Brand Modi

By Geeta Padmanabhan

NamoHe is stylish, he is spicy, he is sweet, he is explosive. Choose a non-controversial product, attach his face, add the brilliantly-coined acronym NaMo, and you have a best-seller. Brand Modi sells – anything from clothes, snacks, tea, explosive firecrackers to the idea of India.

Some attribute it to the business acumen of the Gujarati, others point to the unquestionable charisma of the man, but brand-merchandising has closely accompanied Narendra Modi’s rise in the national scene. With state elections a few weeks ahead and national elections just months away, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who is also the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Prime Ministerial candidate is on a brand projectile.

The first to appear were the ones you would see in the US election conventions: Modi masks, pins, bands, caps, T-shirts – in one early rally an entire section of the audience was made of Modi faces – a startling sight! Soon BJP supporters saw the business opportunity in his growing popularity. The obvious product was the Modi kurta – the knee-length top worn over leggings – customized and popularized by the man himself. With a close collar, short sleeves and earth colors it was already a “moving” item. All it needed was international exposure.

A boutique in Ahmedabad has registered a trademark for these “half-sleeve kurtas”. “We’re trying for an international trademark for the brand,” said its owner. A report in the Indian Express said at least 30,000 made-in-Surat kurtas carrying embroidered “NaMoMantra” were sold at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan on the October 27 Hunkar rally, addressed by Modi. A NaMo store opened in an upmarket mall in Ahmedabad to sell NaMoMantra apparel, books and other merchandise. Modi Lion, named after the Hunkar (roar) rally, will soon reach the children’s section of super markets. “Even his most ardent fans could not have foreseen this transformation – from Loha Purush to cuddly toy,” wrote Firstpost Editor Sandip Roy.

The Patna rally also saw the mushrooming of those humble tea-stalls that dot India’s roads, street-corners and railway stations. Unsurprisingly called Modi Tea-Stalls, they were dual-purpose. The kiosks made sure tea was available to rallyists all day while reminding them of the great man’s humble origins as a vendor at a railway tea-stall. A killer branding idea!

Diwali of course brought a multitude of options for value addition. Boxes of firecrackers (labelled Modi Brand) wrapped in Modi’s photograph sold the most, outdoing cheaper imports from China. One shop-owner cracked: “We have Chinese items as well as the ones with photos of actors. Right now, “Modi Brand” is the most popular and is explosive in Rajkot. “Explosive like Modi” was the underlying sentiment, agreed the buyers. In the US, the boxes went for $16/- . The firecracker business, reported India Today, was worth $8 million in Rajkot alone.

Can Modi snacks be far behind? NDTV ran a story of how “Modi magic” spiced up this year’s Diwali in the US. Rajbhog Sweets, which celebrated Modi’s elevation as Chief Minister of Gujarat for a third consecutive term by gifting each customer with 11 pedas (one for each year), decided to go “namkeen” on the run up to the 2014 general elections. According to the news channel, Arvind Patel, Rajbhog Sweets, Newark Avenue, Jersey City said, “A few of us were chatting one afternoon when the idea of ‘Modi Magic’ came about. We give it out for free at BJP events and festivals here in the US, and aim to distribute 10 lakh packets till the elections.”

Each packet of  spicy mix labelled “Modi Magic” sells at 45 cents, but 10 lakh packets will be given away free, said Mr Patel, adding he was ready to do much more. The mix was a hit with the customers, probably Modi fans. “This is the first time I have seen an Indian politician branded like this, his magic is working not only in India but the whole world,” said one. Mr. Patel would have happily sent the sales proceeds to the BJP election campaign, but laws don’t permit supporters in the US to donate directly to political parties in India. So after spreading the Modi message on foreign shores, Mr. Patel has traveled to India to campaign for the BJP.

The virtual world has embraced him. While Modi social-networks constantly, tweeting, face-booking and blogging on the go, his fans have made a video game and composed a Namo Youth Anthem that goes, “A powerful orator will now become the nation’s curator. His persona is athletic, his charisma magnetic. Who’s gonna mar ’em? NaMo. NaMo. Who’s gonna scar ’em? NaMo, Namo.”

Merchandising politics isn’t new to India. Gandhi topi, Nehru galaband, I Am Anna cap, Mamata sari and paintings, Mulayam pehalwan doll, yojnas (schemes) and streets named after leaders are all part of this branding culture. But Modi-branding is much larger in scale and scope. It is market-savvy, and thanks to supporters’ unrelenting efforts, has gone global. In is case, Modi’s the brand, and his supporters know how to sell him.

