Sunday, November 20, 2011

Buy it, bag it, use it, trash it

Most places in India now have an outright ban on very thin plastic bags and require stores to charge for any plastic carry bags they hand out to customers. I think this is a good move for the environment in general, and most definitely a fine way to promote reuse.

Economics indicate that explicitly charging customers, even a small amount (like Re.1 to Rs. 3 per bag based on size, which seems to be the common going rate) makes customers that much more conscious, making them refuse bags for small purchases, bring their own bags and be more amenable to stuffing more items in a lesser number of bags.

This bag charge is manna for retailers – it allows them to charge for what was previously an overhead, and if customers bring their own bags, even better: no expense at all. But I haven’t observed any of the big grocery retailers change their policies or processes to *reduce* usage of plastic in any visible way. After all, the bags we carry out the groceries in aren’t the only plastic bags we carry. Most produce is carried out by people in (smaller, transparent) plastic bags too.

But the fact is, it isn’t strictly necessary for dry produce (potatoes, onions, most fruits) to be bought this way. All of it can go into one big cloth bag and taken home. That’s what we did at the subzi mandi before all this fancy corporate retail boom anyway.

However, you can’t just throw a few bananas and a couple of apples into your shopping cart and waltz over to the express checkout. No siree, not in India. Instead of consolidating the weighing and scanning at one place at checkout, you have to do this odd double dance: you put all your produce items in transparent plastic bags and take them to a weighing station, where an attendant weighs each item and seals the bag with a bar code sticker. Then the check-out cashier scans these barcodes and rings you up.

I’m still confused. Does this comply with the law or not? I think it does, in the letter of the law. However, in spirit, it most definitely doesn’t. I, like many other people, do not want to carry fruits like bananas or apples or a few potatoes in a separate sealed plastic bag only to go home, open the bag and store them in a fruit bowl or a pantry shelf. The bags are effectively useless for me, and the only reason I’m forced to use them is the process some of these stores have imposed. The effective usefulness of the bag is 10 minutes: from weighing station to checkout counter.

At first, I thought it may be a cost concern, that maybe the weighing system is more expensive, or maybe weighing + scanning takes longer, causing line backups. But I find that hard to believe, since there are other stores where weighing at checkout time seems to work fine. Line backups are mostly due to inefficient systems and unskilled cashiers anyway.

I like to give these system designers the benefit of the doubt, but sometimes only the Obelix response seems to make sense. These Romans are crazy!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Bell Curve of Apathy

An interesting sidelight to my previous post on poor customer service in India.

Among places where service is key, restaurants rank quite high up (next only to airlines and hotels), and this problem of indifferent customer service is quite acute there, resulting in what I call “The Bell Curve of Apathy” for restaurants:

Service staff apathy, plotted against price, follows a Bell curve.

You eat at cheap Udipis and the random “Restaurants named Sagar” around Bangalore* and the service is remarkably good. Agreed, your expectations may be lower. But the tables and plates are clean, everything on the menu is mostly available. You are served water quickly, and the glass is unobtrusively replenished before it’s ever empty. Special orders are never a serious constraint. Catching a waiter’s eye for a quick follow-up order isn’t hard.

As you move up the chain to the middle range (say, between Rs. 250-500 a pop in Bangalore), things actually start degrading. Again, I wonder if it’s adopting western models which causes this. After you’re seated, since this is a “sophisticated” place, no one shows up for a while. Then someone drops off menus and disappears. You’re now 10 minutes in, coming out of fairly warm weather, and no one’s asked you about water/drinks yet. This is around the time I start missing those Udipis where they’ll plonk down a steel glass with water within a minute of your taking a seat.

Remarkably for a business which makes its best margins on drinks, alcoholic or otherwise, this pattern persists through the meal. You are asked if you want bottled water, but when the meal is ending, you’re never asked if you’d like another bottle, though the three bottles on the table are all empty. If you order a juice or a milkshake or a cocktail, no one ever asks if you want a refill. I’ve rarely had a waiter swing by mid-meal to check on the food, and yes, this is becoming a recurring theme now, top up my water glass.

