My childhood tryst with Nasbandi & a counterfeit Amitabh Bachchan

Education, Humour, Media & Entertainment

Of the many ‘firsts’ that leave an imprint on our lives, the ‘First movie viewed in a theatre’ may not make it to most people’s lists; which would include other honorable firsts, say for example, the first love, first car, first job and a host of other firsts.

But for me it was very different.

The first movie I viewed in theatre was a film called Nasbandi.

I was 6-years old.

This is my story.

THE SETTING: SIKKIM 

The year was 1978 and we were spending our summer break in Sikkim, visiting my uncle (now Late) working with the Border Roads Organization (BRO). For those who care to know, BRO is a quasi military service that, in difficult terrains, could hold more clout than, say, the Head Office (HO). So yeah, in the frontier areas too it’s possibly BROs before HOs!

Sikkim was fresh off the oven, having become a part of the Indian Union only a few years back. It had an ethnic mix of Nepalese, Sikkimese, Biharis, Marwaris etc. One would hear that till a few years back, people in Sikkim did not know about the existence of locks, as they didn’t have any need for them. Concepts of pelf and theft were alien to them. (Incidentally, all this is immaterial to the rest of the story.)

The people of the state were in thrall of a most majestic natural icon looming over the horizon, but visible only when the clouds or fog would clear up — the Kanchenjunga.

One of the daily morning activities that we kids gave ourselves was checking if Kanchenjunga was visible that day. Like little teachers we would seek to take attendance, and the indulgent peak would play hide ‘n seek to mark its presence. (Still immaterial to the story, but sounded cute, no?)

In pre-TV days, this was one way we made up our entertainment mix. Another part of the mix would come from a familiar source — cinema.

THE FIRST MOVIE IN A THEATRE

Over the years, whenever a discussion with friends veered towards ‘your first movie’, the answers would range from the iconic to the inspiring.

My wife, for example, watched Jai Santoshi Ma along with her family*, as her first movie. Now, this is how sanskari kids are brought up.

Some friends had started their cinematic tryst with Sholay. Some started off with Ben Hur or Star Wars. Some younger friends cite Hum Aapke Hain Koun or Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. Even younger ones say Lagaan.

You get the point, right?

On the other hand, there’s something fundamentally awkward about Nasbandi being your first movie.

It’s like a permanent tattoo that still hurts. An invisible yet glaring tattoo in block letters, that says: ‘Meri pehli film Nasbandi thhi’ (My first film was Nasbandi)! And its impact — in the same league as that of Vijay’s tattoo in Deewar.

*Glad that my father-in-law asked me an easy set of questions from theology, human psychology, anthropology and mythology, before he agreed to let his daughter marry me! 

tumblr_mo28cnCzpB1rd8p0ro1_1280

Image: http://bombayfilm.blogspot.in/

THE MID-1970s & I.S. JOHAR 

Many of you would be aware of the socio-political environment in India in the mid-1970s. Emergency had been declared. The government of the day and it’s agencies went about enforcing their version of what  makes for good governance with unrestrained fervour.

Population control was one such mission that the government launched with the harmless sounding family planning (parivar niyojan) programme. Except that, the onus of planning wasn’t left to the family, but enforced by the strong arms of the government and the deft fingers of it’s healthcare workers!

Forced sterilization is said to have been the demonitization equivalent of the day, and therefore the resonance of nasbandi in note-bandi for some critics.

The 70s were also the time for humourist and film-maker I.S. Johar to carve a niche for himself in satire, and Nasbandi was his tongue-in-cheek satirical counterattack** to the forced sterilization programme.

**(Note: Today, I see a parallel of that in the way a section of the contemporary crop of stand-up comedians responded to demonetization.) 

Much before Mithun Chakraborty and TLV Prasad institutionalized the Ooty-mein-shooty business template of churning out low-cost films shot in a single schedule in Mithun’s resorts in Ooty — I.S. Johar too had worked out his own cost-effective business model for making films.

