Sunday, January 23, 2011

Google: Why despite a tough year, I believe in its longetivity

Google says "I will survive".
Ok, it might sound like tom-toming, but honestly, if others won't acknowledge your cleverness then you have to do it yourself.

Eric Schmidt is stepping down as google's CEO. And here's what The New Yorker has to say on how Google's 2010 year has been: "...Google was becoming defensive. All of their social-network efforts had faltered. Facebook had replaced them as the hot tech company, the place vital engineers wanted to work. Complaints about Google bureaucracy intensified. Governments around the world were lobbing grenades at Google over privacy, copyright, and size issues. The "don’t be evil" brand was getting tarnished, and the founders were restive."

Only, I asked if the same was about-to-happen to Google in December 2009 on this blog. The date was Dec 27, 2009. Now everyone seems to have asking the same question. 

But I think I have moved on. Given all that has happened in 2010 - and yes, I include Facebook's incredible 50 billion dollar valuation in it - I think Google is going to regain its pre-eminent position as a tech company. 

There are two reasons why.

The first is Google's Watch This Space campaign and its efforts to promote online advertising. As I wrote in a blog entry in October last year, Google has figured out that it needs to help the "creatives" to make online advertising an attractive, measurable and exciting opportunity, something that it is not right now. And it has thrown its might behind making that possible.

Only someone who is in the media - jobless like me because print is not selling, and online media is not profitable - knows that everyone needs smart, online advertising to take off. And Google is focussing its energies on convicing advertisers that it is possible.

Already, in the last one year, I have seen several sites move on from ugly banner ads to more attractive, interactive and expandable real media ads - something Google talks-of in its campaign. The clutter seems to be giving way to neater, more navigable sites with attractive, non-intrusive, advertising. See Londonist (which has revamped itself so attractively), or Time Out (which too looks so much neater after its revamp) or Times Crest in India. 

Yes, social media will be the way to go for small businesses. But big businesses - the colas, cars, fashion brands etc - will still need the big platform to attract customers and fight out competition. They will still need advertising and that is where the big, indecent bucks lie. Small businesses may begin with promotion over social media, but at some point they will have to go beyond the friends-of-friends and reach out to the masses in a single sweep. And attractive online advertising will be that platform, and Google is ahead of others in making that happen.

The second reason is Android. Yes, we love the Iphone. Sid & I bought one. But we don't like the way Apple straight jackets you into an Apple personality narrowing your choices to its own software and hardware. We have heard good reviews of Android from our tech friends - it is easy, dependable and most importantly is customisable with different products. Between Sid & myself our second smart phone will probably be the Android. If Sid & I - who are very mainstream buyers - are coming to this conclusion, so must many many others. Sales figures certainly seem to support this prognosis.

I think once Iphone has milked its first mover's advantage, Android will overtake it by simply being a less suffocating buyer to deal with.

And this is why I say: more power to google, my friends. As we say in Hindi: It is a "lambi race ka ghoda" (a horse meant for long races).

Monday, January 17, 2011

William Dalrymple: are literary credentials not enough?

William Dalrymple at a book launch at India Habitat Centre
I was a little surprised today to find an article in The Independent about a minor literary slugfest going on in India.  I thought that Hartosh Singh Bal’s article in Open magazine, accusing the Indian literati of a colonial hangover, was a brave and interesting stand. But I didn’t expect to read about it in a British newspaper.

Bal made some pertinent points in his article. Is the British-author William Dalrymple the best person to organise the premier literature festival of India? Can’t we find someone home grown to head it? And what’s up with this British fixation – why don’t American authors or American books make as much news? And when did foreign correspondents become the expert commentators on India and everything that happens there, in the first place? Aren’t we Indians better placed to make that assessment?

But I also have three problems with Bal’s article.

First, the standard of English newspapers and magazines in India is rather low. The entry requirement for people wanting to become English language journalists in India is a basic ability to read and write in English. A bit of training in reportage and writing is preferable but not critical. The problem is that without training in good, sharp reportage, commentary sounds empty.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog pointing out the appalling language gaffes habitually made by the National Cultural Editor of the Hindustan Times, one of the largest selling English language newspapers in India. A number of comments in his defence basically asked why pick on him when everyone else is equally bad. To me that says a lot about the sorry state of Indian English newspapers – and I say this, fully aware of the irony that I myself was trained in the same industry. I am open to the idea that perhaps, I am a terrible writer too because I am the product of the environment around me – and it wasn’t generally a very invigorating environment as far as English language or reportage are concerned.

It would be dishonest of me if I didn’t accept that the standard of research, reportage and editing of British newspapers is far superior. Maybe that is why British foreign correspondents’ books on India inspire greater confidence among both Indian and foreign readers: A well-written copy is just more acceptable than a more authentic but poorly written one.

Bal also seems to have ignored the role British Council has played in encouraging a cultural scene in India. For the longest time in Mumbai, the only place I could turn to for any literary or cultural consumption was the British Council. There were no bookshops, good libraries, or clubs to turn to for book festivals, readings, book launches and panel discussions. And the Council embraced Indian authors in English with great enthusiasm: In fact, I was introduced to the writings of many Indian English authors at the British Council, not at school or college or through the Indian media.

