could win only a maximum of 127 seats and in each election from thereon, this has come down. So even in this election, they kept saying that BJP will get more seats than in 2017 but cannot go beyond 127. And as per them, this was because in Gujarat there is a core Congress voter base that does not get diminished. However, what is being forgotten conveniently here is that between 2017 and now, Congress almost neglected Gujarat, 12 of their MLAs shifted to BJP, and many more leaders moved out thereby shrinking the party’s base. And other parties do work to expand their base like what AAP or BJP did in the tribal areas.
  4. Berozgari and Mahangayee are not election issues: I have said this before also. This time, it gets reinforced. Commentators and experts who visit the state and talk to people before elections keep saying that there is anger among people due to Berozgari (Unemployment) and Mahangayee (Price rise) and hence the government will be thrown out. Well, from the time I started following elections in India in the 80s, these have always been issues that bother people. However, the question is, are these the issues based on which they vote? I doubt it very much. I feel that people now know that Unemployment and Price rise are issues all the time and the governments of the day cannot do much about them. Just like investors in the stock market, voters nowadays vote based on what the future holds for them with a party. Therefore, it becomes important for any challenger to not just highlight the flaws of the ruling government but present an alternate governance vision.
  5. AAP beats Congress easily and not BJP: If you look at AAP’s successes so far which are Delhi and Punjab, it beat the Congress and came to power. Where they challenged the BJP like in Goa or now in Gujarat, AAP has not been successful.
  6. PK may be desirable, but not essential for winning an election: In recent times based on the last few polls, a narrative was built that parties win elections because of PK and his services. This round demonstrated that it may not be true.
  7. Municipality polls are not of National relevance: Just because TV channels and media whip up a mad frenzy, a Delhi MCD poll day or a Mumbai BMC poll tomorrow are not of National relevance.

Post Script: In this election in Gujarat, BJP beat the record of the Congress for the highest number of seats which was 149. It is said that this was due to Madhav Singh Solanki’s KHAM ((Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasis-Muslim) strategy. If it was KHAM for Congress, BJP beat this record this time with the MOM (Modi-Only-Matters) strategy!

Image credit: The Tribune

The Maahaul of India Shining!

If you are an avid watcher or reader of global commentary, you cannot miss the ongoing spotlight on India and mostly for good reasons.  India seems to be the shining star in what otherwise seems to be a global economy that is still coming to terms with post-Covid recovery and the spiralling effects of the Russia – Ukraine war. The past few weeks have seen a downpour of bad news on the economic front globally. And it is not just from the US which is a prime mover in the global economy but other developed nations as well.

India though seems to be a lonely planet in the universe. The stock markets are on a historic high as we approach the end of this calendar year and despite the global demand situation, the Q2 GDP numbers at 6.3% demonstrate that India is tiding over the global headwinds reasonably well. Therefore, on cue, we have been seeing many opinion pieces, commentaries, and encomiums of late not just within India but globally, saying that this could be India’s decade and so on. I am calling this the “India Shining” sentiment for easy understanding! The point to note is the maahaul of India Shining keeps visiting us every 5-6 years and ebbs off after a while.

The phrase “India Shining” was of course used for the first time by the Vajpayee-led NDA government to project a positive outlook of the country to foreign investors back in 2003-04. The campaign was envisaged by Jaswant Singh as the finance minister. Later on, it took shape of a political campaign for NDA in the 2004 polls. Many expert commentators till today opine that the India Shining campaign was the main reason for its defeat in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. If one does a fine toothcomb analysis of the results, it will be clear as daylight that NDA was defeated due to other issues. We will keep that for another day, another blog.

The campaign did help to improve the image of India worldwide in that period. India was part of the BRICS coinage, a commentary that would have done countries like India, China, Russia, etc more good than any global PR campaign ever did. I remember in that period wherever I went, the BRICS story dominated discussions in board rooms and what followed was a long period of India Shining till the Global Financial Crisis in the form of Lehman shock struck in 2008.  If you recall, the period 2003 – 2008 saw huge investments in real estate and retail with the free flow of “Hot money” to India, all thanks to the positive India Shining sentiment.

The next brief and passive wave of India Shining started in 2014 after Narendra Modi took over as the Prime Minister of a full majority government after 1989. India was the flavour of the world then and this lasted for a few years till 2017.  The stock markets saw new highs with a heavy inflow of FII in this period.

