Bombay Velvet: Kashyap's Jazzed Disaster

Kashyap's overflowing reverence for Martin Scorsese is hardly a surprise, for their mutual admiration stands on a firm footing of commonality. Hailing Scorsese as one of America's greatest filmmakers is as adventurous as felicitating Kashyap as a selfless crusader of meaningful cinema. Both are 'Good Fellas' as directors with a decent track record no doubt but their critical acclaim soars way higher than the profundity of their body of work. Kashyap's latest Bombay Velvet, much like Scorsese's 2010 Shutter Island, has been fed a staple diet of hype which makes its making a bigger film than the finished product.

Of course, this Kashyap has phenomenally jazzed up the velvety brand of Ranbir in the process, unlike the Besharam devastation the Kapoor scion suffered under another Kashyap not long ago. But the mediocrity of the subject matter (if there's any matter that testifies as subject) is as monumental as the money spent on recreating the retro look.

The plot is laughably simplistic:

A handful of scheming barons - from media, polity and police - are deciding the fate of a post-independence Mumbai which solely hinges on the discovery or disappearance of a photographic negative that has comically captured an otherwise upright minister in an uncompromising position. Kashyap's period hotch-potch is ridiculously scattered across frames: union leaders and activists sloganeering at protest gatherings, ministers and bureaucrats addressing game-changing press conferences, newspaper editors furiously typing scandals from their smoke-filled living rooms. It's left to the viewer to connect the dots which mean little in isolation. Instead, the significance of "Roaring Twenties" clip is needlessly underlined, as if to help the viewer predict the end.

When Kashyap has had enough of the half-baked 'Glitz for Blitz' real-life references, he transports Kapoor to Wasseypur territory without notice, leave alone reason, setting him ablaze in "Teri Keh Ke Lunga" mode. For some more amplified effect, warring power brokers - hard-coded capitalists and communists - are shown throwing expletives at each other in transit time - one swears 'Amercian agent' from his car window, the other retorts 'Russia ka Tattu' from his. Even The Tiranga duel between Raaj Kumar and Nana Patekar was more perceptive in comparison.

Wonder what historian and Princeton professor Gyan Prakash discreetly feels about this comical adaptation of his 'Mumbai Fables' given that he approached Kashyap with the idea of the film. We would never know of course.Hope Princeton has some idea!

Wish to know more about Mumbai's story including the reclamation politics and we have a host of insightful books at our command. Kashyap's juvenile primer hardly serves any purpose - nauseatingly interspersed with a hopeless love story, (censored) lip lock, Ranbir's hilarious facial tribute to Scarface (heavily bruised in one scene, spotlessly chocolate-faced in the very next) as also his wayward saga rooted in a boxing ring. He's easily one of the most undernourished boxers to have graced the big screen ever.

Among the few redeeming features of this retro disaster:

Karan Johar sans the coffee, simply marvelous as Kaizad Khambatta, his screen presence is reassuring if not his acting

Captivating art direction - pity it proved a lost cause

Satyadeep Mishra as Chiman - easily the most believable character blessed with a well-defined motive. The enduring pathos of his tale is the film's highlight.

WebEngage-ed Marts: Talkin’ Smart, Adding to Carts

IIFL | Mumbai | May 13, 2015 10:03 IST
Unstoppable doers, as they fittingly call themselves, these SaaS wizards are designing inventive visitor engagements for scores of happy web stores, aimed at phenomenal cart conversions through neat notifications, nifty surveys and nimble feedback capture.

Coding was a self-springing, self taught pre-occupation-turned-obsession for this metallurgical engineer. Perhaps the seeds of this mania could be traced to his fascination ‘for the sheer scale and size of the mean machines used in mineral processing’ as he shares in one of his blog posts. When he designed his college fest website on his beloved AMD Athlon powered PC, little did he realize, it was his first step on the destined path of becoming a web developer. As the first employee of the restaurant review website Burrp, he was blessed with a one-of-kind startup workplace that encouraged employees to shape their own product ideas, not merely clock their contractual obligations. Given his exceptional clarity of concepts, he thrived in this stimulating environment and began working on an annotation and archiving tool tailored to the ever-evolving knowledge management needs of startups involving continuous people churn.

