Sunday, September 30, 2007

Gym Gyan

In Chennai, most neighborhoods have a public gym - there is one in Chetpet, Nungambakkam, Besant Nagar beach and so on. They have a set of parallel bars and then some weights and dumbbells. The local students hang out there in the mornings or evenings discussing body building and so on.
In such places, there are always some people who offer wierd advice - advice that apparently shows their expertise. These are well-meaning people, but some of the bits you hear are pretty unusual.
When I was in college and used to hang out at the local gym, there was one guy who was always doing parallel bars. He told me one day that if you did parallel bars, muscles in your legs MOVE to your chest, thereby making your chest look big, while your legs are very thin.
That is, according to him there was a single muscle that went back and forth between the chest and legs - depending on if you were doing Squats or doing parallel bars.
It seems pretty stupid now, but I completely believed him. One of his suggestions to keep the muscle from moving was to keep the legs bent at knee level while doing bars. With the effect that you look like you are going to the toilet while doing the bars.

One of the people who used to hang out was a state baskettball player. He made knowledgeable comments on working out so we asked for his advice on how best to workout. He became enthusiastic and suggested that all of us gather early morning at 6 AM for a visit to the Chetpet gym.
We did. He got us to run towards Chetpet from Nungambakkam. While running he kept going back and forth, trying to make us run in formation. Unfortunately, most of us were not even fit for NCC; we kept talking to each other. I rememebr that one of us actually held hands with another WHILE RUNNING. And we ran too slow - we were basically walking.
The basketball player was getting increasingly annoyed - he yelled at us. We did not care. Suddenly he screamed at us and went running back. Left us, in the middle of the road.
We just walked down to a tea shop and then returned.

One other guy traded stories of his days of working out. He said they had a "Guru". He said the Guru's legs looked like Hanuman's. Now this Guru firmly believed that a good workout meant you have to sweat a lot. He accomplished that by having the workout in an asbestos shed and then CLOSING THE DOOR AND WINDOWS! I would sweat if I was in such a room, WITHOUT working out - but these guys believed their Guru was the greatest because he made them sweat.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Are NRIs buying up all the houses?

In my house search I frequently come across realtors who claim that NRIs are willing to pay much more; and that is the reason why prices are going up.
There are several urban myths about the current rises in real estate prices in Chennai - you have all heard of them. Someone says that a friend of theirs went to book an apartment on the FIRST day of booking. The apartment was in Siruseri or somewhere in a 18 floor building. And by the time they reached the booking office all the apartments were sold out except for one in the 18th floor.
This kind of story is so common - 6 months back I was told that an apartment in Santhome costs 1.1 crores!
My wife called up a builder's office and she made the mistake of opening the conversation in Tamil. The immediate response from the builder - "You cannot afford it". No price quote, nothing - just you cannot afford it.
In my investigations to see if ANYONE is paying 1.2 crores for an apartment in Adyar, one group was always blamed - the NRIs. The realtors will talk to me with mournful faces and describe how the NRIs are able to pay any kind of money and thus us idiots in India can never buy these.
Unfortunately, I was an NRI till last year - to me it is obvious these people are bluffing. In the latest Tamil movie Shivaji, Rajni returns after 10 years in the USA with 250 crores! Is this really possible? Is it true that NRIs in the USA are so extremely rich, ready to blow their money on apartments?
(In this article I am analyzing NRIs in the USA alone - because they form one of the richest groups and thus I am safe analyzing them).
Let us look at the US census for 2000 and the American Community Survey. In 2005, there were around 2,319,000 Asian Indians in the USA. They form the richest minority in terms of median income. On an average, the monthly salary of an Asian Indian is $60000.
If you are in IT, your pay depends on your years of experience and the number of years you have been in the United States. Many MS students get around $60000 - $70000 when they start. If you are consulting your rates can vary from $35 (when you are starting up) to $70. Your rates also depend on the region you are in - if you are in New York City or in Bay Area, California, you are likely to charge much more. But your living expenses and the tax you pay are also very high in that case.

After taxes, you are likely to be saving around 6-7 lakhs per year - if you are living a normal life style. If you have kids, that savings rate will go down.

The emphasis here is that an Indian in IT in the USA is not super rich. Whether you are consulting or you are a permanent employee does not make a huge difference.
Of course, if you are an MBA from Wharton, the story is entirely different - you can earn a lot. But then you are stuck for 5 yeears or more paying off the student loans.
That is why the rate of savings I mentioned above is pretty much the standard for an IT employee - 5 lakhs if you are normal to 9 lakhs if you live shoestring and are a bachelor.

Now let us say I have spent 5 to 8 years in the USA. I have saving of around 25 lakhs to 60 lakhs. I plan to buy a house in Chennai. Would I buy the 1.2 crore one in Adyar or even the apartment in Siruseri?

Unlikely. The reason is that NRIs are as conscious about their investments as a resident of Chennai. For 1.2 crores, I can buy a good condominium in downtown Boston or Philadelphia. To imagine that Chennai as a city with no public infrastructure and no standardized property rates and even less security can command such a price is absurd. If I am an NRI and I see that I could be paying the same price for an apartment in Chennai as I am in Philadelphia, I would buy the one in Philadelphia.

