Thursday, October 13, 2016


Book review
The Wealth Wallahs
Shreyasi Singh
Bloomsbury Publishing India Pvt. Ltd

Sudhir Raikar, Content Architect, IIFL | Mumbai | October 13, 2016, 14:28 IST


The Wealth Wallahs is more than a delightful peek into the world of wealth. Author Shreyasi Singh’s measured insights can’t merely be attributed to her editorial stint with the Indian edition of the US magazine Inc which gave her a ring side view of India’s new-age entrepreneurial evolution. Her conviction stems more from a visible penchant for detached probe, consciously avoiding the lure of convenient conclusion which, especially in the case of literature of the given genre, tends to escape public scrutiny.

Against the enchanting backdrop of a bagful of ‘tryst with wealth’ tales - whether incidental or accidental - of some of the happening first-generation entrepreneurs and professionals - she presents a near-360 degree account of IIFL Wealth, the trailblazing firm which has transformed the wealth management space with its prudent takes and proactive tweaks.

Singh’s ‘unspooling’ of the IIFL Wealth phenomenon is splendidly universal, an objective commentary on the post-2008 progression led by India’s entrepreneurial zing, also a torchlight on the cosseted territory of wealth that was steeped in secrecy for long. In what’s a profound scrutiny of the first-generation wealth dynamic, citing seminal work of specialists and surveyors for germane reinforcement, Singh underlines the changing psyche of the oven-fresh wealth creators and the consequent shift in the strategies of avant-garde wealth managers, as also the cause and effect of the socio-cultural attitudes of a vast majority, watching the wealthy from the sidelines.

It was IIFL Wealth’s astute focus on first-generation money, Singh tells us, that helped it reap rich dividends contrary to what the majority believed when they set up shop. On one end was the aftermath of the global slowdown that posed serious questions on the value prop of a novice wealth management player, on the other was a thriving environment where umpteen funding rounds were making millionaires zillion times faster than ever before and, where for the first time, working professionals became well-heeled purely from employment. By virtue of its offbeat focal point as much as its core competence made sharper from the synergies with its parent group, IIFL Wealth mirrored the success of its clients and scripted a revolution of sorts for the whole industry.

Singh has unleashed a wealth of aspects linked with wealth:

Like how many of India’s first-generation rich are yet uncomfortable talking about their affluence, perhaps guided by fear of inviting undue attention in a heavily lopsided society, and even fatal consequences as many events have proved...

Like how the manner in which wealth is made, particularly in specific sectors like real estate, still influences public perception – differing vastly across geographies and demographics - that in turn affects the behaviour of those in its possession...

Like how the venture capital and private equity-backed wealth phenomenon has changed the face of entrepreneurship in India, making it more democratic and ‘beyond the clutch of a small group of business families and industrial houses’...

Like how most of the first generation rich swear by refreshingly new definitions of wealth rooted in purpose and prudence ( and even philanthropy), not power and propensities...

Singh neatly sums up how the first generation rich have changed the rules of the game for wealth management (thriving on calculated risks and a yearning for capital growth, not merely its protection) before unfolding the inspiring story of IIFL Wealth. Her chronicle of the maverick wealth management firm is matter of fact, a welcome departure from the typical media narratives that are either reduced to replicas of corporate brochures, too rosy for comfort, or made to sound unduly caustic only to project ‘deep insights’ through a premeditated stance of dismissal and negation.

Singh dissects the IIFL Wealth DNA beginning with the fascinating bios of the three founding musketeers and a brief on the owner of the holding company, himself a self-made entrepreneur who built a financial powerhouse on the sheer strength of his non-conformism. The firm’s vision and mission, values and beliefs, style and substance, camaraderie and conviction, strategies and tactics, trials and triumphs, twists and turns, learning and improvisation – she touches every aspect by reciting endearing anecdotes that tell us more about the stellar character of the firm and recounting milestone developments that scripted its success and competitive edge.

Above all, Shreyasi Singh is an awesome story teller, judiciously linking the end of each chapter to the beginning of the next with the authority of a bestselling author. That’s precisely why this is not just a book for the wealthy or the managers of their wealth. As Singh puts it succinctly, it is useful reading for anyone interested in a fast-evolving, aspirational country, more so when wealth decisions are influenced as much by personal circumstances as by workplace realities.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Moving from Green cards to Trump cards

Recalling a dated piece on the request of a few readers. Dr. Rajan is back to Chicago but I would like to believe, just like them, he still belongs to India

The RBI governor’s metaphorical caveats are more significant for the man on the street than his transient rate announcements for the men on the Street. Wish the inexorable banker conveys them in the language of the street.

RBI governor Raghuram Rajan speaks with genuine concern for the common man but the only problem with his impeccable communication is that it is not inherently inclusive unlike his plans for India. In sharp contrast, enlightening a westerner on India’s unique problems is a cake walk for him. Consider this quip that hits bull’s eye "If you are an outsider looking at India, learn to filter out both the irrational exuberance and the excessive pessimism. We're subject to both. You will become manic-depressive if you follow our moods".

But back home, when he says India is an “island of relative calm in an ocean of turmoil”, only the cream of the crop, including professors and aficionados of the English language, gets the message right. All his forewarnings necessarily travel in a limited sphere where they are comprehended but hardly conceded, for obvious reasons of course. Most corporates, not just market men, don’t wish to look beyond the rate arithmetic, which has the effect of downplaying Rajan’s prudent observations including the need to make low inflation a collective responsibility of the RBI, government and the industry. Worse, tangents are thrown back in good measure to sideline his truisms. A case in point was his appeal to real estate developers to push demand through price cuts and thereby erode the mountain of unsold inventories. The weight of this argument called for an acknowledgment from all sections including banks but all they did was to make a strong case for teaser loans. Nothing to take away from the NPA-proof nature and demand-generating prowess of teaser loans as endorsed by a leading bank but Rajan’s dressing-down on inflated real estate pricing called for a more healthier admission, certainly not a myopic snap alleging his poor comprehension of the product.