He would hire ‘duplicates’ of top stars, give them names which sounded similar to the A-listers and make full length feature films with them. What the global millennials today call doppelgangers; is the cadre of professionals customarily called ‘duplicates’ in Indian cinema.

THE MOVIE

So, Nasbandi had Amitabh Bachchan’s duplicate — Anitabh Bachchan!

Pause.

Close your eyes.

Time to unpeel another layer from the onion bulb of my childhood psyche.

As if Nasbandi itself wasn’t bad enough, my first film also starred a counterfeit Amitabh Bachchan!

And a counterfeit Shashi Kapoor, and a counterfeit Shatrughan Sinha…

It was like, my cinema baptism was being done with gol gappe ka paani made with spurious ingredients from dubious sources.

[Digression: Okay, so my parents did make up for the spurious Amitabh experience with a follow up film a few weeks later with the real Amitabh Bachchan. However, that too was a film that I trust many die-hard Amitabh fans might not have seen — a film called Aalaap.]

I have no memories of the actual film Nasbandi. The only scene I remember well had the genius of the late Rajendranath, and it went something like this…

Rajendranath had been cornered by some policemen and taken to a ‘nasbandi kendra‘ (sterlization center). There he was required to drop his pants. And then his underpants.

In a madcap scene, (which in distant hindsight, combined Chaplin and cheer-haran) every time Rajendranath would drop his underpants, there was another layer of underpants beneath it. In a fast-forward sequence the above steps were repeated on loop, till the hospital staff finally gave up in the face of a mountain of underpants!

For a 5-6 year old THIS WAS IT! I’d been voluntarily enrolled to the Rajendranath Fan Club as a life-member on the spot.

Of course, when we went to watch the movie, I had NO IDEA, what nasbandi meant or the socio-political trends of the day, or the concept of satire.

It was Rajendranath’s underpants epic scene that made for some happy childhood memories!

Nasbandi

Image from: https://www.oldindianphotos.in/2013/11/bollywood-hindi-movie-record-covers.html

THE IMPACT

People say that Freud said that the roots of an adult person’s psychological issues can directly be traced back to childhood events.

Maybe that’s why, when I was coming of age, and went to a see a movie independently for the first time with friends (and not with family) I went for Dada Kondke’s ‘Andheri Raat Mein Diya Tere Haath Mein‘.

And till today, I can reel off Dada Kondke’s dialogues from the film, even though with the passing of years, the cringe-meter started registering higher & higher readings.

My love for cinema has acquired many hues over the years, but remained forever singed by the pre-Instagram filter: The 1978 Summer in Sikkim.

[Cover image: https://www.cinestaan.com/articles/2018/jan/22/10578/40-years-of-nasbandi-film-that-marked-a-high-point-of-is-johar-s-directorial-career]
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What mobile games would India be playing in 2015

Games, IIM, Media & Entertainment, Zeitgeist

Through much of 2014, Indians continued to endorse international biggies like Candy Crush Saga, Subway Surfers, and Temple Run 2 on their smartphones. Of the two Indian games that witnessed meaningful traction, one was based on a Bollywood blockbuster (Dhoom:3 by 99Games) and the other was based on India’s most popular offline card game (3-Teen Patti by Octro).

And therein lies the blueprint for what we are likely to see in 2015 as well.

Fountainhead Bollywood

We have to acknowledge that movies sit at the apex of the entertainment value-chain; not only in India, but also in the aspirational market we look up to — the US. This manifests itself in various perspectives — monetization, distribution, talent, content derivatives, franchises, news, buzz etc.

In the last few years film-makers film-marketeers have been using gaming as a logical medium to engage with their relevant audience. However, most of the efforts have been geared towards (and measured by) buzz creation leading to the movies’ theatrical release and a few weeks after that.

In most such cases, the development of the games starts only when the movies are well into post-production; and in some cases a last-minute line item in their marketing mix.

