Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Vagina Monologues

IT IS NOT A BAD WORD. And contrary to popular belief, it's not even a cuss word. Infact, as per the fantastic cast and crew of the phenomenal play 'The Vagina Monologues', whose 200th show I caught up with at the NCPA Mumbai, it's not even something that women should feel shy of looking at and even admiring it. That's Vagina we're talking about. But why you ask? Because it's there, stupid. It's a reality. More importantly, it's a body part and it's nature. It's a biological organ. That Vagina- or as the play also claims is called kunt, coochie-schnooker, honky-tonky, sugar-box- is a body part that women should be proud of, and what goes in there- or comes out from it- is also a woman's decision, and not anyone else's is the underlying and powerful message that this play seeks to spread.

The 200th show had special appearances by Farhan Akhtar and Zoya Akhar who read out a
beautiful poem called 'Boys are all that matter and Girls are Meant For Burning' written by Mahabano-Mody Kotwal (the co-director and producer and also actor) based on her childhood friend who suffered from dowry demands from her in-laws, followed by a dance performance by ace-choreographer Sandeep Soparkar, Jesse Randhwa and Smylie Suri based on the life of Hassina Hussein, a lively and vibrant girl whose life took a drastic turn when her boss splashed acid on her face and disfigured it and her soul, forever, because Hassina declined his advances.

After a short interval, the play started. And there was no turning back. The Vagina Monologues is no ordinary play. It might shock you, but it's not meant to churn you. Without sounding preachy, it educates you about women's freedom and the fact that she has a right to choose and to say 'No'. Fantastically performed by Mody Kotwal, Dolly Thakore, Avantika Akerkar, Sonali Sachdev and Jayati Bhatia, yesterday's show also had actor Imran Khan as one of the actors on the show; the first male actor ever on this show.


Each actor is seated in a line and is supposed to say a monologue. These monologues are a result of painstaking interviews taken by the show's original founder, the American Eves Ensler, by interviewing over 200 women all over the world and then beautifully told to the audience in the form of well-enacted and brilliantly emoted stories. Each monologue has a deep-meaning message that could keep you at the edge of your seat making you laugh at one instant, cry at the next and be shocked at the one after. Difficult to pick and choose one monologue over another, but the one with the old Parsi lady who had never looked at her vagina since the last 60-odd years and Bhatia's performance of various orgasms, stood out. So did the brilliantly-emoted monologue of a young 10-year old girl who was abused by her father's friend, but was still blamed somewhat, by her own mother. The skit 'My Short Skirt' was also very good and was a direct reference to the Marine Drive rape case that took place in 2005. The hard work and the chemistry shared by the actors on the stage shows when at the beginning of show, right after the audience is shocked, thoroughly amused and liberated- all at the same time- into saying the V-word loudly, where an act of all the five women saying a word or two in quick succession, one after the other in perfect coordination, without pause and faster than the eye can move from one actor to another, is brilliant.

I am proud to be a Mumbaikar for having being part of a city that celebrates culture, is open-minded about hosting shows of such nature and uncensored and the way it needs to be told; it reminds me that Mumbai is, after all, not just one of the most broad-minded places to live in India, but is also one of the safest places in India for women. After all, The Vagina Monologues is provocative, shocking but not erotic. It's in your face, but liberating. It's funny and serious. But at the end of it, it attempts to make you respect women, their choices, their decisions, and well, let them just 'BE'.



Picture 1: The cast and crew; from left: Sonali Sachdev, Avantika Akerkar, Mahabano Mody Kotwal, Imran Khan, Dolly Thakore and Jayati Bhatia.

Picture 2: Acid attack victim Hassina Hussein in a yellow salwar kameez in whose honour this play was dedicated to with Farhan Ahktar

Picture 3: An impromptu dance of Dolly Thakore with Sandeep Soparkar on 'Jai Ho'.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Dose of Parsipanu

A day after celebrating Navroz (if I can call that celebrating in the first place; but I'm not sure), I finally caught up with Little Zizou. I just realised that the seating at Sterling Cineplex isn't all that great if you catch a movie in Screens 2 and 3. Screen 1 is the best and the biggest. But for the price of Rs 120, I think it's a steal and one of the best options in South Bombay. And the foodcourt downstairs is an added attraction. Besides Sterling has been one of my old favourites, so I'll continue to visit there. But if you happen to watch movies in screens 2 and 3, and find that the seats are too low and you can't watch the screen properly, do always ask for a pillow. Place it on your seat and then sit on top of it. The management has been very forward-looking I guess and may have well anticipated this problem when they modified the erstwhile single-screen theatre. Such prompt action from the management can turn a disadvantage into a great service opportunity. Good!

