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

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!

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 😃😃

2021 State Elections – My Flash Take aways!

This round of elections in five states is finally over today and India will get a break from being in election mode for a year.  It’s been too long an election process that, everything else took a back seat including our war on Covid.  The counting is still on as I write this but the broad trends are clear. Since there are pundits galore in theorising on the results, I will skip that for the moment. Instead, in this post, I would like to list a few take aways on the whole elections, not just the results of this round of elections.

Here we go:

  • Anti-Incumbency as the pièce de résistance among theories for explaining a result is passé: In the past, analysts would always just dismiss any defeat of an incumbent government by ascribing to “Anti-Incumbency” as if it was extremely legitimate and acceptable. A few decades ago, it is true that incumbent governments were thrown out 7 out of 10 times. But, that’s no more the case. As we have seen in this round, 3 out of 5 governments have been re-elected. In Bengal, TMC has won a third consecutive term. It all boils down to quality of governance and what people feel about the next best option.  Anti-Incumbency is no more an excuse. And Pro-Incumbency is a virtue.
  • Hawa, Leher, Mahoul exist only in the minds of commentators: This is increasingly becoming the case in social media driven journalism. As we saw in UP in 2017, Karnataka in 2018 and now Bengal this time, mainstream media and social media can create their own “Waves” and “Hawa” that is far away from situation on the ground. So, making predictions and conclusions based on social media trends, Youtubers’ narratives and mainstream media commentary is fraught with a lot of risks.
  • Opinion Polls and Exit Polls are for entertainment only: This we have seen time and again now and doesn’t need much explanation. For almost all agencies, getting the polls right has a huge amount of luck riding on it. If they get it right, it’s their day. That’s all. In a diversified country like ours, statistical samples however scientific they are, have proven to be inconclusive. So, opinion polls and exit polls are a lottery. Even in this round, no agency predicted the scale of Mamata win and almost all predicted a tough fight.
  • Voters vote for Lok Sabha and State polls on their own merits: This is getting very conclusive by every election. In one of my earlier articles for Newslaundry (Read here), I had explained this with quite a few examples. In this round as well, we can see this aspect quite established in Bengal and Kerala.
  • Time for building consensus around One Nation – One Poll: This is linked to my last point as well. Now that we can see clearly that voters are indeed intelligent and vote as per merit in Lok Sabha and state elections, many of the regional parties and even the Congress which have their apprehensions that it will be only “Advantage BJP” if India opts for simultaneous elections, should shed the same and have a re-think for the sake of larger national interest. It is obvious that elections every year or twice a year are a huge distraction for governance. Also it is a drag on the resources for any government. Both the government and the parties can save a lot of money and time if we have simultaneous elections. Of course, it is not as easy as it sounds, but there should be a national debate on the same and a consensus built around this so that at least in the next 10 years we can move in this direction. My personal opinion is, if not simultaneous polls, at least we should move towards “One Nation, Two polls” by having Lok Sabha Polls once and all State polls together after 2.5 years.
  • Limit the number of phases to 3 or 4 for any state: I don’t think there is any country in the world that conducts its elections over two months in eight long phases. The phase wise polling was conceived by T.N.Seshan when he was the Chief Election Commission mainly to counter violence and election related mal practices so that the EC can muster central forces and conduct free and fair polls. But those were the days of ballot papers where the chances of rigging were higher. Also in today’s times of EVMs and of course prevalence of Smart technology, ways and means need to be found for conducting free and fair elections in 3 or 4 phases in any state and eventually one phase.
  • Limit for expenses in an election is a joke: It is high time, the limits are re-visited. Also new limits need be prescribed for self, party and total expenses. It wll be good to take a look at best practices in other democratic countries on this and come up with a model for future.
  • Huge market opens up for political strategists and IPAC type organisations: This is not a new take away based on today’s results. But today’s results cement this proposition beyond doubt. It is no longer enough for parties to depend on their loyal karyakartas to carry our ground work. Parties need strategists and organisations to hold a mirror to them and carry out smart work in the field using data, analytics, technology and tools. It is not that an external strategist or marketing can save a bad product. But even a good product in today’s competitive times need adequate marketing cover. And therefore, the market for political strategists and political consulting companies in India has expanded. So it is as a career for youngsters in election management and related marketing. And Marketing works.
  • Last but not the least, EVMs are not instruments in the hands of those in power: I hope the debate around EVMs is put to rest conclusively now that opposition has also won spectacularly.