Once you move up the price bracket though, these problems mostly go away. I’ve been impressed with the top-notch service in the expensive restaurants I’ve been to. I guess it’s true then. The rich are not like you and me. They’re treated better, so who would disagree?

*Bangalore has a remarkably high number of restaurants named Shanthi Sagar, Sukh Sagar or variants thereof. My guess is that some of these are part of a local chain.

Customer Disservice

The one thing that any returnee expat will invariably encounter is the abysmal quality of customer service on offer in India. 

I’m not what you’d call an unreasonable customer. My expectations are simple: competence, and “do what you say you will”. Yet, notable exceptions aside (Citibank, Tata Sky), no one seems capable of getting the simplest things right.

I’m not the only one seeing this. I’ve had other people, both expats and otherwise, say the same thing. But there’s also this “whatodo, it’s like this only” attitude, especially since there’s really no choice. It’s been a recurring theme in my discussions about my “India Experience”.

I think the reason that it especially gets to us returnees is simple: you are used to better, and importantly, this is not something that you can be prepared for. You gear yourself for the traffic, the noise, the heat, even “IST”. Those are things that you were accustomed to when you left, albeit at a different scale. Those are supposedly the “India challenges” you were expected to negotiate on returning.

But in the interregnum between my flight out almost a decade back and my return last year, urban India’s retail and service environment has undergone a transformation. The arrival of corporate entities has changed buying patterns in all sorts of categories. From daily staples to home appliances to cable TV, you are probably talking to a “customer service representative”. He’s likely employed by a franchisee who owns multiple such stores across the city.

What this means simply is that there’s no “skin in the game” for anyone serving you anymore. Earlier, buying something meant going to a store that was likely manned by the family owning it. If a promise (home delivery, setup, callback when the item was in stock) was made, it was made by someone who had a direct financial stake in your satisfaction and an outcome that made you a repeat customer. If it wasn’t a family member, the person helping you was still competent since he’d probably been with the business for years.

This isn’t some level of nostalgia: go to old school bookstores like the ones in Appa Balwant Chowk in Pune, or the electronics market around S.P. Road in Bangalore, or (personal favorite) Blossom Books in Bangalore. You still have competent staff who understand their inventory, and are invested in trying to make you happy.

The new lot are making up numbers. They are impossibly young most of the time, probably finishing up college and earning some dough on the side.

They are more than happy to make you a promise to close a sale, but at some point, the system takes it out of their hands, and the guy in charge of delivery doesn’t care for the ‘special instruction’ that helped seal the deal. The customer service guy on the phone is probably in a call center in Gurgaon, so trying to close the loop on a sale with the people who initiated it is well nigh impossible. You are now a service request in a queue, a football bouncing across CRM systems, routed through data centers managed by a third entity.

Your ‘feedback’, commonly a phone call, or your reply to a text message follow-up goes into some kind of ether, and has no direct relation to the service you were provided. It’s not surprising, really: in a market with so much growth, customer service is an afterthought. Why bother? There are plenty more where we came from.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The secret life of the clergy

Re-posting an earlier review of this film with edits as a submission for the Reel-life Bloggers contest run by the fine folks at wogma and reviewgang.

Ed Norton, as always, a prime pick. I tend to choose films by directors and not actors - Chris Nolan and Baz Luhrmann being directors whose works I enjoy, with Steven Spielberg and Cameron Crowe high on the list too. Ed Norton's an exception. Primal Fear, Fight Club and The 25th Hour later, Ed Norton's a guy whose films you watch, simply because he's chosen them.

Keeping the Faith was similarly recommended. Picking up the DVD, I realized that he's directed the movie as well. This gets better.

The premise is simple. Two guys. One girl. They've been friends forever. She left when they were in eighth grade and went to the other coast. Now she's back. She's beautiful, smart, the kind they both fall for.So, a love triangle, right?

