Tuesday, February 27, 2007

doubling the budget for higher ed?

The Indian Express reports that the government is slated to increase the budget for higher education by as much as 150% to increase the number of students the system can accomodate and thus temper the effects of new quotas for the so-called Other Backward Classes. On the one hand, it goes without saying that higher spending on education is a good thing. But I can't help wondering whether the government is making a crucial misstep at a watershed moment for the country by blundering further down the top-heavy investment pattern it has followed in the past. Unless the increase in the budget for higher ed is accompanied by a similar boost in spending on primary ed--and/or vital reforms to facilitate more fairness and greater access in the private primary schools--I fear that adding university places will only weaken the overall quality and once again enshrine the inequalities that exist between rich and poor. Quotas or no.

$50 symantics

Seems like the $50 plus $25 a year "subscription" to keep the product working that we give Symantec for its antivirus program is a big, fat waste of money. Despite all its constant updating and hogging of system resources that slow even Shai's superfast new machine to a snail's pace, it's neither able to protect us from virus attack nor able to clean the viruses and adware from the machine successfully. To be honest, I'm not sure that any other program is any better, but I'm guessing that there are many out there that offer better value for money. The only source of solace, as I surf out a different AV reputed to kill the bug that we've caught and pay another $40, is reading the nasty comments from other Symantec users. One guy writes that the people at Symantec actually offered to clean the virus off his PC for a $50 fee! Isn't that what your antivirus SOFTWARE is supposed to do? he replied. I'd rather send the money to one of your competitors. He received a groveling response with new instructions (they didn't work either) and then bought a new program. WTF! Do we need a different AV for every virus? Has anybody ever downloaded one of Symantec's "fixers" that actually worked?

can india make a blockbuster drug?

Indian generic-drug makers once bedeviled Big Pharma; now they may be its best hope for success.

By Jason Overdorf
Newsweek International

March 5, 2007 issue - India used to be big pharma's worst nightmare. Loose patent laws and a glut of talented scientists made that country the world capital for generics. As quickly as companies like GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Novatis, Pfizer and others could develop innovative new drugs, nimble Indian companies could copy them—and sell them for a fraction of the price. The practice led to a tangle of litigation. But now, the legal battles are giving way to new partnerships. Click to read the rest.

Friday, February 23, 2007

the envelope please

So we've seen a good number of the Oscar nominees, with Volver and The Lives of Others on the card for this weekend. Thoughts so far:

Little Children (Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor) - A decent enough flick, but nothing to write home about. Kate Winslet's performance is pretty standard stuff for her, about the same level as she delivered in the Eternal Spotlight of the Sunny Mind or whatever. She's disqualified forever for her role in Titanic anyway, though she wins pants down for most convincing naked acting. The supporting actory guy, who plays a sexual predator who still lives with his Mom, does an impressive job in a more demanding role--which requires him to be creepy and vile AND to win our sympathy in the end. Verdict: Won't win anything.

Little Miss Sunshine (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress) - Definitely NOT the best picture, even out of the unwisely chosen short list. At times saccharine, at other times pretentious, and at still other times cliched (the ending copied from the Hugh Grant starrer About a Boy made more obvious because the lead actress is the same in both flicks), this one made me laugh but didn't fool me with its pretensions. Allan Arkin is great, but his role is too small and hinges too heavily on shtick--an old guy who swears a lot does not an Oscar winner make, unless it's Peter O'Toole. The little girl up for Best Supporting is disqualified by age. You know the saying: Never vote for kids or animals. Seriously, looking cute is not the same as acting, and you shouldn't get extra points for being young, or about to die, or appearing in films despite losing on American Idol. Verdict: Won't win anything.

Blood Diamond (Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor) - This was the worst movie of the lot, and Leo's performance was stunningly bad. Apart from generally overacting and screwing up his face like his skin was attacked to a drawstring all too frequently, his Rhodesian-South-African-Australian-New Zealand accent slipped into good old American at every other word. Why don't they change the script when this happens? Just erase a few lines and add a few different ones here and there and make the character American. It would save the star a lot of embarrassment and the audience a lot of exhausting wincing. Anyway, Leo. like Kate Winslet, is barred from winning forever due to his performance as "the king of the world." I believe I recognized the Best Supporting guy's overacting from Amistad, though I'm not certain. Apparently, Leo let him borrow the drawstring to contort the skin on his face, and he didn't get any help from the screenwriter who couldn't decide whether he should be tough and naive or absurdly moralistic and borderline mentally retarded. "I can't tell them I'm the cameraman so I can get on the bus to go find my missing son! That would be lying!" Or "The vicious soldiers who shoot everybody indiscriminately are driving by with their machine guns and rocket launchers, I must call out to them in case my son is on board the truck!" I knew things were going to get really bad when Leo & sidekick ran into the jungle to look for the impossibly big diamond and the camera honed in on a Chimpanzee (a Chimpanzee!) in a tree overhead for a "oo-aa-ee-aa" cameo. To quote the stupid script, "TIA." This is assanine... er... This is Africa--of the "Tarzan tell Cheetah go back treehouse, fetch Jane" variety. Verdict: Doesn't win anything. Leo too embarrassed to set foot on red carpet.