As you can see half of the points are related to the way elections are being conducted in India. After a round of reforms which Seshan initiated during his tenure, we have not seen much of electoral reforms. It is now time for the country to build consensus around electoral reforms and introduce them to keep our status as a vibrant democracy.

Image Courtesy: Firstpost.

Covid – Contending with the Waves of Uncertainty!

If at all there has been one thing which is consistent with Covid, it is its remarkable inconsistency.  From the time Covid entered our collective lexicon in February last year, every theory or conclusion related to its behaviour has been found to be inconsistent or invalid very soon after.  Like India was never affected by Bird flu or SARS virus, so we will not be affected by Corona virus (See the situation today). India is a hot country and in peak summers, Virus cannot survive (It did hit us through the last summer). India will be spared as we have better immunity for many diseases (Of course India was not spared).  During monsoons in places like Mumbai, Covid is going to create a havoc (There was no specific spike during monsoons).  Masks are required only if you have symptoms but hand washing and sanitising are most important to prevent the spread (Today, it seems it is the other way – Masks are most important and hand washing is not that important).  Once vaccines are found, that will be the end game for Covid (Vaccines were indeed found but the end game is still not in sight).  Once you take the two doses, you are safe (Now the latest theory is, we may have to take vaccines every year!). This was just to list a few theories on Covid which have got negated along the way.

We must keep this in perspective when we make our judgement on the way the municipal administration or State governments or the Central government or the Prime Minister have handled what is now called as the 2nd wave in India. Let us all be honest. Since the dawn of this New Year, all of us have in some way or other started moving towards leading a normal, pre-Covid life. We started – travelling out of our cities, taking vacation breaks, working from Office, wining and dining out, going to places of worship, having social get togethers, planning for house functions and getting domestic helps back in our houses, to mention a few normal/pre-Covid activities.

All of us were keen to put Covid behind us and lead a normal life. We all understand that it is important for economy to get back to normal which can only happen if consumption in all spheres get back to normal. We were all happy when GST figures reached pre-Covid levels and were delighted when it started exceeding pre-Covid numbers. All this when we also got the news that vaccines were available and we could see some light at the end of the Covid tunnel. We all celebrated and rejoiced about how India came out unscathed on Covid.

What we did at individual levels, companies did at their level as well with respect to businesses. And similarly the administration and Government did at their levels. In this period, we must not forget that farmer protests which in normal Covid times could be super spreader events were going on in most parts of North India. Yet, we didn’t see any spike in Punjab or Delhi or other states where farmers in large numbers were protesting taking limited or no Covid precautions. A full test match was held in Chennai with spectators watching it and there was no spike after that. Looking at these I guess, the Election Commission went ahead with the conduct of the polls in the five states in March and April. Ditto for the Uttarakhand government for the Khumb festival.  We all lowered our guard. Not just the government.

Today, however in India, we have been savaged by a Covid Tsunami. So, what we see all around are depressing news about deaths, sufferings and other collateral issues, all related to Covid. We have been hit by a lethal second wave which none of us saw it coming. This is where the first failure of the epidemiologists, experts and relevant authorities in the administration come into picture. All the while in the 1st Quarter of this year, I only saw experts explaining how India has flattened the curve and how we were moving towards herd immunity.  So, when other countries like the UK, USA and a few European countries were hit by a second wave, why was there no alert from the experts of a potential second wave in India?

In the mid of March, we could see suddenly numbers rising in states like Maharashtra and Kerala without any specific trigger like a super spreader event. When at that time, a few were enquiring with me on what’s happening in Mumbai, I mentioned that it is only a question of time the numbers start going up in other cities/states. And that’s what happened. So, when a person like me without looking at any regression models or analysis could predict that we are up to an imminent spike in numbers, how come the state governments and Central government did not realise that we are walking into a sudden burst if precautions are not put in place immediately.

