Saturday, October 31, 2015

Facebook Free Basics: A ‘Mark’ to ‘Market’ Advance

Sudhir Raikar , IIFL | Mumbai | October 31, 2015 12:01 IST

The ‘Free’ of FaceBook’s Basics carries an indiscernible ‘Fee’ – in the form of a closed internet of constricted choices where scheming providers act as despotic custodians of a delectably gullible user community. We must do what we can to prevent these obligatory gatekeepers from becoming overbearing gang lords.


Mark Zuckerberg seems all too keen to conquer the Bottom of Pyramid goldmine called India, in exchange of some first-rate rhetoric smacking of synthetic allegiance. His 'Giving Pledge' track record, the Steve Jobs-inspired ‘temple run’ saga, rich accolades to Taj Mahal or the melodramatic tale of Soybean farmer Aasif Mujawar, he reckoned, were solid material to mesmerize the billion people known for their pastoral roots and rustic ways besides elephants and snake charmers. But a few mutinies, of the million that Naipaul has immortalized in book form, stand in his way, more steadfastly than what he presumed earlier. Unlike Kenya, Nigeria, Indonesia and Bangladesh, India, although a much bigger, spongier cake, is no cakewalk after all. At least, a theatrical run around India Gate won't make Facebook the new Gateway of India.

At least to those who don’t pretend to be asleep, it was never difficult to discern the prohibitive price of the Facebook-led affordable access, the backend machination behind the front-end magnanimity, the plan of transforming the third-world internet into a new-look ZuckNet, the deplorable doublespeak of supporting net neutrality on the one hand and building a ‘cartel of a portal’ on the other, and the disdainful audacity in playing philanthropist and predator in the same breath. No wonder, several Indian entities – from publishing houses, television channels to travel portals – have distanced themselves from the FaceBook club.

Zuckerberg is trying his level best to package his monopoly drive, in conjunction with select partners, as a key enabler of Digital India’s inclusive agenda. That explains the carefully articulated stories of how new dads among poor Indian farmers, courtesy FaceBook, are accessing invaluable child care information online for free, or how Facebook is providing ‘some access’ to democratize the internet which is way better than ‘no access’. But what about compromised user privacy, the strictly Facebook-guided access and new traffic rules seeking to split the information highway into discriminating routes – high speed lanes for club members and bullock cart pathways for non-members? Zuckerberg wants us to accept these as lesser evils of ‘some access.’ As it is, the Facebook brand offers little credibility, given its rich history of playing with the common user’s privacy by default while allowing the founder sister’s to impart designer lessons on digital etiquette and human decency.

Zuckerberg is himself aware of the futility of covering his naked ambition. That explains the about-turns at regular intervals: initially harping on charity and then repurposing it as a commercial endeavor of cost-effective rates, citing a clumsy quick-fix to downplay the glaring HTTPS security issue, declaring his portal open to all developers following allegations of controlled access and restricted use choice and renaming the rather elusive ‘’ as the more comprehensible ‘Free basics’ to sanctify the undertaking while subtly hinting at the possibilities of “advanced commercials” …the more he’s forced to contemplate in hindsight, the more desperate his foresight appears. Yet, some of his willful supporters have tried hard to put his case into perspective – that he hardly makes any money from India despite the humongous user base and that his inroads into India’s vast hinterland could create potent value chains rooted in a thriving market. Like Colgate was the synonym for toothpaste in India for several years (so was Sintex for water tank and Bisleri for mineral water) and photocopy is still called Xerox, internet for the deprived populace of India would bear the name of FaceBook. But unlike the other cases, this rechristening won't be the result of any demand-side affinity - whether induced by good quality, astute marketing or phenomenal reach - but purely on the foundation of unfair advantage. God forbid, if the Indian government subscribes to this contrived prognosis, it would amount to one of its biggest blunders sooner than what most would expect. Close on the heels of Facebook are a dozen moguls waiting for their share of the ‘inclusive’ pie. Digital India would then become one of the world’s most lucrative outsourcing deals where India would not be the vendor for a change.

There’s no denying the fact that Net Neutrality, to a large extent, is a utopian concept given the fact that the bigwigs of the global online world have always been blessed with unbelievable access to our sensitive information through hand-in-glove arrangements with ISPs and proprietary algorithms of dubious motives, infallible beyond our wildest imagination. But even as vulnerable end-users of the largely veritable internet, we must do what we can to prevent obligatory gatekeepers from becoming its overbearing Gang lords.

