Thursday, April 29, 2010

Postcards from Panchgani

I just came back from a much-needed break in Panchgani. This is one of my favourite places on earth. I go here and forget all my worries. Poona comes close, but the weather in Panchgani and the pure air is unmatched. The twin hill stations of Panchgani and Mahableshwar are one of the most important and popular hill gateways in Maharashtra. I have been going there for the past about 18 years and I can never get tired of it. Unfortunately, there is so much of construction happening that it's not funny. Panchgani was definitely much more beautiful in its ancient days that present times. But atleast it creates employment opportunities for the locals, so there's some comfort. Plus, the thriving jam factories of Mapro and Mala in these twin hill stations, bodes well for the localites.

Summers have become very hot here now, though. Till you are in the foothills of Panchgani- in a small called Wai- the heat is unbearable. It's as bad- or maybe even worse- than Mumbai. Only when you start climbing the ghats of Panchgani- the last of a total of four ghats on the way from Mumbai to Panchgani (Khandala, Poona, Khambatki and Wai ghats)- do you feel relief. But then, there are power cuts. On an average, we faced power cuts of about three to five hours daily. This is a shame. These are the most popular tourist destinations in Maharashtra, yet in this day and age, we face such stringent power cuts. Hotels have generators and inverters; they take pains to keep their guests happy and so the guests are taken care of. But what about the locals. Not everyone can afford generators or inverters. The entire central market place gets plunged into darkness after sunset sometimes, even during peak tourist season. Add to that an acute water shortage and you feel sorry for the locals who are left at the mercy of the crumbled infrastructure.

Still, all woes are forgotten because the place itself is so beautiful, that you somehow don't seem to mind all this. It's a charming little hill station and a must for those who love walking, cycling or even just relaxing. If you sit on the verandah and watch the scenery, mountains or valley, hours will pass by and you won't know. Panchgani and Mahableshwar are two places that I will continue to visit for years and years to come.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Public Relations Machinery

As a journalist, I deal with public relations (PR) people day in and day out. When I started my career around 10 years back, I used to get calls from PRs around once a week. 10 years later, I find that not a single day goes without getting atleast one call.

The PR industry has arrived; it's alive and kicking. They have become sassy, street smart and more polish. Young boys and girls do look at PR as a career opportunity now. On the flipside, they have become very aggressive. Looking at the number of calls I get in a day, it looks to me as a flourishing industry, pay scales notwithstanding and I am not aware of. The reality is, we've got to deal with it.

PRs have become sophisticated. But at the heart of every PR even today is this hunger to get maximum publicity for his / her client. The way they push their agendas have gone for a serious makeover, though. Earlier, PRs used to ask us openly "so when are you going to publish all this?" One PR women had the gall to ask me if a discussion that had just got over with a fund official in her presence would make it to my erstwhile magazine's cover!

Today, they are more polished in the way they talk to you. I have seen more polished PR people than journalists. They are driven by ambition. They are not ashamed to pick up the phone and striking up a conversation with journos they've never spoken to or seen before, but they talk as if they've known you for decades.

They don't leave you. Not that we want them to leave us all the time or anything, but a little bit of privacy in some of our meetings could be warranted. Increasingly, I find PR people arranging interviews or one-on-one meetings, if you like. Nothing wrong with that, but I don't appreciate if they are present in the meeting room. The ambiance of an informal catching up with industry people just gets lost there. Some even write voraciously whatever is being discussed. I wonder what they write so furiously. I would like to see some of those notes.

Some PR are genuinely cooperative. Like this one PR who told me frankly to deal with this mutual fund house (MF; since I cover the MF industry) to speak directly to its corporate communication because, guess what, even the PR is not spared of the usual garb "He's in a meeting" or "He's travelling bullshit" excuses. Or a handful of PRs who do not mind giving us the mobile numbers of fund managers or whoever they want us to talk to and take comments. This is a rare breed. Most don't give and prefer us to go through them. I can understand their reason; sometimes this bodes well for us, other times it does't.

Do they help? Yes and no. Most of them know where each journalist works, what beat s/he tracks and how they function. Some smart ones get accustomed to, quickly, the way each journo works and knows what sort of answers s/he looks for, the modus operandi and so on and are quick to deliver, accordingly. But there are also those irritating ones who have no idea of which journo is working where and covering what beat. They pick up the phone, call us and ask us our office's landline number and other such stupid questions. I hate stupid questions.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Little Bit of Privacy

There's an unsettling irony in what she said. Yes, privacy is what she wanted. Everyone knows, though, that celebrity marriages in India or anywhere else in the world is fodder for the paparazzi, media, fans and the general public. Perhaps she knew. Or perhaps she underestimated. Yet, little must she have expected, that not only her marriage would be the talking point (or breaking news, whichever way you look at news these days) of various TV news channels, newspapers, but also politicians would comment on whether she may play for India or Pakistan after marriage and such thing. I can't believe, even I am talking about it too. Add to that, copies of the groom's alleged first marriage certificate to another Hyderabadi girl were flashed on television channels alleged marriage. Every little dirty secret is threatened to come out of the closet. Every little sordid detail of what happened right from the time the groom allegedly met the first girl to the place and venue of the impending marriage is being discussed and debated. Realms of print and TV news space is being devoted. Specials report, breaking news, front page stories. 