What we are seeing now is the return of the BRICS type hype. The difference is, three of the constituents of BRICS namely Brazil, Russia, and China are no longer in the good books of the world while India continues to be. There are a few things that are going well for India overall now. A politically stable government that is confident in itself and no longer suffering from coalition compulsions.  A government led by a leader whose popularity and credibility among the masses is unprecedented in a long while which helps take decisions without looking over one’s shoulders.  Introduction of structural financial reforms like the GST and IBC that have stabilized and yielding results. India coming out of Covid relatively better off with life and business back to normal. The swift post-pandemic recovery in the economy despite the global headwinds due to the ongoing war. A nuanced management of the economy in the past few years and in a sense better than what the minders of the economy are being credited for, in my opinion.

Countries and Corporations who had conceived the China+1 strategy back in 2013 to de-risk from China are actually getting serious about executing the strategy now by shifting part of production elsewhere. The Covid pandemic and the way China has been handling the pandemic has now morphed the China +1 strategy into ABC (Anything but China) strategy.  These have certainly helped the cause of manufacturing in India as we can see in the exports of Mobile phones out of India now. We are still scratching the surface here and still miles to go before we become a credible +1 in manufacturing.

There is a visible infrastructural transformation that is happening in India as we speak. Highways, Railways, Airports, and seaports are all getting upgraded or added at a speed not seen before. Again, the pandemic derailed the progress for two years otherwise, many would have seen completion by now.

There is credence therefore to the India Shining sentiment that we are witnessing at the moment. Here is where I would like to add a caveat. Developed countries like the US, Western Europe, Japan, and so on look at other countries when their internal situations are not good. That is how China got the benefit of a huge benevolence from the US in the 90’s when the US outsourced almost its entire manufacturing to China.  Similarly, the US Economy is going through a trough presently with the spectre of a recession looming large. The economy is indeed resilient but there are lots of ifs and buts. Commentators call this the “Yes and But” situation.

If you look at India, I would say we are in a “No and But” situation. Living in India, one cannot resonate easily with the India Shining maahaul. Our cities are in a state of perennial under-construction.  Projects, whether they are flyovers or Metros just don’t seem to finish.  Interest rates have become so high that have pushed EMIs over the roof.  IBC has not helped to resolve quickly the issue of bankrupt companies. In Mumbai, bankrupt builders have ditched projects midway spoiling the aspirations of so many middle-class families and filling the skyline with incomplete towers. Jobs and Unemployment data point to a very grim situation for the youth.

But the economy is indeed growing. GST collections have been on a healthy trend. People are travelling and holidaying like there is no tomorrow. Just look at the long queues for check-in and security checks in big airports like Mumbai and Delhi in the early morning hours. Festival and marriage shopping crowds have been unprecedented of late in shopping areas in all cities. Cheap data and bandwidth have transformed our day-to-day lives in more ways than one. The “India stack” is a global case study. Amidst all the negative sentiments globally, there is an air of positivity in India. We have to move to a “Yes and no But” scenario that too as early as possible.

As Shekhar Gupta says in one of his columns, we have a habit of flashing victory signs early.  India as we speak is still a WIP and a lot of work is yet to be done.  From here, what we need is an uninterrupted home run where the economy keeps clocking 7-8% if not more on a year-on-year basis for 20 years.  If that happens, we will not be talking of just a maahaul but an actual India shining!

Pic credits: Alex Fine in The Economist dated 13th May, 2022.

Indian Cricket – Time for “One Nation, Three Teams”!

Another ICC Cricket tournament got over this Sunday and it was yet another disappointment for the millions of Cricket fans in India. For the uninitiated, this time it was the ICC T20 World Cup which is the shortest of all the formats in Cricket that took place in Australia and India got knocked out in the semi-finals. A few months ago, India lost the ICC Test championships, a format in which it is the number one ranked country. To cut the tale of agony short, it is now 9 years since we won an ICC tournament. The last win was at the ICC Champions Trophy in the year 2013.