This, therefore, defines the kind of time, resources and returns that get associated with such dalliances. Mostly, next to nothing. Especially when seen in comparison to the ‘hundreds of crores’ budgets & earnings associated with movies.

This however, is changing. 

The core driver for this change is the fantastic proliferation of connected mobile devices. The numbers being quoted by industry sources may vary, but when these are in the 100-200 million range, and growing rapidly, it is already a sizable number.

Games like Krrish and Dhoom-3 crossing the 10million user milestone is significant. I’ll come to the economics flowing from this in a while — but see it as 1 crore people having downloaded each of these games. Now assume, each of them were to pay the equivalent of a cinema ticket (say, Rs.100), the number we’re hitting is the *100 crore* sweet spot!

Of course, the stage at which various pieces of the gaming ecosystem currently are, even if we were able to do just 10% of these numbers we would be delivering serious value.

What the industry needs to do is:

  1. Innovate in production
  2. Innovate in distribution
  3. Innovate in monetization

How? I’ll touch upon this briefly a little later, and maybe in detail in a subsequent post.

Local Game Formats

When we had launched ibibo TeenPatti in 2009 at the height of the web social games cycle, it was a runaway hit. The best part being that we did not have to either invent the game-play algorithm, or spend effort in telling users how to play that. All we had to do was create a stable online instance of the teen patti game, and inform users about our existence. Everything else fell in to place.

When we’d made the Android version of the same game, it climbed to the top of the charts without any extra effort, competing once in a while with Zynga Poker for the top spot. For the next couple of years, while the rest of the ibibo business was getting re-aligned, ibibo TeenPatti app continued to be at the top.

Full credit to Octro for having seen the opportunity and moving in with the right kind of user acquisition spends. The Sequoia investment of $15million followed. And this spawned dozens of more teen patti games on the app stores. Collectively, the various teen patti game apps would have done ~20 million downloads. This is comparable to what the global big three (Candy Crush, Subway Surfers and Temple Run) would have individually done in India. One could say the ‘teen patti genre’ is India’s current answer to Candy Crush.

Teen patti of course was the lowest hanging fruit. There will be card games like rummy, bluff, sweep and apps based on physical board games like carrom that developers are, and should be making. Similarly, Bingo, (or its popular Indian party format — Tambola) hasn’t been seriously pursued yet.

In 2015, we may see at least one break-through ‘Indian’ game. I would say tambola has a better chance, than carrom, which would face a challenge in recreating a high quality physics-based visual experience. Teen patti needs no physics. Pool and carrom do. (I’ve had the experience of launching an online Pool game that had been developed by an ace international team; and when we showed that to people who’d previously played low quality online pool games, we witnessed 100% conversion and very high retention. So, production quality would matter there.)

ALSO, there’s a caveat.

Not all local games would work. It is important that the *really hot target group* should have some real-life reference point for these native games. Teen patti works because you’re creating an online/mobile instance of an already popular game. Same was the case with online pool some 5-6 years ago; because offline pool was the aspirational hangout experience for youth across many cities in India.

I’m not so sure about carrom. I think carrom mattered to those who went to college in the 80s and 90s, and spent hours playing carrom in college canteens. But I’ll be pleasantly surprised if the young mobile game players of today still endorse it without the physical world reference.

International Game Formats

Like in other media, we need to keep an eye on globally emerging mobile game formats, and make a judgment call on what could work in India as well.

Movie-making started in India around the same time it did globally; but film makers (and film marketeers) in India have a long tradition of looking westward for inspiration.

Most of the television business we see around us is modelled on the American television business. This is true for both fiction & non-fiction based television. The entire concept of daily soap operas, game shows, reality shows, news programming, sports programming, stand-up comedy shows etc. is made on blueprints coming out of the US. Yes, they’ve been ‘Indian-ized’ to suit the respective audiences of our TV channels — but the core formats are global.

