Monday, June 27, 2005

Reliance XI vs Anil Ambani: A Clash Of Democracies

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A Victor On The Road (pic courtesy: www.rediff.com)

At the end of it all, a young colleague had this to say, "I wish they had not seperated, its so sad." The emotion might sound a bit surprising for the longest and perhaps most bitter battle of its kind, anywhere. Whatever the feeling, at the end of it all, the nation, as represented by curious citizens, investors, politicians, suppliers present and potential, business partners and of course the media were heaving sighs of relief.

Who won ? Not an answer that will spring forth in a hurry. But for Anil Ambani, always a master in the art of perception management, its a battle he lost in the boardroom but won on the street and at home. Looking back, you could even term it the clash of democracies, the industrial-institutional versus the citzen-street vendor.

Journalists and camera persons flocking around the sturdy gates of Reliance headquarters Maker IV in Nariman Point, whose reputation must now equal that of Watergate, also a office block, albeit in Washington, have become a familiar sight to office goers in the area, including those at the British High Commission on the Maker IV's ground floor.

Someone I know who works there said they waited quite eagerly for the familiar gatherings, since they provided excitement in an otherwise humdrum existence. Indeed, the wait has been worth it, to the inmates of Maker IV, passers-by as also to the viewers of television channels across the country, mostly live, the distinction between afternoon soap and corporate drama often blurring.

Reliance XI vs Anil

On more than one occasion, Anil Ambani would stride out and address the assembled media as a boxer or wrestler might before entering the ring, delivering memorable lines like, "This is a different kind of cricket game. Its me versus the Reliance XI." It would emerge, eventually, that he was not exactly bowled out for duck, but whether he would owe it to his mid-day remonstrations on the streetside, is not yet clear.

While the media would obviously depart once the pronouncements were done with, the hawkers and street vendors would stay on and continue with their business, as they did all these years, enjoying the extra attention and of course business. Some, as a journalist friend discovered, had opinions on the matter that transcended the usual, idyllic, the rich-and-their-problems point of view.

Food For Thought

Anil Ambani is an outdoor man. His obsession with fitness began a few years ago, when, famously, a foreign investor told him that they would think twice about investing in a company whose management was not in good health. So, he jogs, runs the marathon on Bombay's messy roads, sometimes all the way from his residence in south Mumbai to the international airport in Andheri.

The vendors have watched him set out or pass by. Anil also has, as this writer once witnessed some years ago, a Nariman Point office goer's craving for street-side food, typically bhel. He is also known to catch a few words with the bhel makers and vendors, thus displaying a soft side somewhat contrary to the otherwise flashy, elitist image that he is associated with.

Indeed, the combination of bhel or light, vegetarian sandwiches rustled up on a little five feet by five feet stall with its black plastic tarpaulin cover and the pavement buzz can be invigorating, be it a hot afternoon or even early evening, typically when most people who've had proper or home-cooked lunches start feeling like snacking.

Night Out at Nariman Point

Friday evening, June 16, saw the friend back there along with a small phalanx of journalists, awaiting, once again, word of the final settlement between the brothers. Word had spread quickly that the time had come and this time there would be a resolution.

At 7 pm, Nariman Point resembles an ant hill with hordes of ants streaming out, in an almost orderly fashion. Hundreds of office goers descend from their air-conditioned offices in the many office blocks, including Maker IV and flow out onto the roads, some heading for the bus stands where waiting double decker buses take them to Churchgate and VT railway stations.

Others stand in lines for share-a-taxis which whisk them away to the same destinations. A few take the 100-metre walk down to Marine Drive and catch some sea breeze before turning back east towards Churchgate station. The rest climb into their cars, roll up their windows to escape the polluted air and head north in, mostly lengthy, commutes.

The vendors stay on, this is their place of work and residence. As the evening progresses, they begin winding down, collecting newspapers and magazines spread out earlier and stacking them up, packing them up in plastic, possibly manufactured by Reliance itself. The sandwich and snack vendors follow suit. The buzz has ebbed considerably and now, at 10 pm, its all quiet except for the odd car passing by. Some vendors are changing into their night clothes, often a pajama and a banian and rolling out their beddings, right on the pavement.

A Democratic Move

Inside Maker IV, the lights are blazing on the 3rd and 4th floors. Late hours are not unusual at Reliance. The CEO of a large computer hardware company once told me, in a tone marked with grudging admiration, that Reliance's senior executives saved their best haggling for late at night. "Can you imagine waiting from 7 pm and then going into negotiate at 12 am, you don't stand a chance." But tonight is clearly different, as everyone parked on the road below, including the vendors, can sense.

