Sunday, October 31, 2010

While China has shown the world it has what it takes to be a winner, India hasn't

A few days ago, China unveiled Tianhe-IA, the world’s fastest supercomputer. It is said to be 1.4 times faster than the most sophisticated US supercomputer in Tennessee and 29 million times faster than the first computers produced. India is yet to enter such a league although it has the Centre for Advanced Computing and the Institute of Mathematical Sciences and other premier institutes. The fact once again is that China seems to have overtaken India and the rest of the field after a later entry, something one has come to expect of the Chinese.

Like someone said the other day, once the Chinese enter, they gain a stranglehold fairly quickly and make a mark. Look At the number of Chinese products worldwide today. Whether you are in London, New Jersey, Sydney or Malaysia, chances are that the product you pick up from a shop shelf, no matter what it is, will be a Made in China product. No wonder that at various public forums speakers use the Chinese benchmark while talking about progress needed to be made by India.

While China is almost a world superpower, India continues to be a developing country. Take the World Prosperity Index released a day ago. Apparently, India has fallen many steps to rank No. 88; China is at 58 or thereabouts. The top three are Scandinavian nations – Norway, Denmark, Finland… As I have mentioned in my previous blogs, education, health care, infrastructure are areas that just cannot be ignored when you are talking of development and wish to be counted among the top league of nations. Sadly, very sadly, despite all our scientific knowledge and expertise, software skills and human resources, we still don’t have proper roads in our cities, no clean drinking water, no proper sewerage system, no integrated transport system… the list can go on and on.

On top it, we are riddled with corruption, so much so that corruption has almost become a way of life in India. The frightening aspect, like Vir Sanghvi points out in his column, is that corruption is today not confined to politicians and wheeler dealers alone; even bureaucrats, defence personnel and respectable people (read about the Adarsh Housing Society scam in Mumbai and you’ll know) don’t mind greasing palms to get things done.

Read what Sunanda K. Dutta Ray writes in The Telegraph, while dwelling on President Obama’s India visit (only excerpts):

India, soon be the world’s most populous country, with 50 per cent of its people under 25, while much of the industrialized world is ageing, may have a role in Obama’s vision, which does not conflict with the Look East policy. But no one mentioned this until high growth promised to match internal resilience with external aspirations. That was Lee Kuan Yew’s hope way back in the 1960s when he expected India would replace Britain in Southeast Asia. But an India that trails Togo in the world poverty stakes and has more poor people in eight states than in the 26 sub- Saharan African countries will fail Obama as it failed Lee. Indians who claim to prize democracy as an ideal and an end in itself might squirm to hear the US under-secretary of state for political affairs, William Burns, say that democracy “can foster economic development”…

… There is a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction here that, however highly India might be rated as a regional force, Americans treat China like a global power. There is less appreciation of the importance China achieved even before acquiring a stranglehold on US Federal Reserves, by supplying the inexpensive consumer goods — shoes, ready-mades, domestic appliances — that cut American living costs and sustained the standard of living…

… India can meet the challenge by unleashing the collective creativity of its people so that wealth is not concentrated only in the Ambanis, Mittals, Mallyas and Modis. Deng Xiaoping’s remedy was to “let some people get rich first and then when they get rich, they will move the whole society and the rest will follow”. Perhaps that formula will work in India too.

We can only keep hoping that our democracy will finally work for us. You can almost visualise the Chinese smiling...

Friday, October 29, 2010

Just technology won't do; we need many, many more doctors, nurses to make health care for all a reality

Coming to the larger aspect of health care in our country, today a doctor in Chennai can check the heartbeat of a child in Bilaspur, or study the tumour of a child in Nigeria. There is no doubt that medical practitioners empowered by technology are working wonders in India. But only in pockets. Is human health improving overall? Is health care accessible and available at an affordable cost to our millions? The answer is No.

Health care in any case is a relatively new term. Not so long ago, it was the doctor with the stethoscope who was almost synonymous with the word ‘medicine’. Today, people talk about e-health and health care that can be had 24/7, well, virtually. But this sort of service, even if readily available, caters only to the urban dweller, the elite. Preetha Reddy, Managing Director, Apollo Hospitals Ltd, did say recently that health care providers face many challenges, particularly in suburban and rural areas in India, and adds that leveraging ICT for greater geographical spread and effective cost management is the key to providing quality solutions across the country.

