The new LCS Trinity in the Carnatic World!

In the Carnatic music world, the Trinity refers of course to the three legendary composers – Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Sastri. So, what is this new LCS Trinity I am talking about? Read on.

With the Covid pandemic stretching itself for close to two years now, there is hardly a domain in the world that it would not have disrupted. The world of Carnatic music is not an exception. Concerts typically involve gathering of people and travel – both of which were subjected to restrictions due to Covid.  The result – For the rasikas, no opportunity to sink their heart, mind and soul in some peaceful music in person and for the musicians no opportunity to perform live in front of an audience and revel in their applause.  Suddenly, the musicians found that they had a lot of time in their hands when lockdown happened.

This is not the case however for most of the Carnatic musicians usually. In normal times, their schedules are packed with live concerts throughout the year within and outside India.  The rise of the Indian diaspora, with a substantial chunk of them with origins from the south of the Vindhyas, has set the demand for Carnatic musicians outside of India soaring beyond imagination since the beginning of this millennium.

I would imagine that for most of the Carnatic artists, a typical year would look like this at normal times. Starting from November till Mid-January is when they would be stay put in Chennai, the global epicentre of Carnatic music, to be part of the “December Music Season”.  After this season is over, from Mid-January to end March is the window available for the musicians to perform in other cities in India. In between, you also have the Annual Thyagaraja Aradhana festival at Thiruvaiyaru which is also now being held simultaneously in other cities where usually the musicians participate. This period is also the season for Temple Ulsavams in Kerala. And Carnatic musicians of all hue make their presence felt in kutcheries as part of the ten day Ulsavam festivities.

Come April, it is the onset of summer in most parts of India and musicians travel to other parts of the world to perform during this window. Again in April during the Easter break, The Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival, which is touted to be the largest Indian classical music festival outside of India is scheduled, where many leading Carnatic exponents participate year after year.  By September/October with the onset of the festival season in India starting with Ganesh Chaturti and followed by Navarathri, you will find most of the musicians back to their bases to participate in concerts organised around these festivals in different cities. And in November, it is time to prepare for the “Season” ahead.

So, with this type of a crowded calendar, a typical Carnatic musician is so busy that he/she doesn’t have the time to think of anything else apart being in Pack-Travel-Perform-Repeat mode. But this was all before the global disruptor called Covid came and upset the rhythm of this well set routine.

During the pandemic induced lockdown since March last year, with more time and bandwidth at their disposal, Carnatic musicians have tried to re-invent and re-engineer themselves in more ways than one. Just like how the JAM (Jandhan-Aadhaar-Mobile) trinity helped the government to reach social benefits directly to those in need more efficiently, I would say that the LCS (Lockdown-Connectivity- Social Media) trinity has come in handy for the artists to stay connected with their audience. Many of the leading musicians lapped up this opportunity with both their hands and became social media savvy in this period.  Though most of them existed in social media before also, they now have started using it to converse with the rasikas and not just use it to put out schedules and other announcements like they did before.

T.M.Krishna, usually active on social media continued to engage with his rasikas during the pandemic period with his singing bits and in fact did a few fund raiser gigs streaming from home to support fellow artists who were deprived of income during the pandemic. The singer duo of Ranjani-Gayatri put out quite a bit of content on social media for listeners to watch and enjoy.  Trichur Brothers – Srikrishna Mohan and Ramkumar Mohan have been very regular in uploading their singing videos on social media.  Vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan, through a series of webinars answered questions of rasikas on various aspects of Carnatic music in general and his music in particular while explaining the technicalities of the form.  Rajesh Vaidya became an instant hit with his short and sweet “Do you have a minute?” series where he plays bits of hit film songs and puts them out almost every day. Veena exponent Dr. Jayanthi Kumaresh is another musician who has been extremely active on social media since the pandemic in engaging with her rasikas.

We could also get a glimpse of the other sides of the artists as well. Famed singer Sudha Raghunathan let us enter into her kitchen with her short videos of singing while cooking.  She also displayed her anchoring skills by doing online interviews with a wide range of interesting personalities.  Singer Unnikrishnan, apart from showcasing the talent of his daughter Uthara through joint singing sessions, also showed that he is a fitness freak by regularly posting his work out videos.

Among the Carnatic musicians, if I have to pick up one musician who stood out in engaging with the rasikas during the last few months, it would be Carnatic vocalist Sanjay Subramanyam.  Using a combination of his own pleasing personality, savvy marketing and smart use of social media, Sanjay constantly upped the ante in terms of rasika engagement. While in the initial few months of the lockdown, he was putting out some of his old recorded videos, he then started investing a lot of time and effort on this with a help of a social media team and started putting out fresh and interesting content which stand out on a regular basis.

In a series of short 2 odd minute videos titled “On That Note”, Sanjay narrates interesting side stories and episodes from his life including some of his interactions with legends like M.S.Subbalakshmi, M.L. Vasanthakumari etc.  Similarly, “Short Notes” – another series of short videos where he takes up a raga and sings few phrases, is now a huge hit among his followers. He typically ends these notes with phrases from Maestro Ilaiyaraaja’s hit songs in the same raga. In some of his videos and interviews he has mentioned that he is an unapologetic fan of Ilaiyaraaja and #RajaisGod is his favourite hashtag which he uses often on Twitter.  It is interesting to see Sanjay bringing out such nuances from film music which otherwise is not possible to appreciate for an ordinary music listener who is not trained in Carnatic music.  I can see that this aspect of highlighting the Carnatic influence on film music has become a huge hit among his followers.

In continuing with his rasika engagement efforts, he has started a paid channel – “Sanjay Sabha” where full-fledged professionally recorded concerts are put out regularly for people to pay and watch.  All this has culminated now with a series of live concerts in Chennai as part of “Sanjay Sabha” for the ongoing music season. From the social media conversations on his handles, it is clear that these efforts have generated a lot of interest and chatter among music followers.

One can also see that his web site is regularly updated to the last detail in terms of events, schedules and other press notes. Sanjay also keeps penning his thoughts on a blog and the last one was about the experience of taking the stage for a live concert after two years! Even for a seasoned musician like Sanjay, there is a re-discovery and rebirth, I reckon.  I do recall that in the dotcom boom period in the late 90’s, Sanjay ran the web site on Carnatic music where he answered questions from rasikas and put out some content. But I guess over a period of time, the site met a gradual death. So now in the back of the LCS trinity he is now back with his site with a slew of offerings and content of interest to the rasikas and I am sure that this inning will be longer and permanent.

The pandemic will hopefully end soon but I hope that the engagement kicked off by the musicians will continue even in the post Covid era with the help of the CS (Connectivity-Social Media) duo.  This will go a long way in mainstreaming Carnatic music and further open it up to a newer audiences.

Postscript: It’s not my take that the LCS Trinity is exclusive to Carnatic world or something like that.  It is relevant to many other fields as well. I have just tried to explain how LCS has helped to transform even a very traditional domain like Carnatic music.

Image Courtesy: Outlook India

HNY to HNQ??

As I sit to pen my first blog for this year in the early days of another New Year, I am reminded of my first post for the last year which was titled “Thank God it’s a New Year”! That time (1st week of 2021) we were just coming off what appeared like a terrible year. The entire world was disrupted by the global pandemic in a scale not seen or heard in many, many decades.  But then by January, we already were recovering and started gradually getting back to pre-Covid way of living. Lockdowns were over, travel started and so on. So, the theme of my piece then was that the worst was behind us and we must thank God that we are in a New Year and raring to go.

