True Biopic Vs Inspired by

This Diwali, Soorarai Pottru meaning ‘Praise the Brave’, a much awaited Tamil film finally reached the audience. With theatres barely opening up few days ago amidst myriad Covid restrictions, the makers took an early call to go for an exclusive OTT release instead of a mega theatrical release. The film is based or rather inspired by Capt. Gopinath’s book Simply Fly which is his autobiography. However it is not a true biopic on Captain Gopinath whose calling card has been that of being the pioneer of low cost Aviation in India. The book Simply Fly which I just quickly glanced through in the last couple of days traces his life as a diligent child to his brief stint with the forces and then turning an entrepreneur with Deccan Helicopters and finally achieving his dream of building an affordable airline for the masses by launching Air Deccan. In the book, he outlines the travails in this journey which is certainly inspiring.

Unlike films that are released in theatres where the reception could be gauged by the Box Office numbers, for OTT releases, one has to just go by the buzz the film creates in the media and in particular Social media. So by that gauge, one must say that Soorarai Pottru has opened to positive reviews from critics and a rousing welcome overall from general audience.  At the same time, it has also drawn a huge flak particularly on Social media.

The brickbats for the film are around the way Captain Gopinath’s role is portrayed which has triggered a social media storm, if I may say, in the tea cup. The major angst is over portraying the main protagonist character played by actor Suriya not as an upper caste Brahmin which Gopinath is. In the film, the character goes by the name Nedumaaran Rajangam and is shown as belonging to the under privileged class.  The question which has been raised is, why twist the facts while basing the story on a real life individual, Captain Gopinath in this case. What’s wrong in show casing the story of a struggling upper caste individual, is the follow up question.

Here’s the thing. A biopic by definition is a film that shows the life of a person typically a public or a famous figure. A biopic follows the true life of the individual and the screen play is around actual events that took place in the person’s life. This means that such a film portrays real characters of not just the main protagonist but also others who were part of his or her life. The names are real, the time lines are accurate and reflect true events. Examples of biopics are Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi and in the recent past M.S.Dhoni based on the popular cricketer.

In a biopic, it is assumed that the makers have done enough research to portray true events based on the individual’s life and therefore must be ready for factual scrutiny. There is little or no room for creative liberties on facts that matter. Even here, based on real life incidents, film makers do resort to a bit of dramatization for effect.

On the other hand, a film like Soorarai Pottru is NOT a biopic on Captain Gopinath. It is a film that is based on his life as depicted in his book – Simply Fly. That’s all. Like how, many films are based on novels, this one is based on this book. Having bought the filming rights for the book, the makers do have the right to exercise their creative liberties to flesh out a script that can be made as interesting as possible.

Cinema is commerce. Film making apart from being an individual’s artistic pursuit, it is also business. It is an industry where there is investment and Returns On Investment. So, naturally the makers would like their films to get a reach that is as wide as possible and make them blockbusters. In that pursuit, if showcasing the protagonist to be from an under privileged class makes it more dramatic and more relatable to a wider audience, I don’t see anything wrong. Again my point is, this is justified if the film is not a biopic and is just based on some one’s life. Mani Ratnam’s Guru is loosely based on or inspired by the life of Dhirubhai Ambani but it is not a biopic on Dhirubhai. And hence we saw the many deviations and added drama in the script.

Recently, there was a Hindi film by name – Gunjan Saxena – The Kargil Girl that was released and had its own share of controversies. This film is based on the real life of Gunjan Saxena an Ex-IAF pilot. Here the problem was, the makers while calling it a biopic took too much creative liberties whereby the IAF was shown in poor light. The film also was not factual in its depiction in many aspects. So, the panning of the film was justified.  The case of Soorarai Pottru is different from Gunjan Saxena in my opinion.

Inserting a card that the film is inspired by true events and any resemblance to real life characters is purely coincidental is the maker’s way of taking anticipatory bail from probable trolling.  But, even that didn’t help in the case of Soorarai Pottru.  The makers over marketed the Captain Gopinath aspect while they completely changed the story. I also feel that they should not have used the brand ‘Air Deccan’ in the film.  But for these small issues, I don’t think the outrage over the film by section of the audience over twisting the facts regarding Captain Gopinath when it is not a biopic, is justified. Soorarai Pottru is the story of Nedumaaran Rajangam BASED on the life of Captain Gopinath and NOT the story of Captain Gopinath himself. And that’s a huge difference.