I am not saying no progress has been made. The Tamil Nadu health department, for example, uses technology to benefit patients and is a sort of role model for the rest of the country. The department implements the ‘108 emergency service’, the Kalaignar Insurance Scheme and other welfare schemes. The state has made progress in reducing infant and maternal mortality, as well as birth and death rates. Life expectancy at birth has risen to 65.4%, mainly due to the provision of good health care. Based on authoritative information, there are about 8,000 health sub-centres in TN villages, 1,422 primary health centres spread across major villages, 235 taluq hospitals, 29 district headquarter hospitals, and 18 medical college hospitals. Even so, the state government depends on private hospitals to cater to patients, especially in the area of super-specialties.

The Kalaignar Insurance Scheme is a boon for the poor who can now receive life-saving treatment for critical diseases in government as well as in private hospitals. From issue of smart cards to Web-based authorisation to disbursement of claims, it is all IT-driven. The insurance scheme primarily caters to those with an annual income of less than Rs 72,000; the sum insured is Rs 1 lakh for four years. Today, 1,33,60,439 families have been enrolled; 1,88,000 patients have been operated upon; and Rs 502 crore have been disbursed as claims.

However, for all the advancement in health care, statistics tell a different story. According to Sangeeta Reddy, Executive Director, Apollo Hospitals Group, every 90 minutes, 18 women die in India for want of access to appropriate maternal health care facilities. Painting a worrisome picture, Reddy insists there is a global health care crisis in terms of a large population that is beyond reach. In India, which has 600,000 and more villages, the incidence of disease is increasing as is the aging population; the cost associated with technology is rising, resulting in production losses. New diseases are surfacing, prompting new answers and new methodologies.

Reddy says India needs to grow the number of its doctors two- to three-fold, the number of nurses three- to four-fold, and technicians five-fold. “It will take 32 years if the brick-and-mortar way of teaching is followed. We need to change the way we teach. E-health and tele-medicine will not provide the complete solution but are significant tools in the hands of policy makers. It is also for doctors to enhance their reach and nurses to increase their productivity,” she says.

Reddy is for a national electronic medical record repository. The electronic medical record or EMR contains a person’s data from birth and is an important tool in preventive care, with its ability to track a person’s lifestyle; it can also become a part of clinical research. If a unique identity number can be created for every Indian, why not an EMR, she asks. Reddy sees in the iPhone many enabling possibilities, including 6,000 health applications. Thus, the EMR, the mobile phone, mobile medical units, and multiple enabling technologies such as imaging, analysis and molecular assay, can transform the way health care is delivered in rural India, she is certain, if there is appropriate convergence.


(Some inputs for this article have come from deliberations at a Connect 2010 session in Chennai focused on providing healthcare for Generation Next, a CII initiative.)

Reaching a doctor in an emergency is not always easy

With the northeast monsoon setting in, Chennai residents are bracing themselves for a tough time ahead. It’s not just about having to contend with potholed roads, muck, snapped electric cables and wires, and, of course, floods, but with a host of illnesses that can leave you desperate at times. Almost every third person I meet or hear about nowadays is down either with malaria, typhoid, dengue, flu, diarrhoea or Madras Eye, quite frightening to say the least.

It was some days since we saw our neighbour, an elderly widow who is usually all over the place, gathering and disseminating information, locking her door and heading to her daughter’s, out on her morning and evening walks, or going just about anywhere. And then suddenly it struck me that we hadn’t seen her at all in quite a while. We knocked on her door a couple of days ago. The door opened just a little, enough for her to see us, and us none of her. Madras Eye, I think, she said and waited for anything we had to say. My mother and wife beat a hasty retreat and wished her speedy recovery, closing our door and leaving just as much as she had opened hers. Clearly, with sickness of that sort it takes courage to be friendly.

Ours is a middle-class neighbourhood, and we are middle-class people. Even so, when somebody or the other gets sick or injured we find it difficult finding a good doctor or a reasonably safe hospital. The other day, my mother fell down and bled copiously from her mouth. Fortunately, there were people at home. We rushed for ice cubes, towels, a spare sari… At her age, losing blood can be dangerous. Again, fortunately, my uncle is a doctor who runs a hospital, and my cousin a dental surgeon. So we had a place to go to. The challenge was to reach the hospital in Perambur in the shortest possible time – about 18 km from where we stay. It took us an hour to reach. God willing, mother braved it out till she was escorted to one of the rooms in the hospital and only after that did I breathe a sigh of relief. She is now recuperating, after stitches, injections and medication.

