The Passport called English Medium!!!

Hindi Medium for the uninitiated is a Hindi film that hit the screens last week sans the trappings of the typical Bollywood fare but which holds a mirror to the society with a strong social message. Without any of the leading “Star Khans” but with just Irfan Khan as the lead star, I am not sure how far the film will reach eventually. After 3 Idiots if there was one Hindi film which leaves you thinking as you left the cinema hall about your kid’s education this must be it. In the film, the lead couple go to unimaginable lengths just to secure admission in one of the Top English medium schools in the city.  Because in the lines of the mother, “If the child goes to a Govt. school, she can’t learn anything. If anybody talks to her in English, she will not be able to fit in the society. Hence she will be lonely and will get depressed.”  The extremes the couple stretch themselves to secure that admission in a top English medium school like even trying to transform themselves to poor people to take advantage of BPL quota as per RTE act may sound preposterous.  But the message – that “English medium” is a mandatory passport for one’s flight to success in life is not lost on anyone.

Not just this one, but there were other films like Chetan Bhagat’s novel turned film – One Half Girlfriend and Sridevi’s super hit – English Vinglish dwelling on the theme of the need to master English to get recognized/get ahead in life. Ironically this is not some typical Bollywood fantasy but stark reality of India being mirrored in films.  At workplaces today, one’s command over spoken English is considered essential to rise up the corporate elevator whether you like it or not. There are very few careers I can think of today where one can still succeed without mastering the English language. Probably politics (where being oblivious to the English language can become your calling card) or some creative fields could be those. Otherwise even in medical field the reality is, you feel comfortable of a surgeon’s ability if he is able to explain the diagnosis and treatment course of your patient in eloquent English!!! Narayana Murthy of Infosys once controversially observed in the context of IITs that with Indian politicians “rooting against English”, the task of getting good English speaking students at IITs gets more difficult and that affected their quality .  He was being practical and honest. In urban India the caste system based on Manuvaad is gradually on the wane. But in its place there is a new caste system based on “Medium of Instruction” – English medium being forward caste and any other being backward!!!

However this is not the case in many other successful countries. In Germany you don’t need to master English to head an organization. In Japan, though knowledge of English is an asset particularly in an Export driven economy like theirs, lack of flair in English has never been a liability.  Same is the case with China.  It’s another matter that they probably now realise that if they had imbibed the English language they could have ruled the global commerce not just in Mfg. but even in services!

But then India is not a homogenous state with one culture, one lingo like Japan or Germany. We are “United States of India” where our culture, language, food habits,…,.. keep changing every 500 kms. We sort of got stuck in the middle where we couldn’t have Hindi or for that matter any other Indian language as a universal Pan Indian language due to our cultural diversity. At the same time English being a language imported due to the colonial rule couldn’t achieve the universal reach across the board. Result – we have a language divide. If we have to get out of this situation, it’s too late or virtually impossible to go back to a Japan or Germany universal Indian language model.  So it looks like adopting English language universally in India is only the practical option left with us to go forward from here.

“Universally” is the key. It was the very articulate Shashi Tharoor who once said, “Denial of opportunity to learn English to our children would be tantamount to destroying their future” and I agree. It’s unanimously accepted that India’s command over English has been one of the key attributes to our success in Software business worldwide. So why not we build on our strengths and leverage the same? That is certainly not by keeping English a privilege of few and sowing the seeds for another conflict. Instead a way forward could be to make ‘All” schools in India – English medium schools and phase in English as the universal medium of instruction from a particular year in the very near future. This is not to shortchange our own native languages which still needs to be taught in the same schools but need not be the “Medium of instruction”. We could expect politics to play and outrage factories running on full capacities over this move.  But then have we seen wards of politicians who get educated from Non English medium schools?  By the way in our neighbouring Pakistan in 2013, I heard that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province took a call to switch over from Urdu to English medium gradually in a period of four to five years!!! This could be a significant reform in the field of education that would ensure English not just being a passport to economic, social and educational advancement universally but a ‘Visa on Arrival” for growth, the likes of Donald Trump notwithstanding!!

This reform may not be “the” only cure for all the ills in our education system but would be a good place to start.

Postscript: While on this, just after the ascent of Mr. Chandrasekharan as the Tata supremo, a picture of him and his 2 brothers has been doing the WhatsApp rounds. It talks of the fact that the 3 brothers are actually are from Tamil medium schools from a village in Tamil Nadu and that today they were head honchos. The message being, one doesn’t need to be necessarily from English medium schools to get to the top. Well, not sure even if Natarajan Chandrasekharan will accept that premise today and forward that to his WhatsApp groups!!!