Post script: Captain Gopinath himself watched the film and he seemingly did not have any problem in the way the film has come out.

Pic Courtesy: Times of India

Death of an Emotion!

Yesterday was one of those days. That too a Saturday. I had not seen or touched the day’s newspaper till about 5.00 PM in the evening! It doesn’t happen this way. Usually, the newspaper is dissected in the early hours in the morning and by evening it is consigned to a heap meant for raddiwala. The Covid-19 pandemic has ushered in a lot of changes in our lives and lifestyles. Some temporary and some I reckon would be permanent. Our connect with the newspaper would probably fall in the latter category.

When a complete lock down was announced in March, among other things, the daily newspaper became a casualty. Media houses had to suspend printing of the newspaper and so there was no door to door distribution. For few days, there was an intense sense of withdrawal symptoms in the morning without getting to read the newspaper. And why not? After all, the daily newspaper has been a fellow traveller in our lives all these years.

When I was growing up in Trichy (Tamil Nadu), The Hindu newspaper was part of our lives. Initially for reading in detail mostly the sports column in the last page. Descriptive analysis of Rajan Bala about the previous day “Test Cricket” or Nirmal Shekhar’s take on the Tennis match the previous day were part of my daily routine. When I was over ten years, the attention started going to other pages as well to cover politics, arts, films etc. Reading of The Hindu served many purposes. Apart from helping us to keep up to date on the news and happenings of the day, it helped to polish our English language skills immensely.

When I moved to Bombay later for further studies, I had to shift from The Hindu to The Times Of India as Hindu was not available in the mornings. It was not printed in Bombay those days and the day’s edition used to come by the evening flight and was available for sale only after 3.00 PM that too in select outlets in select suburbs like Matunga. Those who have read The Hindu for long would admit that adjusting to any other newspaper was so difficult then.

Eventually that adjustment happened. So much so, reading any other newspaper then became difficult. It was the 90’s and India was witnessing the first waves of consumer boom. The manifestation of this was being witnessed in the media whether it was Television or the Newspaper.  A medium like The Times of India joined the party early, while it took a while for others and eventually almost every newspaper started emulating the Times!  I don’t want to make this piece as a commentary or comparison between different newspapers. But enough to say the newspaper would change but reading the newspaper in the morning as a habit continued to thrive all along.

This trend continued through the next two decades of the internet boom. The obituary of the newspaper has been in the works for a long time now. Particularly with the advent of the mobile phones, TABs and more importantly cheap connectivity. I don’t want to comment on other countries where the dynamics are different. But in India, even till last year, the print media readership overall grew by 4.4% over the previous year.

In spite of the possibility to read newspapers online, somehow most of us were still hooked on to reading the physical newspaper that too first thing in the morning every day. We might have caught up with the main news the previous day itself on TV and would have seen some of the headlines on social media then and there. But still, reading the newspaper was a morning fix. For many, particularly of the previous generations, newspaper in the morning with the coffee or tea had even a romantic ring to it. And for few, the daily chore of emptying their bowels would not happen without the newspaper in hand. And there are those who get depressed in the morning after a national holiday when the newspaper doesn’t make the morning appearance at the doorstep.

The pandemic though has changed everything. There was no newspaper at all till June. By then, we had survived the initial withdrawal symptoms and learnt to manage without the morning physical newspaper. After the initial few weeks, many of the media houses smartly started sending the links for their E-papers. We started reading the same though grudgingly. Then they allowed the physical printing and distribution of newspapers around July, even then there were very few takers. Considering the nature of the Corona Virus spread, newspapers were seen as a major threat. And finally around September when we all started reconciling to a co-existent life with Corona, we allowed newspapers to be distributed as before. But then somethings have changed at least for me.

At home, I don’t rush to the door in the morning to pick up the newspaper when the bell goes. The newspaper remains at the door for a long time till one of us remembers to pick it up.  Even after that, it is left in a corner untouched for some time. And after few hours during breaks, I glance through it very quickly.

