Monday, July 31, 2006

“Where can the wife of Stalin go?”

That’s what Nadya asks Olga in Stalin, the made-for-television HBO movie (1992), before committing suicide. Translation: If you’re in the public eye, there’s nowhere to hide. Right. But look at the upside of celebrity. Movie makers pay big name actors big bucks because they know they’re an audience magnet. “Yahoo!’s home page almost always leads with a celebrity. Google gets more searches for Johnny Depp than for any of your neighbors.” Celebrity endorsements in ads are worth big fees. At conferences, celebrities – even those with nothing much to say – are used to draw a big crowd. Also, book readings and art exhibitions increasingly invite celebrities from show biz. In our idle moments, we chat about celebrities. “Tournament organizers groan when the big names get ousted or withdrawal (sic) due to injury.” [17 July 2006 post]. There’s an interesting analysis of celebrity presence and its repercussions at Yahoo! Answers in The New York Times: (Register to read.) By the way, celebrities includes celebrity institutions as well. Like the Harvard Business School, for instance.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Cinema meets India. India meets cinema.

By a strange twist of fate, Salon Indien happened to be the name of the venue for the very first public show of Cinématographe Lumière at one franc a head on 28 December 1895. It was a tiny hall with a sitting capacity of one hundred located in the basement of the Grand Café at 14 Boulevard des Capuchines, Paris. The first show of the Lumière Brothers’ six short films (Entry of Cinematographe, The Sea Bath, Arrival of a Train, A Demolition, Ladies & Soldiers on Wheels and Leaving the Factory) – each 17 metres long – was held on 7 July 1896, a night of thunder and lightning, in South Mumbai at the Watson Hotel opposite Kala Ghoda and the Jehangir Art Gallery, within walking distance of the Gateway of India. Seven days later, the venue was shifted to the Novelty Theatre where the show had twenty four features including A Stormy Sea and The Thames at Waterloo Bridge. The 32-day Mumbai run of the Cinématographe Lumière at both the venues, described by The Times of India as "Living Photographic Pictures in Life-Size Reproductions by Mssrs. Lumiere Brotheres" ended on 15 August 1896. But certainly not India’s tryst with cinema. Or, mine for that matter. I remember making magic lanterns and, later, even movie projectors out of shoe boxes and reels and drawing pictures on stiff tracing paper to make my childish movies. I also recall visiting most movie houses in my neighbourhood – there were at least a dozen within easy walking distance – for zanana (women and children only) shows with my sister. The ticket prices then were one rupee and five annas for stalls and two rupees and ten annas for a seat in the balcony or in a box. Those days, you could buy a garishly printed booklet containing the story of the movie in outline and the songs in their entirety for the princely sum of 4 annas or a quarter of a rupee. Or, you could buy for just 1 anna a crudely printed booklet with songs only in Hindi as well as Urdu scripts. I’m not quite sure when they stopped printing and selling these booklets. It was probably some time in the late sixties. Now they try to palm off on you lavishly produced books about the making of the movie you’re about to watch, often written by firang writers who claim to be teachers and/or researchers in a film faculty abroad but sound like publicists on the payroll of the producer.

The morgue.

Strange though it sounds in retrospect, I used to live on top of a morgue in Khetwadi. No, not directly on top of it. There were two floors between our third floor flat and the morgue on the ground floor or rather in the garage in the south-east corner of it. How it came to be there is an interesting tale. We moved to the first floor of 233 Khetwadi Main Road, the first of the three identical Arab Houses, after my birth in 1936. (Before that the Mankars used to reside on top of the Girgaum Police Court next to the Krishna Cinema, now Dreamland.) The second Arab House was and even now is occupied by Vanita Vishram Girl’s School. And, the third one was and even now is owned and partly occupied by Bhagini Samaj, a social group. I don’t exactly remember when we moved to the top floor flat but it must have been soon after 1936 because I don’t have any memories associated with the first floor. (By the way, somewhere around 1947 or thereabouts, the first floor was rented by the Communist Party of India and was called the Red Flag Hall. There was a commune of families leaving there for the next ten or twelve years. Among them were Kaifi and Shaukat Azmi and their daughter, Shabana, as well as Sardar Jafri.) Arab House was bought over, around 1949, by the Trust running the Sir Hurksondas Narottamdas Hospital which loomed just behind our house abutting the Vanita Vishram Garden. My father who had resumed his law practice after his stint as a Presidency Magistrate had been appointed around then as the Coroner of Bombay. In one of the matters that came before him, he had passed strictures against the Hospital, our exalted landlords, for failure to offer timely medical attention to an accident victim (if memory serves). The Trustees took this act as a matter of personal affront and decided to teach him a lesson. They were also keen to evict all the tenants so that they could raze the building down and use the space to extend the hospital premises. Just to harass the residents, the first step they took was to shift a part of their morgue and cold storage in the garage at the back of our building. The tenants were initially horrified, no doubt. But nobody slunk away post haste as a result of the macabre and temporary fellow residents. It was a continuing nuisance, though. Whenever there was a death in a Gujarati or Marwari family, there would be a troop of hired mourners and breast beaters lounging in the passage just outside the entrance to our compound. The show must go on, as the saying goes. (P.S.: Arab House at 233 Khetwadi Main Road was finally vacated and razed down in the mid.90s.)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Playing cards.