Rajan’s occasional slippages add to his woes. Lashing out at banks in explosive outbursts is not always a good idea, ditto for stream-of-consciousness annotations on the economy that spur the media to raise doubts on his perceived equation with the government, especially when the RBI has been found wanting in few crucial areas. Among other things, it has done little to curate its economic data in order to make more credible policy pronouncements. We all know the myriad challenges in collection, collation, computation and curation of economic data which are the basis for a variety of key economic and business decisions – from formulating policies and monitoring prices to fixing escalation clauses and computing dearness allowances. The move to make foreign borrowings cheaper than internal debt has unknowingly made corporate leverage a road rage of sorts. And notwithstanding the governor’s pertinent observations on the thorny issue of NPA, every RBI intervention yet seems more palliative than curative. Thanks to the ambiguity that surrounds it, the governor’s stance, even to the neutral observer, appears a hazy blend of severity and dispensation.

No wonder, most of his incisive comments don’t get the circulation they deserve, leave alone approval. If the RBI wishes to earn the public’s trust, as Rajan has time and again reiterated, then acting against future inflationary threats is not enough, more so in an environment replete with vested interests who are vying to trace his fault lines. The essence and credence of his intervention need to be articulated for the common public at large. Like how RBI has credibly spearheaded the financial literacy initiative, it needs to demystify the Guv’s prolific speeches and media briefs in the language of the common man. Agreed, the Guv is not meant to win Facebook likes, but he needs to be heard, if not liked, by those millions with no access to Facebook.

They need to know about his track record, as also his tenacity to defy criticism and yet learn from it, in a language they understand. They need to know in commensurate detail about how banking access is being eased through business correspondents, payment banks, and point-of-sales machines, how lending is being facilitated for farmers, self help groups, and small businesses, how credit information bureaus, collateral registries, and debt recovery tribunals are being upgraded, how repayment discipline, like business ethics and commitment to hard work and quality, is crucial for economic growth, how easy access to credit comes with strict penalties in the event of defaults, how the RBI has developed a Charter of Consumer Rights following public consultation, how Bank boards have been urged to adopt right-protection frameworks, how RBI is mulling over institutionalizing best practices while strengthening field visits to check frauds and other functional deviations. It’s only then will they comprehend the quintessence of his inflation-fixation as also the credibility of his track record - how he assumed office when inflation was furiously moving up and the rupee was abysmally going down, how he and his prolific team got inflation down to record lows, how they boosted forex reserves, how they are gradually transforming the banking sector. It’s only then that they will grasp the meaning of “vocal borrowers and silent savers” better than what most economists and media columnists have.

Hindi and other languages are more than a bridge between the banker and the customer; they can be a conduit between RBI and the common public. Rajan has already delivered on his promise to make a Hindi speech, now he needs to make his office more accessible to the common man. And that does not mean he should shun Keats and embrace Premchand, for in a nation of people who are not known for their reading habits – whether city-bred or pastoral - neither of the greats would help make an impression.

Putting up website documents in Hindi is just one step towards this inclusive mission. Making the RBI website even more user-friendly would be a crucial stride. May be a few Master Documents, updated on a real time basis, can help lay users know the gamut of RBI’s inflation agenda and development initiatives at a glance. Maybe the RBI can organize innovative online and offline public awareness campaigns to convey the moot points of its agenda. The only communication that currently reaches the common man is about him, not by him, that too in bits and pieces of black and white where he’s either sketched as a Rockstar with superhuman skills or an elitist operator with little regard for the real India. He’s neither of the two, yet his absurd admirers and derisive detractors are ever keen to script his ignominy whenever he’s perceived to be disproving his allegiance to either of the two identities thrust upon him.

May be the Guv could take a cue from our PM whose simple-yet-sharp acronyms like ‘3Ds: Democracy, Demography and Demand’ ensure an instant connect with classes and masses alike and whose unique style of messaging inspires common people to respond to appeals like Jan Dhan Yojna and willful subsidy surrenders. If Rajan selectively adopts this approach to reach out, no politician would dare to make an issue of his Green card, for he would no longer need to prove his citizenship in his staple allegorical vein. The nation will do the needful on his behalf in plain vanilla terms. The language of the people might then become his trump card. There’s no activism more powerful than the one that springs from the grassroots.

Friday, October 07, 2016

US and us

For most Indians, a vacation to the United States of America is still an incredibly monumental feat. Of course, there are exceptions - folks who stay the same 'before and after' - but they only prove the rule at best.

Once 'back', the majority turn into a different species altogether. Their social status (measured primarily in terms of LinkedIn contacts, FB friends and Twitter followers) soars sky-high, with 'deprived' natives offering glowing tributes in the form of overtly appreciative glances every time the 'chosen ones' step out of their homes. Given an obliging audience willing to proclaim them experts on Indo-US relations without the slightest reservation, their US-stamped sermons become a routine fixture in the community.

They tell you, with carefully rehearsed, animated gestures and a discernibly put-on US accent (they are no longer shocked, they are 'shaaaacked') how our people lack civic sense (Why should this obvious realization only dawn post the US visit is a mystery more terrifying than the Riemann hypothesis), how we are a spoilt lot, what's the inside story on the US presidential elections, why Hillary should fear Trump, how Obama would spend his retirement years, what would be Apple's next strategy, how Irrfan managed to bag the prized Inferno role and so on and so forth. And the best part is the mandatory preface prefixed to every conversation: "While I was there"

Most interestingly, even within the privileged lot with the 'US-returned' tag, there's not a semblance of solidarity. In fact, the rat race here is brutally intense - it's about being the first among equals. So if they learn you were there before them, they have a tough time coming to terms with the disturbing fact.

It's incredible how they don't pick up any of the traits that make America a one-of-a-kind microcosm of heterogeneity: holistic approach, congenial environment, freedom of expression, social equality, culture of innovation, emphasis on experiential learning and seamless academia-industry interaction. Instead, they fall for or are impressed by all that Uncle Sam is infamous for - demonic consumerism, dangerous diets,rampant tablet popping, nauseatingly patronizing attitude towards the 'developing' tribe (impose sanctions, provide aid, have fun), culture rooted in quick disposal of everything, technology abuse, superficial and superfluous exchange of pleasantries, the Mayonnaise-smeared liberalism diarrhea...

