Thursday, June 28, 2012

Hindi Cinema. Some Disjoint Thoughts

If you ask what is the most abundant element on Earth, people will tell you its Carbon. If you pose the same question to Karan Johar, most likely, the answer would be Candyfloss !

I have been thinking about this for quite some time. Hindi Cinema has some great directors and Karan Johar is definitely one of the marvels. He has lots of aspiring copy cats like Kunal Kohli/Sajid Khan et al who churn repetitive and brain dead movies one after the other with mathematical precision but KJo is definitely the Big Wolf.

Talking about the Big Wolf and his wolf pack, the question of paramount importance is this -- In what genre would you define KJo's (And all copycats') work ? I propose that KJo is too big to fit in currently defined movie genres like romance/romantic comedy  etc. There should be an entire new genre defined just so that we can describe the mammoth genius that is KJo. I would name that Genre Soc-Fi. It stands for Socio-Economic Fiction. Much like Sci-Fi. 

Why ?

Its quite intuitive actually. In Sci-Fi, the level of Science depicted in the movie is much advanced than the level of Science as witnessed by most audience in their  routine lives. Similarly, in KJo movies, the level of Socio-Economic dynamics depicted is much advanced to the level witnessed by most audience in their routine lives. In a Country like India, if all leading men and women of KJo are driving Mercedes and are running across a football field size lawn, for common man, it is nothing but a Socio-Economic fiction.  KJo's work envisions a world truly beyond the living realities of almost 99% of his audience and hence he should be honored by defining a new genre for his classics ! The Genre of Soc-Fi.

What does it mean for Hindi Cinema ?

One key fact is that a big portion of directors/actors today are second generation film industry practioners who are in this profession by sheer sperm/egg lottery. Any field which selects its a big part of its participants by virtue of birth and not merit is bound to have funny moments. (Like Sonam Kapoor becoming an actress is a funny moment).  Almost all of these film makers have lived a life in their own capsules and the only thing they can portray is typical urban youth struggling with meaning of life. So their movies will mostly show friends travelling to Goa to find solace, or to Spain to live life, or to sing Kuch Kuch hota hai in some really cool college or hating love stories or may be figuring out that why Pappu cant dance. Simply because that's the dominant perspective a man has lived and that's the perspective the man would portray clearly. Nobody's fault. Just circumstantial.

In the end, you keep seeing movies movies where you just can't differentiate one movie from the other on any big point. Not a great state affairs for the Art of story telling.

But then the question, why some/most of these movies become a hit ?Who makes them hit ?

The answer is multiplex. Multiplexes contribute around 65% of the revenue for the films today. And if you include revenues from satellite rights, music rights, merchandise etc, not much is left to get from single screen audiences to breakeven. So,as a thumb rule, if you could please multiplex audience, most likely you make money.

That audience is the holy grail. Who are they ? How many are they ?  

Lets see. PVR and Cinemax which together owns around 220 screens boasts of total annual footfall of roughly 3.5 Crore. Total multiplex screens in India around 1250, makes avg national footfalls in multiplexes around 17 Cr. If one person's foot falls once in a month in a multiplex (One movie in 4 weekends is not a big stretch), then these17 Cr foot would correspond to around 1.45 Cr heads.  Accounting for misses  and omissions, take it total headcount of 2 Cr. Give or take some. That is roughly 2% of India's population.  Just 2%. As a film maker, if you want to make money, just please these 2% of country's population. 

How to please them ? First know who they are

Average multiplex ticket of 135 Rs/Head for a couple, two such movies a month, add 100 Rs F&B. If you assume that movie expense takes half of total entertainment household budget (7% of income as per Govt stats), you reach a rough monthly income of 11,000 Rs. Thats on average, give or take some. This would roughly mean that you can afford multiplex  regularly only if you earn AT LEAST 11k, give or take a few hundreds. These people are young aspirers or middle/old age achievers and hence they either aspire to or already have a reasonably high socio-economic standards. At least higher than almost 90% of their fellow countrymen. They can relate to lot of the stuff shown and unless its outright crap, happy to spend 2 hours watching it for the sake of entertainment. Lack of options helps the cause further.

So in a way, what's being made reflects an acute understanding of economics of film making business by these film makers. Why to blame them for intellectual paralysis. Who cares about it anyways as long as the girl looks hot, dances well and the guy could stretch his arms and run around the trees.

If just 2% is key target, what about the rest 98% ?