I’m in the habit of playing solitaire and other games on my PC. I play them not to kill time but, as I had seen my father do it, to take my mind off the work I’m doing so that my subconscious (or, working mind, to use a Ramesh Balsekar term) has a free hand to spark off the ideas I’m seeking. Come to think of it, playing cards have played quite a role in my childhood. I used to watch my father, a lawyer, working on his next day’s brief in the evening suddenly interrupting his work to play a hand of solitaire before returning to it. And, every Sunday, there would be an afternoon session of my father and his five friends to play bezique non-stop for several hours. They would sit down cross legged on the carpet in the sitting room of our third floor flat in Khetwadi and squabble among themselves like kids. It was all good fun and cups and cups of tea. Again, on a Saturday every couple of months or so, another circle of my father’s friends met to play bridge for tiny stakes. These sessions were held by rotation at every member’s residence, I reckon. My father only hosted a session but never, to the best of my knowledge, attended any meeting held elsewhere. At the Saturday sessions, there used to be light snacks like potato wafers and salted cashew nuts in addition to tea. In retrospect, it is interesting to compare the bezique group with the bridge group. The former was a Pathare Prabhu gang made of people who belonged to our own caste and lived within easy walking distance of our house in areas like Opera House and Thakurdwar. The latter was a motley, cosmopolitan crowd and the ties, I suspect, must have been forged during my father’s working life as a public prosecutor and a presidency magistrate before I was born. The bezique group must have been the outcome of my father’s youth in Navi Wadi and Thakurdwar. The lack of snacks being served to them, I attribute to the huge lunch the reputedly bon vivant Pathare Prabhus would customarily have on Sundays. There, however, used to be a tray of ingredients to make paan, betel leaves, supari, cardamom, cloves and so on. Both the groups continued to meet, if memory serves, till I passed out of high school in 1952. Old age and death spare nobody, not even weekend revellers.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

In search of the Holy Grail.

In Clarion-McCann, one of the first products I started working on was Forhan’s Toothpaste. Just below the brand name on the toothpaste tube and the outer carton, they used to print quite prominently the legend ‘For The Gums’. Though I didn’t know it then (because I was dumb and nobody told me in so many words), Forhan’s was lucky enough to have a clear ‘positioning’ as well as a ‘Unique Selling Proposition’ (what we soon started flinging at one another as ‘USP’). Rosser Reeves and Reality in Advertising had already happened in the US of A, in 1961. That was four years before my first confrontation with Forhans. Only I became aware of it a little later when I bought my copy of the book from, if memory serves, Super Book House at Flora Fountain, run by my friend, Shoiab Ranalvi. (This was the same shop where I once saw Acharya Rajanish, in his pre-Osho, pre-Pune avatar, shopping for a whole pile of books.) Fairfax Cone said this about Reality in Advertising: “Bates advertising is built upon what Mr. Reeves calls the Unique Selling Proposition, and he believes in delivering this without subtlety and without concern for anyone's gentler feelings. He also proves that such advertising works. That it may annoy a great many people, he dismisses as being beside the point.” If you’ve read Reeves’ book, you’ll recall how viciously he attacked Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders. In the eyes of Reeves, Packard’s cardinal sin was to claim that advertisers were playing on unconscious motivations of their prospects. If people spent millions of dollars and millions of hours on the analyst’s couch trying to fathom the deeper depths of their own minds, where was the question of a humble copywriter doing so? Reeves’ other target was John Kenneth Galbraith’s thesis that advertising's “central function is to create desires – to bring into being wants that previously did not exist”. Reeves’ retort was: " … if the product does not meet some existing desire or need of the consumer, the advertising will ultimately fail". He cited Pat Steel: “People don't really need art, music, literature, newspapers, historians, wheels, calendars, philosophy…All that people really need is a cave, a piece of meat, and possibly, a fire.” The final irony about Reeves is the fact that he was contemptuous of fine writing (he had half-jokingly threatened to fire Bates’ writers if they won awards) and yet he was inducted into the Copywriters’ Hall of Fame. His attitude to copy is summed up thus: “Let's say you have $1,000,000 tied up in your little company and suddenly your advertising isn't working and sales are going down. And everything depends on it. Your future depends on it, your family depends on it…Now, what do you want from me? Fine writing? Or do you want to see the goddamned sales curve stop moving down and start moving up?” I’ve a sneaking suspicion that Reeves would have wholeheartedly approved of the copy of Forhan’s advertising. Unfortunately, it could not propel Forhan's anywhere close to its formidable rival, Colgate

