Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Answering Queries from Willing Victims - II

Have stuck to adverbatim questions so readers can recognize their own. 

Q: Why do you keep leaving 'notes for global readers'?

Me: Hey, c'mon mate, allow me the dream. Besides, I really do have global readers (I hope).

Q: How do I leave a comment anonymously?

Me: Click on the option that says 'Anonymous' in the comment section. If you're not a complete stranger, do leave me a clue that it's you as it's a bit creepy not knowing who it is.

Q: I hate your blog. Is my name in it? I'm going to send you a legal notice.

Me: No, it isn't. No one knows it's you. No one even knows it's me, really. No one cares. So tell your lawyer to take the day off.

Q: I want to leave a comment about how bad it is, but I know you'll delete my comment.

Me: You again? Go ahead, do your worst. No, I won't delete your comments. I can take the bad with the good, buddy.

Q: On second thoughts, writing on your blog would give it importance it doesn't deserve. I wouldn't want to even acknowledge it or demean myself by writing on it.

Me: Sure.

Please note my level of self-deprecation - I've truly included all reader feedback sans editing.

Note to self: The fact that I find it necessary to point this out means that LL has rubbed off on me a bit. 

I have understandably hit writer's block after this critique. So, do bear with me while I recover.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Curious Case of a Chocolate Flan

On the personal front, I'd started feeling that anyone interesting of the male variety I'd lately met (or not met), fell into five categories. By interesting I mean - humane, witty, intelligent and attractive (to me).

This only reconfirmed my theory refined over the years, that all the good guys: 

1. Have left the country for the USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand or S.E.A.*
2. Are about to leave the country for USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand or S.E.A.

3. Are married or taken.

4. Are gay.

5. Are too young for me.

For obvious reasons I refuse to acknowledge those who were just not interested in me.

* These are the most attractive destinations for all working professionals out here. In USA it would be NY winning hands down as the leading destination of the pack.

Not that it mattered. My working hours and the way I consequently looked over weekends - eyes ringed with dark c's, the occasional sniffle attack due to sudden transition from heavy cool air-conditioning to searing or humid heat - did not leave me with the time nor inclination to socialize. Story of my life, so far.

On this day, I was geared up for my first day long excursion with LL. Naïve newcomer that I was, as per his instructions, I'd shown up on the dot at 7 a.m. below his residence building and was instructed to wait in his car, manned by his driver.

LL joined us at 8.30 a.m.

Though my enthusiasm for the exciting day ahead had wilted somewhat, it quickly revived as we started our journey.

In stark contrast to our claustrophobic workstation sans windows, it was nice to look at the blue sky, puffs of clouds and the lazy marshes whiz by.

Running late for the first meeting meant that we were hard pressed for time, and by late afternoon, having managed to pacify and satisfy various clients along the way who were not expecting us to show up considerably more than an hour after the scheduled time, we unpacked our delayed lunch tiffins of biryani (LL's) and soggy sandwiches (mine) as we drove to our final two meetings from the suburbs to the South of Bombay.

On such days LL's car resembled a mobile makeshift office, with files piled up on whatever space the driver, LL and I didn't occupy.

Both LL, I and the driver were usually on calls the entire time, with brief intervals of respite. 

Why was the driver on phone? Because LL never spoke directly to his driver.

All instructions were conveyed by LL's wife from home to the driver. For any last minute change in route, LL would first call his wife and then she would call his driver. Watching this ritual did get my blood pressure up a little higher, but I never knew why it was done, so don't ask.

Despite everything, our meetings were successful and the view from the window again captivated me. Okay, so this time, it was more buildings, shopfronts, hoardings and less horizon, but Bombay looks progressively cleaner and somewhat wealthier as you head southwards which gives a feeling of ascension to something better that really lifts your spirits. Only true Bombay 'burbies will understand this. 

Just before we reached our client's office, he called LL and cancelled the meeting due to some urgent reasons. This gave us a couple of hours to kill until our next one.

I stayed quiet, waiting to hear what his next instruction to Mrs. LL would be. Strangely, LL made no move to speed dial her number. Curious and curiouser.

"Oberoi chalo", said LL, spraying Polo liberally all over himself.

