Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Runaround!

Have you ever been given the runaround?  If you're living in India, then I'm guessing you have!  It could be for a drivers license, paying a bill at a Government office, or even procuring a school leaving certificate.

I used to think that runarounds were confined to Governmental offices, hospitals, or educational institutions.  I was so wrong.  My tryst with the seemingly endless runaround circle happened when I tried to get my rightful customer service from a Multinational that had long established its presence, not only through endorsements on TV and print media, but also through the adoption of its wide array of consumer products in Indian homes.  I'm going to refrain from taking names here, as I would like to believe that my experience was a standalone one.

The product in question was a hair trimmer.  Yes, in Mumbai, men haircutting saloons are a dime and dozen.  In fact, they are not very strategically placed as they can be seen at every nook and corner, and are still thriving.  After all, everyone needs a haircut, right?  Anyway, my hair is of the stubborn type that doesn't respond to any sort of styling.  So once in awhile, I just  run the trimmer through my hair.

My few month old trimmer suddenly died out on me one day (luckily not in the midst of a hair mowing).  It was well under the warranty period so I knew that the company would take care of it.

I called the Company customer service line in Hyderabad or Bangalore - I can't recall.  I expected to be apologized to for my inconvenience and assured that the needful would be done immediately.  But instead, the Customer Service Representative (CSR) asked me irrelevant questions, as if he was interrogating a criminal - "What were you doing with it when it stopped working?", "Did you try to shave your face with it?", "Did you drop it?", "Are you sure?" and so on.  Soon a 'case' was opened and I was given a case number.

The CSR asked me where I lived.  When I related the details to him, he provided me with their Mumbai Service Center Number.
"Don't worry, Sir," he said, his voice taking on a reassuring tone.  "Just give them a call.  And they will come and pick it up from you and fix it."
"But shouldn't your company be replacing the product?" I asked.  This was the norm with the same company in the US.
"No, Sir.  We will fix it.  It'll be as good as new."
"I don't want it fixed," I protested.  "I bought it new, and it turned out faulty.  Your company should not be selling products with defects.  It's your duty to..."
The line went dead.

One thing that I learned from dealing with people working in customer service is that you need to be nicer to them than them to you.  They get hassled by all kinds of people all day, and if you turn out to be one of "those," they will just hang up and let someone else deal with you when you call back.

So I tried calling the Service Center Number.  All the numbers were not in service.  I was shocked.  How could I be given a wrong number.  So I called Customer Service again and explained the situation.
"I'm sorry Sir.  These are the only numbers I have on file."
"How does that help me?" I asked, agitated.  "If you don't give it to me, who will?"
"I'm sorry Sir," the polite lady said.  "These are the only numbers were have.  I could escalate your claim."
"This is not an insurance claim.  Just a simple problem.  What is the process of escalating a claim?"
"It would be put on priority.  And then transferred to the regional office, who will get in touch with the Service Center and have them call you."
"But how will your Regional office get in touch with them if the numbers are not working?" I asked challengingly."
Silence.  She was trapped.
"That's true, Sir," she finally spoke.
"Can you give me the address?"
I jotted down the address and thanked her.  She apologized for her inability to solve my problem, but promised to "escalate my claim."

So armed with the defective product, original bill, and frustration, I set out towards the service centre.  An hour later, I reached the area but had to let the rickshaw go as the gully was wide enough only for a two wheeler to enter.  By the way, the rickshaw ride cost me a hundred rupees during which I inhaled exhaust fumes from all possible vehicles gracing the streets of Mumbai.

In Mumbai, the best way to find a place is to ask for directions.  I made several enquiries and was directed into a chawl colony.  I was directed twice again till I found myself outside a chawl of which the door was shut.  Several angry voices emanated from inside.  They were muffled but it seemed like a domestic argument.  Nevertheless, I knocked on the door.

A woman answered and I asked if I had reached the right location.  She banged the door on my face.  I was stunned in shock.  Was that a yes or a no?  A few seconds later, an elderly man answered and beckoned me in.

As I stepped inside I noticed that the chawl had been partitioned into a home and workspace area by a curtain.  The workspace area, that we were standing in, had shelved of electronics stacked haphazardly.  I explained my problem and showed him my bill etc.  He made no attempt to look at the bill and instead inspected the trimmer.  His hands went in a blur as he fidgeted with it.  Within a few minutes, it was working!

I enquired about paperwork.  He merely smiled and handed my trimmer back to me, "as good as new."

And that was it.  True story!

Where there's goodness in people, there's hope for the country.

Today I went to watch Bajrangi Bhaijaan.  The movie was delightful, despite my five-year-old daughter whispering the events (right before they appeared on screen) into my ear as she was watching the film for the second time.

