Monday, January 04, 2010

Things That Caught My Eye In 2009

Jason Crombie Interviews

Credit to Crombie for elevating a boring magazine cliche into an art form.

Fred Butler Fashion Accessories

Luke Sullivan's talk at the Miami ad school

TED may be the dope right now but there's something vaguely off-putting about shit that has account directors spamming people on a daily basis. TED reminds of that eco-bleater Al Gore and his persistent whining that was the toast of 2008. Sullivan's talk won't save the planet but it had me watching it thrice in a day. Warning: Those who aren't in the advertising industry might wonder what he's going on about. Plus, it's really long.

Volkswagen Touareg commercial by DDB Amsterdam

Don't think it won any awards but I liked this ad for its simplicity and wit. Luke Sullivan would agree.

Shit My Dad Says On Twitter (Despite the fact that I hate Twitter)

"I just want silence. Jesus, it doesn't mean I don't like you. It just means right now, I like silence more.

The Love Distance Project

Very Jap. Very popular. A little too sappy for my taste but an original idea nevertheless.

Photographs by Ryan McGinley

Disturbing, beautiful.

The Tucker Max Sushi Pants Story

Maddox will still remain king of bloggers but this Tucker Max blog, although tainted by the commercial hand of MTV, was still was worthy of mention.

The Patiala Craft Mela by Lotus Design

Maybe I haven't looked hard enough, but this was the coolest thing from India this year.

Volkswagen Golf Cheetah ad by Ogilvy Cape Town

What can I say, I've been researching a lot of car commercials this year and I happened to stumble across this one which I liked very much. Astoundingly brilliant idea, seeing the fastest creature on earth, tragically crippled, never felt the wind in its hair but somwhow in its genetic make-up knows that it ought to. I like that they didn't spell it out and just leave it for us to infer when we see that last frame of the cheetah with its head out the window.

Malcolm Gladwell's piece in the New Yorker on late bloomers

There's hope for us all, so Gladwell says. Also, it reminded me to look up 'The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock' again.

Happy New Year everyone!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

15 minutes with Bala

What is the lowest you ever scored at maths?
78 percent.

(Laughs). It was a black day in my life.

Is there any one branch of mathematics you would view as a weakness?

Statistical method. I find it unnecessarily academic.

Were your parents very strict? Cause I’ve heard Tam-Brahm parents can be very strict.
In certain respects, yes, and in certain respects, no. My father was a Burmese national and by nature a very chilled out type. My mother… she was very orthodox. They were very strict when it came to Vedic studies but I suppose, as a male child, I always got preferential treatment. You know, sons are always treated better in Tam-Brahm families so it wasn’t so bad.

You have a sister?

She had it bad?
She wasn’t really oppressed or anything, but yeah, when compared to how I was treated, she probably had to take more shit than I had to…

Like domestic chores and household duties. But she was actually better at maths than I was.

Do you think MJ had it coming?
I don’t think I am qualified to answer that. I am not a follower. I don’t know anything about his music or his personal life, so, no comment.

What time do you wake up in the morning?
4.30 am

Do you pray every day?
Yes. From 6.45 AM to 7.30 AM.

Who is your favourite artist?
Picasso. I also like this singer called Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan. I love the architecture of Frank Gehry. I like his use of fluid spaces. There’s also this Central Asian architect called Zaha Hadid, whose style I admire very much.

And what is that?
Very open, spherical brick structures. Utilitarian. Harnessing nature’s resources.

What do you think is the coolest advertising campaign ever?
There is this Bajaj bulbs ad which I used to like from the 80’s. ‘Jab mein chotta bachha tha…’ (sings the entire jingle). Among the newer stuff, I like the Vodafone ads and also this Airtel ad where a kid phones his Dad on a toy phone.

Do you think advertising is necessary for commerce?
See, advertising is a factor of consumerism. It has a sociological and economic impact. I believe that informative advertising is good. As in, advertising that tells you about the various benefits of products in the marketplace, but if it is something that depicts luxuries as needs, then I feel it is wasteful.

What about conspicuous consumerism?
It is a fall-out of the capitalist economy. It is unfortunate, but there’s no getting away from it. For example, if you have a 32 GB iPod, then there is no real need for you to go out and get a 160 GB iPod with a phone and software that helps you make a flash movie. You don’t need it. It just generates e-waste. But the lines between necessities and luxuries are very blurred. Till 20 years ago, there were people who didn’t need soap, but now it is a necessity.

So, if I buy a 160 GB iPod which may not be a necessity but provides employment to 5 poor workers in China, is it really evil?
One has to consider long-term implications when talking about short-term gains. The production of that iPod may require 50 gms of aluminium which displaces 50 metres of land and one tribal family, not to mention the wildlife. So, while China gains, say, $9000 from manufacturing 100 iPods and benefits 5 poor workers, as you say, in the long term they will harm 50 poor citizens and it will cost them $900,000 to repair the harm done to their natural resources.

You recently published a book. What was that about?
Macro-Economics in a Politicalised Environment. It is about fiscal responsibility and budgetary management, also known as FRBM.

In layperson speak?
Well, it has to do with the essential nature of democracy and the division of powers between executive, legislative and judiciary and bout how, in India, the executive basically steals the show. The idea of democracy in our country is a fraud. It’s about the things that the government should be doing to bring down fiscal deficit.

One of the ideas I’ve talked about is the abolishment of Income Tax.

Ha Ha. What a lot of people don’t know is that Income Tax, even in England, was established as a 1-year measure to prevent civil war. Even today it is a temporary law, which is re-instituted every year. I think they should abolish it altogether and instead have a Consumption Tax.

So, the guy who buys a Mercedes pays more than the guy who buys a Maruti and pays more road tax since he uses more of the road.

Isn’t that already the case?
But what I propose is more pronounced.

Sounds pretty harsh.
But only then will the equity of taxes be realised. Because, merely increasing income tax to decrease fiscal deficit doesn’t work in the long run. It is also more fair. Someone who doesn’t consume, doesn’t pay.