This is where classic Indian spirit of entrepreneurship and "jugad" sets in. For the audience who can't relate too much to the context of these urban youth targeting movies and feel severe lack of options have seen local movie industries cropping up. These movies are made with local actors, at low budget with basic tech equipment and are distributed locally to a niche audience. For example Punjab has its own movie industry where even coolness God MTV VJ Ranvijay is a proud participant. Bhojpuri Industry is pretty sizeable. Even Western UP has seen its own local film industry where movies are made on average budget of 3-4 Lakhs and are then distributed through low cost VCDs. If the big guy doesn't take care of you, the fellow around the corner would stand up to fill the void in the most local flavor. Classic elegant Indian solution to big and difficult problems.

If art is about culture, what about it ?

One view is that art (as movies) should not be showing only one aspect of Indian culture where every thing happens in South Mumbai or Bandra or Switzerland. In fact subject matter has seen drastic movement depending on who were the film makers and what general socio-political environment they encountered. Quite obvious for this to happen. So you would see shifts from 2 Bigha Zameen to Golmal to Chupke Chupke to Zanjeer to Dil Chahta hai to Housefull 2.

Who are the film makers, from what socio-economic background they came and in what general socio-political construct they worked in, decides their subjects. One simple example to consider the "Effect of Who makes What" is that since for a long time most film makers have been Chopras, Kapoors and Khoslas, the prevalent culture reflected in movies  has been Punjabi. With people like Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap etc, a new cultural perspective is being shown. So in addition to Switzerland, you can see the Gangetic plains as well. That's a good thing on a broader level. Simply because it widens the cultural fabric reflected in films.
Now we don't only know balle balle and kudiyan te mundya but we also know the folksy beats of O Womaniya/Omkara. Corporatization has helped with studios breaking the family/kin strongholds where a newcomer found it difficult to show a divergent story. Studios are happy to back Kashyap, Bhardwaj, Bannerjee or Dhulia, even if its not most commonly occurring candyfloss.

Such variety is good. If movies is about story telling, varied stories in varied settings is awesome to have. Lets hope we get more of variety. Variety well made.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Real Fountainhead

Curiosity. If a single word underlines the progress of our species of evolved Apes, it is Curiosity. The ultimate fountainhead, the source of every single strand of knowledge. Every single invention and every single achievement of Man can be attributed to just this one word -- Curiosity.

Someone was curious about how to pull the cart faster ? Probably by putting wooden logs beneath it ? Or better, pin a round piece of the log to the cart. Came the Wheel. Someone was curious to know about the Sun rising in the East, about Eclipses and about patterns in Seasons. Came the knowledge on Astronomy. Someone was curious to express his vision of the world in the stone and on the canvas. Came David and Monalisa. Someone was curious about Rainbow and came the whole mess of Optics.  Another man was curious about how to manifest "nothing" and we got Zero.

Every single invention can be counted thus. It is this undying spirit of curiosity hardwired in us, that makes us the dominant (Still so galactically ignorant about the grand scheme of things that its baffling) species on this planet.

If curiosity is the Fountainhead, what is the slope that lets this stream of knowledge flow and gush ahead with a unstoppable energy ? That slope, that enabler is Freedom. Liberty. Azaadi.

Curiosity is nothing on its own unless supplemented by freedom to repeatedly ask difficult and disturbing questions and freedom to chase answers. In absence of Freedom to ask unpleasant question, the only consequence could be a Dark Age. No one can question the status quo, which is taken to be the absolute truth, the best way and progress stops. So, to move ahead, in this quest of life, let us remain curious, let's keep asking random  and outrageous questions and keep looking for answers for those questions. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Book Review: Civilization By Niall Ferguson

I haven't written any book review as yet but somehow this one compelled me to do so. Just thought that a 300 page book like this is at least a 4-5 hour affair and if my comments can help someone make a decision on whether to spend those 4-5 hours on the book, why not ?

Civilization:West And The Rest is probably the latest by Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson. For me, his second --I tried reading his Ascent of Money but found it massively unappealing compared to the options I had in Dostoevsky and Raghuram Rajan. Dropped it after some 50 pages. This one is little more engaging and I managed to read it full. Almost. Here's what I think:

There are two key paradigms I think can be highlighted. One is about the general tone of the book and the other is about the strength of the arguments presented in the book.

General Tone:

The book's fundamental idea is analysis of reasons of supremacy of Western Civilization on the Rest of the world for last 500 years and it is written from a standpoint of a Westerner. The striking point is however that Ferguson's tone is very clearly "Us" and "Them" where he, as a Westerner is the "Us" and the Rest is the "Them". And he doesn't forget to remind repeatedly that "Us" have dominated the "Them" for last 500 years or so. In a globalized world, where everyone is with everyone else and the entire world is trying to be a single entity (Even the Europeans who have just fought each other except for last 60 years of History !), such a marked perception of the world is quite discouraging. That too coming from a Professor at one of the world's most prestigious university.