The US-educated (or employed) Indian software pros (the label of 'pro' is magnanimously generic) suffer from a different set of fundamental deformities. Once back, they claim to have ready-to-deploy offerings - based on their home-spun versions of object oriented thinking - to solve just about anything in life. OOPS in their case, is the exclamation to describe the blunders that follow, not the awesome programming paradigm.

A host of globe-trotting "onsite" folks are faking work, day in and day out, on their smart phones, tablets, excel sheets and word documents even as the bulk of the inarticulate programming tribe back home goes through the grind, inevitably falling prey to Machiavellian tactics and the bell curve nonsense at the workplace. (God save the world from those scary Quality folks who pester you with a bagful of templates without having the slightest idea of the essence of Six Sigma and ISO)

The US tag earns the blessed ones the coveted positions of project managers and lot of spare time for US-style splurging and living beyond their means, strictly by choice. Peep inside most code labs and you’ll find the same old hierarchies of power distances, ruthless ambition and narcissism at play, where a handful of smart and wily operators merrily rule over a veritable but vulnerable majority. Who’s going to reduce the besmirching carbon footprints of the IT industry that pollute the social fabric in elusive ways – where hyped on-site-off-site-offshore models don’t necessarily mean better working conditions, where key performance appraisals are invariably unscientific, where egos are sky-high and tempers fly high, thanks to the variety and vanity of designations: the perfunctory coder is keen to call himself a developer, the developer genuinely believes he’s an architect and the architect is thoroughly convinced he’s God’s gift to mankind,a true-blue American in body, soul and spirit.

Given our faith in information technology, laced with fairy-tale beliefs, we reserve the loudest applause for the 'programmed' nomads traveling from coast to coast in the US of A but conveniently ignore the non-conformists who seed green-house IT ventures in their hometowns and choose to hone talent from within the grassroots. Clearly, the pompous vacation abroad is more important than the purposeful vocation at home.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Beyond 'Puri on Uri'

Any attempt to analyze actor Om Puri's pathetic remarks on the Uri attacks is futile. This haggard, senile tail-ender is clearly batting for the Sultan of Box Office and the Johar of tinsel town, gang lords who supposedly make or break film careers in different ways, depending on your equation with them. Such is their might that even a hopelessly hostile crackpot called Anurag kashyap has a velvety soft corner for at least one of them. Even our grand old Shyam babu Benegal who is lucky to relish the benefit of doubt - of being Mumbai's Satyajit Ray - circuitously pledges allegiance to the Bollywood circus despite having run out of his pale Zubeidas and stale Sajjanpurs for good. Then why blame Sushant Singh Rajput who has chosen to bat for Fawad Khan. He has a long way to go and offending Johar's Dil is hence not only Mushkil, it's Namumkin.

Bollywood has repeatedly lived up to its name that it so desperately wants rechristened only for namesake...for it's a mediocre factory largely producing substandard products and employing a perfunctory workforce, essentially a mutual admiration society which unanimously maintains 'safe distance' when it comes to all matters - including issues of national interest - that threaten to disrupt the jamboree of its umpteen productions and promotions. Differences of opinion within the fraternity are allowed, in fact welcome, but strictly on larger issues like film release & distribution or the crore-club claims.

In the Puri bashing, let's not forget many fence-sitting 'artistes' who want us to spare, nay worship, their mart in the name of art. Their silence is more toxic than Puri's blabber.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Satyajit Ray - The Inner Eye: By Andrew Robinson

"Ray is a rich and multifarious person in an age of impoverished specialization" Andrew Robinson couldn’t have said it better. Sudhir Raikar recalls his biographic epic "Inner eye"; unarguably the most sensitive and selfless work on the life, times and films of Satyajit Ray.


Legendary English writer Samuel Johnson remarked in the context of a biography: "It is rarely well executed. They only who live with a man can write his life with any genuine exactness and discrimination; and few people who have lived with a man know what to remark about him." Samuel Johnson would have been proud of his namesake Andrew Robinson whose ‘Inner eye’ is much more than a well-executed biography of Ray, who, in the words of another namesake and Chaplin biographer David Robinson, is undoubtedly ‘one of the world’s great artists, not just for the cinema.’

From the earliest memory of watching Ray’s ghost story ‘Lost Jewels’ on BBC TV as a ten-year old, Andrew’s fascination for Ray remained admittedly vague even during his Oxford film school days as also his brief India stint. It was the rare viewing experience at the 1977 world premiere of the Ray period saga ‘The Chess Players’ which drew Andrew to Ray in a manner that now seems providential in hindsight. In Robinson’s words "The warmth and urbane humour of the film, coupled with its unobtrusively innovative style, suggested that its creator must be a highly civilized individual; and its intriguing range of references showed him to be equally at home in both East and West."

Andrew’s unique relationship with the master filmmaker probably gained momentum with Ray’s congenial typewritten reply to his faltering fan letter that enquired whether Ray had ever considered writing his autobiography. The fact that Andrew had landed a job with a publishing house seemed merely incidental to his proposition. The real motivation must have been the stirring realization of Ray’s inimitable self-effacement found in the pages of the book "Portrait of a director: Satyajit Ray" by Marie Seton, Ray’s first biographer. "Without exchanging a word with Ray, I had begun to feel I already knew him." Andrew endorses the sentiment of those Ray admirers who have known him solely though his own writings.