The Departed (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor) - Not the best picture, but should win some kind of award for adaptation of terrible foreign film. (It was based on the Hong Kong action flick "Internal Affairs," a movie that showed no evidence that its absurd plot could ever be presented in a way that an audience could take seriously--more kung fu! more kung fu! I kept thinking. Anything for less dialogue.) It should also win for best use of the R rating since Quentin Tarantino. Seriously, I want Tarantino and the writers on this one in a verbal slandering duel to the death, and I want it now. That would be a Best Picture candidate. Best Director--maybe. Yes. I think so. The amazing feat of making this story somewhat believable, and the characters empathy-inspiring, was virtuosity itself. Best Supporting Actor--Mark Wahlberg was pretty damn good, actually, but I haven't seen any of the other nominees. Verdict: It'll win something.

Days of Glory (Best Foreign Language Film) -- This was a terrific movie, with several performances that topped or matched the nominees in Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories. But what really struck me about it was that here was the movie that Saving Private Ryan purported to be but wasn't -- that patriotic glory farce that was bald-facedly market as an anti-war flick. Probably the best war movie I've seen. Verdict: Too many Muslims. Just kidding. But I think you know what I mean. It won't win, despite being terrific. Going by the press, my money is on Pan's Labrynth, which I haven't seen.

Water (Best Foreign Language Film) -- Surprisingly good, especially considering the presence of John Abraham. The best part about the movie, for me, was watching John's face when he didn't have any lines. His effort to "act" was so conscious, and so obvious, that you couldn't help but laugh. Verdict: I don't think so.

The Queen (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress) -- This was an excellent movie, and Helen Mirren's performance was top-notch. I don't think it warrants Best Picture, but the movies that I would have chosen didn't make the short list, so I think it's a likely winner. Unless Judy Dench really delivered the goods in Notes on a Scandal, which I haven't seen, I'd say Mirren takes Best Actress. Anyway, Judy's roles have been sort of same-same-but-different over the past few years, haven't they?

Babel (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress) -- I went into this one with a lot of doubts. A serious, arty film with Brad Pitt? Especially the ego-supercharged, post-Angelina Brad Pitt? It seemed like a recipe for disaster. Add in a healthy dose of zipping around the globe, disorienting flashbacks, etc, and I was thinking is Innaritu the new Abel Ferrar? But I was actually surprised at how well it turned out. Brad did a little of that scrubbing-his-face-with-his-hands ala Twelve Monkeys et al, and his heroic postures were sometimes a little hard to take, but Innaritu won me over with his whole "wake up you fatass American fuckers, life sucks in the developing world" thing. Verdict: I think this one wins Best Director on degree of difficulty points. The Japanese girl deserves Best Supporting, but American Idol girl will get it for her "Oh, gosh, I never imagined I'd work in Hollywood" shtick and Cinderella points for her come-from-behind-Simon-Cowell rise.

The Devil Wears Prada (Best Actress) -- I can't believe this is even nominated. I mean, I know, it's Merryl Streep, and she gives a role that could have been pure camp a lot more oomph. But still. This is a story about handbags and boyfriends. I forget, did Glenn Close get a nomination for her turn as Cruella Deville in 101 Dalmatians? Verdict: Streep goes 0 for 20 or whatever it is now.

The Last King of Scotland (Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor) -- It dragged at times, yes, but I think it could have been in there for Best Picture instead of Little Miss Sunshine. Forest was great. So was the Scottish guy. Verdict: O'Toole takes it -- the old guy edges the black guy on "I'm about to die, dammit" points.

Half Nelson (Best Actor) -- Another film that should have been up for Best Picture. Better than the Departed and Little Miss Sunshine, though sometimes it reminded me of an episode of The Wire. The dude looks uncannily like my friend Andrew Nash as well, so he had to overcome a major obstacle to convince me he was really a drug-addicted inner city schoolteacher. Verdict: It's not your night. (See above)

The Pursuit of Happiness (Best Actor) -- Thankfully, I didn't know this was a biopic about the founder of the Gardner Rich brokerage before I watched this, so I was able to suffer (audibly) through Will Smith's trials and tribulations as he tried to make it. Stellar performance, and a pretty decent movie, but this year it's a no go. Verdict: Nope.