His entrepreneurial journey has been far from seamless though. His first tryst with a start up, calling for a massive salary cut, was a grand failure in material terms. Even as his close associates sympathized with him as a spent force, he moved over to another start up. This one got acquired by a bigger fish in due course but with a parting gift – a paid job in the merged entity. Just when people conferred the ‘settled’ tag on him, he called it quits to initiate his own start up. After an elongated coil of failures, he finally saw light at the end of the tunnel with the support of a great co-founder and a go-getting team…and WebEngage was born.

Meet Avlesh Singh, CEO of WebEngage. Co-founded with friend and Burrp colleague Ankit Utreja, WebEngage was an incredible upshot of observing and analyzing the archetypal nightmares that make life difficult for the online marketing tribe. Whatever their need – running promotions, introducing targeted offers or just about anything else – the development team is invariably dismissive about it given their customarily chocked pipelines that leave absolutely no room for magnanimity. “Our assumption was that this couldn't be a ‘Burrp only’ problem. Thankfully, it turned out to be valid.” says Avlesh with inimitable humility.

Founding duo: Avlesh Singh and Ankit Utreja

For those unaware of the WebEngage universe housing thousands of esteemed brands like Flipkart, Snapdeal, Cloe, Zivame, Indiatimes, Reliance, Coinflash and Getit, here’s a quick foreword.

WebEngage is a customer engagement suite residing atop a tripod of Survey, Feedback and Notifications that carry way more value than what the dictionary meaning of the titles imply. Offered in four flavors – Basic, Standard, Premium and Enterprise, (14-day free trials available for all plans, ready-to-run for the first three and on request for the last mentioned) WebEngage makes online engagement a fertile, UX-rich two-way street, bringing home the intimacy of a brick and mortar store interaction sans the subjectivity of human interaction. Unlike those pushy pop-ups that serve no purpose whatsoever - neither for sellers nor buyers - a WebEngage survey captures a host of insightful prospect information linked to the whole range of product options and versions including prospective interest in would-be schemes and buying preferences based on gender, geography or demography. WebEngage Feedback, unlike the typical droning forms we fill by default, can be tailored to address specific actionable needs and is even response-sensitive based on the choice made at the visitor end. E-commerce entities couldn’t have asked for a more potent tool than the WebEngage Targeted Notifications which enable you to influence your target audience in different ways – from announcing seasonal discounts and system downtimes to enthusing non-moving and slow-moving visitors towards concession-driven cart conversions.

Watch this video for a better elaboration: Rescue abandoned carts using WebEngage

The range and flexibility of the WebEngage drag and drop functionality does not compromise its ease in any way. A onetime JavaScript code added to the site ensures an obliging and intelligent dashboard at command, courtesy WebEngage’s Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model which automatically updates all future functionality changes to the code, taking care of user interface, corresponding rules, code callbacks and data integration. The store owners are free to build forms, draw up surveys and push notifications exactly the way they want to. Any WebEngage experience, the team ensures, is a matter of few minutes. On-boarding in Do It Yourself mode is a five minute job and even the conventionally sticky customer issue resolution, on an average, takes no more than half an hour.

Even the WebEngage coasters are non-conformist in character

Are there any proposed additions to the WebEngage suite - beyond the feedback, surveys and notifications? “A whole lot of them”, informs Avlesh. “Among other things, we are creating a category called "on-site marketing" and defining the rules for it. Second, we are releasing a customer engagement suite for mobile apps. This is coming up Mid June. Third, we are superbly focused on data analytics. I don't want to spill the beans here but expect us to do some release some cool things in a couple of months.”

