Friday, 24 March 2017

Pleasantly Surprised

Day before yesterday, I visited a bookstore at Powai—a small, nondescript shop that caters mostly to the requirements of schoolchildren in the locality, nothing like Landmark or Crossword—to buy a Marathi textbook for my Daughter, who will be studying it as part of her school curriculum in the Class 1.

As the shopkeeper handed me the book, I discovered, much to my dismay, that I was not carrying enough cash, nor did the store accept credit cards. Since I do not have a Paytm account (yes, we exist) and wasn't carrying my ATM cards either, which would’ve enabled me to take out money from one of the nearby ATMs, paying for the book seemed out of the question. It seemed as if I'd have to make a repeat trip to the bookstore some other day.

And that was when the shopkeeper surprised me by saying (in Hindi, and I translate): "Sir, please keep the book. You can leave your number here and pay me some other day."

To say I was surprised would be seriously understating it. The guy didn't know me from Adam, showed no interest in taking down my address—which I gave him of my own volition—or even saving my number on his mobile, and was letting me go with a piece of his merchandise without bothering in the slightest about payment. In this super-materialistic, super-consumerist age, such things are no less than small miracles. But then, as someone said, this is something that can happen in Mumbai only.

P.S.: I got someone else to Paytm him the money just now and he was courteous enough to call and confirm receipt. Hope for a decent world yet?

P.P.S.: the bookstore in question is Darshan Book Depot, next to Powai English High School.

Monday, 20 March 2017

How Marketing Automation Enhances Brand Value and Business Value

Marketing Automation attempts to streamline sales and marketing in an efficient way through engaging campaigns meant to automatically appeal to customer/prospective customer behaviour by replacing recurring manual processes with automated tasks and reducing human errors. The criteria, possible outcomes and processes are pre-defined; these are interpreted, stored internally and executed by the software.

Right channel + right message + right person + right time
= Greater likelihood of converting prospects into actual sales

Every customer is unique and so are his/her demands, preferences and choices. Consequently, automated campaigns run the risk of failing if there’s a disconnect between what they offer and what the customer is interested in; they stand to succeed more when the gap between their content and the customer’s unique needs is as minimal as possible.

Marketing Automation enables companies to handle lead flows better by optimizing marketing programmes. Improved response rates to campaigns help companies gain better ROI by creating a more productive revenue cycle, syncing results with approach and increasing profits through a better lead conversion rate. Since automation provides a platform for continuous accumulation, assimilation and analysis of data, predicting customer information and behavioural patterns acquires a new edge. Reviews on social sites are also a great way of garnering information in the form of feedback.

While Marketing Automation is an integral part of effective CRM, its scope goes beyond that. It can be used to create an automated-yet-personalized bridge between company and customer by taking the latter from “unaware and interested” to “engaged and loyal” in the Customer Engagement Continuum. It gives the customer what he/she wants, yet imparts a dash of novelty to each serving, thereby increasing profitability by being consistent, relevant and personalized.

Consider old TV ads like “Hamara Bajaj” and “Cadbury Kya Swaad Hai Zindagi Mein”. The Cadbury commercials harped on happiness, which is experienced [when the brain releases serotonin and dopamine] upon chocolate consumption. Similarly, the Bajaj ads focussed on the family-oriented existence of the middle class by playing up the loyalty theme. These ads generated a feeling of being personalized despite being mass-market vehicles for their respective products. This is the ultimate goal of Marketing Automation: creating personalized content despite automated, low-human-involvement processes.

Maximum ROI can be achieved through Marketing Automation by constantly looking out for new leads and striving to understand their needs to be able to provide an optimum solution, analysing customer behaviour minutely, engaging with them rigorously and consistently to be considered ‘renewable’, providing complimentary solutions based on their digital behaviour instead of aggressively pushing unwanted products and services and ensuring customer satisfaction through systematic and regular follow-up.

The whole point of deploying automated campaigns is not to merely cut down on human effort, but to create a design that attracts strangers, turns them into interested and regular visitors, further converts them into prospective leads, creates customers out of them through personalized and engaging communication and ultimately, gets them to act as willing promoters of your brand—without sacrificing creativity and human connect for automation.

[Image courtesy: Google Images]

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Hitting The Right Notes

Ever since my Daughter was born 5 years ago, I have developed a habit of singing my favourite Bangla and Hindi songs (that means mostly RD Burman-Kishore Kumar numbers) to Her. Apart from trying to introduce Her to the Golden Era of popular Hindi/Bengali music, the idea has also been to keep Her away from the "Badtameez dil"/"Beat pe booty"-brand of atrocities. And it seems my efforts are bearing fruit.
Recently, I went to a friend's house with my Daughter. The host, a lover of retro music, started playing some old songs on his mobile attached to a speaker. After a song or two, "Tere bina zindagi se koi" came on.
My Daughter was sitting on the floor and playing by Herself. Suddenly, She looked up, cocked Her ears at the song that was playing, turned to me, and said: "Baba, Baba, Jete jete poth-e holo deri...", and then She started singing the Bangla version of the Aandhi song!
I was astonished at how my 5-year-old had been able to recognize the tune of the Hindi song and correctly identified the Bangla version of it. Evidently I must be doing something right, as far getting my Daughter's ears attuned to good music is concerned.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Old-school ‘Kaabiliyat’ (4.5/5)

Originality of content in mainstream Indian/Hindi Cinema has always been an area of much debate and vagueness, where masters of ‘derived inspiration’ have done battle with champions of fresh thoughts. Owing to the mass market-driven compulsion of catering to a pan-Indian audience, where the lowest common denominator can make or break a multi-crore venture, well-packaged entertainment has by and large lorded over novelty of ideas here, with both ‘manufacturers’ (since film folk nowadays insist on referring to themselves as an ‘industry’ – albeit a most disorganized one) and patrons traditionally preferring the former.