Very clever and surprisingly simple, once you understand it. Now, this book of yours, is it in Financespeak or can regular people figure what’s going on?
It’s not too difficult to understand, but yes, one needs to have a basic understanding of the laws of economics and political science.

So, the people who can actually understand this would be people who already know about this stuff.
Broadly, yes.

Wouldn’t that be a question of preaching to the clergy?
(Laughs). Yes. It is, I’m afraid. It’s a shame but that’s how it is. Maybe we should find a way to get regular people to understand…

Hmmm…a financial viral on youtube. That certainly is a challenge. But you never know, more and more youth today are discussing state policy as the Obama campaign showed us, so maybe we should take a crack at it.
Ok let’s move on to another favourite topic. Let’s talk about vegetarianism.

Yes (bracing himself for meat-eater jokes)

Now, if everyone were become vegetarian overnight, that would be the ecological equivalent of winning the lottery; it would release vast resources of land, water and energy. But that would also be the case if we were to all give up our cars and started walking, so it’s a puerile argument. So let’s disregard that bit shall we?

So, the economic and ecological implications apart, what would be your case for vegetarianism?
I am vegetarian by faith and by disposition. In the first instance, I happened to be born into a vegetarian household, so I didn’t have any say in the matter. However, choice is a matter of free will, and in this regard, I think my best reason, other than the obvious economic and ecological implications, is compassion. I am a non-violent person. I cannot stand the idea of any of God’s creatures slaughtered. It is a sickening sight. You only have to go someplace where they kill animals to be put off it forever.

Do you think plants can feel pain?
I think so. Maybe.

So, what if it was proven beyond doubt, scientifically, that plants can feel pain? Would you say, fuck it, if I’m causing pain, may as well eat some sausages?
It’s a question of degree. Living is an extremely violent act. We cannot get away from it. The very act of sitting here in this room, using electricity, drinking coffee, using this pen to write on this sheet of paper is a result of a violent acts on Mother Nature. So, we are already sinning, in a sense.

So, it’s all a question of degree.
Yeah. It’s like having a choice between committing a murder and picking someone’s pocket. We’re all criminals, but I’d like to be a lesser criminal.

Are you a dog or cat person?
I love dogs. But my wife doesn’t. Maintenance is also a problem.

If someone made you king for a day, what would you do?
(Looks completely befuddled). I’m not sure I can answer that. It is too complicated. I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll do anything. Maybe I’ll just spend the day with my children.

You’d do nothing? What about all your rage against the machine?
Mostly, I think of things that are sustainable in the long run. Just being king for the day is no use. Somebody will come along and fuck it up the next day.

Do you think it is fair that Hindi is the national language?

What should it be?
English should be the national language. At least everyone can understand it.

There’s another thing I’ve never understood. Maybe you can help me understand. Why do you think all the pictures of Hindu gods look fair and tall? We’re a country of dark-skinned people. How come they don’t have a Ram who is dark with curly hair?
You see, it is just artistic interpretation. That’s all. And I’ll have you know that the pictures also have Krishna and Bheem depicted as dark-skinned.

Bheem was dark-skinned?
Yes. Bheem was a Rakshas. He was also born at night. In the Vedas, people born at night are said to possess nocturnal powers.

Could you elaborate?
According to the scriptures, we are all beings who possess various Gunas. Rajo Gunas, Sato Gunas and Tamo Gunas. Rajas and Tamas are elevated at night. Bheem was born at night, so he had more Tamo Guna. Arjun was born in the evening so he has more Rajo Guna, which is why he is more worldly and Yudhisthir was born during the day, so he has more Sato Guna.

And the rest is artistic interpretation.
Gods and mythology were attuned towards a certain moral teaching. The Gods were larger-than-life, heroic depictions of men. So they had to be exaggerated to a certain extent. So if the writer wanted the reader to like the God and be like him, he had to make him handsome and appealing and make demons ugly and menacing.

But who decides what is beautiful?
Beauty is a cultural construct. The Soundarya Lahiri by Shankracharya does not say fair-skin or dark-skin is beautiful. Beauty is compared to nature. And natural comparisons favour the Aryan depiction.

I see. So, it’s more poetic to say, her lips were ‘like rose petals’ rather than ‘like a lump of coal’…
Exactly. The scriptures do not go into the too much detail over aspects of appearance. The aura, the character, the personality of the person created the character. You could give the same verses to an artist in Nigeria and he would perhaps draw a different Rama or a different Arjun.

What was your last purchase?
Vegetables for home on the way back from work last evening.

Which ones?
Potatoes, onions and … bottle gourd, I think.

What is your proudest moment?
The birth of my son.

Tell us about someone you miss right now.
My mother. She passed away 4 years ago. I think of her a lot.

Thank you for your time Bala.

V Balasubramaniam, or Bala, as he likes to be called, is the Finance Director at W+K.

Interview by Nirmal Pulickal for

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Full-sleeved plaid shirts

There’s this guy I used to work with. He wore plaid full-sleeved shirts, chinos and white keds. Every day. I worked with him for two years and the whole time I never saw him wear anything but plaid full-sleeved shirts, chinos and white keds. How about that? And he was an art director. A good one, at that. He directed fashion shoots, meticulously planning wardrobes for models to portray aspirational lifestyles to sell stereos, cars and herbal remedies.

At the time, I didn’t give it much thought. There were hundreds like him, after all. Nearly every guy you saw coming out of an office building those days in Bangalore wore plaid shirts and chinos. Maybe he doesn’t give a fuck. Or maybe he’s just trying to look normal when everyone around him is… choose your own phrase a) trying break out of the mould b) march to their own beat c) not be one among the herd.

It took me nearly seven years to realize this, but that guy was one of the coolest people I’ve ever known. Because his deliberate lack of style was his style. His startling ordinariness was unpretentious, not self-conscious, rebellious and utterly, simply cool.