Inventor of the World Wide Web, the revered computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee has put it best, “In the particular case of somebody who's offering ... something which is branded internet, it's not internet, then you just say no. No it isn't free, no it isn't in the public domain, there are other ways of reducing the price of internet connectivity and giving something ... (only) giving people data connectivity to part of the network deliberately, I think, is a step backwards."

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Paradise Lost

Sudhir Raikar, IIFL | Mumbai | October 19, 2015 09:10 IST
Paul Mason’s seminal work is a rich reference book on the premise, progression and precincts of capitalism. But in valiantly raising legitimate doubts on its seeming permanence, he falls prey to the lure of zeroing in on definitive solutions. Despite the invaluable scholastic value of the treasure trove, it’s hardly a guide to our future.


This is easily one of the most poetic accounts of an economic concept, packed with charming anecdotes of flowing prose and fitting poise, a remarkable blend of the clinical and the lyrical, befitting his twin degrees in politics and music. Had author Paul Mason, Economics Editor, Channel 4 news, stopped short of extrapolating his neat analysis into ‘a guide to our future’, the sanctity of his seminal work would have remained inviolate. But in a humdrum utopian leap, from fabulous literature to fantastic conjecture, he sketches a hazy way out, which unabashedly seeks to employ the machinery of the very regime he wants uprooted, for effecting key resolutions of his version of Postcapitalism. This maladroit prognosis has diluted, if not damaged, the enduring value of Mason’s painstaking research and scathing observations on a host of pertinent issues.

The breathtaking expanse spans 368 pages divided in three distinct parts. The first unfolds the crisis of our times and enumerates how it evolved over time, the second elaborates the moot point – Mason’s theory of Postcapitalism - and the third visualizes the supposed transition to the new order. Mason aptly lists four factors – consistent injection of Fiat money, cacophonic spread of Financialization, curse of global imbalances and the colossal impact of Information technologies – that initially lent momentum to neo-liberalist forces but are now turning counterproductive for its cause. Not that Mason is the only one to warn us, but the perils of an artificially puffed up economy are beyond doubt real – debt has become precariously more fashionable than equity, value trades ridiculously weigh more than value creation, shareholder interests have been blindly allowed to take precedence over tax payer concerns and the Golem-like demon of consumerism has left modern-day lifestyles with less life and more style.

Mason convincingly highlights the constraints and contradictions of Capitalism which hitherto was highly adaptable to the ups and downs across eras as the ruling class employed technology to keep the working class gainfully engaged through suitable enhancements in the production methods and modes. But the digital age, he observes, has empowered grassroots architects to innovate and explore newer ways of work and life defying the usual diktats of markets and governments that stifled them in a vicious work-wage padlock all this while. Though information is hardly a stand-alone asset, invariably a bundled component of a tangible product sale, there’s enough merit in Mason’s inference that the sheer abundance of information, as also its easy replication and extraordinary endurance in a network-rich knowledge economy, will soon make the hierarchy-driven capitalism unsustainable as growing automation will render jobs negligible and drive prices to near-zero. The ‘cut and paste’ feature of the information economy undeniably spells massive consequences for the conventional market.

Mason touches upon a vast universe of wide-ranging allusions to support his views as also to disprove conflicting points. Nikolai Kondratiev’s incisive long wave theory, martyr Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘The Accumulation of Capital’, Marx’s visionary ‘Fragment on Machines’, Lenin’s pivotal ‘What is to be Done?’, Peter Drucker’s far-reaching ‘Post Capitalist society’, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s ruthlessly innovative ‘pick up a pig and walk’ time and motion study aimed at enforcing stringent management control of factories, Rudolf Hilferding’s ‘Das Finanzkapital’, Jeremy Rifkin’s ‘The Zero Marginal Cost Society’, Ludwig Von Mises’s ‘Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth’, David Ricardo’s Labour-theory, Paul Romer’s path-breaking ‘Endogenous Technological Change’, Yann Moulier-Boutang’s ‘Cognitive Capitalism’, Yochai Benkler’s ‘The Wealth of Networks’, Alexander Bogdanov and Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novels: ‘Red Star’ and ‘Dune’ respectively, Richard Hoggart’s highly perceptive ‘The Uses of Literacy’, Connie Field’s documentary ‘The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter’, Kevin Kelly’s ‘New Rules for the New Economy’, the maverick RMS’s GNU and Free Software Movement, Andre Gorz’s insights on the changing face of work…The constellation boasts of the best of thinkers, philosophers, economists, consultants, software architects, filmmakers, journalists, and even legendary writers (Shakespeare, Dickens and Orwell) making Mason’s book a rich reference manual for students of economics – whether academic or amateur.