Not completely. He's a priest. Catholic at that. His best friend's a Rabbi. She's not Jewish - complications all around. He wants to tell her. His friend already has. She likes him (the Rabbi, that is) as well. Problem: He cannot see her and continue his relationship with his mother or the Synagogue. Ah, the tangled webs we weave.

For me, the film was a revelation in some ways. It showed a couple of clergymen of two of America's most prominent religions as regular guys. They wear shades, play basketball, and yes, occasionally swear too. Seeing them out of their robes was a surprise by itself. (I don't know, imagining our batt-ru in a leather jacket doesn't quite gel).

They falter, as all humans do, and find the faith (in themselves and those around them) to carry on. The film is reasonably well written, offering all three - Ed Norton (the priest), Ben Stiller (the Rabbi) and Jenna Elfman enough to do. Ed Norton as always lives the role, something he did frighteningly well in Primal Fear. Ben Stiller is subtler than some of his more recent roles, showing he's capable of better, and Dharma fits the role to a T.

The whole love triangle thing gets a tad awkward at times, but nothing to kill the movie completely. Some laughs, some tears, a drunk scene, a showdown, a punch and all's well with the world again. I admit, I probably liked the film more than I should have but smart rom-coms are so hard to come by that good ones are worth the watch.

Everyone thinks his story is the one with a twist.

On Rocky and the Underdog

Re-posting an earlier review of this film with edits as a submission for the Reel-life Bloggers contest run by the fine folks at wogma and reviewgang.

Spoiler alert: For someone who's not seen the movie and cares to not know the ending to a non-thriller with a non-Shyamalanesque twist, don’t read this post!

Rocky is one of cinema's big cliché movies. The story of the underdog who overcame the odds to become something bigger than himself. The backstory of the movie itself is similar, with Stallone pushing the script door-to-door, refusing to make the movie unless he got to be Rocky as well. The story to trump all stories, the movie won multiple Oscars, including Oscars for Best Film and Director, and nominations for Stallone for the screenplay and (gulp) for his acting. Rocky got so crazy that there were eventually five Rocky movies. Stallone went on to become a billionaire, giving us other classics like the Rambo series, The Expendables and some really bad acting.

When I first saw the movie, I was underwhelmed. There was a bit to the tale, but I didn't see much. One of the explanations that me and my friend (whom I saw the movie with) could muster for the success and resonance of the movie was that it was arguably a function of the times. The late 70s with a bad economy and general doom and gloom in the Carter years meant that the movie symbolized hope for the underdog in some ways. Maybe in the more prosperous '0s, that wasn't so true anymore, and we couldn't (and could never) 'get' the movie.

I was wrong. I’ve caught parts of it on TV later, and as I think back to the movie now, it (the movie) makes more and more sense. Part of it is arguably that I've grown older and seen more of life since then. The character-building itself is one thing, but what holds the key to the film is the last, actual boxing match. The night before the match, Rocky says to Adrian, "Cause all I wanna do is go the distance."

And go the distance he does. Even as Apollo pummels Rocky, he just keeps coming back, doesn't he? He really shows no sign of giving up. He does go the full 15 rounds to lose on points. What matters there is the fact that he goes the distance. Every blow that he gets, he manages to get up again, ready to fight.

Like Simon and Garfunkel sing poignantly,(not about Rocky, though this could apply)

In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down or cut him
’til he cried out in his anger and his shame
I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains
Yes he still remains.

Hell, yeah. Rocky's my hero. Now, if only they hadn't made those sequels...