I came to this realization as I was pouring through some brochures for some new real estate. You know, the kind that has artist’s impressions of the buildings with little red and blue cars drawn into the parking bays. For good measure, they also throw in some drawings of people walking around. And one of the men sketched by the artist was the spitting image of my old friend, the plaid shirt guy.

So I got thinking. Is ordinariness that bad that everyone has to veer away from it? Sure, it’s boring and it brings to mind images of that Amish family in Witness. But is that such a bad thing? Now I don’t really know too much of the Amish and their exact code, but I’ll tell you something, given a choice between waking up at 4 to feed the cows and waking up at 9 to think of the next engaging ‘big idea’ for a brand of consumer durables (ideally something that my peers in the industry wish they’d thought of), I’d set the alarm for 4 any day. Not that I particularly like cows. They’re the dumbest looking things I’ve ever seen, after chickens. What on earth do you need four stomachs for?

But, of late, I find myself thinking about the Amish way a lot.

I work deep in the cosy recesses of consumer culture. In fact, as I write this on my MacBook Pro, there are 7 files for various clients in various stages of completion cluttering my desktop. There’s a Wallpaper magazine on my table which showcases some of the coolest, best designed objects in the world. Me and the other subscribers to Wallpaper no doubt get a kick out of the fact that we, this brotherhood of aesthetes, have taste. We probably watch Fellini movies, own Smeg fridges and covet Bang & Olufsen radios. If we use a computer, it’ll never be something as common and ugly as a PC. Shudder shudder.

Cool has so many layers of meaning. But cool is an opinion, not fact. And it is my considered opinion that cool stands for not giving a fuck. It’s about rebellion, not being self-conscious, pretentious. Going by that definition, the Amish are cool. Way cooler than that designer on the cover of Wallpaper. Than skanks who carry small dogs and wear oversized sunglasses. Way cooler than Elbow or Bat For Lashes or whoever has the number one video on the MTV charts today.

Now even if I were to wake up at 4 tomorrow I don’t have any cows to milk. And sadly, there are no Amish settlements in the NCR region. So I’m going to do the next best thing, I’m going to buy a full-sleeved plaid shirt.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Blonde. Left of screen. Black top.

‘Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Viacon meeting in five.’

Viacon’s our client, a major mobile phone manufacturer whose latest project meant hawking entry-level phones to the poorest people on the planet. Of course, they wouldn’t say ‘poorest people on the planet’ on the brief. It was always ‘Entry level consumer’ or ‘Base of the pyramid audience’ or something like that. It’s fascinating how they come up with these marketing euphemisms. This is what million dollar marketing men do when they hit the consulting circuit, presumably. I bet there’s a guy out there somewhere who’s living in a castle because he invented the term ‘killer-app’. And I bet he’s American.

But I don’t mind Viacon. As a brand, that is. The only thing going against them is that they’re a bit boring. And their phones are about as trendy as oatmeal. But you can throw a Viacon against a brick wall and it’ll still keep working, know what I mean? I’ve actually seen this shit on youtube. You can do what you like to these little fuckers but they just keep going. But Viacon’s never going to come out and claim that, are they? Run our phones over with a lorry and see.
I don’t think there’s any industry that watches as many youtube videos as ad people. It’s all out there… real people putting up trillions of gigabytes of their own creativity up in a virtual world, giving you a telling insight into what they they think, feel and get off on. A lot of it is absolute shit, of course. But that’s because a lot of the people in the world who know how to work a computer and upload videos are cretins. The larger sub-set of any group of people are cretins, that’s what I believe. You can go into the deepest reaches of Papua New Guinea and find a tribe of cannibals there. Do a survey and you’ll find the assholes to regular guys ratio will always be skewed in favour of the assholes.

In the marketing world, as you’d expect, this ratio is a lot higher. I’ve always wondered what makes a guy enter a profession like marketing. More often than not, it’s because he didn’t have the grades at MBA school to get into something more lucrative, like Investment Banking. I know a guy from way back who’s in this racket. We went to school together. Regular fellow. Never an entertainer but a conscientious, sincere sort of species. Always scored in the high eighties, if not nineties. Went to engineering college and to an IIM (which makes him an alpha male in the arranged marriage market, coincidentally) and because his grades were good, fell into banking.

Five years later, he’s quit banking for a job at Turone, peddling coconut oil in B-towns, because it was more ‘exciting’. Exciting? Lingerie models with breathy voices are exciting. Car chases are exciting. Even stock market speculation is exciting. Marketing? What the fuck?
Anyway so this guy gets into Turone, attends all his dipstick sessions, rural immersions, focus groups and sales talks and he’s hooked. Seriously, he’s hooked. That’s what he tells me. His job takes him to different hole-in-the-wall stores along the highway and see if they’re stocking his coconut oil, talk to the traders and customers and submit his assessment. Ditchwater is stupendously more exciting, if you ask me. Crazy bastard. But you never know. He could be immortalized once he hits the consulting circuit.

The Viacon session is in progress. There’s a slide explaining what first time consumers are. Not the teenager in London whose Mum gets her a first phone on her fourteenth birthday. It’s financially constrained consumers in developing markets. There’s an image of a Guatemalan farmer carrying a bunch of bananas. It’s a nice photograph. It’s not cheesy, in a stock image way. But, because an amateur took it, shows no deliberate framing, or filters or a faux-realitsic dramatic moment. Just a man carrying a bunch of bananas, broadly grinning at the camera, like he was told to. Very family album. Right, so he’s the man we’re talking to. We pore through an interminably dull succession of slides detailing in several neat bullet points, targets and objectives.

The meeting is a three-way video conference call, with London, Shanghai and Finland staring each other to talk shit. Sorry, that’s four-way. We’re looking at the people in the London office. They look bored shitless but being Brits, put on a brave one and adjust themselves from time to time and pretend to look enthralled. I try to amuse myself by focusing on the hottest one in the screen. A skinny blonde. Stylish. Nice legs. Her skirt kept riding up. Text from Imran, a junior art director. ‘Blonde. Left of screen. Black top’, I give him an ‘I know' smile. Imran’s a horn-dog. He has an unbelievable stash of porn on his hard drive. She’s nice, in a neat sort of way. She also looks like she wears kinky knickers. Or maybe I watch too much porn. This fucking meeting. When will it end?