All WebEngage nudges are linked to actual conversions on store owner sites – whether in terms of increasing sales, reducing cart abandonment, improving newsletter sign-ups, generating leads, or boosting website registrations. More than mere enablement, WebEngage also helps you measure conversions in real time. In a recent enhancement, WebEngage has makes analytics radically actionable through its Leave Intent Targeting feature. The title may sound cryptic, but not the value proposition. It simply implies the ability to shoot surveys and notifications to users about to leave the site in conjunction with customer-specific rule(s) of choice, whether based on page URLs, geographies, traffic source, specific time intervals or value of purchase. Sensing the mouse movement of visitors, a pre-configured survey/notification can be popped up the moment the user is found approaching the close button or moving towards a different tab in the browser window. This last-ditch attempt at extending discounts to users on the verge of quitting makes a big difference to the given website’s conversion fortunes.

WebEngage Wizards …as formal as they could possibly get

Given its compelling value prop - for web store and portal owners, blog authors and just about any website driven by user interest – coupled with its flexible subscription-based pricing model, WebEngage surely holds an edge in a crowded marketplace. But how does it rate its competition and what are the plans going forward?

Avlesh contends, “On-site marketing automation is a great space. One, the space has been ruled by turnkey solution providers - some of them became really large over a period of time. We saw a unique opportunity in being DIY and took on the challenge of carving our niche there. In what we do, there is very little direct competition. Close to 20% of our customers are Enterprises. BFSI, Brand and EdTech players, predominantly from the US and UK, constitute over 30% of our business. These include Avaya, Intuit, Money Advice Service, Kaplan, Udemy, Lynda, HDFC Mutual Fund, Kotak, IDFC and the like.”

In freewheeling mode

Backed by seed funds and investment management entities of the likes of Capital Group, Bloom Ventures and Indian Angel Network, WebEngage is aggressively focused on expanding their US, UK, EMEA and APAC exposure. Having set up overseas teams, mostly remote to begin with, they plan to command a physical presence in three to four countries outside of India in the near future. In doing so, the company will continue its growth trajectory based on its intrinsic value, avoiding any marketing tie-ups with prominent and dominant players across verticals. “We dread the very thought of such tangential arrangements primarily because our potential is yet untapped. The room to grow and govern has not been even explored. We are just about getting started. Any market-driven arrangement that comes in the way would be counter-productive. The future is unpredictable. In the world we live in, things change overnight. But what I can assure you our edge will drive as many as 100,000 websites by the end of 2016. When that happens, we'll tell the world what else we are doing. Right now, we are at the 26,000 mark and counting…” Avlesh reveals.

WebEngage come in different shapes and sizes

As epoch-making as its disruptive value prop is the firm’s clarity and courage of conviction. The WebEngage team is a wonderful assortment of mavericks in motion, distinctly open source in thought and action, whatever their defining tag – designers, developers or marketers. Workplace to them means a green house spiced by beer, bread and banter, but they strictly mean business and deliver it with market-leading agility. There’s plenty of office room for ambition but none whatsoever for mediocrity, negativity, empty gut feel or egotism. The revered emphasis is on unconditional elucidation and sharing of grass roots experience, free of the curse of knowledge – whether specific to seeding of ventures, software development or marketing campaigns - with the community at large. It’s worthwhile to check out their highly informative blogs – both corporate and engineering. From broadcasting customization and integration breakthroughs to elucidating the intricacies of Representational State Transfer APIs and Webhook documentation, backbone of an Open and interoperable Web, the team even shares the delight of transitional milestones in a congenially self-deprecating tenor worth adulation and emulation in the same breath.

And chairs serve different purposes

Aspiring tech startups can learn a lot from Avlesh’s free and freewheeling counsel. No heavy sermons in his plea, only heartfelt sentiment. Way more edifying than CB Insights chief Anand Sanwal’s ‘54 mistakes of a Startup CEO’ but at a fraction of Samwal’s popularity emanating from a bullet point-obsessed US of A.