Venus (Best Actor) -- This one should not only have been up for Best Picture, it should have won. This was the rarest of movies, that takes on the most important questions of "ordinary" life and whacks it out of the park. O'Toole was hilarious, completely convincing, extraordinarily charismatic, and on and on. Verdict: He can go to the grave with that damn naked statue.

can private schools save the poor?

An intriguing article by Clive Crook in the Atlantic points to James Tooley's research showing that 10-cents a day private schools for slum dwellers in India and other developing countries are outperforming government-run alternatives. But for political reasons the international community is ignoring the evidence. A seasoned opponent of private education--it's unfair, isn't it? all those little bastards in their deck shoes and preppy shirts....Perhaps I was scarred as a youth--I can't help wondering whether going private is a real alternative. The private schools for the poor are no doubt better than the government-run schools--if for no other reason than that they are accountable to the parents of the students. But how do they compare to the private schools for the rich? And doesn't giving up on government-funded primary education concede that the education received by the poor not only is but will always be vastly inferior to the one received by the rich? Call me an idealist, but I think even America's flawed model (schools are funded by property taxes, so residents of rich neighborhoods get rich schools and residents of poor neighborhoods underfunded schools) offers kids a fairer shake, though it creates tremendous pressure on young house-hunters to live in the right neighborhood.

The Ten-Cent Solution

Cheap private schools are educating poor children across the developing world—but without much encouragement from the international aid establishment.

by Clive Crook


I f good ideas were all that mattered, everybody who has heard of Jeffrey Sachs would have heard of James Tooley as well—but they aren’t, and you almost certainly haven’t. In fact, even if you are keenly interested in education, aid, or Third World development, which are Tooley’s areas of research, you still probably haven’t heard of him.

This is not because his work is dull or unimportant. His findings are surprising, and they bear directly and profoundly on the relief of extreme poverty all over the world. (Name me a more important issue than that.) The reason you haven’t heard of James Tooley is that his work is something of an embarrassment to the official aid and development industry. He has demonstrated something that many development professionals would rather not know—and would prefer that you not know, either.

Tooley is a professor of education policy at England’s University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Several years ago he was working as a consultant in Hyderabad, India, for the International Finance Corporation, an arm of the World Bank. One afternoon, while wandering around the alleys beside the Charminar (a sixteenth- century monument and Hyderabad’s best-known tourist attraction), he came across a school for the children of slum dwellers. To his surprise, he found that this was not a state school but a private one—providing education to the extremely poor and collecting fees (of a few rupees a day, or less than a dime) for its services. Intrigued, he kept looking, and found other, similar schools. They were typically small and shabby operations, sometimes occupying a single classroom, staffed in some cases by just the teacher-proprietor and an assistant. Yet they were busy—crowded with eager pupils—and the teacher was actually teaching. (This, Tooley knew, was not something you could take for granted in the classrooms of Indian public schools.)

F or years education officials in most developing countries (and workers in international aid agencies, too) have talked as though private education for the very poor barely existed. The only hope for equipping these unfortunate people with basic literacy and numeracy, they’ve said, was to improve the reach and quality of free, compulsory, state-provided schooling.

But that hope appears dim at the moment. Public schools in most poor countries, where they operate at all, have long been recognized to be ineffective. Teachers are frequently unqualified for their work. Perhaps worse, they are often uninterested in it: In many poor countries, teaching jobs are viewed as sinecures, and many teachers are disinclined to show up for work at all. They do tend to organize, however. Their salaries add up, and public schools in most developing countries make heavy demands on the public purse. The whole issue has therefore been seen as a daunting question of resources: Vast sums will be required to provide free universal education of tolerable quality in Africa and South Asia; there is no cheap alternative; and the help of foreign donors will be essential.

The many fee-based slum schools that Tooley saw within a few minutes’ walk of the Charminar made him wonder about all this. So he began researching the reach and performance of private schools for the extremely poor in India and elsewhere, supported not by an official agency but by the private Templeton Foundation. What he found was startling.

In Hyderabad, a city of more than 6 million people, Tooley and his team—confining their search to poor areas lacking amenities such as running water, electricity, and paved roads—counted 918 schools. Only about 40 percent were run or financed by the government; 60 percent were private. Of those, some were “recognized” by the government, but most were officially unknown to the authorities. These black-market private schools were smaller on average than the other kinds—but they still accounted for about a quarter of all the children in any sort of school. Remarkably, some of the slots in these private slum schools were offered free or at reduced rates: The parents of full-fee students, desperately poor themselves, willingly subsidized those in direst need.