In the year 2021, we did finish the first quarter on a high. There was optimism all-around of a sharp turn around. But then, just in a few weeks, the world in general and India in particular was mauled by the 2nd wave.  I shudder to recount the horrifying things which were happening around us in the months of April/May/June/July. Enough to say that the cursed tentacles of the virus were still spreading all over spelling doom on all recovery predictions.  Drawing room conversations were all around the availability of vaccines and the time when vaccines will provide an eventual shield for the virus.

If we recall, by the third Quarter of 2021 however, things on the ground started changing rapidly. The vaccination pace picked up dramatically with better availability of vaccines by August. And we were talking about flattening the curve for the second time. Through the festival season in the months of October/November the mood was upbeat and we could start seeing the recovery even in “Contact sensitive sectors” like travel, tourism and so on.

Things started dramatically changing again with the discovery of the Omicron variant in South Africa in early December. And towards the end of December and as we speak now, we are witnessing another rapid spike in cases and preparing ourselves for the inevitable third wave!  If you have been following the IMF predictions for the global economy and specific countries through the pandemic, you will realise that they have been changing their forecasts every quarter up and down. Now, what am I trying to drive at here?

With such an uncertainty in the world triggered by a virus and its variants today and it could be something else tomorrow what does it leave for long range planning for a country /company /household etc.?  It is tough. To elucidate this point let me talk about the way Indian government handled the economic support during the pandemic versus some of the larger well to do countries. When the pandemic struck in March 2020, big economies like the US, Canada and European countries who could afford, opted for cash transfer to its people to pump prime the demand and therefore the economy. Some of the Non-resident Economists of Indian origin of the likes of Dr. Raghuram Rajan, Dr. Kaushik Basu and Dr. Abhijit Banerjee also advocated this route for India and were extremely critical of the Narendra Modi government for not going the whole hog and opting for a more calibrated “Drip support” approach.

In this approach, instead of direct cash transfer, the government opted for free supply of rations to the needy and generous support of working capital to ensure that the businesses stay afloat. There were also moratoriums on loan repayments for most part of the year 2020. The logic of the economic think tank that included the likes of Dr. Bibek Debroy (Chairman – PM’s Economic Council) , Sanjeev Sanyal (Principal Economic advisor in the Finance Ministry) and Dr Krishnamurthy Subramanian (Chief Economic Advisor) was to take one step at a time when how the virus situation will pan out was uncertain, uncertainty being the key word. The time period for which any support was to be provided was not clear. Also another important thing, during the pandemic induced lockdowns, the issue was in the supply side largely. People stopped going to salons during the pandemic not because they didn’t have money. The same logic can be extrapolated to other service sectors as well. So, the idea was to keep the powder dry for eventualities in the future. As per IMF’s Dr. Gita Gopinath, large economies including the US have no more leg room left to keep supporting the economy and hence are facing an imminent challenge if the virus continues to hold sway. I must say therefore that the Indian think tank certainly stand vindicated on this account when we had to contend with the second wave and now the third wave.

My point therefore is, are long term planning or Annual plans relevant anymore? Things on the ground change so dramatically and drastically these days that any assumption for the better or worse of the future happenings is proved wrong very quickly. Since in India we understand similes from Bollywood easily, let me give an example. RRR is the next film after Bahubali from the ace director Rajamouli. This is also a magnum opus that has been made in multiple languages. Obviously due to the huge budget involved, it had to opt for a theatrical release and was planned for a release in January. The entire team was seen doing mega roadshows in different cities as part of the promotion for whole of December. But then, I see today that they have taken a call to postpose the release due to the like increase of restrictions in many cities due to the Covid surge of late! So it is a matter of few weeks for things to change for the fate of a film that was on the works for five years!

Even in the context of business in the pre-Covid times, I have not been a big fan of rigorous annual planning as, over a period of time, I have seen that assumptions and market conditions change drastically leaving the annual plans as an academic exercise. Now in the post Covid New normal, I feel that time has come to focus on QSQT (Quarter Se Quarter Tak).  While an overall Annual plan can be made for directional purposes, the drilling down of everything to quarters and months and weeks is a wasteful exercise in my opinion. In the sense does it make sense to assume that Omicron is not going to impact the economy so much and plan expenses accordingly for the coming fiscal year? Or we in any position to comment the recurrence of any new waves in the future? Instead in the current situation, whether it is the country or corporation or housing society or our own house hold we may be better off to keep the horizon of three months and take it from one quarter to another. On that note, wishing you all a Happy and contented New Year or should I say Happy New Quarter (HNQ)?

Image courtesy: Kat Millar.com

When Farm laws became Former laws and the lessons therein!

Guru Nanak Jayanti henceforth, will have an additional reason for celebration for many. Apart from celebrating the revered Sikh Guru on his birthday, the day will be also be remembered and celebrated for bringing Narendra Modi’s strong government down on his knees. This week on the day of Gurpurab, the Prime Minister chose to announce the repealing of the three farm laws which were meant to reform agriculture. This after almost 18 months of relentless protests by farmers mainly in Punjab, Haryana and Western UP. That the government had to finally relent and nullify the laws is unfortunate.  From here on, it is going to be tougher for this government to push through reforms of any nature. The opposition and the other adversaries have smelt blood and have found the soft underbelly of this government and hence a template for pressurising this government.

Farmers celebrate after India’s Prime Minister announced to repeal three agricultural reform laws that sparked almost a year of huge protests by farmers across the country in Singhu on November 19, 2021. (Photo by Xavier Galiana / AFP) (Photo by XAVIER GALIANA/AFP via Getty Images)

This means that moving forward, the Government needs to be inventive and creative in pushing through contentious reforms and bills so that the same fiasco is not repeated. And here are some unsolicited, practical ideas to the government to help push path breaking but contentious reform bills:

