Monday, January 05, 2015

The Yin and Yang of Anushka Sharma's Lips

[PK becomes Bollywood’s biggest grosser ever]

Let me start with a few confessions.  I have not seen PK nor have any intention of watching it. I hold nothing against those who went for it and loved it. I am happy for Raju Hirani and Aamir Khan that the movie has been the highest grosser. I can only feel  sorry  for those who tried to get it banned or withdrawn from the theatres  but didn’t succeed. And, finally I agree with Anushka Sharma that what she has done with her lips is entirely her business and she is fine as long as Virat Kohli doesn’t have a problem. Others are free to like or dislike her new look.

In fact, this last line pretty much sums up my position on all works of art – whether it’s a book, painting, sculpture, theatre or movie. Take them for what it’s worth – feel free to like, dislike or reject but don’t decide on behalf of others. If it is trash – the public themselves will reject it, which would be the biggest snub to the one who has written or made it. A bad product sinks without a trace and  giving it undue attention can only bestow it with an added lease of life (E.g.– by talking too much  about Anushka’s  missing pout – it can actually turn to be a fashion trend like size zero. Just saying.)

The debate in my judgment lies elsewhere. The dichotomy between faith and rationalism has been in built into every society and religion from time immemorial – just as the conflict between the head and the heart in human nature. This is at times manifest in religious texts itself. While the Gita and Upanishads in Hinduism are largely intellectual – the Ramayana relies more on mythical allegories. (Though sometimes  people can try to invent  pseudo scientific explanations to myths such as plastic surgery to an elephant God or IVF or test-tube conception for a virgin).  These are the 2 sides of the same coin – the Yin and the Yang as it were. I always cite the example of perhaps the greatest legal luminary India produced – who was at once a devotee of Sri Aurobindo (who was as cerebral as one can get) and a miracle spewing saffron-clad hair-raising Godman of Andhra Pradesh. And, you have the example of Vivekananda himself – who was pure brain and his own Guru – Ramakrishna an embodiment of Bhakti and mysticism.

Belief in miracles or the power of penance,  pilgrimage and rituals has been there from the inception of mankind. It, perhaps, stems from man’s realization of his own limitations and the existence of a larger power in the universe – beyond his control – against whom he is but as helpless as an ant. It is to protect himself against such a  force or the elements does he seek the shelter of ‘religion’. Now to question,  whether these devices work – would be as self-defeating as arguing with a votary of homeopathy about the scientific improbability of such a therapy working. Call it ‘placebo’ effect if you will – but it may have its utility. Again to quote Sri Ramakrishna  - “Vishwas-e Mila-e Vastu, tarkey bohu dur” (faith dissolves of things that arguments can’t resolve) or the bard “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio..”.

How religion has been exploited over the centuries for geo-political ambitions ends is not the subject of this discussion. As long as the human race exists there will always be a ‘spiritual bazaar’ – where brands and products will come and go. I daresay ‘sexcapades’ under  saintly garbs or cassocks of priesthood have also existed since ancient times – across religions and countries. But, it is the marketing and building huge commercial empires around them that is a relatively recent phenomenon and merits deeper inquiry.

It’s no mean task to manage multi-crore commercial empires (I had read somewhere, one Yoga Guru’s net worth is reportedly valued at Rs 14k crores). Having spent a better part of my working life in Consumer Products and Media industry  I know a thing or two about the challenges and complexity of running a business. Any executive of FMCG companies like HUL or ITC  will tell you  – managing the supply chain, sales, marketing of 100s of SKUs (stock keeping units) across a nationwide distribution network is no “sadhu’s” play. Similarly, operating a business model out of producing and selling audio-visual labels, publishing, web-retailing,  event management and marketing calls for a high level of expertise, core-competency and, above all, requires a commercial organization. The successful marketing of the Patanjali Ayurvedic range can give Himalaya Drugs or Dabur a serious  run for their money.  And, ask Ponytail Chaudhuri how difficult it is to create a chain of colleges and Preetha Reddy or Devi Shetty about  hospitals.. These businesses or institutions can’t be efficiently and effectively run by volunteers alone. Most of them have franchises both domestic and foreign which are source of substantial revenue streams which too have to be managed and the earnings judiciously invested to generate continuous returns to  fund future expansions – just as Chief of Treasury in a large corporation would do. Many banks, professional fund managers, financial advisors and brokers have large Ashrams as their key clients. And, no wonder some of them have to engage private armies to manage acres of prime real-estate.

Management of Religious Institutional Businesses can, therefore, be the subject of Business School case studies and, one day, may be offered as a course in Harvard or Stanford.  It is my thesis  many of these God-men and Gurus are fronts . Behind them are clever businessmen  who run a sophisticate operation. They first invest in creating a brand (perhaps, even engage marketing or image management consultants) and then exploit it as a pure commercial venture.

But, where does that leave the poor devotee or  ‘Bhakt’ ? That brings me back to another favourite quote of Sri Ramakrishna – “Jadio Amar Guru Shuri Baadi Jaye, tobu O amar guru Nityananda Roy” – roughly translated – even though my guru may visit a bar or a brothel, he will always remain my Guru.  In essence, once you have surrendered at the feet of the Guru -  by that act itself if you have moved one step up the spiritual ladder. And, that’s also the key both these Godmen use as also Amir Khan and Raju Hirani who make commercially successful movies out of them. One man’s faith is another man’s business – or put differently Anushka’s lips may be a turn you and me off – but as long as the movie is a box office hit – who cares ?

(Article first published in the @DailyO on January 5th, 2014)