Mason is beyond doubt a competent story-teller. Whether the poignancy of Kondratiev’s life or his own stint as a press operator, he makes each account handsomely vivid. At times, the narration sounds too indulgent for comfort – for instance an elongated report of a London Underground carriage, seemingly to highlight a demographic divide, ornately informs us of Mason’s penchant for in-transit work and well-shined shoes among other things – but overall it’s a precise and passionate description of where we stand today and how we got there. Rather than unfairly link his stretched out tribute to Russian thought leaders with his Trotskyite roots, we should profusely thank Mason for having put the intractable political, economic and social problems of our times into perspective which should ideally set off fruitful debates rooted in honest introspection. Some of his insights are first-rate. Consider these:

“In an information society, no thought, debate or dream is wasted – whether conceived in a tent camp, prison cell or the ‘imagineering’ session of a startup company.”

“The elite and their supporters are lined up to defend the same core principles: high finance, low wages, secrecy, militarism, intellectual property and energy based on carbon. The bad news is that they control nearly every government in the world. The good news is that in most countries they enjoy very little consent or popularity among ordinary people.”

“The debate on Postcapitalism has come a long way since Peter Drucker, yet in another sense it has gone nowhere. It has been marked by speculative thinking, technobabble and a tendency to declare the existence of new systems rather than to explore their relationship to old realities.”

“All simple forms of finance now generate a market in complex finance higher up the chain: every house buyer or car driver is generating a knowable financial return somewhere in the system. Your mobile phone contract, gym membership, household energy – all your regular payments – are packaged into financial instruments, generating steady interest for an investor, long before you decide to buy them. And then somebody you have never met places a bet on whether you will make the payments.”

“Kondratieff’s real crime, in the eyes of his persecutors, was to think the unthinkable about capitalism: that instead of collapsing under crisis, capitalism generally adapts and mutates.”

“The problem is, mainstream economics does not understand its own limitations. The more complete it became as an academic discipline describing an abstract, static and immutable reality, the less it understood change.”

“Now though, we have a new problem: demographic ageing. There are no activists to drop banners from buildings to protest against ageing, there are no ministries for ageing, no prestigious scientific panel or global negotiations. Yet it is potentially as big an external shock as climate change – and its impact will be much more immediately economic.”

“The successful crooks and dictators of the emerging world have already bought influence and respectability: you can feel their power as you walk through the door of certain law firms, PR consultancies and even corporations.”

However Mason’s bet on the impending doom of capitalism, rather on its dead end in its present form, is based on a wobbly compendium - the trigger of 2008 meltdown, Mason’s first-hand reportage of ‘edge places of the world’, selective statistics borrowed from Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the staggeringly disruptive power of the Wikipedia model among others. Without bothering to tell us exactly how capitalism will go to wrack and ruin, he puts forth a case for Postcapitalism, ostensibly beyond ‘the incoherence of conventional protest movements’, as a definitive Masonic solution ‘for a substantially better future that what capitalism would offer by the mid-twenty-first century.’

He calls his book a guide, but spells out his aim as ‘not to provide an economic strategy or a guide to organization.’ He’s here only to map the new contradictions of capitalism to serve as credible co-ordinates for ‘people, movements and parties’ for the ‘journey they’re trying to make.’ The proposed plan is titled ‘Project Zero’ after the significance of zero in each of the targets: zero-carbon energy, production at zero marginal cost and near-zero labour time. Project Zero proposals, should account for, Mason cautions, five key principles to avoid past failures –small scale tests and repeated modeling of macro-economic impact, design for ecological sustainability, human perceptions along with values of economic and social justice, ubiquity of change agents across all strata and making the most of the power of information.

Who are these people and parties that would embark on the said journeys to steer the said movements? Should they enroll as volunteers on the Project Zero website? Should they go for the kill in ‘do or die’ fashion? Would states somehow do the unthinkable - come to terms with the new reality in one abrupt blaze of spiritual enlightenment? How will the tech innovators, who reap the rewards of the old order in draped forms, push capitalism towards a dead end? Will the Internet of Things make Mason’s agenda its top priority before grappling with its own set of challenges - the mammoth task of connecting things and the need for large-scale data discovery, archival and analytical mechanisms notwithstanding the proposed upgrade from Ipv4 to Ipv6 standard? Most important, which authority will assume responsibility for the law and order in the new economy, considering that it has a hell of a lot to do – fix guaranteed incomes for all, provide cost-efficient services and infrastructure, regulate the IT industry in the larger interest of the community, mitigate debt to the extent possible and measure the happiness quotient of the people from time to time? (The last bit is obligatory we think even though Mason doesn’t call for it. Maybe Bhutan can share priceless insights with the world on this point)

Mason offers no clues on ways to get there save for some generic instruction like rapidly reducing carbon emissions (already happening in some form), stabilizing the finance system between now and 2050, delivering high levels of material prosperity and well being to the majority of people and gearing technology towards reduction of necessary work in an automated economy (again, underway right now). He has an action plan for each of these top goals but the weak post script – that his role is that of a cartographer - waters down the potency of the recommendation. No point in examining the substance of his Abracadabra therapy – get rid of market forces, socialize the finance system, suppress and socialize monopolies – when the architects of the transcendental transformation have not been identified.