  1. Say No to Ordinance: The word “Ordinance” immediately raises the antenna of the opposition and commentators in civil society who deride anything that is an ordinance. Even if it’s a legitimate cause, pushing it through the ordinance route, unnecessarily gives it a colour of conspiracy.  If the Government opted for the Ordinance route to save time, then it is ill intentioned. In India, in matters of reforms, we are used to passing laws after 10 years of debates and discussions. So, trying to cut a few months of time by opting for the ordinance route is not worthwhile. And as we have seen in the Land acquisition bill and now in the farm laws, ordinance route has not helped at all. Considering the fact that the government has a comfortable majority on its own in the lower house and can manage a majority in the upper house, it is wiser to table the laws in both the houses, do some discussion and pass them as laws legitimately.
  2. Roll the red carpet to “Select Committees”: Opposition parties have egos. And egos need to be massaged often. What’s the other better option for this than rolling out the red carpet to “Select Committees”? In your planning cycle for tabling a bill that is reformist in nature and which will attract the ire of the opposition, buffer in certain time for sending the bill to “Select Committees”. It is usually said that “When a government cannot commit, it committees!” I would say that even when a government is clear in its mind and can commit, it should “committee” so that the opposition feels that they have been consulted and the law has been passed after due process. Now the flip side of this is possible dilution of certain provisions which may distort the intent of the law itself as we saw in the case of the “Land Acquisition bill” which the UPA government passed.  Ultimately it has become an ineffective piece of legislation that is the reason for delays in many of the infrastructure projects that are underway. But here again, I would say that with the numbers on its side, the opinions and recommendations of the Select committees can be managed in its favour by the government and in case there are some genuine provisions that need correction, that is welcome.
  3. Head hunt key opposition leaders to be ambassadors: Most of the reforms that are being brought about by the government are long pending once that have been talked about for a long time now. So, in public domain we can always check if any key opposition leader had a favourable view on the subject. It is important to head hunt such leaders and co-opt them as ambassadors for the law by reaching out to them before the law is tabled in parliament. This will not only divide the opposition but will also help in influencing public opinion in favour of the intended reforms. For example, in the case of farm laws, it is known to all that Sharad Pawar when he was the Minister of Agriculture had talked in favour of some of the provisions in these laws. So when Pawar expressed his reservations on the farm bills, the first attempt of the ruling party leaders was to expose his hypocrisy. Instead of that, the government should have reached out to him and sought his support before the bills were tabled. He could also have been used to influence other parties and fence sitters could have been won over. This approach needs a bit of deft floor management and handling of the opposition which I feel is lacking with the Modi government presently.
  4. Cherry pick opinion leaders to influence opinion: During UPA-1, the nuclear bill which Manmohan Singh was personally championing got into rough weather when its own allies from the Left were opposing the bill tooth and nail. The principal opposition party then which was the BJP, also took an opposing view though it was NDA under Vajpayee rule that had sown the seeds for engagement with the US on the nuclear front. In a masterstroke that set the cat among the pigeons in the BJP camp, Sanjaya Baru the media advisor to Manmohan Singh then, reached out to Brajesh Mishra, who was the National Security Advisor to Vajpayee and a vocal supporter of the nuclear bill. Brajesh Mishra came out openly in the press to support the nuclear bill which took the sting out of the BJP attack in the parliament and outside. The present government can take a page out of this play book and cherry pick opinion leaders from civil society to come out in the open to support the proposed reforms. While on this I must add here that many commentators who were in some point of time votaries of the farm bills turned their back and changed their opinion just because the reforms were brought by the Modi government.  This sort of exposed the intellectual dishonesty of such commentators and this is another reason why I advocate that it is important to cherry pick and co-opt some of these commentators who can influence public opinion.
  5. Debate and Debate: I have been reading that the farm laws were passed by the Modi government without any debate or discussions with the stake holders. A lie repeated often becomes the truth. This government might not have debated the bill in the floor of the house during this regime but the subject of agri reforms and the need to reform the APMC act have been discussed and debated enough since 2000. One has to just read this finely detailed paper titled “An intellectual biography of India’s new farm laws” by Gautam Chikarmane to understand the chronology and the journey of these laws. My proposal is, for future even if the need for a reform has been discussed many times, provision a few weeks for repeating the same in the parliament in your regime. Because in India, carrying out the debate in the floor of the parliament is supreme, notwithstanding the quality and the purpose it serves.

The government has its plate full in terms of the reforms agenda in the months to come.  Opposition parties and other interested parties can and will try to follow the SOP of the farm bills in derailing these reforms in the remainder of this term of the government. Therefore it is important that hard lessons are learnt to ensure that this government under Modi is not seen just as a harbinger of “former laws”!

Pic Courtesy: Forbes India

The Anti-Climax of a Rajinikanth Film!

First up, I haven’t seen Annaatthe – Rajinikanth’s latest film to have hit the big screens all over the world during the festive Deepavali week. So, this is not “My Flash Review” of the film. However ever since the film got released on the 4th, I have seen quite a few reviews – both of the professional reviewers and the social media type. And mostly they have not been charitable about the film. In fact, they have all trashed the film. Herein lies a tale of irony.

Among the Tamil speaking audience not just in Tamil Nadu but all over the world, Rajinikanth has been a huge phenomenon for many years now. No other star has been able to get the kind of adulation he gets, till now. In fact, over the years his appeal has spread to other South Indian states and now even to other parts of India.  So, when a Rajini film is about to be released, there is this huge expectation. And this expectation gets hyped up and amplified in the new age digital era with the release of First looks, Teasers, Singles, Trailers and Making videos which flood our screens before the release through well-orchestrated PR campaigns.

One would argue that the trend is the same for all popular stars today who use social media to the hilt to create a buzz before release. But in the case of a Rajini film, other than the hard core fans (which every star can boast of), the excitement extends beyond his loyal fans. It extends to common public, youth, children, elders and even IT Professionals!  The countdown starts as soon as the release date is announced.

First there is frenzy and craze for booking the tickets for the opening weekend and then there is this craze for the FDFS (First Day First Show) tickets. The whole experience of watching a Rajini film wherever in the world FDFS is completely different. Since this has been written often enough, I am not dwelling into the same here. And those who watch the film FDFS also take it upon themselves the onerous responsibility of giving a ball by ball update of the film from inside the theatres through social media with pictures, clips and what not. The result – the verdict on the film is almost out within three hours of the release. The irony of Rajini films in the recent past has been this “Verdict”.

The fact of the matter is since the film Sivaji – The Boss in 2007, we are yet to see a fully enjoyable “Rajini padam”. Enthiran was also good and enjoyable but I would call it as a Shankar film rather than a Rajini film. If you see the films since then which are Lingaa, Kabali, Kaala, 2.0, Petta, Darbar and now Annaatthe we can see  a pattern. A pattern of the films weighed down by some huge expectations and then flattering to deceive. I am not getting into the debate of Box Office collections or profits these films made because they are subject to interpretations and fair data are seldom available in open domain. We can’t get into conclusions with the available “convenient” data.  So, instead of calling them as flops or failures, let me call them as “Underwhelming” films.

In the above seven films, Ranjith’s films – Kabali and Kaala were disappointing not for the same reasons as the other five. Ranjith tried to capitalise on the Rajini persona with a matching character, imagined Rajini and cast based on his actual or close to actual age and did not make him dance and prance with heroines one third his age. The problem in these films as per me was Ranjith not knowing what to do in the screenplay while untying the knots at the end, resulting in both films promising a lot but leaving us disappointed at the end.

The other five films can be grouped together and they suffered from what I call as the “Fan Boy Director” syndrome.  The directors of these films namely K.S.Ravikumar, Karthik Subbaraj, A.R.Murugadoss and now Siva see themselves as fiercest fans of Rajini first and then as his director. And herein lies the problem. When they wear their fan boy hats, they only see the form of Rajini which they enjoyed way back in the 90’s.  The script takes a backseat. Showing Rajini as this larger than life mass hero of the 90’s takes prominence. In my opinion, this concept is done to death in movies like Annamalai, Baasha, Muthu, Padayappa, Yajaman and in even Arunachalam where a template of “Riches to Rags to Riches” (R3) formula was used to good effect.

We are in 2021. In my opinion, only those in the age bracket of 40-60’s now can relate to the 90’s nostalgically like the directors. Children in the teens today were not born then and they can’t understand the brouhaha over a film like Yajaman!  Similarly the youth in the 20’s and probably 30’s were toddlers then and so cannot relate to the Rajini –Meena romance in Muthu or a Rajini-Khushbu kadavule kadavule chemistry in Annamalai.

This is the BTS (Bangstan Boys) or PUBG generation. To them, trying to bring back the nostalgia of the 80’s and 90’s by rehashing some of the earlier themes in my opinion just doesn’t work. Even for those in the 50’s, having seen many of Rajini’s films in the past, we would like to see him in substantive roles rather than doing the same thing again and again. Here, I would also like to add that it is not necessary that in these times of feminism, social media activism and wokeism, yesteryear super-duper hits of Rajini like Padayappa and Annamalai may meet with the same response today.  Some of these films haven’t aged well, frankly.