Yesterday was one of those days when I didn’t look at the paper till evening! Today is a Sunday and as I type this piece, I have still not read today’s newspaper. What a climb down from a time when during weekends we used to call for an additional newspaper like The Indian Express in addition to the regular newspaper and spend more than an hour poring over from top to bottom. Post Covid, things may be limping back to normal. Newspaper business may not be dead yet. But I can vouch that the newspaper emotion is dead.  Do you agree?

33 Years of Nayagan and its lasting impact!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pic credit: New Indian Express

Tanishq Ekatvam – Anatomy of the Campaign!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

The “Singhamisation” of police!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Social Media monster!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 How much of social media is too much?

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

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

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

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

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

The New Age Circus!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How wrong he was!

All News is just Entertainment masquerading as nothing!

Cartoon credit: Satish Acharya

Ram Mandir and the Positioning battles!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cartoon credit: Satish Acharya

Taming the Dragon!

This is intended to be a sequel to my last week’s blog– Return of the Dragon. If you haven’t read it, please read here.

The military standoff between India and China at the border is slowly turning into a diplomatic one with both sides waiting for other side to blink first. Marathon disengagement talks are going in parallel with coercive military build-up on both sides. And in India, we have set in motion a slew of things in an effort to “tame the Dragon”.  But what real options do we have to tame the Dragon?

I remember vividly that whenever we used to have these military tensions with Pakistan triggered by some terrorist attack, though we are a militarily and economically stronger nation, experts would say that a full blown war with Pakistan is not an option between two nuclear powered countries. At the same time, we were told that we must raise the cost for Pakistan to carry out terrorist activities, whatever that means. Since there is little economic activity going on between India and Pakistan, it doesn’t really make any difference to Pakistan even if we sever all economic ties.

Between India and China too, a full blown war is out of question considering the fact that we are both nuclear powers. The issue of longstanding boundary dispute can be resolved through talks and diplomatic efforts. But, since both countries cannot give up even a square inch of land, a solution to the boundary dispute is not coming any soon. Under these circumstances, the best option which is face saving for both is achieving Status Quo Ante!

At the same time, while pursuing diplomatic engagement to get the troops back to where we were before this round of escalation, it is necessary for India to raise the costs for China to deter it from indulging in border escalations.  This, I believe can happen only on the trade front.  On the trade front, I believe that China has more to lose than India if relations are spoilt.  And this is opposite to what the commentariat in the India media feel. That being the case, what are some of the options?

  • China is an exporting economy. For the past few years (coincidentally since Xi took over in 2012), the Chinese economy has been floundering, after years of high growth. Under the circumstances, it cannot shut business with a country like India which is poised to be the most populous country in the world soon. In 2019, we imported US$75 billion worth of goods from China. Those who say that this is miniscule compared to the total exports of US$2.5 Trillion China does, are missing the larger point. As globalisation weakens and Nationalism grows and in particular when large economies like the US, Japan and Germany are talking of de-risking from China in the wake of Covid-19, spoiling trade relations with India and denting the prospects for trade growth is the last thing China can afford. So, leverage on this aspect.
  • A quick look at the last quarter’s import data shows that Electronic Components, Telecom Instruments, Industrial Machinery, Computer Hardware and Peripherals are the top 5 categories of imports from China and take up almost 33% of total imports. As a country, we must roll out a solid, strategic plan for developing the domestic Electronic Hardware manufacturing industry. This cannot happen overnight. But can happen with a vision and a roll out plan in the next ten years. Considering the fact that the role of electronics, is on the continuous rise in every aspect of our life and every aspect of engineering, the scope for just catering to the domestic market and then emerge as a competitive, key part of global supply chains is huge. There has been talks in the past to build a globally competitive electronic manufacturing industry in India but this is the right time to translate those talks into actions on the ground.
  • Ever since, we lost lives of our soldiers in the border standoff, the cries of “Boycott China goods” have become louder and more visible. A total and real boycott of these is not neither feasible nor advisable under the current circumstances. Chinese components are a key cog in the Indian manufacturing wheel today.  Instead, whatever government does needs to be only “covert” and not overt. In short, kick off “Salaami slicing” in aspects of trade and commerce.
    • For example, for all government purchases, government cannot openly declare that it will not buy “Made in China” products. However, it can signal a preference to “Made in India” products.
    • Just last week, government made it mandatory for sellers to indicate the “Country of Origin” for their products offered on the GEM (Government E Marketplace) portal. While this was touted as a move to promote the Prime Minister’s Atma Nirbhar Bharat vision, that it was a move to identify products coming from China was not lost on trade observers. Government can do more covert actions like this.
    • For big infrastructure projects, go slow on Chinese companies. (There are many ways of doing this)