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Celluloid City

Bollywood films typically exist in some sort of never-land. This has been true from way back when. Even when Raj Kapoor’s films wanted to portray the struggles of the Everyman struggling to retain his soul in the Big, Bad City, the city itself was amorphous. A Bombay look-alike, but not quite the real thing. Clichéd stock shots of V.T. and the city’s Fort area were meant to depict the Metropolis in all its glory.
And so it went. A lot of films from the 60s and 70s all the way through the 80s tend to repeat this theme. The reasons may have been varied – catering to an India-wide audience or maybe just the hassle of shooting on location. Stock shots, sound stages and compromises. It’s a time where it’s hard to remember mainstream films with a great sense of place. Unlike, say, New York in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or the gritty city seen through new eyes in Scorsese’s and Woody Allen’s 70s masterworks, we did not have our own filmi City of Dreams, as it were.
The first memory I have of a film with a more unique city view than most, is for some vague reason, Chashme Baddoor. Being shot in New Delhi gives the film a visual style that quite varies it from the smaller Amol Palekar films that are its genre and period brethren. Those films too were shot on location in Bombay – waiting at bus stops along Worli seemed a favorite past-time, but still, it all seems very generic.
However, what really brought the power of stage-setting home for me personally was Ram Gopal Verma’s Satya. I somehow associate it with the city very strongly – location, sensibility, plotting (there’s a whole bit explaining the geographical distribution of territories between Bhau’s lieutenants). The ending in a very Mumbai milieu – the Ganapati visarjan at Chowpatty just drives the whole thing home: this is a Bombay (was it Mumbai already then?) gangster film.
What has changed in the intervening 15 years? The multiplex boom does mean that there are diverse settings that film-makers can now explore. Be it the soul-sucking environs of an industrial town (Jamshedpur, Udaan) or interior Rajasthan (Manorama: Six Feet Under), it’s all game, if only the filmmaker is brave enough to reach for it. Even the quintessential Mumbai film has moved from a state of mind like in Dil Chahta Hai to films where there’s some level of effort to include non-cliched parts of the city(Bluffmaster, Jaane Tu…)
However, the most remarkable trend I’ve noticed in the past few years has been the rise of the “Delhi film”. AG observed in a conversation just four or so years back that Rang De Basanti was the only real Delhi film we’d seen in years. But the past 3-4 years has seen the explosion of a variety of Delhi films, the likes of which Bombay/Mumbai never really saw. Dev D, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Delhi-6, Do Dooni Chaar, Band Baaja Baaraat, Delhi Belly all show the country’s capital from different eyes. The seedy underbelly of Paharganj contrasts with the tony wedding soirees of Sainik Farms in various ways, with detours through middle class neighborhoods along the way.
Fittingly, over 50 years after Yeh hai Bambai Meri Jaan, Delhi got its own Bollywood anthem this year. Gai kaat kalejaa indeed.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Random Music Musings–The Return of the Blog

In fits and starts, I try. The drafts folder on my PC is testament to these efforts, but heck, this seemed like an easy way to get something up here after one previous attempt to restart this blog. Someone once said “Great artists ship”. So wannabe bloggers…tweet?

-  It is not very often that chart-topping popularity and true quality meet in music, especially in that all-encompassing ‘pop’ category. However, Adele has managed just that, and how! 21 is a powerhouse album. It’s impressively mature, especially as a musical statement, drawing on the same neo-soul vibe that made Amy Winehouse’s short career. While the songwriting is frayed in places, you want to forgive her that. She is only 21, after all. 

- Radiohead is one of my favorite bands, simply because of the amount of texture in their music and arrangements. However, one of the things that dawned on me recently was how dance-friendly some of their tracks can get. I was browsing in a bookstore this week, and found myself bobbing my head and tapping my feet to Reckoner from In Rainbows. That rhythm section is to die for.

- I’m quite annoyed by the constant sniping about lyrical quality in Hindi films today. While all the attention was paid to Bhaag DK Bose and Character Dheela, I wish there was more attention paid in media to the good songs and the people behind them.

Except for a recent profile in Open, I’ve seen no good profiles of Amitabh Bhattacharya, who in addition to doing DK Bose and Character Dheela, has also done pretty amazing “traditional” songwriting for Udaan, I Am and No One Killed Jessica. Aitbaar in NOKJ comes together in a way no song in any soundtrack this year has – the lyrics and music conveying anger, despair and a welter of complicated emotions in one explosive package.