I would suggest therefore, that Rajini provided his health permitting, follows the playbook of Amitabh Bachchan who still rules Bollywood but, qualitatively and not quantitatively.  Following the footsteps of Amitabh is nothing new for Rajini. In the 70’s and 80’s many of Rajini’s super hits in Tamil were remakes of the “Angry Young Man” films of Amitabh. Just that when Amitabh’s glory as a hero waned off in the 90’s, Rajini had to look elsewhere for his scripts and landed up with the “R3” template.

Today, Amitabh is not necessarily cast as the main protagonist but is always cast in a role in which he can make a difference.  Which means that directors finish the script and approach him for casting if he is suited for it and not the other way about as it is the case for Rajini today. Mostly, directors and producers get the nod from Rajini based on a broad story line and then they try to fit in Rajini, the mass hero into a templated script. This also means casting the most popular lady as the heroine invariably, crowding the film with popular co-actors whether the script demands or not,  filling in with frivolous comedy tracks thereby shooting the budget to astronomical proportions. This in turn raises the expectations of the entire supply chain and as we have seen, the film wilts under the weight of its own expectations.

Even in the last few films, one thing which is still going, is Rajinikanth himself.  No one is still questioning the power of his screen presence or his energy or even his capability. What is under scanner for sure is his judgement of scripts and roles. So, at the December of his career, Rajinikanth can decide to write the climax of his career differently by being more discreet and choosy. After all, we don’t want this climax to become an Anti-Climax!

Tata…, Air India!

The last time I flew Air India was before the pandemic to Shanghai from Delhi and return. The reason to fly Air India was obvious. There were no direct flights from Mumbai to Shanghai (Yes, surprise of surprise, after Jet Airways stopped flying this sector) and to save time on transit, it made better sense to fly to Delhi and take the direct flight to Shanghai. For most of us, the reason to opt for Air India for international flights, particularly when travelling for business/work would be this.  In the absence of a better option and not necessarily being the first choice.

The other set of non-business travelers from India (Students, Senior Citizens, vacationers) opt for Air India for cheaper fares or the extra baggage allowance which comes handy.  In the past one or two decades, rarely I have seen or heard anyone opting to fly Air India for its superior service or for the flying experience.  And herein lies the sad and sordid tale of Air India as a National carrier of India. If this is the situation with Indians, one can imagine where Air India would stack up in the minds of foreigners.

The situation was not so bad all along for Air India. During my MBA days, way back in 1990, we did a survey of air travelers in Mumbai as part of a marketing project. International travel was not common those days as it is now. I vividly remember that Air India fared very well in terms of perception and I guess those were the heady days for the Maharaja. But in the subsequent years as International air travel picked up and when the market was actually exploding in India post liberalisation, Air India was imploding.

The reasons for the rot in Air India have been chronicled well in Jitender Bhargava’s (Former Executive Director of Air India) book – The Descent of Air India. In a deadly cocktail of an indifferent and unaccountable Top management, political interference and string pulling and a demotivated and tired staff, there was only one direction the airline was heading – southwards. Of course, he argues that the descent was accelerated by ill-timed and ill-advised decisions including purchase of new fleet at uncompetitive prices and signing of non-profitable bilateral agreements during the UPA regime.  Irrespective of the political regime, it is a known fact that PSUs like Air India and ITDC were treated like personal fiefdoms by both the executive and the bureaucracy to further their own personal interests.

Now and then, different governments have tried to revive Air India by blowing money on marketing campaigns and taking advantage of exclusive route agreements.  The Air India marketing campaigns have always been top notch. But as I have said before, the best marketing campaigns cannot save a floundering product. Some of the attractive routes, Delhi-San Francisco for example, are profitable and well sought after by Indians but such far and few successes in between cannot sustain a full airline.

The present sad state of affairs at Air India, the losses it has accumulated, the capital it guzzles on a monthly basis, the struggles of the staff in getting salaries on time etc. have been documented well overall and hence not repeating those points here. Enough to say that if there was any company which the Government of India should disinvest and exit in a hurry, it was Air India. So after a few attempts in that direction right from the first time under the Vajpayee’s regime to Modi’s current run, finally the disinvestment of Air India is a reality.

 

Air India is Ghar Wapsi for the Tatas. The story of how Tata Airlines became Air India by a forced nationalisation is also well documented. It will be interesting to observe how the Tatas embrace Air India and more importantly turn it around quickly. For Ratan Tata, there is an emotional connect with Air India. But then, we know how just having emotional connect doesn’t help in business. It calls for a Himalayan effort to start from scratch, change the culture, compete and build a world class airline. Tatas of course is not new to the airline business. They have been running Vistara in a joint venture with Singapore Airlines for some time now. Tatas also have investments going in Air Asia – a regional airline. But then, taking over a fledgling Airline like Air India and turning it around is another cup of Tetley tea!

Airline business is one business which is CAPEX intensive and OPEX intensive at the same time. There are businesses which are highly CAPEX intensive but once done, do not incur high operational costs (Like the mobile telephony business). There are businesses that don’t require high CAPEX investments but need working capital and operational efficiencies to remain afloat and profitable (Like trading businesses). Airline business is one which demands very high CAPEX investments (Planes, slots, infrastructure etc…), high operational costs on a daily basis (fuel, high salaries, marketing etc.) and require operational efficiencies of the highest order in order to be profitable. The moving parts are so many that with one wrong move, the business can get into a crisis mode. Ask Vijay Mallya or Naresh Goyal. This is one of the reasons why we have seen so many airlines folding up in India itself ever since the skies were opened up to private players.

In Airline parlance, there are this headwinds and tailwinds. Tailwinds propel the flights and headwinds have the opposite effect. In he history of Air India as a business though, it has seen only headwinds.

I am certain that Tatas would have obviously done their homework that too extensively, before bidding for Air India. Now that they have won, they have their task cut out. There are many things going for them, on top being the good will of Indians in general towards Tatas. That’s why we didn’t see much of opposition to the announcement of Air India being sold to the Tatas. With “revenge travel” post Covid expected to take off, the timing is just right for Tatas to soar into the Indian skies with Air India N.0! I am personally looking forward to the day when I would opt for Tata-Air India as my first and only choice when I fly abroad. For now, it’s Tata, Air India from GOI and as Amul says, a “Good Buy for Tata”!

Post Script: Interestingly, the Air India Staff Union expressed its happiness over Tatas winning the Air India bid! When was the last time a staff union was happy over privatisation in India? And when was the last time we saw no noise from the Left over privatisation?  Acche Din are here, guys!

Remembering SPB One Year On!

This piece was written for the News site – The News Minute and was published on the 26th June, 2021 – on the 1st death Anniversary of SPB.  It can be read here:

https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/ennadi-meenakshi-malare-mounama-20-songs-spb-brought-life-his-voice-155731

It’s exactly one year since SP Balasubrahmanyam left us. Or did he? Is he not lingering still amongst us through the 40,000 plus songs he left behind?  In the case of creators and artists, milestones like the first death anniversary is an occasion not just to remember, but also to celebrate. Celebrate their legacy. On this first death anniversary of SPB, this piece aims to just do that — celebrate the legacy of the versatile singer by revisiting some of his songs.

I hope I know what I am getting into. To pick just a few songs from his vast discography, of which 50% could be classified as hits — if not super hits — is an arduous task.  Therefore, first up, my list is going to narrow down to just Tamil songs. Next, instead of making it as a list of super hits, I would like to look at some of his songs that had some uniqueness to them. This is, of course, purely a personal choice and therefore subject to my own biases and subjectivity.

The songs can be unique in many ways, as I have tried to explain. It could be also due to the way SPB rendered those compositions, where even imagining those songs in someone else’s voice would be unfathomable now. These songs are what they are because of the way SPB sang them.

