Batman Never Begins

August 25, 2007

As a mere drop in the Indian pool of engineers-turned-MBAs, I cannot come up with anything more than cuppax fundaes. However, I am always anxious to offer my readers more and better content. I am proud to announce that the intellectual level of this blog is taking a massive leap. As a special to Sleisha Cuppax Fundaes (w)Only, Pankaj Mishra is providing his review of Chak De India. I hope you will be dazzled by his intellect (and also enjoy the review).


Batman Never BeginsPankaj Mishra

With Chak De India, Bollywood appears to have created a new myth of a united and resurgent India. Yet this story of supposed success and empowerment hides uncomfortable truths. The enthusiasm of the press and of audiences for the movie does not represent a genuine appraisal of India’s prowess in women’s hockey, but the wishful thinking of Western policymakers who wish to engage India as a geopolitical resource and a trading market.

The attempt to project the virtues of team spirit and nationalism provides comfort to India’s neo-orientalist elites who can afford to watch movies in the multiplexes of ‘shining India’. But the story of the film is a self-affirming fiction that emphasizes that free-market capitalism in India is at the cost of the have-nots, who are being plunged deeper into despair at the growing inequality.

Nothing in the film demonstrates this as powerfully as the casting of Rani and Soimoi of Jharkhand as mere defenders, while the glamorous goal-chase subplot is cornered by the strikers from Chandigarh and Haryana – the epicentre of Indian neo-liberalisation policies. Media attention on the competition for goals between Preeti and Komal is analogous to the preoccupation of the Indian media with corporate battles for marketshare.

The fact that the movie chose to focus on the personal lives of only the strikers- who were all from the states of India which had embraced neo-liberal capitalism – demonstrates the extent to which the western ideas of free market fundamentalism have captured the Indian media. At the same time, the sidelining of the players from Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh to mere cameos points to why their frustrated citizens are turning to Maoist insurgency, a phenomenon known as Naxalism.

Also, though the movie attempts to make much of the Muslim identity of the coach, the team itself has only one Muslim player. This is taken for granted, yet this under-representation lies at the heart of a government report published earlier this year which found that Muslims were dangerously excluded from government jobs. This increasing marginalisation of India’s minorities since the championing of Western-style free-market economics contrasts sharply with the inclusive ethos which characterised Indian politics in the 1950s.

In fact, the 1950s were a golden age when India experimented with brave new political, economics, and diplomatic ideas that were homegrown and owed nothing to Western influence. This period laid the foundation for India’s best years of hockey. India’s achievements in this period must be examined in an Indian perspective. Thatcherism and astroturf were introduced concurrently. Both these Western innovations have disadvantaged India greatly. As long as Indians try to play within the constraints imposed by these alien concepts, India cannot become a superpower – either in hockey or in the economic domain.

Instead of seeking success on Western parameters, India would do well to tap into its legacy of original thought. As I have mentioned, India cannot succeed in either hockey or the financial sphere, but it is well placed to become the world leader in deep thinking. With its heritage of radical ideators – Gandhi, Adi Shankaracharya, Buddha, and Chanakya, India can use the educational foundations laid by Nehru to lead the way in foreign affairs, economics, and social studies. India’s businessmen and engineers are recognised only by the world’s general news and business media, which themselves are under the influence of the West’s policymakers. However, the world’s intellectuals recognise the talent of India’s writers, artists, and social commentators. It is these Indian intellectuals who are best placed to guide India away from Western standards of prosperity and social organisation.

The hockey players in Chak De India are not suitable Indian icons. Their wide eyed wonder at advanced training equipment and gyms show that they are too overcome by Western technology to authentically represent India. This is not unique to hockey. Even in cricket, no batsman can begin to speak authentically of Indian sensitivities the way Indian intellectuals can. Intellectuals, not hockey playing girls, are the true heroes of twenty-first century India – which India is gradually realising, aided by reviews such as this one. Perhaps the next Bollywood blockbuster will be called Chak De Intellectual.


August 24, 2007

Reality is not digital, an on-off state, but analog. Something gradual. In other words, reality is a quality that things possess in the same way that they possess, say, weight. Some people are more real than others, for example. It has been estimated that there are only about five hundred real people on any given planet, which is why they keep unexpectedly running into one another all the time.