“Brand Modi becomes an act of reflection with the multiplying effect of a hall of mirrors,” said Firstpost editor Sandip Roy. “As Modi stands at the rally, beaming, waving to the crowd, the jubilant crowd gazes back at him draped in NaMo paraphernalia… Our feverish passion for politics and our insatiable hunger for brands have finally come together in common churn. And Narendra Modi has emerged from that manthan (churn) as an entity than can both sell and be sold.”

As in everything political in India, Modi branding is not without its comic consequences. To their utter dismay, BJP’s election supervisors have found that people in many parts of the hinterlands who have pledged to vote for Modi (Modi ko vote denge) are clueless about the party symbol. Brand Modi now outshines brand BJP! The lotus (party symbol) has been blown away by the Modi storm, said a commentator. Ironically, the party might lose the votes of those who support Modi! Party heads are no doubt at the drawing board figuring out how to bring the lotus back into the picture. Any ideas?

WNI Quiz 1

I’ve been doing a radio quiz show for kids for several months now, and one of my biggest challenges has been calibrating the level of difficulty to the ages of the children participating in the studio. I’ve gotten better at it, but when I go back and look at some of my early quizzes, I’m appalled by what I put those kids through. Maybe that’s why some of them never came back!

[This post has been updated. The News Quiz plugin I had tried on this before did not work with the latest WordPress upgrade so I just took it out. Meanwhile, if you want to listen to the show every week, it is broadcast live on Radio Zindagi 1550 Am and 99.7 FM at 11 am PST. Do tune in and give me feedback.]

Chennai Express: Funny Despite Itself

“I don’t make my movies for intellectuals,” the director of Chennai Express, Rohit Shetty, is supposed to have said. I can well imagine him making that statement, sneer on his face, contemplating his previous box office successes like Bol Bachchan and Golmaal, all made with similar LCD ingredients of slapstick humor, over-the-top acting, and overwrought emotion.

But a sweet seller (bear with me on the analogy for a bit) is not an intellectual, and a good one will know exactly how much ghee and sugar to put in the halva without needing a culinary degree. If the halva is over-sweet and dripping with fat, people will still eat it, and maybe even relish that first decadent bite, but at the end of it all they will be left with is a stomach ache and a desire never to repeat that mistake.

Which is how I felt after watching Chennai Express, a tale of a North Indian halvai (and there’s the analogy returning to roost) and a South Indian lovely who meet by chance on a train and have adventures on the run.

To be fair, CE is pretty funny in bits; the sequence where Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan spoofing himself) pulls Meenamma (the lovely Deepika Padukone) on to the train, DDLJ style, is hilarious. Even though the dialogues are just plain awful, the situational comedy and Padukone’s perfectly pitched turn as a Madrasi lass are enough to have you in splits through about 70% of the movie, especially if you are sitting in a theater surrounded by tweens. The kids laughed continuously, despite missing the Hindi-Tamil jokes and the SRK references, and we adults laughed along.

But, fair warning, the last 20 minutes are just horrendous and there is a sequence involving a small person which is not just insensitive but bizarrely incomprehensible and left us all scratching our heads. I happen to be a fan of SRK, but ever since R.A.One, I’ve been wondering what the heck happened to the guy. His facial contortions, his weird grimaces and mannerisms – were they always there or is this some pathetic attempt to live up to his superstar expectations?

What saves the movie (and SRK’s butt) is Padukone, whose performance leaves me no doubt that she is the next big thing in mainstream Bollywood. She delivers her cheesy lines with aplomb, completely getting into the skin of what can only be described as a mythical Southy stereotype, the kind once popularized by Mehmood with his “aiyyo-jees.” The role is a complete departure (as much it can be in a Hindi movie) from her successful outing in Yeh Jawaani hai Deewani, and she does it justice in a way that really exposes SRK’s  shortcomings.

It is almost a pity that Chennai Express (as I write this review) is turning out to be a big box office success, because it sends a message to other filmmakers that it is okay to skimp on quality dialogue, it is okay to hire ensemble actors who suck so badly they must be related to the producer, it is okay to pair an over-the-hill lead with a young, gorgeous twenty-something, it is okay to poke fun at disabled people, and it is okay to engage in the worst kind of Southern stereotyping so long as you have a formula and a hook that brings the audience in.

That the crassly commercial Lungi Dance was added as an afterthought suggests even Shetty had some doubts about the viability of a movie where so many aspects were shortchanged.