Note Avlesh’s stress on the need to set up basic communication channels like email summaries and blog posts apart from smart demos and fit-for-purpose articulation of product stories from end-user perspective. “Unlike popular perception of a blog post’s short-lived shelf life, it is amazingly "discoverable" on Google forever. What better marketing tool you expect, free at that!” Avlesh asserts. “Startups, by definition and nature, are ad-hoc. Businesses aren't - they have processes in place. If a startup has to move up the ladder and become a business, it has to put processes and templates in place. The sooner that realization kicks in, the faster you'd be climbing up the value chain to become a really large business. Else, good luck.”

Beyond doubt, the more-than-confirmed non-conformist team of WebEngage is a rare species, God sent for the future of tech-driven entrepreneurship in a country known for mammoth maintenance factories humming in the name of design hubs and tariff-driven body shopping outfits masquerading as development firms.

Open office – they mean it

Avlesh cautions, “An entrepreneur is NOT a businessman. The former has a much larger motive as opposed to money making alone. So if you empathize with an entrepreneur, take the effort to believe in his or her vision. Be the force of good beyond the confines of your comfort zone. That’s exceedingly critical for tiding over the taxing gestation of umpteen failures before success can hope to surface above. This indefinable faith has no locus standii, precisely why entrepreneurship can’t ever be illustrated, it can only be experienced.”

For the awesome power and pertinence of its innovation engine, the WebEngage literature unfolding it for the public at large seems somewhat constricted. Knowingly or unknowingly, this is a common trait of an ever-evolving lab bursting at the seams in real time, all the time. The WebEngage website exploration, for all its wealth of information, is currently led more by interest than instruction, especially for first timers checking in as community stakeholders. Add to that the unintentionally enigmatic naming conventions and even an interested user could get needlessly overwhelmed by the enormity and elusiveness of the information stack. Maybe a smart summary packing the value prop in pithy paragraphs on the home page could prove the perfect curtain raiser for a deeper dive into their phenomenally engaging knowledgebase. Prospects or suspects, all will benefit from the ensuing traction given the fact that WebEngage is essentially an evangelist practitioner, not your everyday e-provider. -

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Parag Parikh: Pole star of Value Investing (1954-2015)

IIFL | Mumbai | May 06, 2015 10:29 IST
In Indian mythology, Dhruvapada or the Pole Star position is the ultimate seat of tranquility which guides the universe in celestial navigation as also in determining latitude. Parikh is undoubtedly the pole star of value investing who will continue to help us establish our investing co-ordinates provided we care to grow in the guiding light of his example.

It was on a sweltering afternoon, sometime in the late nineties, that I had the pleasure and privilege to meet Parag Parikh for a one-to-one media interview. In my ridiculous capacity as a faltering newbie correspondent of a leading business magazine, I could hardly muster the courage to verbalize my hopeless string of over-rehearsed questions but his child-like smile – pleasant, not patronizing - quickly faded my embarrassment into oblivion. Patiently coping with the nuisance value of my over-enthusiastic lensman who seemed hell-bent on showing off his camera skills (actually the lack of it), Parikh spoke his mind on a host of issues including the struggle of his formative years, his unflinching faith in research, the illuminating experience of the "Owner President Management Program" at the Harvard Business School, his take on the evolving paradigms of investing and the heart-felt lament on the changing landscape of Mumbai. In the hour-long tete-a-tete, Parikh ensured that I had a wholesome piece to impress my editor swirling his big chair back at my office, anxiously waiting for my return. If every achiever across spheres matches Parikh’s attitude in full measure, if not his altitude, the world would be such a better place for all constituents – big or small.