Mason’s faith in information technology is laced with fairy-tale beliefs. No one can dispute the internet’s democratizing power, nor the first-rate collaboration and co-creation of the open source movement, but the dark side of software development, factory of a different mould, can’t be disregarded either. On the face of it, many IT organizations, start-ups in particular, are flat organizations with radical morals but peep inside their code labs and you’ll find the same old hierarchies of power distances, ruthless ambition and narcissism at play, where a handful of smart and wily operators merrily rule over a veritable but vulnerable majority. Many ‘genius’ founders are keen to trade their innovation, rather than nurture it, at the first given opportunity and a host of globe-trotting tech professionals are faking work, day in and day out, on their cell phones, tablets, excel sheets and word documents even as the bulk of the inarticulate programming tribe goes through the grind, inevitably falling prey to Machiavellian tactics and the bell curve nonsense at the workplace. Who’s going to reduce the besmirching carbon footprints of the IT industry that pollute the social fabric in elusive ways – where hyped on-site-off-site-offshore models don’t necessarily mean better working conditions, where key performance appraisals are invariably unscientific, where egos are sky-high and tempers fly high, thanks to the variety and vanity of designations: the perfunctory coder is keen to call himself a developer, the developer genuinely believes he’s an architect and the architect is thoroughly convinced he’s God’s gift to mankind. Talking of the positively disruptive open source movement, it attracts as many opportunistic users with profit motives, thriving on an erroneous reading of the ‘free’ tag, as selfless contributors committed to the larger cause of the faction.

If Mason has pinned his hopes on the gender-neutral, sexually liberated IT tribe to fight for his post capitalist wonderland may be his Second Life avatar has a better chance to steer the dream towards fruition. Emancipation in terms of sexual choices and denouncement of gender bias, in real life at least, are no guarantee of equity and equanimity in public affairs in spite of their invaluable contribution towards a more secure, stable and inclusive social and cultural environment.

Will humanity rid itself of its deep-rooted possessive tendencies – inborn greed, lust for power, distaste towards responsibility and desire to withhold – in one decisive catapult, just because it would have moved from scarcity to abundance? This is not to doubt Mason’s intentions but his guide to our future seems no more than wishful thinking. It’s more of a plea to the powers-that-be of the current economic regime to mend their ways than a prophetic utilitarian prescription for a new order. Mason’s appeal is passionate no doubt but only states the obvious: “Millions of people are beginning to realize they have been sold a dream they can never live. In its place, we need more than just a bunch of different dreams. We need a project based on reason, evidence and testable designs, one that cuts with the grain of economic history and is sustainable in terms of our planet.”

Ask the millions of people and at least a few of them will retort: Yes, we are angry, we know what we need, and also that it calls for a fool-proof actionable project. Not a wishful Grundrisse which, for all its literary value, runs the risk of appearing wistful.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Twitter Moments: Momentous or Momentary?

IIFL | Mumbai | October 09, 2015 14:21 IST
The new feature, apparently a knee-jerk innovation seeking to reverse the dwindling user base, seems strong enough to steer a Twitter renaissance. The velocity of its evolution and the veracity of its value proposition will decide whether it rocks Wall Street or hits the wall.


Moments is Twitter’s gargantuan hope to make it more compelling to the world at large, more to the significant non-user community than the loyalists who have stuck with it amidst the chaos and controversy of recent times. Believed to be a progression of an in-house initiative called Project Lightning steered by former CEO Dick Costolo, Moments, launched only for US users as of now, is essentially a tab represented by a lightning icon, a tap on which takes you to a ‘Today’ view which is a directory of each day’s key happenings as perceived by Twitter’s editorial team in the form of cherry picked tweets – a blend of text, images and videos. The Moments diet would be comprised of content from Twitter and Twitter-owned buckets as also feeds from third party providers.