This is what gaming needs to do in the right earnest.

Many of the leading Indian internet businesses have already done it: Think Flipkart, MakeMyTrip, InMobiZomato, Quikr, Olacabs. They’ve all been pretty successful in their own right — but have they ‘invented’ the format of the business they’re running? No, they haven’t. And they don’t need to either. They needed to adapt & innovate, and that they’ve done pretty well.

Interestingly, we’ve got two different global ecosystems to look up to: US and east Asia.

I’d done something like this while launching ibibo Farms game in 2009. We’d licensed the game from a developer in China, added the requisite localization layers on top, and given it some innovative marketing and distribution pushes. The game became quite popular, and was earning money too. In my estimates, ibibo Farms would have been earning more money out of India than Zynga’s Farmville!  (Funny anecdote: Some poorly informed ‘tech’ blogger, who hadn’t played either — said, we’d copied Farmville ‘screen by screen’. What the poor guy didn’t know was that Farmville wasn’t even the first farm game in the world, and that there were dozens of farm games from developers in China that were doing fairly well globally, and most of them preceded Farmville!)

One of the global formats that has great potential in India is quizzing. Of course QuizUp has seen great traction globally, and that should act as a spur for game developers in India, rather than burdening them with the unwanted comparison: “There’s already QuizUp in this space, you should try something else.” Bollocks!

Challenges?

  • Talent will continue to be a challenge. But a key investment here would be to focus on acquiring story-tellers into the fold, rather than only focusing on developers and visual artists. The latter are available in plenty, given the BPO past of the gaming industry. It’s the former that need to be mentored, nurtured and weaned away from other disciplines like films, television, and advertising.
  • Monetization isn’t as big an issue as it is made out to be. Given the right kind of games, with the right kind of hooks to get people to pay, monetization will happen.
  • Distribution is a bigger challenge, as we seem to be stuck between the existing levers Google Play Store on the one hand, and device embeds on the other. Both of these are running sub-optimally. Sadly, given the very bad history of telcos in curating content ecosystems, one can’t even look towards them.
  • User acquisition through these existing channels is becoming more and more un-viable, when you are competing for visibility with ecommerce players, FMCGs, global gaming giants among others. Acquisition costs through Facebook have grown more than 500% in one year, with game ads on Facebook performing even worse than dating ads!
  • Very low self-belief in creating their own ‘characters’. The gaming industry doesn’t yet believe that they should be creating their own Chhota Bheems and Kid Krrishes. While we keep lamenting the bad monetization scenarios with app stores and ad-networks, investments in building franchise-able characters aren’t happening either, which could pay-off handsomely in the long run.

—-

There is one game I would like to highlight as perhaps the only example of an organically successful game in India. It’s a game that was launched as a mere line item in the events line up for IIM-Indore’s festival in 2006 — a browser game called KlueLess. Initially based on the international puzzle game Notpron, KlueLess is an example of an ‘adapted format’ that became very popular, and has kept on growing every year. From being yet another online event in a college fest — it has become THE event that everyone looks forward to playing. And it will be into it’s 9th season in 2015!

Let me close this post with this quote:

It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.

— Jean-Luc Godard

The origin of Sidhuisms

Media & Entertainment, Sports

In the early years that SONY Entertainment Television (SET) India (now Multi Screen Media) forayed into cricket broadcasting, among the first few series they acquired the rights for was from the Board of Cricket Control in Sri Lanka (now called Sri Lanka Cricket).

When the Indian cricket team toured Sri Lanka in July-August 2001 the matches were broadcast on MAX, the newly launched movies & cricket channel of SET India.

Apart from being a significant ‘first’ for the channel (which later broadcast many of ICC’s flagship tournaments, and the IPL), that Sri Lanka series also heralded another significant ‘first’: The debut of Navjyot Singh Sidhu – as a cricket commentator! A couple of matches into the series, and Sidhu had made his mark with telling effect!