Friday, July 14, 2006

Spring loaded.

I lived my childhood with spring loaded or clockwork toys for company. Toys for boys. An Egyptian mummy, too. told a part of the story. The other day, though, while buying toys for Armaan and Anika, I suddenly but distinctly remembered the long forgotten tactile pleasure of winding spring loaded toys. It was almost as if the power to animate them and make them do stuff was in your hand that magic moment. Battery-powered toys don’t give you that feeling, do they? They run of their own volition almost, in utter disregard of the child. No fun there. And as the batteries run down, the toys too start slowing down as if old age is catching up with them. That kind of thing did not happen to their spring loaded elder cousins I played with. Their nemesis was rust. And, the perverse urge that hit me on rare occasions to turn the key counter clockwise. Speaking of keys, they came in two types: the detachable ones and the other kind. Of the two, the first type was apt to get mislaid. I remember the bouts of frustration I used to be prone to on account of so many lost keys. Sometimes, though, the toymakers out of compassion used to pack keys in pair. Else, you were at the mercy of the toy shop owner who just might condescend to sell you a spare key from his precious cache.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


Television can be such a veritable fount of new learning if you care to watch it closely. Whoever thought of calling it The Idiot Box must be a cretin surely. Take the example of this new commercial for an online employment agency. It gave me in mere thirty seconds razor-sharp insight into The New Pecking Order in Today’s Urban India. At the apex of the pyramid is what the country’s current Super Star – and all-round darling – insists on calling “hum artiste log”. This includes – once you decode the subtext – film actors, directors, music directors, classical dancers, singers, chefs, hoteliers, restaurateurs, fashion designers, jewellery designers, tarot readers, numerologists, astrologers, hair stylists and cricketers. At the base are the lower denizens such as barbers, washer men, air traffic controllers, etc. – in short, ‘non-creative’ workers. The New Order ordains the “hum artiste log” to the higher rungs of the social ladder – the priestly caste, as it were – and requires that they be rewarded in inverse proportion of what they contribute to the old-fashioned idea of the greatest common good. The media engine, including Page Three and the gossip rags, goes into an overdrive to whip up the hype to sustain this state of affairs. That’s the way the cookie crumbles, boys and girls.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Baby pictures and other wonders.

Quick now. What’s the ideal tv fare to go with a lunch of boiled rice with shrimp curry (preferably green made with coconut milk) and crisp fried bombil (Bombay Duck)? In my book, it’s a segment from one of those movies with precocious kids, at times babies, as the chief protagonists pitted against totally inept, bumbling villains, usually burglars with a huge grudge against the youngsters. I especially relish the portions where the villains get their comeuppance quite violently from the unlikely traps unwittingly laid by the kids as I crunch at the tasty morsels of the crisply fried succulent bombil. But I draw a line when it comes to the first pictures of the Brad Pitt and Anjelina Jolie co-production pre-sold to People magazine for a reported preposterous $4.1 million My doubts are about what’s so special about the baby that People magazine should be willing to pay such a gargantuan sum for the US publication rights. It seems Hello!, the European gossip magazine, paid a further $3 million for rights outside of the U.S. The entire sum is earmarked for UNICEF and other assorted charities. So, the intentions are obviously noble and humanitarian. My problem with the pricing is obviously a matter of my perception, I’m ready to admit. I love babies. Here’s what I wrote (on the dedication page of my as yet unpublished novel, The Last Gandhi Movie) about Avantika whom I saw as a just-born babe: “For Avantika who has been eyeing her world with unabashed curiosity ever since she arrived here.” What prompted me to write these words was the vivid memory of the first look she gave me. “Who could this bloke be?” she seemed to be asking herself, as her alert gaze followed my waving hand. I know it was only my mind playing the game but I tell you her first look was something else. Maybe, People and Hello! magazines expect something out of the world in the first picture of the Namibia-born baby girl, Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt. Yes, that must be it.,26334,1184497,00.html.