I catch sight of Hugh. He’s an Australian who joined us two months ago. Batshit crazy. Take my word for it. But all the same, he made life interesting, so it was always fun to have him around. Among other things, Hugh always carries a black marker on his person. He uses this to draw on himself. Sometimes it’s a ring of thorns, or a silly star. Otherwise it’s notes and ‘ideas’ that strike him unexpectedly. And it’s weird, because, if you actually read the notes he’s made on himself, it’s the most pointless stuff. Like, in the meeting, if they said ‘We’d like to sell jars of oyster jam as an aphrodisiac to the native people of Nagaland using a funnel-down marketing approach’, he’d write ‘funnel-down’ on his fore-arm. He’d pick the most irrelevant, stupid part of the discussion and inscribe it on skin. Like I said, batshit crazy.

I looked at Hugh. I gestured at the account man talking and rolled my eyes towards Hugh, like I was dying. Hugh makes a vigourous wank gesture with his hand. In the London office, an elderly planner catches sight of this on camera and smiles. Nobody pays any attention. Now, they’re playing a video. Somebody in the office went to South America and lived in a ghetto for like, a month or something, to research the consumer. I’m impressed. Camera shows us the shantytown and its people. It’s pretty deplorable standards of living, even seen through Indian eyes. Makes you sick to think that we’re trying to make money off these people. I point that out to the assembly.
There’s a grave silence. People look sombre. Some angry that I brought it up. Others merely chewing on that. Finally someone speaks up.

‘It’s not like we’re trying to sell them an XBOX, are we?’ Darren says. That’s true. It’s a phone, not Kalashnikovs for crying out loud. Jeez, when did I become such an activist? I am ashamed of myself. I vacillate between unashamed capitalism and occasional tree-hugging.

Everybody’s woken up now and there’s a lot of insights and personal experiences on the table. I’ve prolonged the meeting. Imran and a couple of others are eyeballing me. Sorry, I was just trying to stay awake.

Meanwhile Hugh’s at it with the marker. He’s sketched a dotted line across his throat to show he’d dead bored and has now commenced work on a line of black tears coming out of the corner of his left eye. I hope that shit washes off.

At first we thought the eccentricity was an act. See, the thing about advertising, the thing that ties all of us together, is that, at some point of time, almost all of us have considered ourselves failed artists. Or as whores who’ve sold our souls. Some of us who aren’t actually mad, like to fake it from time to time, to show we’re wrestling with our demons. There was this one Creative Director I knew, who made it a point to turn almost every social situation into a hostile situation. The thing is, deep down, he was a regular, harmless sort of chap but somewhere along the line, he decided to mould himself into a maverick.

And here’s the rub. It worked.

People actually gave him a wide berth, attributed it to his creative genius. There was this one story of him yelling his head off at some poor suit in the hallway because he had the temerity to address him by his first name. But those of us who knew him, knew it was a fa├žade.

Hugh wasn’t putting on an act, as far as anyone could see. The poor bastard really was bonkers. He once asked me for directions to the dentist. I draw out a map for him on a piece of paper. Fairly simple. It was left, left, right and left. 5 hours later he comes back to the office.

‘Woah man I saw the planes take off from this close… it was awesome’

‘How did the dentist thing go?’

‘Didn’t go. Couldn’t find it’

‘Dude it was simple …left, left, right and left… where’d you go wrong?’

‘Well, at the first turn, instead of left, I took a right’

‘By mistake?’

‘No. Right just looked more interesting’

He sat through this one pitch meeting selecting ringtones on his phone. It was fucking hilarious. Sadly, he was asked to leave shortly. For a fortnight after that, everybody in office was real nervous whether Hugh would get his hands on a gun and pull a Columbine on us. He didn’t. So on second thoughts, it may have been an act.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Juno MacGuff and Ferris Bueller

I was watching a re-run of Juno on the television last week when I realized that Juno, apart from being a well-written screenplay, can claim another of the hallmarks of great writing. The naming of characters. Juno MacGuff hits the bullseye. You know, when you hear the name, that you’re onto something. Now I don’t have a degree in Advanced Phonetics, but what does it for me is not the associated meaning of the name, rather than the sound of the name. How it reverberates in your skull. Some names just have a ring to them. Dickens has his detractors but nobody can deny that he was simply a genius when it came to character names. Consider Uriah Heep, Pip, Samuel Pickett, Fagin, Oliver Twist – each one etches itself into history. Call him what you will but Dickens was the Master of Nomenclature. While at it, I decided to, compile a list of my favourite character names. Character names, not to be confused with characters.

In no particular order

Juno MacGuff
, from Juno
Scout/ Boo Radley/ Atticus Finch, from To Kill A Mockingbird
Holly Golightly, from Breakfast at Tiffanys
Holden Caulfield, from Catcher in The Rye
Milo Minderbinder/ Major Major/ John Yossarian from Catch 22
Lennie Small, from Of Mice And Men
Ferris Bueller, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Captain Jack Sparrow, from Pirates Of The Caribbean
Lemony Snickets, from A Series of Unfortunate Events
Optimus Prime, from The Transformers
Uriah Heep, from David Copperfield
Bill Sikes, from Oliver Twist
Buzz Meeks, from The Big Nowhere
James Bond, from Casino Royale
Samuel Pickwick, from Pickwick Papers
Pip (Phillip Pirrip), from Great Expectations
Oliver Twist, from Oliver Twist
Phillip Marlowe, from The Big Sleep
Shylock, from Merchant Of Venice
Huckleberry Finn, from Huckleberry Finn
Jay Gatsby, from The Great Gatsby
John Constantine, from the Hellblazer comics
Jimmy The Saint/ Critical Bill from Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead
Anakin Skywalker, from Star Wars
Morticia/ Uncle Fester/ Gomez/ Wednesday/ Thing from Addams Family
Caliban, from Tempest
Howard Roark, from Fountainhead
Jack Carter, from Get Carter
Sancho Panza, from Don Quixote
Ponyboy, from the Outsiders
Hawkeye, from Last Of The Mohicans
Bertram Wilburforce Wooster, from the Jeeves stories
Mufasa, from Lion King
Santiago from Old Man And The Sea
Marcellus Wallace, from Pulp Fiction
Cap Rountree, from The Daybreakers
Jubal Sackett, from Jubal Sackett

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Masochist’s Guide To The Himalayas

There are some things you can never get used to, no matter how many times you go through them. Hernia tests and enemas leap to mind immediately. Being body searched by security guards at hotels, airports and malls would also figure. But the Delhi summer takes the cake.