From the first reply to the last interaction, Robinson found Ray ‘frank and informal’, a clear reflection of their special bond more than Ray’s characteristic inaccessibility and humility. As a result, we now know through Robinson about many unusual and amusing aspects of Ray’s persona including his addiction to one-armed bandits and his obsession with casino slot machines. Even in the widely known traits of Ray, Robinson’s account is strikingly value-added. "He’s willing to talk to anyone at any level but finds it difficult to tolerate insincerity, insensitivity or stupidity in a person or artistic production for very long." This, as Robinson contends, makes Ray seem remote or aloof to most but the reality is diametrically opposite. "I have yet to meet anyone with a genuine feeling for a subject that interests Ray who did not enjoy talking to him about it – whether it was cinema, music, painting, literature, a new scientific theory, cricket, the fast-changing face of Calcutta, someone he admires, or any host of things, often quite unexpected.". Above all things, Robinson consistently accentuates one of Ray’s most appealing qualities, his phenomenal sense of humour that remained intact till the very last, even in the slurred, bed-ridden 1992 acceptance speech following the honorary Oscar, only three weeks prior to breathing his last. "No one who knows Ray well would ever call him solemn; he is the inheritor of a long family tradition of making Bengalis laugh." Robinson observes.

The 400+ pages of ‘Inner eye’ begins with a thoughtful note on the Bengali pronunciation and spellings, a linguistic challenge that Robinson himself surpassed with flying colours following Ray’s implicit but qualified consent to his biography "I don’t want another foreigner writing a book about me without learning Bengali."

After an unflappably precise introduction narrating the history, geography and gravity of his personal tryst with Ray followed by a detailed account of Ray’s incredible grandfather-father duo of Upendra Kishore and Sukumar, he judiciously sketches the paternal and maternal characters of the Ray family, highlighting the chronicles of the influential ones in particular, astutely handpicked from Ray’s memoir ‘Jakhan Choto Chilam’ (When I was small). From his school and college years to the legendary Santiniketan stint and the interaction with Tagore, we trace Ray’s evolving thought patterns and pre-occupations that briefly culminated in commercial art with British ad agency D J Keymer before he switched over to independent film making. Here, Robinson unfolds Ray’s dignified authority as a profound film critic which was indicative of his holistic approach to cinema, also a great primer on the art and science of review writing.

There couldn’t have been a better description of Ray than Andrew’s. "Ray is a rich and multifarious person in an age of impoverished specialization". Robinson cites "a cynical materialism masquerading as liberation" as the prime reason for the ridiculous inference that Ray is now hopelessly outdated. Indians don’t merely share the Western indifference to Bengali and Indian culture as he’s observed; a good number of them even treasure this apathy as an emblem of progression, partly explaining their insatiable appetite for and unqualified appreciation of even the most inane Hollywood films. On the other end is a vast majority given to sentimental worship and sloganeering who are still being cinematically spoon fed by popular cinema ‘reducing them to a state of unredeemable vacuity’ as the master had impeccably observed way back in the 80s.

The chapter ‘Unmade Films’ is a valiantly informative account, one of the few outspoken records of the various unfortunate events that led to Ray’s failure to film E M Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’ and ‘The Alien’ based on his own script. It’s prudent to note the dubious (and hence indignant) claim of star director Steven Spielberg who remarked when quizzed about the striking familiarities between ‘E T’ and ‘The Alien’. "Tell Satyajit I was a kid in high school when his script was circulating in Hollywood" Robinson poignantly underlines Ray’s quiet dignity with which he overlooked such shady dealings around him including the infamous parliamentary debate in which ‘Mother India’ MP Nargis Dutt accused Ray of distorting India’s image abroad in rather unparliamentary fashion. Even though his supporters including the maverick Utpal Dutt immediately came forward to defend him, he went about his quiet affairs unperturbed, guided by his own maxim "The right people will continue to do the right things"

‘Ray as Designer, Illustrator and Writer’ tells us about his awesome proficiency in typography, calligraphy and illustrations as also his endearing vignettes and short stories including ‘Patol Babu, Film Star’ which we recently saw in adapted form – as Dibakar Banerjee’s film starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the commemorative ‘Bombay Talkies’ (with due credit to Ray’s script, we hope) ‘Some aspect of his craft’ beautifully highlights Ray’s holistic approach, a great companion reference complementing Ray’s own thoughts penned in "Our films, Their Films".

Robinson’s critique of Ray’s films (as also his character sketch of the great man) is wonderfully sensitive, carefully excavating the underlying insights and analytically underlining the vulnerable links. Unlike most critics – revered and otherwise – he has no qualms either to revisit his earlier perceptions about certain Ray films or point out facts like Ray’s susceptibility in scientific matters that often showed in his films. After a preface on the making of Pather Panchali, Robinson offers detailed notes on Ray’s body of work – from the inaugural ‘Apu Trilogy’ to ‘Agantuk’, Ray’s last film. Robinson’s smart classification of Ray’s common genre films under suitable heads like comedies, musicals, detective films and documentaries and the all-inclusive bibliography at the end help novice Ray viewers explode two popular myths: one, Ray should be best known for his Apu Trilogy and two, Ray films are only about the grim and grave matters of life. Robinson’s examination of most films is undeniably comprehensive including notes on Ray’s methodical research and preparation. In the process, he unearths such intricate aspects which are hardly ever discussed even in film circles. Andrew’s book is unquestionably a great handbook for our high and mighty critics aptly described by Ray as "anyone with access to print" (and now web and electronic media as well)