What’s seen as a marked departure from legacy is the ability to add a moment of choice to one’s timeline which stays put only till the topic is topical – only while the moment is reckoned as a moment on Twitter. This would mean a lot to the fatigued Twitter user who wouldn’t need to ‘unfollow’ it unlike what one needs to do with normal feeds. Apart from the Today view, there would be sliders for fairly self-explanatory categories viz. News, Entertainment, Sports and Fun. With Moments, Twitter gives you its curated choice which you can narrow down further based on your own choice. Add forthcoming value-adds like user-curated content and it sounds like a phenomenal transformation in principle but much would depend on the speed and quality of the Moments evolution. To begin with, wish they had named it something else given the fact that Facebook has its own Moments. Agreed that one is a different species – a photo sharing app – but mindless comparison is inevitable – especially by non-users who, in any case, don’t feel the need to know better when it comes to Twitter. Sad but true!

Can Twitter manage to make Moments the smartest web-n-mobile news navigator? Today’s nomadic user is spoilt for choice when it comes to news congregation but the supply-side abundance doesn’t necessary create demand-side value. Print is down, if not out, for obvious reasons including its thinning credibility and inconsistent digital initiatives. Of course, there’s no dearth of search engines, networking platforms, and messaging and photo sharing applications vying for market share, yet there’s no clear winner as yet to guide the user on ‘what to see’ before he/she zeroes in on ‘what to read’. Twitter could deliver this value prop if it plays its cards well. It already has a fertile playground for stories in the form of worldwide tweets; Moments can help cleanse it by obliquely quarantining the litter of the hashtag heap. But much would depend on the credibility of Moments in ensuring a steady stream of impartial and factual news. It’s but obvious that Twitter’s traffic boost drive would be linked to revenue generation sometime very soon. Once advertising comes into the picture, the bland commotion of brand promotion could prove to be an eye sore in ‘Momentsphere’. Twitter must somehow find a way to work around this tousled issue since, ironically enough; advertising would remain a key nutrient in lending momentum to Moments.

Maybe Twitter can urge brands to get more creative in presenting some advertisements as plausible stories. Maybe Twitter can nurture a parallel channel on Moments for neutral posts by content curators who are neither from Twitter, nor from value partners. There’s a lot to do since there’s a lot at stake. For long, Twitter has failed to measure its humongous potential, choosing to remain a miniscule bonsai of the magnificent tree it could have become, through its ridiculously insular focus on 140 characters. Whether 140, 1000 or 1400, limits will prove only limiting if Twitter doesn’t build character. ‘Moments’ is one way it could. If it does, the surname Dorsey might just become synonymous with Jobs, else we would be left comparing 'apples' and oranges with Jack back to ‘square’ one. (No pun intended!)

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Astu (So be it): Elephant in the room

As these thoughts passed through his mind, he met an Elephant and came close to hold a conversation with him – Aesop Fables

‘Astu’ (meaning So be it in Sanskrit) is an incisive attempt to probe deep into how a progressive disorder like Alzheimer’s, more than disrupting normal life, makes a dent into the very fabric of familial equations. When elusive conflicts arising from the disorder bring a host of latent differences to the fore, relationships become more fragile and distant than what they seemed before.

Before moving to the bigoted endeavor of film reviews, one must unconditionally acknowledge the highly laudable effort of the producers to sponsor such a sensitive subject which can serve as a stimulating case study in coping with the brutal twists and turns of the ruthless disease. Hats off to Sumitra Bhave for her inventive take on a highly intricate subject as also for the pertinent title.

Retired Sanskrit professor Chakrapani Shastri (Dr. Mohan Agashe) goes from bad to worse even as the irreversibly degenerative ailment plays havoc in different ways. Once revered for his first-rate memory and way with words, he comes face to face with a precariously progressive fag-end reality that begins with words failing him and gradually moves towards more ghastly developments – growing forgetfulness, recurring mood swings and even physical advances arguably redolent of sexual overtures that threaten to bypass the sanctity of relationships. At a time when the family – primarily his elder daughter Ira (Irawati Harshe) - is trying hard to cope with the enormity of the tragedy, the ageing scholar loses his way, this time literally, in the scorching heat of a fateful day, lured by the sight of an elephant on a busy, bustling street. Baffled by the professor’s outrageous request for a ride atop the majestic mammal, the Mahout reluctantly obliges after much contemplation but to his dismay, the old man has even more preposterous plans – he’s resolute to become the fifth member of his family – of self, wife, kid and the elephant.

This is also the time when the professor’s disorder has taken socially embarrassing turns – incessant weeping, pronounced difficulty in communication and loss of bladder control – that call for more intimate, full-time personal care. The Mahout’s wife assumes the responsibility with unconditional, self-springing resolve. Her innate, rustic acceptance of the fact - that the seemingly long-lost, learned man is now her adopted son - is in sharp contrast to the conundrum faced by the professor’s immediate family, despite their highbrow status, in coming to terms with the tragedy. While the elephant woman has become a willing mother to the professor, his kith and kin have knowingly or unknowingly chosen to overlook the elephant in the room.