The shortage of good or competent doctors, in cities and more so in villages, the time taken to travel to medical centres, and waiting endlessly for possibly a ten-minute interaction with a doctor are the bigger issues involved. Many primary health centres do not even have adequate facilities. If there is equipment, it often does not work. You can only imagine the troubles most Indians still have to go through to get access to quality health care. More about it in the next blog.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What's Metro Rail doing to Chennai roads!

Today was a hectic day, which I started by dropping a friend to the airport. Driving before dawn can be quite a risky proposition as I found out. On my return, one of those huge cars, which Chennai roads simply don’t have the space to accommodate, seemed to have turned turtle and lay sprawled across one side of the road, resulting in a long pile-up.

I thanked the Almighty. If I had left home five minutes later, I would have been part of that pile-up. The strange thing was nobody appeared to know how it all happened. Vehicles on the other side (my side, as I returned) slowed down, too, with drivers and occupants curious to know what exactly had happened. There were a couple of policemen trying to get the car to one side. There were no people inside the car that I could see. What had happened to the occupants I wondered… and hoped they managed to get out safely.

If it was the pleasure of speeding before dawn, it was sheer torture in the evening, inching my way through some of the worst traffic I have seen for a long time. I had gone to meet a friend working for a television channel and though I thought I’d be back in time for the evening walk, I was in for quite a surprise. Beyond Tidel Park, past the Ford office, road repair or broadening or whatever was making it painful for drivers. Although I started early I just managed to keep to the appointed time. The way back was terrible, with bumper-to-bumper traffic down the IT Expressway, past Spic, on to Kathipara junction and beyond towards Vadapalani. The last stretch from near the Deccan Chronicle office and the Olympus Tech Park to Ashok Nagar was literally a nightmare. By the time I reached home I was battered and bruised. Well, almost.

At this rate, it won’t be 72 minutes, but perhaps 120 minutes on average that people will take to travel to work or back home from office, till the Metro Rail project is completed. And once complete, will it help ease traffic bottlenecks on Chennai roads? I doubt it. By then, how many more vehicles would have been added... who's doing anything to stop that or to get more office-goers to use public transport?

What some speakers at the CII-organised seminar (see previous blog) had said seemed to make much more sense to me today.

Friday, October 22, 2010

72 minutes to get to work, 4 hours in a bus! How can some order be brought to Chennai's chaotic traffic?

We’ve heard of Singara Chennai before… Nothing much has happened since. Nowadays, it’s all about Vision 2020 and Chennai being made a sustainable city. At a programme (Connect 2010) organised in the city by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) recently, there was a session devoted to physical infrastructure and paving the way for sustainable cities. As is the case with sessions, seminars, workshops and programmes and what have you, a lot is said but there is very little action on the ground. Now, a body like the CII can get people who matter to meet and say what they have to, but it is for government to seek advice form such bodies and take steps required.

Well, one of the key factors that determine a sustainable city is the amount of time taken by a person to commute to work. It is estimated that Chennai residents take 72 minutes on average daily to travel to places of work (one-way). Speaking at the session, K Venugopal, Joint Editor, The Hindu Business Line, said that when companies plan work places, aspects such as proximity to sources of raw material, water bodies, airports and ports are considered but often no consideration is given to how far away an employee stays. Even if there are company buses, should somebody commute 40 km each way to earn a livelihood, he wondered. He obviously had a pertinent point.

Venugopal added that the city has grown without a grid to guide it. Most roads cannot take the traffic, and infrastructure such as water supply and sewerage have proved to be inadequate – they don’t reach all the communities that the city encompasses.

Coming to road transport, many will readily agree that driving on Chennai roads is getting to be a nightmare. While vehicles numbers are increasing every day, road surface remains the same – 45% of roads are less than 15 metres wide; 15% are 20-30 metres wide. Sustainability is also about using more of public transport. But from what one of the speakers said, its share seems to have reduced dramatically in the past 20 years – by 40% to 60%. There is no doubt that the state government has attempted to find solutions by constructing flyovers and encouraging the use of public transport, but, like Sunil Paliwal, Managing Director, TIDCO, said at the session, there must be implementation of stringent measures to restrict the movement of private vehicles, such as permission to own a second car only if there is garage space. He cited the examples of Noida and Delhi where many people use the Metro Rail.