That the movie is going to be a blockbuster suggests that all those doubts will be erased. Sigh! I gorged on the halva yesterday, but today I’m feeling sick.

*LCD = Lowest Common Denominator

Archives, Archives, Archives

Spent the best part of 4 hours organizing all the archival material of my radio shows. If you look at the new menu above, you’ll see the two new archive options – Parent Talk Show Archives and Quiz Show Archives.  Despite being fairly mundane, the whole process was incredibly validating, especially as I was typing out the various topics I had covered during the year-long run of Parent Talk.

Each archive has the recordings of the various episodes in mp3 form. I’m still not done with the quiz show archives but another couple of days and all the episodes should be up.

Tried out the WpPro Quiz plugin to see if I could put up all the quizzes I have conducted, but it seems to be an incredibly time consuming process, because each quiz question and answer has to be entered separately, and with 25 quiz shows and over 750 questions, that’s a task I am not willing to undertake. Anyone know of a better plugin that will allow me to copy my questions off of MsWord?

Enjoy!

On Faith

The producer at the radio station where I host a kid’s quiz show was unusually complimentary. “Your show is so interesting and fun..it deserves its popularity,” he gushed while I blushed. As I arranged my quiz paraphernalia in the small booth where we work, he went on. “What I don’t get is the appeal of the panditjis and psychics,” he grumbled. As the person fielding the incoming calls, he had had his fill of mothers and fathers and uncles and grandpas who begged for divine help from these distinctly mortal messengers, some of whom he had known when they were neophytes looking for an angle to work.

Tune in any weekday at the station and its easy to understand his frustration. “Panditji,” comes the plaintive cry through the air, “my daughter is just not getting a suitable boy. Help!” After a twenty-second exchange of a few birthplace and time details, the eminent host has a solution. “Tell her to wear an emerald of nine carats, and donate a kilo of rice on a Tuesday.” Then comes the kicker. “If you have any further questions, you can contact me on the private line at….”

The psychics are even more awe-inspiring. They need only your name to tell you your past, present, and future. And because the volume of calls has not decreased an iota since they set up their shingle, either they have an in into the workings of the universe or, as famous showman P.T. Barnum was once criticized, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

“Why is belief in psychics or on-air astrologers so mystifying when people believe in God?” I asked my producer back in the studio. He looked miffed, so I hurriedly changed topics. “Desperation?” I ventured as a guess to the callers’ motivations. “Or the desire for a quick, free, fix?” After all, the man who needs a job has to put in the hard work of perhaps getting trained in a new field, updating his resume, and networking intensively to get the job of his dreams. How much easier it would be if those problems went away with a ring or a ritual.

But faith is not so simple or shallow. In all probability the job-seeker is wearing his ring and doing his rituals while networking and taking evening classes. The contestant who wears his tilak to my quiz show and loses is not going to stop doing so because his faith let him down, he might just prepare better next time. The parents of a child prematurely lost to cancer or war will continue to conduct services in church and pray for understanding and reunion in the afterlife.

And that is the true mystery of faith, how it survives and endures against all Shivaodds. Watching the carnage wrought by the flash floods and landslides in Uttarakhand brings this mystery into sharp focus. Thousands of pilgrims have been obliterated by the viscous mud, but the “miracle” of the preservation of the holy shrines is proof to them that God is omnipotent. Geeta Padmanabhan, columnist for The Hindu newspaper, writes, “In about two/three years when Kedarnath opens, the pilgrims will be back – the old, the young, women with infants in arms, children, the infirm using walkers. ‘Is it done in love, is it done in fear?’ asked  Mark Twain about this extra-ordinary journey through dangerous terrain.”

Is it love or is it fear? What makes us continue to venerate a God who, at least to the objective viewpoint, seems to have been extremely selfish to have protected his territory while nature wreaked havoc all around? How does the quarterback or basketball star reconcile God’s hand in his victory with the same God who leaves thousands starving a continent away? Is our idea of God that of a fairy godfather or a personal guardian who has to be propitiated, pacified, and praised to deliver magic powers on our behalf? If God is love, as most religions claim, boy he has a strange way of showing it.

The randomness of life, the unfairness of fate, and the plight of the suffering faithful have long made me a skeptic, but if I am to be truthful, I envy those whose faith is strong. It is not an emotion that is swayed by logic, evidence, or personal experience. It may wobble, but it never topples over. And when it is not clouded by intolerance and bigotry, it acts as an anchor to chaotic lives and arbitrary fates in the best possible way. It fulfills the human desire for fairness, a need to believe that a life lived in piety and morality will reap its just rewards. And if events don’t bear that belief out, one can always console oneself with the promise of a heaven or a better reincarnation. Its almost like a child’s belief in Santa Claus, except there is no North Pole to go to and disprove the existence of elves.