Early Sidhuisms included:

If ifs and buts were pots and pans, there would be no tinkers.

And:

The Sri Lankan score is running like an Indian taxi meter.

A few of us within the channel (most notably my colleague Pavan Chawla) realized there was more we could do and overnight we set up http://www.sidhuisms.com (sadly, no longer in use).

Sidhuisms on setindia.com

Archived screenshot of the original Sidhuisms website on setindia.com

(Archive link to the original Sidhuisms website. More archived links: Herehere, and here)

The realization that Sidhuisms would acquire a life of their own had started dawning on everyone.

Commendation letter from CEO for Sidhuisms

Commendation letter from CEO for Sidhuisms

I even received a commendation letter from the then  CEO Kunal Das Gupta.

 —
While the world at large was reacting with incredulity to Sidhu’s facility with words and his sense of dramatic enunciation, I recalled a hitherto unconnected comment from Ravi Shastri some years ago, where he’d shared that Sherry (the nickname Sidhu was called by) was the most entertaining cricketer in the dressing room.
Small detour here:

Contrary to his current critics’ labeling of him as a cliche-spewing commentator – Shastri during his active cricket days, was considered one of the shrewder tacticians in the game. Exemplified by the fact that in spite of possessing moderate talents with the bat, the ball, and in the field, he went on to become the original ‘Champion of Champions’ in ODI cricket, and for long shared the record for hitting 6 sixes in an over with the great Sir Garfield Sobers.

He had also been slated to become the India captain. However, some run-ins with the cricket authorities put paid to that. For the record, Shastri did captain India in a single Test match. The Chennai Test against the West Indies in 1988, which India won thanks to an explosive debut by Narendra Hirwani who took 8 wickets in each innings with his leg-spin bowling.

So when Ravi Shastri made that revelation about Sidhu being an entertainer — that remained stuck in my mind for a long time. And now it all came back to fall in place in August 2001.

Buoyed by the success of his Sidhuisms, Sidhu went on to making a full-blown career in entertainment and politics. I hear he’s recently also launched his official website http://www.sherryontop.com.

So yeah, we’ll take some credit/blame for having started it all in 2001! :-)

Finally my 10 cents on Om Shanti Om

Media & Entertainment

If this post reeks of staleness, please clench you noses to read on!

I had to spend these 10 cents on Om Shanti Om having already spent 500 bucks on the tickets.

Spare me the faux tributes to the 70s please!
That public memory is short, is an oft repeated cliché. But in India we manifest collective amnesia in epidemic proportions. This is best exemplified in the film promoters’ ‘tribute to 70s’ in pre-release interviews, previews, and post-release reviews. And our gullibility in accepting that at face-value and according it a premium by using the same in our respective private discussions.

What’s my problem with that?

That exactly the same set of descriptors were used for Main Hoon Na by the same set of people — film’s producers, media and us!

Don’t believe me?

Check out these motley excerpts from Main Hoon Na reviews in 2004!

Main Hoon Na is a fun film. It doesn’t preach. It doesn’t go by logic. It isn’t realistic. But it’s shamelessly entertaining. So if you are looking for 1970s-style entertainment, Main Hoon Na is what I recommend. Enjoy! [Rediff.com review]

****

Main Hoon Na is by no means a thought provoking film. And the best part is it doesn’t pretend to be either. It is Farah Khan’s tribute to the 70’s style of filmmaking, comprising of a silly but fun comedy track, lost and found siblings, dutiful sons, hammy villains, adult and teenage romances and racy music. [BBC review]

****

Main Hoon Naa is a beautiful homage to Bollywood masala and Manmohan Desai must be smiling from the skies. Farah Khan’s love for the movies is evident in every frame […] Farah Khan has definitely borrowed bits and pieces of a dozen other soucres as inspiration – Panchamda, John Woo, Matrix, Manmohan Desai, Chopras, Johars to name a few. But they have definitely not been imitated or added for “extra effect” and in no way do they reflect a lack of creativity. It is her affection and adoration of these and other facets and genres of cinema as a medium of impacting the human condition that come through in Main Hoon Naa. [User review on IMDB.com]