Coming back to Little Zizou. I have been a fan of its director Sooni Taraporewala. She is an acclaimed screen-writer, having written the screenplay for much-acclaimed movies like Salaam Bombay, Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake, etc. She is also a damm good photographer; I am the proud owner of her first coffee table book on Parsis - the story told through pictures. Little Zizou is her first film as a director. But I was a wee bit disappointed. I expected much more from Little Zizou, considering Sooni is good at films. The story was way too simplistic and much of the Parsipanu was cliche to me. I mean, how many times must I have heard this debate of conversion, pure blood, etc etc being played out. Maybe I think like this because I, too, am a Parsi. I think that is perhaps why non-Parsis liked the movie alot and Parsis loved it too because it was a movie on, well, Parsis. And despite all the Parsipanu and gheloo-gandu, I think it portrayed the funny side of Parsis, unlike 'Being Cyrus' where the lead protagonist was a negative character. I remember a lot of Parsis did not like that movie because of this. But I think production- and technicality- wise, 'Being Cyrus' was a much more superior movie than Little Zizou.

You'll draw a lot of parallels to plot-lines and sub-plots of the movie - conversion, the question of pure blood, Russians, Scandinavians, whoever running a parallel Zoroastrian movement in their countries converting into Zoroastrians and inviting wrath from conservatives in India, a community newspaper - somewhat like apru Jame-Jamshed - spitting venom at people with different ideologies than that of the paper - to some of the current happenings in the community. But where the movie fails is an absence of a strong story. Good performances and a lot of Parsipanu, though, has found many takers of this film. I too enjoy watching Parsipanu on the big screen, after having endured fake Parsipanu in much-degrading style in many Hindi Bollywood; my blood boils when I see such scenes in such atrocious Hindi movies.

But speaking of Parsipanu, I just got snubbed heavily the first thing in the morning of Navroz by someone in whose house I have virtually grown up. Why? Because I had not had a bath as yet till then. I usually wake up a little on weekends. I consider this to be very rude that people who have had their bath refuse to touch others who haven't had their bath, just so to remain pure and clean. Please! Purity in mind and speech is more important than having luxury baths and hairwashes and wearing designer labels. Isn't "good words, good thoughts, good deeds" the essence of Zoroastrianism? Then from where has this parsipanu come from?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Freedom of Choice

This is a column I recently wrote in Outlook Money 

Freedom of Choice

Variable loads will give MF investors more say, but it might be too much too soon

There’s a perennial joke I share with my neighbours, the Batliwalas, that whenever I advise them on mutual fund (MF) schemes, I don’t get any commission. Their agent gets it, the entire 2.25 per cent entry load that MFs pass on to agents as commission. And all for just providing them with the forms, or, at best, giving some advice that may not always be in their best interest. I may not get any commission, but thanks to a new proposal by the markets regulator, investors like the Batliwalas will now be able to decide how much commission their agent should get. 

After abolishing entry loads on direct investments in MFs in January 2008, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) now wants to introduce variable entry loads. This means that investors will now decide the how much fees (0-6 per cent) they want to pay to their agents. Sebi aims to shift the pricing power from the MFs to the investor. Prima facie, this is good news. But with freedom comes responsibility. Are investors ready for this? 

The modus operandi. 

Sebi has given two options in its proposal. The first proposal says that the investor has to indicate the quantum of the load in the application form that he wishes to pay the agent, and the investor and the agent have to sign on the application form. The MF would then pay the commission to the agent out of the amount invested and issue units from the remaining balance. The other option is that the investor writes out two  separate cheques; one for the investment amount and the other for the agent’s commission that will go directly to the will give the agent’s cheque directly to the agent. 

Variable entry loads also seems to be the legalised version of rebating. Although Sebi had put a stop to this practice in 2001, it still continued. Now, instead of you paying 2.5 per cent commission to the agent and then getting him to give you a rebate, say, of 1 per cent, you will pay your agent that much less to start with. 

Which option is better? 

Of the two, the first option, in which the investor indicates the amount of load, makes sense. Already, filling out long application forms (more, if you are investing in multiple schemes) is a cumbersome exercise. Giving out two separate cheques will only add to the process. 

Lurking danger. 