Unlike other sports, in Cricket, India always gets into a tournament with a chance of winning.  Even in this T20 World Cup, India did top the table among both groups. But that sort of put a black cloth on the patchiness of its performance overall in the run-up to the semi-finals, where it got exposed badly by a belligerent England which eventually took the T20 World Cup. The pulsating win over Pakistan in the group match amidst high drama anchored by a super heroic innings from “King” Kohli sort of blinded us to believe that we can win from anywhere.  Of course, the 360 Degree toying of the bowling by Surya Kumar Yadav in the league matches only accentuated the mirage of India’s invincibility till England virtually knocked us out of the park in the Semi-Finals. In short, we flattered to deceive. Yet again.

Naturally, the daggers have been out on the Indian team, its management, and the administration ever since the Semi final rout against England on Thursday. In a country where one starts to think about Cricket from when in the mother’s womb, almost everyone has ideas or solutions for some of the ills that India is beset with, in the game of Cricket.

Foremost has been the call for the sacking of some of the senior players including the captain. Then there are suggestions on who should be playing in the team moving forward.  India now hosts the biggest T20 league in the world called IPL, where players from other countries come and participate. But players from India do not participate in leagues in other countries. So, there is a suggestion on letting that happen, so that Indian players get the experience to play in foreign conditions and with foreign players more often. Then there is chatter around India’s batting approach in the T20 World Cup – starting sedately and going for the charge in the last 5 overs which is now decried as very old-fashioned. There are those Ex-Cricketers like Gavaskar who questioned the need for a 20+strong support staff! And there are calls for sacking the Head Coach Dravid as well.

While some of the ideas or comments mentioned above deserve some consideration, in my opinion, what is required is a radical change and not just “Band-Aid” solutions. Like the opposite of what we have been following in India of late on many issues. On Taxes, we have moved to “One Nation, One Tax” with GST. For the armed forces, we have implemented the “One Rank, One Pension” (OROP) scheme.  The “One Nation, One Ration Card” program is on the way. In a sense, a unifying approach.  But in Cricket, for us to be successful, I suggest that we go the opposite way.  Let me explain.

I propose that for each of the formats we have in Cricket which are Tests, ODI, and T20, we have three completely different teams turning up to represent India i.e., a “One Nations, Three Teams” (ONTT) formula. The upsides for this approach are as follows:

  • This “Horses for Courses” approach allows the selectors to pick specialists for the specific format which in turn allows the players to focus and specialize on the format they are supposedly strong in. The players have to just “Stick to the knitting”.
  • Every time in a series or a tournament, when a different team turns up for different formats, we can expect the players to be fresh, and eager and not carry the baggage from the previous match/tournament or series where we might have won or lost. Each of the teams will have fire in the belly to win and prove itself unlike now where for example, once a big Test series win is secured, some of the players may lose intensity when they show up for the ensuing ODI series or T20 series.
  • This helps in balancing the player workload and therefore fatigue and injury management which seem to be key issues for teams these days with the hectic travel and game schedules.
  • It will help to get away from the irony of accommodating an out-of-form senior player while a promising junior player is left out of the team.
  • Since the nature of the game in each of these formats are different, the players once identified with a format need not worry about changing or tinkering with their batting or bowling techniques back and forth.
  • For key ICC tournaments, the respective teams can travel early and start getting used to the conditions overseas thanks to their less cramped schedules.
  • The “ONTT” approach will help democratize the game further in a country like India where we have a huge talent pool since we will have about 50 players donning the India cap at any point in time across the three formats. Players playing in IPL are in addition to this.
  • The success of the English team recently in all formats may be attributed to this approach which they started a few years ago. But even there, the three teams are not completely different. What I am proposing is completely different teams with different captains and even different coaches. Only the supporting staff in terms of medical, physios and so on can be the same.
  • This approach will eliminate the “Star” player concept since there will not be any player who will turn up as part of all Indian dressing rooms.

Some could argue about the duplicity of expenses in the above approach when different teams have to travel and so on. Today affordability is not an issue for BCCI as much as demonstrating success on the world stage is. Compensation will have to be worked out considering the frequency of the format so that there is a fair distribution of remuneration.

With a new BCCI team that has taken over recently, this is the right time for it to consider some radical ideas to improve our strike rate and frequency of winning Key ICC tournaments. And “One Nation, Three Teams” is one such killer idea.

Ponniyin Selvan is Coming!