Even in the 3rd week of March, if the Election Commission had announced strict regulations on campaigning or Khumb was made symbolic as it was done eventually, things would have been different. Or if all states including Maharashtra started what it is doing today in terms of restricting movements, we could have avoided the crisis. This is the second issue.

As some wise man said, “Before, you are wise. After, you are wise. In between, you are otherwise!” In hindsight everyone is God. Anyway, today lock downs have been put in place and I am sure, the numbers will start coming down in the next 4 weeks. Already the numbers in Mumbai are showing a declining trend day by day. But, once we reach a trough, again it will be time for “Unlock 2.0”. When that happens, we may once again at some point of time witness a third wave, unless by that time we have vaccinated a reasonable mass of people.

It is clear therefore that the key to prevent further waves, is vaccination. Or so we hope at this point in time, unless even this theory gets demolished. It is now apparent that the vaccination roll out has been patchy.  Just six weeks into opening up of the vaccination program to public, we have a shortage of both the vaccines.  And I am not joining the chorus of why India exported vaccines when we should have used it for Indians first. The external affairs minister has articulated recently that if we do not support other countries, we cannot expect support from other countries for supply of raw materials. This could be the official line. But the main reason why the government also decided on exports initially was the shelf life, in my opinion. The government cannot give this reason out for obvious reasons.

The shelf life of Covishield is six months from the date of production. As per Serum institute, by the end of December, it had already produced about 50 million doses of the vaccine. I must add here that it had started producing and piling up inventory even before the official approvals. Since the vaccination roll out in India was planned to be in phases starting first with the health and frontline workers for obvious reasons, the stock would not have been consumed before the expiry. Hence, exports meant to serve triple purposes as per me. Consumption before expiry, generation of good will with Vax diplomacy and fulfilment of commercial and licence related contracts for Serum.

A committee under Niti Aayog has been entrusted with the roll out of the vaccination program and it appears that the whole plan was based on “let’s cross the bridge when we get there”. How else can we explain the fact that the Central government had not secured supplies for the vaccine from the two approved sources at least to cover 60% of the adult population right at the beginning? Why is it that the companies were not committed working capital support right at the contract signing stage? If there was a clear plan of sharing of responsibility between Centre and states, it was never made transparent. And today we see that the whole vaccination has been opened up but without ensuring supply. From vaccine hesitancy, it is now a rush for vaccine. It is going to take at least till June for stabilisation of supplies. To me, more than not anticipating the second wave or being lax on taking actions after witnessing the second wave, the ill preparedness of the government on the vaccination roll out is the main issue.

While it is now clear that we as a country have landed our foot into a second wave land mine, the last thing we should see is politicking over this and the never ending blame game between the Centre and states. It is high time that the Centre and states work together in diffusing the crisis rather than pointing fingers on who is wrong at this stage. This is a collective failure of all of us, the society, the administration, the domain experts, the State and the Central government.  As common public we must now learn to be cautious throughout even if we have taken the vaccine, control our instincts to get back to normal lives soon and learn to deal with what could be waves of uncertainty in the coming months.

Having said that, in terms of accountability, the buck of course stops at the top, which is the Prime Minister. He must now quickly move towards establishing a separate ministry for Covid and have a competent minister and set of bureaucrats to man the same.  This ministry should be tasked with all activities related to Covid as an umbrella entity. Being pro-active should be the core mantra for this entity.  It should be acting on a WAAR footing – Watch – Anticipate – Act – Repeat.

As we have seen, unless we get out of Covid quickly, lives and livelihoods will be under jeopardy – caught in the ensuing waves of uncertainty.

Pic Courtesy: India Today

Tamil Nadu Elections – A Battle of Known Unknowns!

In this week’s blog post, I continue my focus on Tamil Nadu state elections which is turning out to be a fascinating battle as the polling date comes closer. West Bengal elections and the results therein may be interesting for the commentariat for the sheer noise value around it because of the time and efforts being invested by BJP and Modi-Shah combine. But, I do feel that West Bengal is a simple and straight contest between TMC and BJP and the unknown in terms of result is only the margin of victory for the TMC and the extent of rise of the BJP in West Bengal.  In Tamil Nadu though, as it stands now, even with just few weeks for the poll date, the water is still muddy.