Bahubali, Kattappa and some political lessons!!!

With over an estimated 30 mill. people having reportedly watched the film Bahubali 2: The Conclusion, I can safely conclude that most of those who are reading this blog by now would have! This post is not a review of the film or about how the film has broken all collection records in the country either. But about a character called Kattappa and the political lessons it holds for the principal opposition party in India namely the Congress. In the film, apart from the lead characters, Kattappa is the one who evokes much recall and sympathy – a situation very similar to what Congress (which has its own few Kattappas) finds itself today in India.  Kattappa in Bahubali and Kattappas in Congress??? Let me attempt to join the dots.

In the Bahubali series, Kattappa is an able warrior and sort of a leader of the forces of the Kingdom of Mahishmati. In terms of characterisation, Kattappa is shown as an extremely loyal, most faithful and a trustworthy soul who will do anything to protect his master – the ruler of Mahishmati in this case. He doesn’t mind others alluding him to a dog scornfully – a creature known for being utmost loyal to its master among all pets. At the same time, repeatedly he is depicted to be a prisoner of his own choice he has made in terms of being loyal at any cost. In the film there are 2 crucial mistakes he commits as a result of putting his loyalty ahead of being truthful. First, he lets the Queen announce Bhallaladeva as the King setting aside the earlier announcement of Amarendra Bahubali without making any attempt to clear the air in the Queen’s mind about the right and good intentions of Amarendra in wanting to marry Devasena. He makes no attempt to let the Queen know that Devasena likes and prefers only Amarendra to be her life partner. Second, he carries out the order of the Queen to kill Amarendra though he knew very well of the conspiracy of the Bhallaladeva camp to create misunderstanding and confusion in the Queen’s mind. These crucial mistakes deprived the people of Mahishmati the governance of a benevolent leader like Amarendra and instead were at the mercy of an unkind and autocratic ruler like Bhallaladeva.

Well, that’s what happened in the 2 part film that helped the Director weave an interesting story of palace intrigues in a huge canvas unseen so far in Indian films and create history!  But what has Congress to do with this?

Today in India, the Congress party is in crossroads and may be at its lowest ebb. The climb has been downhill since 2014 when it was reduced to an all-time low in the Lok Sabha. The string of defeats in most of the state elections since then have been catastrophic. The principal ruling party in India namely the BJP is systematically moving forward on its slogan of making Bharat – Congress Mukt. Apart from Congress there is no other party which can be called truly a Pan Indian political outfit. Under these circumstances for a democracy to be one, a truly credible opposition party with an alternate narrative is a must. Any ruling party must have at least one if not few other parties breathing down its neck any point in time for its own checks and balances. Not to mention of the country’s. And that’s why a revival of the Congress party from where it is today is a must.

Congress led UPA had their chances in changing and developing India for 10 years since 2004. I am for the moment ignoring the 50 years they had, prior to 1998.  Congress had and in fact has quite a few Kattappas in their ranks. Experienced, Able politicians and administrators who I believe had answers and solutions to the many ills the country faced when they came back to power rather providentially in 2004. However all of them ended up being true Kattappas who only put loyalty to the rulers (Gandhi family in this case) as their priority and did what served the family well rather than the country more often than not. The result – in spite of the benefit of global tailwinds helping the economy till 2010, UPA couldn’t change things much on the ground in their 2nd term and lost the elections to BJP in 2014.  The many new ideas their leaders had, got intertwined in turf battles between ministries and never were implemented with rigour. Coming back to the present, the Kattappas of the Congress continue their old ways the string of bad news at the hustings for the Congress notwithstanding. The able leaders still remain so loyal to the Gandhi family that even today they are reluctant to come out with their honest prescriptions to revive the Congress. They all make the “right” noises in public but being “right” is seldom being “honest”! The Congress today suffers from a uninspirational leadership in the Gandhi family. However the very able and even intelligent Kattappas of the Congress party continue to labour paeans on the Sonia-Rahul leadership without ever being critical of some of their moves since 2014.

My view is that unless the Congress party’s leaders come out of their loyalty web and challenge the strategy and some of the decisions of the party’s leadership thereby leading to some churn in the thinking of the party, the drive may continue to remain downhill for some time.

Coming to think of it, it took us 2 full years since Bahubali 1: The Beginning for us to comprehend the ill effect of Kattappa’s mindless loyalty to the rulers. It’s already 3 years now for the leaders of Congress to realise the ills of theirs. And if they are among the 30 million to have watched the film, it may be good to take some political lessons from the on screen Kattappa!!!