In Tamil cinema, if there is one film that has created genuine unprecedented expectations in recent times, it must be Ponniyin Selvan (PS), the Tamil epic originally written by Kalki Krishnamurthy and being brought to the big screen by none other than Mani Ratnam. I say genuine expectations because there are films where expectations and hype are whipped up by fan clubs, social media warriors and PR machinery. The reasons for the buzz around PS are understandable with the expectations coming from many quarters.

First, there are those who followed PS on a weekly basis when it came as a serial novel in the Kalki magazine in the 50’s. This generation would be all senior and Super senior citizens now like my parents but yet have fond memories of the novel. In the absence of other media like now, this whole generation waited with bated breath every week for four years to read the twists and turns in the Kalki story. Their health permitting, they would like to watch the film to brush up on those memories and see how the novel has been transformed on the big screen.

The second group of people are those who didn’t or couldn’t read PS when it came in Kalki but have heard a lot about PS later from many quarters. Subsequently, they made it a point to read the book once or a few times. This group is the one that is in judgemental mood now and would like to see if Mani Ratnam has been able to do justice to the novel. If I may add, the starting point for this group is “How can anyone, leave alone Mani Ratnam turn Ponniyin Selvan into a film?”

Then there is this group like me which belongs to the same generation as the second but hasn’t read the novel or read partially. For this group, there are no book markers and so the expectations are being shaped by the buzz the film version has generated and would like to see what is this hype over Ponniyin Selvan story itself.

Then finally we have a very large group of cinephiles and in that those who are fans of Mani Ratnam as a filmmaker and probably fans of some of the cast who anyway want to watch this film.

So, this kind of multi-dimensional expectation is a rarity for films in general as mostly the expectations are shaped by the filmmaker or the stars involved in the film or at most the subject if it is interesting. That’s why I began by saying that the expectations from PS are unprecedented and at a super high level.

At another level, the expectations around PS have also been heightened due to the many folklores associated with the film. Like how MGR wanted to make the film in his heydays and bought the rights for the same but couldn’t. Like how Kamal Haasan had intended to make the film but had to drop the idea for many reasons. Like how Rajinikanth who was so impressed with the book, wanted the Neelambari character in Padayappa to be similar to the Nandini character in PS. Like how Mani himself had planned before but couldn’t put together the project then.

In my opinion, if Mani could pull off the project now, he must thank the ace filmmaker S.S.Rajamouli for the same. The success of Baahubali which came in two parts in 2015 and 2017 is what opened the doors or rather eyes and minds of many filmmakers to dream big of mega-budget projects even in regional languages and make a success of it. Incidentally, the story of Baahubali is loosely adapted from Ponniyin Selvan with its palace intrigues, royal family rivalry, love interests et al.

With this kind of background, it is not surprising that those who got the opportunity to be a part of Mani’s Ponniyin Selvan mega project are overwhelmed while those who are not, are feeling a sense of losing out. We heard that Superstar Rajinikanth himself volunteered to be part of the cast of PS even if the role was a minor one. However, director Mani Ratnam did not take that bait and rightly so. If Rajini was part of the cast, the whole narrative of the film would have been that of a “Superstar” film. Presently the film has a huge star cast with some big names like Vikram, Karthi, Prabhu, Aishwarya, Trisha, etc… but none as big as Rajini or Vijay or Kamal to make it “their” film. The narrative continues to stay firmly about the film and its maker.

Usually, the producers deploy a few marketing ideas to promote the film. But I noticed that the makers of Ponniyin Selvan apart from the usual ideas have come up with a few new ideas as well. The release of context videos of that Chola era to create awareness about the setting, I thought was a novel idea. Also, I see that most of the stars in the cast have changed their Twitter handles to their Ponniyin Selvan character names. Getting under the skin of the characters has taken a different dimension totally.

While on marketing, the Ponniyin Selvan buzz has spun off its own commerce. Like the launch of a card game based on Ponniyin Selvan which is a World’s first it seems. Like the idea of “Follow the Ponniyin Selvan” trail launched by Tamil Nadu Tourism with an idea to explore the historical sites where major events in the novel take place. Like coming up with a video that narrates the Ponniyin Selvan story in about one hour by Youtuber Ungal Anban Hemanth which in fact is close to getting 1 million views as I write this. Like releasing the audio version of the English version of Ponniyin Selvan to cash in on the buzz.