Referring to the regular traffic bottlenecks in Chennai – on Anna Salai, Poonamallee High Road and the IT Corridor – Paliwal said there is a constraint in developing infrastructure, lack of good consultants and enforcement of planning regulations is lacking. Even liberal rules are not being enforced, he said, adding that citizens must be prepared to pay the toll if they expect better roads. No doubt about that.

According to V Somasundaram, Chief General Manager, Chennai Metro Rail Ltd, two-wheelers, which have grown in numbers by 76%, is a major cause for traffic congestion. The number of passenger cars has grown 19%. Indeed, private vehicles account for 71% of passenger traffic in Chennai; buses 26% and suburban trains only 3% (statistics provided by him). The average speed of buses in Chennai has reduced to 17 km an hour and Somasundaram says the speed will further reduce to 12 km an hour in the coming five years, increasing journey time considerably.

I could very easily relate to what Venugopal and Somasundram said. My neighbour, an accountant, works at Mahindra World City. He leaves home at around 7am to catch the company bus at Ashok Pillar. He says the morning trip takes an hour and a half. By 5.30pm, he is ready to board the bus at Mahindra World City. The return journey takes two-and-a-half hours! Reason: traffic jams. So, by the time he ambles into our colony, he looks tired and haggard, his shoulders are drooping, the smile has disappeared and his thought must be on a quick wash, dinner and hitting the bed. For hours of journey time every day!

Now, I can’t think of any way his life could be made easier. He might do well to change his job. That is, if he gets another. But then, he’ll have to contend with city traffic. At least, he may have two more hours to spend with his family.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A meeting with a self-taught, award-winning graphics editor


Some weeks ago, I met the dashing Jeff Goertzen at The Park Hotel in Chennai. He could very easily pass off as a rock star; he has the looks and the get-up to match. But the soft-spoken Jeff is the award-winning graphics editor at The Denver Post and consultant-at-large.

Editors know how important information graphics is in making a newspaper more readable, more attractive, considering that the challenge is to communicate news to readers in the shortest possible time. Jeff, though, is modest. “If there was one department in a newspaper that had to go, we’d be the one. You cannot have a newspaper without text of course, or without photos. You could do without information graphics if you had to. But I think our work is important. It can help simplify or clarify information and give you a visual reference,” he says. He was in Chennai to conduct a workshop for WAN-IFRA on Infographics for Print and Online.

“There’s been an explosion in graphics outside of the US. I was fortunate in being a part of that and getting that started in Spain when I was hired by El Mundo and we started doing graphics there,” says Jeff, adding, “We were the first to do investigative reporting with infographics. He talks about a massacre that took place in a small town in Spain, a family feud that had gone on for 30 years. I sent an artist by car, a four-hour drive, before Internet and cell phones arrived to investigate and fax to us diagram of what happened. That started the whole craze in Spain. We’ve also seen an increase in the quality of illustrations; with 3D graphics coming up we’ve got a lot of guys doing phenomenal work, even hand drawings – the work is getting really good, beautiful, aesthetic.”

Jeff, who has served on the board for the Society for News Design for 11 years, got hooked to graphics in the 1970s when he was in high school. “In an interview that lasted only five minutes with the San Diego Union Tribune, I discovered I could work in an art department in newspapers and that is what I did. I’ve been drawing since I was a little kid. I’ve got pictures of when I was a baby with a pencil in my hand. I didn’t really learn anything in high school or college about art; I learned on my own,” he explains.

Jeff's first job was with the Orange County Register as an intern graphic artist, in 1986. He has worked with Mario Garcia and Roger Black, visited more than 40 countries and worked as consultant for more than 100 newspapers. “I have seen pretty much any situation I can imagine in a newsroom. I’ve experienced diverse cultures – I love culture. In my years in journalism as a profession I have learned a lot more than I have in school. You can’t put a price tag on that kind of educational experience.”

Jeff's message for youngsters: “If you have the desire and talent, use it. For anybody wanting to work in graphics in any form, information graphics is probably the best. Your work is published everyday, and if you goof up you got the next day to make it better.”

