Tuesday, March 27, 2012

3 Billion Reasons to Read a Book

Appeared in City Express, the daily supplement of The New Indian Express, Bangalore, on March 27, 2012

What are unique to the numbers 658,000, 612 and 750 million? These numbers have captured the imagination of the People’s President, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam as none other, such that he has written an entire book keeping them in mind.

After masterpieces such as Wings of Fire, Ignited Minds and India 2020, to name a few – which largely focused on how India could become a superpower in all aspects – Dr Kalam transcends all national barriers with Target 3 Billion, co-authored by IIM-Ahmedabad alumnus Srijan Pal Singh, and dwells on eradicating poverty across the world.

But why 3 billion? The authors expound that the international below poverty line (BPL) community – synonymous in India with the Planning Commission’s ludicrous `32 margin – is about 3 billion; hence the title. Identifying rural-urban migration as the root cause for various problems, the authors assert that the panacea to it lies in the acronym – PURA, or providing urban amenities in rural areas.

Set in the mould of a government plan document, aided probably by Dr Kalam’s experience with bureaucracy during his Presidential stint, Target 3 Billion has a brisk narrative style; the missile man’s personal touch is evident when he relates numerous encounters buttressing the suggestions that the authors proffer. Beginning with agriculture – still India’s largest profession – and extending to sectors such as education, acquiring vocational and technical skills, healthcare, preserving traditional forms of art and farming and threats due to naxalism, Target... attempts to find the links between various sectors and reconstruct the rural psyche. The end result when viewed at the macro level is something as stunning as a Michelangelo fresco, while deconstructing the facets of PURA.

One may be tempted to assume that Target... is a critique on governance across the decades, but it isn’t. It points out that though the percentage of the nation’s population afflicted by poverty has reduced from 55 per cent to 27.5 per cent, in numerical terms it has remained static at about 300 million. The book makes the case for a sustainable rural development model while stressing that benefits of many government schemes fail to actualise due to poor implementation – such as the trickle-down effect of developmental works. The transformation the liberalisation era – India’s watershed moment of economic development – has enabled is given its due; however, the authors also point out that it has resulted in inequitable distribution of wealth.

Target... emphasises that such programmes need to be framed keeping in mind objectives such as identifying the skill-sets of the population in concern, providing them the required technological prowess, and ensuring the organic growth of these schemes. It almost posits itself as a ‘framing governance for dummies’ guide; examples of successful rural development schemes in India and around the world – the astounding success of the Warana Sugar and Milk Cooperatives in Maharashtra, farm innovations in Africa – are given alongside, thereby underlining that its emulation on the national scale need be no Herculean task. We may think of connectivity in terms of cell phone networks or transport services, but Target... looks at it through electronic, knowledge and economic prisms.

Common problems that the nation’s bucolic landscape faces – why public servants, including doctors, consider a rural posting equivalent to a punishment; economic hardships faced by small-scale farmers; how quality education eludes students here – are analysed with amazing clarity. The authors’ enthusiasm is infectious, and it shows; the solutions they propose for such problems are certainly not ingenious, but simple and straight from the heart. Although comparisons may be odious, it is tempting to hark back to Dr Kalam’s earlier work, India 2020, for corollaries. Lastly, a chapter is included on how to realise a PURA structure, which may be of interest to government institutions, NGOs or entrepreneurs.

The book could have done with some proofing (subbing, in journalistic parlance). Case in point: our current diesel oil demand is stated as 43 tonnes (pg 161) which it is said can be met if all wastelands of the nation were to be put under Jatropha cultivation.

If you are still wondering what those three numbers represent, they are the total number of villages and districts in India, and our estimated rural population, respectively.

Above all, the authors ask a very pertinent question: who can do it?

Only time will tell.

Rajagopalan Venkataraman

Friday, March 23, 2012

When India's yes-men politicos empathise...

What happens when the supposed docile of our nation's politicos decide to communicate with one another? Here's a fictional account...

Inside a room in the corridors of power of Karnataka...

He looked at his reflection on the mirror; that trademark smile of his could not be brought back even with a great deal of effort, and seemed at best only a smirk. During his heyday, it was said that this smile was his lucky charm – which too seemed to have now deserted him. He sighed, ruminated briefly before deciding how to react. He reached for a pen and paper for possibly his last letter, a suicide note.

