Amit Paranjape’s Blog

Slumdog Millionaire – The Most Over Hyped, Most Average Movie Ever?

Posted in Current Affairs, TV, Entertainment & Movies by Amit Paranjape on January 30, 2009

Disclaimer – I am no film critic, so read this review (more of a rambling…) with a pinch of whatever it is you take J. If you agree with my views, thanks! If you disagree – sorry about wasting your precious 5 minutes!

 

Imagine its early 2009 and aliens from a distant galaxy ‘happen’ to visit earth. Technologically they are 1000s of years ahead of mankind…proven just by the mere fact that they made it all the way here J. Yet they are completely confounded in their understanding of the human mind! After researching through each and every human behavior pattern and psychology, they still cannot figure out why these homo-sapiens are so crazy about this new hit movie called ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. And it’s not as-if they didn’t do their homework!

 

Thanks to their superior screening and learning abilities, they have already internalized all the great Hollywood classics from the past eight decades. They admired the depictions of space travel in Star Wars, the portrayal of prehistoric worlds in Jurassic Park, the history lessons from Ben Hur to Gladiator; and the drama in God Father. A simple love story that translated into probably the biggest all-time movie, ‘Titanic’ also aroused their strong interest. All these movies had terrific music, direction and cinematography.

 

These aliens have even tried (admittedly, with less success) to understand India’s ‘Bollywood’ and have studied great musical works of A.R. Rahman such as ‘Roja’, ‘Lagaan’, to name a few. After all, the language of music translates across galaxies J.  They have seen stark and realistic depictions of harsh realities of urban life in the developing world, in movies such as ‘Salam Bombay’ and ‘Traffic Signal’.

 

And now they are hit with this new challenge…How in the world (Sorry, How in the Universe J  ), to explain this phenomenon of Slumdog Millionaire! I and a few others (it seems for sure…) sympathize with their predicament.

 

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with the Slumdog movie, for starters. But there’s nothing, absolutely nothing great either! An average story, with hardly any plot! Music that doesn’t even come close to any of A.R. Rahman’s better efforts. Cinematography that primarily revolves around some ‘slum’ shots and some ‘train’ shots… Acting is probably the only one above average component in the movie…but calling it great, is a stretch as well!

 

For this ‘original’, ‘realistic’, ‘unique’ and ‘special’ depiction (of an extremely typical ‘Rags-To-Riches’ story format) – why is the movie stuck with those extremely stereo-typical India portrayals? Taj Mahal, Railways, Call Centers, and Slums – this theme doesn’t look that original and imaginative.

 

There is so much hype; to the point where it is getting long standing ovations?! Is the hype coming out of the doom and gloom that majority of the world finds itself today, following the 2008 Financial Crisis? Is the situation so bad, that such a movie can ‘uplift’ the mood of so many people? ‘Look at the misery around the world, and you are thankful for what you have’ – didn’t some philosopher say something like that?

 

Or has India suddenly become the flavor of the season? Or, are the rest of the movies (I haven’t watched any of the contenders) from 2008 so bad, that the juries of prestigious awards are stuck with this one?

 

Well…just as those aliens, we would probably never no! J 

 

 

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Demise Of The Big 3: How Detroit Icons Lost Their Way Over The Past 3 Decades

Posted in Current Affairs, Financial Markets/Economics by Amit Paranjape on December 15, 2008

 A lot has been written about the Big 3 bailout. Majority of the articles published thus far talk about all the current problems that are faced by Detroit. Relatively few have discussed how they got here in the first place. I thought I will add my 2 cents to this angle.

 

“You bailed out the Financial Institutions to the tune of Hundreds of Billions of Dollars! All we are asking for is a fraction!” This seems to be general line of lobbying (pleading is probably a more appropriate word…) that the Big-3 automakers are taking to the Congress. This, coupled with the specter of 3 Million direct and indirect job losses, is creating an apparently ‘strong’ case for them. Yet, I am glad to see that there is still some opposition left in the Congress. The opposition might still be a moot point though, since the White House looks all set to bail the Big 3 out in any case.