  • In the private consumption space, there is a groundswell of opinion among the common public against Chinese products. Usually this sentiment is very temporary. But now, as the government cannot take part directly in festering any Anti-China emotion, it can use the party, its loyal trade bodies and Non-profit bodies to do the job in keeping the sentiment alive for a long time. Though in terms of dollar terms, the reduction in imports in the consumer goods space may not be significant for China as a country, any reduction in demand and orders particularly with the weakening demand due to Covid-19, will affect the Chinese sellers. For example, for the upcoming festival season in India, even if the orders are reduced by half than usual for the many consumer items including domestic appliances, garments, plastics, gift items, decorative items etc. it will be significant blow.  And if that demand turns into orders for Indian manufacturers, it will also aid the economy here.
  • Creating stumbling blocks for Chinese origin businesses like more scrutiny of compliance matters is another way of covert signalling. For example, just last week, without citing any reason, India customs officials said that there could be delays in clearance of goods imported from China. Moves like these will raise the costs for those importing Chinese goods in India and indirectly act as a deterrent for promoting those products in India in the long run. Here, I would like to add that these moves cannot be sustainable in the long run. But, in the short term helps in messaging. And the Indian government doing this now is a smart thing to do. Manufacturing activity and demand in India is any way weak and tepid at this point in time. So, any delay of a few days here and there is not going the move the dial significantly. I am sure that this will be a short term prick rather than a long term change in process.

Now, there is a distinct possibility that China does retaliatory moves (we hear, it is already acting on delaying customs clearance of goods from India). But as I mentioned, today, India imports 5 times more than it exports. So, as of today, it hurts China more than it hurts India. Of course the imported goods are a part of the Indian economic activity and hence any delay or disruption affects those who are in that sector. It is a small cost to pay compared to the cost our defence forces pay with their lives at the border securing our sovereignty.

In conclusion, to tame the Dragon, we must first believe we can, punch above our weight and play to our strengths as a large consuming and growing economy. “Challenge is a dragon with a gift in its mouth. Tame the dragon and the gift is yours” goes a saying. Time to replace the word Challenge with China?

Return of the Dragon!

For few months now, China has been in the news mostly for all wrong reasons. First, due to the way it handled the initial outbreak of the Corona Virus and now for the LAC row.  Ever since the Corona virus became a pandemic bringing the entire world to its knees, there has been a perceptible anti-China sentiment in most parts of the world. In the midst of fighting this perception battle, China also has been engaging in turf wars.  The obvious question is, why would an embattled China engage itself in these activities at a time like this? I am no foreign affairs/Geo political/Defence/Strategic affairs expert. But as an avid follower of current affairs, it is not too difficult to understand the predicament of China, at least towards India.

Consider the following chronology of events (Aap Chronology samaj lijiye):