The makers have attempted to subtly highlight this paradox, made lethal by the longevity of life in an era of advanced medical care and cure, through the wonderful motif of an elephant that’s known to endorse a string of supposedly human-like qualities – and better than what most humans practice - sharp memory, stoic calm and empathy for the clan among others. No wonder, the professor seemingly finds inner peace in the company of the gentle giant, in the reassuring feel of its grey skin, in the tranquility of its somber eyes, in the leading light of its plodding gait...

The ingenuity of the script notwithstanding, the glaring incoherence of the motion picture mars the desired impact. Many loose ends clamor for a tighter grip and prevent the players from hitting a crescendo on a few decisive notes. Astu is off-mark in crucial aspects, which is surprising on two counts - given the veritable credence of its makers – the duo of Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukhtankar - easily one of India’s best from the regional stable (with such gems as Vastupurush – a classic of sorts) and given the sheer brilliance of Bhave’s script that was inherently ripe with 24-carat cinematic possibilities. The run time of 2 hours and 10 minutes is marked with umpteen fractured images, consistently flashed back for effect. At best, they serve as poignant postcards galvanizing the viewer’s mind to suspend every form of judgment in conceding to the larger cause. On the flip side, they fail to put the old man's tragedy into perspective. Their earlier film ‘Devrai’ depicted the trials and tribulations of a schizophrenic’s fight back led by his dogged sister with far more restraint and in commendably convincing frames of lucid progression. Interestingly, Dr. Agashe played a wonderful cameo in Devrai, of a psychiatrist articulating the crucial role played by caregivers in precise words.

A proficient psychiatrist and competent actor, Agashe no doubt leaves his indelible mark on his character but the mechanics of the back-and-forth leaps in time don’t make suitable provision for subtly tracing Shastri’s marked deterioration over time. Barring few stimulating scenes – like the one in which he springs forth to enjoy a hearty meal in a supremely jovial mood only to be reprimanded by the family for the thoughtless encore or another where he fakes a memory lapse to abort conversation with a chatterbox acquaintance – most of his outbursts - mood swings, unremitting bawling et al - lack the zing, in the absence of a suitable preface that could have best come through a wholesome dissection by the family friend Dr. Prabhu (given that the actor Shekhar Kulkarni seemed capable of delivering the goods). Knowing Dr. Agashe’s forthright views on umpteen universal issues like the limitations of clinical diagnosis, orchestrated corporatization of the medical profession and the significance of the patient’s mental makeup and socio-economic situation in palliative care, there was ample scope for voicing these concerns through the film – most fittingly through Dr. Prabhu (probably at the point when he refutes the daughter’s suspicion that her father’s forgetfulness is more garb than genuine.)

As for the elder daughter Ira’s predicament (the principal protagonist played by Irawati Harshe), the character’s initial appearances, save for the fact that she’s invariably busy in attending to the family’s diverse demands, neither reveal her deep-rooted bond with the father (and her supposed fluency in Sanskrit - a crucial factor that binds father-daughter together) nor her reservations about his ruthless regimen that has apparently distanced him from his wife (which we come to know about only through the mother’s death-bed soliloquy). Ira appears as detached as the others are. In fact the husband appears more concerned in most emergency situations. (Milind Soman is surprisingly convincing, never mind his queer Marathi accent)

That’s precisely why the confrontation between the two sisters claiming each other to be the professor’s favorite child, towards the end, barely scratches at the surface. There is no sufficient build up to even remotely suggest Ira's suppressed rage of many years - emanating from what she reckons as an unfair trial, that the responsibility of the father has been thrust on her while the younger sister has coolly shrugged off every burden with clinical precision rooted in cold logic. The sibling squabble hence seems covertly planted if not overtly put on. This is tragic since this is where Harshe finally seems to get real unlike the prior scenes where she is noticeably theatrical. Characters like Mrs. Gupte (Ila Bhate with her quintessential mannerisms) and the younger sister Rahi (Renuka Daftardar, a Bhave-Sukhtankar regular) add little to the film’s cause. Worse, Mrs. Gupte’s story adds a touch of cliché - wife suspecting husband’s rapport with his colleague, daughter affirming it in surprisingly unthinking fashion and predictably enough, Gupte spilling the beans towards the end to underline the professor’s devotion to his life work. The haziness of the character makes Gupte rather ill-equipped to elucidate the larger significance of the professor’s pet phrase “Astu Astu” for the benefit of the audience.