Sibling rivalry apart, Anil Ambani can be termed as a unwilling (or is it willing ?)victim of corporate democracy. In plain language, he was ranged against the entire board of eleven directors and the chairman. He accused them of unconstitutionally stripping him of his powers and being deaf to his complaints. He seemed to have a point but in a corporate democracy, despite being managing director, vice-chairman and a shareholder, he was simply outnumbered.

It's a bit like Laloo Prasad Yadav's Bihar or maybe Mayawati's Uttar Pradesh. You might wonder aloud how could someone, technically on the run from the law, install his spouse on the highest elected seat in local government and then go on to rule the state, by proxy.

The fact is that he did it, Rabri Devi called the shots for a long while and no one could do anything about it. And they could not till they unseated her in the manner she was elected, by voting her out. You might think she is undeserving and incompetent but the majority of the people of Bihar clearly don't. That's citizen's democracy for you. The matter ends there.

Power to Anil

Some parallels can be drawn with a board of directors. They are duly elected or nominated by shareholders of a company. They might overnight become scheming, no-gooders but they continue to hold elected office. Unless they are constitutionally unseated, their collective decision has to be respected, be it the buying of a Embraer jet for the chairman's office or refusing to respond to a protesting director.

Back on the street, most of the street vendors are going about their final nightly chores, including washing up utensils. A few strike up conversations. Most of them, one reveals, hail from UP. He is a spokesman of sorts and like most immigrant stories in the vast metropolis, represents the eternal chain of arrivals, the successful sandwich shop owner pulling in at least three others.

Most of them live alone, some have graduated from the streets to rows of rented cots in chawls near VT station. Driving past on the new flyover which skims over Crawford Market and onto Bhendi Bazaar and finally descends at JJ Hospital, you can glance into some of these darkened rooms, the rows of cots awaiting their sweaty inhabitants, clothes hanging on hooks on the wall, often their only possessions.

"We are for Anil Ambani," he told the friend unequivocally. The reason was not too far to see. Anil Ambani had promised to set up a 10,000 MW power plant in Uttar Pradesh. For the economically backward and investment starved state, if the promise materialises, this is big news. Despite living off Bombay city and its prosperity, the chance prosperity of the abandoned home state clearly struck a chord.

Victory On The Street

The well-informed, if not literate street vendors were not oblivious to the Anil Ambani-UP political connection either. The Samajvadi-Amar Singh-Mulayam Singh connection was factored into their own understanding of the complex political matrix. That Anil was a Rajya Sabha MP from the state was not lost on them. Brother Mukesh may not have approved of Anil's political dalliances but out on the street, outside Maker IV, there was complete solidarity.

Anil Ambani was unsuccessful in taking on the corporate democracy but was winning the battle of perceptions in the street democracy. Here was a man they could touch and feel, watch him eating the food they cooked, so to speak. What's more, he even had a political connect with their home state. In a citizen's democracy, this was a true winner.

Not that they didn't like Mukesh. But they rarely saw him, if they did it was through the tinted windows of a car that sped in or out. They didn't know much about his family. Anil's wife Tina was a well known film star who many still remember. And of course, Mukesh is not the kind to be sauntering around the pavements for his evening fix of bhel. He may be a nice guy but that's just not him.

The Mother's Touch

Next morning, as the street was coming to life once again and being Saturday, fewer office goers were returning to work, mother Kokilaben put out her first media statement. In it she said Anil would get three companies his kitty. Reliance Energy, whose ambitions if not performance won him popular support, Reliance Capital, a company that he wants to make into a bank, regulators permitting and Reliance Infocomm, the telecom company whose financing he attacked viciously but now inherited.

Defenders of corporate democracy would differ on the methodology since even the board seemed to have been bypassed and even votaries of street democracy might disagree but in India, finally, as in most films and soaps, including the ones Anil was competing with in his afternoon appearances, the mother's will prevailed.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A Dot-Com in 2005

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Having reported quite extensively on the events (read madness) leading upto the bursting of the great dot-com bubble in 2000, it is with a combination of nostalgia and scepticism (a little of the former and large doses of the latter) that one regards any organisation with a dot com appended its name.

In the go-go years, as one wise man referred to them subsequently, it was the youth who ruled the roost. If you were older than 27, you were over the hill, if you hadn't spent the last few years in the US, preferably on the West Coast or referred to that $50 million valuation with the appropriate twang, then you were not all there. So on and so forth but this is not, one must hasten to add, a generalisation.

At a major aviation and travel exposition the other day in Bombay, it was with some interest that I shook hands with Navneet Bali,CEO & Co-Founder of www.allcheckin.com. Incidentally, its been a good five years since one's last dot-com encounter; most of the smart 27-year-olds, apart from turning 32, have either gone firmly underground or lead respectable lives doing normal jobs. A handful have probably survived. Thankfully, they behave normally now.