P.S: In the above piece, one can “find” Congress and “replace” with AAP and I guess most of it will hold good as well!!!

25 years since the “Roja” blossomed!!!

It was in the year 1992, exactly 25 years ago. I was in Cochin learning the ropes in my 1st job. Weekends were usually time for catching up on films of all hue. And that particular weekend was reserved for what eventually turned out to be a landmark film in Indian cinema in many ways than one. The film Roja was helmed by Maniratnam who had by then become a sort of a cult in Tamil cinema with back to back hits. The film had many firsts to its credit. For the 1st time, a Mani’s film was not about a Robin hoodish character (like in Pagal Nilavu, Nayagan, and Thalapathi) or not of relationships in uber cool urban setting (like in Mouna Ragam, Agni Natchatiram, Idayathai Thirudathey, and Anjali).  In this he explored a new template that of setting up a relationship story with a conflict as backdrop and one that he would often deploy in his career later with mixed success (Bombay, Iruvar, Dil Se, Kannathil Muthamittal,…).  And more importantly for the 1st time a Maniratnam film did not have Ilayaraja as the music director. One with whom he had partnered since his 1st film and delivered some eternal music. Instead he introduced a rookie, young talent to the world called A.R. Rahman who was till then doing jingles for ads. Leo coffee apart from providing the caffeine quotient to South Indians also has the distinction of providing 2 heartthrobs to Indian Cinema – Rahman and Arvind Swamy!!!

Leaving the theatre after the film Roja, I was disappointed with the film. I thought that the film was good but not great. And Mani whose films are deeply rooted in realism, in this had an overdose of melodrama particularly in the end. But then in the theatre at the climax when Arvind Swamy is let off by his captors and gets to unite with his wife, there was a standing ovation. So I guess it all worked for Mani and the film.

So is this post a review of the film Roja 25 years late as the title may suggest? I guess not. But of the genius called Rahman which the film bequeathed to us. Being an ardent and unapologetic fan of Ilayaraja, I guess the first reason for not liking the film Roja was probably that Raja was not doing the music. But in the film as the 1st song – Chinna China Aasai, played out, the music and the visuals were just breathtaking. It was clear that we were entering into a new era of sounds in Tamil music.  SPB, Chithra and other many new comers who were singing in the film were all sounding differently. The songs started growing on you and so did the film. By the time, the Hindi version of Roja got released and became a “super-dubber” hit, Mani was excused and I came out of denial to accept that he has indeed made another great film!

Post Roja, Rahman continued to belt hit songs one after another and he was soon becoming a rage. Whether it was feet tapping numbers like Chikku bukku rayile, Petta Rap,.. or melodies like Narumugaiye, Ennavale,.. or folk numbers like Poraale Ponnu thayee soon Rahman’s music was all over the place.  And in South India where the benchmark for a musician is always how “sound” his/her basics are in classical music (read as Carnatic), Rahman’s deployment of Carnatic ragas in some of his compositions was deft and subtle.  In the song Kanna Moochi yenada for the film Kandukonden, Kandukonden, Rahman’s blending of ragas Natta Kurinji and Sahana is exceptional. Also in the song Narumugaiye in Iruvar the classical Nattai raga gets a Rahman touch. And in the song – Vidukathaiyaa intha Vaazhkai from the film Muthu, a situation (watch here) which is melancholic Rahman aptly uses Ahir Bhairavi – a raga suited to convey such emotions (Remember Viswanathan-Ramamurthy’s Ullathil Nalla Ullam,… in Karnan??). Enough to get into the good books of even the purists of Mylapore, I say!!  While doing all this, he was also in the forefront of turning “Super-Singers” to Stars and breaking the hegemony of established stalwarts. Soon capping new comers would become a mandatory trait for all music composers!

But still for the ears – which were so used to the melody and rhythm of Ilayaraja for probably 20 years since childhood, the new sounds of Rahman were still offbeat.  It was only much later that we came to know that in the film Punnagai Mannan which was touted to be the 1st to use computerized music, while Ilayaraja wrote the score, it was a young kid in his late teens named A. R. Rahman who actually handled the music sequencer for the theme music (listen here).

The fact was, in the initial period Rahman’s songs were sounding similar to his own earlier compositions and ended up being predictable. So, for many of us Raja fans, it was either Raja or Rahman and cannot be both.