I have always suspected that the NRI rationale given by realtors is a smokescreen to keep hiking their prices. None of my friends in the USA have bought property in India. If I was still there, I would not either. The problem is the realtors know that nobody is going to actually fact check their stories. Do people really believe that NRIs are ready to blow their money on crappy houses in Chennai?

The issue is also that as a very intrusive culture, Indians make it a matter of habit to be familiar with other people's pay. But, because of the prestige associated with being an NRI, nobody really reveals what their pay is in the USA. Even if your pay is high, you got to live there - and you got to spend money there. Thus people are completely unaware of the true savings. NRIs are not living in the USA JUST for the savings. There is also a quality of living that you pay for and enjoy.

This is ofcourse not true for everybody - there are a few who strike it rich. But if they do, they prefer to stay there.

One related issue is that people see a reason for this insane rise in real estate costs - they say, "Oh, this is India Shining, of course! When the economy grows, this is what happens!". That is, they say that we should all be happy about this because what is happening is a natural consequence of our economic growth. Is this true?
There is no direct correlation between a growth in economy and real estate prices - in the USA, during the recession from 2001 - 2004, real estate prices were actually going up! That is, even though the economy was down, property values were increasing. The reverse is happening now - even though the US economy is doing well, real estate is going down.
Even in India, the total growth in economy over the last two years is around 15% -meanwhile real estate prices have doubled - that is a 100% increase in costs for a 15% rise in GDP. What sense does this make?

The truth is that realtors are completely speculating and randomly pushing up the costs - while blaming the economy or NRIs. A speculation driven cost rise is nothing to be cheerful about. We need to understand that Markets require regulation - and the Indian state is really weak in regulation.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Vettayadu Vilayadu and Shivaji

This is probably a late review; but it is prompted because of a discussion I had at work. I thought Vettayadu Vilayadu was a worse movie than Shivaji and it prompted some criticism. I will explain why I think so here.
I like Kamal Hasan - I think he is a great actor; my respect for him increased after watching Virumaandi. In this essay, I am not criticising Kamal - I am criticising Goutam Menon, the director of Vettayadu Vilayadu released in 2006.
In an interview to Vijay TV after the release of the movie, Goutam claimed that Tamil movies should go international. I had no idea what he meant by that - but it raised a red flag for me. He was obviously proud of his movie and he should not be.
Movie analysts say that a movie viewer gives 15 minutes to a director to make his case - the first 15 minutes of a movie a director has to basically get "buy-in" from the viewer regarding the theme.
Take the movie "Matrix". Extraordinary fights happen within the first 5 minutes. The viewer sees a woman killing 5 police men using unbelievable acrobatics. If the movie went on like that there would have been no difference between it and "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" and hundred other Kung-Fu movies. But in the next 10 minutes the viewer is introduced to "Mr.Anderson" and the white rabbit and it is clear that the movie involves something close to the super natural and that an explanation will be forthcoming. The director now has the viewer intrigued and following his lead.
Now, if you took the fights in "Matrix" and made it a part of a movie such as "Mudhalvan" ("Nayak" in Hindi) you are taking a risk - because there is no explanation for why the hero is able to fly around in a movie in which otherwise everything is normal.
I have seen people watch the "Matrix" and then justify weird fights in Tamil or Hindi movies - including Rajinikanth or Vijaykanth movies. In "Matrix - Reloaded", Keanu Reeves fights with a hundred Smiths. BUT, the Matrix has an explanation.
That is, a movie has to be "internally consistent". The challenge is not to apply some kind of universal logic to a movie story - the challenge is that you create an internal logic that can help the viewer appreciate a movie. This is why "The Lord of the Rings" can be accepted as a good fantasy movie - it has a very good internal logical framework. I could not accept the "Chronicles of Narnia" because the director could not justify the reason why the kids in that movie were special.
This is also why people can accept certain kind of movies from Rajinikanth and not from Kamal Hasan. But more on that later.
The argument about Vettayadu Vilayadu was that Goutam Menon had introduced the genre of serial killing in Tamil movies. Therefore, in spite of its flaws, we should accept it. My friend's point was that we cannot compare it with serial killer movies in English - as a Tamil movie it was good enough.
I rejected this argument. First, there HAD been very good serial killer movies created in Tamil before - "Sigappu Rojakkal", "Nooravadhu Naal" and "Moodu Pani" come to mind. Thus Goutam is definitely not "introducing" a genre to the Tamil audience. Plus, the Tamil audience judges a movie on its own merits - we do not need to extend our thanks to a director just because he decides to "introduce" something to us out of pity.
(As an aside, there is this director Sanjay Gupta who copies Korean movies frame by frame to Hindi. He wants to be known as India's Tarantino, but unfortunately he is just a copy cat. Some of his supporters claim that he does a favor to us by "introducing" Korean movies to us. But of course, he could have done that as easily by buying distributing rights and dubbing them. Instead, he is trying to make money out of somebody else's story. That is thievery, not altruism.)