When we were driving back home after the film, I felt in my pocket and was shocked to find that my wallet wasn't there.  I pulled the car to the kerb and searched frantically all over the car.  My wallet not only housed my bank debit cards, but also my drivers license and pan card.  Alarmed, I rushed back to the cinema hall.   

After haphazardly parking in the compound, I pulled my daughter up the staircase and retraced our steps.  I rushed back into the cinema hall, where the next show of the movie had already begun.  I told the usher of my predicament who wasted no time in training his flashlight on my seat and around the area.  All eyes were glued to the Salman Khan blockbuster, yet people (who got wind of my ordeal) joined in my search.  As expected, the wallet was nowhere to be found.  I presumed that someone had picked it up.

Once I reached home, I got a call.  It was the theatre usher, Sanju.  He informed me that after we left, he checked all the rows and happened to find my wallet a few rows down.  I must have accidentally dropped it while walking down the aisle.

I rushed back to the cinema hall, raced up the three stories and found Sanju.  He handed me the wallet.  Everything in it was intact.  There was a little over Rs. 2000 in the wallet and it was all there.  Sanju appeared to be from an impoverished background.  He could have easily taken the cash and told me that's how he had found it (that's how lost wallets are usually returned).  Yes, he had opened my wallet, but only to look for a visiting or ID card which would have my contact details.  I was so touched that I took all the cash out and forced it into his pocket.

The cash wasn't a small amount.  But honesty must be rewarded in the most gratifying way possible.  That would only encourage a person to stay honest.  My tip/reward was probably twenty times more than what anyone would have normally given.  So I believe that my amount makes up for the next twenty times Sanju does the same thing for any other lost items.

This incident reinstates my faith in people.  Where there's goodness in people, there's hope for the country.  If we all could do the right thing for others whenever the opportunity presents itself, our country could never go wrong.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Does a book benefit when launched by a film star?

Does a book benefit when launched by a film star?  The answer is Yes.  Here's why:-

1) So that people attend.
Sad but true, people make an effort when stars are present.  You may post an event on Facebook and get innumerous confirmations.  But on the actual day, only few of those attend.  However, when a star is present not only do the confirmed ones attend but there are many walk-ins as well.

2) So that the press picks it up.
The press follow stars.  So if you have a star at your event, you will surely find press there as well.  The press has options for events to attend every day, so your star has to be the bigger one else the press will go to the 'other' event where there are bigger stars present. 

So, does your book actually benefit with the presence of a film star at the launch?  

A year or so back, I attended a book launch at Landmark Bookstores at Infiniti Mall in Andheri (W).  I lived in the vicinity at the time so happened to wander in towards the end of the event.  The event saw the presence of a movie star.  The venue was filled to capacity.  All in all, it seemed like a successful event and that the journey of the book seemed to have started on the right note.

However, once the star left (before the book signing by the author) more than half the people disappeared just like that.  The line queued up to the get the book signed by the author had barely fifteen people.  When I glanced at the side table where the books were stacked, it looked barely touched.  The book-signing was over in less than fifteen minutes after which the event immediately packed up.  Out of curiosity, I followed the book's journey and unfortunately, despite the grand launch and subsequent press, the book did not take off.  So basically, most of the people in attendance were there to see the star.  In addition, the book was a serious fiction and not a mass/popular fiction.

Having a film star at a book launch event has its pros and cons:-

PROS: With a film star present at a book launch, people attend as do the press (as I mentioned before).  People instantly become aware of the book (if the press features pictures of the star holding the book) and it definitely arouses curiosity.

CONS: While the press may pick it up, they may not feature the star holding the book.  At most, they may mention that so and so star was seen at a book launch event, without even mentioning the name of the book unless you're a journalist/author yourself or the book is authored by a reputed name or if you have enlisted the services of a reputed PR agency who can push the publication to position your book appropriately.  But, even if the press does feature the star with the book, it may not really help unless the star personally endorses your book the way they endorse products (which they get paid for).  So they would need to talk about your book in the press and social media platforms.  They need to say that they are using your product.  Will they do that?  The answer is mostly, NO.  

You need to have a close association with the star for them to do you that favour.  I learned that companies pay stars to endorse their products on Twitter and Facebook, so why would they do yours for free?  The answer - if they know you really really well and so they personally want to help you.  

Another CON is related to the connection between the star and the subject matter of your book.  If you're writing a mass fiction, it would help to have a star endorse your book.  Otherwise, if you have written a literary fiction or something more 'meaningful,' it could go against you.  There are serious readers out there who have drawn a fine line between Bollywood and books.  And if a star (who they know isn't a serious reader or doesn't have an 'intelligent' image) attends your launch, they may not take your book seriously.  Mind you, this is not based on presumptions but on feedback from 'serious' readers.