Picture shows Jeff at the workshop.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Speedy service from a general insurer takes me down memory lane

I was taken by surprise the other day when I received my motor vehicle insurance policy in less than five minutes. I had gone to the New India Assurance office on GN Chetty Road to renew my policy, reaching there much before the office opened at 10am. When the sub-staff arrived and opened the gates, I ambled in. The sofas looked like they belonged to an era long past, soiled and dirty, and having worked in the industry myself, I thought little had changed.

However, I was in for a pleasant surprise. Since I was the only customer, the assistant who came in shortly readily accepted my payment and politely told me to be seated. Hardly had I sat down than he called me and handed me the policy, asking me to wait until the officer turned up to sign it. It was one of those good beginnings to a day; the officer soon arrived and even before she could place her handbag on the table, the assistant said I was waiting and could she please sign the document for me. This she did gladly, and they both smiled as I said thank you.

Well, even if the furnishings and make-up of public sector insurance companies may not have changed, attitude certainly has, and changed for the better, if what I experienced was anything to go by.

I had spent close to a decade in the general insurance industry and, looking back, I dearly miss that innings. I was part of a direct recruit officer batch of 25 or so, all of us in our early twenties, as bright and enthusiastic as they come. The six months I spent at the United India Insurance Co. Learning Centre on Nungambakkam’s fourth lane (there was no Ispahani Centre then, no MOP Vaishnav College) were some of my most memorable months in Madras. Yes, to this day.

We would stroll out in shorts to Tic Tac for kababs and gorgeous ice creams, or to Cakes & Bakes ( the place to be in those days), well past 11pm or sometimes past midnight, return to play a game of table tennis, smoke cigarettes and chat up the girls in our batch. Ours was an eclectic batch, with people from Jaipur, Calcutta, Bhubaneswar, Delhi, Bombay, Hyderabad, Cochin and other places. It was a sort of a honeymoon period; we hit the hard ground running only when we were deputed to various UI offices all over India. Some were fortunate to be posted to the metros. I wasn’t. They gave me an extended honeymoon in Bombay and then threw me into what then was considered back of beyond – Korba, east Madhya Pradesh. Only one colleague ‘suffered’ a worse fate – he was sent to Pali (Rajasthan). I had to get a map to see where Korba was. Of course, my two-year innings there turned out to be the best ever in my whole career, considering the amount of things I learned in managing an office. I wish I could go there some day to see my old staff.

I stayed at the best hotel in Korba then – Chandralok. It lived up to its name – my boss (where are you, Mr Naidu?) and the hotel owner would meet at least twice a week for a drink and it was all too heady to be described here. In the office it was a different ball game – tackling irate customers, from lorry drivers to land owners. That was pretty much the scene in insurance offices across the country, unless an office was dealing with only with certain institutional clients. I have handled angry customers in Madras offices too.

The common grouse was about non-delivery of policy. In those days, once premium was paid, policy would be dispatched by post and many times the insured would complain that he or she had not received it. So a duplicate would be typed (there were no computers then), stamps would be affixed by the record clerk and the policy would be brought to me for signing. I would do so after a thorough check to see if everything was in order.

Many a time, I would enter my cabin to see a hundred or more policies piled on my table for signature. That would take about two hours, so I had my work cut out. Because no other work could take precedence over issue of policies – at least that was the rule I followed.

Today, I wonder where any officer is saddled with that kind of work. The computer prints out the policy in seconds. During my time, the typist would take at least ten minutes, that is if you were able to humour him or her; sometimes, the client would wait until the typist returned after a smoke outside. Now, most offices are no-smoke areas. Even so, the old charm is all gone.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

When libido and backaches augur well, and 'condom' is no longer a dirty word

I was rather amused to read what my good friend, BG, has written – about a certain Mrs C suffering from a backache. Well, some backaches do tell stories and this one certainly seems to have, and tickled several ribs as well. Times have indeed changed dramatically in India and in Madras that is Chennai.

In 1996 when I traveled to London ahead of the launch in India of Durex (I was heading PR for the TTK Group then, and the group had tied up with London International Group to manufacture the world’s highly rated condom), the officer at the immigration counter at Heathrow chuckled when I told him I worked for the company that manufactured Durex. Perhaps he was a puritan but his endless chuckles suggested otherwise. He even got his colleagues into the conversation and soon there were quite a few around him smiling at me. Things seem to have changed in England too, judging by a rather salacious report in The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/08/world/europe/08puttenham.html?_r=2&pagewanted=1&hp), which talks about a village in Surrey now becoming famous for ‘dogging’ or public sex.