The car swerved slightly.

Bablu the driver recovered quickly from his shock at being addressed directly and drove on.

I slid open my window slightly so I could breathe again.

For once, the scenic curve of Marine Drive failed to capture my attention. The expression on LL's face was very familiar - I'd seen it before. On kids who’ve discovered the junk food stash and TV remote while their parents are out.

"Let's take a break, eh? If Mrs. L calls up on your cell just pretend it's on silent", puffed LL. What fun. This was a side to LL I didn't know existed.

We plonked ourselves down on the plush couches in front of the famous windows at the cafe overlooking the sea. It was exciting. In pre office days and window shopping at the Oberoi, I would look with wonder at all the super-busy men and women lounging around the lobbies and cafes for power brunches, power lunches and power teas. It was all so aspirational. I wanted to be part of that fascinating world.

And there we were. I was no longer awe-struck student, walking past looking at all the corporate movers and shakers, but felt at home amongst them. 

Well, once you're seated, anywhere in the Oberoi can make you feel that way.

All around us were people just like us, seemingly in between meetings or conducting them. It was fun to mimic their snooty expression while glancing over to check them out.

LL, feigning disinterest, tried eavesdropping on the conversation at the next table. He fed me snippets of what he occasionally overheard.

I wondered though if that's all he would feed me on. 

I also wondered if it was okay to order myself, or wait for him to ask. I tried recalling etiquette pointers on 'when unexpectedly out with the Boss, first time'**, but nothing really came to mind. Slightly tense and conscious, on this my first social outing with the boss, I wanted to avoid a faux pas of any kind. Or what LL the Martian, oops sorry, LL the Marrkitian would consider one.

Even after half an hour of arriving, LL showed no signs of encouraging the occasionally hovering server. 

I remembered how my day had begun and steeled myself. "I think I'll have a juice", I ventured. 

"Sure! Ofcourse!!", said LL, ever the gentleman. "In fact, I'll have one too!", he boomed.

Midway through our juices, LL had thawed greatly. 

This was partly because, given his uncanny luck, the conversation he'd eavesdropped upon had yielded results. One of our client's competing product's advertising strategy was being laid bare by the loud and eloquent ad account manager to our left, straight into LL's eager ears. Having secured this little titbit of a nugget, LL leaned over to wink and whisper, "His voice got louder after he saw you. What a show off!". 

I didn't get it for quite some time. Hey I was younger and innocent then. Ofcourse it stumped me. A compliment? From LL? I didn't know how to react.

The other reason LL was really happy was that a group of newly hatched, smart MBAs at another table had recognised him and clustered around briefly telling him how much they admired him. Nothing made LL's day more than public recognition. After subjecting them to a fifteen minute homily, he'd let them go.

Meanwhile, LL, feeling expansive, said, "Let's celebrate. Order anything! This is for you, you deserve it!"

Recovering from this shocker, I took the menu he proffered. I knew him well enough to wait a bit.

"From here", he suggested, pointing to the truffles and pastries section. He still held on to one end of the massive menu so I pretended to study it and waited some more. 

"Let me help you. How about the chocolate flan? It's really good here, you must have it." 

I can never say no to chocolate but I knew LL well enough now not to get my hopes up.

"We'll have a chocolate flan pastry", said he to the server.

"Just one?", the superior looking server raised his eyebrows, flicking his glance at me.

Just in case you're wondering, the times I speak of, were not those of recession or economic slump. 

"Yes, yes, just one will do. It's for her, my colleague - I'm not allowed to have all this. I was telling her it's the best here", said LL loudly, playing the part of magnanimous, indulgent boss taking his employee out for a meal, for the benefit of his fans at the next table who were paying us a lot of attention. 

The flan arrived and I suddenly realized that it was a wise move on LL's part to order just one. It was massive, and flanked on either side by two dessert spoons. The server strategically placed it in the exact centre of the space between LL and me.

I picked up my spoon and waited for LL's move. He slid the plate slightly closer to my end of the table. 

Here was another etiquette related quandary. Given his oddities, would LL really not mind if I dug into the same pastry he would later have? Did he really want me to have it all? 

"I'm not allowed, this is all for you", he mourned. 