Empowering the investor also comes with risks. For instance, in option two where the investor pays the agent and the fund house separately, there is a possibility of an agent misguiding the investor to give a commission that’s more than 7 per cent, the maximum entry load MFs can charge. Even 7 per cent is much higher than the present standards. Even in the first option, those investors who merely sign the application forms and leave the rest of the details to their agents to fill, will now have to ensure that the commission agreed upon jointly, is what actually goes on the form. 

What about insurance agents? 

Ultimately, no matter how many proactive steps Sebi takes to make MFs more consumer-friendly, unless similar discipline is enforced on the insurance industry, they will yield precious little. The commission of around 2.25 per cent that MFs pay brokers is dwarfed in front of the 20 per cent-plus commission that insurance agents get in the first three years of selling unit-linked insurance plans (Ulip). The insurance regulator seems to be in a coma and has taken baby steps to curb the evil. It’s not fair that of the two segments that are directly in competition for more assets, one is made to toe the line, while the other gets away with almost anything.

ARE STAR FUND MANAGERS A MYTH?

A recent exit of a star fund manager rekindles the old debate:to trust the fund managers or the pedigreed fund houses?

Just when we thought that it could be a good idea to follow fund managers instead of fund houses, on the back of the stupendous market rise that saw some fund managers outshine their peers, comes the news of star fund manager Sandip Sabharwal and JM Financial Mutual Fund (MF) parting ways. Although both denied the presence of any significant rift, markets are abuzz with rumours that JM Financial—the fund house’s sponsor—had serious differences with the star fund manager’s aggressive style and the severe underperformance of the fund’s equity schemes.

 THE GOOD TIMES...

When Sabharwal joined JM MF in November 2006, the fund house’s equity funds were in the dumps. But after his entry, things changed for the better. For instance, in 2007, out of 241 equity schemes, only four schemes gave more than 100 per cent returns; JM Basic Fund (JBF; 110.6 per cent returns), an infrastructure fund, was one of them. Two of its other schemes, JM Financial Services Sector Fund (a financial services sector fund) and JM Emerging Leaders Fund (JELF; a mid-cap fund) gave 94.5 per cent and 93.8 per cent returns, respectively. 

MF agents and investors poured in. Within a year, JBF crossed Rs 1,000 crore in assets under management (AUM), up from Rs 9 crore. By the end of 2007, the MF’s total AUM had reached Rs 12,613 crore, up from a mere Rs 3,851 crore during December 2006.

...CAME CRASHING DOWN

Trouble started in 2008 when Indian equity markets followed the global market crash. Any memories of phenomenal performance were soon erased when JM’s equity funds began to fall too. Though Sabharwal may not have been directly responsible for all the equity funds, the buck stopped at his desk as he headed the equities team. Five of the ten worst-performing equity funds in 2008 belonged to JM MF. JBF, JM Small & Mid Cap and JELF were the three worst performers of 2008 with returns of -75.6 per cent, -79.1 per cent and -80.3 per cent, respectively. 

Apart from his expertise of picking small-sized companies ahead of the market, Sabharwal also relished the freedom the MF gave. With the MF being a non-starter on equity side, the two were a perfect fit. Freedom came at a cost. When equity markets crashed by more than 50 per cent, small- and medium-sized companies were hit badly. 

Funds with highly concentrated portfolios and low cash levels, such as JM’s, were the worst hit. Even though the period of underperformance was just one year, its severity across the board caused heartburn at the MF. JM’s AUM saw a fall of Rs 6,756 crore, or 54 per cent, in 2008. Sources also add that two private equity funds have taken an 8 per cent stake and invested close to Rs 64 crore in the asset management company a month or so back and will also now have their representatives on the MF’s investment committee. Sources say the tighter control and monitoring may not have gone down well with Sabharwal. Both Sabharwal and JM MF declined to give specific reasons though both confirmed they have parted ways.

WHAT SHOULD YOU DO?

Our past recommendations of JM MF schemes were based on Sabharwal’s track record and the belief that he is going to stick around. Since that has changed, avoid fresh investments in JM MF’s equity funds. Here’s what you should do if you were invested in scheme’s from the fund that we had recommended—JBF investors should switch to DSP BR Tiger and JELF investors to Birla Sun Life Mid Cap Fund. 