There are roughly 50 fiction books (conveyed to me by Late R.H. Sharma - Ex Editor-in-Chief at Jaico) that release EVERY WEEK.  This figure is from a few years back, so the number may have gone up or down.  The book will have a shelf life of 3-6 months, maybe longer if the book is successful.  Most of these 50 books don't make it to the bookshelves of reputed stores though all books (including self-published ones) are available online.  So there's a lot of competition to garner attention for your book.  So what is the right thing to do?

A book launch definitely helps.  But the right celebrity is important.  One should invite a celebrity/known figure based on the subject matter of the book.  For example, (ideally speaking) if it's a book on crime I would like to see a known person attached to the Police Force at the launch.  Would  the book get press?  It might but definitely not as much as a Bollywood star.  But it would get the right readers.  Now, when I mean press I'm referring to write-ups and pictures of the book launch.  Book reviews are separate which are handled by the publishing company.  Now, there's a tradeoff - immediate press or targeting the right readers?  Which is more important?  For immediate sales, it's obviously press.  

In the West, when it comes to a book, it's the author and only the author who is the star.  But in our country, nothing seems to be above Bollywood, which is sad but true.  Bollywood has taken over the advertising world as well.  Around 70% of ads feature film stars, which in turn pushes sales of the product.  But does this translate into the reading world as well?  The answer - as I said before, only if the star is shown using your product.  And the flip side to that is, many of the star fans may not be readers themselves.

I think it was the big authors who started inviting stars to their events.  And that has set the trend for book launch events.

Publishing is a serious business.  When books don't sell, it's a loss for the publisher as the books gather dust in the warehouse.  From the publishers' point of view, a star is essential as it could ensure the sales of at least the first print run and kick in word-of-mouth publicity immediately.  But without a star, your book may sail through if you do your bit to promote the book in print and on other platforms.  But if you're book is really good, it will sell regardless!

All in all, if you can get a Bollywood Star to attend your book launch event, you're golden and your book will draw attention all over India immediately!  But make sure that the cons don't work against your book.  

HiFi in Bollywood - It's important for film aspirants to have a backup plan

Bollywood is a hot topic and there are many books out there that try to cash in on the same. And they always start with the typical dream, and end with the protagonist achieving that dream with struggles in-between. They always end with somewhat of a fairy tale ending. But the film industry is actually far from that.

Having worked in the film industry for many years, I decided to reflect on my own journey while trying to keep it entertaining at the same time. In actuality, the struggle is immense and most of the time people don't have a backup plan which is very imperative when one deviates from the 'safe' route. I have seen many people getting thoroughly disappointed, becoming cynical and even misusing their positions to demoralise others. The film industry is mostly full of people who are stuck in the jobs that were never on their list, just because they didn't plan sensibly. 

I subtly tried to highlight the backup plan part and I hope that you catch it. During my career, this is something that Salman Khan had actually told me - it's very important to give yourself a timeline and have something to fall back on before you enter the industry. This is something I kept with me while writing my book. .

Despite the opening up of career avenues, most parents insist on their children taking the safe route (I don't blame them for that) as it is important to hit milestones at the right age. We realise why only when we grow older. So parents are not wrong. However, kids do absorb a lot from the media and environment which exposes them to a lot more of possibilities that their parents may not be aware of. I feel that it's important to somehow realise that you're talented at and passionate about something before treading on the untoward path towards it. But more than that, it's important to give oneself a timeline and know when to call it a day. In my eyes, that doesn't make one a quitter. But a true winner.

Vanita (one of the man characters in the book) chooses the medical profession also because of the money part.  And there's nothing wrong in being honest about what you want and why you want it. She is a level-headed girl and probably defines the woman of today - practical, intelligent, but yet thinks with her heart. I feel that it is very important for a woman to be financially independent, which is why I took care not to portray Vanita as one of those pining and heartbroken women, who is totally dependent on a man for her journey. She is a woman of substance who though doesn't appear much in the book, is actually the driving force of this story. I believe that women are superior to men in every way. And the reason, why our 'progressive' nation lacks in many ways is because men either don't realise or acknowledge this fact as they do in the west. The progress of our nation lies in gender equality.

On a different note, my first book - Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai - has a strong-willed, independent female character who is suppressed in every way because of the traditional society she lives in. I do hope that women all over, find their own way to break from the meaningless shackles of society and find their own place in the world. And I strongly believe that only education can do that. Education is in a sense, freedom.

I have attempted to write the book in an entertaining way so that it is lapped up by more readers. But more than that, I wanted Rayhan's journey to be inspiring and hope that it inspires you as well to follow your dreams.  It's never too late.

It is very helpful for an author to know how readers take to his/her book, so please do write in. HiFi in Bollywood doesn't follow the conventional commercial fiction format but I'm sure you will enjoy it!  At the end of the day, it's all about entertainment!