 

It is worth looking at the ‘If for them…then why not us!’ argument. The big financial institutions had catastrophic failures/near failures, primarily due to the housing bubble collapse and risky investments over the past few years. In some sense, this once in a hundred year event had its origin in fairly recent past. The housing bubble began at the turn of this decade. [For a more comprehensive discussion regarding the 2008 Financial Crisis, please take a look at my earlier articles on the same topic: US Financial Crisis: Who Is To Be Blamed? and US Financial Crisis: The Role Of The Consumer ]

 

Comparatively, the Big 3 automakers have been in their slow death spiral for decades. In fact one can trace the beginning of the end for them, at the 1974 oil shock. Until then, they had a dream scenario of virtually no competition and extremely cheap oil. Hence it didn’t matter what you built; there was demand for it. Engine efficiency was the farthest on anyone’s mind. Those massive 6 Liter V8 vehicles of the 60s and early 70s, often resembling a small aircraft (with those fins!), would make today’s Hummer look like a compact vehicle!

 

The oil shock was a big wake up call, and the Big 3 scrambled to make smaller and efficient cars. But somehow design and quality took a backseat. It took the large scale arrival of the Japanese imports in the1980s that shook up the market again. Initially, the Big 3 probably didn’t even notice those ‘tiny’ Toyotas and Hondas. But soon as their loyal customers started to defect, due in no small part because of the persisting ‘defects’ in the American cars (no pun intended!), Detroit began to take serious notice.

 

Lean Production Systems, Total Quality Management seminars started filling up in the Midwest. Consultants started making money of these Japanese ‘best practices’. It was ironic that the person that the Japanese first learnt Total Quality Management Principles from in post WW II era, Edward Deming, was an American. Apparently in that time period, no American industry cared to listen to him.

 

As the Big-3 started improving their designs and efficiencies in the 1990s, they were perpetually in a catch-up mode. Japanese automakers had taken over a significant lead and they kept widening the gap. At this stage, it is worth mentioning that the legacy labor contracts of the Big 3 started becoming a drag on these companies, while they were trying to be agile and nimble. On a personal note, I can relate to this design gap through first hand experience. In 1994, as a new graduate student arriving in America, I had a chance to rent two different cars in the first couple of months. One was the General Motors Buick Skylark and the other one, the Toyota Corolla. The differences between the two completely startled me. 

 

Just when it seemed that Big 3 was narrowing the gap towards the end of the last decade; they made another short-sighted cardinal error! The 1997-98 Asian financial crisis drove oil to a low of near 10 Dollars. Suddenly, it seemed Detroit again got into fond memories of the 1960s and threw fuel efficiency out of the window. Instead of trying harder to close the gap on the automobile portfolio; they thought they had discovered a new winning strategy, to once and for all defeat the Japanese! The Big 3 always had a bigger portfolio in the light truck segment. These gas guzzlers were the mainstay of utility workers, farmers and other small business owners. With oil hitting new lows, the marketing geniuses of Detroit spun campaigns that made these trucks, an essential for a common white collar worker as well! Soccer moms were also in their target sight. By simply slapping on a mini-bus like body on top of the truck chassis, Detroit created something called a ‘SUV’. Soccer moms who till the mid 90s were confined to station wagons and ugly looking small minivans, now had a great option. Not sure, if the sheer size of these things made the white collar workers and the soccer moms more comfortable or safer?!

 

In the short run, these gas guzzling vehicles got handsome profits to the Big 3 and it appeared that they were finally back on track. Yet the foundation was extremely shaky. Japanese automakers also moved into this space in the late 1990s and once again showed Detroit how those same gas guzzlers could be made more reliable and comfortable. The final death sentence came when the oil prices began a steady rise this decade. SUVs and gas guzzlers were again out of favor and smaller, fuel efficient cars were back in vogue. And the Japanese were not sitting idle either with their R&D; even better fuel efficiency was now available from the newer revolutionary breakthroughs such as the Hybrid Technology. Detroit simply didn’t have any answer for this!