Bali, who lives in England, entered the dot-com world a little late in life. Before one describes him any further, a little about his firm, allcheckin.com: this is an airline and hotel search engine, one of the many in a highly specialised species of search engines that are in some demand right now. allcheckin.com, incidentally is modelled on expedia.com.

Tickets For Sale !

Allcheckin focusses on giving you the best travel and stay deals, a typical day would see the site hosting the best fares on flights from Glasgow to Vancouver and London to a host of destinations from Rome and Madrid to Alicante and Nashville. The airlines include Air Canada, Alitalia, British Airways and our very own Air India. Allcheckin, says Bali, showcases offers from a host of travel providers and you can view prices and itineraries for over 500 airlines, over 80,000 hotels and leading car rental companies from across the world.

So, is Bali a 27-year-old, cool dude who sports the dot-com era uniform; chinos and cotton shirt and refers to a potential $100 million valuation like it was small change ?

Well not quite. Bali is in his fifties or thereabouts. He sports a simple but well cut grey striped suit, speaks softly and you could assign him to any job in almost any industry at a resonably senior level but not quite a dot-com or travel portal.

There is a reason for this. Bali, as I discover, worked for 18 years with the Taj Group of Hotels at the St James Court in London. Seasoned hoteliers are normally not brash and are, I have discovered, usually tuned to listening first and talking later. St James Court, to digress briefly, is still owned by the Taj and this writer makes a reference to this grand institution in an earlier post (Battle For Britain !).

A Hotelier Goes Online

A few years ago, Bali left the Taj Group and joined ebookers.com as CFO. Now, ebookers was a very well known, though not so profitable, British online travel search engine, then owned by prominent British Indian Dinesh Dhamija. Ebookers.com, which grew out of a regular and large travel firm, was sold for $415 million to car-hire and hotel group Cendant last year.

Around the same time, summer 2004 to be precise, Bali founded allcheckin.com. Business has been okay and picking up, it appears, but there is some way to go. While the UK market is pretty tuned into travel shopping on the web, India is not. And Bali is presently in India to explore opportunities for a similar, domestic site. Well, having trawled around the websites of Air Deccan, Jet Air and Kingfisher and ocassionaly some of the hotel ones as well, a sales aggregation job like allcheckin could surely help.

What makes a travel search engine tick ? Technology is critical to its functioning and success but so are the old-fashioned industry relationships. The first part has a home connection. Bali says allcheckin's CTO is Indian and shuttles between England and, where else, its back-end in Delhi where a handful of techies man it. The relationships obviously are a straight sales function. So, though expedia.com was set up by a bunch of Microsoft techies who subsequently built the sales capability, its not easy and the business is fairly brick and mortar in that sense.

No Vacancy On This Site

Disputes often arise in this space, as Bali points out. An expedia.com might tussle with a leading hotel chain because it would not sell more than the number of rooms allocated to it. As a result, a visitor to a chain via expedia might find a full up sign, though technically that may not be the case. The hotel chain might then want expedia to re-direct visitors to its own site which the portal might not. Expedia might demand higher margins as well, since it would claim credit for the brand and the loyalty with the traveller.

Bali feels the market for cheap air travel is going to get exciting. "Most people are looking for basic brand comfort but price will be the biggest driver," he says. According to him, with so many low cost carriers and increased domestic tourism, the potential for such sites could be there. "Interestingly, while internet penetration in a country like India is low, it is features like travel search which enhance internet usage. That's how it happened in the UK as well," he points out.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

A Room With A View

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The Good Old Days..(pic courtesy: cinemaweb.com)

Projector rooms in cinema halls used to be a mess. Cans of film, some open, would lie around the floor, the projectionist, a tired looking, pot-bellied man, attired in khaki trousers and a vest potters around, barking orders at a small boy who would be mounting a reel on a hand-wound spooler, pulling the loop of film, frantically spinning the handle and getting the film wound back for the next show.

On the screen below, a father-son shouting match is on, the mother is imploring the father to forgive the son for some misdemeanour, maybe daring to fall in love with a girl hailing from a dissimilar background. Like most high melodrama Bollywood scenes, from a little distance, the loud dialogue, backed by a orchestra of violins going berserk, sounds like pure cacophony.

The sounds and voices filter clearly through and can be heard above the projector's whirring noise. One, of a total of possibly 16 reels, is winding down on Projector 1. The little circles, usually on the upper right corner on the screen alert the projectionist, another set of marks appear a few seconds later; its time for action. The projectionist lifts himself up from his folding metal chair, walks over, starts Projector 2 with the loaded reel. At the right moment, he switches off Projector 1 and sound and gets 2 going. If all goes well, the switch is not really noticed.