At this juncture, we are faced with a most interesting question: is originality overrated, at least in the realms of mainstream cinema? It can be argued that there are only so many stories to tell, and shrewd manipulation of the theme (and the resources at the maker’s disposal) by way of skillful direction and a smart screenplay often scores over original content, provided the treatment and packaging are done adroitly enough. Look no further than commercial Hindi Cinema of the 1973-1982 period, the era that has been arguably the most influential in defining India’s contemporary pop culture, the age of giants like Salim-Javed and Amitabh Bachchan. Many of their best works (jointly and separately) were inspired by other films, both Indian and international. DEEWAAR owed its roots to Gunga Jumna and Mother India; MAJBOOR took off from Zig Zag; SHAKTI had its genesis in DEEWAAR (and to some extent Thanga Pathakkam); ZANJEER took its inspiration from Death Rides A Horse, AGNEEPATH borrowed liberally from Nayakan, and SHOLAY had too many points of influence to list in a single article. Yet all these films are counted among the most well-crafted pieces of commercial Hindi cinema, having stood the test of durability and in turn becoming inspiration points themselves.

This brings us to Kaabil, produced by actor-turned-filmmaker Rakesh Roshan and directed by Sanjay Gupta, both master craftsmen of the masala entertainment genre. Neither man has ever been a stickler for originality: while Roshan took inspiration from diverse sources such as Return To Eden (Khoon Bhari Maang), Ram Aur Shyam (Kishen Kanhaiya), KASME VAADE (Kaho Naa…Pyaar Hai), E.T. (Koi…Mil Gaya), and Superman (Krrish and Krrish 3), Gupta successfully Indianized A Better Tomorrow (Aatish), The Juror (Khauff), Reservoir Dogs (KAANTE), Oldboy (Zinda), and Seven Days (Jazbaa). Kaabil keeps the tradition alive while serving as a good confluence point of both Gupta’s and Roshan’s individual approaches to filmmaking.

Rohan Bhatnagar (Hrithik Roshan), a young voice-over artiste, is introduced to Supriya Sharma (Yami Gautam), an independent working woman, by a well-meaning mutual acquaintance. It is literally a blind date – both are sightless. They click and before long, Rohan has successfully wooed Supriya. Expectedly, marriage follows.

Soon afterwards, tragedy strikes the lovelorn couple. Local goon Amit Shelar (Rohit Roy) and his friend Wasim (Md. Sahidur Rahaman) rape a vulnerable Supriya when Rohan is away at work. Since Amit is the younger brother of influential corporator Madhavrao Shelar (Ronit Roy), the investigating officers waste no time in hushing up the case; they even help Madhavrao abduct the couple to prevent them from going for the all-important medical examination that must be conducted within 24 hours of rape. Far from helping the distraught couple, the police label them as frauds attempting to blackmail the Shelars.

Supriya commits suicide after being raped for the second time. When Madhavrao taunts Rohan and tells him to stop pursuing the case, the grieving man, who has already given up on the law, decides to take things in his own hands and deliver vigilante justice to his beloved’s tormentors.

Kaabil is a shout-out to Bollywood’s great revenge dramas of the 80s and 90s, the direct descendant of films like ANDHAA KAANOON, AAKHREE RAASTA, INDRAJEET, and Phool Aur Angaar, where the hero, traumatized after the rape and subsequent death of his wife/adopted daughter/sister, sets out on a mission to visit vengeance upon the evil-doers. While the premise itself is nothing new, the treatment is clever, with the protagonists’ blindness adding a new dimension to an oft-told tale, but not without silently outlining how much modern-day Bollywood, despite its nose-turned-up-at-everything-retro attitude, is still dependent upon the formulaic, masala cinema of yore as far as drawing inspiration is concerned.

Hrithik is in fabulous form; this is probably his finest performance since Krrish in mid-2006. The goofy lover, the talented dubbing artiste, the broken husband shattered by his wife’s rape and suicide, the relentless machine of death – he does full justice to every aspect of the role. He moves through the narrative as a Great White Shark might move through the ocean: smooth and unstoppable. The scene at the shopping mall, where the young lover’s helplessness surfaces on getting separated from his girlfriend, and his dubbing scenes, especially his spot-on mimicry of Amitabh Bachchan to impress his new wife, deserve special mention. In many ways, the character of Rohan Bhatnagar is a direct throwback to Bachchan’s Angry Young Vijay of DEEWAAR, SHAKTI, and AGNEEPATH: dangerous, calm, calculating, and a resourceful risk-taker. He reminds one of textbook ‘blind man’ performances such as Sanjeev Kumar in Qatl, Denzel Washington in The Book Of Eli, and Naseeruddin Shah in Sparsh.