Cut to the Mahout’s family and the players disappoint to glory. Nachiket Purnapatre, though outwardly convincing as the elephant guy, clearly lacks depth in portraying the larger-than-life quandary when the professor accidentally steps into his life. Whether his inability to read the professor’s mind, perplexment over his bizarre ways or the persistent fear of the police, all come as perfunctory pronouncements. He could have done better in hinting at the figurative role of a ‘Mahamatra’. His wife Chenamma (Amruta Subhash, given her marked propensity for gaudy portrayals) makes all the crucial revelations, forming the film’s moot point, sound like overbearing sermons. Her Kannada accentuation and the contrived Marathi interpretation (more of a directorial flaw actually) are nauseatingly embellished.

Given the duo's obsession with the visual imagery of detached collages, most of the wrap-up scenes are flashed in a hurry with a few smacking of artifice – like the police interrogation en route the elephant hunt and the mahout's interaction with the priest - while others are scantily reeled – like Dr. Prabhu’s observations. All the elephant scenes stand out, thanks only to the astutely handheld camerawork that has amazingly captured emblematic scenes like the mammal’s bathing dip and afternoon siesta. The minimal music by Saket Kanetkar and Dhananjay Khawandikar is another redeeming highlight of the film, a delightfully non-intrusive undertone to the underlying theme.

To the film’s credit, it can play a vital role in helping doctors and care givers make priceless discoveries about patient traits and characteristics, far more effectively than what today’s Virtual Reality simulations claim, to discern the elusive day-to-day challenges of a degenerative disorder. Beyond doubt, no symposium lecture, academic paper or celebrity endorsement can ever hope to match the sanctity of the film’s earnest appeal to empathize with the subject matter devoid of any black and white inferences and thereby transcend the boundaries of scholastic knowledge which does little more than proclaim Alzheimer’s as a type of dementia.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Bamberg to Goa via Reigate: Web development turns idyllic

IIFL | Mumbai | October 01, 2015 10:38 IST
For the three founder-musketeers of Sapnagroup - Nilesh Nayak, Jonny Hübner and Anurag Jain - innovation is the new norm. Their dream venture defies all convention with matter-of-fact precision and yet doesn’t dislodge the beauty of tradition in any way. Sudhir Raikar spoke to co-founder Nilesh Nayak on the past, present and future of the remarkable Anglo-Indian firm.


The tourist haven of Goa, we all know, is the ultimate destination for a dream vacation. That it can also turn out to be the perfect location for a dream vocation would surely be considered unusual, thanks to the conformist image of the idyllic place. But then, for the three founder-musketeers of Sapnagroup – badminton enthusiast Nilesh Nayak, Marathon aficionado Jonny Hübner and professional photographer Anurag Jain - innovation is the new norm. Their web development venture defies all convention – whether by virtue of its offbeat name or its distinctive modus operandi - and yet doesn’t dislodge the beauty of tradition in any way. Their fascinating software development story will make even hard-core skeptics agree profusely.

Sapnagroup’s genesis dates back to an IT outsourcing company that Nayak, a BTech from IIT Madras and MBA from XLRI, Jamshedpur, incepted in his hometown of Goa. Jain, a B E from PCCE, Goa, joined him soon after. In due course, their firm grew in scope, if not immediately in size, and they began taking on overseas projects. In the course of their exploration to source more business, an ad on caught their attention. It was posted by Hübner, then employed with a UK firm called Orbit24-7, who was scouting for someone to replace one of his programmers who had vanished into thin air without notice. Though he was looking for a UK-based resource, Nayak proposed the outsourcing route. It took loads of hard sell besides a free pilot project to convince Hübner of the merits of the offshore development model and the initial reservations soon made way for an enduring relationship although Orbit24-7 wound up in a mere three months post the contract. When Hübner decided to set up his venture, he offered his new-found Indian comrades exclusive charge of the development team. The duo from Goa obliged and over a period of time, the brand was rechristened Sapnagroup. Sapna, the name of Nayak’s daughter, means Dream which amply symbolizes the group’s aspiration, so felt the trio in unison.

But how did the geographical presence span three idyllic of India, UK and Germany respectively – viz. Goa, Reigate and Bamberg? Explains Nayak, “I was born and brought up in Goa, and Anurag is based here too. So it made sense to give back something to the home state. Jonny hails from Bamberg, Germany, so he moved back to his roots. It also saved him the astronomical costs of operating from London, which proved a burden when we started. He now commutes to the UK once in a month and has a base in Reigate, the historic Surrey town. It was a question of convenience.”

