Tuesday 30 May 2017

Paper Boat: Nostalgia for the rootless generation

We are now at that point in India’s story when the generation born in the 80s – early 90s have come of age and are working. These are the individuals who were either (1) very young during liberalization or (2) were born after it. These are also the individuals that were exposed to alternate media, growing up (in addition to the staid, old Doordarshan that had been the sole staple of their parents’ lives).

As a result of the aforementioned liberalization – both economic and pop-cultural - the lifestyle of the average urban Indian has changed tremendously compared to even their parents’ generation. Their worldview, clothes, mannerisms, music, speech have all undergone massive changes, mostly as a result of media promoted westernization. At the same time, the traditional family structure has fractured as a result of the opening up of the economy, and nuclear families have become the norm. Individuals now work far away from their families, and for longer times. 

The end result is that lives seem to have become exceedingly mechanical and complex, and there’s a yearning to go back to simpler days when one was growing up – the carefree, good old days when having fun was the only concern. The days when one was a happy, little child, protected and taken care of by one’s loving family. The days when time moved at a glacial pace, and one found comfort in repetition. 

The golden, fun days of youth that are now located irretrievably in the past. Never to be repeated.

A communal childhood

A thread that unites this generation is a shared childhood filled with similar experiences. Experiences, perhaps forever lost to those born in the late ‘90s and beyond. Barring a few exceptions, these were common experiences, no matter where one stood on the socio-economic ladder.

These are experiences that are filtered through Doordarshan-and-Tinkle-tinted glasses, of an India forever stuck in the 80s – early 90s. The epochal moment for our TG.

Indeed, a casual get-together with old friends might eventually end up being a collective, nostalgic look back at the good old days.

Enter Paper Boat

This post is inspired by a TVC that I saw recently. Now I’m fairly jaded as far as media is concerned, after being inundated with it for most of my life. However, credit where credit is due, even if you can identify the tropes and the thought process inherent to a piece of work, all that matters is if it ultimately proves to be effective.

And make no mistake, this particular TVC is very effective. I’m talking, of course, about the new ad for Paper Boat.

Some background

It's a rare occurrence when a product, it's name, positioning and communication are all beautifully in sync.

Paper Boat’s tagline is “Drinks and memories” and they aim to bring you all your favourite old flavours in a new avatar. They were one of the first organized movers in what I would call the “packaged nostalgia” drinks segment.

These are drinks that we had as kids at our grandmother’s house, or from a travelling juice vendor, or a ramshackle shop down the road. Drinks from places and a particular time that now only exist in memories.

The names reflect this aspect, as Paper Boat seems to have stuck to the traditional names and have not succumbed to the temptation to modernize them. So we have delightfully old-fashioned names like Aamras, Jaljeera, Thandai, Panakam etc.

The marketing team have also decided to focus on this facet, and have mercifully resisted the urge to “modernize and update the drinks for a cool new generation”. They have rightly guessed that nostalgia is a more potent emotion for this generation, and it makes sense as the product itself is a nostalgic throwback.

In effect, they are selling the only thing that this "materialistic" generation cannot buy, but very badly want.

Packaging Nostalgia

Paper Boat has always seemed to be very clear about its TG, positioning, brand message et al. It has all stayed consistent throughout, and the strategy has paid off in spades.

They have managed to tap into the yearning described earlier and have positioned their brand as an empathetic aid to the TGs nostalgia for their vanished childhood. And since this was a childhood with particular shared experiences, Paper Boat then becomes a vehicle for a communal recollection of shared experiences, and mutual validation.

The communication has always been distinctive in presenting the simple past and a natively rooted Indian life. One’s childhood experiences and common occurrences are showcased through a Doordarshan-ist, Malgudi Days slant, where TVCs/shorts are concerned, and a more Tinkle/Indian comic style of pictorial representation over assets on social media and elsewhere.


The TVC itself stays true to Paper Boat’s positioning and ticks all the boxes mentioned.

A few cues and call-backs that would trigger nostalgia in the TG:

  •  The kid reading Tinkle
  •  The sleeper class, non-AC train journey
  •  The kid occupying the window seat
  •  Mother cautioning kid to keep his hands away from the window
  •  Sharing food (in this case a fruit, that ties in neatly with the flavour being  advertised at the end)
  •  Hesitant crossing between compartments
  •  Blowing up an air pillow
  •  Making friends/meeting a potential crush
  •  Fear of abandonment – The kid is afraid as his father gets down at a station to re-fill water; he fears the train leaving without his father
  •  Retrieving the footwear from under the seat
  •  Re-uniting with family after a long journey
  •  Malgudi-ish music (of course this is common to all the brands assets)

These are all common experiences that most individuals, born in the time period mentioned earlier, identify with.