Yami Gautam is restrained; there is a great deal of poise in her portrayal of Supriya who, even in her darkest hour, puts her husband’s emotional suffering ahead of her own trauma. Rohit Roy is suitably slimy, while Ronit Roy channelizes the innate menace of Madhavrao very well. But it is Narendra Jha, the chief baddie from last year’s Ghayal Once Again, who is a revelation as senior cop Chaubey. Clearly, here is someone to watch out for.

The technical aspects of the film are well-rounded. Akiv Ali’s editing is sharp, while Sudeep Chatterjee and Ayananka Bose’s cinematography is polished. The numerous close-ups capture the expressions of the characters in fine detail. Shyam Kaushal’s fight sequences are ingenious and tight; since our man is blind and has to rely more on his wits and other senses than physical sight, it was necessary to keep the action short and focused. Rajesh Roshan’s music is a bit of a letdown: barring "Main tere kaabil", none of the other songs stand out and the remixed degradation of the Kishore Kumar classic “Saara zamana” (from YAARANA) into an item number is deplorable. Pity – one has always associated Rajesh Roshan with melodious music, right from Khatta Meetha and Doosara Aadmi to KNPH, and though Kaabil does not have much scope for music, one wishes he had done better.

Some of the first reviews of Kaabil mentioned how the screenplay focused more on Rohan than on Supriya and how the plot was regressive in its portrayal of a rape victim as a sullied, broken object. One feels compelled to disagree. Apart from the fact that the film is Hrithik’s home production and was always going to focus more on him than anyone else, Kaabil is Rohan’s story, told from his viewpoint, not Supriya’s. Expecting her to have an equal role would be akin to demanding Radha and Basanti be given as much screen time as Jai and Veeru. Supriya’s importance lies in the fact that her tragedy is the fulcrum on which the machine operates, but Rohan was always going to be the main power switch. (And honestly, did anyone really think the makers were going to bank as much on Yami Gautam as Hrithik?) As for the “regressive” bit, that too is a misinterpretation: as Rohan correctly deduces, Supriya gives up her life not because she is weak, but because she realizes how hard her defenselessness against her abusers is going to hit her husband. Rohan’s silence to Supriya’s offer of walking away arose not from any kind of ‘disgust’ at his wife’s ‘tarnished honour’, but more from a husband’s helpless, frustrated rage at not having been around to protect his wife from her predators.

Kaabil is not flawless – it is not explained how a dubbing artiste could manage to book an (expensive) apartment in a Mumbai high-rise, or why Supriya stopped working after marriage, or why the phone booth owner was always conveniently absent every time Rohan went there to make a call – but these are minor quibbles. The film definitely packs a punch. Watch it if you are a Hrithik fanboy/fangirl. Watch it even if you are not. Because solid old-fashioned entertainment, especially one that does not take recourse to lionization of criminals or distortion of documented history, is a rarity from today’s Bollywood.

[Image courtesy: Google Images]

[A shorter and slightly altered version of this post can be found here:]

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

INDRAJEET And AKAYLA: Decoding Two Criminally Underrated Cult Classics From 1990s’ Bollywood

[Warning: long post]

The 1990s was not a particularly good decade for Amitabh Bachchan. His godlike public image had taken a beating when he was implicated in the Bofors controversy, which broke out in the late-1980s following the premature end to his political career, and people were not quite willing to forget and forgive easily. This was, after all, AMITABH BACHCHAN, aka God himself: how could He be a party to such a scandalous affair? (Though thankfully, a London court absolved him of all charges in 1992 and established his innocence in the Bofors case.) There was a distinct sense of bitterness towards him in the collective public mind, a sense of somehow having been betrayed by their shiny-armoured White Knight. “Arre usne to paisa khaaya hai,” was the common opinion.

This feeling of bitterness affected the outcome of quite a few of his films in the 90s – though to be fair, many of them were not worth writing home about. The overall aesthetic value of his films had been falling from 1983 onwards and during 1994-1999, it was at its lowest, at par with the mid-80s’ abominations like MAHAAN, GERAFTAAR, MARD, and GANGAA JAMUNAA SARASWATHI.

Yet surprisingly, he did some good work during 1989-1992, though most of these films earned less than the recognition they deserved at the time. The lack of credit was largely due to the mainstream media’s thorny relationship with the star (Bachchan had decided to boycott the media, a ban that lasted till 1989). The press, working in collusion with some of the actor’s colleagues in the industry (it is alleged that Anil and Boney Kapoor tried to sabotage many of Bachchan’s films, like SHAHENSHAH), ran a sustained campaign to pull down or overlook the business of his films. If a film was a hit (KHUDA GAWAH, for instance), its success was downplayed; if it failed, the failure would get magnified manifold.

Over the years, however, the general public’s retrospective reaction to most of these films has softened. Continued reruns on satellite channels leading to repeat viewings through nostalgia-tinted glasses have led to these films finding better acceptance, not only among new generations of viewers but also among the original audiences who had initially rejected them (although GJS, INSANIYAT, MRITYUDAATA, and HINDUSTAN KI KASAM are still viewed as unmitigated atrocities). And two of the best examples of this are INDRAJEET and AKAYLA.