Also, the points raised in the book, if taken at face value, just present a picture on how West rose from Dark Ages and what propelled Industrial Revolution. One can't explain why East fell to West unless one understands the inherent weaknesses that came up in the Eastern civilizations. That part is not addressed.

Besides, among the "Them", while analyzing why East fell, Ferguson's definition of East is dominantly Chinese Civilization. He utterly fails to acknowledge another erstwhile powerful civilization of India. May be its because you have to acknowledge someone who lent you US$ 3 Trillion and can ignore the rest. But from a historian point of view, until you analyze China and India, the picture of East isnt complete. This point left a lot wanting in the book as far as I am concerned.

Strengths Of The Arguments:

Ferguson presents 6 Killer Apps that, according to him, enabled the West to dominate the Rest. He lists -- Competition, Property Rights, Science, Medicine, Consumer Society, Work. Most of the arguments seem weak and excerpts of History are chosen carefully to support the thesis. Funny part is that he forgot to mention the single most important factor of all where the Western Society's strength came from --Liberty. He seems not to notice that Statue of Liberty isn't a tourist place but the very soul of the Western Society. It is liberty to act, to think, to question that lies at the bottom of his so called apps of Science (Liberty to ask questions and to pursue to answers), Medicine (Derivative of Science) etc.

In Chapter on Competition, he argues that competition between explorers in England, Portugal and Holland enabled them to traverse across the world in search of new lands and markets and helped the spread of Western Civilization. This argument while explains why the westerners went to search for the new world, doesn't explain why they were able to subdue the new world they found. Until one analyzes what was ailing the Indian Social and Political structure for example in the East and the Incas in Latin America, one cant explain the colonization just by quoting that hundreds of ships were leaving European Shores.

Chapter of Science is probably the most relevant one in the book. Explains the development of key inventions and their applications, especially military which helped the Europeans in their quest of imperialism.

Medicine is just an application of Science so the entire chapter I think is irrelevant to be classified as a separate factor.

In the chapter on Consumption society, instead of identifying that consumption is an integral part of a capitalist system, he goes into a random tangential discussion on why the entire world wears trousers and shirts. His argument on European's dominance of textiles early on explains why the world was flooded with cheap shirts and pants but it doesnt explain the broader consumption culture. A very tangential discussion I think that fails to explain the rise of consumer society, how it became so entrenched and how it helped the West.

On Work Ethic, he argues that Work Ethic improved a lot in the West after the Protestant movement and changed the outlook from "hereafter" to "here and now". Hard work and thrift became a cultural fad. May be. He seems to indicate the Eastern philosophies have a focus on "hereafter" which hinders with the work ethic and hence led to superiority of the West. This claim is quite laughable. I am not knowledgeable about Chinese Cultural philosophy on work but if Mr Ferguson had a chance to flip through Gita, he would know that Indian Philosophy is as much about here and now as is about hefeafter. Again, until you analyze the reasons on internal weaknesses that came up in the East, the story isnt complete.

And last -- on his choice of historical examples. Will quote just one. He mentions that Marx lived on handouts from Engels who was heir to a Factory and hence by publishing his views against Capitalist, Marx harmed Engels's interest. Ferguson articulates it thus:  "Never in the history anyone bit the hand that fed him the way Marx did to Engels". Well, look no far Mr Ferguson. Just glance at the history of East India Company and their relationship with India. India gave the Company a friendly welcome as Traders. Mere Traders. The Company didnt just bit the hand, it severed the entire body.

Did I mention, Dr Ferguson likes to throw historical facts (just facts) at the reader by the thousand !

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Krugman and American High School Wage Rates

Krugman laments the decline of real wages for High School Grads in US over past 4 decades. This, as per him, is then linked to their low marriage rates. This in turn leads to higher proportion of out of wedlock children which then leads to not so great upbringing and opportunities for those kids and hence a vicious circle of inequality (Charles Murrays book says something to that effect). All here:

Makes sense. But here is the problem: Krugman seems to be lamenting and pretty sad about the decline of real wage for high school degree holders and in other posts seem to blame policy and puts all this in a rising inequality in American context. Why blame policy or feel perplexed and sad about this. Isn't this trend inevitable ? Two reasons

1) An economy where technological advances, mechanization and IT/Software is making the entire system much more knowledge intensive and has been giving many routine functions to machines for many decades, isn't that inevitable that unskilled/low skilled see a systematic wage decline ?

2) With resurgence of Globalization and rise of workforce in India and China where a much higher educated fellow is happy to do the job at a much lower wage (Manf for China and some services in India), isn't that going to bring the equilibrium wage down ?

Combine the two and you can explain the structural decline. When the world moves, things change. A B.A in India used to be a Class I Govt officer in 70s. What now ? Don't lament over it Dr Krugman. Its not Govt's fault. Its inevitability.