 

The 2008 financial crisis and resulting recession & downturn was the last straw. But, I think attributing this demise to this crisis is extremely short sighted. As described in this article, the demise was around the corner in any case. The present recession was just the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’!

 

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Random Thoughts – A New ‘Wall Street’ Trilogy?

Posted in Current Affairs, Financial Markets/Economics, TV, Entertainment & Movies by Amit Paranjape on December 3, 2008

Oliver Stone’s ‘Wall Street’ made in 1987, starring Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen is one of my all time favorite movies. Who can forget the one and only ‘Gordon Gekko’?!

 

I was not following the financial markets back in 1987, and hence cannot relate first hand to that period. Still the way this movie captures the core human emotions; especially ‘Greed’ that transcends across generations, and multiple financial crises, is extremely revealing. And Michael Douglas is fantastic. I am surprised that a blockbuster sequel (or a set of sequels) has not been launched since.

 

Just think about it; this past decade has provided us with so many great real world plots and scenarios related to Wall Street turmoil! These should be a ‘Dream come true’ for fiction authors and script writers. They say, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’…nothing proves this dictum more than what is happening in the financial world today!

 

I am writing this short summary piece to capture my random thoughts around three somewhat distinct financial crises during this decade – with specific emphasis on representative players, events, characters, themes and people psyche, as we lived through these tumultuous periods. These three crises can together form a nice new trilogy! Maybe we can all extol the Hollywood Greats to make these into movies. (As if someone is really listening –J… I for one will definitely watch these movies and also buy their DVDs!)

 

 

1. Wall Street 1 ‘The Super Bowl Of Crazy Ads’ – The Dotcom Boom & Bust

 

Think about Super-Bowl 2000. Even though this was one of the best ever Super Bowl games, it will probably be remembered for something other than the Rams-Titans classic. Who can forget that crazy ETrade Monkey ad?! And Pets.Com? This clearly was an era of ostentatious and over the top advertising of businesses and concepts that hadn’t made a single dollar of profit!

 

The crazy atmosphere in the Silicon Valley…The BMWs as sign-on bonuses… Stock options resulting in instant multi-millionaires! The new ‘internet’ based model…The doomsday scenario for ‘Brick & Mortar’ businesses… Overnight words like ‘B2B’, ‘B2C’ entering our lexicon.

 

All this should provide a nice cocktail for a heady movie about this period. You have many rags-to-riches stories. You have Geeks; lots of them. You have teenage CEOs. You have small companies buying out industry icons! And then you have the downfall…the flawed business model, the layoffs, the lawsuits, thousands of these ‘paper millionaires’ seeing their net worth vanish as fast as it had appeared…and the tragic cases of folks who got hit by AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax)…Oh, and through all this period, those naïve average mom & pop investors who chased those ‘hot’ stocks and lost everything? Remember those days when NASDAQ had crossed 5000?! And how very quickly it was

under 2000?!

 

The media played a part too…the constant hyping about the ‘new revolution’. The ‘This time it is different…’ editorials…new magazines coming out every week…and then, as things got tough, those first references to a ‘Bubble’ with artful depictions on cover pages…Treating Allan Greenspan as a rock star…and then pulling him down into the dumps and accusing him of everything that went wrong! Those few months were just astounding!

 

 

2. Wall Street 2 ‘How The Mighty Have Fallen!’ – The Enron-WorldCom Saga

 

How the Mighty Have Fallen! This probably best captures the 2001-2002 period. First Enron, then WorldCom… From extremely complicated financial dealings and transactions to some fairly straight forward ‘creative accounting’. From shredding documents, to massive companies disappearing overnight…From backroom dealings, to whistle-blowers. The court-room dramas, the extended trials (Aren’t court-room dramas an important staple of movies in the ‘Drama’ genre?) The laid-off employees, the retirees who lost majority of their retirement savings…that small sub-segment of fired workers who posed for Playboy!