So, here is the list of my top 20 ‘unique’ SPB songs, in chronological order. That many of them are predominantly solos is coincidental. Here it is:

  1. Pottu Vaitha Mugamo: This was at a time when the MGR-Sivaji duo was dominating the Tamil filmdom. Till then, we were used to the legendary TM Soundarrajan (TMS) doing playback singing for Sivaji. In fact, it is widely believed that TMS used to modulate his voice to suit Sivaji and MGR respectively, for whom he regularly sang. SPB was making his baby steps into the Tamil industry. Music Director MS Viswanathan (MSV) tosses this song to SPB — his first for Sivaji. The very youthful voice of SPB manages to suit Sivaji in this melodious duet and for listeners, this came as a different experience after being used to the usual steely voice of TMS for Sivaji.
  2. Aval Oru Navarasa Naadagam: SPB started singing for MGR quite early in his career. But this song from MGR’s Ulagam Sutrum Valiban — a musical and a blockbuster — remains etched in our hearts.  Among the ten odd songs in this film, while the other songs were mostly sung by TMS for MGR, Aval Oru Navarasa Naadagamwas sung by SPB.  A very soulful and soothing melody, SPB teases with his soft voice while matching the tempo of MSV’s famous rhythm arrangement. We have heard of the Tamil phrase paal vadiyum mugamto denote innocence. This was SPB’s paal vadiyum voice!
  3. Then Sindhudhe Vaanam: Though this song was composed by GK Venkatesh, this has an Ilaiyaraaja connection, with whom SPB would collaborate later to churn out thousands of hits and create history. Raaja, who was assisting Venkatesh in this period, has himself explained the uniqueness of this song. The melody is complex, with long phrases and octaves that alternate between the higher and lower. SPB along with S Janaki complement each other beautifully to give us this memorable song.
  4. Kadavul Amaithu Vaitha Medai: From the film Aval Oru Thodarkathai, this one is not just a song but a stage performance. Apart from the male singing voice, there are a lot of sounds of animals, birds and others that come in between. Amidst all this, SPB holds his own, conveying the sombre mood of the scene very well.
  5. Ennadi Meenakshi:The Raaja era dawns upon us and for SPB and indeed for us, it is a golden period in Tamil film music. This song is from the film Ilamai Oonjalaadugirathu. While there is the song Ore Naal Unnai Naan, a melodious number sung by SPB, I picked this song — Ennadi Meenakshi — to be part of this list, for a reason. SPB displays another dimension of his singing, hitherto not seen. Could SPB sing only soft romantic or smooth flowing numbers? He answers these questions with this song. He sings with a rough tonal quality for this song, in line with the angry mood of Kamal Haasan, for whom he sings this song. This would pave the way for many more songs in this genre for SPB later throughout his career.
  6. Engeyum Eppothum: This is a song which will get into any ‘SPB list’. Period. SPB is in his element here as his voice traverses seamlessly from one rhythm pattern to another and from one octave to another — Pallavi to Anupallavi to Charanam. It is as if the song is a journey around the whole musical universe. Just like the words in the song itself: “Kaalai Japaanil kaapi, maalai New Yorkil Caberet”!
  7. Naan Ennum Pozhuthu: An everlasting melody, which is easily mistakable for a Raaja composition. But this is composed by Salil Chowdhury for the film Azhiyaatha Kolangal, based on his own original Hindi version: Na Jiya Lage Na, sung by none other than Lata Mangeshkar. SPB’s Tamil rendition is as mellifluous as a hot knife piercing through butter and to me, fares better than the original.
  8. Vaa Machaan Vaa: How will a typical ‘Dappaan kuthu’ song sound in SPB’s voice? Listen to Vaa Machaan Vaa from Vandi Chakkaram. He does attempt a false voice for this song to show a more rough-and-tough performance. Kudos to the composer duo Shankar Ganesh for exploring SPB’s range at that time.
  9. Ithu Oru Pon Maalai Pozhuthu: This is another song which will be in any ‘SPB list’. It is very difficult to separate the composer Raaja, the singer SPB and the lyricist Vairamuthu from this song. I felt that the voice of SPB in this song had a more mature feel that had not been felt before. And amazingly, this timbre of SPB’s voice would sustain till his last breath.
  10. Sangeetha Jathimullai: By his own admission, SPB was not a classically trained singer. And this song would challenge even a seasoned and trained singer. But SPB breezes through the complex notes and Jathis in this song once again composed by Raaja. It’s a sure way of getting goosebumps, even today, when we see clips of SPB performing on shows.
  11. Entire album of Payanangal Mudivathillai: Welcome to the ‘Mic Mohan’ era in Tamil films. All the seven songs in this film are brilliant compositions by Raaja, but SPB takes them to another level. Each of the songs belong to a different genre. From Western classical style (Ilaiya Nila) to Carnatic ragas (Raga Deepam Yetrum Neram) to Folk style (Ye Aatha) to a typical melody duet (Saalai Oram Solai Ondru) to a pathos number (Vaigaraiyil Vaigai Karaiyil), SPB straddles all these genres in absolute ease.  In my personal opinion, with Shankarabharanam in 1980 and Payanangal Mudivathillai in 1982, SPB stepped into the hall of fame of India’s top playback singers.
  12. Kana Kaanum Kangal Mella: What a melody! This number from Balachandar’s Agni Saatchiis a personal favourite. It’s a deeply haunting melody that invariably touches your heart. At no point in the song does SPB’s voice miss the soothing feel, which is the hallmark of this rendition.
  13. Sandanam Poosum Manjal: While SPB was all busy with his singing, did we miss a gifted composer residing in him? This song probably proves so. A beautiful song from the film Thudikkum Karangalfor which SPB himself composed the music, the song, somehow, is not talked about much.
  14. Ilanjolai Poothathaa: Raaja and ragas. Balu and bhavas (emotions). And if there is a song that epitomises these, it is Ilanjolai Poothathaa. A fine melody set in the Hindustani raga Madhuvanti, SPB lords over this composition with his easy, flowing style. A gem of a song from the Ilaiyaraaja-SPB duo.
  15. Mannil Intha Kadalandri: This song is impossible to ignore. Yes, SPB did accept that he didn’t hold his breath while singing the charanams of this song. Yet, will we believe it? SPB’s breathless singing in this song is part of folklore now.
  16. Vanthenda Paalkaran: When did the trend of energetic, high octane, foot-tapping solo opening songs, invariably sung by SPB for Rajinikanth in his movies, start? I guess it is with this song from Annamalai. Most of the opening songs that came after this one, up until the Superstar’s last film Darbar, have followed the Vanthenda Paalkarantemplate.
  17. En Kadhale: Can anyone else convey a love failure or disappointment in a song better than SPB?  This song from Duet is a testimony to this, so is the song Unna NinachuPaatu Padichen. SPB gets into a melancholic groove in this song and moves the listeners to tears when he finishes it. I can’t think of anyone else who would have brought a similar effect to this song.
  18. Malare Maunama: An evergreen and beautiful composition by Vidyasagar, SPB along with Janaki rendered a song that would become an all-time classic!
  19. Mun Paniya:This number from the film Nandha, that released in 2001, told us two things. That Yuvan Shankar Raja as a composer had arrived, and that SPB was not finished even in the new millennium.
  20. Meduvaagathan:This is a personal favourite, though the song didn’t get the attention it deserved. A peach of a melody from Rahman for the film Kochadaiyaan, it is as if SPB turned the clock on his voice by 30 years for this song.