****

Debutante director Farah Khan has paid a handsome tribute to everyone and everything related to movies like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Nasir Hussain, RD Burman, Yash Chopra, Karan Johar, Sholay, Matrix , and the entire success formula of the 70s and 80s. She also spoofs the ma-ke-haath-ke-aloo parathe bit, dream sequences, Yash Chopra kinda romance (yeah, she pays a tribute to it and yet spoofs it) so on and so forth. Everything that was super successful twenty years ago finds its way in here. The result is full blast entertainment – the kind you expected from Manmohan Desai and Nasir Hussain . [User review on Mouthshut.com]

****

If Main Hoon Na reminds you of the commercial hit cinema of the 70s…well, that’s exactly what Farah Khan set out to achieve. It doesn’t preach. It doesn’t go by logic. But it’s an entertainer all the way, much like the Nasir Husain and Manmohan Desai’s masala potboilers of yore. [IndiaToday.com.au review]

Got it folks?

Just replace “Main Hoon Na” in the above snippets with”Om Shanti Om” and you could very well be reading stuff written in 2007!

Also I didn’t know that Punjabis in the 70s spoke with a Gujju accent! Why else would an Om Prakash Makhija insist on saying “Thenks” instead of “Thanks”.

Also, spare me this collective ‘awakening’ to spoofs please!
Messers Farah and Shah Rukh Khan have neither invented nor revived spoofs as an entertainment form. Not in Om Shanti Om at least**!

In Hollywood, spoofs on popular movies and characters is a genre by itself. Movies like Hotshots, Naked Gun, Austin Powers, and Scary Movie were so successful that their producers established a complete franchise with their sequels! Closer home, the late I.S. Johar would spoof popular actors of the times by producing movies with their lookalikes. Then there were B-grade movies like Ramgarh Ke Sholay (not to be confused with Ramgopal Varma’s :-p) Nagesh Kukoonoor’s Bollywood Calling was a more intelligently made spoof on the Bombay film industry.

However, in India the best spoofs on cinema have been made in its sibling medium — television. I have seen some of the craziest and irreverently fantastic spoofs on Fully Faltu on MTV, Ek Do Teen on Doordarshan (directed by Sachin), and The Great Indian Comedy Show on Star One. Look at this example below.

** For me the closest Shah Rukh Khan ever came to spoofing was when he played Devdas :-p

Shah Rukh finally gets an item number right!
After delivering cold turkeys in Kaal (title song) and Shakti (Ishq Kameena), Shah Rukh Khan finally delivers a winner with Dard-e-disco. Every bit the dude superstar. But any guesses why a miner’s helmet? A small step in the AB-been-there-SRK-done-that series — and it’s Kala Paththar this time? :-p

Look at the irony — poet lyricist Javed Akhtar writes ‘Dard-e-disco‘ , while music director Vishal wrote the lyrics for ‘Aankhon mein teri, ajab si adaayen hain‘.

The cutest ghost since Casper!
This is perhaps the toughest part for me. For the last so many years I have carried on a single-minded crusade against plastic-haters — the unthinking, uninformed, uneducated critics of the world’s most beautiful woman. How I have always maintained that Aishwarya Rai is so unbelievably beautiful that she borders on the abnormal! How I have debated that with such perfect looks it is criminal to expect her to act.

But after seeing Deepika in Om Shanti Om, especially the final scene where the ghost Shanti flashes a dimpled smile while a tear drop trickles down her cheek, all I can say is: bye bye Ms. Aishwarya Rai, may you find bliss in matrimony! There’s more to the world than your green eyes!

Anybody tell me which is Deepika Padukone’s next film?