With just exactly 5 days for the film to hit the big screens, I am certain that the film will get a huge opening in Tamil Nadu and probably Southern States. Thanks to the large Tamil NRI population, it will draw a good opening abroad as well. I am still not sure if it will be seen as a Pan-Indian film and will draw the non-Tamil speaking crowd to watch the film in the Hindi heartland. For that to happen, the word-of-mouth feedback in the initial week needs to be strong just like it was for Baahubali -1. A good response to the first part will automatically bring the crowds to the second part.

At a time when there is a huge debate around people coming to theatres to watch a film Vs watching on OTT, the high-interest Ponniyin Selvan has triggered says something. That there is a type of content for which the audience will still come to the theatres. Ponniyin Selvan is coming and by this time next week, we will know what shape Mani Ratnam, the master craftsman has given to the epic. I for one am eagerly looking forward and I look forward to writing my flash review of it.

Postscript: In 2021, Rajinikanth’s daughter Soundarya announced a web series on Ponniyin Selvan. Wonder what’s happening to it now.

NDTV – A Nostalgic Drive!

In the last few days, social media has been buzzing with the news of the Adani group buying a large stake in New Delhi Television or NDTV as we all know it. A corporate house getting involved in the ownership of a news organization is no longer a strange thing in any part of the world.  So, why is there such an interest in this news of the Adani group buying a large stake or moving to acquire a controlling stake of NDTV? It is because the news company involved here is NDTV, an entity that has been a nostalgic part of the growing up of an entire generation in India. As more and more details of the transaction and what it entails are unfolding, I couldn’t help jog my memory back to the time when NDTV was all that we watched as far as current affairs on TV was concerned.

In its growing years, the generation I am referring to witnessed the evolution of News broadcasting in India from a staid, single-source sarkari Doordarshan to the opening up of the News broadcasting domain to private, professional and independent options in the mid-80s. As this evolution happened, the credit for being a pioneer in the private news broadcasting space at each step goes to NDTV.

My own tryst with NDTV as with many others in my age group started with “The World This Week” a packaged show on the world outside that was telecast on Doordarshan. So 10 PM on Fridays saw the recreation room with just a single TV in our B-School hostel, being house full with inmates even sitting on the floor and occupying every inch of the room to watch this program. Such crowds in our hostel TV room were reserved for Cricket matches or the Mahabharat serial usually.

The World This Week anchored by Dr. Prannoy Roy and another gentleman by the name of Appan Menon was the first and only source to catch a glimpse of what was happening outside of India back then. With its slickly edited visuals, carefully curated content from across the globe and more importantly accompanied by the clear, concise and measured commentary of Roy, The World This Week became extremely popular and soon Friday evenings meant Chitrahaar/Oliyum Oliyum and The World This Week. I vividly remember the visuals of the “Tank Man” at Tiananmen Square in China back in 1989 shown as part of an episode.

Even before The World This Week, as an anchor Prannoy had already endeared himself to a large section of the English-speaking TV-watching audience in India. That was as the anchor of the first election coverage program on DD along with Vinod Dua (who used to handle the Hindi part) for the 1989 Lok Sabha elections.  The Jodi of Prannoy and Dua speaking alternately in English and Hindi while presenting the trends of the leads and results trends is afresh in my memory. We in fact used the concept of Roy-Dua pair for a college skit and remember getting the second prize! In that pre-EVM, paper ballot box era, counting used to go on 3 days for a Lok Sabha election and the Roy-Dua pair would be on it for hours and hours together analyzing the election results.

As far as I can remember, Prannoy is the pioneer of Opinion polls, exit polls and all kinds of election analysis that we see today. To Prannoy and his team goes the credit for introducing many a few election-related terms that are part of our vocabulary now. Personally, for me, psephology as a subject interested me after I started watching Prannoy’s programs on TV.  Stuff like Anti-Incumbency, TINA factor, Index of Opposition Unity, First past the poll system, Winner’s bump and so on became familiar thanks to Prannoy’s usage of these in his election shows.

The early ’90s was a phase in which India was opening up on many fronts. The News broadcast domain was not an exception. So, when Rupert Murdoch’s Star network started its news channel – Star News, it was NDTV that was contracted to be the content producer. What we saw as Star News was essentially NDTV news with the editorial control totally with NDTV while Star TV was running the channel. While Prannoy has always been the visible face of NDTV, it was only known much later that his wife Radhika Roy played an active role in running the channel.

