Archive for May, 2012

Satyamev Jayate: Let’s forget the cynicism for a minute

Friday, May 11th, 2012

Mint, 8 May 2012

Confession No 1. I’ve always viewed the imminent arrival of an Aamir Khan project with faint alarm. The mammoth marketing juggernaut that he unleashes every time there’s something to which he is connected in any capacity (actor/ producer/ uncle, whatever) is about to hit the screens sends me running for cover. And there’s hardly any place to hide, unless you insulate yourself from all media for a few weeks other than home shopping TV channels and properties supplements of newspapers. So it has been with Satyamev Jayate, Khan’s first TV show.

Confession No 2. I am glad he did it— carpet-bomb us with ads, give dozens of interviews in the media to create the buzz, get the show carried on Doordarshan and regional channels.

The first episode was on a topic a lot of us may know quite a bit about: female feticide. In fact, when Khan introduced the issue, I felt myself dreading that that it wouldn’t turn into an hour of general maudlinness and two-handkerchiefs dialoguebaazi. But throughout the programme, Khan remained restrained, almost matter-of-fact—perhaps too restrained. To many of us, almost nothing that he said was a revelation, but the effort and the depth of research was truly admirable. The numbers were presented simply enough for everyone to immediately grasp the extent of the problem. The case studies were chosen carefully to elicit the maximum horror, and, in one case (extremely necessary), to disabuse those of us who still believe—despite all facts and statistics—that this ghastliest of sins is a problem of rural India, and is a function of poverty and low literacy.

As with all that Khan does, the meticulous planning was visible to anyone watching carefully—everything happened on cue as per the tightly controlled script with no room for any uncertainty or even spontaneity, emotional buttons were pushed at just the right moments, we had shots of members of the audience weeping, Khan called over the daughters of the victims to sit with him during the last song. Even the entertainment quotient had not been forgotten—how could he?—with an interview with unmarried men in Kurukshetra district designed to produce a few laughs. Maybe I should get my glasses checked, but whenever I look at Khan, I seem to see a super-thin synthetic sheen covering him: one is always aware of an intelligent and focused mind ticking away, but not revealing what lies beneath.

But Satyamev Jayate is not for cynics like us. It is aimed at a mass audience where, when a star like Khan puts his might behind a social cause, the impact should be significant. At every step, his intelligence is on display. Khan is absolutely correct to have insisted that Satyamev Jayate appear on Doordarshan. In the show, when he kickstarts a campaign, he does not leave it at a generalised level, but brings it down to a focused actionable point—to petition the Rajasthan government to set up a fast-track court that will bunch together all the 140-odd cases being fought in various district courts against doctors who had been caught on hidden video cameras offering female feticide services.

And his marketing efforts have hardly stopped with the audience. Khan has also roped in top corporates to the cause. Airtel will charge Rs. 1 for every sms sent by those who support the petition, and the money will be donated to a chosen NGO. People can also send money to a specially set up Axis Bank account. Funds coming in from the public will be matched by the Reliance Foundation run by Nita Ambani. In other words, commercial market mechanisms are being used cleverly at a very large scale to build mass participation, in a strategy that promises a universal win-win. Aamir Khan charges a hefty sum for the show, the channels make money on advertising, the corporates get the Aamir Khan and TRP rub-off and strengthen their social responsibility image, awareness is spread, money is raised, a clear verifiable change is attempted. I just hope it all works out.

The juggernaut has hardly stopped rolling. The next morning, the media is full of reports of how the show’s site crashed within an hour of Satyamev Jayate airing on television (one hopes that wasn’t part of the marketing plan), and how the show went trending on tweeter (well, even Khan could hardly have stage-managed that one), and now he’s started a weekly column in a national newspaper.

Let’s suppress the cynicism for some time. We should be glad that Khan has a giant marketing brain, an uncanny understanding of his audience and a keen sense of the space he has carved out in the popular and media imagination. This is the first time that a big star has used all his charm and intelligence to attack issues about which we as a nation should be hanging our heads in shame. And we should be thankful for Khan’s obsessive determination to succeed in all he does.

Will all this make any difference? Do you have a better idea?

Big-bang vodka martini reforms

Friday, May 4th, 2012

Mint, 4 May 2012

The April 2012 World Economic Outlook issued by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is marked by what can only be termed “very cautious optimism”.

