Private Treaties for Public Consumption

The Times of India is the largest selling English broadsheet in the world with a circulation of 2.4 million. This makes the holding company, Bennet Coleman & Co. Ltd. the richest media empire in India. However, this is not just due of the reputation of its media assets.

The Times of India has had the distinction of being considered the newspaper of record in India since it was founded in 1838. Many distinguished journalists in India served in the editorial ranks of ToI. In fact, as the saying goes, ‘if you haven’t done time with the old lady of Boribunder you haven’t done anything’. That was till the 1980’s, the last of the glory days of Indian journalism. Since then ToI has morphed transformer-like from an autobot into the journalistic version of a decepticon.

ToI’s entire approach to journalism started changing from the late 80’s onwards. It is a cardinal principle in journalism that news and advertising should be kept apart. Publications like NYT and WSJ in fact go a step further and separate fact and opinion. It is well known that the WSJ has separate management structures for its edit and city reporting pages, who cannot stand each other. Indian newspapers followed the principle of keeping news and advertising separate till B, C&C ltd changed the media scape in India.

This they did by blurring the distinction between editorial content and advertising, giving short shrift to serious stories, focusing more on celebrities and page 3 and tremendous brand building exercises. Now, the latest step in that direction is through ‘Private Treaties’.

Simply put, Private Treaties are agreements between B,C&C and corporates where the former picks up equity in a company in return for advertising rates at concessional rates to free and positive coverage in B, C&C’s many media outlets. Although Private Treaties has been in existence since 2004 it attracted some media coverage only recently.

Its not as if newspapers and magazines have not carried advertorials before. But these are clearly marked as paid for with a disclaimer that the newspaper does not endorse the views therein. However, that distinction doesn’t exist in private treaties. As the website puts it, “As a treaty partner, your company can also avail of a bouquet of professional expertise within the Private Treaties Department. Our three pronged solution encompasses: Advertising Support, Branding Support, Corporate image development.”

Advertising, branding, corporate image development: the life-blood of any mid-size company dreaming of joining the big league. And what better way of doing it than positive coverage in the world’s largest selling English broadsheet and India’s largest selling economic daily (Economic Times). But what about larger questions of journalistic ethics? Suppose a reporter pursues a negative story about a comapany with is B,C&C’s partner, would s/he feel obliged to go soft, assuming the editor does not kill the story. Or, suppose a reporter goes on a junket paid for by a company, will s/he be obliged to write positively about the company or its products.

Free Binayak Sen…NOW!!!

For all those concerned with the continued incarceration of Dr Binayak Sen, who continues to languish in a jail in Chhattisgarh on charges of being a “naxal”, please sign this online petition.

Dr Binayak Sen is a paediatrician, public health specialist and national vice president of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties who decided to make his home in Chhattisgarh bringing medical facilities to the tribals and dispossessed. For the last two years a near civil war situation has been prevailing in Chhattisgarh as a ‘spontaneous’ militia called the Salwa Judum has been waging a war of attrition with the extreme left wing Maoists in the jungles of Chhattisgarh.

It is widely believed that Salwa Judum is a front for government and acts on behest of the police-contractor-business nexus in terrorrising villagers and forcing them to leave their villages in order to depopulate whole areas to deprieve the Maoists of local support. This makes it easier for the police and the militia to hunt them down. There are reliable reports that whole villages have been forced into gated camps, though you won’t get to read these in the mainstream media.

Dr Sen criticised the role of the Salwa Judum and the human rights excesses of the police in Chattisgarh. For his efforts he was charged with ‘aiding and abetting naxal activity in the state’ under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act 2005 and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 2004.

The ‘red scare’ has reached ridiculous proportions. People today can be branded ‘Maoist sympathisers’ simply by the act of possessing ‘appropriate literature’. This means that if I possess a copy of the Das Kapital or the writings of Lenin or Mao I could be arrested. I don’t subscribe to Maoist ideology. In fact I have many disagreements with them, but I don’t believe that anyone who reads Maoist literature or even supports them should be arrested on a whim and thrown in jail.

Many civil society organisations are involved in campaigning on behalf of Binayak Sen. I will post updates as and when they happen.

Cricket goes global(isation)

After the mayhem of the player auctions for the BCCI’s newly formed Indian Premier League its time to take stock.

Astronomical sums were thrown about for acquiring players for the 8 franchises of the IPL. The highest bid was for Mahendra Dhoni who was acquired by Chennai for Rs 6 crores. The next highest was Andrew Symmonds (gasp!) who went for a cool 5.4 crore. After the racism row involving Symmonds and Harbhajan and the nationalistic outrage it aroused in India (“How silly, of course we are not racist”) one would have thought Symonds would be persona-non-grata in India. Nothing like a free market balm for soothing hurt feelings, eh. Symonds’ more experienced team mates were upset that they went so cheap. Ponting got only a few hundred thousand dollars above his reserve price and McGrath failed to even get his reserve price.