By 2000 I had moved back to Mumbai and with that got to follow more Hindi music. Soon after, in 2001, the epic Hindi film – Lagaan had released. And Lagaan had Rahman as the music composer.  Apart from the various facets of the film which makes Lagaan a milestone film – the music score of Rahman was out of the world. Just in the first few minutes into the film as the song Ghanan Ghanan Ghanan starts playing out, one could make out that this was a hitherto not seen/heard Rahman. From then on, I became an unapologetic fan of Rahman. It was no longer Raja or Rahman but Raja and Rahman.

With his success in films like Roja, Dil Se, Lagaan Rahman became the 1st music composer from the South to leave an imprint in Bollywood. Directors from Bollywood didn’t mind making the trips to Chennai and burn the midnight oil (almost all his recording happens in the night – we are told) to get their music score done by Rahman.  And Rahman who keeps saying that he wants to continuously keep stretching his own limits –often walked this talk. His later movies particularly in Hindi like Jodha Akbar, Dilli 16, Rockstar,… explored new aspects of Sufi music till then not touched by earlier composers and brought Sufi music to the centre stage of Bollywood. And again for a person from the South of the Vindhyas to compose some wonderful Punjabi folk numbers in films like Rang De Basanti, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Rockstar,,.. is something extraordinary.  Just as we keep thinking that Rahman is past his prime he surprises us with some outstanding music. In the film Tamashaa for example. Or even in the otherwise forgettable film Kochadaiyaan (the shifting of Octave as the song progresses in Meduvaagathaan,… – is nuanced music at its best)

Talking of Rahman and not mentioning of his Oscar would seem to be unjust. But then personally for me, The Slumdog Millionaire (TSM) was not Rahman’s best effort. Yes, it got him the Oscar and we should be proud of that. But beyond that, I think his own work in some of the Indian films far outweigh TSM or his other Hollywood efforts.

Comparisons of the music of Raja and Rahman are odious and unfair but unavoidable. To me Raja is an outstanding music composer. And Rahman an outstanding music Engineer. A true Engineer lives and dies by “Efficiency” as defined as “Output/Input” in his/her work.  So Rahman uses voices, scores, instruments, sounds and technology (Inputs) to optimize the eventual music output. Ilayaraja is a composer first who depends on the tune/score largely and then the right arrangement and less of technology. His music horse sense is what he brings to the table than the machines. Hence he is unparalleled in terms of understanding the musical needs of a situation. That’s why Raja’s songs always lift the situations in the films and he is way ahead of the rest as for as background score is concerned.  This debate can go on and on.

For a Raja-Rahman fan like me, what about a film that too by Maniratnam with music by Ilayaraja and Rahman – where Raja composes the tunes for the songs, writes the background score while Rahman does the arrangement, records the music, mixes it and we get to hear the magic!!! Well wouldn’t that be a great way to celebrate 40 years of (Anna) Kili’s chirping and 25 years of the Roja blossoming???

Intha Raja Kaiya Vecha,…,…!

Today was just another Sunday morning. As I turned on the ignition of my car for a Sunday morning drive, Ilayaraja’s (Raja) hits started playing. On top of the playlist was Raja Kaiya Vecha,…,… from the hit film Apoorva Sagotharargal.  There are 2 versions of this song – one sung by Kamal Haasan himself which eventually featured in the film and the other sung by S.P. Balasubramanyam (SPB) which just got retained in the music album. Its’ very rare that a song sung by SPB and composed by Raja gets consigned to just the album. As I was enjoying the interlude in that song which has some awesome feet tapping music, the CD started playing truant and was jumping few tracks and eventually it stopped. My Sunday morning tryst with Raja-SPB duo got aborted midway. At that point in time, I had no premonition of what was to follow later.

Reaching home, soon I could see SPB’s Facebook post going viral where he claimed that he has been served legal notice by Raja’s attorney for singing Raja’s compositions without prior permission in his recent World tour stage shows. And that in the rest of the shows, he may not be singing Raja’s songs. Difficult to believe, the first reaction was of course “Why would Raja take such an extreme step against SPB who was a close friend, associate and a fellow traveller in his music journey?” In a spat involving these 2 namely Raja and SPB for people like me who have grown up with the music of the 70’s and 80’s it is difficult to take a stand. On the one hand you have Raja, a genius and whose music transcends all superlatives. And on the other hand you have a singer who even today can give an Arijit Singh a run for his money with his mellifluous voice and versatile singing. While a lean and fit Raja is known to have a bloated ego, the physically fuller SPB comes across as a man of humility and feather lite ego. Even in this FB post he didn’t have one word of disrespect for Raja and admitted his own ignorance of legalities. He won the hearts and the sympathies of the fandom.