As of today, the TVC has got over a million hits on YouTube, and massive exposure across various digital channels, similar to their prior videos and other assets. The comments all bear witness to the fact that the ad has connected in a big way, and has taken the TG back to their childhood, as intended.

And all without the product being shown/used.

Now, this is subtle advertising that conditions the consumer to associate the brand with a certain positive emotion.

Paper Boat is successfully appealing to its TGs memories to sell its product. The product itself, the names, and the communication are all rooted in the past – a perfect synergy. 

So effectively, Paper Boat = Nostalgia. 

Take a bow, guys.

Some thoughts

On a different note: I’ve noticed other ads picking up on this nostalgia aspect to appeal to the 80s-90s “kids”. Manyavar (with Virat Kohli), being an example.

Are we going to see an increase in this sort of communication to appeal to Indian “Millenials”? 

And is this part of the larger yearning on the part of the TG to re-discover its roots, as they were the first generation to be significantly influenced by westernized (Americanized) mores.

Something to ponder about.

Tuesday 1 March 2016

Fargo - A review of the TV series

This is my second post of the day. And continuing on from my last post, where I was talking about TV, I would like to use this post to review the anthological TV series, “Fargo” (2014 – present).

While this series may not be as well known to Indian and even international audiences compared to series like “Breaking Bad”, “Game ofThrones”, “Sherlock” etc, I can confidently say that this is one of the best series that I’ve ever seen. Period. It’s a must watch for anyone into unhurried, intelligent storytelling.

It’s based on the film, “Fargo” by the Coen brothers in 1996. Though taking inspiration from the movie, and set around the same region, the stories told in the series are completely different from the one told in the film. The series just completed the second season and the third season is expected to be telecast in 2017.

It’s based on true incidents, though creative liberties have no doubt been taken with the narration.

The incidents in both the seasons center around the Minnesota and North Dakota region of the American Midwest. It’s a harsh and bleak country, drowned in snow. The perfect setting for the stories that are about to unfold.

I’m not going to delve into the story, or the intricacies of the plot. Just do yourself a favour and watch the show. I'll however be delving into the themes running through the show.

The first season is set in 2006, and stars Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Bob Odenkirk, Colin Hanks among others. Freeman is a revelation here as the cowardly, whiny and emasculated Lester Nygaard, who’s the catalyst for the chain of events that are about to unfold. Billy Bob stars as Lorne Malvo (channelling Anton Chigurh from the Coen’s “No Country for OldMen”), an almost literal devil-like, wild force of nature.

The second season is set in the late ‘70’s, and stars Patrick Wilson, Kirsten Dunst, Ted Danson, Bokeem Woodbine and others. Almost immediately a connection is established to the first season (apart from the physical proximity).

A few people that I’ve spoken to about “Fargo” have told me that even though they like the initial and middle parts of the second season, they felt let down by the ending. As they felt it was leading up to something big and didn’t deliver. Well, that’s just like life and that’s just how things happen sometimes. There needn’t always be a big pay-off or overt conclusion to a story, sometimes things aren’t resolved and there’s no closure. However, if you keep your eyes peeled you can see that one of the threads from the second season’s ending is actually resolved in the first season. And you go “oh fuck, I didn’t expect that”.

Personally, I loved the second season. And my pick for the standout character: Bokeem Woodbine's Mike Milligan.

Fargo works on so many levels. The setting’s brilliant, the music used is phenomenal, the acting is tremendous, and the way it has been shot is magnificent - I especially loved the second season for that reason, it really brought the seventies back to life.

There are multiple premises you can use to evaluate Fargo, one is the surface level story, which is very successfully told, and in an entertaining manner.

The other is the underlying subtext. And this is where it shines. There are so many themes you can pick up from the series.