Having said that, it was disappointing to find no mention of versatile singer Kishore Kumar (and his wonderful chemistry with Ray) in Robinson’s comprehensive notes on ‘Charulata’ and ‘Ghare Bhaire’, ditto for Amitabh Bachchan’s voice over in ‘The Chess Players’. Also, Robinson’s take on Ray’s ‘Nayak’, we are afraid, seems more punitive than persuasive in its argument. As he’s rightly noted, ‘Nayak’ was certainly not among Ray’s best but the phenomenal performances of support players, notably Mukunda Lahiri (Bireswar Sen), Somen Bose (Sankarda), Premangshu Bose (Biresh), Pritish Sarkar (Kamu Mukherjee) and Nirmal Ghosh (Jyoti) deserved special mention. Most important, Uttam Kumar’s act is true to life if you compare it with Soumitra Chatterjee’s taxi driver in ‘Abhijan’. Here, Ray clearly banked on Kumar’s established stardom more than his lack of ‘Burton-like real star qualities’ that Robinson points out. For the Bengali audience in particular, he was very much a ‘modern Krishna with a flute’. As far as his acting is concerned, there are umpteen scenes which more than attest his credence like the one in which union leader Biresh gate crashes at Kumar’s place seeking a favour just when Kumar is giving measurements for one of his film costumes. Uttam’s interpretation is a case study in effortless acting, especially the way he makes room for Biresh by politely dispersing the crowd packed with diverse requests, exactly like a well-meaning busy star would in similar circumstances. In fact, in our reckoning, it’s Ray’s ‘Seemabaddha’ that needs careful examination under the microscope. The concluding scene of this film appears rather theatrical by Ray’s high standards: the way the protagonist and his sister-in-law accentuate their contrasting gestures to underscore the central message and the manner in which the ‘wristwatch’ motif has been force fitted for poignant appeal. Given that Ray was a master in accurately estimating the intrinsic range of emotions of his chosen characters, the sister in law’s morality seems rather bewildering, not exactly in line with her screen sensibilities and circumstances. But that’s only a subjective argument, nothing right or wrong about it. And it does not take away even an ounce from Robinson’s sincere and studied effort.

Many people often talk of a pronounced shift in Ray’s fag end work, away from the subtle lyricism of his earlier work towards stark prose and absolute clarity as they call it. For one, prose and poetry in a Ray film is not chalk and cheese for anybody to discern them in absolute terms. Secondly, even if Ray did eventually move to stark reality as they claim, that’s absolutely fine as an observation as Robinson puts it. But some of our distinguished friends try and read more. They hint at a possible dilution or even deterioration in this shift. That’s absolutely uncalled for. It’s obvious that Ray’s failing health would have a taken a toll on his cinema of later years. That the green signal to indoor shoots came under strict medical supervision would have naturally affected his filmmaking in some way or the other. Even to the public eye, his exhaustion is glaringly evident in the 1989 Pierre-Andre Boutang interview in which he appears extremely frail, slightly crestfallen and noticeably resigned, clearly a direct consequence of an ailment-driven ageing that robbed him of his characteristic upright demeanour. In fact, we should be happy that Ray didn’t put a full stop to his filmmaking voyage even during these trying circumstances.

The fact is many people including some of his best known peers can’t accept the fact that Ray’s towering profundity and hovering versatility could go neck-deep in all areas of filmmaking (Richard Attenborough splendidly described it in his TV interview during the making of ‘The Chess Players’). Besides, he was a gifted painter, writer, designer, illustrator and composer with an impressive body of work spanning disparate worlds - from children’s literature to adult fiction, from composing music to creating fonts. To top it all, he was a simple man with an austere lifestyle by film fraternity standards. His marked aversion to public platforms obviously offered no scope whatsoever for weaving juicy news bytes linked with his name. For the ‘impoverished specialists’ among our filmmakers, filmgoers, experts and enthusiasts, Ray continues to be a formidable challenge. Precisely why they invariably fall short of the commensurate effort to delve deeper into the subtleties of Ray’s consummate work which calls for, as Robinson recommends, "a wide understanding of world cinema, Western and Indian classical music, informed appreciation of the language, literature, music, art, religions and the cultural confluence of India among other things." Phew, that’s quite an effort.

It’s far easier to capture Ray in clichéd adjectives like "Classical" (whatever that means) or simply masquerade as Ray converts to appear intellectual. There’s a vast army of Ray colleagues who deem the hypocorism ‘Manikda’ to be a necessary and sufficient evidence of their Ray authority. And then we have a few adventurists who claim absolute knowledge of Ray’s limitations in obviously obscure terms. Like those who claim that Ray was not original and hence was lured by literary revisions. Why don’t they take a closer look at the quality of his adaptations instead? How many directors worldwide are capable of such magical insertions as the madman in Tagore’s ‘Post master’ or the boy Kallu in Premchand’s ‘Shatranj ke Khilari’. Both were born out of a purely cinematic need that Ray instinctively felt integral to take the story forward on screen. That’s originality at its sublime best.

It’s no surprise then that Ray’s followers commend him and his detractors condemn him invariably for the wrong reasons. Even in the occasional discord over beliefs and principles, the stance against Ray invariably stands on shaky ground. A case in point can be drawn from Robinson’s book although the author has refrained from expressing his own thoughts on the matter. One of Ray’s leading ladies voiced her dissent in response to Ray’s perceptible hint of a possible conflict that an unfaithful Indian wife could face as a mother, as depicted in the short film ‘Pikoo’, one that would make her forcibly insensitive to the child’s demands. Our esteemed actress-turned-director has sorely missed Ray’s subtle point in her perfunctory clarion call of feminism. She would rather do well to introspect on the prime reason why she looks unconvincing in her non-Ray films, like some other Ray regulars who later made a glamorous living in mainstream Hindi cinema that offered stardom on a platter. They owe it solely to Ray’s Midas touch that made even mediocre players seem like gifted actors. With the exception of artistes like Utpal Dutt and Victor Banerjee, we don’t have many who held their own in Hindi movies. And hard as they might try, they can’t blame the formulaic, larger than life Bollywood norm for the dilution. A good actor is supposed to make any role as convincing as possible. No wonder, Ray cast several Bombay artistes like Amjad Khan, Sanjeev kumar, Leela Mishra and David for their brilliant performances in mainstream Hindi films. Contrary to popular perception, Ray was appreciative of many redeeming features of Hindi cinema including its factory-like but inventive approach to musical compositions.

Despite knowing Ray from close quarters, Robinson refrains from making any exclusive claims that often colour the pages of any archetypal biography. His observations stem from genuine wonderment, reassuringly free of the imposing, half-baked pronouncements in the guise of analysis. We owe it to Robinson for introducing us to some of Ray’s close friends and acquaintances like the multi-faceted linguist David McCutchion, eccentric uncle Choto kaka, grand uncle and story teller Dhondadu, nonconformist Presidency College professor Humphry House, India’s bicycle pioneer and perfumer H. Bose, art historian Prithwish Neogy and polymath Kamal Kumar Majumdar, all mavericks in their own right.