Even though India's biggest women's tennis export lost in the first round of 4 of 5 tennis tournaments she entered so far in 2010 did not create as much buzz (as it ought to have been had we been conscious of tennis as we are with cricket) as her impending marriage. That's the reality. It's unfortunate, but true. I don't remember the last time when a sportsmen's marriage or impending marriage created so much buzz. That too, for all the wrong reasons. I don't remember when Sachin Tendulkar got married, the hows, whys, whens, whats, venue, reception, catering, and so on. Maybe I was too young then, or maybe I did not pay much attention as cricket is not my favourite sport. I remember reading stories of Leander Paes's love life before and also of Mahesh Bhupathi's last year. Such is life. Such is media these days. And this is not breaking news. By now, we all know it. 

Little Miss Sunshine

Although I had watched Little Miss Sunshine more than a year back, I recently ripped apart the packing of its DVD that was lying in my DVD cabinet for months. There's no better way to spend a Sunday afternoon at home. Dysfunctional families have been immortalized in Hollywood, both on the big as well as the small screen in movies and series like Six Feet Under, Brothers & Sisters and so on. Perhaps also Home Alone?

In Little Miss Sunshine (LMS), you got a failed motivational speaker who motivates half empty classrooms but can do little to help his own flagging career. His family resents those little winner-loser speeches that he vomits on the dinner table and cringes when he is about to start to rattle them off. You got his dad, the coke-snorting potty mouth whose vocabulary starts and end with the four-letter word. The son is mute because he's taken a vow to remain silent till he is allowed by his parents to become an air-force pilot. The wife' brother is fresh out of the hospital after being jilted by his lover. While the wife struggles to hold this dysfunctional lot together and maintain some sanity, the family's youngest member, Olive-literally the heart that beats- is this wonderful flower (Abigail Breslin's finest performance that I can remember) who aspires to become a beauty queen starting by winning 'Little Miss Sunshine', a beauty contest in California. You put all of them in a VW mini-van and you get one of the most hilarious- yet touching- movies you'll ever see.

That's the thing about dysfunctional families. Atleast the Hollywood types. They bicker, they crib, they fight, they squabble. They talk nonsense, they argue, they shout, they yell. Yet, when it matters the most, they come together like a flock to face every challenge life throws at them. They seem divided on all matters under the sun, but faced with a life-altering adversity- or so it seems- they throw their differences out of the window and unite. They are different from one another like chalk and cheese, but when it matters the most, get so glued to one another, that you can't tell one from the other.

Moments like these are unforgettable in LMS. The grandpa has a potty mouth and can't see eye-to-eye with anyone. But when his son suffers his career's biggest setback, he just offers a pat on his son's back and says he did his best and he is proud of him. At the beauty pageant, when Olive gets underway with her hilarious dance sequence that shocks the judges and audience, her entire family stands up and joins her in the act. Even though her act is bizarre and causes many people to walk out, she can only see her goal in front of her because her family does everything possible to shield her. That's what dysfunctional families do. That is why they are called families. At that point in time, it ceases to matter whether they are functional or dysfunctional.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Taxis at premium at 5-star hotels

Mumbai Mirror newspaper reports that taxis in Mumbai fleece their passengers if they are called for, at few or more 5-star hotels.  The story shares experiences of passengers who called for taxis at these 5-star hotels and were told by the cabbies that they will charge a flat rate instead of what the usual meter shows up.

I have myself experienced this. A few months back I had gone to Grand Hyatt hotel at Kalina, Santa Cruz, Mumbai to attend an office conference. We asked the security guards at the entrance to hail a cab for us to go to, i think, Phoenix Mills, Lower Parel. I don't remember exactly whether we called for a black & yellow (B&Y) taxi or a cool cab, but it was definitely either of the two. The cab came promptly and we got inside, only to be reminded by the driver that he'll charge us a fixed rate. We deciphered that this 'fixed' rate is definitely higher than what we'd have to pay if we go by the meter. We refused to pay him the fixed rate and got off.

Mumbai Mirror has done a great job at exposing this racket. The transportation rules state that in Mumbai, taxis and rickshaws should charge as per what the meter shows and not some free-wheeling fixed or special rate the driver decides to charge depending on his whims and fancies. Just because we come out- or go to- 5-star hotels, doesn't give them the right to loot us.

Meher Mahino, Ava Mahino and Adar Mahino: The holy trinity of Zoroastrian calender

Zoroastrians- or better knows as Parsis and Iranis of India- have a separate calendar. We look at the English calendar of course, but we al...