To be fair, it was important to hear out Raja’s side before getting judgemental on his action. And soon in the course of the day we did get to see the same through Raja’s legal consultant who was probably behind shooting this legal notice. As expected he talked of violation of IP rights, royalty payments,…,… The issue of copyrights and Intellectual property rights (IP) on music compositions have of late become a bone of contention between music composers, Lyricists and film producers. The fact of the matter is till about the first decade of this millennium, lyricist and music composers were blissfully unaware of their Intellectual copy rights with a result they were never paid royalty by producers for their creations. Only recently, with the exposure to Hollywood,.. the composers and lyricists became aware of their IP rights. A.R. Rahman now owns the IP for all the music he creates.

Looking up on the issue of Indian Copyright Act, I understood that in 2012 the amendments made to the act set right the historical anomaly of being not beneficial to the creators. Famed Hindi lyricist Javed Akhtar was instrumental in getting the amendments passed. Historically, Indian film producers just paid a one-time fee to song writers, composers and singers. And denied them revenues from other sources like cover versions, ringtones, digital downloads,.. which have become increasingly lucrative.

The amended bill now makes song writers and composers as owners of the copyright which cannot be assigned to the producers as per earlier version. More importantly, as a recurring source of revenue, it is now mandatory for broadcasters – Radio, TV and Digital to pay a royalty to the copyright owners each time the song is played.

It seems that it is now part of the standard operating procedure for singers to take formal permission from the music composers before performing their songs on stage. And as part of this process, the acceptance to pay the applicable royalty. So it comes as a surprise that event producers of SPB’s recent concerts missed this point of not informing or taking Raja’s permission for singing his songs. So from a purely legal standpoint, it is clear that Raja has not hit a wrong note on this matter. But then SPB is not just another singer. He has been a constant companion to Raja all through, with the duo churning out some thousands of hits. It is today hypothetical to argue if the duo’s songs were hits because of Raja’s music or SPB’s singing.  For a fan the Raja-SPB combination was magical and together they have given some evergreen, everlasting music which will continue to live forever in his/her heart.

From Raja’s side could it have been handled differently? Certainly one would feel so. Instead of a legal notice, a friendly call to remind the SPB camp of the IP issue would probably have settled the issue under wraps. Unless otherwise we are not privy to some larger conflict of interests between the two themselves or their minders. In which case after Vairamuthu and Bharathiraja SPB could be the latest to land on the other side of Raja’s symphony.

‘Intha Raja Kaiya Vecha,…. Wronga ponathilla,.. ‘goes the song.  The genius lyricist Vaali wrote this line probably keeping Ilayaraja in mind on his music. But on this issue, it appears Raja has hit a wrong note! He probably should lay his hand on the phone to call SPB and undo this wrong bit, unless Raja chose to use syncopation!!!

Being an ardent of fan of both Raja and SPB, to me what has happened is sad and disappointing. In terms of taking sides on this spat, the head wants to go with Raja and the heart with SPB. But then the ears are always with the duo!!!  Let the Andhi Mazhai continue to pour!!!

Aamir and the Passion Paradox!

For few years now, Aamir Khan has been making December his own.  This year has been no exception. His latest film Dangal is well on its way to smash his own records at the Box office. The day the film opened to some positive reviews, the world’s most productive factory and the most efficient distribution channel today namely the “forward factory” and the “WhatsApp channel” got busier than usual. Some of the forwards were rants comparing the position taken by the Aamir as the protagonist in his earlier film – 3 Idiots and now in Dangal. In 3 Idiots, Aamir was shown taking a dig at the typical mindset of Indian parents who don’t let their children follow their dreams. In Dangal, as a father Aamir completely takes charge of his daughters’ destiny to achieve “his” dream of winning a Gold medal for India in Wrestling. In whole of the film there is no evidence of him trying to find if his daughters share his passion! Be that as it may, this post is not about those films or of Aamir’s so called double standards as espoused by social media.

aamir

On the 1st day of a New Year when one is generally in a contemplative mood regarding chasing one’s dreams and passion,… the contrasting but at the same time practical themes of these 2 films of Aamir set the tone for this piece.  In the context of following one’s passion in career and life few pertinent questions arise:

  • When do we realise actually what’s our passion in life?
  • When one needs to take decisions on educational pursuit say at the age of 17/18, do we understand what’s in store in our “passion” world??
  • And do passions @ 17/18 remain passions by 40???
  • And what if the passion one chooses doesn’t provide a decent lifestyle?? Or doesn’t it matter?
  • What about the other narrative of doing something which comes your way and turn it into your passion???
  • Does it help to pursue more than one passion in life???
  • And so on.