But a cruel turn of fate - his death in a fatal car accident - has done just the opposite. It has made the world even poorer from the tragedy that happened in the hometown of his idol Warren Buffet and barely three months from the passing away of his mentor Chandrakant Sampat. Hard as we might try, we would never be able to fathom the elusive play of destiny in that irony. Worse, we are left with no option but to pay an obituary tribute to a maverick that was so full of life, in the pink of health and most importantly ripe with achievements even in his sixties. His final tweet post the Berkshire Hathway investor conference Omaha quoting Simon Sinek was reflective of his plans for the future “So much of starting a business or affecting change is the confidence and courage to simply try”

Before we discuss Parikh’s sterling achievements as an innovative stock market investor, we must profusely thank the professor who instantaneously dismissed Parikh’s student project propagating the commercial use of laminated plastic collapsible tubes for storing thick liquids like toothpaste. For it was this very formative disappointment that paved the way for an invaluable counsel by his mentor Sampat: rather than be bogged down by the constraints of a particular sector, why not reap the rewards of several businesses across verticals completely free of the manufacturing headaches?

Thus began Parikh’s historic tryst with the bourses in the year 1978, initially as a sub broker swearing by hard core research and making the most of his chartered accountancy degree. Five years later, he acquired the coveted BSE broking card for which his mother and wife readily parted with the family jewelry.

His introspective abilities and the post 1991 liberalization opportunities helped his broking and wealth management forays scale new heights. And it was the same distinctive non-conformism that gave him the strength to abort an ongoing success story to venture into the uncharted territory of value -based asset management.

The consistency, conscience and clarity of Parikh’s unadulterated conviction were clearly beyond the comprehension of his adversaries who found solace in conveniently labeling him as a raucous contrarian. No wonder, most members of the coveted Dalal Street camp found in him a stranger without ‘roots’, a heretic of sorts suited for spiritual discourses, not stock markets. And even among his likeminded peers and admirers, very few gauged the worth of his unflinching faith in long term value investments in fundamentally strong, customer-centric companies. And only a handful of them openly acknowledged his selfless crusade when he disowned the lucrative Jardine Fleming association to protest the latter’s depleting faith in Indian market mediators. Rain or sunshine, he never lost his moorings.

His investing trump card was his ability and agility in spotting fundamentally sound winners engaged in the business that he understood well. His roving eye looked for enduing value propositions, trustworthy managements and credible business models. Speculation had no place in his scheme of things and he was ready to live with the consequences of his non-conformist thinking which necessarily translated into a limited client base. But his trust in research never weakened based on which he evaluated businesses while most of the other brokers analyzed stocks largely based on extra-sensory perception (read inside information)

After the initial success, his business took a beating when cut-throat competition caused the market to make ‘short term’ its resounding mantra. Rather than join the herd, Parikh kicked off a Portfolio Management Scheme (PMS) in line with his long term investing philosophy. All went well till year 2000 when the markets were consumed by the IT stock mania. His PMS was adversely affected since it had none of the zooming tech winners, only slow and steady retail stocks. The moment of truth and the ensuing depression led him to deep introspection and a detached probe into what he believed was true and false in life. And he was introduced to the fascinating world of behavioural finance which gave him an altogether fresh perspective into the minds and machinations that drive the stock markets. He shut down institutional broking in 2007 and six years later, wound up his PMS as well to start a mutual fund which not surprisingly banked on value investments through a solitary, gimmickry-free Parag Parikh Long Term Value Fund with its unique switch mechanism to counter market fluctuations including its significant exposure to overseas stocks. Redefining the oft-chewed word ‘commitment’ for the mutual fund industry, he and with his team invested their own money in their fund…a largely game-changing gesture that prompted SEBI to make one percent AMC investments mandatory in their own schemes.

More than FIIs, Indian FIs, Mutual Funds and big Corporates, retail investors in India owe the most to Parag Parikh for his thankless effort to educate them on the intricacies of value investing. He proactively cautioned them against the perils of the IPO hype, painstakingly elucidated the crucial difference between 'value in use' and 'value in exchange' in layman terms and volubly exposed the flawed notion of a stock’s risk linked solely to its market momentum. As a humble student of behavioral finance, he readily shared his acquired learning but never packaged the insights as intellectual property. And yet, he was not half as popular as some of his flashy peers. What could be more ironic than the fact that fan clubs spring up from nowhere and in no time when dubious brokers hit the headlines and nauseatingly flamboyant dealers known for their Page 3 exploits, film productions and self-indulgent lifestyles become instant role models for even the most insignificant of investors? Not that Parikh’s method was infallible in every respect but what separated him from the crowd was his unconditional willingness to share the pangs of self doubt whenever he felt them as also the incredible urge to dive deep into the root cause before aspiring to soar high.