Such stories interest many people and there’s no denying the fact that today, more than ever before, sex sells. Look at The Times of India Crest first anniversary issue. It’s all about firsts – who scored the first century, who was India’s first Dalit PM, who was the first Maruti owner (Mrs C was perhaps not born then) and of course who was India’s first sex symbol etc. But the picture is one of one of yesteryear’s leading film ladies in a bikini, with clues about who she is. Now, that’s a laugh (eh, chuckle), because all of us can recognise Sharmila Tagore and it doesn’t take very hard to guess that the picture was possibly taken for a Filmfare cover.

Coming back to Mrs C and the poor Maruti 800, I am reminded of an advertisement for a condom brand (don’t remember which one) that showed a dotted car at the end of a precipice shaking violently… the ad was telecast years ago. For that ad to actually translate into reality on the ground it has taken 15 years. As BG says, more power to Mrs C and her ilk.

Talking about changing times, Marutis 800s and condoms, I can’t forget one afternoon more than two decades ago when one of my close friends from Calcutta had come home with his parents and sister. They had attended my wedding and had come to bid goodbye. Suddenly he drew me aside and led me towards the dining area, thrusting a small packet into my hands. Instinctively, I knew what it contained and I hastily shoved it down my trouser pocket. With a sheepish look on our faces we returned to catch the conversation the sitting room. The visitors left.

Obviously, I was curious to see what that was inside the packet looked like. But with people all around I felt I was being followed and finally got to opening the cover only late night. I smiled when I saw voluptuous bodies adorning three condom packs (not as shocking as seeing Sharmila on the Filmfare cover). The smile disappeared quickly when I realised I had to hide the pack somewhere – there were children around the house and nosey elders and it was early days in the wedding to be doing all this. It took another hour for me to eventually deposit the cover inside the cupboard locker. My wife had a quizzical look on her face but I tried to keep a straight one.

Today, don’t be surprised if you find youngsters traveling with a condom pack in their bags. There was the Mood’s ad that showed a young man hesitating at a pharmacy store to order a pack of condoms, stealing glances at other customers and eventually slipping away. Now condom packs greet you at Health & Glow shops and all sundry outlets. No one even bothers to look at you if you place a pack on the counter.

I must end with this story, as factual as BG’s is about Mrs C. During my TTK days, many, including journalists, used to ask me whether I could get them condom packs. After all, I had taken many of them to TTK-LIG’s facilities in Pallavaram and Virudhunagar to show them how condoms are manufactured (the company had all the quality standards possible – ISO, British, French, German and WHO). I would of course comply and my office draw would usually have enough and more stock of a whole variety of Kohinoor and Durex. Not surprisingly, there were hardly any requests for Prestige cookware, Kiwi shoe polish, TanTex inner wear, Woodward's gripe water or the Eva range of toiletries, all TTK brands.

One day, another friend, a journalist from Calcutta, dropped by. He had come to Madras to do a couple of stories, including one about the Durex launch. He kept sipping hot masala chai that I offered all visitors and kept chatting and smiling. Slowly, he drew his chair closer and bowing his head asked me in a hushed tone, “Dada, aapnar kachhe dotted ba ribbed hobe?” Meaning, do you have dotted or ribbed. As a memento, I gave him a boxful of assorted condoms - dotted, ribbed and flavoured. His joy knew no bounds and he didn’t stay much long thereafter. Much later, I learned that his marriage had failed and I wondered whether that box was the cause.

Now, of course, buying a condom is no big deal, as much as having sex in a Maruti 800. I must tell BG that although the clock keeps ticking, today’s 40 is yesterday’s 20. And as such, judging by his appetite for libido and life, he is supremely positioned (pun, did you say?).

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The world of animation... and Bommi & Friends



I like going to the All India Radio studios here in Chennai. Somehow, it's like a homecoming every time I go there. I still remember how I had visited the studios for the first time, for an audition, in the late 1980s. There was Sujatha, the programme executive then, so warm and friendly, and it really came as no surprise that I was asked to conduct quiz programmes and moderate talk shows. So, every second month I’d receive an invite or a contract to conduct the programme and, no matter what, I’d find my way to the studios.