This brings us back to the age-old question: should you opt for fund managers or MFs? While rising markets may bring the former into spotlight, just one year of market turmoil brings the focus back to well-pedigreed MFs that strike a balance between fund management freedom and systems and processes



Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Reader

Yesterday was a much-needed break from work. So I decided to try out the newly-opened PVR multiplex at Big Bazaar-Phoenix Mills to watch 'The Reader'. (Nice multiplex, good seating, but quite expensive for the evening shows, though I am told their morning shows are a steal. don't know exactly, but if so then worth trying it out, wat say?) 

As the events of the movie unfolded, I watched it in stunned silence. It is a beautiful love story in the backdrop of war crime. Set in war-torn, pre and post-Hitler era of Germany, Kate Winslet, a single 35-year old tram operator, finds a young, but sick, 15-year old (David Kross) on the tram one day and brings her home to take care of her. The two take a liking for each other and get into a passionate relationship and a throbbing affair. Till one day, Kate leaves town suddenly and quietly, leaving the kid heart-broken. 

A few years later, the kid goes to law school and, as part of an internship training program, attends a high-profile court case where war crimes are being tried. Here, he is shocked beyond disbelief to find the object of his affection (Kate) on the stand as one of the accused. She is one of six guards accused of letting Jews die inside burning Church. Kate gets awarded a life imprisonment and spends 20 years in prison, while the world outside changes beyond recognition, her ex-love doesn't quite grow out of her and the effects of their relationship taking a toll on his grown-up life too, making it a bit of a mess. But the kid (who nows goes to become an adult, played by Ralph Fiennes) somehow decides to revisit the past and somehow looks forward to meeting her when, after 20 years, Kate is scheduled to be set free. However, fate has something else in store. 

The film offers a poignant reminder about tales on what went behind the holocaust and the dastardly acts and atrocities were not just committed with the intention of committing them, but could also have been committed by unknowing - no matter how stupid they may sound at first - forces. Such acts not only turn the victims' lives upside down, but also those who committed them. The screenplay, the direction, the art-direction and the music are all very good. Performances are its best part. Kate Winslet is one of the best actresses of her generation. With her subtle portrayal as Hanna Schmidt, she blows you away, completely, and though I have not seen the works of this year's other Oscar Best Actress contenders, I won't  be surprised if I would still end up liking Kate's work the best. David Kross and Ralph Fiennes was good too. It was hard to digest that this was the same Ralph Fiennes who is the chief villain (Lord Voldemort) in Harry Potter films. 

One of the first things that come to mind by watching films such as these, is how far behind Bollywood is from Hollywood.  While our Hindi film makers spend precious time in making their actors run around trees and sing and dance, Hollywood film-makers have gone miles ahead achieved cinematic excellence in telling, amongst many other types, soulful stories that keep you thinking about them for days together. 

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Pay Credit Card Bills Through ATMs

Tired of being ignored by ICICI Bank credit cards by being left out of their premium services despite being a loyal customer, I got myself a new credit card by HDFC Bank. It's another thing that HDFC Bank promised me a gold card with a higher spending limit, but then threatened to give me a silver card. When I strongly protested to their ways, they issued me a gold card, but with a much-lower-than-promised spending limit. I think the credit card companies ought to be made more accountable through stricter laws that are widely publicised (I recently read an RBI advertisement in the paper that if a credit card company rejects your application for a credit card, it has to give the reasons in writing; I never knew that!!!) and ought to made to pay for promising one thing, but delivering something totally different. SBI Cards too chased me for a month last year and promised to give me a platinum card with a high spending limit. What I finally got was a much-watered down Gold Card with a pathetic spending limit. On ethical grounds, I thought it best to reject it and sent it back to them. The cheekiness of these card companies, really!!!

But ICICI Bank credit cards have disappointed me. I have been their customer for over seven years (for a larger time in this, I have used ONLY my ICICI bank card and no other card) and my spending limit has always been pathetic. My friend who works in the bank's credit card division told me that they increase spending limits of only those customers with high to very high usage. Since my average monthly spending was way below this so-called threshold limit, I wasn't eligible for a raise. A year or so back I had to send an email to no less than Mr K.V.Kamath (then-managing director) for an increase of limit because I was handicapped by the low spending limit I had on my card especially during an emergency in 2007. Also, while some fellow gold card customers I know who have been upgraded to platinum card, I still haven't been upgraded. All this, despite being a loyal customer and paying my bills for the past seven years (give or take a few) on time.

The one good thing that came out of this is my complaint was heard by Mr Kamath and he quickly deputed his staff to talk to me and address my grievances. My problem was solved and I was impressed that a large bank's CEO was so approachable and quick to address the customer's complaint. Kamath's response time was amazingly quick and left me impressed. But I find it a little sad that for a problem of this stature, I had to knock the managing director's doors. I still have this card as I also have an ICICI Bank account and it's easier to pay the credit card bills online through the bank's website (internet banking).