Previous music musings - I, II, III, IV and V

Monday, March 21, 2011

Pass Me By

Wadi. Guntakal. Bhusawal. Mhow. All of these are places I’ve passed, either on road or by rail on my way to bigger destinations like New Delhi and Bangalore.

These names evoke images of a slower, more relaxed time. You jumped off the train for a quick stretch of the limbs, maybe a quick cup of steaming hot chai. You looked in at the A.H.Wheeler, eyeing the Archers and Ludlums on sale, maybe picking up a magazine as consolation on the way back to the train. You had pohe at a roadside dhaba near Mhow and heard stories from more knowledgeable people on how it was a big military base. You wondered about the sudden explosion in hoardings related to pareshani? and advertisements for “Ashok Clinic” as the train hurtled northward passing Bhopal and Gwalior.

All that is gone now, replaced by security checks at the swank Terminal 3 in Delhi and cups of Nescafe from a machine at Pune’s tiny Lohegaon airport. Getting from place A to B in India in under 3 hours is transformative. However, what of the romance that every Indian of a certain era attaches to rail travel and roadside dhaba food?

It’s not all bad. Productive business dealings in distant cities can now end with you sleeping in your own bed. The bulk of short vacations need not be spent in trains or cramped bus seats, increasing your options and actual vacation time.

This isn’t a lament of a tangible loss of some kind. One always has the choice of taking two extra days off work to make a journey by train instead of flying. However, what I do worry about is the loss of perspective. The rich have always been different from you and me, and now they (and this group does include me) needn’t even see the rest of this fine land.

We finally have our own version of flyover country.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


World Cup 2011, ad-fest. Like clockwork, at the end of the over, transmission shifts to an advertisement. Shah Rukh Khan is on a living room couch with a girl half his age. Just as things are about to get interesting, a WWE-style wrestler jumps into the frame, followed by a couple of cricketers, and then a saas-bahu prototype. There’s a LCD TV mounted on the wall behind him. It’s an ad for the HD package of a DTH provider, DishTV.

Wait, rewind that. (I don’t have a DVR, but bear with me here). Didn’t you just see Shah Rukh Khan on TV a few days back endorsing the Airtel phone network? Doesn’t Airtel also have its own DTH service? He’s endorsing two competing brands?

So, you say? What’s wrong with him earning a bit of money on the side for his star power? Oh, none, I say. More power to him. However, I’ve already made the SRK-AirTel connection in my mind, so I unconsciously associate Airtel DTH with him. Dish is getting the short end of the stick. I’ve also linked A.R. Rahman to Airtel, Junior Bachchan  to Idea Cellular, and of course, Saif Ali Khan to some brand of banians (Amul Macho, really?)

Which brings me to my second point. I’m all for Saif Ali Khan in banians and a luscious Katrina Kaif posing with juicy mangoes. But just because you can do it doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. For the celebrity, for the brand, or for the audience. 

It should be straightforward to state what a brand stands for. And if we’re treating the celebrity as a brand, very few celebrities in India can claim to have that kind of consistency, especially when it comes to their endorsements. The Detroit ad for Chrysler with Eminem, for instance, is a great example of how Eminem’s persona and his Detroit roots can tie in to a good story, enhancing the perception of both celebrity and brand.

The only celebrity in India giving his endorsements some kind of thought is, of course, Aamir Khan. (He does march to his own drum-beat, doesn’t he?). After a moment’s thought, I can instantly say what his general endorsement philosophy is. He endorses mass-market brands that are affordable, but not necessarily cheap – Samsung, Titan, Tata Sky (and Coke). He has an instantly recognizable face, so he plays characters that tie back to a story the ad campaign is trying to tell. His series of advertisements for Coke were quite memorable, and the current Tata Sky Bablu series is another good ad series spread over multiple advertisements.

I do wish he didn’t do the finger-wagging, funda-spouting bit in the Incredible India ads, but that, too ties back well with his on-screen persona. He does do a lot of that in films like Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots. Though that is a story for another post.