The NDTV English and Hindi channels which we see today I guess, came into existence after the arrangement between Star TV and NDTV broke up in 2003. The one fact that we cannot ignore is that NDTV as an organization has been a factory of talent in the Indian News broadcast industry. You name any anchor or reporter of heft in India and he or she would have schooled in NDTV sometime in the past. Whether it is star anchors/editors like Rajdeep Sardesai or Barkha Dutt or Arnab Goswami who are all brand names in their own right today or some of the finest reporters in the country, they are all from the NDTV school.  It is to the credit of the Roys that they were able to spot and nurture talent across the country in the News broadcast domain. There is no doubt that in the news media space, NDTV has always been seen as a brand of trust, credibility and professionalism.

It will be interesting to watch, therefore, what the future holds for NDTV with the recent developments. It is a fact that NDTV today is a pale shadow of its past. Blame it on the flight of talent or the financial woes of the Roys or the degeneration of the News broadcast industry overall, NDTV has not been able to maintain its leadership position which it held perhaps in the mid-noughties. Irrespective of what the future entails, I am certain that the legacy of NDTV as a pioneer on many fronts in the news broadcasting space in India will remain and hopefully it will spring back to a fresh beginning in a New Dashing TV avatar!

India @ 75 – Seven and a Half reasons for being proud of!

As I write this blog on the eve of yet another Independence Day, the whole country is in a festive and cheerful mood. This being the 75th Anniversary of our Independence, it is all the more special.  The entire nation seems to be swamped by the Tricolour with the people embracing the Prime Minister’s “Har Ghar Tiranga” call with great rigour. As is for every milestone event, there are Op-eds and articles galore on how India has fared after 75 years of Independence.  And everyone’s outlook is based on if the glass is 50% full or 50% empty.  At 75 years, to me, it seems like it is 75% full and there are seven and a half reasons, we can be proud of as a nation in terms of what we have accomplished. Here we go:

  1. Armed Forces: Throughout these 75 years, our Armed forces have shown exemplary character and have stood for the country in times of need. Whenever there is no other option, the armed forces are called in and they have always done the job. More importantly, they have always stuck to their boundaries and have not ventured to diminish the civilian authority in a democracy like ours, even when situations have been ripe. The Armed forces have functioned as a disciplined force and have discharged their responsibilities ably all the time.
  2. Cricket: One would easily mistake Cricket to be the National sport of India. It is not even a sport that is native to our country. It is a sport that was bequeathed to us by the British. Yet, it is a game that we lord today. India dominates the game of Cricket both on and off the field. Period.
  3. Democracy: When you think of it, that India is a chaotic but functioning democracy may surprise even many of us. But the fact is, it is. It’s really amazing how in the past 70 years since the first election, power has smoothly segued from the loser to the winner without a single instance of any hiccup. Across the country, there are many examples of leaders who have risen to the top as Chief Ministers, Prime Ministers and Presidents who all started as common men and women, all thanks to a vibrant democracy.
  4. Diversity: This is a thing about which we within India do not attach much significance. Ask any foreigner and she would always be overwhelmed by the diversity India as a country offers whether it is religion, culture, ethnicity, food, language, landscapes, weather, customs and even clothes. After Independence, many naysayers felt that this diversity will do India in. Yet, here we are, alive and kicking as a democratic nation. We are so diverse that for everything that we say of India, the opposite is also true!
  5. Election Commission: Among all the bodies of the Government, easily the Election commission comes on top as the most professional, efficient and dependable body. One should give credit to T.N. Seshan for this who as the Chief Election Commissioner brought in reforms that changed the way the EC functioned. The good thing is even after Seshan, the EC has continued to maintain or rather better its efficiency.
  6. IT Industry: If you have to choose one brand ambassador for India which helped in elevating the image of India outside, it has to be the Indian IT Industry. Today, there is no part of the world where we don’t have IT professionals who spread some message about India on a day-to-day basis. But more importantly, within India, the IT Industry helped to create a self-confident Middle class that flaunts its purchasing power and drives consumption. Also, most of the path-breaking governance initiatives like the India stack are all a by-product of the IT power of India.
  7. IRCTC: Ease of railway booking must count as the earliest visible and tangible improvement in the delivery of a government service in India. Today we are used to other efficient services like the UPI, GEM and so on. But in my opinion, IRCTC continues to be the trailblazer.
    • Yoga: This is the last half reason for us to be proud as a nation. I am saying “half reason” because we seem to have woken up late in claiming our true legacy in this field. When the whole world is moving from health to wellness, Yoga as a practice has the potential to fill this gap. And being the birthplace of Yoga, India has all the credentials to do what it did with IT.