[Picture courtesy: Google Images]

[Picture courtesy: Google Images]

Look at the films Bachchan did during the 1989-1992 period: TOOFAN, JAADUGAR, MAIN AZAAD HOON, AGNEEPATH, AAJ KA ARJUN, HUM, AJOOBA, INDRAJEET, AKAYLA, and KHUDA GAWAH. Barring the vigilante superhero flicks TOOFAN and AJOOBA, these films interestingly featured him in more or less age-commensurate roles, marking his foray into the realm of slightly complex and flawed middle-aged characters: a magician who takes on a phony godman; a gangland boss who pits himself against another, bigger criminal overlord to extract a long-due vendetta; a reformed goon whose past catches up with him and forces him to return to the dark alleyways of crime he had once roamed imperiously, but had given up for his family’s sake; a Pathan who sacrifices his freedom and youth to keep a promise he makes to a stranger. Bachchan seemed to be trying hard to resurrect the intensity of performance-oriented roles that had last been seen in SHAKTI and BEMISAL in 1982 – though maybe not consciously. But while critics for the most part were delighted, the viewers, unable to come to terms with their hero’s attempts to rediscover the Actor within – they wanted more of the Star, presumably – were not quite as enthusiastic. The Myth of the Megastar had fallen prey to the law of diminishing returns. And INDRAJEET and AKAYLA were to be the worst sufferers.

Post-1986, there was a prolonged phase when Bachchan worked almost exclusively with old friends and colleagues; he signed only those films whose producer and/or director he had previously worked with (KC Bokadia, who made AAJ KA ARJUN, was the only exception) as he wanted to focus on his political career; this, along with his desire to create a corporatized movie business set-up, gave him a valid excuse to cut down on his film assignments and decline new projects (younger stars like Anil Kapoor and Jackie Shroff greatly benefitted from this, as many of Bachchan’s rejects went to either of them: Meri Jung, Mr. India, Allah-Rakha, to name a few). However, it would have been understandably difficult for him to refuse the likes of Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra, Yash Johar, Tinnu Anand, Ramesh Behl, and Ramesh Sippy, people with whom he had effectively collaborated in the 70s and the 80s and to whom he owed a great part of his success. INDRAJEET, produced by Ramesh Behl, and AKAYLA, written by Salim Khan – who co-created Bachchan’s famous Angry Young Man persona with Javed Akhtar – and directed by Ramesh Sippy, were two such films. And in both the 1991 releases, the actor played a similar role: that of an ageing, disillusioned police officer.

From 1988 to 1991, Bachchan played The Phantom/Batman-like vigilante superheroes in SHAHENSHAH, TOOFAN, and AJOOBA (two other films, Rudra and Talismaan, were launched in 1988 and 2009 respectively but were shelved). INDRAJEET featured him in his fourth vigilante (though not a superhero) avatar in as many years: a man out to avenge the death of a loved one by taking the law in his own hands after being failed by a twisted, easy-to-manipulate system.

Bachchan was not new to the vendetta saga sweepstakes: ZANJEER in 1973 had pioneered this theme and SHOLAY in 1975 had further strengthened it (although technically, Bachchan in SHOLAY was only a hired gun taking orders from Sanjeev Kumar, the actual vengeance-seeker). In TRISHUL, he was out to avenge a dead mother; in BE-SHARAM, AGNEEPATH, and TOOFAN, he was after the man who had driven his father to death; in AAKHREE RAASTA, he was seeking to redeem a dead wife’s honour. But INDRAJEET would turn out to be something different altogether: like AAKHREE RAASTA, it featured Bachchan as a dark, grim, The Punisher-type character who ruthlessly dispatches his enemies.

The film opens on a somber note: senior cop Indrajeet is retiring and Minister Sadachari (Kader Khan) and Police Commissioner Shyam Sundar (Sadashiv Amrapurkar) have arranged a felicitation ceremony. While the duo heap praises on Indrajeet, the man himself slow-mo-walks into the venue – with an intriguing, suspense-filled background score by the inimitable RD Burman adding to the buildup – and coolly dismisses their efforts in a few crisp, curt sentences, thus giving us a hint of the tension-filled history he shares with them. As he walks out, leaving the minister and the commissioner seething, we realize that the events that have led to the present will also dictate the path that the future takes.

As the narrative unfolds, things reach a boiling point when Sadachari’s violent son Mahesh (Mahesh Anand) and his three friends, including Indrajeet’s former girlfriend Shanti’s (Jaya Prada) younger brother Ajit (Ajit Pal Mangat), brutally rape and kill Indrajeet’s adopted daughter Neelu (Neelam Kothari) and also murder her husband Vijay (Kumar Gaurav) when the newlyweds are honeymooning. A devastated Indrajeet runs to the police for justice, but Shyam Sundar and his assistant Vishnu (Avtar Gill), acting on Sadachari’s instructions to hush up the case, thwart his efforts and viciously torture him in police custody. Rescued by his friend and former colleague Sudhir (Vijayendra Ghatge), the broken and battered father swears to visit vengeance on his tormentors.