The chapter titled ‘Inner Eye’ and the section ‘Legacy of Satyajit Ray’ of the concluding part forms the crux of Robinson’s heartfelt tribute to Ray. As he succinctly puts it "Satyajit Ray and his films, especially his very last films, would remind us of the wholeness and sanctity of the individual, and offer us intimations, if we cared to tune ourselves to him, of a mysterious unity behind the mysterious world." Robinson prophetically cautioned us some time back "In the future, there is a definite risk that Ray’s work, except for the Apu trilogy, will become trapped in an eddy by the very breadth and uniqueness of its creator’s range of eastern and western references: neither in the cultural mainstream like Kurosawa’s films, nor in the cultic backwaters like Ritwik Ghatak’s."

It’s definitely our collective responsibility to rescue the master from the eddy of our obliviousness and short-sightedness and Robinson serves as our best guiding light in this endeavour. What more can one ask from a sensitive biographer?

Micromax Informatics: From Micro to Maximum

(Recalling a dated piece on the request of a few readers who follow my India Infoline thought pieces)

Sudhir Raikar, IIFL | Mumbai | January 06, 201509:32 IST

Having marked its debut as a fringe player in a seller’s market dominated by the big fish, Micromax is today an undeniable force to reckon with, that too in a demanding and daunting smartphone bazaar of multiple choices. The news of the proposed IPO of this top-rung player represents a success story of several fertile breakthroughs rolled into one mobile phenomenon.

When analysts and media experts get busy scripting your evolution as they see it, you know you have arrived. Micromax knows that pretty well. Till date, many success factors have been attributed to the Micromax success story – some have seen it as a joyride on the wheels of a smart China-made arbitrage, others point out the company’s knack of reading the Indian customer’s mind and there are many who single out the company’s penchant for pocket-friendly innovation.

Indeed, all these elements have fuelled the company’s meteoric rise in the mobile space but the real engine of its success has been its insatiable appetite for calculated risk. After all, the market was open to other domestic players like Micromax with the same set of opportunities and possibilities beckoning them. It’s only the ingredient of risk, almost synonymous with innovation, which makes the Micromax evolution truly stand out - gutsy and gusty in the same breath.

Talk of smartphones, tablets, LED TVs or data cards, not many makers can match the Micromax acumen when it comes to fixing value and price exactly in line with the customer’s aspiration. Not many founders would have the time, inclination or the motivation to personally visit retail stores to gauge ‘live’ customer feedback. Not many strategists would be as keen to make the everyday needs of customers central to their R & D plans. Not many spenders would risk the gamble of big ticket celebrity endorsements to lure target markets, a move that could well have boomeranged with disastrous financial consequences.

No wonder, the likes of Sequoia Capital and Sandstone Capital chose to back the then non-entity proposition with their minority stakes. No wonder, Micromax made quick inroads into the rustic Indian marketspace with a rooted,matter-of-fact proposition like the 30-day battery backup. No wonder, Micromax was the first player to introduce dual SIM phones leaving the Nokias and the Samsungs with a trail, easy to emulate in design but impossible to match in price. No wonder, the company launched novel factory-packaged products with unfailing regularity and also distributed them with commensurate alacrity across the length and breadth of the country.

It would be interesting to see how the public issue, following a shelved attempt to tap the capital markets in 2011, shapes the company’s blueprinted cause for the future. As per media bytes, half of the proceeds are likely to fund a handset manufacturing plant in south India, while the rest would be used for global acquisitions and brand promotion.

Clearly, the road ahead would result in a bumpy ride. Consumers, given the sheer abundance of choice, have today become fussier about features and edgy about their post purchase ‘holding’ periods. China is no longer an arbitrage haven that it used to be what with news of steadily rising wages that would necessarily dilute the cost-effective manufacturing advantage. Competing brands like Xiaomi, Gioni and Motorola are likely to get more aggressive in their counter-strategies that could make a dent into the Micromax prospects. Besides, there’re a host of domestic players luring budget-conscious buyers with equally attractive price tags.

Given its exceptionally striking voyage till date, it’s highly unlikely that Micromax would be caught napping. Already, it is employing an assorted approach to the supply-side dynamic – using China as a selective manufacturing base on one end and running indigenous production lines on the other. And the chi of unquenchable innovation is still intact.

A strong case in point is the new online initiative Yu Televentures that seeks to tap the tech-hungry youth brigade,banking on the customization and performance value proposition of Android’s Cyanogen OS, confronting the Chinese OnePlus in the process. The latter is pinning its hopes on the Android Lollipop OS after a bitter last minute divorce with Cyanogen consequent to the Micromax-Cyanogen marriage. That Yu Televentures doesn’t mention the Micromax brand either on the product docket or literature could well be the company’s ploy to get rid of the ‘mass market’ tag that is often deemed sub-standard, more by its competitors than buyers.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Project for the speechless, which leaves you speechless!

Sudhir Raikar, IIFL | Mumbai | April 25, 201609:51 IST

VocaliD aptly sums up its enduring value prop on its website: ‘The voice company that is bringing speaking machines to life.’ This initiative has indeed taken man- machine collaboration to another level.

Belmont-based VocaliD is not your everyday startup. Brainchild of 43-year old speech scientist Rupal Patel, it’s a project aimed at designing personalized synthetic voices to help people with severe speech impairments speak in a voice that suits their body and persona. In what’s a telling outcome of Patel’s painstaking collaboration with Dr. Tim Bunnell of Nemours Al Dupont Hospital for Children, VoacliD has developed algorithms to build unique voices for people who are forced to rely on computer aided-speech in the aftermath of a stroke, Parkinson’s Disease, cerebral palsy or other serious impediments.

A BS from the University of Calgary and Masters and PhD from the University of Toronto, Patel’s experience spans over 15 years of clinical and research experience in assistive technology. She has authored over 50 peer- reviewed journal articles and several hundred conference presentations in the areas of speech motor control and assistive communication technology and has raised $5M+ in research funding from federal agencies and foundations.