Unsurprisingly, he did not have to hesitate over whom to address it to, Mr Y would do. “Must get to the point straightaway,” he thought as he wrote: “I may be referred to as the smiley CM, but the number of times I have cried in private because of you may easily outstrip your public shedding of tears.” He examined the sentence feeling satisfied that it may set the right dramatic tenor, something which he had picked up during his days as a barrister in Puttur, Dakshina Kannada district. “Many refer to you as my political guru; however, I beg to differ. You anointed me only when your continuance in the hot seat was untenable.”

A cold sense of satisfaction set in him, signalling the return of his smile, almost involuntarily. “The nail has just found its way in, it needs to be hammered in further,” he heard himself telling, as he continued: “I tried to resurrect the sagging image of the government that you handed over to me. I befriended many an Opposition party leader, not to mention the Governor, and made some progress; thanks to you, my tenure is now on the tenterhooks.”

At that instant, his eyes scanned his room. He only rued that he was unable to spell this out in public. All that would soon be rendered irrelevant.

He could feel his heart beating louder as he continued: “What contribution have you made to the party apart from bringing it a bad name? Some of your die-hard supporters only lent it infamy after being caught watching porn inside the Legislative Assembly. In contrast, my supporters have conducted themselves in a far more dignified manner.” He paused, as if an artist painting a fresco would, and added: “For starters, you could compare your pictures that appear in the media with mine, Mr Y.”

Deciding to keep the note brief, he added: “I am disheartened at how you have tried to unseat me. I only wish my death will knock some sense into your head, signed Mr SG.” He then retrieved a rope from underneath his table, tied it to a ceiling fan; he was about to insert his head into the noose, when he heard a knock on the door, and a bearer barged in. The bearer gave an incredulous look before recovering to place a letter on the table. “This is from the finance minister of Tamil Nadu. It was meant to be delivered to you personally, sir,” he said and thought as he walked off, “Did I not anticipate him to do so two days ago...”

Upset at his suicide bid being scotched, SG slumped on his chair and let out a curse. Even at that instant, he could not help smiling as he stared at a looking glass placed on the table.

He opened the letter and read, “Dear Mr SG, it is only after a scrutiny of the political situation in your state and your precarious situation, am I writing this letter, for I empathise with you. If you would remember, around the same time you were elected as MP, I was the chief minister of TN briefly. All I did then was to carry out  instructions from Amma dutifully. However, my political opponents, the media and political commentators – thanks to whom, I started finding even Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri’s cricket commentary insightful – labelled my service to the party as governance-by-remote. Amma, the bearer of the late MGR’s legacy, was then facing innumerable litigations, these courts, high, medium... all that have no idea of politics then ruled that she must step down. I was even likened to Laloo’s wife, Rabri Devi; I was mocked for prostrating before Amma’s portraits. However, I felt I was the mythological character Bharatha from the epic Ramayana, who was the stand-by ruler until Rama returned from exile. The moral is, don’t feel disheartened if you are asked to step down. You must be the proverbial water droplet atop the lotus – detached but still in contact. And yes, if I have forgot to mention, my name is O Panneerselvam; I acquired this tendency to put the party first before myself since my days as CM.

No sooner did he finish reading, did a facsimile in his room creak into action. It was a message from the Rail Bhavan, Delhi. It simply read: “Didi and Yeddy may derail our plans, but they may never do that to our ambitions. Wishing you luck and support in all your endeavours, signed Dinesh Trivedi, former railway minister.”

For the second time that day SG felt gladdened. A moment ago, he was contemplating suicide, now he was elated; the vicissitudes of human emotions surprised him to no end. On an impulse, he stood up, removed the rope and discarded it.

The very next moment, he heard a knock on the door again; it was the bearer. Suppressing surprise at the change in SG’s emotions, he said: “It’s a call from the PMO in Delhi, sir. The caller identifies himself as a “rubber-stamp” Singh. Shall I put him through?”