The Vendetta saga has been a popular and recurrent theme in mainstream Indian Cinema ever since writer duo Salim-Javed popularized it with ZANJEER and Yaadon Ki Baaraat in 1973. The narrative follows a somewhat set pattern: the villain (or villains) wreaks havoc on the hero’s family by killing one or both of his parents, or by raping and killing his sister, and since the law will not help (mostly because the investigating officer is on the villain’s payroll), the aggrieved hero himself sets out to right the wrongs done to him. There are variations of this formula, but the framework generally remains the same – a testament to Bollywood’s slavish adherence to templatized storytelling. INDRAJEET proffers an interesting deviation: instead of a young man avenging his parents’ deaths, we have an old man extracting revenge for a dead child. While this is not entirely unprecedented – in SHOLAY, Thakur Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar) seeks retribution for the deaths of his sons, daughter, daughter-in-law, and grandson at Gabbar Singh’s (Amjad Khan) hands – it certainly is a departure from routine.

Seeing how Bachchan commanded a phenomenal pull over family audiences – irrespective of age, gender, caste, and socio-economic station – at a pan-Indian level, writers and directors working with him tended to give a light-hearted, colourful vibe to his films; as a result, his films were by and large devoid of gratuitous sex and violence. INDRAJEET deviates from this in a big way. Along with SHOLAY and MARD, it is easily one of his most violent films.

Playing a vigilante deliverer of justice, Bachchan is at his feral best, shooting, punching, kicking, slicing, chopping, knifing, and bombing through human bodies, furniture, and brick walls like an elemental, unstoppable force of nature. Few other films have him stacking up such a high body count. Once the action starts, he is in superlative form (check out the last 54 minutes of the film – he navigates through the scenario like an actual, hardcore killer).

Trying to pinpoint the exact reasons behind a film’s success or failure can often be a frustrating exercise and INDRAJEET’s commercial underperformance is not easy to explain. As a concept, it would have looked quite good on paper. Its lead actor, despite advancing age and health problems, was still in pretty great form (fact: many of Bachchan’s so-called ‘flops’ in the 80s and 90s made more money than other actors’ hits), the story was decent (if a little clichéd), and the action sequences choreographed by Raam Shetty were terrific. Even the script did not leave too many loose ends hanging around – except, perhaps, providing a back story to the Indrajeet-Sadachari animosity that is hinted at early on – and distractive romantic subplots were kept at a minimum.

So what happened to this potential winner? One surmises. The dark and tragic atmosphere, heightened by the relentless tension, and the gruesome violence were possibly difficult for family audiences to digest (about an hour and 40 minutes into the movie, there is a torture scene that was somewhat graphic, going by then-prevalent standards). The revenge plot, already in use for the past two decades, was looking more than a little frayed at the edges (though it would continue to be used till the turn of the century, thanks to young ‘action specialist’ heroes like Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgan, and Sunil Shetty). Even RD Burman’s music was pedestrian. The Pancham-Ramesh Behl combo had yielded a series of fabulous soundtracks throughout the 70s and the 80s: The Train, Jawani Diwani, Dil Diwana, KASME VAADE, Baseraa, Harjaee, Yeh Vaada Raha, PUKAR, Jaane Jaan (initially titled Nikamma), Jawaani, etc. INDRAJEET’s lackluster music was most likely due to Pancham’s ill health in 1988-89. This too was a significant factor.

Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988), Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), and Aashiqui (1990) had brought back the age of good, melodious music in Hindi Cinema after more than half a decade of severe mediocrity. A close look at Hindi Cinema of the 90s reveals that the decade’s biggest hits also had highly successful soundtracks. Audiences would have compared INDRAJEET’s music with that of HUM, Phool Aur Kaante, Saajan, Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin, and Sadak – the biggest hits of 1991 – and the KV Raju-directed film would have come up wanting.

The film is a hard watch, mounted differently from many of Bachchan’s other, more successful commercial ventures of that period. In spite of its less-than-satisfactory showing at the box office, there is much to recommend the film, the prime factor being Amitabh Bachchan’s amazing performance, which sadly went unnoticed by all film award committees. Also, Neelam playing a tough girl who fights back hard when surrounded by Mahesh and his friends was a welcome change from her usual rona-dhona avatar. While contemporary audiences found the film less than adequate, latter-day viewers have been a lot kinder, with some reviewers on IMDb calling it “underrated” and “overlooked masterpiece”. Either way, the film certainly presents a strong case for itself and is one of the best Vendetta sagas ever to have come out of mainstream Bollywood.

He fights best…when he fights alone” – thus read the tagline of AKAYLA, director Ramesh Sippy’s fourth and last film with Amitabh Bachchan. The duo had previously collaborated on SHOLAY, SHAAN, and SHAKTI with great success. In all three films, Bachchan had played a man on the wrong side of the law. This time, he would be on the right side of it.