Did I miss quite a few of SPB’s ‘unique’ songs? Probably. That’s the beauty of this exercise, though, isn’t it? At the end of it, you are only half satisfied! Nevertheless, putting this list together was a wonderful experience as I got a chance to revisit the epic work of SPB in Tamil. Is there a better way to celebrate our favourite Paadum Nila?

P.S: My friend Arunmozhi has put this list in a playlist for easy reference. Please check it out.

Thanks Arun!

Catching up on the Economic Agenda!

Social Media is an ongoing battlefield for the IT Cells of political parties. There, you routinely find claims and counter claims by BJP and the Congress, which get forwarded and go viral.  Among the regular updates from the BJP side, the ones which are popular are those where Narendra Modi era (Post 2014) and Manmohan Singh era (2004-2014) are compared which show how the country has progressed rapidly in the last 7 years whether it is Highways construction, Rural Electrification, Toilet construction, Clean water supply etc. etc. However, one thing on which the BJP IT cell is put on the back foot by the Congress is the Economic growth. This is a graphic which is popular among the Congress supporters and rightly so where in comparison, the Singh era shows higher average GDP growth than the Modi era, so far.

I am certain that if there is one thing Modi as a person, who likes to leave behind a legacy in whatever he does, would like to correct, it would be this. Frankly, I had high hopes from this government in its first term on its economic agenda. I thought that with a clear majority, it will pursue bold and long pending reforms with a much higher vigour than the reformist Vajpayee Government which was always bogged down by coalition pressures.  It turned out that, but for the introduction of GST (a landmark and very important reform, in my opinion) and Demonetisation (in which the costs outweighed the benefits), the 1st term was lack lustre and was more or less on “Maintenance mode” as far as pursuing a bold economic agenda was concerned.

It is my opinion that lawyers do not make good Finance ministers. P.Chidambaram, a fine lawyer, who is regarded as one of the most reformist Finance ministers the country had, always use to come up with one nit picking thing in his every budget, which cast a dark shadow on all the other good reforms he came up with. We all know what happened with Pranab Mukherjee, another Finance minister with a legal background. His retrospective taxation idea much against the wishes of even the economist Prime Minister Singh, punctured the “India Story” then and our economy went into a tailspin. So, that’s what happened with the Modi Sarkar in its first term. Arun Jaitley, another fine legal eagle was picked as the finance minister but, even during his regime the retrospective taxation was not rolled back! With no much economic traction, the 1st term of Modi ended on a disappointing low economic growth path.

In 2019, when Nirmala Sitharaman was made the Finance minister in a very surprise move (not Piyush Goyal who was touted as the favourite), expectations were quite low. But, I had mentioned that time, that she could surprise the critics at the end of the day. I felt that considering her background and her studious nature, she can be expected to meticulously follow the agenda as laid out in the manifesto. Not just that, but also follow through methodically in terms of execution.  You can see that this is what is happening now.  In her 1st budget in 2019, when corporate taxes were cut – a bold economic move to boost private investments and sentiment, it appeared that the Modi Government in its second term had got its intentions right in pursuing its economic agenda to boost growth which faltered in the 1st term.

 

The pandemic though, which hit all economies hard including India in Feb/Mar 2020 put a spoke all further bold moves. Economic management during a pandemic is a double edged sword. The government needs to focus on lives on one hand and livelihood on the other and that too when its income is crippled.  But, I thought that the team managing the economy in this government weathered the Covid storm very well and managed to tide over the crisis very well, under the circumstances.

In the midst of the pandemic last year and perhaps even now, top economists of the likes of Dr. Abhijit Banerjee, Dr. Raghuram Rajan and Dr. Kaushik Basu have been of the opinion that the Central government should not worry about fiscal deficit, agency ratings and all. Among other things like increased spending on health, they maintained that it should just do cash transfers through DBT mode to the needy. However, the government took a more cautious and calibrated approach of support by providing free ration to the needy, extending loan support to businesses etc. instead of cash transfers.  This has been a clash of ideas between the economists in the government and economists commentating from outside.  Frankly, I felt that what our government did is a better approach for a country like India.

Unlike the West, in India, people are more conservative financially. So, when a person gets free cash during a pandemic his first instincts will be to save it for spending on essential goods rather than on non-essential stuff to boost demand. Secondly, thanks to the lock down, there were supply restrictions. It is not logical that people will spend money just because they have been provided with cash support. So, the Government’s calibrated approach of providing free rations to the needy serves the purpose of protecting livelihoods during the pandemic. The salaried upper middle class and above were anyway not so affected as they were getting the salaries and even they spent only on essential stuff basically due to lockdown restrictions. So, the argument that Direct cash transfer would have boosted demand in the times of a pandemic doesn’t seem logical at all.  If not all, a few economists like Swaminathan Aiyar finally admitted that this approach worked better for India.

It is in this context of understanding the thought process of this government on handling economic issues during the pandemic that I bumped on this video. In this speech, Sanjeev Sanyal, Economist and Principal Adviser in the Ministry of Finance, articulates brilliantly the approach of the government in managing the pandemic from an economic stand point. If you haven’t watched it, please do so.  It answers quite a few questions which are routinely thrown at this government at the way it has been responding to the pandemic.  Its clear from the speech that there is a “method” in the thinking of the government while there is “madness” in the newsrooms that feed us information.  I wish that the government articulates the thinking behind their decisions more regularly for the benefit of all.

Now if you see the last few months, it is clear that the government is dead serious in reviving the economic growth. Some of the decisions since March have been bold and commendable. The rolling back finally of the retrospective taxation is one.  The Asset Monetisation program is another.  Taking a call to relieve the stress on the balance sheets of the banks by forming a “Bad Bank” is also another one.  Again, addressing sector specific long pending issues like in Telecom is yet another.  So, there has been a slew of bold decisions recently that gives a hope that in this term, with the pandemic hopefully behind us, the Modi Sarkar is pushing aggressively on its economic agenda.

As an economy, I believe we are at an interesting and crucial point. The pandemic is ebbing (or so we believe). Vaccination is progressing at a rapid pace. Economic activity is getting back to normal. These should bring the economy soon to pre-Covid levels. Now, if the bold reforms that have been unleashed this year has the desired effect, the growth only can be higher from here. For the Modi Sarkar which is finally catching up on the economic agenda, it will be a lasting legacy to demonstrate a higher average economic growth than the Singh era. And for the IT cell of the ruling party, few memes less to counter!

Debate around the Growth of the Indian Economy!

Few weeks ago, the GDP numbers for the 1st quarter of this fiscal year for India were published. As per that, the Indian economy grew by 20.1%. In the following days, there were columns, Op-Eds and Social media commentary on whether it was a good quarter or not. Since “Neutral media” is an Oxymoron, depending upon the leanings of the media, the economic performance was either branded “historic” or “pathetic”. There are no surprises here and we have now learnt to live with the media spin on all issues.

Along with the media, the tribe of “Neutral Economists” is also on the wane.  Depending upon their political affiliation, the first quarter performance was touted to be “record breaking/highest ever” or “worst/shocking” in decades by reputed economists.  Therefore for an Aam Admi, it is difficult to judge what actually the situation is. And the truth as in many situations may be somewhere in between.

I am no economist but as an ardent follower of the Indian economy, I tried to make sense of the numbers and the trends thereof and this is what I find. I would like to hear the opinion of the readers as well on my hypothesis.