In Indian mythology, Dhruvapada or the Pole Star position is the ultimate seat of tranquility which guides the universe in celestial navigation as also in determining latitude. Parikh is undoubtedly the pole star of value investing who will continue to help us establish our investing co-ordinates provided we care to grow in the guiding light of his example. We don’t have even an ounce of doubt about the commitment of his family and partners in taking his vision forward, exactly as he envisaged. A certain celestial money manager will ensure the needful from the heaves above. After all, a car collision on an unfortunate intersection could only claim his life, not the Midas touch of his life work.
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IT Return: Form over Function

| Mumbai | May 02, 2015 11:06 IST
Notwithstanding the finance minister’s abrupt guarantee of an ‘extremely simple’ income tax return form, ease of filling forms yet remains a distant dream in the country. Ease of doing business is a utopian hallucination in comparison.

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Form filling has always been a grueling proposition in India. By a queer mix of default and design, it is always engineered to become a torturous experience. In the case of income tax returns, the torment becomes a return gift to the tax payer for only doing his or her national duty. On the one hand, the government frets over poor tax collections; on the other it makes the very process of collection even poorer. Thanks to bureaucracy’s glorious obsession with humungous amounts of data, all kinds of forms end up defeating the very functions they seek to serve. As a result, ‘Saral’ becomes as difficult as possible and the notion of vigilance invariably translates into a nuisance of intrusion. And even after the back-breaking rigor, India’s tax system leaves a lot to be desired.

Before it seeks to cause more information deluge, the government should find out what’s it doing with the tons and tons of information it has gathered over the years? And what stops the tax authorities from making the most of the wealth of information provided by the Annual Information Return? Agreed, the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) has rightly relieved individual tax payers from the AIR burden but how far has it used the AIR stuff to make smart, selective scrutiny of defaults and irregularities?

No wonder, the ache of several years culminated into a resounding groan when the CBDT announced a horrific 14-pager for the assessment year 2015-16. Just when e-filing otherwise sought to end the annual nightmare of last-minute filings, the additional mandate dropped a fresh bombshell, seeking detailed information on the taxpayer’s foreign travel among other disclosures like comprehensive details of bank accounts held which the PAN card can easily reveal in good time.

Quite obviously, one underlying purpose of the new mandate was to check the growing black money menace but rather than proactively ensuring the tax return filing of people who went on trips abroad, the onus of sharing details is on the tax payer who’s already grappling with the gory diktats of an elusive return form, albeit in different forms. Call it Saral or Sahaj, the burden has seamlessly traveled over time. If for one year, the tax payer struggled with intricate mentions of foreign assets, another year called for mind-numbing details of capital gains, not to mention the jumble of allowance disclosures for the salaried class every year.

Just when will CBDT envisage the grass root impact of its roof top mandates? For instance, how does it expect regular travelers – both employed and entrepreneurs - to furnish granular details of their travel transactions? And imagine the predicament of expats coming home for a happy sojourn. Are they expected to keep a exhaustive record of every expense they incur on home soil?

Probably sensing the gravity of the backlash in the public domain, the Finance Minister made an adhoc clarification (read crisis communication) in the midst of his Washington tour, reassuring us of an ‘extremely simple’ form in the making. Before we speculate on what’s extreme or simplistic about that statement, we wonder why India was left waiting for a hotline intervention if the option of making form filling ‘extremely simple’ was always at hand. Yet, shedding our dangerous cynicism aside, we hope and pray that the new form will make life somewhat easier for tax payers, more so for those who diligently make their earnest contribution, year after year, to India’s Growth story. Brand it as PM Modi’s Make in India vision or call it RBI Guv Rajan’s Make for India mission, the contribution is priceless.