After their split in June 1981, Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar went their own separate ways. Post-breakup, Javed’s first solo venture was Betaab (1983), while Salim started running with Naam (1986). Both were huge hits and so were some of the other films the writers wrote in their individual capacity. Javed found his admirers in Rahul Rawail, Yash Chopra, and Boney (and Anil) Kapoor, among others, while Salim had his takers in Manmohan Desai and Mahesh Bhatt, to name a few. Ramesh Sippy, who had worked with the duo in all his films from Andaz (1971) to SHAKTI and then with Javed in Saagar (1985), commissioned Salim’s services for AKAYLA, the story of Vijay Verma, a lonely, alcoholic, and somewhat embittered senior cop with something of a death wish, who does not think twice about stepping outside the law in order to enforce and uphold it.

Having sacrificed love at the altar of friendship, Vijay, a self-confessed extremist by nature, had turned to the bottle; alcohol, which he consumes in copious quantities (often on duty as well), and his service are the two sustaining factors of his lonesome, friendless existence. The one great love of Vijay’s life is his younger brother Ajay (Aditya Pancholi), a college professor. Vijay saves Sapna (Amrita Singh), a dancer girl, from the predatory advances of Ranjeet (Mahesh Anand), a thug, and becomes friends with her. The two find a comfortable companionship in each other’s company, though there is no romance…yet.

Vijay foils a bomb scare at the airport and then a daring robbery attempt at a departmental store in broad daylight. In both cases, the accused is Anthony ‘Tony’ Braganza (Keith Stevenson), a criminal mastermind who escapes punishment when his lawyer proves that on both occasions, Tony was elsewhere when the crime was taking place. With his reputation on the line, a puzzled Vijay becomes obsessed with bringing Tony to justice; while watching Seeta Aur Geeta with Sapna (a meta reference to Ramesh Sippy and Salim-Javed’s super-successful 1972 romp), he realizes that Tony has a twin, who is his main accomplice! Jojo Braganza (Stevenson in a dual role) is a retarded but sadistic killer who helps Tony by appearing in full public view and drawing attention to himself in one place while Tony commits a crime in another.

The bad blood between Vijay and Tony steadily worsens; when the latter breaks out of prison with Jojo’s help, gunning down several prisoners and jail guards in the process, Vijay starts hunting them. The bloodthirsty duo kills Vijay’s friends Shekhar (Jackie Shroff) and Seema (Meenakshi Sheshadri); blinded with rage, Vijay mows down Jojo in retaliation. As the blood feud hurtles towards an explosive showdown between cop and criminal, Vijay gives up his alcohol dependency and allows his relationship with Sapna to reach a satisfactory resolution. But when Tony kills Ajay and his wife Neetu (Kiran Juneja Sippy) a day after their marriage, Vijay quits his job and swears to destroy Tony for good.

Like AGNEEPATH, AAJ KA ARJUN, HUM, and later INSANIYAT, AKAYLA featured Bachchan as an Angry Middle-aged Man, which was in keeping with the actor’s real age (Bachchan was 49 when AKAYLA released). Barring INSANIYAT, an irredeemable disaster, these roles were fairly well-written and juicy, giving the actor ample scope to perform by providing a healthy mix of action and drama. And he sunk his teeth into each of them with great relish.

SHAKTI was the last Salim-Javed film in which Bachchan worked (Mr. India had been written with him in mind, but he had refused it as he was apprehensive about playing an invisible character; a wise decision, as the blitzkrieg called Sridevi eclipsed pretty much everyone else in the film – including Anil Kapoor in the title role! – except Amrish Puri as the villain Mogambo). After the writers split up, Bachchan often complained about the lack of good, strong stories coming his way; MAIN AZAAD HOON (by Javed), TOOFAN, and AKAYLA (both by Salim) gave him the opportunity to work with his favourite writers, now operating separately, again. Interestingly, all these films reinterpreted the Angry Young Man character with some newer shades and different flavours.

AKAYLA was essentially a mix of two iconic ‘rogue, lone-wolf cop’ characters of Hollywood: Steve McQueen’s Bullitt (1968) and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (1971; the first in a five-film series that ran till 1988), both highly popular classics about a headstrong policeman bucking the system to bring criminals to justice. Salim Khan gave many of Bullitt’s and Harry’s professional qualities and personal traits to Vijay Verma and came up with an intriguing character. Sadly, the script was compromised by some sloppy writing and diffident direction, leaving it to Bachchan to shoulder the responsibility of seeing the film through.

Bachchan is very much in his element here, playing another dark character who finds it easier to hide behind a haze of alcohol fumes rather than make the run to emotional safety. As the glum, scowling cop who believes the best way to eliminate crime is by eliminating criminals, he is in great nick. His scenes with Shashi Kapoor, Aditya Pancholi, and Amrita Singh are very well etched out, bringing out different shades of Vijay’s character, his thoughts on various aspects of his professional and personal lives. The scene at Sapna’s house (when she invites Vijay to drink from her late father’s unfinished bottle), when Vijay sits down and then immediately gets up, inviting the lady to take her seat first, deserves special mention. Such subtle, nuanced touches are reminiscent of the best of Salim-Javed. In many ways, the entire scene is a throwback to the early exchanges between Vijay (Bachchan) and Roma (Smita Patil) in SHAKTI. This sequence is important: it shows two sensitive souls who might develop great empathy for each other as their relationship progresses.