The basic theme is the eternal struggle between good and evil. The decent and the brutal. Fargo is a meditation on man’s capability for brutality. It deals with individuals struggling to come to terms with man's violence towards his fellow man. In the first season, the “good guys” talk amongst themselves about how the land has changed, and people have become more cold-blooded, whereas things were peaceful in the past and people were more friendly and decent.  Then we visit the past in the second season and we see the same thing - “good guys” talking amongst themselves about how the past was more peaceful and friendly and how much things have changed now. So we see that life and man are always the same, the individuals are just looking back at the past with nostalgia and rose-tinted glasses. And even if we were to go back a thousand years, the individuals alive then would be reminiscing about how their past was more peaceful, and how much things have changed for the worse. This sort of talk happens even now.

Man has always been war-like and brutal. Man has always been good and decent. Though there are men who indulge in brutality, there are as many decent men willing to do right and set things straight. There is always a balance. Everyone eventually gets what is coming to them, as we can see over the course of the two seasons.  

The second season especially had a large number of themes running through it, right from women's liberation and empowerment, America’s treatment of its minorities (black and native American), effects of the Second World War on an increase in violence, the all-pervading influence of Reagan, corporatization of American culture and splintering family values, to the melding of the corporate and crime culture - the effects of which we continue to see in the various financial and regulatory scams. Phew, quite a lot to tackle.

The location of the series also mirrored the fact that man survives in spite of a harsh environment, and life goes on. Whether in the face of brutality or in the snowy wilderness of Fargo. 

This series is a brilliant, slow burning delight. An essential watch.

Stay tuned: Why TV has never been better

Let’s talk about TV.

As you may know from a casual look around this blog, I’m a pop culture buff. And heavily into films. I don’t restrict myself to just Indian or Hollywood and watch pretty much anything that interests me, whatever the language or country of origin.

As far as Indian films are concerned, there are films that can compete against the best in the world.

TV, not so much.

A pile of excrement has a better entertainment value than our TV shows. Maybe I’m overlooking something, but I can’t think of a single Indian TV show in the last 20 years that I’d willingly watch.

Faced with such a shitty situation, one must look elsewhere for alternatives.

And that is where foreign television series fill the void.

It is accepted that television all over the world is generally geared towards the lowest common denominator, and short on series that don’t belittle the viewers intelligence. Europe may have fared a bit better than America, but overall TV was generally seen as the poor cousin of films.

Films were daring, experimental, with complicated plots and morally gray characters. And TV in contrast used to be populated with inane series and dull sitcoms with predictable plots and horrible acting.

Not anymore.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, there has been a massive renaissance on TV, especially American. Starting in the early ‘00s, TV has gradually been building up stream and now, they are giving films a run for their money. Present-day series are edgy, complicated, with morally ambiguous characters, and extraordinary acting. No longer are TV shows treated as pariahs by Hollywood A-listers, case in point, Matthew McConaughey in True Detective, and Tom Hardy in Peaky Blinders, among numerous other examples.

The lines have blurred to such an extent that you can’t say that a certain subject is taboo for TV audiences and that it’ll never be made.

And even the much maligned super-hero franchises that are renowned for their childish plots and FX-heavy visuals have small screen variants that are critically acclaimed, e.g. Daredevil.

My theory is that this renaissance has come about, as individuals have realized the power of TV as a medium, and the opportunity it offers them to fully flesh out their ideas and not fit everything into a pre-set time limit.

Showrunners are more conscious of the fact that they need to end the series once they reach a certain point, and not keep flogging a dead horse just because it’s successful and has made them a lot of money.

More recently, streaming services like Netflix also play a part by giving critically successful series with low cable viewership figures a second chance. This helps keep alive series that might otherwise have been cancelled. They also encourage new and relatively off-beat content – deciphered using viewership algorithms - which otherwise might not get a chance to air on major networks.

These factors have, IMO, contributed to TV series becoming as creative and complex as films.

Of course all these factors by themselves don’t mean much, after all you need a sizeable audience that watches the content. The viewership figures would also serve as an impetus for the development of similar content.

It seems like a significant portion of the TV viewing audience has matured, and are seeking more from their TV than just mind-numbing reality shows. And this is reflected in the kind of boundary pushing series you are starting to see on TV. I’m by no means saying that all TV is now intelligent and perfect (far from it), however backed by an ever increasing, discerning audience, TV executives and showrunners are betting on intelligent content more than ever. TV is now starting to thrive on complexity.

