Ponniyin Selvan is Coming!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOC for FOE!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: Indianprinterpublisher.com

Agnipath and not Agnipast!

“Change is the only thing that is constant” is an oft repeated phrase that has now become a cliché! In a real world that is not Utopia, the only thing that is constant is resistance to change. “Where are the big bang reforms?” This was a familiar question from the commentariat in the first few years of the Modi Sarkar. Then when the Sarkar started implementing reforms of the big bang variety, the question changed to “Why is this needed now?”. We saw this when the much-needed reforms in the agriculture sector were introduced. Finally, the government had to roll back the same. In my blog (read here) when the farm bills were repealed after protracted agitations, I had written on the lessons for the Modi Government in bringing in reforms. There are more lessons coming up!

Here we are, again in the same boat. The Government announced Agnipath, a scheme that brings about radical changes or reforms in the recruitment of jawans for the armed forces. And post the announcement, we have been seeing the same scenes playing out in terms of agitations and approach of the government. Literally speaking Agnipath has set parts of the country on fire, and this is extremely unfortunate.

Most commentators and domain experts acknowledge the need for these reforms. Yet, the section of the population which is supposed to benefit from these have an angst towards these. The result is what we see playing out on our respective screens.

From whatever I have seen and heard on this issue, the biggest issue around the proposed Agnipath program is the timing.  For the past 2 years, due to Covid, recruitment to Armed forces through recruitment rallies have not happened. The process is at different stages and the candidates are going through an agonising period of prolonged suspense, frustration and at the end of the day some hope.  Aspiring candidates are at different stages in the process – some awaiting their medical, some awaiting the final letter, some at different rounds and so on. So, all the while they have been forced to keep themselves fit and ready for the process to come to an end now that things are getting back to normal post Covid.  All along the candidates have been given the reason of Covid for the delay in the process.

Now comes the announcement of Agnipath which totally puts paid to their hopes of not just joining the services that will ensure a settled life but, a 3/4th probability of getting out of the services and start all over again in 4 years. What we see as raucous demonstrations are a result of the pent-up frustration in the first place due to last two years of agonising wait and second now finding that the game has changed.

If one must look at the causes therefore for this unrest, they can be summarised as follows:

  • First the timing.  As I have mentioned before, the proposed changes have come at a time when recruitment has not happened for two years.
  • Second, the proposed changes have made some of the candidates ineligible due to the age limits. They feel slighted.
  • Third, there is an element of uncertainty because of the 25% absorption clause even for those who get selected. Therefore, this is seen as a harbinger of struggle in life if one misses the bus!
  • Fourth, the probability of getting selected even if this is a short tour of duty has reduced since the overall recruitment numbers has been reduced. In general, around 60,000 get selected in a year. Now that has come down to 40,000 of which only 10,000 will get absorbed after four years. This is my understanding. So, the reduction in intake is drastic and therefore the probability of getting into a settled job with the forces has also reduced for the aspirants drastically.
  • And finally, the sudden drastic communication of the rolling out of the program.

Having said all this, since the proposed reform packaged as the Agnipath scheme is much needed for reducing the average age, reducing the pension budget, shifting the allocation from boots on the ground to weaponry, technology and sophistication, the government must stay the course but probably with a few course corrections.  Here’s what the government could have done in rolling out this program and probably it could still do:

  • Over to Overlap: In businesses, when we try to bring in some changes that tend to disrupt long standing processes, we deploy a tactic called “Overlap”. I strongly feel that in this case also, the government could have brought in this new program with an overlap clause. This means, the existing recruitment program will continue as it is for 2 or 3 years while the new program will be introduced in phases. This of course increases the overall intake for two years but that is a smaller cost for bringing in a reform that has benefits in the long run. The candidates who are part of the ongoing process would not have felt slighted. The new candidates would come in knowing fully the contours of the new program. This would have taken care of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th issues mentioned above.
  • Float the trial balloon: Now coming to communication and therefore getting feedback before implementing the same, the government could have used a time-tested technique of leaking parts of the program to select journalists. When key elements of the program appear in the media quoting “as per sources”, it gives a window for the government to own/disown parts or the program in full depending upon the feedback. In this case, the government could have easily got an idea of the ground level feedback and therefore timed it better. Also, aspects of the program which the government is now making changes like the one-time extension of age limit and other ministries bringing in notifications for absorbing Agniveers could have been built into the program itself by floating this trial balloon.

Though some of the commentators particularly from the services feel that this should not be seen as an employment generation program, the fact of the matter is, in India there are districts in states like Bihar, Eastern UP, Bundelkhand, Haryana to name a few, where getting into the forces at the sepoy level is a primary source for employment for the youth. This explains the reason for the skewed nature of the protests and outbursts as far as geographic spread is concerned.  The irony is, what probably started as spontaneous outbursts which resulted in destruction of public property at will has now turned into a more orchestrated campaign to create unrest in the country.  Nupur Sharma issue is now history!

By going full fledged with the announcement, the government has put itself in a quandary and the program in jeopardy. Now coming out of the hole and still roll out Agnipath even with some changes will be a real Agnipariksha for the government! Hope this doesn’t go down as “Agnipast”!

Academy Welcomes Ilaiyaraaja!