Unable to resist the charms of a good chocolate for long, I dug out a minuscule piece. It was melt-in-the-mouth gooey, dreamy, dark chocolate, and I couldn't wait to have more. 

I pushed the dish over to his side.

"Do have some, it's great", I offered, inviting him to taste it before I polished the rest off.

"No, no, I really am not allowed, if Mrs. LL finds out…" His gaze was fixed on the flan and his fist was clenched hard around the dessert spoon.

Perhaps I'd misjudged LL. He wasn't all self-centred and self-serving. I felt glad that he meant it this time and wasn't faking it. It's always a pity when people have to deprive themselves of the good things life has to offer. For the first time, I looked at LL with new eyes. I was slowly getting to see the real persona behind his "Boss" image.

I waited for form's sake while he took a call on his cell.

The loud-spoken agency guy had apparently finished his meeting and I watched him swagger out with his client.

My gaze wandered to the spectacular view which relaxed and mesmerized me once again. The gently swaying palms and the wide expanse of the aqua sea looked beautiful through the tinted windows.

LL was right. I deserved to indulge in chocolate like that. Eagerly anticipating the rest of it, I decided to pull the plate back to devote myself exclusively to the flan as the mandatory polite interval from the time I made the offer had passed. 

I turned around and reached out. To an empty plate. 

And saw LL, licking the last few crumbs off his spoon. 

It hadn't even taken him a minute. More fool me.

He caught my eye. "We won't tell Mrs. L about this okay?", he winked.


** Given my valuable experience working with LL all these years, I decided to pen my own helpful list called "Etiquette pointers when out with the Boss, especially if he's LL ". Flatteringly, the list became worth it's weight in gold and folklore amongst Marrkitians old and new. Will add it to the archives another time, if you like.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Pursuit of Bollyness - I

There are some who have the ability to catnap anytime, anywhere.

An enviable trait, unless they happen to be sitting next to you at a movie show.

Having snoozed peacefully through the crucial part of a thriller*, they awake newly refreshed, demanding that you fill them in on the intricacies of the plot.

* A Hindi movie allows a lot of opportunity for the sleep deprived, as the average flick is a three-hour long saga. At least.

Knowing they won't connect with the rest of the movie unless you do, you summon all your extempore précis skills to give an expert synopsis of the story so far, in a very audible whisper.

How the (tycoon) male action lead or the "hero" - actual age 45, playing 28, in a complicated flashback recalls how he met and fell for the yet-to-be brutally murdered (impoverished & orphaned) female lead - actual age 16, playing 22, ultimately executing violent, gory revenge to the evil doer.

Note to global readers: Yes, such movies exist. 

If you're lucky, a Hindi song starts just in time, sparing you homicidal glances from neighbours as you yak on.

Such an audience is however an exception. The average Hindi movie addict would willingly watch any movie released, over and over again, with complete attention.

Entertainment apart, Bollywood fascinates one and all.

If there is a common element that brings people together - young and old, homemaker and the career oriented, scientist and DJ, teacher and socialite, whether slumdog or penthouse millionaire, man and woman, it has to be the Hindi Movie. Or even, the Hindi movie star.

Our clients were no different.

They would simply lose their heads at the dizzying thought of attending their ad film shoot with a leading luminary of Bollywood.

Throwing caution and indeed, their budgets to the winds, they were suddenly willing to overlook a lot of past parsimony.

Having spent the last two quarters of the year haggling over not having to hike budgets, employee bonuses and even employee strength, they were categorically ready to pay obscene amounts to see their favourite film star shooting loving glances at or cuddling their bottle of hair oil, shampoo, toilet bleach, wall paint, soap or toothpaste as the case may be. All permanently frozen in celluloid. 

Just in time for boosting the bottomline, final quarter. I refer ofcourse to the balance sheet bottomline, as in, profits. Not keeping your bottom in shape by dancing to the latest Bollywood track. Don't be offended. This clarification is meant more for a certain cross section of ex-clients who may be reading this, like the one written about here, not you. Just pre-empting queries, as it were. 