SG tore up the suicide note into a thousand bits.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Scripting a neo-noir success in Indian cinema

Article can also be read at: http://newindianexpress.com/entertainment/tamil/article344575.ece

An analysis into the success – and failure – of the national award winning Tamil movie Aranya Kandam  

The slick, pulp fiction-like poster of Aaranya Kaandam, perhaps the first Tamil neo-noir movie

by Rajagopalan Venkataraman

Think noir in Indian cinema and it is but natural to think of movies based on gangsters and internecine wars for supremacy. Notable examples in this genre include the Amitabh Bacchan-starrer Zanjeer, Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan and Ram Gopal Varma’s repertoire of mafia sagas, ranging from Satya to Company and D. Save for a few, a majority of such movies, in their bid to dish out “masala” entertainers – a euphemism for a film that has something for all sections of audiences – have traditionally offered the backseat to factors like story and screenplay. Ergo, when Aaranya Kandam (the jungle chapter) – perhaps the first Tamil neo-noir movie – recently bagged a slew of awards, including two national awards, Indian cinema aficionados had a genuine cause for celebration.

Aaranya... can very well be the syces’ dark horse: with plenty of newbies in its cast and a debutant director, few would have expected it to garner as much attention as it eventually did. Far from the traditional ‘macho’ Tamil movie – parodied to different levels of hilarity in movies such as Om Shanti Om or Quick Gun MuruganAaranya...’s USP was its readiness to discard such stereotypes. With a theme that would make a Quentin Tarantino or a Francis Ford Coppola proud – how a henchman betrayed by his gang goes about reclaiming his space – it was also aided by taut editing; in fact, one of the national awards that the movie bagged was for its editing.

Every character was etched in a novel yet realistic manner and accorded almost equal importance in the plot. The villager’s son who would not hesitate to abuse his bumbling, drunkard father; the don – Jackie Shroff in his first Tamil movie – learning English from a ‘learn in 30-days’ book and using it at the unlikeliest of the moments; or the sexually-abused gangster’s concubine who wouldn’t bat an eyelid before ‘using’ her close friend ensure that viewers have jaw-dropping moments aplenty.

Prior to its release, Aaranya... was in the crosshairs of the censor board, and it isn’t difficult to see why. With profanities abound in its dialogues, most of which have been bleeped out, the movie could have offered stiff competition to Hollywood’s Scarface or The Departed or Bollywood’s Delhi Belly. Violence, too, was integral to the movie, offered in generous doses in the form of slo-mo sequences of men being slit and hacked to death (after all, what’s a gangster movie without violence?) but this, along with its somewhat predictable ending, can be papered over for a super-fast narrative, and witty, sharp dialogues.

Not your typical gangster movie...
If ever viewing Aaranya... makes for a gripping experience, mention must be made of its music composer, Yuvan Shankar Raja, as well, who has effectively employed two elements – silence and the yesteryear hits of his father Ilayaraja, which can be likened to a leitmotif – to create the atmosphere of the gangster-ridden north Chennai. The director, Thyagarajan Kumararaja – who bagged the national award for best directorial debut – had earlier scripted the dialogues for the Arya-Pooja starrer Oram Po, a laughter riot.

However, despite collecting awards that may fill a mantelpiece, its makers had reason for worry: Aaranya... was reportedly a dud at the box-office.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Emotionally Yours, the Google Way

First in the US and then in India, Google has been making waves with ‘the web is what you make of it’, its ad-campaign for its internet browser, Google Chrome. Here's a lowdown into the specifics

A man is passionate about his new-born baby girl and chronicles her upbringing online; a lady executive at an MNC goes on maternity leave, but her passion for cooking spurs her to start a cookery blog; an artisan facing a tough time marketing traditional Tanjore paintings decides to shift his business online. The commonality in the three incidents: ‘the web is what you make of it’, the latest ad campaign of Google Chrome, the internet browser from the stables of search engine behemoth Google.

To get a feel of the relation between advertising and cinema personalities or cricket stars, one only needs to only head to the nearest traffic junction characterised by a slew of billboards or turn on the television. From carbonated drinks to air conditioners or clothing fabrics, these personalities are the raison d’eitre of the glitzy world of publicising brands. By extension, exceptions to this rule are few and far in between. Which perhaps explains why Google’s decision to feature the lives of common people while making a pitch for itself comes as a whiff of fresh air.

And it’s not just about making improvisations in advertising: the strategy has worked wonders for the company too. According to Nikhil Rungta, Country Marketing Head of Google India, the market share of the web browser in India has shot up by almost 200 per cent, from around 12 per cent in 2010 to its current share of 38 per cent. Rungta elucidates, “Google Chrome is a simple, secure and speedy browser. Similarly, the advertisements have a simple theme. They narrate real and compelling stories with emphasis on the emotional connect.”