These are complex questions with no easy answers. Hence the “Passion Paradox”! Only in an ideal world would we have all folks chasing their dreams and following their passion and be contented in life. In normal world for most, it’s an elusive chase as if you are on a tread mill!

For a lucky very few though, the passion thing falls in place nicely. They are lucky enough to identify their passion at a young age. Possess adequate talent around it. Have a supportive ecosystem at home. Exhibit a relentless drive to achieve their goals. Blessed with a bit of destiny supporting their cause to be among the best. And get handsomely rewarded for the same. Aamir Khan for example. Or a Sachin Tendulkar. But such examples are few and far between. I am sure even for Sachin there would have been days when he felt like running away from Cricket with the kind of pressure he was subjected to!

And there are some who get to pursue their passion at work on a day-to-day basis and also get paid for it. Something like what actor Kamal Haasan said of his life – “I have no complaints as I get Karumbu thinna kooli”!!! (Getting paid that too to eat Sugarcane). Or a musician for example. Even here, a passionate pursuit when it becomes an everyday battle with deadlines – it becomes a rut isn’t it??? As film critic Baradwaj Rangan an engineer by profession who incidentally left an IT career to pursue his passion of writing aptly puts it, “that following your passion, your dream, is fine, but just keep in mind that one day it becomes a job. No one tells you that, one day, the passion becomes the daily grind!!!”

So where does that leave ordinary mortals like us who don’t fit in the above 2 categories?

Here’s my personal views. Of course to each his own.

I feel that understanding one’s passion in the late teens is only “luck by chance”! For most that is a very confusing period with limited understanding of their own interests, strengths and an idea of what they want from life. As we evolve, so do our interests. So for many we get to understand our passion rather late. Having understood what gives us that inner joy, even if it’s not early in life or even if it’s not on full time basis, it is good to pick up that interest and pursue it.  This pursuit in parallel to the regular job could be indeed liberating. It could provide an exit to the everyday grind.

I do believe that unlike the previous generations, this generation and the coming ones are better placed for pursuing all sorts of dreams and passion. With more exposure comes more options and more understanding of what’s in store.  They could hopefully fit in more in the 2 categories I have mentioned. And hence less of this “Passion Paradox” for them! Or so I hope!

While on this, a big thanks to Aamir who wears passion for films on his sleeve and keeps churning out meaningful cinema while reminding us of following our passion 3 Idiots style or Dangal style!!!

On that note, my thumbs up to all to follow your passion and chase your dreams in 2017. Cheers!

Ad today, Sad Tomorrow – A Brand Ambassador’s soon to be story!!!

Since the time, Sindhu won a Silver and Sakshi a Bronze for India at the Rio Olympics, their phones (probably endorsed by a Kareena or an Alia) I guess haven’t stopped ringing. Or perhaps their managers’. For, many brands are on their way to signing them as brand ambassadors. For now it’s O.K., for Sindhu or Sakshi to sign on the dotted line in these endorsement contracts and make hay while the medal shines. However not if the Government pushes forth the changes in the Consumer Protection bill which proposes jail term and fine for celebrities in case of misleading advertisements for products they endorse. The intention being to make celebrities also responsible for products they endorse apart from the manufacturers. “Consumers tend to get influenced by the promise made by the celebrities in ads” is the argument behind the proposed move.

As a marketing professional I have never been very excited about using celebrities in ads to push a product. In B-schools every year, one popular project students carry out with the blessings of their professors is to find out the effectiveness of celebrities in an ad campaign. That the study is done regularly conveys that the jury is still out on that. At a superficial level though, it is commonly accepted that use of a celebrity helps break the clutter and differentiate the ad. Though as per me, this is “laid back, lazy creativity” as there are indeed many other ways to break the clutter. Using celebrities is of course a low hanging fruit for those with big budgets and is often deployed as a creative strategy when one can afford. I just realized that this piece is not on whether to use celebrities or not in ads. We will keep that for another Sunday. But on the proposed changes in the law which could stop the party on its tracks for the so called Brand Ambassadors.

Going back in time, I think ads whether print or TV just had people featuring in them and were called as models. And then slowly the practice of plugging in celebrities like actors, sportspersons,… crept in as I mentioned, probably to make the communication stand out. I am not sure when this “celebrities modelling” for an ad morphed into “endorsing the product” and then as we see now becoming “brand Ambassadors” for the company.

She looks like Sonia Sahni to me.