 

The sentencing, the handcuffed CEOs, the somewhat vindicated stockholders…and last but not the least, the massive overhauling of accounting standards, procedures by the regulators, including the congress, resulting in a ground-breaking legislation…this drama extends to Washington as well!

 

 

3.  Wall Street 3 ‘The Return of the Great Depression’ – The 2008 Financial Crisis

 

Well…this one, we are still living through it for the past 6 months…Critics are quick to point out that this is the worst crisis since the Great Depression! Maybe we haven’t even seen the end of the beginning! But then that shouldn’t stop moviemakers and fiction writers from creating something around it! (It didn’t stop them in previous major transformational events in history…)

 

In my view, ‘Utter Disbelief!’ is what can best describe what we are seeing around us. Who would have thought that legendary century old firms that have driven the course of not just American, but Global Capitalistic Economies and the Free Market System, should just collapse?! This was not supposed to happen in a hundred years! Even the Great Depression had spared these firms.

 

Pivotal incidents would be quite a few – Bear Stearns to Lehman…One bailout followed by the other. Freddie & Fannie, AIG, CitiGroup, the list goes on…The extremely complicated hierarchical CDOs that no one had any idea about…The absurd levels of leveraging…On one side you have these clueless CEOs, and the other side a rescue team led by a man who until recently was part of that same group! How everyone seems to act like those blind men in that ‘Blind men and the Elephant’ tale.

 

There are enough grass-roots level themes to talk about here as well…The typical suburban American family that is leading a very comfortable life by leveraging on everything from the house, cars and credit cards. The Chinese factory worker who is fulfilling the needs for the increasingly materialistic American way of life…The Indian IIT Engineer who is solving tough technology problems… (How can we forget ‘Asok’ from Dilbert?)…the stereotypical Indian call center worker… (1 or 2 Bollywood movies have already been made on this character…). There is that classic geo-political agent of brinksmanship here as well; ‘Oil’! And a presidential election to add to the mix. There are enough things here for some exciting story –J

 

 

What are your thoughts? Any good books that you have read/you can recommend about the first two crises?

 

 

 

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Innovation In America – Professor Amar Bhide’s View

Posted in Financial Markets/Economics by Amit Paranjape on November 12, 2008

 

Here is a very interesting interview with Amar Bhide, featured in the Inc.com. Professor Amar Bhide is one of the most respected authorities in entrepreneurship and innovation and is a Business Professor at the Columbia University. Prior to that, he was a Professor at Harvard. He did his studies at IIT and Harvard.

 

Professor Bhide argues that the US Consumer has been one of the important drivers of innovation. The need to consume increasingly advanced and sophisticated products drives new R&D. He further states that innovation is not a ‘winner-take-all’ race and that America is not competing with China and India as feared by what he terms as ‘techno-nationalists’. Scientific innovation in any country benefits the entire world, but specifically that country (like US) whose consumers want to leverage it to the fullest. Even in the 1920s depression era, Americans were actively innovating, leading to the gains at a later point.

 

These thoughts are further explained in his new book, “The Venturesome Economy”, which was recently published by Princeton University Press. For more information on Professor Bhide’s work, you can checkout his website.

 

[Note – I have ordered this book and looking forward to understanding his views in further detail. I will post my interpretations here.]

 

 

Is TV News Making Us Dumb?

Posted in Current Affairs by Amit Paranjape on November 1, 2008

How is the modern TV news affecting the consumer today?

 

In my previous article on “The Illiterate 21st Century Consumer”, I have attributed some of the causes, to the role that media plays today. I thought of writing this article primarily targeted towards TV audiences in India. But as I started writing it, I realized that this is equally applicable to the US TV audiences as well. In fact, since US leads the world in media and entertainment, all the good and bad trends including the ones in Television News originate from here! Hence I modified my article a little so that it can address TV News audiences not only in India, but the US as well, and possibly many other countries.