In isolation, a GDP growth of 20.1% is of course very good. But, we should not forget that this is at the back of a low base of -24.4% same Quarter last year. In that sense, some of the commentary from pro Government circles that this growth is massive and is earth shattering etc. is immature.  At the same time, commentary from the opposition side comparing this with GDP rate pre-Covid and claiming that actually it is lower than what it was two years ago is equally immature. And this is why.

First, the reality is, on a trend line after a massive negative growth of 24.4% in Q1 last year and growing marginally by 1.6% in Q4, a growth of 20.1 in Q1 this year shows that the economy is indeed recovering and the recovery is V-shaped to be precise. This is certainly to be happy about.

Second, we must keep in mind that during Q1 this year, we got caught by a massive second wave which again put several curbs on the functioning of the economy, which was as such firing at much lower levels than before. So, among the eight buckets which contribute to the GDP namely Manufacturing, Construction, Agriculture/forestry & fishing, Mining & Quarrying, Electricity/Gas/ Water & other utilities, Trade/Hotels/Travel & Communication, Finance & Real Estate and Public administration, Defence & other services, it is obvious that a couple of engines are not firing at all. It is therefore natural that when you compare with the pre-Covid situation, the GDP in absolute numbers will be lower. This however does not take away the fact that with the easing of restrictions, the economy is obviously recovering.

Third, let us take a look at the monthly GST collection numbers for the past couple of years.  The average monthly GST collection figure in 2018-19 was Rs. 98,114 Cr. and the average in the 1st four months of 2021-22 is Rs.113,333 Cr. 2018-19 was pre-Covid, normal times and these four months are right in the midst of Covid. And compared to Rs. 101,818 Cr. monthly average last year. So just a cursory glance shows that the economy is on the mend clearly this year.

Here, I would like to dwell into a larger point and thereafter a question.

I would presume that GST collections represent transactional activity in the economy with respect to both goods and services. We are all aware that post the pandemic all “Contact” based sectors have been severely affected. This includes the likes of Travel, hospitality, Wining and Dining (all these for business and pleasure), impulse shopping, recreation and entertainment of all sorts and other human touch related services (salons, spas…). While the Software industry per se has not got affected due to Covid with “Work from Home” filling in well, the ecosystem around it has been significantly disrupted. This includes transportation, catering, real estate, utilities, other discretionary spending and stuff.

As common public, our shopping is mostly restricted to what is required. We travel only when it is utmost required.  The “Festival economy” which is big in India has been crippled since last April.  So my question is, when transactions around goods and services have been curtailed, how is it that the monthly GST collections have shown a growth over 2018-19? (Pre-pandemic period)

There are can be two inferences from this trend:

First, if the monthly GST collection is showing such a robust 15% growth (over 2018-19) even during the pandemic times, once we are done with the pandemic and when all the cylinders start firing, we are looking at an exponential growth in monthly GST collection figures. (Even adjusting for inflation)

Second take away is, either with whatever limited avenues left to us, we are consuming much more than average or there is a significant shift towards formalisation of the economy. I would like to believe in the latter. I don’t think we are consuming more than what is required. However, certainly our purchasing patterns have changed. Due to the pandemic imposed curbs, it is possible that our dependence on the neighbourhood mom and pop stores have come down and we have got used to the convenience of door delivery for everything.

As a personal example, pre-Covid, we used to buy vegetables and fruits from our neighbourhood bhaiya. Once lock down struck, this shifted to a vegetable vendor who was arranged by our apartment complex for door delivery. Here, payment was through G-pay/PayTm etc. Now in the past few weeks, the same vendor is now part of an E-Commerce aggregator called Bhajiwala.com! Bhajiwala.com, I am sure is within the ambit of GST and hence clearly part of the formal economy! My view therefore is, the benefits of GST implementation which we were all looking forward to is beginning to accrue and will be more visible when we are out of the pandemic.

It was widely believed that once GST is implemented, it will add 1-2% to the annual GDP. I now believe that once the pandemic is over and when economy starts firing in all cylinders like before, the bump due to GST could be in excess of 2% because of the increased formalisation of the economy is the last 2/3 years. This I am talking about even after the pent up demand effect.  That should put the naysayers of the GST to rest.

Though we cannot take the stock markets as a real indicator of the state of the economy thanks to its fickle and speculative nature, probably the markets are seeing into the future as above which others are not.  Which is why the markets have been on fire since the last few months even in the midst of the pandemic.

In conclusion, I would like to say that yes, the high growth in Q1 is due to the low base effect.  Yet, it is a significant milestone and pointer towards a robust economic recovery. It is certainly one to be cheered upon if not celebrated upon as yet.  Acche Din are around the corner!

Pic Courtesy: The Economic Times

The Great Indian Malayalam Cinema!

In the last few days, I have been prompted by a few friends to watch Kuruthi, a Malayalam film which was released on Amazon Prime two weeks ago.  The interesting part is, most of those who gave this recommendation are Non Keralites. I just managed to watch this film yesterday and before I could post “My Flash Review”TM as usual, I have already started getting recommendation for another film – #Home, again a Malayalam film that has just released on OTT this weekend. Malayalam cinema has never had it so good.

It’s not been like that always. Back in the 70s and 80s in Tamil Nadu, where I was growing up, Malayalam films had a ring of notoriety attached to them. Invariably, a Malayalam padam meant a shady, crass, soft porn film with a typical target audience in mind and any talk of Malayalam films was met with naughty giggles. So much so, even “normal” Malayalam films were packaged as films with erotic content and some fancy titles and released in other states. Interestingly, such films found more takers in other states than Kerala itself.

If my memory serves me right, the reason for Malayalam films that time getting this infamous image was I.V.Sasi’s Avalode Raavugal which hit the screens in 1978. The film’s story line centred on a sex worker and her relationship with three men in her life.  For that time and era, it was considered to be an extremely bold theme and the film was duly released with an “A” certificate. The film was a phenomenal success in Kerala and catapulted I.V. Sasi to a film maker of repute in Malayalam cinema.

The film got dubbed and released in other languages like Tamil at a time when Tamil films were pre-dominantly dealing with family drama and associated sentiments. Though the film actually dealt with a social evil, the overt theme and the bold narrative of Avalin Iravugal in Tamil created almost an indelible image for Malayalam films in TN as a repertoire of sleaze.

This at a time when in reality, Malayalam cinema was boasting of some fine film makers like Aravindan, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Padmarajan and the like.  Somehow their films were bracketed as “Art films” which could be watched only on Sunday afternoons on Doordarshan, when other language (Non Hindi) films used to be telecast in turn. Mostly the films chosen were of the Award winning variety and I remember watching films Elipathayam and dozing off in a few minutes. I.V.Sasi went on to make some mainstream films like Ee Naadu, America America etc. which became super hits at the Box office. Even then, outside of Kerala, I.V.Sasi was the original master of sleaze!  So, in the 80’s, the image of Malayalam cinema swung between two extremes – being “Slow and Arty” on one end and being “Sleazy” on the other end. As an avid follower of Malayalam cinema then, which had just seen the blossoming of Mammootty and Mohanlal in some outstanding mainstream films, it was difficult to convince my friends in TN of the superior quality of Malayalam films.  Invariably they were denigrated as “Mallu padams”.

All this started changing for the good in my opinion, with a film titled Oru CBI Diary Kurippu. Headlined by Mammootty, this film was released as it is (without dubbing) in Safire theatre in Chennai and other cities of TN. This is way back in 1988/89. The film got a huge positive response and I guess the distributors and theatre owners made a killing in the process. Soon, Safire would become the go to place for mainstream Malayalam films (and incidentally Hindi films too, later). So, popular Malayalam films which became hits in Kerala, soon found their way to theatres in TN and soon to other South Indian states as well.  This phase where super hit films of Mammootty and Mohanlal like August 1,  Manu Uncle, Chithram, Vandanam etc. got good response in TN helped immensely to erase the original image of Malayalam films as “Art films” or “Shady films”.