As long as celebrities “featured” in ads for products I guess they were just plain actors parroting some lines. But when they started endorsing brands (making a killing in the process) – that’s when I guess they came into the ambit of influencing buyers’ decision and of course within the prying eyes of lawmakers. In my understanding there are 2 types of celebrity endorsements. First, where a celebrity is used to promote a product which is related to what he/she is doing and is a direct endorsement. For example – A Sachin or a Kapil Dev being used to promote ‘Boost’- an energy drink for children. When Kapil says – “Boost is the secret of MY energy” there is a clear communication to moms that “if you want your child to become like me, do consider giving Boost to your kid”.  Or when Katrina Kaif says – “if you want a smooth skin like mine, use Lux Soap”!

The second category is where brands just use a celebrity as a face in the ads and the products may not be related at all. For example – Amitabh Bachchan featuring in Binani Cement ads.

And probably there exists a third category – where the product is not related to the celebrity’s field of normal work but companies tap into the credibility of the star to push their wares. Though this is not common, we have started seeing this of late. For example, when Cadbury’s wanted to make a comeback after they got hit by the “worms inside chocolate” tornado, they dialed in Amitabh. Amitabh featured in the commercial as “himself”. See the ad here. As you can see in this TVC, he was clearly putting his personal credibility at stake to communicate to consumers that with the many steps taken by the company, “All is well” with the chocolates!

(I’m not considering the social awareness campaigns using celebrities for the moment)

In the whole business of celebrity endorsements, many questions do arise. Do the celebrities who extol the virtues of brands use the product/service themselves? Have they first checked if the claims they are making are true? In the case of endorsing for investment projects,.. do the celebrities vouch for the credibility of the promoters?

The thinking behind the proposed changes in the law seems to be after many instances of consumers landing in the pit after they invested their hard earned money in projects which also had big stars endorsing the same.  At the same time, there have been so many cases where consumers lost money in projects where stars were not at all involved!

It is difficult to believe that consumers are so gullible that they buy a product just because a star endorses it. This premise seriously underestimates the intelligence of a consumer. If just a star endorsement can make a product tick, all those mobile phones with celebrity brand ambassadors must be outselling the I-phone isn’t it???

But whatever it may be, punishing celebrities for wrong claims of a product because they feature in the ads seems a bit farfetched.  A consumer is expected to do his/her bit before deciding to buy a product/service. More so in the case of big investments. Putting the blame on a M.S.Dhoni just because a real estate project he endorsed didn’t see the light of the day is sheer escapism, I believe. I think we should consider celebrities featuring in ads as enhancing the entertainment quotient and nothing beyond that. At the same time as a socially conscious individual a celebrity should be careful in lending his/her name or face to a product which has inherent health concerns a la Gopichand who refused to feature in Cola ads in his prime time! And also do a bit more homework on the credibility of the brand/promoter before signing on the dotted line for the next 1 crore endorsement deal. Or else post the new law it will be “Ad today, Sad tomorrow”!!!

Post script: Will be interesting to know in which category of celebrity endorsements does the Jio campaign featuring our PM fall into???😝😝😝

“Mauna Ragam” – A review 30 years late!

Couple of days back a friend who is equally a big fan like me of the ace director Maniratnam passed me a link of the film critic Baradwaj Rangan’s ode on Mani’s Mauna Ragam.  The piece titled “30 years of Mauna Ragam” flashed me back to 1986 when the film was released. That was during my 2nd year of Engineering when Mani Sir as he is revered now had not arrived though flashes of his brilliance could be seen in his 1st Tamil film Pagal Nilavu. Mauna Ragam had no mega star cast and got released silently without much fanfare. But then those days mega star cast or no star, we almost watched all movies which hit the theatres and contributed our bit to Kodambakkam. Since was not into writing then, didn’t write any review after watching Mauna Ragam. But we sliced and diced all films some times for days together which could have made for decent reviews. So today I am writing this piece as a review for that film Mauna Ragam, (recollecting from the many postmortem sessions we had in canteens, Railway station benches et al) Mani’s first full-fledged film (he wrote and directed) which announced to the world the arrival of a Director of class. With his next film Nayagan, Mani would go on to stamp his presence and influence on South Indian films forever.

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The narrative in the film was path breaking in many counts as far as Tamil cinema then was concerned.