So, when I planned a weekend trip out I wanted to go to the coldest place possible in the minimum possible time. Kasauli was my first choice, seeing as I also had a secondary agenda of doing a spot of birding. However, my favourite hotel was booked up (they only have 8 rooms) and it just seemed a pity to stay elsewhere. So I decided to stray from the trodden path and try someplace new. Chail was suggested. They have a palace (the Maharaja of Patiala’s) which was recently converted by the government into a hotel. Sweet.

Of course, being Govt run, they took every step to ensure that it was impossible to make a booking. They have a marketing office in Delhi, some drunken attendant informed me. It was in goddamn Janpath and there was no way I was going all the way to CP to book a room. Then they tell me they offer internet booking, but turns out you need to have a credit card from some moth-eaten bank like Vijaya Bank or something like that.

By now, I found a fellow traveler in George, an old mate of mine (who’s into birding as well) who was only too eager to get out of Delhi. George is one of those guys who lets life happen to him, so making bookings was out of the question anyway.

‘Worse case, we’ll sleep in the car’.

With those reassuring words, we set out to Chail. By road. Because going by air to Shimla would be too wimpy. I was ok with wimpy, to tell you the truth, but masochism runs deep in George Koshy. What the hell, I figured, let’s take the car. Let’s just get out of this fucking place.

We set out at high noon because that’s what 'The Masochist’s Guide To The Himalayas’ recommended. Sun beating down, we floored the accelerator and went past Pragati Maidan, past Murthal, past Karnal headed for the blue hills in the distance. Somewhere along the way we came across this shithole called Zirakpur. I have to tell you about Zirakpur. See, I think Zirakpur is the original blueprint on which they built Vasant Kunj. It is the one spot along the highway when one must keep sharp objects out of sight because you just might be overwhelmed by a desire to kill yourself. It’s like someone took a grey canvas, rubbed some dirt on it and designed various 3 dimensional shapes that suggested that you should immediately consider suicide. That’s Zirakpur. Boggles the mind.

Doing good time, we went past Chandigarh and made it to a decrepit town called Kalka at sunset. Great, we were in the hills and I felt better already. The first sign that you’re in Himachal are the vendors on the side who sell meat pickle. We came across a string of these with colourful signs advertising small hotels and their assortment of vinegar-soaked bottles. Bakra, Murga, Mushroom and there was even a Chana version.

We reached Chail late. Around 10, I think. I tried to keep optimistic even as I counted like, a hundred resorts along the way. This reminded me of Ooty, which, as anyone from Bangalore will tell you is only enjoyable after irresponsible use of drugs. We followed the signs to the Maharajah’s Palace. There’s an interesting story behind it. Maharajah Bhupinder Singh was a monarch who followed the long-instituted tradition of rabid horniness, and as myth would have it, would nail just about anything in a skirt. One of the contents of the skirt in question, happened to be Lord Kitchener’s daughter. Kitchener was the commander-in-chief of the British Army at the time. One thing lead to another and Bhupinder Singh found himself banished from Shimla for life. His ego bruised, he decided to build a summer palace atop an adjoining hill which was even better than Shimla. And that’s how Chail got started.

Sorry sir, we're all booked up. Do you know what time it is? Well, we do have one room…

The Princess fuckin Suite!

They had all this ornate filigree and embroidery stuff going and the place was practically draped in velvet. Anything that could be upholstered in velvet was and there was enough chintz to fill two godowns.

Were they serious? Once we stitched our split sides back together, I said ‘No.’ and asked him to point the way to the bar. If I was going to sleep in the car, may as well get shitfaced first.

The bar’s alright. In an old Victorian kind of way. They probably had tiger heads mounted on the wall before some greedy IAS officer got his grubby hands on them. There’s an old chap with a classic soup-strainer moustache who bows in a dignified manner. He’s the bartender. He was almost too respectable looking. But once we get a step closer, we see he’s not so dignified after all. The old goat was as pickled as the bakra on the highway. That’ll be two rums, please. And fix us another two as a repeat while you’re at it. A half hour later, the two of us walk into the restaurant well braced to find we’re just in time for the last order. There was some kind of meat preparation. And biryani too, I think. A decidedly forgettable experience.

We escape from the Palace around half past midnight. Now we need to get a place to sleep. Down the road, just a couple of hundred yards down, there’s a couple of hotels. Lucky us. We bang the door of the first. No response. The other one is just down the road. It’s called Cedaar. That’s not a typo. It has two a’s in it. The man lets us in. He has some rooms. 1200 a night. We get our bags and its lights out.

4.30 in the a.m., I’m up. Thunder. It’s raining like a bastard outside. I take a look around the room for the first time. Oh boy. I’m saving my exaggeration for later because I’ve got pictures of this place. You take a look and decide for yourself.

They had these ludicrous pictures of little children dressed like church-going old people giving each other the glad eye. The sort you see in dentist’s waiting rooms. I popped two Alka-Seltzers and woke George up. Dude you got to see this place we’ve gone and booked.

The velvet blanket itself deserved a place in the Kitsch Hall Of Fame. What is it with this place and velvet?

Let’s go back to the Palace, they’ve probably got breakfast there. I mean, it’s a hotel. But the Palace is closed until 8 am, a bored government guy tells us. Fuck this. Fuck Chail. Let’s just keep driving and maybe we’ll come across some other town where they’re not crazy for velvet. We head for Kufri, which is even higher up in the mountains. It’s going to be colder, for one thing.