 

 

“Breaking News”!!! Screams a TV channel. Worried, I try to focus my attention towards the TV, but somehow don’t comprehend what’s going on. I switch channels…but still the same. It takes me a few minutes to figure what’s going on. Apparently, a cat has fallen into a small ditch and is unable to get out…it is screaming loudly, and the vast armies of TV reporters with their uplink vans, with nothing better to cover in this otherwise mundane world, are zeroing in on the action! An anchor passionately discusses her love for cats, and how in such a great country of ours, we cannot get a cat out of her misery! Many bystanders have already dialed the emergency number…Soon the brave first responders show up on the screen and begin what apparently seems like a straight forward rescue; but what a channel dubs as ‘a grave and risky mission’. Success is achieved in a few minutes, and the apparently unperturbed feline creature is united with her overjoyed owner. The action over, the reporters fade away in search of their next big scoop. Some ‘analytical’ ones continue with the story and ask ‘tough’ questions – how the cat got there in the first place? Who is to be blamed?…and on and on.

 

Had enough of the story?! Me too! Unfortunately, this is not that far from reality! Moreover, this same story could have easily played out in the richest country in the world – USA, or the largest democracy in the world – India, or in many other countries.

 

All over the world, commercial media is out there to get into action for getting the viewers’ eyeballs. Ratings are everything. A new slogan of this brave new media world could go something like “Any news is good to cover, as long as it can grab your attention”. Forget things like veracity, priority, credibility, authenticity, journalistic standards, etc. Those are things of the past. When legendary newspapers have made the transition from being the most respected news sources for decades, to being the tabloids with the most circulations (readers in India will know which specific newspaper I am talking about), why should the TV channels fall behind? To their credit, they haven’t! They have caught up well in the past decade. Perfectly good (and thus boring) news channels have become the sensational sources of bits of ‘news’. And as if the news items themselves were not enough, they are using modern graphic technology to great effect – often rivaling MTV music videos. Dull and boring news anchors have given way to glamorous celebrities.

 

On a more serious note – I thought this was just one big sad joke until recently, when I realized the impact of all this. People (more appropriately, the ‘21st century illiterates’) were actually believing this stuff! An ever increasing number were living in this cocoon of the new ‘news world’.

 

A sad case happened recently where incessant breaking news coverage about some apparent ‘doomsday’ event worried a teenager so much, he actually attempted a suicide. It is one thing to feed junk news to the consumer; but now it has gotten to the point of feeding blatantly wrong pieces of information!

 

Unlike in the past when newspapers were the primary news source, today more people (especially in developing countries like India, where internet coverage is still limited) are relying on TV for their daily information feed. Unlike a newspaper, a TV news channel is unfortunately a ‘single threaded’ source (to use a technical analogy!). A newspaper can devote large real estate to the top news, and yet the user can skip it and go to the following pages/sections if he wishes. With the news channel, you are stuck with the ‘story of the day’ however irrelevant it might be. Having multiple channels doesn’t help, since all get caught in the same web.

The story of day or the breaking news might end up occupying the better part of the news hour on many days. As a result, the viewer doesn’t get exposure to any of the real news. Worse, disproportionate importance is given to something that is utterly irrelevant in many cases. In this current financial crisis, where principles of capitalism itself are being questioned, may be someone should extend those same questions to journalism. Why is it today, that ‘boring’ news services such as India’s government run ‘Doordarshan’, UK’s BBC or NPR in USA are more dependable than other networks that have much higher budgets and reach? What is common amongst all these three networks? But then, that could be a topic of a separate article.

 

I have come to conclusion that TV News are actually making the viewers dumb. Not that this is any great finding! I am sure that some of you, who still have their ‘information sanity’ with them after facing the barrage of the current stuff, would have come to the same conclusion. But how do we get this message out? Clearly, the media won’t showcase the reality…it goes against their business interests. I guess someone should create a sensational news item around this…may be a very intelligent man (say a PhD in Quantum Physics!) who was forced to watch the modern TV news by his family, wakes up one day, and has great difficulty with 1st grade mathematics! How did this happen?? Surely, this will be one exciting ‘Breaking News’ all over the TV channels!

 

[To Be Continued…]

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