Nalinakanthi is one of the most mellifluous ragas in Carnatic music. In Carnatic music, there are only a few compositions in this raga, the most prominent one being Thyagaraja’s Manavyalakinchara… In film music though particularly in Tamil and Malayalam, this raga finds wider usage. Further, among avid followers of Tamil film music, Nalinakanthi has been immortalised by none other than Ilaiyaraaja with his use of this raga in the song Enthan nenjil neengaatha… in the film Kalaignan.  Composer Deva’s Manam virumbuthe… and Rahman’s Kandukonden Kandukonden… are the other songs in Tamil films that followed using Nalinakanthi phrases that became hits.

Of late, I notice that even those who probably haven’t learnt Carnatic music, have now started to refer to the usage of ragas in Tamil film songs. This includes me as well.  Watch this clip at 21.57 where a Raaja song is being discussed, for example and the interviewer pops the raga name casually.  I attribute this to the increasing discussion on Raaja’s use of Carnatic ragas in his songs in the media by experts.

It’s not that Raaja started using Carnatic music only of late. In fact, he has been using Carnatic ragas and references right from the 70’s. The song Chinnakannan Azhaikiraan… from the film Kavikuyil of 1977 tuned on Reetigowla raga by Raaja is a testimony to this.  Just like Nalinakanthi, the credit for making Reetigowla very popular in Tamil film music goes to Raaja. It was then taken forward by other music directors like Rahman, Vidyasagar, James Vasanthan and others later with some memorable songs.  But it is only in the last couple of years that Raaja’s effective use of Carnatic ragas in many of his compositions more directly or subtly has started coming out. I would attribute this to what I called in my earlier blog (read here) as the LCS (Lockdown-Connectivity-Social Media) Trinity!!!

Thanks to this trinity, we are now exposed to so many Carnatic exponents explaining eloquently on how Raaja has used different ragas in many of his songs. Foremost that comes to my mind is Subhasree Thanikachalam’s QFR (Quarantine From Reality), a YouTube based show that is immensely popular. Though I must say that this program is not just to do with Raaja’s songs, Subhasree talks about the nuances of many of Raaja’s hits including the usage of the ragas in his songs.  In fact, as a tribute for Raaja’s birthday few days ago, Subhasree along with her team of singers and musicians presented a medley of Raaja’s songs interspersed with the Carnatic raga phrases they were based on.

The other thing that comes to my mind next is Do you have a minute series? by the famed Veena Vidwan Rajhesh Vaidhya. In these 1 minute clips, he has been playing many Tamil film songs with the details of the raga mentioned as captions. Again, this series is not just limited to Raaja’s compositions, but a cursory look will tell you that it is Raaja’s songs that are often covered.

The crowning glory in my opinion for popularising phrases of different ragas and their usage by Raaja goes to Carnatic vocalist Sanjay Subrahmanyan. Starting during the Covid induced lockdown in 2020, week after week every Saturday Sanjay, a self-avowed fan of Raaja, in his own inimitable style, releases a clip titled Short Notes where he sings a raga phrase and ends with a hint of a Raaja song in the same raga. Now, this has got its own fan base including yours truly. On Saturday evenings, I eagerly look forward to this clip which is posted on different social media platforms. Guessing the song is one part of the thrill. The other part is of course coming to know of Raaja’s repertoire in Carnatic music week after week. Not to forget the discussions this weekly fix triggers in WhatsApp groups. If this is not a commendable attempt in mainstreaming Carnatic music what else is?

Amidst all this, what the Carnatic duo of Ranjani-Gayatri managed recently is laudable. To coincide with Raaja’s 79th birthday, they did a concert at the hallowed Music Academy last week titled Raaja by RaGa. In a regular kutcheri format, they sang hand picked film songs of Raaja that are based on Carnatic ragas. In the sense, it was a kutcheri exclusively of compositions of Ilaiyaraaja, in a novel attempt to celebrate the genius of Raaja. I didn’t watch it unfortunately though I would have loved to. But I watched this video in which the host Priya Parthasarathy gives a nice recap of the whole concert and needless to say, there are quite a few goosebump moments.

The thing is, Raaja has been using along with other music forms, Carnatic music extensively in his compositions for a long time now. But all these years, as ordinary listeners, without experts explaining the same, we never realised or understood the extent of Raaja’s proficiency over this form.  Therefore, I think that attempts like the one by Sanjay or RaGa sisters do a great job in dispelling the long-standing notion that Carnatic music can be understood and appreciated only by a niche audience.

I think that the recent concert by Ranjani-Gayatri at the Academy where they did a full-fledged kutcheri with just compositions from films is a first.  The moot question is, following the huge response to this, will we see Carnatic musicians mixing up film songs based on Carnatic ragas in their concerts? I hope they do. I still remember the thunderous applause Sanjay Subramanyam received when he threw the Ilamai itho itho… phrase in between a Carnatic song on the New Year Day concert at Krishna Gana Sabha in 2020 or for that matter the huge appreciation when Sid Sriram sang Maruvaarthai… as a thukkada in a Carnatic concert in Mumbai recently.

Chamber Welcomes Thyagaraja is one of the compositions from Raaja’s fusion album – How To Name It? of 1986. Raaja uses phrases of Kalyani Raga as a metaphor for Thyagaraja and notes from Bach in this fusion piece. This I guess was his way of paying a tribute to both Thyagaraja and Bach and trying to find equivalences in music forms. In the year 2017, the Academy in short for The Music Academy, Chennai welcomed Ilaiyaraaja to be the President for the Annual Conference and concerts during the “Season”.  It’s now time for the Academy to bestow the much-revered Sangeeta Kalanidhi title on Ilaiyaraaja in the coming year. Sangeeta Kalanidhi at 80 may be late but still is great!

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 😃😃