– Terry Pratchett, Moving Pictures


Damn the running into one another. If this is true, the more profound implication is that the five hundred real people are all sleeping with each other.

Running Out of Metals II

August 22, 2007

My post on credit card brand dilution left the question of what to call the next premium card once even Platinum has become mass market unanswered. Here are some options:

  1. Continue on the path of using rarer and rarer metals to represent greater exclusivity. Use rare earths like Praseodynium and Ytterbium. While conceptually pure, this strategy will generate names which are not well known and also difficult to pronounce. On the other hand, if the nuclear deal goes through, a Uranium or Plutonium card would have unmitigated brand value.
  2. Go the Mainland China way and use colours instead of metals – the by-invitation-only card in China is called Black.
  3. Use minerals that are not metals: Ruby, Garnet, Emerald and Diamond. Unfortunately, all of these have less perceived value than Platinum.
  4. Fictional metals. Adamantium, Cavorite, Vibranium, and Dilithium. And for the card with no credit limit and boundless reward points: Kryptonite. Need I say more?

Design for Servants

August 22, 2007

I have been thinking recently about how so many Indian household products and housework processes are badly designed. I am not talking about brands but entire product categories. Examples of badly designed products include beds which are difficult to move (not so common these days as twenty years ago), wire netting window covers which collect dust, mixies which are too noisy (especially if you compare a desi brand like Sumeet or Jaipan with a Philips or Morphy Richards), and entire houses which are badly laid out (I will elaborate on this later).Also, products which are well-designed and replace bad ways of doing things are not popular at all. In my building of sixteen flats, mine is the only one with an ironing board. Also, everyone hangs their laundry out on the balcony. Nobody uses a clotheshorse. (I myself am to blame in this respect, but only because I haven’t bought one yet. I’m planning to do it next month.) This is stupid for two reasons: first, Bangalore has a rainy climate, and drying your clothes outside could just mean that they get wet again. Second, a bird can come and crap on your laundry after you’ve washed it, wasting all the effort that went into washing it in the first place (yes, I’m bitter, so sue me).

The slow way in which well designed products are adopted is astonishing. Washing machine penetration is abysmal as it is. But even when there are washing machines, top-loading washing machines outsell front-loading machines. After ten years of frost-free technology, manual defrost refrigerators are still on the market even though the price difference is just about five thousand rupees. This makes a total mockery of motivational sales lectures about how price is irrelevant if you can offer a customer value.

So why isn’t the customer looking for value in design? I think the answer lies in domestic servants. The Indian servant culture (stretching from visiting bais to stay-at-home cooks) means that the person who buys the product (the householder) is completely different from the person who uses the product (the servant). Since the buyer is not going to use the product, he sees no value in usability, and so always chases value in terms of price reductions instead. This can have horrible consequences for the person who has to use the badly designed product.

Example one: mopping. If we’re the ones wet-cleaning our floors, we go out and buy a mop. As long as the maid is around, we expect her to do it with a pochha, her back bent at a completely uncomfortable angle. The extra price you pay to avoid that uncomfortable posture is only a hundred and twenty rupees, but the cost-benefit ratio doesn’t even enter your head until it’s you who has to bear the cost and benefit.

Example two: kitchens. Specifically, my kitchen. It is this kitchen which has got me so worked up about the whole subject and left me convinced that designing for servants is the reason usability in India is so crap. The problems with this kitchen include:

  1. It is too small. This makes ventilation a problem even with an exhaust fan. It also means ingredients and utensils have to be densely stacked. So to access one thing, you have to first remove five other things (and then put them back). It also makes cleaning it difficult.
  2. The cupboards have no shelves. There are no nails from which to hang utensils or utensil racks. Again, this causes problems when you need to move five things to get to the one thing you’re looking for.
  3. There are not enough power points for appliances. There isn’t enough shelf space or floor space for appliances for that matter. The floor space is all taken up by the master bedroom (which my flatmate only uses to sleep in), and the hall (which isn’t used at all).