There was the smell of pine in the air and the drive was something else. We kept going for a couple of hours till we hit Kufri. Another place done in by the tourist trade. There was rubbish all around and the whole place smelled like a stable. More horses than people. Not like Cowboys and Indians kind of horses. Just raggedy looking ponies used to take fat Punjabi tourists around the hill and show them pockets of snow. Yes, it snows in Kufri. In the winter. Screw this. Let’s keep driving man. We’d heard there was an Oberoi property around here somewhere. But we were delusional. By this time, I was crazy hungry. I had eaten hardly anything the night before and barely a few hours sleep. I kept having visions of clean cutlery and fried bacon strips beside a bed of sunny-side ups.

Then, out of the blue, it emerged. Wildflower Hall. I swear I heard the Carmina Burana play in my head. It appeared like a hallucination. A Disneyesque faux-Scottish manor with spires and meticulously maintained lawns. You may call it corny but not from where we were sitting.

I think they might have bacon here, I tell George.

Ten minutes later, we’re looking at a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, marmalade.

Thank you Jesus.

They are not accustomed to walk-ins but they’ll see what they can do for us. Do you have a hiking trails? Yes. Mountain bikes? Yes. We even have archery, Sir. That did it. The hell with roughing it. I’m not leaving this place and its nice people and its nice bacon.

Anybody who’s reading this, just go to the hills. You don’t have to drive down and see Zirakpur en route. Take a flight to Shimla. Get a cab. And go to Wildflower Hall. You will be happy. You will be poorer. But you will be happy.

Their hiking trails aren’t really infested with bears and snow leopards. More of a pleasant walk through pine forests through a picket fence gate and fallen acorns.
With gourmet pizza from the restaurant packed for the trail. We spotted several birds. Well, just two, to tell you the truth. Three, if you count that ugly-ass Egyptian Vulture we saw circling above the lawn.

Just before I dropped George off, he suggested we do Ladakh next. I wonder if they have a Taj there.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A critique of IPL team insignia

Now that the IPL has everyone in India in thrall and the league is officially considered the holy grail of Indian television, it's near impossible to avoid seeing one of these emblems during the course of your day. Either as a web banner or out in the street or on tv. Overall, I think they appear to be bad knock-offs of NBA logos with even sillier names. Chennai Super Kings? Who was on that brainstorming session? An autorickshaw driver and a 6-year old? Kolkata Knight Riders brings to mind images of David Hasselhoff in leather. Which is not a good thing. Here's my first impressions on the IPL logos.

What is this? A brand of cement?

You know those weird Israeli backpackers you meet at places like Dharamshala who seem like a walking conservatory for lice and bedbugs? Ever ask them what they do for a living? 9 out of 10 will tell you they're into graphic design. Which explains all those vomity looking orange, marijuana leaf t-shirts in Goa flea markets. And this.

Mallya. That says it all. The King Of Trashy. It says nothing about sport, nothing about Bangalore. All it says is that the team is owned by a bootlegger who wants to peddle his vile brand of lowest-common-denominator whiskey.

Dumbest name of them all. Corny patriotism. And a logo that looks like a jalebi set on fire.

Oooh look, they have a shield. And check out the lions' expressions. They look like somebody's giving them a boiling hot-oil enema. Crude, but in a strange way it represents the Punjabi attitude perfectly.

Gay bar sign. Or a symbol for a man-whore bordello. Everything about this team is a laugh. From the gallery of bimbos in large sunglasses to the multiple-captain policy.
Have you heard that one? They have a toss captain, apparently. He's captain of the team for 5 minutes when he has to say either 'Heads' or 'Tails'. Massive responsibility on his shoulders. I bet he gets a lot of respect in the dressing room. Shut up everyone, the Toss Captain's here. You there, look sharp! Crap team with the crap name. The only name that's more apt is 'Kolkata Knob Jockeys'

Not offensive, but boring nevertheless.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Over to you, Shah Rukh.

Aspirational. Being in advertising, I come across this word about 17 million times a day. Marketing analysis usually begins with the target audience. If the target audience is SEC B or below (marketing jargon for ‘poor people’) as a marketing man you can almost never go wrong with the ‘aspirational’ tag.

It’s a bunch of horseshit, really. All human beings are aspirational. That’s why we don’t forage for food or live in mud huts anymore. From the tuxedo wearing duke to the humblest peasant in Bihar, we are all aspirational. We just have different aspirations, that’s all.

There was a time, way back, when along with the basic aspiration towards well-being and material goods, aspiration also meant refinement, culture. Moving up in life meant appreciating better things in life. All Kings and Emperors will bear testimony to that. The more advanced the civilization, the more advanced their poetry, music and the arts.

India has made its contribution towards world culture and the arts. Architecture, paintings, handicraft, poetry, cuisines, textiles, fine embroidery, dance forms, music.

But consumerism came and changed all that.

Refinement made way for crass materialism. Look at the richest homes in Delhi and Bombay and you’ll see fat men in Charagh Din shirts eating pan, getting drunk, picking fights and screwing Uzbek hookers. It’s a caricature, but if you’ve lived in any of these cities long enough, you’ll know it’s not too far from the truth.

This is what pisses me off about India. Where has the refinement gone?

A couple of weeks back, I had to pay a village visit to somewhere near Rewari, a ‘rural immersion’ as they call it in the trade, to better understand the class of consumer we were hawking cheap phones to.

We went there along with a bunch of visitors from abroad, who, like most foreigners, were gushing over the ‘simplicity’ and the ‘warmth’ of the villagers even as their digital cameras were being yanked and a collection of yokels tried to cop a feel of the ‘gori’. “They’re so happy” “It’s beautiful”.

For the most part, I sat in my car and read Salim Ali’s Book Of Birds.