The reason for the same is there are many known unknowns in these elections that could impact the results in either way. What are those?

  1. Anti-Incumbency: Is there an Anti-Incumbency? The answer it seems depends on to whom the question is posed.  For a DMK supporter, there is an obvious anti-incumbency wave against the present EPS-OPS government. However for an ADMK supporter, there isn’t. There is a version which says even if it is, it is not strong enough to swing votes away from the ADMK. And finally there is one which says that few months ago there was but now there isn’t.
  1. Consolidation of Hindu vote: Will there be a consolidation of the Hindu vote in favour of the ADMK/BJP front? This is the first election in TN where BJP is making a serious attempt to make its presence felt. And it has been at it systematically in the last few months. In social media, there are orchestrated campaigns by BJP to make the Hindu vote count by appealing to the Hindu voters to reject the DMK based on its leaders’ past public utterances against Hindus and Hindu Gods. Yet, it is unclear if the campaign will lead to a consolidation of the Hindu vote and help the ADMK front.
  1. Kamal Haasan effect: Is Kamal Haasan’s party the Makkal Needhi Maiam going to split the ADMK votes or the DMK votes? It is clear that Kamal Haasan and his party are creating a buzz in the air this time. Targeted at those who are fed up with the Kazhagams in general, it is aiming to be an AAP in Tamil Nadu by being a third alternative. But it is obvious that it has not penetrated enough to form a government on its own and will lend support to one of the fronts in a post poll scenario. While the earnestness and honest image of Kamal are not questionable his personal ideology is. As an atheist and a non-believer, he is seen closer to the DMK ideology. At the same time, by calling himself as MGR’s ‘vaarisu’ he tries to appeal to the MGR’s supporters and legacy in the ADMK. It is also said that the youth are more drawn to Kamal. So, which section is he going to impress? Is he going to cut into DMK’s share or ADMK’s share or a bit of both? It is unclear.
  1. Freebies: In the battle of freebies and cash for votes, which side is showing more “catching” power? Tamil Nadu which usually has a paucity of rains, in election season shows a huge propensity for downpours. This season also, it is raining freebies from all sides. Whether the underprivileged and deprived class cast their vote depending upon the freebies being provided is a question which is unanswered. And there is also the phenomenon of distribution of cash to turn up to vote. Can the distributed cash provided an “aadhaar” proof of vote cast is a big question.
  1. Battle of narratives: On the one side from the DMK front, the narrative built is of a threat perception. Of Tamil Nadu succumbing to the Centre or BJP if the ADMK front is voted to power. On the other side from the ADMK front, it is the threat of handing over TN to one family which has always benefitted whenever it ruled. Between these two narratives – the first pegged around identity politics and weak leadership and the second around nepotism and corruption, which has more potential to gain ground?
  1. Leadership question: The last is the leadership question. This is the full first state election in Tamil Nadu without strong and charismatic leaders in both sides. Between Stalin and Palaniswami, is there a voter preference based on their leadership skills? Or is leadership an issue at all in this election?

All these known unknowns make the upcoming Tamil Nadu elections a tough one to call and a fascinating one for any political observer.  But one thing is clear. The stakes for not losing are quite high for all the main contenders except one. And you know which that one is. And that is a known known.

Graphic courtesy:  The Hindu Business line

Nothing Private about this!

Ever since, WhatsApp informed all its users of its new update on the privacy terms with an option to accept or “else”, debates and discussions have been happening on whether to move out of WhatsApp or just agree and continue. Irony lost its privacy when all these discussions have been happening predominantly over WhatsApp itself!

In the meantime, rival platforms like Telegram and Signal have seen a huge traction in terms of new users. WhatsApp has been trying to put out the fire through full page ads in mainline newspapers insisting that the new changes are not of any material consequence. And finally, it took a call to put off the effective date for the new policy till at least May which was earlier the 8th of Feb. Hopefully the chatter on this issue will reduce in the coming days. For the rival platforms and media companies though, in these tough times, this has become a bountiful New Year present from the Facebook Corporation.