The campaign originated in the US, with an emotional TV commercial a couple of years ago titled Dear Sophie. A man, overjoyed at having just become a father, opens a Gmail account for his daughter and records in it pictures and videos of her significant achievements as she grows up. The ad signs off with “Can’t wait to share all this with you one day.”

The advert was an unprecedented success.

On tailoring the campaign to the Indian context, he says: “One can achieve a lot with the internet. For our campaign we shortlisted the success stories of Indians who have employed the internet to great effect that had universal appeal.” To buttress his point, Rungta cites the example of Archana and the numerous working women who go into sabbatical during their maternity period. “Our ads also focus on the specifics of our nation’s culture that include dying art forms such as Tanjore paintings. This (the decision to narrate native tales) was a very conscious decision,” he adds.

Quiz him on whether one can expect similar strategies for Google’s other products such as YouTube and Gmail in the near future and he replies: “We are still on the lookout for more such stories. As of now, our focus is only on promoting Google Chrome in India.”

The series of advertisements are currently running online and in cinema halls.

What is ‘the web is what you make of it’
As the YouTube channel for the campaign puts it, “the web is simply part of our life and helps us get things done”. The campaign, comprising a slew of ads, showcases how users of Google Chrome, in conjunction with other products of Google such as YouTube, Picasa and Gmail, are able to make difference in their lives. Ostensibly aimed at a better connect with the users, the ads have an emotional twang to it, be it the conversations between the pregnant woman and her mother for recipes – who eventually opens a website and publishes a book, too, on it – in the ad for Archana’s kitchen or the revival of business in traditional Tanjore paintings featuring G Rajendran.

‘Glad I Could Make a Name for Myself from a Remote Village’

G Rajendran, an artist and a dealer of Tanjore paintings, was featured in one of Google Chrome’s ‘the web is what you make of it’ advertisements. He speaks on his trials and tribulations in his business and his tryst with Google

For how long have you been in the business of marketing Tanjore paintings?
I have been in the business for about twenty years.

When and why did you shift your business online?
Delayed payments and commissions to galleries were eating into our profits. This prompted us to make the transition to online in 2004, when we created the website ‘www.Tanjoreoviyam.com’. However, it was only after two years later were we able to get a better response with a much detailed website.

Was the transition to online helpful to your business?
Not entirely. We had to still make some compromises and offer lower prices for our wares.

What was your first response when Google called on you? Were you sceptical?
It came as a surprise to us. We were delighted. We were not all apprehensive, just happy that our art-form had received an authentication of sorts. Hailing from a remote village in Tamil Nadu, I was happy that I could at last make a lasting impact.

How has the advertisement affected your business?
Post filming of the commercial, our business has improved a lot. The traffic to our website, too, has increased. Though I may not be able to provide any statistics, for about 20 days after the advertisements were released, we were receiving about 50 mails daily. Above all, only those interested in Tanjore paintings visit our website, which is very heartening.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Is Thuglak’s Editor Going the Thuglak Way?

The front-page cartoons of this magazine have always been considered a barometer of the nation, and particularly Tamil Nadu’s, political landscape. Rib-tickling and dripping with sarcasm, it’s following has gradually swelled, though, not in dramatic terms, as certain high-profile media houses would flaunt. Be it the DMK or the AIADMK, the BJP or Congress, the Left or National Conference, its leaders have been the butt of many an acerbic but thought-provoking joke. In fact, it may not sound out of context to liken this publication to the American humour magazine, MAD.

Sample this: during the height of Anna Hazare’s high-profile fast against corruption, resulting in hectic parleys between his team of lieutenants and the Parliament, this magazine ran a front page cartoon with Team-A on one side and representatives of the UPA government on the other. Team-A, which remains silent when its demands such as inclusion of the Judiciary and prime minister under the Lokpal Bill’s ambit are met with inconclusive replies, jumps with exultation when the politicians mention that the Bill will be debated in Parliament.

It has to be noted that this magazine was one of the few sane voices calling a spade a spade when virtually all of the Indian media had gone overboard declaring India to be on the cusp of another revolution and that Anna is the new-age Jayaprakash Narayan. Today, we need no seer to declare that Team-A’s movement against corruption has turned a damp squib.