This is a problem for me because when I’m fixing breakfast in the morning I want to do it as soon as possible so I can get to work. At that time having to remove three different plates and bartans to get to a frying pan is completely annoying. Of course, the person who designed the kitchen was doing it for a bai whose time was much less valuable, and so the cupboards have no shelves.

Unfortunately, the situation will not change until any of these four things happens:

  1. People realize that their domestic servants are human beings, and stop expecting them to do stuff that they wouldn’t do themselves. Ha ha ha. Good luck trying to change the attitude of three hundred million people.
  2. The government or industry associations step in and set minimum usability standards. Ha ha ha. Good luck trying to enforce the standards.
  3. Domestic help moves from a servant model to a service provider model, where servants are professionals who are hired and paid well by the hour. Ha ha ha. Good luck trying to set up a professional and premium maid service in India when there are half a billion Biharis, Bangladeshis, and Nepalians who’ll happily work for peanuts.
  4. More people start doing their own housework and start relying less on domestic help, and so start demanding better designed household appliances. This, I am actually optimistic about. Domestic help can be a value-destroyer in many cases: supervising servants takes up time, which you might as well use to do the work yourself. If there’s no grandmother/ jobless wife around to supervise the servant, the cost-benefit changes (which is why I’ve sacked my cook).

This post could lead to many other topics, such as why there are no ten-litre packs of juice in India, and why Praful Bidwai is an idiot, but I have no time to write them. So I’ll end it here.

Running Out of Metals

August 21, 2007

Mature (and maturing) credit card markets have a problem: they’re running out of metals to name their card brands.  Silver has been used. So have gold and titanium. And now platinum. What’s next?

This is what happens when you have too many banks chasing too few customers. The cycle starts off when the market is first introduced to credit cards. A ‘Classic’ is offered to the mass market, ‘Executive’  or ‘Silver’ to the premium mass market (anyone with a better credit score), and ‘Gold’ by invitation only.

What happens next is simple: one particular bank will decide to ramp up marketshare. So it offers Silver cards to the Classic cardholders, Gold cards to the Silver cardholders, and a co-branded gold card with more features, or some entirely new metal to the old cardholders.

In the next stage of the cycle, all other banks do the same thing just to keep up with the competition. So eventually classic cards fall off the market, followed by silver, and then by Gold. I saw this up close in Singapore, where even Platinum now has so little exclusivity that you can ring up phonebanking and ask for a platinum card to be delivered to you the next day.  India is not as developed a retail finance market, so Platinum still has some brand value. Platinum cards aren’t advertised. A platinum card is by invitation only. The invitation goes to select, obscenely wealthy customers. A platinum card has a whacking great annual fees (which will be waived if you’ve got enough assets under management, but I digress). It has brand value. It has a cachet.

Or rather, it had. Platinum cards are now going mass market in India too. It all started with HDFC bank advertising its Platinum Plus card (which, incidentally, is coloured deep green and not platinum) on hoardings of all things. Amex and StanChart’s product managers were probably cursing at the unmitigated brand dilution. The catch up cycle has now started. SBI has launched its platinum card. StanChart and Amex are still trying to maintain exclusivity, but Citi has succumbed and brought Platinum to the mass market.

And this act of Citibank is where the blogpost shifts gears and moves from putting learnings and fundaes about credit card marketing to describing my personal tragedy.

Barely a month ago, Citibank gave me a free-for-life Jet Airways Gold Card (a cobranded gold card being free for life is itself evidence of brand dilution). This card gives you Jet Airways miles instead of reward points (which is good, because Citi reward points can only be redeemed for totally crap stuff at My monthly spend won’t generate enough miles to redeem for a ticket, but the card still has one invaluable advantage: it lets me check in at the business class counter even if I’m traveling economy. Anybody who’s faced the queues at Bangalore airport knows that this is not to be taken lightly.

Unfortunately, Citi got caught up with catching up, and launched the Jet Airways Platinum card. This is a card with the same features and miles benefits as the Gold card. And starting next month, the Gold card’s features will be downgraded to the features of the Jet Airways Silver Card. The upshot is, unless I swap to the Platinum card, I can no longer jump the check-in queue. As Ravages would put it, woe, fucking woe.