“After suffering a major setback during 2011, global prospects are gradually strengthening,” it says, and then warns: “However, recent improvements are very fragile. Policymakers must…implement fundamental changes to achieve healthy growth in the medium term.” Now, IMF would never suggest this, but economic strategists across the world could do far worse than look at recent moves by the producers of the James Bond films.

In Skyfall, or Bond 23, to be released in November, Daniel Craig will be drinking Heineken beer instead of the vodka martini that has been the most famous quirk of the Bond persona for 60 years. “Shaken, not stirred”, that iconic phrase of the franchise, is now part of our cultural psyche. Naturally, purists are aghast, there are grim media columns and tweets about Ian Fleming spinning in his grave and there’s already a video on YouTube of Adolf Hitler in his bunker ranting about it.

Bond drinking beer. Isn’t that what Homer Simpson quaffs?

But look at the Bond franchise as a suffering economy. It is part of a larger tottering system called MGM, which, hit by the Hollywood equivalent of utter fiscal mismanagement (massive borrowings, shrinking revenues, underpricing of assets and so on) went bankrupt last year. Skyfall was almost shelved, till the producers decided to take some daring reformist measures. The Heineken deal, reportedly worth $45 million, is the most extreme of those—in return, Bond will swig the beer, Craig will appear on Heineken labels, and Skyfall director Sam Mendes will helm a Heineken commercial. This product placement deal will pay for as much as one-third of the film’s budget.

The producers have negotiated a bailout package, and naturally, the package comes with stringent policy stipulations.

Product placements are, of course, nothing new to Bond films. Die Another Day had so many brand tie-ups that it was sneeringly referred to as Buy Another Day in some quarters. In Casino Royale, the Virgin Airlines logo was showcased so heavily (plus a glimpse of Richard Branson at an airport) that British Airways snipped the shots off when it ran the film as onboard entertainment. But the martini—“three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet; shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel”—has been sacrosanct so far.

Well, not exactly. The last wave of drastic reforms unleashed on the Bond economy was when the makers decided to go back to drawing board and start it all from scratch. Casino Royale (2006) did not begin with the Bond theme but ended with it, the classic line “My name is Bond. James Bond” too came at the end, and when Bond orders a martini and the bartender asks whether he wants it “shaken or stirred”, he replies: “Do I look like I give a damn?” These were huge risks for a venerable franchise, as a new Bond was unveiled, tougher, grimmer, angrier. The reforms paid off—Casino Royale was the most successful Bond film ever.

But as the MGM economy sputtered, investment flows dried up, business confidence plummeted, and Bond’s sovereign ratings were put under watch, since his last outing, A Quantum of Solace (where “shaken, not stirred” returned), had not set the box-office on fire. A new round of big-bang reforms were called for. First move: Mendes, Oscar-winning critically acclaimed director, and also British. The villain’s role did not, as is usual, go to an European star unknown to the world audience, but to Javier Bardem, the Spanish uber actor with a global critical and mass fan base ever since he scared audiences witless in No Country for Old Men. Then it was leaked thatSkyfall would possibly end with the death of M, Bond’s boss, played by the beloved Dame Judi Dench. In short, a flurry of tactical moves that suddenly had Skyfall bleeping loud and clear on investors’ radars.

Simultaneously, costs were cut dramatically. Though some shooting has been done in Shanghai and Turkey, parts of those “exotic-locale” sequences—another Bond staple—have been shot on the cheap in England.

And now the “fundamental reform”, the martini manoeuvre that derides all comfortable assumptions and dogmas. Opposition has been swift and strident, but the policymakers have rammed it through, signalling to the world that they are ready to take the boldest of steps and reaccelerate their economy.

As I said, they did it once before, when the franchise was looking jaded and needed pump-priming. And now, with parent economy MGM slowly coming out of life support, they have roared back with a second set of actions —leaving the world in no doubt that they mean business. It’s all about guts, the willingness to take risk and conveying clearly to both investors and public that the challenge of change will be met with bold decisions. If Bond hesitates, he’s dead. If economic policymakers can do no more than goggle at looming threats and scrabble for platitudes…well, the outcomes are pretty obvious all around us, aren’t they?