The audience below notices a little jerk in the frame, a few squiggles appear on the screen and the picture soon returns to normal. Youngsters like me would notice this, I would swing around and look up to see that the powerful beam, casting its own little moving image on the glass, had moved from one window to another. Anticipating a reel switch, typically when the scratches started appearing on screen and turning around in time to catch it was pure thrill.

Touring A Multiplex

Having had the privilege of a conducted tour of a modern multiplex in a north Mumbai suburb the other day, I am sad to report that the charm's somewhat diminished though its replaced by a different form of technology-driven excitement. The institutionalization of the business is all there to see, my host looks after marketing for this chain of multiplexes and reels off an array of box office statistics and movie hall economics, once an impossibility in this secretive industry.

The projector room is out of bounds; in the old days, while walking down from the dress circle after the movie, you would glance through the open door and note the frenetic activity, reels being picked up and thrown about. The men who controlled your mind and emotions for the past hour and a half or three look serious and purposeful as they prepare for a next show.

We leave the quiet, carpeted confines of the foyer and its Subway and popcorn counters with their attendants expectantly awaiting the next intermission. We walk past the doors to Screen 2 and 3, overhear the sounds emanating from within and head for the emergency door. We go up two flights and knock on a door which says quite simply, Projector Room. Its access controlled with swipe cards. Obviously, our host’s card did not work here.

The door opens, a cool blast of air-conditioning hits us as a smart, mustached young man, sporting the multiplex colours on his working T-Shirt, lets us in. He is alone. As I learn, he can manage film, stills, sound and yet not be weighed down as our tour proceeded to demonstrate. In some countries in the west, there has been talk of doing away with the projectionist altogether.

Not A Can of Worms

Everything is neat and orderly, the cans are still there but neatly stacked up. The film is transferred to separate spools which are once again filed in a low bookcase like cupboard. The big surprise is the 'platter'. No longer, necessarily do films unspool from a reel on the top and get wound on to the one in the bottom.

Instead, the entire film is wound on a giant horizontal alumunium disc, maybe five feet in diameter and affixed to metal column. From the motor driven disc or platter, the film moves through an elaborate set of spring loaded pulleys and rollers, some screwed to the wall, to the sprockets on the projector and then back again into another platter just below the first one. And this really is what makes a multiplex tick in the truest sense, complete economies of scale in operation.

The platter system was invented around twenty years ago but are making their presence felt in India only now, presumably. Interestingly, the the film is lifted from the middle of the platter and not from the outside, so you don’t lose time rewinding between shows. Typically, two or three platters might be mounted on the column.

Served On A Platter

The platters spin steadily and silently on, the projectors continue to whirr away but much less noisily than the old days – they don't look much different either. Another key change and avantage of the platter system: the entire show, including trailers, advertisements and, now, the national anthem, is loaded onto one platter with reels spliced together. So no more jerky shifts or for that matter beams shifting from one window to the other.



The Platter Approach (pic courtesy: TACC, France)


The room has just two projectors, each beaming out from opposite sides into different halls. The film emerging from one platter meant for one auditorium could technically be wound into another platter across the room for playout in the next hall. Our host explained, "It happens mostly in premiere shows when there is only one set of reels going around, so we show the movie with a five minute gap in two auditoriums." Another small slide projector takes care of the stills, that's not changed really.

The sound console is a simple, vertical rack, the kind you would see in your computer room in the office, with a bunch of desktop like units stacked up vertically. The one on the top looks different and has a display, it's the main processor and has a few knobs.

The man in charge explains that the processor recognizes the input and accordingly displays the result, for instance, Dolby Surround EX and so on. Volume is defined in numbers, 5, 6 or 7. I'm told its usually bumped up when the songs come on. In most Hindi films, this is the cue for most viewers, particularly the men, to go out and stretch, smoke or visit the toilets.

First Day First Show

Bunty Aur Bubli was playing in one hall while Ram Gopal Varma's gangster flick D ran in the other. You had to glance through the darkened window to see what was happening, no sound filtered through. So, Rani Mukherjee lit up a cigarette and bantered around in silence as did a few gangsters throwing money at a garishly attired dance-bar girl on the other side. Both shows appeared half empty at the least but the night shows would be packed I was assured.

Thursdays are the high point in activity, that's when the new films come in for a Friday debut and old ones are sent out. So, film moves back from platter to spool and then onto the can, duly broken up again. The multiplex management takes a call on which trailers to play when. For instance, one for an Amitabh-Abhishek starrer will play before Bunty Aur Bubli because the audience is believed to be similarly inclined. All this is neatly listed on a computer print-out stuck on a wall.

Some things don't change though, most first day first shows are chaotic, often they start late. For, like the old days, the cans of film still arrive at the last moment, either because they are dispatched late from the processors who are fighting various deadlines or the taxi bringing them gets stuck in a traffic jam near by.
 

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