But naturally, the Council also encouraged British authors and artists in India. But if the toss-up was between having British authors being promoted in India and not have any platform for Indian authors at all – I would each time choose the former. The British Council's dominance may be waning now, but I am still grateful to it for maintaining an oasis of art in an otherwise fairly unstimulating cultural scene of Mumbai till the 1990s.

Perhaps, the greater visibility of British literature in India over American literature is simply the result of a British Council being more active than the American Cultural Centre. 

Finally, Dalrymple may be British, but all his books on India have been thoroughly researched and beautifully written. His knowledge of Indian culture is far superior to many Indian cultural writers. He is also a tireless and passionate ambassador of South Asian culture – whether that is self-serving or not is another debate all together. And he is an incredible networker and marketer. On the whole, he fulfils the categories necessary for organising an Indian literature festival.

If ones ethnicity and background were such an important criteria for selection, why didn’t we all protest when Fareed Zakaria was made the editor of the Time magazine?

The King's Speech: Or why I want to fight the tyranny of romantic love

I came out of the theatre last night after watching The King’s Speech feeling... literally... breathless. Colin Firth played the stammering King George VI so convincingly that every time he stuttered on screen, he would engulf me into his breathlessness, suffocation, shame and desperation. Since the whole film is about words trapped inside his throat struggling to come out, I felt like I had spent an hour-and-half locked inside a windowless cell struggling to breathe. Little wonder that he won the golden globe last night for the best dramatic actor of the year.

Now that I am happily married and sorted, I find my choice of films greatly diminished. I enjoy films about people, their predilections and preoccupations. But the only emotion that Hollywood (and Bollywood for what its worth) thinks worth exploring is romantic love. Only, I am fairly happy and conflict-less regarding that aspect of my life and would prefer to engage in dramas beyond that. 

Which is why The King’s Speech was a lovely change. The King was happily married, like me. His conflict was essentially occupational – as royalty, his biggest responsibility was public appearances and speeches, and a stammer essentially rendered him useless. And can't we all relate to that feeling: haven’t we all, at some point or the other, felt not up to the job given to us?

We all have a life beyond love. Our relationships extend to brothers, sisters, friends, parents, colleagues, children, and most importantly, ourselves. And yet, such few films ever look at the vicissitudes of these relationships.

That made me think of my top 5 emotional, human drama films that were not about romantic love (yes, in case you are wondering, I just finished Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity).

The King’s Speech – because it is so fresh in my mind.

In Her Shoes – because it looked at the love between sisters, one of the most ignored relationships in films, and managed to say something interesting about it. As one of three sisters, I connected to it immediately.

The Darjeeling Ltd – because it was about brothers and that intangible sibling bond that can survive so much upheaval, distance and long periods of non-communication.

Taare Zameen Par – Ok, I concede it was a grossly exaggerated, Bollywood-style, emotional drama. But the struggles of the bright but dyslexic, misunderstood child made me cry by the bucketload.

Lost in Translation – Because it was about the most important relationship in our lives, the one we have with ourselves.

If you have any additions, suggestions and deletions you are most welcome to share.

Virginia (see comment section) has reminded me of Little Miss Sunshine and Royal Tenenbaums. Royal Tenenbaums was definitely a contender in my mind, but I decided to go with The Darjeeling Ltd for look at sibling relationships. But missinng out on Little Miss Sunshine was definitely a gaffe on my part. All the same, I can't decide between LMS and In her Shoes, so need help through your votes.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Otolith Group and the bane of being intellectual

Otolith III at Tate Britain
I wrote an article about The Otolith Group, the British artists who were nominated for the Turner Prize this year and are now showing in India. It was commissioned to me by TOI Crest in October, I actually did it in November and it is out in January - talk about gestation period.

You can listen to the entire interview here, if you have the patience for it. Despite my misgivings about my voice, I am putting it out there because I really enjoyed interviewing them. Besides, raw date is all the rage these days, you know. What with Wikileaks and all.

Interviewing The Otolith Group by chetna prakash

Guardian called their works "unabashedly erudite". Some other papers, were less charitable calling them pretentious. I could sense Eshun's blood pressure rise up a notch, when I asked him the question. And he went on a lengthy explanation about the difference between complex and incomprehensible, and why should their works be about one simple idea, in the first place. Wouldn't that be boring?

When did we turn into a society where one has to defend oneself for being erudite and intellectual.

Look at Barack Obama, throughout his presidential campaign he had to constantly play down his excellent education, his obvious intelligence, his articulateness. And in contrast, Sarah Palin was constantly playing up her gal-next-door credentials, her homilies and claims to common sense. She still does, and it seems is still very popular. While Obama is still struggling to get himself heard and understood.

Another obvious trap is to be entertaining. As Andrew said to me while we were discussing our favourite film critics, you must be funny. Being intelligent is not enough. You must be entertaining. That's the only way you can get your point across. But isn't there a joy to engaging with the difficult, figuring it out and feeling good about it. What's wrong with being sincere, anyway. Isn't that a good thing?