I vividly remember when Uncle Bun, a Mohanlal starrer in which he was seen as an obese character was released in Chennai, huge cut outs were erected in front of Safire theatre just like it used to be for Tamil stars like Rajinikanth, Vijayakanth et al.  Mainstream Malayalam Cinema and Malayalam stars had arrived.

Which takes us to the “Massification”TM phase of Malayalam cinema. The subsequent years in the 90’s and 00’s saw the mass hero cult from Tamil cinema being copied and pasted in Malayalam cinema. Actors like Mammootty and Mohanlal who, in my opinion are among the All-time Top actors Indian cinema has ever seen, moved from being real on screen to being larger than life, closely aping their brethren in Tamil and Telugu industries. So, mass hero entry scenes, frequent slow motion effects, loud punch dialogues, low angle shots and all that jazz became staple features in Malayalam films too.  In a sense from the halcyon days of Elipathayam (Mouse Trap), Malayalam cinema fell into “Mass Trap”!  And coincidentally in this phase, I was sort of out of touch with Malayalam films due to lack of access to them in locations where I was based for work then.

Luckily, in the last few years I must say that Malayalam cinema has got back its mojo. Particularly, post the pandemic driven lock down and with the burst of OTT as a platform, film lovers not just from Kerala or from South India, but from other regions, have discovered the depth of Malayalam cinema.  Of course, Social Media has played a crucial role in amplification of the quality of Malayalam cinema, not to forget the role of Sub titles.  So, when the sequel of Drishyam was released few months ago, not just Malayalis, but people all over were raving about it.

And in this phase of Malayalam cinema, if there is one actor who has emerged as the shining star, it is undoubtedly Fahadh Faasil.  He has been consistently focussing on content in his films so far and has not shied away from bank rolling some unconventional scripts like Trance or C U Soon.  And it’s now good to see other stars like Prithviraj Sukumaran following his footsteps to back good script based projects even if they are risky at the outset.

The film Kuruthi, which I referred to in the beginning, is one such film.  Apart from being a part of the cast, Prithviraj has also produced this film which is a social commentary on today’s sharply seen social divide based on religion. I doubt if such a film will see the light of the day in any other language.  But then, of late in Malayalam films, we have seen that film makers have been willing to take up touchy topics which are of course prevalent in the society. Films like Trance which talks about commercialisation of religion or Sufiyum Sujatayum which has Hindu-Muslim love angle or what is now called as Love Jihad as the central theme, have become quite common in Malayalam cinema.

A film like The Great Indian Kitchen which doesn’t boast of a mega star cast has found resonance across the country purely by the strength of the subject.  The point is, such films are now being regularly made in Malayalam, watched and being hailed by critics and people alike all over the country. That’s why today, even if I don’t follow the new releases, I am sure, I will be duly prompted by some of my Non-Mallu friends who have already caught up with it, to watch the same.

Malayalam Cinema has now truly transcended all boundaries and become “The Great Indian Malayalam Cinema”! And talking about Malayalam Cinema do not draw the impish smiles these days. I.V.Sasi will Rest In eternal Peace.

Olympics and Sports as a great Unifier!

The Tokyo Olympics 2020 which got delayed by a year due to Covid, finally got over today. The Indian effort at the Olympics culminated in a flourish with Neeraj Chopra winning the Gold in Javelin throw. All these years, after every Olympics, the commentary has been about how a country of 1.3 billon cannot win even one Gold.  Or for that matter how small countries like Kenya and Spain can win more medals than India. This time, we will be spared of the usual diatribe or so I hope. For, we won a Gold that too in a track and field event for the 1st time. With a total tally of seven medals that included two Silvers and four bronzes, this is our best outing in an Olympics. Not just that, we missed a handful of bronzes by a whisker.

At a time when the whole country has been going through a challenging phase for more than one year tackling Covid and its spiralling after effects, the encouraging performance of our contingent at the Tokyo games came as a whiff of fresh air. We almost forgot to track the everyday Covid statistics of daily new infections, number of deaths and the R-Factor etc.  The media as well, which is what steers our attention usually on a day to day basis, gave more coverage to the games rather than the usual stories.  For a change, WhatsApp groups were buzzing with forwards related to the lives of the winners at the Olympics. And for once a Javelin throw was being watched by many Indians when a Test match was going on in parallel!

I have not seen this kind of frenzy for following Olympics as we saw this time, ever before. This kind of excitement and passion is usually reserved for Cricket in India. With Cricket of course, the craze and following have been for a long while.  For instance, an Indo-Pak Cricket encounter at any level can bring India to a grinding halt. Cutting across geographies, religion, caste, creed, language, gender and social strata, a World Cup Cricket match and that too if between India and Pakistan unifies India like no other.

What we have seen in the last few days with Olympics has shown that the Indian passion for Cricket need not be exclusive. People’s passion will follow wherever we win or succeed. For long, it has been ingrained in our minds that “Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar”. But the other part is the question of National Pride. The number of times the clip of Neeraj Chopra on the podium with the National Anthem being played in the background, got shared on Social Media since yesterday is a testimony to this.

The general commentary or narrative has been that we Indians only support or cheer Cricket and that is the cause for other sports not flourishing. While this could be true, it is only partly true if at all. I am of the opinion that as Aam Admi, what we chase is not Cricket, but National Pride. For a long time that National Pride has been bestowed upon us by our repeated success in Cricket. So, we became a Cricket crazy country.

Make no mistake. If our Indian Hockey takes off from what we have achieved at the Tokyo Olympics, fan following, attention and of course money will chase Indian Hockey too. Same is the case with other sports as well.  Well, defending India’s craze for Cricket versus other sports is not the purpose of this blog. But trying to articulate that any sport or for that matter any event that arouses National Pride can be a great Unifier in a diverse country like India, is.

That is why I find questions often raised on why India should spend its money and resources on the Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan missions while millions languish in poverty, to be ill founded. We have seen how landing its men on the moon first successfully with the Apollo mission tilted the scales of National pride in the US during the Cold war period.

Similarly, I saw some questions being raised as to why Orissa state should spend its money on sponsoring the Indian Hockey Team instead of focussing on its own state’s players. If by spending that money, Orissa has enabled the revival of India’s fortunes on the world stage as how we saw in the Olympics, it is certainly worth it.  The National Pride that got aroused thanks to the performances of the men’s and women’s Hockey at the Olympics is priceless. For everything else there could be a MasterCard. And Naveen Patnaik the shrewd politician he is, has understood this well and took a call to back the Indian Hockey teams when no one else did.

As I had written in my 2016 piece post Rio Olympics (Read here), availability of financial resources is a key factor in winning more medals.  So, with the backing of sponsors, talented sportsmen can get access to the best – whether it is coaching staff or equipment or infrastructure. We have seen this in the flourishing of a Neeraj or a Sindhu or a Saina! What Orissa has done or a few other brands have done is an eye opener for many including other States, Centre and Corporations to pick up a sport or sportsmen and back them to the hilt. The returns on this investment by way of National Pride and the associated brand recall is beyond comprehension in a spreadsheet.

And no one else understands the power of National Pride than Narendra Modi. Each and every phone call he makes to a winner is because of this understanding, the after effect of it, we will see in 2024.

Postscript: The next Olympics is in 2024 😃😃