A recent front-page cartoon on the magazine was the photograph of Priyanka Gandhi gently pinching the cheek of her mother, Sonia, during the Uttar Pradesh election campaign. While most newspapers carried the photo under titles relating to love and affection, this magazine had a different take. Priyanka is shown telling her mother, “I never knew you were made of such strong stuff... you have never revealed even to me where the Rs24 lakh crore has been stashed away...”

This, when the CBI director had made a few days ago the startling revelation that Swiss banks were a cache for a humongous amount of the nation’s illegal wealth.

The magazine in question is the Tamil weekly Thuglak, and its editor, the indomitable lawyer-cum-drama artiste-cum-political commentator Cho Ramaswamy; perhaps better described as the gadfly of Indian, or largely Tamil Nadu, politics.

derives its name from Muhammad Bin Thuglak, Cho’s stage play, a satire on Indian politics made in the 60s, which also had a successful cinematic adaptation, with the director himself playing the lead role. Tongue-in-cheek, the movie likens the then governments to the capricious ruler who flirted with the idea of setting up a second capital of India, Daulatabad, and burnt his fingers in the process. The ruler comes to life from his grave (it is later revealed that it’s a hoax), sweeping the media and historians off its feet; gets elected as the prime minster through a sequence of hilarious sequences, and proposes ridiculous solutions for the nation’s problems. For the language issue dogging the country – the DK, the precursor to the DMK, was then dead against the imposition of Hindi in Tamil Nadu –  he suggests the imposition of a totally alien language, Persian; he vacillates between making all his party’s MLAs deputy prime ministers and office boys, the trademark ‘Cho’ wit embellished in every single dialogue. From Nehru to Rajaji, Karunanidhi to the Marxists, Muhammed Bin Thughlak takes an almighty dig at the nation’s then leading politicians; it could still be a blueprint for contemporary satire cinema.

Which is why its editor’s new-found allegiance with the AIADMK comes as a pointed jab to the heart, or a bitter after-taste after a palatial seven-course meal. (click on link below to view speech, though, it's in Tamil)

At the 42nd anniversary of the magazine in Chennai, Cho extolled on the capabilities of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa – he said she was erudite, multilingual, has the ability to grasp facts immediately and is statesman non-pareil – while making a pitch for her to become the next prime minister. At the same time, he spared no sarcasm whatsoever in attacking the DMK’s chief, the now beleaguered former CM M Karunanidhi. His speech had an air about it which may not have belonged to even a die-hard Amma (as Jayalalithaa is popularly referred to) supporter.

Members of the Fourth Estate having political allegiances is certainly no crime, but there is a very fine line between having one's views and impinging it on others. Clearly the bespectacled editor of Thuglak
seems to have transgressed that fine distinction.

Was he reading a handout delivered to him straight from Poes Garden? At least he gave every indication in its affirmative.

Will Cho now have the same temerity to pinprick the AIADMK on matters of governance? Let us not forget that the new government not too long ago was chastened by the Madras High Court for its overdrive to reverse the Samacheer Kalvi scheme initiated by its predecessor. Jayalalithaa may have not embarked fully on vendetta politics, as she once used to after getting elected, but the comment that she being made of prime ministerial-stuff was hardly expected from a critic as vociferous and respected as him.

True, the recent DMK regime could have easily put to shame a Laloo Yadav or Shibu Soren – who will forget Rs 1,76,000 crore, a figure one of its former ministers, Andimuthu Raja, is perhaps destined to be associated with till his death?; few in Kollywood, the thriving Tamil film industry, would even want to talk about the vice-like grip the former TN CM’s family held over it; its ministers had to possess a new qualification – involvement in a couple of land-grabbing cases; but Jayalalithaa is certainly no Joan of Arc. She has yet to clear her name in a slew of corruption-related charges; and the shadows of her association with her former confidante, Sasikala Natarajan, are only darkening by the day. And the coalition between the AIADMK and the Vijaykanth-led DMDK has collapsed even before it could pick up steam, putting to shame the dalliances of Elizabeth Taylor, Hugh Hefner or Kim Kardashian.

Which brings us to an all-important question: is bias-free journalism anathema to Indian politics?