Obviously not. Otherwise, The Otolith Group would have won the Turner Prize.

A funny, funny world we live in.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On Cultural Stereotypes: Immigrant parents, Amy Chua & Jack Straw

I just can’t seem escape Amy Chua and her Chinese mothering tips.

First, my mum-in-law sent me Chua’s essay – Why Chinese Mothers are Superior – published in the WSJ last Saturday, in which she rhapsodised over the benefits of the strict, demanding parenting exercised by immigrant families in America. She credits this parenting style for Chinese (and other immigrant) kids outperforming American kids in general. Then, The Times, yesterday ran an interview with Ms Chua, and today, the Independent, discusses the merits-demerits of Chua’s dictator-style parenting model. And just a few minutes ago, New Yorker uploaded a piece inviting three Chinese-American high-achieving women to give their views on Chua’s assertions.

What I find really interesting is that none of the four articles above mentioned the dreaded words: “cultural-stereotyping”. They discuss the merits and demerits of Chinese-style parenting. But none of them point out that asserting that there is something inherently different about the way a minority community brings up its children – and worse, that the parenting style has definite consequences on how such children will relate to society around them – amounts to stereotyping.

Contrast that with the furious response met to Jack Straw’s statement that young Pakistani men are sexually repressed and are made to think that white women are easy. Thus, they are likely to prey on them. Almost every respectable newspaper in town, and every respectable British-Asian community leader, was discussing the perils of cultural stereotyping even before the merits of Straw’s accusations could be judged.

Why is it that if no one has problems believing that the strict parenting practiced by immigrant parents results in high-achieving immigrant kids, it is unacceptable to suggest the opposite: that if immigrant kids grow up with the notion that white girls are trashy and easy, they may act on that belief. (I don’t have a problem with people picking holes in Straw’s argument – and there are many holes to pick. But I have a problem with the discussion being scuttled under the bogeyman of what “cultural stereotyping” can do to immigrants.)

What the responses to Chua and Straw say to me is that the press and minorities are perfectly fine with stereotypes, provided the stereotypes are positive!

Stand-up comedian Russell Peters on another kind of strict immigrant parenting.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Vogue and our schizophrenic Indian lives

Vogue vagueness
New year, new article by me – this time in the Vogue magazine. It is a profile of the British Indian restaurateur Geetie Singh. Unfortunately, it is not a terribly good article. It seems I had a particularly bad bout of my on-again-off-again sickness COMMAtitis and littered the copy with all sorts of misplaced commas. As for the magazine’s copy editor? Perhaps, he is a fellow sufferer.

So I am really hoping that most women pick up the issue for the same reason that I ever buy the magazine – to look at the ads. I remember my first look at the British edition around the time the buzz around Vogue’s possible entry into India was growing. I was transfixed – but mostly by the advertisements. Beautiful women in the most gorgeous clothes and accessories made by brands I had only ever seen as fakes in India: Donna Karan, Hermes, Chanel, Calvin Klien.

The articles were as visually stunning as the ads and referred pretty much to the same brands – in fact, it was difficult to tell apart the articles from the ads. It rendered a visual consistency to the magazine and converted it into a stunning temple to fashion. So much so, that by the time I turned the last page, even I – a girl so stubbornly proud of her frizzy hair, kurti, and baggy jeans – was feeling a deep yearning to be slim, beautiful and Chanel adorned.

But this is where I find the Indian Vogue diverging from its international counterparts: its incredible paucity of beautiful ads. To begin with, of the 67 full page ads in its latest issue only 3 refer explicitly to clothes – Levis, Monisha Jaisingh and Ritu Kumar. The largest chunk of the ads, 17 to be exact, belong to Indian jewellery stores: the Manubhais, Nothandasses, Gehnas, Shristis etc etc. And no, the ads don’t show smart, modern everyday wear. It is all heavy, traditional, stone-studded, ready-for-wedding wear. Jewellery is followed by watches (9), furnishing (6), skin products (5) and hotels (4). After this it all goes random with whiskey, chocolates, mid-range Australian wine, hairbands, yachts and even realty companies all finding a corner in this Indian temple to fashion.

What makes the magazine experience surreal is that articles and photo shoots – especially, the photo shoots – continue to refer to D&G, Nina Ricci, Christian Louboutins, Roberto Cavalli and gang as if the Nanubhais and Nothandasses never happened. 

To me this gap between the ads and the articles of Vogue says a lot about the wide gap between the reality, pretentions and aspirations of middle class India, and the resulting schizophrenia. We already believe that we are a world superpower without acknowledging the illiteracy, poverty, dirt, pollution and corruption endemic to our lives. Instead, we simply ensconce ourselves in air-conditioned bubbles inside our flats, cars, offices, malls, restaurants, hotels and nightclubs dreaming our rose-tinted dreams of a time when Nina Ricci and Christian Louboutin will be just down the road.

Maybe, that time will arrive. I only hope that the road leading to these stores will not be jammed with traffic, beggars in tatters, dust and pollution.