Brand dilution is immensely tragic.

Risk Evasion is not Risk Management

August 21, 2007

DNA has an article titled ‘Being behind the curve helps Banking Street‘, where it praises the RBI for being conservative, and thus ensuring that Indian banks were not exposed to the subprime contagion:

Bless the conservative Reserve Bank of India too, for its tough regulations on overseas investments have meant Indian banks’ exposure remains limited.

I think this is a wonderful insight, and should not be limited only to banking. It must be applied everywhere.

For starters, everyone should never have sex. This will ensure that nobody is exposed to AIDS.

Also, nobody should ever take the board exams. After all, some people might flunk.

And there should be a newspaper regulator which should stop DNA from hiring business writers. There’s a chance that they’ll hire idiots.

As I Understand It…

August 20, 2007
  1. If the nuclear deal goes through, we get nuclear fuel
  2. But if we test nuclear weapons, we don’t get nuclear fuel
  3. If the nuclear deal doesn’t go through, we don’t get nuclear fuel either

In other words, the outcome is the same if the Left blocks the deal, and if we conduct a nuclear test. So if the Left has its way, the opportunity cost of conducting a nuclear test is nil.

In that case, I propose the next time we conduct a nuclear test, let’s do it above the Politburo instead of under Pokhran.

Men of Iron

August 18, 2007

A while ago, Arnab forwarded me the link to this Anita Bora blogpost where she cribs about how much she hates ironing.

Well, of course she does. Ironing clothes is the domain of Real Men. And Anita Bora is not a Real Man1.

We Real Men have it tough. Back in the good old days we had many ways to assert our rugged individuality. In India, we used to stand on one leg for ten thousand years until we were granted a boon (or turned into cranes). Later on, and in other countries, we took up building log cabins in the Appalachian mountains, becoming ronins in medieval Japan, shooting grizzly bears in the Rocky mountains, and walking down the mean streets of Los Angeles. Now, civilization has encroached upon the spaces we used to occupy. The corrupting influence of women and imaginary men is everywhere. Real Men have been rounded up, herded into the corporate world, and been force-fed platitudes about the value of teamwork. Rocky has given way to Lagaan. Conan the Barbarian has been superseded by Charlie’s Angels. Raja Raja Chola has been replaced by coalition governments. The Real Man’s freedom to act independent of the influence of others has been severely curtailed.

Except when it comes to ironing.

Ironing his clothes is the last bastion of the Real Man. It allows him to touch his heritage. In the past, the Real Man moved through life facing his enemies alone, with only his sword. The modern Real Man is similar, facing the hated wrinkles with only his steam iron. There are no others to interrupt or interfere with the clash – for ironing, like duelling, cannot be done by committee or team. Both are an expression of pure individualism. The traits required cannot be brought in by a team – you either have them in yourself or you don’t. A steady hand, a firm will, and a dispassionate temperament – these are the virtues of the Real Man which assisted him in decapitating villains then, and assist him in detangling creases now.

At the ironing table, with his shirt laid out before him, and the iron in his hand, the Real Man can finally be true to his values in a world that has turned cruel and hostile.

The Real Man realises this. That is why he irons his own clothes. His fierce independence is the reason he never lets another iron them, and his overwhelming respect for others‘ independence is why he never irons theirs. Always, it is only one Real Man, doing all his own laundry, and nobody else’s. He presses on, neither tarnished, nor afraid.

1: This is the point where her regular readers say ‘I should bloody well hope not!’

Local Content

August 17, 2007

Why do FM stations play music?

I’m not being facetious here. Indian FM radio stations have been complaining that the royalties they have to pay on music are squeezing their margins and even driving them bankrupt. Not only that, if your value proposition is good/ popular music, you have to compete not only with other FM stations, but with music channels on TV, satellite radio, and CD/ cassette/ MP3 players (which keep getting cheaper every year). How the hell do you make music a USP?