In some cases, we were able to make their dreams come true - not so much we, but the media pundits who ruled all things Bollywood - the well connected ad folks and the production houses, including the occasional Bolly movie director, like Karan Sabjan who also made ad films on the side just for fun and some pocket change. Given that he had direct access to most of the top stars, he was one of our most popular and in demand ad makers. 

On this day, one of our cow belt* clients settled himself down for our next meeting. He headed a (largely) junk food company that was mid-sized, unheard of in the West zone, but popular in the North. 

* It was interesting to discover that the media world referred to the certain sections of the North and Central zone of India as the "cow belt". This may give a general impression of dairy farming, rustic poverty and the simple life, which is indeed the common man's way of life in rural India. However, the entrepreneurs that belong to the 'cow belt' are multi-millionaires to say the least. Their lifestyles are luxurious owing to the subsidies they enjoy as "farmers" and forget to pass on to their farm labourers. Modern day zamindars, they own sprawling designer farmhouses, a fleet of cars, and their wives would put any fashionista to shame given her accumulated knowledge and wealth of international designer labels. Don't believe me? Go see. No surprise that Indians hold the largest number of offshore Swiss bank accounts.  

"I want Amibath Machchan*", said Mr. Prakash, once ensconced comfortably in our conference room. His bratty offspring, let's call him Bottompincher Jatin or BJ, was busy settling his array of four cell phones in front of him. Two of them were the latest models of mobiles, just launched. Each meeting that he attended once a month, at least two of his phones were replaced by a newer model. 

* Since am painstakingly disguising all identities here, this is just to keep up with the overall theme.

Amibath Machchan also known as the Big M, is one of the leading stars here. Which is an understatement as anyone knows. For those who are visiting our planet from elsewhere in the universe and still haven't understood his significance, it would suffice to say that in certain parts of India, he had temples dedicated to him, with people garlanding his effigy. 

I looked over at LL and he at me. For once, we were in empathy. 

"Well, he's certainly the biggest", said LL. What he meant is, the Big M had been around since the last 30 (or was it 40?) odd years, having in no way eroded his appeal. Nor his price. 

He was also known as the King of endorsements. Not wishful thinking, in this case. 

A fact we were sure Mr. P was missing the significance of - financially speaking. 

"Exactly why he would be perrrrfect ji. Our sweets are the best and so is he. A best to best* tie-up, as you always say, ha!", countered Mr. Prakash. "Besides, he's doing Badur's ads! If he doesn't mind selling their hair oil, mosquito repellent and Gawd knows what else, then he should certainly have no problem with our brand. Everything of superb quality! What say Jatin?" BJ, jolted from his unmoving gaze at his new palm pilot, nodded. 

* The term we used was 'leader to leader'. Not quite 'best to best', but I guess Mr. P had absorbed the point well, which is the important thing. 

Badur was Mr. Prakash's pet bugbear. Now, we happened to have heard only last week from Karan Sabjan, the exact amount Big M had negotiated for the Badur campaign for a two year exclusive. Nothing less than Rs. 12 crores. Or 120 million. 

Mr. Prakash's new brand wasn't even selling that much yet. Realistically it wouldn't, even for the next 5 years. 

This was going to be difficult. There was no way of breaking it gently to Mr. Prakash. 

He was one of those obstinate ones who once having made up their minds, considered it unthinkable to change it. Failure on our part to follow his decree would mean loss of face for him, and loss of revenue for us. Why? Because he'd drop our consultancy like a hot brick. 

Bitten by the Bollywood bug, he'd have to be weaned off some other way. It was easy to guess why he'd succumbed. All the top actors were on an endorsing spree, from male innerwear to outerwear, shoes to hair gel, perfumes to pens. Small wonder that Mr. P felt the urge to take a flying leap onto the celebrity bandwagon. 

"Okay, we'll see what we can do", said LL, taking the easy way out. 

I let my jaw get back to normal position before the client could notice. 

We'd ended the meeting satisfactorily. I backed out of the room, making sure never to face my bottomline, er, behind towards BJ. The small matter remained however, of signing up Big M for Mr. Prakash's cow belt brands. 

If A. Machchan could be called the King of Endorsements, and M. Jackson the King of Pop, then that would make LL the undisputed King of Manipulation. 

If anyone could do this, he could. It was time to wag the dog. 

To be continued…