It’s been a love affair for two decades now and except for a brief while when Sujatha left the mortal world, shocking many, I have been a regular at AIR. Today was another recording and this time I was chatting with a soft-spoken and extremely talented gentleman, A.P. Sivayogen, executive producer and director at Image Venture, the company that has produced what promises to be a wonderful serial for children the world over, Bommi & Friends.

A computer engineering graduate, Sivayogen, who has more than 15 years of experience in programming, visual effects, 3D animation, and video and film content production in South India and is now the executive producer for Bommi & Friends, spoke about how the animation industry has grown from digital publishing solutions and computer graphics to the high-end digital effects we see in movies today. His company produces and distributes 3D-animated properties in the form of TV serials, home videos and theatricals (including co-production) and provides outsourcing services for VFX and animation. Having worked on more than 1500 commercials, 2000 television episodes and a dozen feature films, the company is now poised to become a global entertainment powerhouse and achieve revenue exceeding $40 million by 2015.

Recently, Image Venture tied up with KidsCo, U.K., a joint venture between NBC Universal (U.S.A.), Cookie Jar Entertainment (Canada) and Corus Entertainment (Canada). KidsCo is set to launch its paid channel in India early next year and the channel will then telecast Bommi & Friends in the country. Elsewhere, in Australia, Africa and Asia, 13 half-hour episodes of Bommi will be telecast April 2011 onwards. Image Venture also plans to get into the merchandising of Bommi & Friends characters – through garments, toys, games and online media.

It was in August 1997 that brothers Ramachandran Mathiseelan and Krishnamoorthy Ramachandran Senthilkumar together established Image Venture Private Limited in a dingy room in T. Nagar, as a business enterprise with an investment of Rs 80,000. The only company they had was a computer and an animator. While Mathiseelan was earlier production engineer at GM Pens, Senthilkumar was head of the 3D animation team at Pentamedia. It was the time when private television channels were making their presence felt in India and it was natural for the company to start focusing on television advertising.

By 2000, the company, which had shifted to Lake Area, Nungambakkam, its registered office, made a mark in the domestic market and pioneered the growth of affordable quality VFX and animation services for about 80 per cent of the Telugu and Tamil television markets. The premises also housed the animation studio. Many advertising film makers were delighted in getting a quality job done at Image Venture. There was little focus on feature films at the time and the strategy helped Image Venture grow its business steadily; the promoters managed the company through internal accruals. During 2006-10, the company raised $2 million (debt and capital equity infusion) to build state-of-the-art infrastructure at Lake Area, and for marketing, production and human resources.

Image Venture houses state-of-the-art infrastructure as far as technology, creative software and security systems are concerned. The company employs about 100 creative artistes, technicians and management graduates.

Pictures show the Bommi & Friends poster, and Sivayogen, Mathiseelan and Senthil in Paris, during one of their trips overseas.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Some more of Namma Arcot Road: Gandhiji and the charkha





Well, the enthusiasm and vigour seen at the Namma Arcot Road inaugural extended to October 3 as well, with a sort of kids carnival organised at the MGR Janaki School. There was origami and a storytelling session, but what really interested the children was a short presentation by V.R. Devika on Mahatma Gandhi and a demonstration by her of how to spin the charkha.

The documentary film would have suited an adult audience but to my surprise I found many of the children watching closely and comprehending what was being shown. I found the part about Charlie Chaplin wanting to meet Gandhiji quite fascinating.

When Gandhiji arrived in Britain in September 1931, he made an impression on some sections of the public there. He chose to live in London’s East End, among the poor as he is said to have described it. An ascetic depressed in a loincloth with slippers and hardly anything else despite the English cold must have amazed many. Chaplin was then in London, for the British premier of City Lights. According to BBC Radio 4, he had met George Bernard Shaw, Ramsay MacDonald, H.G. Wells and Winston Churchill, and was keen to meet Gandhiji. The meeting took place when Gandhiji was on his way to see a doctor. There were huge crowds everywhere, as Devika’s film showed, and the two great men met, albeit briefly. Needless to say, the picture made the front pages of newspapers. Devika brought out the vignette beautifully in her presentation.

Pictures show children crowding around Devika as she begins her demonstration of the charkha; J.B. Nirupama, a Class 2 student of Pon Vidyashram, tries spinning yarn; and children and adults alike watch fascinated.