One way to do this ts the Go FM or Radio Indigo way: differentiate yourself and play music which nobody else plays (Western music in their case). Except that Go FM found it couldn’t make any money doing that and moved out of the niche. I sincerely hope Radio Indigo doesn’t go the same way – evenings without Malavika would be intolerable – but let’s not get too optimistic. In the US, niches are large enough or valuable enough to support themed stations – country, jazz, or rock – in India, they don’t seem to be, or at least radio stations can’t figure out how to crack the market.

Extending this, why not differentiate yourself by not playing royalty and fee-based music at all (or substantially less). Ways to do this would include:

  • Play music owned by smaller companies who don’t have enough bargaining power1 to charge significant royalties. This does raise the frightening possibility of FM radio stations dedicated to struggling Bhangra acts from Doaba, or Bhojpuri film music, but hey, there’s probably a market out there.
  • Chuck recorded music altogether. Get local musicians into the studio and let them play live. This will lead to a lot of crap going out over the airwaves, but will also help in the discovery of true gems. It also has immense branding scope. Radio City Bangalore used to do this on Sundays – I don’t know if they still do.
  • Chuck music altogether. Just have people talking. This could be radio drama, or talk radio. Regulations prohibit private stations from doing news, but they can still do interviews and current affairs. And if the subject is city-specific, the audience is matched to the content. MTV is forced to make shows with an all-India appeal, but FM stations can make shows customised to their own, city-sized coverage areas. This is being done in Bangalore – Indigo decided to run Independence Day specials on people who had made a difference – and they interviewed a guy who had volunteered to become a Bangalore traffic warden. It was completely Bangalore-specific, with nothing to do with the rest of India. I loved it. (In fact, it’s what prompted the post.) Finally, there was quality MSM coverage of local issues. And Radio City has been doing similar stuff for ages, Wimpy assures me.

The question is, why aren’t more stations doing this more of the time. Some reasons I can think of are:

  1. Supply side issues for music: playing local musicians requires local musicians to exist in the first place. Even if they exist, setting up a system to find, filter and record them is going to be long and painful.
  2. Supply-side issues for non-music: this is going to be a real problem. Doing radio dramas or current affairs or talk shows means you either have to hire stars or create them, whether it’s drama stars or journalists or presenters. So first you’ve got to fight to find talent – a massive problem in India especially right now – and then you’ve got to fight to prevent TV channels from poaching it.
  3. Demand side issues for music: Gut-feel, this is probably the most major issue. I don’t think India has developed a long tail consumption culture yet. Eardrums2 might all be chasing Himesh Reshammiya rather than the neighbourhood rock band/ Carnatic singer/ school choir. But is this just an issue of bad marketing?
  4. Demand side issues for non-music: Gut feel again, this is probably the most minor issue. Going by the success of TV news channels, as a concept there’s probably enough demand for talk radio or current affairs, especially if it’s localised. The problem is going to be with the level of localisation. In Bangalore or Pune, one city affairs channel should be enough. But Bombay will have different audiences and advertisers for town, for the western suburbs, for the central suburbs, and for Navi Mumbai. Delhi will have similar problems, though perhaps not as extreme. Perhaps this is why stations in Delhi and Mumbai are so homogenuous – chasing 20% of the music listening audience is still going to give you a bigger audience than chasing all the current affairs listeners in Delhi.

To a limited extent, localised non-music content has taken off, even if it’s just small segments like traffic and weather updates. These are low-investment and replicable, though, and I’m waiting for differentiated content to come up.

There are two more posts I can make on this topic now that I’ve started off: one on the regulatory changes that would make localised content spring up faster, and another one on why localised content matters so much. Sadly, my post backlog is massive, and I’m making no promises about when/ if I ever write them.

1: Or as it’s called in Punjabi, aukaat.
2: If the unit of TV viewership is the eyeball, shouldn’t the unit of radio listenership be the eardrum?

At Lunch Today

August 17, 2007

This couple came in. The girl was a cutie. Curly hair, pierced nose (and alas, black nailpolish, but that can be forgiven), and whole-wheat bread coloured skin.

But the guy looked as floyd as it gets. Baseball cap, pierced underlip, four ear piercings, and a very badly drawn tattoo down his left arm.

I think his funda in life was to ensure that people stared at him rather than at his girlfriend.