  • As per me, this was the first film (at least of what I saw) which had a genuine feminist hero (Mohan) who was sensitive to the feelings of his counterpart (Revathi) almost throughout the film. Even when Revathi’s character was at her provocative best in what would seem as taunts at Mohan, he would still react in a calm, composed manner always respecting Revathi’s point of view. He takes all her requests seriously and tries to comply (including going ahead with the divorce) without trying to put forth his point of view.  In a moment of what I call that “directorial touch”, Mohan opens the rear door of his car for Revathi when they come out of the advocate’s office after filing for divorce. One could argue that even MGR was an eternal feminist in his films. But then that was of the Thaikulam (Motherly) variety.
  • For most of the film, the heroine would be shown in rather a stubborn light as one who isn’t willing to move on shrugging her past. Heroines were virtues of everything good in films then.
  • This was again one of those early movies in Tamil where the boy (Karthik) professes his love for the girl very casually in his second or third meeting without beating around the bush so much. In fact that scene when he actually does is only the first of the many scenes in all Mani’s films which establish his credentials as a King of soft romance!
  • I read in Mani’s book that the entire Karthik portion was an afterthought and it was not in his original script. I am now wondering how the film would have actually shaped up without that short but breezy portion where Karthik educated youngsters of those days on ‘pataoing’ girls with confidence.
  • It’s also one of the first films where the hero is a MBA and is a practicing HR Manager. Probably Mani pitched in his own MBA background here and weaved it into the story line effectively. (Union issues, thugs bashing up factory managers and even killing were quite prevalent in the 80’s India). On Mani’s MBA background showing up I must also mention that very memorable “Mr. Chandramouli – Coffee” scene (watch here) in the film. Karthik casually flips Revathi’s book kept on the table and asks her what the book was all about. She says “Econometrics”. A subject unheard of when I watched but which would come to haunt us as the most dreaded paper in the second year of MBA!!!
  • Some of the lines Revathi as a female character speaks early on were unheard of in Tamil films those days. Remember the scene before the first night?
  • In the climax, when the woman (Revathi) sheds her ego and communicates that she doesn’t want the divorce now, the man (Mohan) a HR practitioner who is trained to deal with human egos most of the time at the workplace, finds it difficult to shed his own ego. I thought that the disconnect one encounters between theory and practice was demonstrated very well here. Don’t know if it was intentional or could be I am reading too much.
  • And finally here was a film without any villain per se.

Revathi was super brilliant in the film. She portrays the transition from a college going happy-go-lucky girl to a serious married woman in an unfamiliar land with ease. The hero Mohan was those days called “Poor Man’s Kamal”. When a producer couldn’t afford Kamal they would resort to Mohan. He had limited histrionic skills but did well with the song sequences. And in a superstitious film industry he was considered a lucky charm. But in Mauna Ragam he did manage to emote well and with Surendran dubbing for him superbly, Mohan made his mark as an actor for the 1st time.

Apart from being a trail blazer, the other thing which worked well for Mauna Ragam was its freshness in approach. Just a few characters, set in Delhi, P.C.Sriram’s cinematography, the angles, a no “big star” cast to mention a few.

While I say it was a film with no big stars, I must add though that there was one. Which was Ilayaraja’s music. The songs and the background score integrate nicely into the film and set the mood frame after frame. In that one song – “Mandram vantha thenralukku,…” Raja ably supported by Vaali with the lyrics and S.P.Balasubramaniam with his soothing voice convey the conflict in the minds of the characters so well that you end up feeling sympathetic for both of them! That Raja is the best in the business of re-recording is now beyond dispute.  He demonstrates that in many frames in this film. One such frame is vivid in my memory. In that scene (watch hereMohan asks Revathi to make her choice between “divorce” and “life with him”. As she starts signing the divorce papers, Raja uses the oft-repeated score in marriage muhurtham scenes in Tamil movies – “Maangalyam thanthunanena,…” and that too as very coarse chorus. Nobody else could have conveyed the contradiction and the battle of the mind better!

Not that the film was flawless. I always thought that Mani struggled with comedy. And soon he realized it and jettisoned attempts in forced comedy in his later movies. In this film, the comedy track with V.K.Ramaswamy and a Sardar looked very amateurish and was avoidable. Again a girl who was carrying the ghosts of a tragic love affair in the mind is shown in the initial scenes as a very happy-go-lucky person without any trace of melancholy in her mind. Now you can understand that I am nitpicking and trying desperately to be balanced!

Frankly when we watched the film for the 1st time we were speechless. And then we watched the film again. And talked about it many times over. Why write this review 30 years later, now?? Well just to thank Mani for this and the many other classics he bestowed us.

Postscript: So, it’s 30 years of Mouna Ragam, baby!” I told the wife yesterday as she is also a fan of this film. And she quipped, “Common, in January it’s going to be just 20! You forgot that we got married in 1997???” 😃😃😃