The place made me angry. Call me cynical, but here’s what I saw. A squalid shithole with a collection of half-literate, inbred losers who spat and slapped and shat in the streets. They stared at women like they’d never seen them in their lives (which was probably the case). There was a stream of raw, untreated sewage flowing through the centre of the village. There was rubbish everywhere – used condoms, sanitary pads among them. There was a school in an open courtyard where rows of small children baked in the sun, their hair faded golden through photon-induced chemical damage. The next generation of spitting, grabbing sexually frustrated yokels being raised.

What’s so fucking beautiful?

Is it just me? Or is it really this halcyon, idyllic hamlet where rainbows appear from nowhere and butterflies sit on your shoulder?

It’s easy to dismiss me as a crusty cynic. But I think it’s a case of the emperor’s new clothes. Us cynics can see that the emperor’s really a nudist.

It’s nothing to do with the government. It’s to do with the people.

To cite an example, villages in Kerala aren’t shitholes. And their government is filled with the most number of assholes south of the Vindhyas.

I have never, ever seen a person shit on the road in Kerala.

Everyone, even the poorest of the poor are clean.

So why is it that the villagers in Kerala are clean and civilized and those in U.P. are so crappy?

I think it’s down to role models. Again, it's about aspiration. You aspire towards what you idolize. Kerala, historically, has known relative peace. It allowed the arts and culture to prosper. Great strides were made in refinement. With the King being the ultimate aspirational figure, the people mould themselves in their form. Just like the people of Britain mould themselves in the form of the Royal family.

What happened in the North then? They had kings and culture here too. What went wrong? I’m not too sure really. I’m just attempting armchair anthropology here but I think it has something to do with the feudal system.

Sure, Kerala was feudal as well but vassals were respected and treated as allies. In the North, the zamindars were a particularly cruel lot. They treated landless peasants worse than cattle. And the peasants, intimidated and defeated, considered it their lot. It’s all karma. They didn’t rebel. They accepted it. They accepted the fact that they were cattle.

Aravind Adiga, author of Booker-Prize winning White Tiger, speaks out his mind why he wrote the novel: “… I wanted to challenge this idea that India is the world’s greatest democracy. It may be so in an objective sense, but on the ground, the poor have such little power… I wanted something that would provoke and annoy people …The servant-master system implies two things: One is that the servants are far poorer than the rich—a servant has no possibility of ever catching up to the master. And secondly, he has access to the master—the master’s money, the master’s physical person. Yet crime rates in India are very low… What is stopping a poor man from taking to the crime that occurs in Venezuela or South Africa? You need two things [for crime to occur]—a divide and a conscious ideology of resentment. We don’t have resentment in India. The poor just assume that the rich are a fact of life. For them, getting angry at the rich is like getting angry at the heat…But I think we’re seeing what I believe is a class-based resentment for the first time…”

This is my hypothesis. Master slaps landless peasant, puts him in his place, tells him he is scum, his children are scum, his entire family are scum. Instead of rebellion, he accepts the fact that he is scum.

What happened in ancient Northern India is barbaric. Fuck Lagaan. Fuck the romanticised versions we see in films of village beauties carrying pots of water. The village system in the North is a sub-human existence, robbing people of their dignity and based on schadenfreude.

This lack of refinement is not just in the villages. It permeates through all levels of society in India. Just flick through the channels on Indian tv and you'll see what I mean.

What's the solution?

Apart from the obvious solution of better government and policy making, I think we also need better role models.

Their parents, who ought to be their role models, have failed.

The big men about town are pan-eating Bania businessmen.

The politicians? Don't make me laugh.

So what’s it down to?

You're not going to believe this, but it's

show biz.

What else is there?

(Read Marina Hyde's story on celebrities in the Guardian for further elaboration).

The film stars and cricketers, whom the public idolize, need to fill that role, that parents and leaders and village elders cannot fill. In today’s scenario, the world is putty in their hands. They have the power to shape world culture.

And that’s the sad truth.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Brick, please

Valentine’s Day is a disease that afflicts stupid, unimaginative people who can think up no other means of expressing emotion than to purchase mass-produced cards and stuffed toys. And don’t even bring up the age thing here. I was a teenager once, you know. But I wasn’t braindead. Just thinking of how much press and money this stupid festival generates every year makes me want to vomit. I’m not really with the Fascists who throw stones at shops but if there’s anyone out there looking for a brick to hurl through an Archies Store window, I’ll only be too happy to hand it to him. What is it? Maybe it’s some sort of strange reverse-Darwinian phenomena to ensure weaker, dumber gene pool degenerates. What surprises me is that there’s so many of them. I’ve seen grown men buy overpriced bouquets and stuffed toys like their lives depended on it. People take leave for Valentine’s Day. Fuck me, what sort of manager accepts that leave application? And I’ve noticed the further out into the hinterland you go, the greater the obsession is. I had to sign some papers at my CA’s office today and it happened to be in some godforsaken wasteland called Sohna Road. The malls en route seemed to be decked with this pink effluence. I think it’s some weird bhenji/ vern fixation. It’s the Bhenji’s first step towards ‘English sophistication’, so to speak. She’s already got the fake Adidas jacket and the Hello Kitty backpack. She probably watches Roadies on MTV (one of the most tasteless and annoying TV reality shows ever invented). So Feb 14 is natural progression. Not to get classist or anything. I mean Bhenji is probably too broad a term and I apologise to any intelligent Bhenjis I may have included. But you know what I mean. I merely use the term Bhenji because ‘thick, socially challenged cretins’ was a bit of a mouthful. So if you see any Raj Thackaray or Sri Ram Nene hoodlums trashing lovers with stuffed hearts, please don’t report it. Walk away. They deserve it.

Monday, February 09, 2009

I wonder if the city supplement pages of other cities are as funny as this

I had to kill some time at the office foyer today so I picked up the only papers available there, the city supplements of TOI and HT. I think I’ve tapped into a rich vein of satire eclipsed only by the back issues of Bean-O and The Straits Times. Here are some excerpts:

In today’s HT

The Hairdresser’s Association of Mumbai is miffed with the usage of the word ‘barber’ in the title of the Shah Rukh Khan’s film ‘Billu Barber’. The president of the association, Uday Takke has sent a letter to the press saying, “Barber ki jagah Hairdresser hona chahiye. Ye humari beizzatti hai”

They have a column where people write in to Anupam Kher with their personal problems seeking advice. Anupam Kher.