Something like Rs 128 crore was spent on 78 cricketers at the auction. In financial terms the IPL has been a tremendous success generating a cool billion dollars all told in player and franchise auctions, television rights and marketing jamboree. But as a purely sporting experience I am not so sure how much it is worth.

Let me explain. The IPL is a bid to create an American or European type of sports league where franchises can afford to buy and sell players from other franchises or import them from outside the league paying tremendous amounts of cash to pay for the upkeep of the teams generated from television rights, sponsorship deals and ticket revenues.

For a template look no further than the English Premier League. The EPL was formed to reap the benefits of television rights deals. 20 of the top clubs in English football constitute the league in a system of promotion and relegation. EPL is the most watched sporting league in the world generating revenues in excess of a billion pounds per annum as of 2007-08. If the IPL hopes to emulate EPL they have got their marketing instincts right, but their sporting fundas all mixed up. For one thing about the EPL is that all the teams in the EPL were formed over a century ago as sporting expressions within close knit communities throughout England. This is important to remember. Football teams in Europe are of old vintage and grew organically in close knit communities, nurtured by close bonds of working class kinship and affiliation. This was also before the age of multi-billion dollar television deals, 24/7 news, media hype and marketing blitz. Therefore, the relation between the fan and the club in European football is of an entirely different order. To be a fan is to follow your team through thick and thin, through lean and strong, up and down, failure and success and never lose hope.

This is the difference between the IPL and the EPL it hopes to emulate. IPL may become an commercial success, but to launch a marketing blitz mixed with a strong dose of corporate and bollywood glamour and then hope that fans will connect and show allegiance to city based teams is unrealistic. Especially in a game like cricket where the associations are more with the national team than at the city-level or club-level.

As a purely sporting experience I have my reservations.

World Cinema Wonderland 3

Once Upon

Once Upon a Time In America: Forget the spaghetti westerns for which Sergio Leone is famous. This (along with his Once Upon a Time in the West – see below) is his masterpiece. A big flop when it was first released as the studio had chopped up the film into an incoherent mess the film’s reputation was restored when the original director’s cut was subsequently released. It is a slow but beautiful film underscored by the haunting score of Morricone that deals with the consequences of memory, betrayal, loyalty and loss. Finely nuanced performances by De Niro and James Woods add to the moody nostalgia of the film. The city of New York in which the film is set in is in itself a major character of the film whose growth and problems mirror those of the film’s characters. If you like Leone’s Westerns then do not miss this. Also marks the debut of the luminous Jennifer Connelly.

Once Upon a Time in the West: As mentioned above another of the masterpieces directed by Leone. An epic western starring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson and Jason Robards it forms the beginning of a loose trilogy which ended with the above film. Featuring yet another masterful and melodic score by Morricone this film like the one above slowly grows on you with each passing minute. It examines at leisure with slow tracking shots that lack much dialog life on the edge of civilization and the choices men make in those circumstances. The painstakingly choreographed gun fights are a sight to watch even if they are over in a flash.

The Motorcycle Diaries

Diarios de Motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries): A moving and inspiring film about the epic journey made by Che Guevara and his friend on a motorcycle across South America and how the journey played a major role in the awakening of political consciousness in the young medical student.

The Conversation: In some ways this is the best film made by Coppola. More intimate than his Godfather and Vietnam War epics this little film about a quiet and intensely private man who spies on other people works on so many levels. Suffused with an intense sense of paranoia in keeping with the subject matter of the film and the conspiracy riddled time it was released in (just after the Watergate scandal broke) the film is still hugely relevant today with its themes of erosion of privacy with increasing technology and personal responsibility. Gene Hackman is pitch perfect as the audio surveillance expert.

One Flew Cuckoo

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest: One of my favorite films. Milos Forman stayed mostly true to Kesey’s novel and in the process crafted a fine jewel about non-conformism and its effect on rigid authority. The film works because of some excellent performances by the lead actors. Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher deserved their Oscars for the roles of McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, which they made their own so well that you cannot imagine anyone else in their roles.

La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers): A landmark film based on the Algerian War against French rule that has been highly influential. Gillo Pontecorvo’s fiercely independent film refuses to take sides and in that process exposes the cruelty that both sides resorted to in the name of freedom and colonization. The film’s semi-documentary style lends it an authenticity and rawness that very few films dealing with a historical topic manage to achieve.


Solyaris (Solaris): Often termed as the Russian answer to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey this Tarkovsky film is a masterpiece in its own right. Based on a novella by the Czech writer Stanislaw Lem the film is an exploration of the hubris of man and his overconfident dependence on science and technology as the answer to everything even when it utterly fails when confronted with an alien intelligence. Deliberately paced and at times irritatingly slow (the car driving sequence) this is not a typical science fiction film as there are no epic space battles or spectacular spaceships to feast your eyes on. On the contrary the film is a psychologically intense examination of man and the alienating effects technology and space exploration has on him as well as the resulting loneliness. (The film was recently remade by Steven Soderbergh as Solaris with George Clooney in the lead which although better than most Hollywood science fiction and featuring an intensely moody score still falls short of Tarkovsky’s version).