Internal Logic
The more important reason why I reject "Vettayadu Vilayadu" is because it completely violates any internal logic. Goutam shows his hero to be a completely normal person; shows very realistic shots; prepares us for a good detective story in the first 15 minutes; but then completely destroys it all by showing us the "Raghavan Instinct". This instinct lets Kamal find dead bodies buried anywhere. There is no explanation for his "instinct" - it is just hanging there.
The Raghavan Instinct is used repeatedly along with his sheer luck. In the final chase, Kamal just happens upon the bad guy while driving randomly around Chennai - what the hell?
Also, Goutam heavily depends upon shock value - I have never seen a serial killer movie in which they decsribe their whole childhood and every gory act they did. He overextends the shock value by casting the two bad guys as homosexuals. I could not understand why they were attacking women and raping them if they are homosexuals - Goutam should have had his facts straight. Apart from reinforcing the stereotypes about eunuchs and homosexuals, the movie did not enlighten us about anything.

Shivaji and the lack of logic
This whole thread is completely subjective of course.
Many reviewers have criticised the movie Shivaji for lack of logic. In the online threads there was heavy criticism of the movie and its fans.
Rajini movies are still very popular, I believe, for a good reason. I watched the movie "Anniyan" and hated it for its lack of logic. But, I could watch Shivaji and so could many people around the world. The reason is tied in with the "internal logic" I described above.
The director is trying to get "buy-in" from the viewers for a movie - but he has several resources for getting that buy-in. In the case of a Rajini movie, Tamil audience pretty much accept that Rajini movies show impossible, hard-to-believe fight scenes. They accept this even though they know that they will not accept this from other actors. What is the reason for this latitude given to Rajini? I believe it has been created over the years, mainly in the late nineties. It is also tied in with the several urban legends about Rajini - that he has more power and pull than Jayalaitha or Karunanidhi. he does have a larger-than-life image and people are WILLING to carry that into the movie theater.
I think Rajini himself understands this. He is humble as it is and has not bothered to hide his true self (unlike Vijaykanth).
So you see perfectly educated people walk into a movie hall and are able to buy a Rajini movie's story merely because he is in it. This is the fact and many movie personalities are clear about it. I am not sure that I am comfortable about this level of adulation for a person, but my point is that there is a perfectly rational explanation for the success of Rajini movies - an explanation that is common to every movie audience around the world.
If Kamal acted in a movie in which he moves his finger and a hundred people fly around, nobody will watch it. Does this mean Kamal is a lesser personality? I don't think so - the public image of Kamal as a realistic movie maker and actor carries forward when we watch his movies. He can be proud of that.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

A Nation of Perceptions

A few months back, I was in Bangalore. The city had decided to extend the timeline of bars from 11:30 PM to 1:30 AM. Times Of India had invited opinions on the extension. I read a letter supporting the extension thus: Bangalore was becoming a global city. That meant we have to behave like a global city - one of the characteristics is an active night life. So we have to encourage such a night life by keeping the bars open.

Over the course of the last few years I have seen this kind of weird arguments gaining ground. It was as if someone had suddenly given a title "Global City" to Bangalore and so Bangaloreans had to behave in certain ways. It did not matter that let alone Bangalore, NONE of the cities in India are truly developed or "Global" (whatever that means). To be considered devloped you need a measure of security; a good life for the citizens; truly accountable and representative city councils; vibrant community activism and so on. The writer of that letter, instead thought the other way round - if we behaved as citizens of developed cities do and we looked similar to them in costume and we spoke like them and ate like them, then we are automatically "Global".

India has become a nation of perceptions - our policy makers, media and intellectual elite have diverted our attention from true problems and focussed on correcting perceptions. For example, the concern about the state of our airports. The reason people worry about them is because white people land in them; God forbid they get the wrong opinion. So we try to erase slums near airports. Meanwhile, has anyone taken a look at the public busstands? Or train stations? Shouldn't some money be spent on them also? Yet everybody have raised the state of our airports to be a primary concern.
The whole India Shining campaign of the BJP Govt. is another example.
The belief is that we do not have systemic problems; that we need to do little other than rebrand ourselves. When you keep comparing a nation to a corporate structure, this is what happens - you focus on advertising and rebranding and not so much on the real issues facing us.

Bollywood is of course, a classic case study in this respect. Back in 2000 there was a big buzz about Bollywood going corporate and professional. They talked about how everyone now focussed on the "script" and how people expected Powerpoint presentation s on the script! 7 years later, Bollywood is in the worst rut it can be in. It is all style (that too cheesy) and no substance. The reason is that rebranding and marketing are not enough to correct the issues with Bollywood - they need a thorough overhaul. One of the problems (as in our political system) is the rise of the star dynasties. The other is that new talent never makes it in. And of course, they are focussing on the wrong audience (NRIs).

For a country as old and as new as ours, there are plenty of problems that need to be solved. We need to be debating why the educational outlay in our budget is so low (meanwhile our defense budget keeps growing). Instead, here we are discussing how long bars need to be kept open so that we can call ourselves "Global".