Just take a look around, there are shows about an anthropomorphic talking horse, a Colombian drug lord, and a schoolteacher/drugkingpin. We also have a series on a Coen brothers film (reviewed here), a realistic crime series set in Baltimore etc.

As mentioned earlier, while European TV was not as bad as its American counterparts, it had a lot of awful shows as well. However, they seem to have stepped their game up, and now have a lot of brilliant series like Forbrydelsen, Les Revenants, Sherlock, War and Peace et al.

A pet theory of mine is that once certain things reach critical mass, they succeed and become the new norm. It’s not like there were no good American TV shows before 2000. It’s just that things coalesced around this period due to audience maturity, exposure through internet, and alternate viewing vehicles. Once TV executives see that their risks pay off and that there is a market for intelligent storytelling, they tend to take more of the same risks.

This is already happening with our films - with a more mature audience asking for meaningful cinema, and rewarding those that make them.

And it gives me hope for Indian television. Once our audience evolves, maybe a decade or so down the line, we will start seeing our very own Breaking Bads and Fargos.

Thursday 11 February 2016

Odds & Ends - 1

As with my other post today, the subject of this mini-post was brought to my attention by H. We're all probably familiar with reaction videos on YouTube. Random individuals post videos of themselves reacting to films, games, music videos and anything under the sun really.

These can get popular, and often a lot of these individuals amass subscribers in the hundreds of thousands. I don't need to mention that these individuals stand to earn mucho plata if they monetize their videos.

H, who's a pop-culture maven, told me that recently she's been coming across videos of white people reacting to Indian movies/trailers. That got us thinking. Of course, there are individuals the world over who are genuinely interested in world cinema, and take an effort in sincerely exploring the art forms of other cultures. However, a lot of these reaction videos could also be made by individuals who've figured out that they stand to make a killing by catering to an Indian audience.

As mentioned in a previous post, a lot of Indians crave the white seal of approval, combine this with the fact that we have the fastest growing internet subscriber base, it all adds up to the perfect recipe for random white dudes to make a fortune by producing these reaction videos.

Something to think about.

Wednesday 10 February 2016

Pizza: A review

Garcon, this is not what I ordered.
 After all the running around last week, and viewing a slew of foreign films at the Biffes, I decided to settle down with something homegrown. I picked a film that I had somehow missed on its cinematic release, “Pizza”. This thriller/horror, was a huge indie hit in 2012. It was the film that established director Karthik Subbaraj, and actor (and current indie superstar) Vijay Sethupathi, as artists to watch out for.

I’d watched Karthik’s brilliant “Jigarthanda” on its release, and loved it. That was a quintessential Tamil gangster film that also wore its influences on its sleeve. What I really admired about it was that when the current crop of Tamil and other Indian language films are trying and failing miserable to ape Hollywood crime flicks - with globetrotting dons and imbecilic storylines - “Jigarthanda” went back to the roots, and was a stylish gangster film rooted in Tamil (and Indian-ness), without insulting the audience’s intelligence.

As mentioned earlier, I’d missed out on watching “Pizza” due to combination of various factors. In the meantime, the film had been hyped up tremendously by the media, friends, acquaintances etc. This combined with the fact that I really liked “Jigarthanda” and wanted to watch Karthik’s earlier output, made me jump at the opportunity to watch “Pizza” when it presented itself. 

I started watching the film alone, at around 11 in the night, in a darkened room. The perfect setting. I must hand it to Karthik, parts of the film were genuinely unnerving, there is a large portion of the film that takes place inside a bungalow, with just Vijay Sethupathi (I’m a sucker for films – or atleast large extended portions of it – which are one-man shows, set in confined locations). In such cases, it’s hard to hold the audience’s interest and move the story forward. However, the “Pizza” team have pulled it off.

Michael (played by Vijay) is a pizza delivery guy at a restaurant. He is in a live-in relationship with his girlfriend, Anu, who’s a horror buff. She’s a huge fan of horror films, books, shows and even claims to have had a paranormal experience herself. This is in direct contrast to Michael, who is not really sure if he believes in these things, and is also a bit faint of heart. As the story progresses we learn that they are orphans and have known each other since school. We also learn that Anu is pregnant, and wants to get married soon. Michael is hesitant as he’s not really convinced if he would be able to provide for them with his meagre salary. He soon comes around and they marry, privately for the time being, with Michael promising a grander wedding once they have the money.