There are other reasons for us to be proud of India, but these come as top of the mind for me as I pen this post to commemorate India @ 75!

Wishing all the readers a Happy and proud Independence Day! 7.5 stars for India @ 75. Now showing everywhere in world!

LOC for FOE!

Freedom of Expression is in the news these days. Not just in the news, but also in social chatter. Young followers of this chatter may begin to wonder if in India there is Freedom of Expression at all. Of course, there is. Article 19 of the constitution provides for it clearly. Well, almost.  Article 19 of the constitution says “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” This is very clear. The devil as they say is in the details. Here it is in Clause (2) of the same article. Clause (2) of Article 19 of the Indian constitution enables the legislature to impose certain restrictions on free speech under following heads:

  • security of the State,
  • friendly relations with foreign States,
  • public order,
  • decency and morality,
  • contempt of court,
  • defamation,
  • incitement to an offence, and
  • sovereignty and integrity of India.

Therefore, I really wonder where is the confusion. The law and its provisos are very clear. Freedom of Expression does exist. But comes with its own riders. Why is it so difficult to understand this even for the liberal intelligentsia?

What is missed out in the above which is what is the grey area in the whole thing is the Right to offend in the garb of Freedom of Expression. Does Freedom of Expression come with the Right to Offend? Certainly not.

Let us look at the most recent case in India involving this Freedom of Expression which was the release of a poster for a documentary film that depicted a smoking Kali, a goddess revered by the Hindus in India.  As a film maker, Leena Manimekalai has the freedom to say what she wants in her films.  As some people now try to say – the poster very well could be depicting a character in the film playing the Kali role in a play and smoking during breaks. Many of us have seen actors in their make ups smoking at the back stage. Now the question is, what is the need to put up this one scene in the marketing collaterals for the film?

As we have seen the director’s further reactions to the uproar, it is obvious that the choice of the poster was not by chance. It was by intent. An intent to exercise her Right to offend – in this case, a section of the Hindu faith. Therefore, no one should complain if there is an uproar and start questioning the existence of Freedom of Expression in India.

At the same time, is there a need to arrest her and put her in the jail for this? I don’t think so. Right to outrage cannot be a response to Right to offend. By calling for her arrest, one is falling into the trap of fuelling the promotion of the film.

This was followed by TMC MP Mahua Moitra’s comment which again sparked condemnation and call for her arrest. This is stretching it too far. While condemnation is also exercising the Freedom of Expression, calling for her arrest is not. Her comment certainly does not fall under any of the reasons mentioned in Clause (2) of Section 19 that warrants a legal action.

One can see the pattern. Before the Kali poster controversy, it all started with the comment made by BJP’s Nupur Sharma on TV on the Prophet. As a spokesperson of the ruling party, she did cross the line by dragging the Prophet in the TV discussion. Not surprising that it invited condemnation from the Muslim countries and India had to handle the diplomatic fallout. Again, the call for her arrest and killing is totally not acceptable and condemnable.  In the same lines, the daylight killing of Kanhaiya Lal in Udaipur for a Facebook post in Udaipur is deplorable. This Action – Reaction cycle is going to be endless.

In all this, it is clear that one can exercise his or her Freedom of Expression openly while in private or in the known circle. But when you are in the public space, there is a need to exercise restraint and control. Because as some wise counsel said, “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins”. This can be stretched quite well to the issue of Freedom of Expression as well. While expressing in public, one should clearly be aware as to where the other man’s sensibilities lie.

Therefore, there is a need for drawing one’s own LOC (Line of Control) on FOE (Freedom Of Expression) while in public domain. In my opinion, one knows very well, when the Line of Control is being crossed. So, it is not that difficult to exercise control along the LOC.  This is not just applicable to individuals but to politicians and creative people as well.

Image Credit: Indianprinterpublisher.com