Delhi Times

Front page story:
Bebo says she cannot be with Saif on Valentine’s Day.

Why do Delhi men go to parties alone? The secret is out!

Starlet Asin says she has no time for boys because she reads books. “I used to have a huge library at home. Even today I just can’t do without a book”

Asif Adil, MD of Diageo India said at the launch of his new brand “It’s a pleasure to be able to nurture Delhi’s blossoming love affair with all things luxurious”

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Boom de ya da Boom de ya da

It's just a stupid montage + jingle. The oldest trick in the book, some would say, but it's got my vote for the best commercial of 2008.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Hindu Nationalist New Year Cards

(via tasveerghar)

Vikram Aditya New Year Greeting Card (painted by Chitrapal), 1990s (The text on top left says "Vikrami Samvat - nav varsh - abhinandan" (Greetings for the New Vikrami Samvat Year)

The Ideal Devotee. New Year Card, Delhi, 1992

Ram as leader of a revolutionary people’s awakening movement. (1990s)

A New Year greeting card depicting Mother India and a devout son of the soil worshipping her. 1990s (Hindi text at bottom: Jeevan pushp chadhane nikley - offering one's flower-like life...).

Have a nuclear Diwali. Diwali Greeting Card for the year 1998/99, depicting the Hindu pride in India's nuclear tests.

This card shows (from top left to right, bottom left to the right): King Rana Pratap from Rajasthan, Subhas Chandra Bose, Marathi king Shivaji, Bhagat Singh, RSS founder KB Hedgewar and Chandrashekar Azad. A sticker of the proposed Ram Temple at Ayodhya, promoting the Ram Janmabhoomi Hindu March for Unity organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad is added at the bottom right.

Saraswati, the goddess of learning and arts, leads the caravan of Nationalist icons, including recent luminaries such as Gandhi, Swami Vivekanand, and even Bhagat Singh!

"Arise, let’s confront the challenge" announces this card, urging the people to fight against foreign elements such as Muslims, Christians, MNCs, corruption, cow-slaughter and so on. Issued by Lok Jagran Abhiyan, Uttar Pradesh.

Mother India calling her sons to fight against capitalism, Islam and Christian missionary activities. (early 1990s) Check out the symbols on the snakes the lion is trampling upon.

I’m not a big fan of Arundhati Roy’s. Her public persona can be best described as ‘finger-waving raving psychotic’. Nevertheless, her recent article in the Guardian does raise a few interesting points. Her main point is that our problems are our own doing. While we berate the Pakis to shut down LeT, corporate India embraces Modi, one of the main perpetrators of the genocide in Gujarat. The RSS, a Hindu-supremacist organization, has 45,000 branches and 7 million volunteers preaching its doctrine of hate across India.

Don’t you wish all these religious nuts would get a room and fight it out among themselves? Unfortunately, they have and that room happens to be my country. Dear people, if you’re reading this, I know I’ve blocked pop-ups and banners on this blog, but just this once, if you like, you can insert an ad for a sleazy Canada Immigration lawyer here. Throw in a couple of pop-ups as well.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Movie review: Burn After Reading

Not my favourite Clooney film. Nor for that matter one of my favourite Coen brothers’ projects, but Burn After Reading is, by my rating, thoroughly watchable. A satire baed on the CIA and spy flicks, Burn After Reading features an impressive cast and the usual magical visual touch that the Coens bring with them. The humour is sophisticated, sadistic. Brad Pitt plays another memorable cameo as a half-witted gym rat while Malkovich dazzles as an alcoholic ex-CIA man. It's a wry, roller-coaster of plot, with a string of coincidences and laugh-out loud sketches. My favourite is the one where Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt walk into the Russian embassy and ask to see their main man. As a philandering Treasury agent, Clooney plays a grinning, buffoon version of his otherwise suave self. It’s almost as if the Coen’s decided to make a film with Pitt and Clooney and sat and worked out what part of their real-life personalities is worth ripping into. As a result, their characters, caricatures as they are, are so believable that you find yourself musing ‘If they weren’t million dollar actors, they could be these guys, couldn’t they?’ As a son of a Kentucky politician, a compulsive charmer and laugh riot, I can easily see Clooney in real life as the adulterous Treasury agent. Same goes for Brad Pitt. Minus a few lucky breaks, Brad Pitt could very well be the empty-headed gym instructor, the Coens portray him to be. Pure genius. Go watch it, if you can. If you live in Delhi or Gurgaon, I don’t think you’ll have any trouble finding tickets. In the multiplex I went to watch it, there couldn’t have been more than 20 filled seats. 10 of whom were there probably because they didn’t get tickets to Dostana. And this was an opening weekend. Speaks volumes for the kind of crowd multiplexes in Gurgaon attract. If it was Bangalore, I found myself boasting to the wife, I’m willing to bet, there would been just a few seats to spare. Perhaps I’m being overly nostalgic and optimistic about Bangalore. The Kannadigas would probably have picketed the theatre because the parking lot signs in Kannada weren’t as big as the English ones.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


Haven't heard psychobabble in a while. Not since I escaped from that playwriting workshop anyway. So when somebody sent me this clip from arthouse favourite 'My Dinner With Andre' it took me back to a time when I used to hang with people who thought Jonathan Livingstone Seagull was cool.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Simplicity doesn't mean crappy

I came across this beautiful bronze 1 anna coin today. Dated 1944, Designed by the British.
Contrast this to the crappy looking 1 rupee coin in my pocket. Dated 2008, Designed by famed design school NID, I'm told. Granted, the design of those days was far more decorative and thus tend to appear more aesthetic when compared to modern coins which are more functional. But modern doesn't necessarily have to mean soulless, as this new 5 Euro coin shows us.