The film then introduces us to Michael’s workplace. We meet his colleagues, the cashier – Raghavan, and the chef – Srinath. We also meet his boss, Shanmugam, who’s shown talking agitatedly about some mystery product over the phone. Shanmugam also piques Michael’s and his colleagues’ curiosity by inviting a dishevelled, homeless looking man into his office.

It turns out that Shanmugam has hired the man - a medium/exorcist of some sort – to rid his daughter of a spirit that he believes has possessed her. Michael becomes aware of this when he goes to Shanmugam’s home to drop something off, as requested. Once there, he witnesses the “possession”, as well as the medium attempting to talk to the spirit.

The film keeps moving at a brisk pace. Shortly, Michael gets a pizza delivery order, just as he’s about to leave, Shanmugam calls him inside his cabin and orders him to deliver something to his home on the way.

Michael leaves for the delivery. The next scene cuts to Shanmugam arriving back at the restaurant to find Michael bruised, bloodied and in a state of shock, sitting on the restaurant floor. His colleagues from the restaurant seem to be in a similar state as well.

On being prodded by Shanmugam, Michael breaks down and narrates the tale of what happened once he left for the delivery.

The delivery was to an affluent bungalow (the same bungalow mentioned earlier in the article). Once there, Michael witnesses two murders, a child’s un-dead spirit (the same one believed to be possessing Shanmugam’s daughter), and numerous other paranormal activities. This includes an unconnected landline telephone that suddenly comes to life and starts forwarding calls that were originally meant for Michael’s mobile.
 We also soon learn that the bungalow is actually a dilapidated old structure, with a reputation for being haunted. It was also the scene of numerous unexplained deaths. There is also a twist - Michael’s wife is also supposed to have died in the same premise a while back.

The parts mentioned above, and the opening sequences set the story moving along nicely. I started wondering whether I’d stumbled upon that elusive holy grail – an Indian horror film that would actually turn out to be intelligent and genuinely scary, because let’s face it, where horror is concerned, our films are infantile and cringeworthy.

I cycled through various theories ranging from whether the whole premise was a prank being played on Michael by his wife and colleagues (as he’s a faint hearted guy who scares easily), to whether he was hallucinating the whole thing - as a form of coping with the fact that his wife might have actually committed suicide a few scenes earlier, to time warps, and other fantastic guesses.

In the end, all the theories turned to damp squibs. It turns out that Michael and his wife had concocted this story as an elaborate scheme to dupe Shanmugam. What actually transpires is that when Michael leaves for the delivery that fateful night, he accidentally stumbles upon the “something” that Shanmugam had asked him to drop off at his house. That “something” is also the mystery product from the earlier scenes – priceless gems. Just what Michael and his wife need to make a new life for themselves and their baby. They hatch this grandiose scheme to fool Shanmugam, playing his own beliefs and superstitions against him, and thus procure the gems for themselves.

I personally felt that this film was a disappointment. It could have been so much more.

My main problem with it is the fact that the film would have worked a lot better if Karthik had actually shown Michael narrating the happenings in the bungalow and then gave us the big reveal, rather than showing what he experienced in a flashback-mode, with a lot of visual trickery, as if it were real. That would have made the film intellectually honest as well as make it a seamless whole (But I guess that wouldn’t have had quite the visceral impact the director wanted, and instead he settled for the easy way out).

I get that we, the audience, are listening to Michael tell the story, and we are as much in the dark and as taken in as Shanmugam. However the means of telling and employing a certain device to tell that story rings false to me. If Karthik had chosen to go the other way (of showing Michael narrating the story, instead of showing it via flashback), we would have had an extremely intelligent, “talky” thriller with horror elements, comparable with the best in the world. To me, the version he decided to go with feels like a cop-out and rings false.

I didn’t even mind the ending where paranormal incidents are suddenly introduced after it was established that there was actually nothing spooky going on. I do however mind uninspired trickery.

This film felt like I had ordered a plain margherita, and instead, got a pepperoni pizza.

I was left feeling disappointed with this film. However, I do have high hopes for Tamil (and maybe Indian horror) a few years down the road.  Although, there are large logic holes in our horror flicks, “Pizza” and “Maya” (released in 2015) show that filmmakers are focusing on atmospherics, pacing and a more mature way of presentation, rather than juvenile Ramsay Bros. type of crap that Indian horror was synonymous with in the past.