Apart from Bachchan, Amrita Singh as Sapna gets the only other well-written role. Like Roma in SHAKTI, she is a strong and independent-minded woman who is gradually able to exercise a mellowing influence on her self-destructive and headstrong guy. When Vijay lashes out at her for being “too friendly with other men”, she rebukes him, and when he hits her, she shows him her place without being rude or losing her temper – there is great dignity in her character. After years of playing a “rich papa’s bratty daughter” in film after film, here was a meaty role that gave Singh a lot of performing space by allowing her to play to her strengths, and she seems to thoroughly relish it; this is arguably her finest performance, even better than the ‘strong woman’ roles she played with great aplomb in Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992) and Aaina (1993).

Some of the scenes show Salim at his vintage best: Vijay putting a robber (funnily called Kaalia) on panic mode with his calm demeanour during the departmental store robbery, Vijay’s many run-ins with Ranjeet, and especially Vijay mock-killing a cop posing as a rapist-killer to force Ranjeet in revealing his boss Tony’s hideout – all these scenes add depth to the narrative and to the lead character.

In commercial masala films, characters often behave uncharacteristically. A man mourning a loved one’s death in one scene could well be gallivanting to the tunes of an item number in the next. Salim-Javed’s scripts – especially the best of them – were known for characters who stayed in, well, character throughout. Vijay’s brooding, gloomy disposition in DEEWAAR or KAALA PATTHAR had a valid justification and stayed in place throughout. This is one area where INDRAJEET had scored, but where AKAYLA suffers miserably. While the other characters are more or less consistent, Vijay is alternately serious, angry, depressed, glum, over-the-top (note the ‘Ram Piyari’ song sequence), or garrulous – in fact, his mood seems to change in every scene, and not just because of his alcohol addiction. He probably had a hard time in his early youth, when his parents died and he had to fend not only for himself, but also for his younger brother, and giving up Seema’s love for Shekhar would obviously have been a tough blow, but none of these quite justify his permanently-grim disposition.

Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s music is a letdown, serving no purpose other than adding to the film’s runtime. None of the songs make an impact and are, on the whole, quite unnecessary as they do nothing to carry the narrative forward (barring the 'Kehti hai duniya' number that introduces Sapna's character): a common ailment of commercial cinema. Many of Salim-Javed’s classics – ZANJEER, DEEWAAR, and SHAKTI, for example – were initially conceived as songless thrillers; the song situations were added later at the behest of the respective filmmakers, owing to commercial considerations. AKAYLA too would probably have worked better without the songs – and the laborious flashback sequence.

The action sequences, choreographed by Sippy regular Mohammed Ali, are done pretty well, but Bachchan’s scenes with the police van (in which Tony is fleeing) during the extended climax leave much to be desired and could have been much better executed, going by the track record of the Sippy-Ali duo. The climactic action sequence was inspired by the climax of the James Bond film Licence To Kill (1989), which had released when AKAYLA was under production. Unfortunately, the flair of the action scenes in SHOLAY, SHAAN, and SHAKTI was sadly missing here, greatly reducing the impact.

Special mention must be made of Keith Stevenson for almost singlehandedly killing – I mean literally destroying – the film. Sippy no doubt wanted to repeat the ‘surprise factor’ of having a virtually unknown actor play the chief villain, something that he had achieved to great effect in SHOLAY and SHAAN. But Stevenson, hamming it up like there’s no tomorrow and speaking in a thick and weirdly mangled accent (presumably to accentuate the ‘Bandra Boy’ or Goan Catholic origins of his character), utterly ruins it, making it a nerve-grating experience for the viewers to sit through his scenes.

The underperformance of Saagar, despite its phenomenal music, would have weighed in Ramesh Sippy’s mind heavily enough to make him gravitate towards action films again. But when Bhrashtachar (1989) crashed and burned at the box office, he was compelled to make changes to AKAYLA’s script, packing in more stars and crowd-pleasing elements than what the original, more intense storyline merited. This resulted in a delayed, neither-here-nor-there mishmash that the critics and the paying public considered to be excessive. Still, there is something to be said for the combined forces of Salim Khan, Ramesh Sippy, and Bachchan that despite not being at the peak of their powers, they still managed to make the film engaging enough to merit repeat viewings.

In hindsight, while INDRAJEET and AKAYLA certainly do not count among the best of Bachchan, they are at least compelling watches, mostly because despite their numerous flaws and shortcomings, the actor renders them so. Together, they present a fascinating study of the progression of the Angry Young Man to an Angry Middle-aged Man, as well as of Bachchan’s own evolution as the greatest star-actor of our times. The fact that both films managed to turn general public reaction to a more favourable position over time, despite performing below expectations at the box office upon initial release, is indeed commendable.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

From 'vikalang' To 'Divyang': A Pleasant Change Of Terms

I spotted this notice at the ticket booking counter of the Ghatkopar station recently. Apparently similar notices have been put up at many other stations.

For those who are wondering what the highlighted word (in the picture above) is: it's 'Divyang'. 'Divyang' means someone who has a blessed (divya) limb or body part (ang). In this case, it is used to imply "someone with special needs".