She holds appointments in the Harvard/MIT Speech and Hearing Biosciences and Technology program, The Department of Psychiatry at University of Massachusetts, and Haskins Laboratory at Yale University. A tenured Professor at Northeastern University in the College of Computer and Information Science, she has founded an interdisciplinary laboratory at the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. Besides Patel, the VocaliD team ( comprises some of the best brains – scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs - all committed champions.

It was a young woman called Samantha who unknowingly made Patel’s mission even more purposeful in serving the larger cause of its beneficiaries. The team realized midway - in the course of the team’s efforts to create a perfectly scientific voice for her - that Samantha didn’t want a perfect voice; she wanted ‘her’ voice back. This lent momentum to VocaliD’s experiments to iteratively improve techniques, which rely on combining the recipient’s vocal identity features with the speech clarity features of a matched voice donor. Before VocaliD’s innovation, a synthetic voice invariably meant a generic computerized voice, the most popular example being Stephen Hawking, who uses a synthesiser called DECtalk.

The VocaliD team is focused on raising funds for a unique Human Voicebank Initiative that seeks to build the infrastructure to gather and store all donor voices. The goal is to collect one million voice samples by 2020 to create the world’s largest voice repository. This corpus would help VocaliD generate unique vocal identities for hundreds of recipients through matching donors.

The Human Voicebank Initiative is indeed herculean as the firm’s Lab model cannot not be scaled to ensure mass reach.

Voice donors need to visit either Patel’s or Dr. Bunnell’s labs to record three hours of speech (around 3,200 sentences) in a professional sound studio. The patient “utterances” – sounds that they are able to produce – provide clues to the original speech texture, prior to the impediment. Surrogates of the same gender and age group are then made to read from classic books. The two voices are blended together to create a high-quality matching voice using a tool called ModelTalker. It takes at least 800 sentences to create a usable voice, and around 3000 to make it sound natural, to the extent possible. The VocaliD wizards can reverse engineer a voice with just three seconds of sound, using algorithms to find a matched speaker within the Voicebank and blend the vocal DNA with their recordings. The result is a personalized digital voice that preserves the match's clarity, and conveys the beneficiary’s unique vocal identity.

The lab-based arrangement limits the possibility of making a real difference for the hundreds of people waiting for voices and for the even larger populace who may want voices in the future. Given the fact that beneficiaries are not limited to a single age group or backgrounds, the group of donors need to be diverse in the true sense of the word.

VocaliD has since broad-based its model through software that can run on tablets and mobile phones that are equipped with high-quality microphones, indeed god sent for the given purpose. Gaming is another option the startup is working on to make communication engaging for children as also for those who may lack the technical awareness to learn about the project in DIY mode.

VocaliD aptly sums up its enduring value prop on its website: ‘The voice company that is bringing speaking machines to life.’ This initiative has indeed helped man and machine collaboration move up the value chain. Needless to say, mass scale public participation will help the team achieve its 2020 mission, may be even surpass it. The VocaliD voicebanking platform currently has over 11,000 members from over 110 countries. You can help both these figures swell phenomenally. Visit to find out more.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Operation Theatre: The Life and Times of Dr. Subhash Munje

Dr. Subhash Munje, renowned surgeon and stanch humanitarian, firmly believed in sharing his life stories to the tee. Insight or indecision, accomplishment or astonishment, delight or disappointment; he was keen to lay open his mixed bag of experiences for public dissection. A film on his life will go a long way in restoring the credibility of the medical profession in the guiding light of Dr. Munje’s example.

Dr. Munje’s memoir “Behind the Mask”, an honest and humorous account of his umpteen surgical trials and triumphs in the course of his momentous but largely unsung career – a great window into the mind of a sensitive surgeon who breathes the patient’s sigh of relief every time his treatment works and feels deeply wounded each time he’s unable to succeed.

Dr. Munje narrates such diverse tales – real-life stories of human courage and conviction, frailties and failures, insecurities and inhibitions – that both enrich and endanger the medical profession in copious ways.

Dr. Munje began his career at age 26, as the youngest civil surgeon of Alibaug near Mumbai. This place in the 60-70 decade was bereft of electricity to safeguard the world’s purest magnetic observatory situated in this sleepy beach town. Unfortunately, the global distinction came at the cost of the general public welfare and community development as the town was left groping in the dark while most of its neighboring regions basked in the glory of lights.

So, Dr. Munje had to operate aided by his hunting light in a deprived district hospital equipped with 12 beds and only two medical officers. Needless to say, he played multiple roles in catering to diverse situations – surgeon, physician, obstetrician, gynecologist, pediatrician, ophthalmologist and even psychiatrist. Had Dr. Munje been in the US, his chronicles would have traveled far and wide as glittering case studies of innovation amidst abject deprivation but here he was in far-flung Alibaug, far-away from the mainstream, oblivious from the glamour of sprawling labs and spacious hospitals and yet, neck deep in the flowing stream of every-day strife that he took by its horns. His manifold trials and tribulations would make the best of surgeons gasp for breath. Let’s take a look at a few:

• The insecure outgoing Civil Surgeon of Alibaug, the one preceding him, had the impudence to mislead unsuspecting patients with a ridiculous assertion (Dr. Munje is only an MS, I am an MBBS) and worse, once he recklessly went ahead with the draining of an abscess only to please his bloated ego. The abscess was a rare case of aneurysm of the Aorta and he was forewarned by Dr. Munje against the drain for the potential blood deluge it would cause (which did happen in full force)
• Dr. Munje successfully managed a surgery of acute appendicitis on a furiously swaying makeshift operating table. Reason? The patient was a notorious sea pirate and the surgery happened at gun point in a rocking boat floating in the middle of the sea.
• On one occasion, he faced a queer request, a tempting surgical challenge, but one he downright refused for ethical reasons. The request was to make yet another invisible “pocket” in the inside of a person’s thighs to help smuggle diamonds. Dr. Munje however was all praise for the dexterity of the anonymous surgeon who had made the first pocket leaving only a thin 1-inch scar that invariably escaped the custom guys’ attention. Just because the surgeon was no more, the designer task had been “referred” to Dr. Munje.
• Guided by his impressive track record of quite a few thoracotomies in the district hospital, the incredible doctor performed a phenomenal surgery for the widening of a narrow heart valve on a complex case of Mitral Stenosis, on a patient with Situs Inversus (major visceral organs mirrored from their normal position). In hindsight, he admits it was a risky proposition at a small place like Alibaug. This feat won the admiration of India’s best known cardiologist who was vacationing in Alibaug at the same time. He was intrigued by the blood packs in his Alibaug-bound motor launch and decided to discreetly observe the “village surgeon” in action. Thrilled with what he saw, he offered Dr. Munje a lifetime opportunity to join his privileged team in Mumbai. No doubt, Dr. Munje would have scaled new heights with specialized training in cardiovascular surgery but he decided to stay put in Alibaug. The glorious sense of achievement amidst all the adversity was more precious than any professional recognition.
• Once he travelled all the way to Murud fighting rain and thunderstorm to attend to a bleeding pregnancy crisis but even before he could go about his job, the patient expired. For the sake of an old woman visibly frantic about the child in the womb, he decided to examine the dead body and actually felt a foetal movement. In a miraculous development, he delivered a badly asphyxiated but revivable child through a postmortem cesarean – a girl child after seven boys – who was named after the mother and grew up into a healthy woman and mother of three children herself.
• In one chapter titled “A dose of his own medicine” he recounts his own horrifying first-hand experience of awareness in anesthesia, having woken up in the midst of a routine operation to find him paralyzed but yet aware of every single surgical procedure from incision to retraction to dissection. It was only a miracle that he survived that near-death experience – akin to a blaze of spiritual enlightenment.
There are so many such instances – unbelievable but true - but the most astonishing concern a drunken ward boy called Mr. Sandey who regularly helped the doctor with such ingenious “Eureka” remedies that would find no mention in medical journals but they worked wonders when all medical possibilities had come to a screeching halt.

Here’s the account of one such Sandey solution:

A seven-month pregnant woman was attacked by a wayward bull causing a goring abdomen injury. The wound had perforated the abdominal wall exposing not only the intestinal loop and the protective abdominal fat (called omentum) but also the uterus which clearly showed the baby’s protruding forearm. Dr. Munje successfully opened the abdomen and fixed all injuries save for the baby’s hand. Even as desperate thoughts like amputation or a forced delivery crossed the doctor’s mind, our Mr. Sandey suggested a mild shock with a red hot needle. The suggestion seemed outrageous but Dr. Munje decided to pursue it. Heating an injection needle on a burning spirit swab, he placed it on the hand – and wonder of wonders, the child instinctively pulled its hand back. The birth two months later was perfectly normal and more important the hand had no tell-tale signs of the pre-birth mishap. And Dr. Munje had no qualms in unconditionally accepting Sanday’s genius as also proclaiming him as his most trusted advisor. Quick to express gratitude wherever it was due, he never sought attention or did his own promotion. Else, his world record of performing as many as 400 Tubal Ligations in a small village called Ainpur (that found mention in the London Times) could have easily entered the Guinness Book of World Records.

In the concluding chapter, Dr. Munje reminds us of Hippocrates, father of medicine, who remarked “I would like to know what sort of person has the disease rather than what sort of disease the person has”.

In the pursuit of medical advancement like genetic engineering, heart and kidney transplants, coronary bypasses and laser angioplasties, Dr. Munje laments, we have lost track of the human mind. Corporate entities have turned modalities like C T Scan, MRI, Sonography and nuclear studies into a profitable business. Doctors, he reflects, don’t feel the need to strike conversation with the patient any more. The diagnostic tools, which are only for the sake of confirming diagnosis, dictate the treatment instead.

In one instance, a patient was advised surgery for suspected cancer following a CT Scan which revealed a doubtful shadow in one of the nasal sinuses. Overcome with grief and stress, the patient had lost considerable weight which was linked back to the suspected cancer. When Dr. Munje examined him, he found the patient’s uncontrollable diabetes pointing towards diabetic neuropathy. The patient was taken into confidence and treated for diabetes. He had a full recovery in good time.

Despite his single-handed humanitarian work in remote areas, Dr. Munje was never adequately recognized by the government. Worse, he was repeatedly victimized and cornered by the powers-that-be – by peers and adversaries alike. Thanks to the supremacy of his conviction, he emerged unscathed every single time. And amidst all the strife, he never lost his zest for life. A wildlife enthusiast, he was fond of pets and as the pages of the book reveal, lover of poetry and shayari too. His striking sense of humour makes him a P L Deshpande among surgeons. He narrates many jokes and anecdotes in the book including this one popular in medical circles on the needless but rampant ordeals like Appendectomy: “A pretty nurse was called Appendix. Why? Because every surgeon wanted to take her out”

Whether at Alibaug or later at Thane, the doctor continued his practice largely on the goodwill he generated from his good work. Donations poured in from grateful patients but the doctor ensured they were always in kind – whether x-ray machines, refrigerators, cots, lockers, stretchers or even linen. In this context, Dr. Munje narrates one telling incident which reflects the sorry governmental practices in the name of rules and regulations. At some juncture, he had some of the worn-out instruments replaced with genuine stainless steel ones to sustain the hard water and sea shore proximity of Alibaug. Since the purchase exceeded the Government rate contract, he was questioned for the “exorbitant” expenditure. (He was never congratulated for the good work) Dr. Munje silenced the nuisance makers with some irrefutable logic “If you were to be operated yourself, which instrument would you prefer?” Obviously, there was no answer from the other side.

Dr. Munje’s will and skill in establishing a candid dialogue with his patients as also his unwavering commitment to the larger cause of medicine is a life lesson particularly for those medical professionals who choose to play safe at the cost of human life, and who treat their fraternity as nothing more than an elite club of the chosen few, consciously placed way above the reach and comprehension of the common people.

To put his profession in perspective in his own words “Surgery is a performing art, just like music, dance and stagecraft. But there are no retakes or replays. And as much an art, it’s a science and sacrament too.”