Still, the line between stupidity and wisdom is very thin, and I am not qualified to judge. For the majority of the human race, faith seems to be a primeval urge that doesn’t need godmen or psychics to exist; they are just remoras who latch on to this whale. So if chanting prayers or wearing corals or trekking to the Himalayas is what someone needs to make sense of the irrationality of their existence, I cannot criticize; I can only wish I could feel that way.

 

 

Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani – The Joharification of Bollywood

YJHDWe have a saying in our family that “Disney Ruins Everything.” We watched in dismay as the quality of Pixar movies dropped after Disney took over, and now the Disneyfication of Marvel has the die-hard comic fans in my family aghast.

Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani(YJHD) is an perfect example of the Joharification of mainstream Bollywood. To be fair, Karan Johar himself was inspired by Yash Chopra, whose glossy movies about wealthy Punjabi romances set a certain template for song and dance movies, but Chopra was a romantic at heart, and there was a sincerity in his vision that shone through the mehndis, sangeets, and tulip fields. With Johar, the emotional manipulation in his movies is blatant, from the kid singing Jana Gana Mana in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, to the dupatta handed over by Kajol to Rani in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. There is also something ersatz about all his movies, as if he is incapable of genuine feeling and reconstructs it from the vision and product of other, better directors.

Jawaani is directed by Ayan Mukherjee and stars Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone, but it might as well have been helmed by Johar and starred Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol. Johar, who produced the movie, seems to have had such a strong influence on the young director that Mukherjee, who previously made the warm-hearted Wake Up Sid with such finesse, goes full-on Bollywood, with ensemble song-and-dances at the drop of a hat and big wedding productions.

Still, Jawaani, the tale of a boy with itchy feet and a girl back home who pines for him, is watchable, and credit for that must go almost entirely to Kapoor and Padukone, who share an incredibly chemistry and light up the screen whenever they are together. The first half, where the shy Naina blossoms under the throwaway affection of the oddly named Bunny and where the lead pair is together on screen most of the time, is quite magical. The aptly named Naina conveys such tender wistfulness to be a part of Bunny’s cool gang and to be loved by the nomadic Bunny that you feel intensely what it’s like to be her. Padukone is perfectly cast and those supercharged moments that promise a budding relationship are beautifully directed and acted.

In the second half the movie loses steam, mainly because the absence of the romantic pair makes you realize how thin this 2 hour, 40 minute film really is. Kalki Koechlin and Aditya Roy Kapur have an unnecessary amount of screen time, but even all that time is not enough to fully develop their characters or their story lines. The denouement is disappointing, but then I think most romantic movies don’t get it right, so maybe it’s just my opinion.

Mukherjohar’s musical co-conspirator is Pritam, which is why each song reminds you of another composer. There is an Amit Trivedi-style song sung by Rekha Bhardwaj called “Kabira,” a Salim-Suleimanesque number titled “Dilliwali Girlfriend,” and the peppy “Badtameez Dil” feels like it could have been composed by Vishal-Shekhar.

To Pritam’s credit, the songs are all peppy and hummable and well-choreographed, but after the evolution of Bollywood movies to songs being played in the background, the ensemble numbers feel retro. And roping in an ageing Madhuri Dixit for an item number is a classic example of the audience manipulation that Johar is famous for.

If you are a Karan Johar fan, by all means watch YJHD. It will not make you feel any real emotion, or linger in your mind after you return home, but for the nearly three hours you are in the theater you will be entertained. I would have been more depressed by the corruption of a good director like Mukherjee, but the trailers of Lootera and Ranjhaana that I saw left me with hope. And Kapoor and Padukone are so good together that I predict they will be a classic romantic pair in many movies to come.

My rating: 3/5

 

Writing a Novel – Day 21

Snoopy typingHurray! The writer’s block seems to be dealt with for the moment, with only a little shaming from the spousal unit. I knew it was a good idea to go public with my plan to write a book since now I have many well wishers asking every day how much progress I’ve made. I finished my next mini chapter and put a research question out to a friend about a problem to be solved in the next chapter. I think I’ll add him as a helpful character in my book.

I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but the book is a light mystery story whose plot I’m making up as I go along, so the chapters are as much a revelation to me as they are to my characters.

Does this breakthrough mean I am going to be efficient and finish up the book lickety-split? Naaah.