In the process, Sapnagroup more than proved that you don’t necessarily have to be based in Bangalore, Noida or Pune or even Silicon Valley for doing world-class software development. The group currently serves markets in Europe, Middle East and South Africa. The bulk of their clients are in UK and Germany, primarily because Jonny is based there and does the sales. They also serve a few customers in Austria and US apart from those in Middle East and South Africa. Among the group’s sterling website management and maintenance case studies are, one of UK's largest childcare companies,, a Mitsubishi company having intricate, multi-lingual European and American websites and, a Bamberg marathon which happens once in two years, and causes sudden spurt in website users when registrations are opened. What about India? “Till date, they haven't undertaken any major project in India but are looking forward to startup opportunities in India now”, informs Nayak.

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The company’s web development service spectrum includes LAMP development, SEO/SEM, server administration and mobile App development. Typically, how are the group’s client engagements - do they end up providing all stack services for a client or are the projects singular in nature? Nayak elucidates, “There is no thumb rule. Our server hosting and SEO originated because our existing clients needed these services. Most of our client sites are hosted by us. Many of our SEO clients become our programming clients. Typically, we get most of our projects through word of mouth referrals, or led by expansion of our existing clients and in some cases, on the recommendation of an ex-employee of one of our clients to his/her new employer.”

Does the choice of LAMP emanate from the founders' prior competence on based on an inherent belief in open source development? “We started in PHP by default, possibly also because it was free compared to equivalent Microsoft technology which was paid. But as we went along, the open source nature also helped us and today we endorse it very strongly. We have done some work in Perl and Python too and are definitely open to any other variants. In fact, we have started doing app development for IOS and Android.” Nayak reveals.

Sapnagroup has built a team of over 40 people in India who ensure that clients across the globe are happy with the service. What’s the approach to training and development of developers? “We make all freshers undergo on the job training which effectively means we put them on small tasks. We have a small training system also developed to help them learn things which are specific to professional programming as also terminologies relevant to UK and Germany. Most of our code is customized and hence we have developed our own frameworks. We do use frameworks like Yii when clients insist. We are already working on JSON and JS MVC frameworks. Some of my colleagues have such a good understanding of technology that they can put European programmers to shame. And mind you, all of them are from Goa, from local colleges like Xavier's, Dhempe, GEC, PCCE and the like.”

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Why has the company consciously kept away from design and consulting as also the enterprise space? Are they open to the SAAS route given their penchant for tools? “Design is something we tried with an in-house designer in Europe but it didn’t work out. We have strategic tie ups with agencies in Europe for specific design work. As of now, we have no plans to get into design as most of the core promoters are not from that area and unlike programming, design is a more subjective area. Yes, we are open to consulting should there be an opportunity. SAAS model is a little risky hence we have stayed away from it but maybe we could look at it as we grow.”

Among the most notable features of Sapnagroup is its genuinely democratic and lightweight setup – the team is virtually free of hierarchy and you won’t find the customary support heads for HR, Marketing and Corp Communication here. Nayak contends with a staple matter-of-fact tonality, “We are too small for these departments. Jonny handles the sales and client interaction; I am the chief architect of the development team Anurag is the Chief Technology Officer, head of server team and key security consultant. I personally look after HR, so in theory we do have an HR department (with home-grown HR software to handle leave and payroll). Marketing is Jonny’s baby but given our model, we don't unduly depend on it. As we expand further, we will definitely need to strengthen that front. We span three offices in Goa already and as and when we grow further, more formal systems will need to be put in place. Right now, we are able to manage everything within our internal resources and some bank borrowings but if we get a very fast growth trajectory, we may need to look at other sources of funding”

Nestled in the lap of Goa, Sapnagroup is doing world-class open source web development with the help of native talent for a growing universe of global clients, in an indigenous fashion that lends meaning and substance to the clarion call of “Make in India”, and without staking a claim to that effect. Nayak's insights surely put him in a different league of visionary entrepreneurs. Consider this heart-felt plea that speaks volumes of his sterling conviction: "We are trying to build something substantial here. I would request you not to look at this company as a run of the mill IT shop.A software company in Goa gives the impression of a small time unit doing websites or VB applications for local industries. We need to get out of this stereotype. The internet makes it possible to develop world-class software from anywhere on the globe. Fifteen years back, a US citizen would have viewed an IT company in India with the same stereotype; today he/she views an Indian as a czar of the IT world (though I personally don't believe Indians have become more intelligent in 15 years)"

The group is open to collaboration with like-minded entities – whether ad agencies, individual consultants and even companies. Should you want to know more or wish to check out their in-house tools for Design Match and Encrypted Transfer, do visit Whether you engage with it or not, you will find the idyllic route of Bamberg to Goa via Reigate undoubtedly engaging.