Why did I like this notice enough to click a picture? Simple: because the earlier notice, which this one replaced, stated 'vikalang', a somewhat unpalatable term for people who are constantly fighting to overcome hardships caused by a less-than-perfectly-functioning limb. The idea to replace 'vikalang' with 'Divyang' came from the #PM, and will gradually be implemented everywhere. I had been wondering about why #NaMo and #AmitabhBachchan were using 'Divyang' in their talks and tweets for some time; now I know. This is indeed a nice gesture. Impressed.

P.S.: small complaint - can "orthopedically handicapped" also be replaced everywhere with "people with special needs"? That would be great (and of course, an upgrade of facilities to go with it, not just a change in phraseology).

Monday, 12 December 2016

A Roadmap For The Government – What It Should Do To Provide 24X7 Power To Entire India By 2019

We forget just how painfully dim the world was before electricity. A candle, a good candle, provides barely a hundredth of the illumination of a single 100-watt light bulb.”  Bill Bryson

In 1974, a Hindi film that was tellingly titled Roti Kapada Aur Makaan, literally meaning ‘Food, Clothing, and a Dwelling of One’s Own’, found strong resonance with the masses. It advocated the idea – albeit in a simplistic manner – that in a successful socialism, those were the three preconditions of the people that the government must fulfill as the first step to ‘good governance’.

One can say with a certain amount of confidence that if the filmmaker were to make the film today, he would, in all likelihood, include a fourth element in his titular list of necessities: Electricity.

In mid-2014, shortly after “the election that changed India”, the newly-elected central government declared its intention of providing affordable, reliable, and round-the-clock power supply to all by 2019 under the Power for All scheme.

However, this was easier said than done, mostly because despite India being a global leader in power production, more than a third of all Indian households is as yet without access to electricity. The twin problems of shortage of supply and intervallic supply that still plague a number of states – for example, Maharashtra and Karnataka – are not restricted to domestic consumption alone: commercial and industrial consumers are equal sufferers.

Although India is capable of producing over 250 gigawatt of electricity annually, the peak demand that the power sector is able to meet is only about 50-55% of this. The prime reason behind this is that our coal and gas power plants, which are forced to operate below their optimal capacity due to various factors, such as fuel supply constraints and transmission constraints, among others, are unable to meet the power sector’s demands.

Obstacles there are aplenty in the way of development, in the form of some fundamental problems that our power sector has been grappling with for long. To begin with, there is a vast disconnect between producers and distributors. The existing transmission infrastructure is not robust enough to transfer excess power between states, making it difficult for non-power-producing states to buy low-priced power. The gap between cost of delivery of power and the consumers’ ability to pay for it is yet to be bridged. Domestic production of coal needs to be increased by approximately 50%. Theft of coal during delivery is a serious issue that has been plaguing the power sector and the manufacturing industry for a long time.

Despite these obstacles, the union government in its two-and-a-half years has shown a laudable sense of commitment towards its declared objective of bringing about a transformative change in India’s power outreach and consumption scenario. For starters, over 7,500 villages – out of a targeted 18,000+ – have been electrified under the Deendayal Upadhyay Gram Jyoti Yojana (DDUGJY). India has added over 2,300 MW to its wind power generation capacity. The drive for clean energy has received a boost with India getting over $1 billion in international investment in clean energy, while adding nearly 2 GW of solar power in the first half of the current financial year. At the behest of the central government, state-run enterprises have pledged to invest over Rs. 55,000 crores for improving grid connectivity. But there is still a long way to go.

If the Ministry of Power wants to successfully complete its mission of bringing about the change in the power scenario it has often spoken of, here are some recommendations for it to mull over:
  • Boost the country’s capacity for generating and storing power (generation capacity needs to be increased by at least 50%) and pare the losses incurred during the transmission and distribution phases.
  • Allow the power-distributing agencies to contract long-term power supply in their respective supply areas and ensure the recovery of debt-ridden distributors so they can set up tariffs that reflect the real cost of power.
  • Establish a renewable energy management system capable of monitoring and managing generation of renewable energy on a real-time basis, especially in those states where the gulf between demand and supply – for both domestic and industrial consumption – is wider than the average difference. Renewable energy must be driven as the life-force of the future of the power scenario. As Jill Stein has put it so remarkably, “We can, and must, shift to an economy in which 100% of our electricity is generated renewably.
  • Adopt and implement energy efficiency measures to moderate the peak demand and consumption in the power-starved states, such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, to name a few.
  • Increase the supply of coal and gas to the power sector and ensure there is no break in their transportation to the power generation plants.
  • Coal being a limited resource, set up alternate sources of electricity generation – gas-based, hydro-based, solar-based, and wind-based – to meet the projected demand.
  • Improve the infrastructure for power transmission to meet the ever-increasing energy needs of the country. Presently, India’s transmission capacity is woefully short of the generation capacity and market requirements. Various factors constrain the flow of excess energy from power-surplus areas of one state to power-deficit areas of another, thereby impacting the manufacturing sector and other areas of requirement greatly.
  • Scale up the country’s distribution networks so they can withstand the extra load required to ensure electrification of the un-electrified households and bump up the coal-carrying capacity of Indian Railways by at least 50%.
The funding requirement is massive. However, it is expected that appropriate mobilization of investments through both public and private sectors will help to attain the desired goals.