Monday, October 04, 2010

More of Namma Arcot Road





The day (October 2) began with a drawing competition titled 'Arcot Road through the eyes of children'.

Here's a view of the audience - most of them from the Arcot Road neighbourhood; and samples of what the children did. As soon as Mrs YGP arrived, she took an interest in what the children were doing and spent a few minutes watching them draw and colour. This is how the space outside the Vijaya Hall looked before the event - children from the neighbourhood busy with chart paper, pencils, eraser and crayons.

Namma Arcot Road initiative kicks off in style






The Namma Arcot Road initiative received a boost on October 2, Gandhi Jayanti, when Mrs Y.G. Parthasarathy, dean and director, Padma Seshadri Group of Schools, flagged it off at Hotel Green Park. It was a dream come true for two KK Nagar residents, Binita and Gargi, who along with a few volunteers (Soundara Rani, Rashmi, Madhusudhan and others) have now embarked on a mission to make the neighbourhood a happening place.

The inaugural was fairly well attended. You can trust S. Muthiah to be present on an occasion like this – anything to do with heritage and a part of Chennai, and he’s there. And his presence certainly makes a difference to an event – brings it more credibility. There was film director S.P. Muthuraman, director of the LV Prasad Film & TV Academy K. Hariharan, actor Nasser, INTACH co-convener Prema Kasturi, and cricketer Murali Vijay's father R. Murali.

I was delighted to see R.K. Baratan, president of the Sri Sastha Sangam, who many in the area do not know was one of the founders of the Public Relations Society of India’s Madras Chapter and was also instrumental in getting Stella Maris College to start a graduate programme in PR. There were also two veteran sub-editors – K.K. Nair and Vijaykumar, both of whom had worked for the Indian Express years ago. Vijaykumar often narrates to me the stories of the old days – when he would stay back in the office because there was no proper bus service to KK Nagar; only one service to the Vadapalani depot. And he usually remained there late till he proofed the sports pages.

Commending the initiative, Muthiah suggested documenting the social history of Arcot Road and making Mrs Y.G.P. Parthasarathy an honorary resident of the area, considering her immense contribution to the growth of Padma Seshadri School, KK Nagar and the contribution of the school in turn to the growth of the area. Students of Classes 9 and 10 of PSBB, KK Nagar would be a part of the documenting initiative, Mrs Parthasarathy assured. The Namma Arcot Road catalysts or coordinators have decided to follow this up in right earnest and do some documenting themselves. Hariharan, too, offered student support for the initiative.

Muthuraman went on flashback mode, recalling the years of yore when there was no Kodambakkam bridge and people would wait at the turnstiles to catch a glimpse of film stars as they crossed over. But it was Nasser who stole the show with a fascinating talk on how the city, especially the area around the studios in Kodambakkam and beyond, was fast losing its built and natural heritage. He referred to trees being chopped mercilessly in Valsarawakkam where he stayed and said he felt like weeping every time he passed Vadapalani because so much had changed, even outside the few existing film studios. It was heartwarming to receive his unconditional support for Namma Arcot Road.
The idea for Namma Arcot Road, as the initiative has been named, came about after the success with Madras Day celebrations at Hotel Green Park the past few years, especially last year and this year. The coordinators were further enthused after receiving encouragement from Muthiah, editor-publisher Vincent D’Souza, storyteller Jeeva Raghunath, and, well, myself, all catalysts for Madras Day and Madras Week.
Namma Arcot Road will hold talks, walks and events the last Saturday of every month. The broad objective is to get prominent speakers to the Arcot Road area to talk about its heritage and to create awareness about lesser known aspects of this part of town. Plans are on to organise heritage walks, music performances and workshops for children, weaving in some aspect or the other of Arcot Road and its neighbourhood.
The next event will be held on October 30 at the LV Prasad Film & TV Academy, with a talk on the studio’s heritage by its director K. Hariharan. This will be followed by a heritage walk on the campus.

Pictures show Gargi and Binita providing the background to Namma Arcot Road; senior citizens of the neighbourhood talking to Mrs YGP; S.P. Muthuraman reminiscing about the good old days; Nasser essaying a sterling performance, without mike; and the chief guests congratulating a prize winner of the drawing contest held before the event.