I personally have been trying to wrap my head around what’s the brouhaha about and what should I do. Privacy is indeed a major issue. But the moot question remains as to where do we draw the line on it. With the advent of technology first in the form of computers, internet, Networks, the Mobile phone and now Apps for anything and everything under the Sun, it is clear that life has become more convenient. At the same time, it is also clear that all these invade a lot into our privacy.

The last time when the issue of privacy entered the drawing room discussions in India was when the Government of India was pushing Aadhaar linking to bank accounts, mobile phones, IT returns and so on. The move was challenged in Supreme Court and post the verdict which sent mixed signals, we don’t see so much push on the Aadhaar front these days in terms of linking with anything and everything. Aadhaar has now been relegated to just being one of the requirements for identity proof.  This is unfortunate because, when Aadhaar was envisioned by Nandan Nilekani and his team, the scope was to use Aadhaar for delivery of many of the Government services. There was also a talk of a virtual Aadhaar Bank. All those big ideas lost their way now due to the battle which a few launched on the privacy front against Aadhaar.

I was then of the opinion that all those who use mobile phones, who are active on social media, who use tools like Google search and maps and so on should never complain about privacy. As part of their functioning, they anyway track the users. So the question of privacy doesn’t arise. The only way to protect one’s privacy is not to use them at all. Even the congressional questioning which took place in the US against Facebook, Google etc.… did not lead anywhere because, at the end of the day, as users we choose to use the tools and accept the conditions that define the usage of these tools. We all have the choice not to use them at the expense of convenience in life.

My position around the new changes in WhatsApp and the next steps, veers around the same points.  If you are a user of Google search, Maps, Mail and the works, anyway a lot of your activity is tracked and shared across platforms. And today, I came to know that our off Facebook activity say in other Apps are being shared with Facebook by the Apps for which we have signed up and accepted the terms of usage! It’s ironical that many who complain about the new update in WhatsApp continue to post “Check in” and “Check Out” status on Facebook!

I also realised that more than the issue of actual privacy, the inhibition towards WhatsApp’s new policy has come from “Big Corporate phobia”. I remember reading in Philip Kotler’s Bible on Marketing that large corporates and market leaders are always prone to becoming victims of negative public reactions frequently and so the Marketing team in such large companies should be equipped to pro-actively sense this and strategize accordingly. Had this privacy update notice come from a smaller player, the response would have been muted. But because it was from WhatsApp which is this humungous communication monster today that too owned by another monster called Facebook, the noise became louder.  And looks like the marketing team there hasn’t read Kotler!

I feel a bit lazy and hassled to ditch WhatsApp now and start using another messaging App say like Signal knowing very well that Signal could be acquired by Google or Facebook tomorrow. And what stops the rival Apps from changing their privacy policy tomorrow? And also even after moving to another App for some group activities, if I have to continue with WhatsApp for other groups, it is a pain to dabble in multiple platforms, not to mention of the erosion in the available memory space on the poor mobile phone.

WhatsApp has turned out to be one of the most convenient mode of instant communication today and has become ubiquitous. So ubiquitous that WhatsApp has become a verb. You don’t send a picture over WhatsApp but you just WhatsApp it! It is indeed convenient and it has been free all along. It has broken all kinds of class barriers. It will take a while to completely sign out of this presently. Not that it is not probable. (Remember Orkut?)

Back in 2014, when Facebook acquired WhatsApp for a staggering US$19bn, the first question that came up in our minds was, what all will Facebook do to monetise WhatsApp? What’s been happening of late with WhatsApp is part of the answer to that question. The launch of WhatsApp business accounts, WhatsApp Pay and probably a virtual WhatsApp Bank are all steps to add revenue streams to the company.

It appears that there are two options now. One, if I am so concerned about my privacy, I have to ditch my smart phone, become smart myself, stay away from social media and stop using all the convenient Apps. It’s like going back in time to another era altogether.

The second option is not to get so concerned about the privacy threats and continue to use technology but be conscious of what we do and what we share on Apps and platforms and hope and pray that all’s well that ends well. For now, I have chosen the 2nd option. What about you?

If you like this post, do share among your WhatsApp groups or any other platform you have taken to of late. Thank you.

Pic Courtesy: NBC News