Anyways, I am quite happy to start using my HDFC Bank card. HDFC Bank credit cards allow a great way to pay its bills. My friend Soumik Kar told me that if we have an account with HDFC Bank, we could pay HDFC Bank credit card's bills through its ATM machines. This is important for me, as I am still not an HDFC Bank internet banking customer and I feel very lazy in writing cheque books. Internet's the way to go for me, else I need something that's very convenient. Writing cheques is not, and with my house getting painted, everything is topsy-turvey.

So I walked in a nearby HDFC Bank ATM and slipped the card in the ATM machine. I selected 'Pay your credit card bills', entered the amount and the credit card number and it was done. As simple as that. I am told HDFC Bank is the only bank that has this facility, but I am not sure. It's a great facility and perhaps the next best way to pay your credit card bills, after internet banking.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Faulty meters of the New-age (black & yellow) taxis

You may enjoy the ride in one of several new-age taxis (black & yellow) on the roads of Bombay, but the ride may cost you more than the old Fiat taxis. And this extra cost may be because of a faulty meter. Ever since the state government's order of replacement of 25-year old taxis to control pollution, some of these old taxis have now been replaced by newer, more energy-efficient, models such as Hyundia Santro, Tata Indica, Maturi Omni Vans, etc. However, these new models do not come with the age-old meters, which by the way, I liked and are in some ways a part of Bombay's heritage, much like the tring-tring bell of the BEST bus but could also be forged. These new taxis come with new-age electronic meters. 

Much to my dismay, I have observed that some of these electronic meters are tampered. On a recent trip from one area to my office that I took in one of these new-age taxis (Hyundai Santro), I ended up paying Rs 58/-, instead of the usual fare on this sector of around Rs 45/-. 

The Regional Transport Office (RTO) and the traffic police should randomly stop and check the meters of these new black & yellow taxis and punish the erring drivers. And whilst they are at it, it would also bode well for all of us that they also stop the old black & yellow taxis and check their meters too, which as per various internet and press reports, are easier to be tampered with. Though the kind of tampering is lower in Bombay than in other cities like Delhi, this kind of cheating should be thoroughly dealt with. A few rotten apples can give the entire trade a bad name. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Eating out at Nariman Point

Upto a few months back, it wasn't easy for a non-vegetarian to survive at Nariman Point. There are ample of vegetarian joints out here, but hardly anything for carnivors. How and why Mumbai's busiest business district did not have decent non-vej outlets, I never understood. Moti-Mahal in Inox complex is very good, but also very expensive. You could go there once in a while, to indulge or to entertain your guests or friends who you are meeting after a long time, or in my case when my office lunch partner Veena visits the town, but not daily. 

Two options have now come up, one of which was already there, but I discovered it last year only. The food court in Inox recently opened after almost a 2-year delay. A large hall with a vast seating area is interspersed with several stalls serving a wide variety of cuisine like Tandoori, Lebanese, Chinese, Indian, etc. Food is nice and is served hot. You buy a food card (plastic card like a debit/ATM/credit card), minimum Rs 200 (out of which Rs 25 is deposit value), against which you are allowed to buy food worth Rs 175. Then, you carefully pass by each and every food stall, select your item, get your card swiped on that counter, order and then take your dish and sit in the hall and enjoy your meal. And if you have spent less than Rs 200, you will get your entire balance back. It's just that when you buy the card, the minimum value of the card has to be Rs 200. They have recently started a dessert counter too, much to my liking (strawberry cheesecake is nice, so is chocolate mousse) but they do not accept the food-card here. You have to buy your desserts only against cash. But your card can buy Gellato ice-creams. 

The other options is The Gourmet Shoppe in the Oberoi Hotel, the shorter of the two towers. The entrance is from the back-side, opposite Bakhtawar building. Great food, slightly expensive but totally worth it, and a decent seating arrangement. I relish their chicken biryani (in the range of Rs 160/- odd, give or take a few rupees) and Chicken Malbari roll (Rs 125/-)  Take-aways are allowed. I absolutely love this place. 

But clearly we need some more non-vej options at Nariman Point. 

DakshinaChitra @ Chennai

An ordinary work meeting with an acquantaince in Chennai led to a beautiful discovery, called DakshinaChitra. DakshinaChitra, which literal...