This flourishing educational enterprise is all the more surprising once you understand that India has deliberately discriminated against private education—forbidding for-profit schools, for instance, and requiring schools to be run as trusts rather than proprietorships, and limiting their ability to borrow. Despite these handicaps, private education for the very poor has evidently thrived.

W hat Tooley stumbled onto in Hyderabad turns out to be typical not just of India but of all the other places he subsequently researched—including parts of China, Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria. In every case, private education is a principal lifeline for the abjectly poor. In the areas of Ghana and Nigeria that Tooley’s team has canvassed, an outright majority of poor children are attending private schools run without support from the government. Often, the schools are run by just a few teachers. They put out shingles in the way that physicians do in the United States, and are paid directly by their charges.

As Tooley relates it, the response of the international development community to his research has been less than enthusiastic. Even if private schools are much more prevalent than we had previously thought, he’s been told, they are obviously no good. Standards in such schools are bound to be low.

But the development community seems to be wrong about that, too. On the whole, dime-a-day for-profit schools are doing a better job of teaching the poorest children than the far more expensive state schools. In many localities, private schools operate alongside a free, government-run alternative. Many parents, poor as they may be, have chosen to reject it and to pay perhaps a tenth of their meager incomes to educate their children privately. They would hardly do that unless they expected better results.

Better results are what they get. After comparing test scores for literacy and basic math, Tooley has shown that pupils in private schools do better than their state-school equivalents—at between a half and a quarter of the per-pupil teacher cost. In some places, such as Gansu, China, the researchers found that private schools serving the poor had worse facilities than comparable state schools; in Hyderabad, they were better equipped (with blackboards, desks, toilets, drinking water, and so on). Regardless, the tests so far show that private-school students do better across the board.

Why have these findings been so reluctantly received? The answer is politics. The consensus on economic development—specifically, on the role of the state in promoting growth—cycles to and fro. At the moment, orthodox thinking embraces a leading role for the market in most areas of economic life. But in most developing countries, as in many rich ones (including the United States), schooling is widely regarded as quite another matter. Children’s education is higher than commerce. These realms must not be allowed to mix. Many development and education officials wish to enshrine free education as a universal human right. Education, in other words, is too important to be left to the market.

In this view, if state schools are failing, which nobody denies, they need to be fixed, whatever the cost. And this is how the challenge of education in developing countries is currently framed: Governments need to spend more on their schools. One could more easily sympathize with that view if the state systems were easily fixable. In many developing countries, certainly in India, it would be unrealistic to think so, even if one could say, “Hang the expense.” The problems seem systemic, not fiscal.

Most of those who campaign for greatly increased aid to poor countries would wish to see governments spend much of that money on state-run schools. The goal is admirable, but the method may be counterproductive. Tooley’s research suggests that small-scale support for private slum schools—through scholarship programs, backing for school-voucher schemes, or subsidized microfinance—might do far more good than a big aid push directed at government-run education.

Tooley has been publishing his research in education journals but has also written for libertarian and conservative think tanks. Unfortunately, these associations have pushed him further outside the development mainstream. Perhaps most alienating, his findings (as he notes) conform very well to the views of the late Milton Friedman, who spent the last years of his life arguing that publicly funded vouchers and a market of privately run competing schools were the way to fix another education system in urgent need of repair: America’s. All the more reason why, so far as some development officials are concerned, Tooley’s obscurity is welcome.

As for Tooley himself, he is now moving beyond research alone, preparing to embark on a new project: the management of a new $100 million fund to invest in private schools for the very poor in developing countries. Development professionals need not be concerned, however. The money is from a private foundation. It won’t waste any country’s aid budget.

The URL for this page is http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200703/crook-schools.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

will the patriot missile come to india?

Back in the day -- circa 1991 -- poverty compelled me to drink the so-called "king of beers" out of the economy-priced 40-ounce bottle. Red, white and blue, shaped like a keg with a cone on top, you can guess the nickname it acquired in the midst of Desert Storm. Yep. "The Patriot Missile."