  • In 2013, China announces its One Belt One Road project (OBOR), now known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This was aimed at connecting China with important cities and ports in Asia and Europe through maritime corridors and shipping routes. All of the neighbours of India like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan with the exception of Bhutan have joined this initiative.
  • In 2017, India announced its decision not to join this China’s ambitious programme on account of strategic reasons – read as “National Interest”. Not just that, India did not send even a representative to attend the launch summit which was attended by many countries which were not part of BRI. (The project is in tatters with some participants expressing concern over the large debt trap they were walking into)
  • In June 2017, India and China got into a border standoff at Doklam when India objected to the alteration of status quo by China, in constructing a road in Doklam at the trijunction border area. “Operation Juniper” was launched by India whereby, several companies of Indian soldiers crossed over to the Doklam area of Bhutan to prevent the construction. The standoff continued for two months and after hectic diplomatic parleys between India and China, the standoff ended with the halting of the road construction.
  • September 2017: India relaxes its rules relating to obtaining forests clearance for infrastructure and army projects along the LAC in a bid to speed up construction.
  • August 2019: Fresh from the re-election, Modi government changes the status quo of Jammu and Kashmir. As part of that, Ladakh region becomes a Union territory directly under the Central government. Though this is an internal re-organisation, the impact of this move on China was not lost on anyone. During the parliament speech, Home Minister Amit Shah thunders that whenever he refers to Jammu and Kashmir, it includes POK and Aksai Chin.
  • In November 2019, India opts out of the negotiating table of RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) ostensibly due to the China factor. One of the main reasons from the Indian side is to protect Indian industry and farmers from a surge in Chinese imports, if a free trade pact is signed.
  • February 2020: In the Union Budget, Customs duty on Toys was hiked from 20 percent to 60% to curb Chinese imports. Similarly 10 to 20 percent hike in few other product categories where China was the chief exporter.
  • Mar 2020: In the wake of Covid-19, QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) originally intended to be among United States, Japan, Australia and India) got upgraded to Quad Plus to include New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam. The conference calls, aside from discussing the fall out of the pandemic has also been seen as an opportunity for India to enhance its strategic weight in the Indian Ocean region.
  • April 2020: India revised its Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) rules to prevent “Opportunistic take overs” of firms who have become vulnerable due to Covid-19 triggered business slowdown. This was few days after People’s Bank of China increased its shareholding in HDFC. The move for obvious reasons irked China.

In between all this we also had informal summits between Modi and Xi in Ahmedabad, Wuhan and last year in Chennai, multi-fold increase in FDI from China into manufacturing and construction projects and start-ups and so on.

In Marketing and Public Relations, there is a strategy which is adopted by large corporations. Which is to “Say one thing in public and do exactly the opposite” in a bid to catch the competition on the wrong foot. I forget the exact name for this strategy but let me call it “Marketing by Deceit” TM for want of a better term. This strategy cannot be used by the same company repeatedly but to be used like a onetime Brahmastra!

If you see India’s strategy, it has been something like this. While, we have tried to engage with China to improve trade and diplomatic relations overtly, we have also tried to secure our National interests in matters of strategic concern. I am surprised that this point is lost even on expert commentators who keep referring to Modi’s photo-ops with Xi.

If I were an official in the Ministry of Foreign affairs in China in charge of India, I obviously would be concerned by the above timeline events. Combined with the pressures around the spread of Corona Virus, it is not an enviable situation to be in. As a wannabe dominant power, China wouldn’t like to show that it is embattled or weakened at this point in time. So, the approach of “Offence is the best form of defence” not just in the Indian borders but in Senkaku Islands, in Taiwan and South China seas etc.

Ergo, our attempts at the LAC to up our infrastructure has been faced with a belligerent China. For both the countries, this development comes at a wrong time. Not just India, but China also is facing the ills of a plummeting economy now for few years. Both the countries are also in the midst of fighting the world’s worst pandemic. Hence better sense has to prevail at both sides to avoid a full blown war.

For India and the government, it is paramount to protect the sovereignty of the nation without getting engaged in a bloody battle. In Arthasasthra, Kautilya aka Chanakya says, “Do not reveal what you have thought upon doing. But by wise counsel, keep it secret being determined to carry it into execution!” In line with this, I believe the government will do what it should in India’s National interest without being overt about it in an All-party meeting or in a media conference.  It is laughable that the opposition and the commentariat being hell bent to know what the government is intending to do to resolve the standoff.

In India, Bruce Lee’s film was released as ‘Return of the Dragon’ as a sequel to his earlier hit ‘Enter the Dragon’! But in Chinese and in the original version released in the United States, it was ‘Way of the Dragon’!  Even in real life, between 1962 and now, let there be no doubt that it is the “Way” and not the “Return”. So, our Statecraft must be prepared to deal with this.

Pic Courtesy: India Today