Earth: The second part in Deepa Mehta’s elemental trilogy is based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Ice Candy Man (later published as Cracking India). Set during the turbulent times of India’s partition and the subsequent Hindu-Muslim riots that engulfed many parts of India as seen through the eyes of a young Parsi girl. A fine film if a little rough around the edges. It somehow lacks the edge that Fire, the first part of the trilogy, had even though it deals with a horrific period in India’s history. The somewhat tepid nature of the film is redeemed by the intense performance of Aamir Khan.

Baise Moi

Baise Moi (Fuck Me): A highly controversial film, co-directed by a former pornographic actress and a former massage parlor employee turned writer, that was banned in many countries upon initial release. It divided Western media over whether the film was blatantly exploitative or had a genuine point to make. The film is highly graphic in its depiction of sex and violence and most of the actors come from a pornographic background. In spite of its often exploitative nature the film I felt had a point in its depiction of two women who after being exposed to the brutality of men and society embark upon a killing spree. Shot on grainy digital video using available light the film seems more like an amateurish porn video than an actual film but the look of the film somehow suits its subject matter very well. While it is debatable whether their actions are justified or not one should at least commend the directors for offering an unflinching view of the ghettoized nature of modern French society in all its stark hypocrisy. But it never comes close to the masterful restraint and finesse shown by La Haine which dealt with some of the same issues although from a more obviously masculine perspective.

The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption: Another of my favorite films, Frank Darabont’s almost perfect adaptation of Stephen King’s novella is a modern masterpiece. It is a film that revels in the simple joy of telling a good story. Criminally ignored upon its initial release this film has developed a huge fan following after its DVD release and rightly so. It even managed to creep up to the #2 position in IMDB’s list of top 250 films of all time. A simple, warm and touching story set in an American prison the film is above all about one man’s hope. A hope that he will never let die. Morgan Freeman is simply brilliant and disappears into his character with his warm voice overs (that actually started an irritating trend for using his voice for narration in many other films) and gentle smile. This is a film you will keep coming back to over and over again and in the process find something new to like every time.

Mumbai Vs Bombay

Prejudices can be hidden for political considerations, but they never entirely disappear. The last week has seen a violent resurrection of the old ‘Marathi Vs outsiders’ theme that has plagued Bombay for the last four decades. This time it’s a splinter of the original champion of the ‘Marathi Manoos’ (Marathi man) that has raised some pertinent questions in an imbecilic fashion.

Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS) assaulted several North Indians over the last one week. The primary targets of the MNS’s ire were cab drivers, milk vendors and panwallahs. In other words poor folk who have come to Mumbai to earn a living and support families back home in UP and Bihar. The provocation is the oft- repeated complaint in a rehashed form: the outsiders are flooding Mumbai and taking ‘our’ jobs; jobs that ‘belong’ to the Maharashtrians; ‘they’ don’t want to integrate with ‘our’ culture; ‘they’ live here and still dream of ‘their’ native lands and so on. The target this time are the ‘bhaiyyas’, a pejorative term for North Indians, particularly from UP and Bihar.

The Shiv Sena was the party that originally patented a politics of nativism in the ‘60s. The SS (note the similarity in name to Hitler’s Schutzstaffel, which means ‘Defence Squadron’. Coincidence?) claimed that the first call on Mumbai should rest with the Maharashtrians. The fact that the ‘sons of the soil’ did not control the city’s economy in any significant way added to the resentment. Over the years the SS targeted South Indians, Gujaratis, Muslims and now North Indians, violently in some cases.

Now the MNS has picked up the relay. Raj Thackrey says he will not allow commemoration of any other states’ other than Maharashtra, a reference to the fact that UPites were celebrating UP diwas in Mumbai. He says that if the bhaiyyas indulge in dadagiri they will be taught a lesson.

The latest round of bhaiyya bashing has raised bewildering questions about belonging, intra and transnational identity, allegiance, the nature and ownership of urban spaces and contestation of those spaces in the context of a rapidly globalizing world.

Ever since the demise of the textile mills in the ‘60s, a period that coincided with the rise of the SS, Mumbai has become more oriented towards a services economy, particularly financial services. The ‘Mumbai makeover’ over the last decade has resulted in the traditional chawls being replaced with highrise apartments. The chawls were living spaces conducive for community bonding by the very nature of their architecture: a slew of houses opened out to a common verandah where the residents had an opportunity to interact with each other on a personal basis, participate in each others festivals, bond over chai and drying laundry and where their kids played hide and seek and ‘verandah cricket’. Compare this to the more impersonal highrise towers, where you might live for 20 years and never get to know your neighbour.