Now I read that Anheiser Busch is opening up a JV brewery in Hyderabad, I can't help but wonder if their marketing geniuses (they must be smart to sell such terrible watery beer in such massive volumes) will scorn the metric system (American-style) and bring the Patriot Missile to India. Even without a front stoop to sit on and a brown paper bag to obscure the bottle, I might have to crack open a few, for old times sake.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

fullbright scholars to india upset over lengthy clearance delays and denials

in The Chronicle of Higher Education
New Delhi

The Indian government has delayed approving the projects of dozens of Fulbright scholars for months and has rejected some projects without explanation -- a move observers believe is an attempt to force the scholars to change their research topics.

The rejections and months-long delays have put a number of the scholars into professional and personal limbo, and have upset officials at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi and the United States Education Foundation in India, which runs the Fulbright program there.

"Through these delays and censorship efforts, the government of India is harming those Americans who have invested their careers and aspirations in the U.S.-India relationship," said Larry Schwartz, public-affairs officer at the embassy. "These are people who would have become India's most vigorous advocates in the U.S."

Of the 94 Americans awarded Fulbright scholarships to India for the 2006-7 academic year, only 17 received their clearances within six months of applying, according to Jane E. Schukoske, executive director of the educational foundation in India. Most of the rest experienced delays of five to 10 months.

As of mid-February, 10 academics were still waiting for their clearances, including seven whose initial applications were still pending and three who changed their research topics after being rejected. Some scholars who were rejected reapplied after changing their subjects while others decided not to reapply.

The research subjects rejected by the Indian government, without explanation, include studies of language ideologies in the schools of Mumbai, India's financial capital (formerly known as Bombay), to which millions of Indians from others states migrate; of democratization in Kerala, a southern Indian state where India's communist parties have been influential; and of Muslim women's perceptions of the role of women in society.

India's Ministry of Human Resource Development coordinates the proposal reviews, also called the visa-authorization process. That clearance precedes application for the visa itself. Until recently, said Ms. Schukoske, the ministry's Web site said that projects were usually approved within three months. Repeated calls to the ministry requesting comment were not returned.

Many scholars applied for their clearances in March 2006, expecting to begin their research in India by the end of August, but did not receive approval in time. An orientation program in New Delhi, typically scheduled for late August or early September, was canceled because of the delays. The clearance delays began with the previous year's awardees, only 54 percent of whom received clearances within six months.

"These delays have caused serious hardships for many of our scholars," said Ms. Schukoske, noting that the review process is at odds with the rest of the Fulbright experience in India. "Once scholars are cleared and begin their Fulbright grants, they enjoy warm welcome and energetically pursue their projects with support from their Indian colleagues."

A number of scholars who spoke to The Chronicle were both angered and perplexed by their treatment. Some of those still awaiting clearances had decided to come to India on tourist visas and sit out the waiting period here. Having left their full-time jobs in the United States and, in some cases, having no other means of support, they noted that, at least, living in India is cheaper.

"Frankly, my research is in jeopardy, and I've spent most of my savings, and I don't think I can afford to stay much longer," said Forrest Fleischman, who arrived in India in September on a tourist visa. In mid-February, he said, he was told that the Ministry of Home Affairs, one of several government agencies that screens the proposals, had placed "adverse comments" in his file.

"While there is no final word, it seems highly probable that my application is about to be rejected," Mr. Fleischman said. He had planned to focus his research on political empowerment and biodiversity protection in Kerala's agricultural ecosystem. The home ministry deals with matters of domestic security, and Mr. Fleischman says his project has no negative implications on domestic-security concerns.

"I've spent the last nine months planning my life around this project," he said. "I have made it the cornerstone of my graduate-school application -- and hoped to make it a core of my doctoral work."

Last September the Board of Directors of the educational foundation in India sent a statement of concern to the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Ministry of External Affairs, urging them to expedite the review process, and noting that many of the scholars "relinquished their normal duties or studies, and, in some cases, their spouses and children have left jobs and school."

Anupama Bhatnagar, a member of the foundation who is deputy secretary at the human-resource ministry, did not sign this statement. Ms. Bhatnagar did not return repeated calls made to her office by The Chronicle.

Aseem Sharma, a foundation board member who is president of Corning SA, India, said in a faxed message that he and others on the board had been in regular touch with the ministries since sending the letter. "I am not aware of any response from the ministries to the board," he wrote.

In December, 33 Fulbright scholars sent a petition U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, urging her to get involved in the matter.

"When we received our acceptance letters, we understood our selection to be a great honor and a prestigious career boost; for many of us, it has instead become a financially and emotionally debilitating obstacle," the petition says. The signers add that they have received no funding or accurate information that would help them plan for the future, and that many of them are without incomes and health insurance.

Secretary Rice did not respond to the letter, but Thomas A. Farrell, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for academic programs, said the United States had raised the problem with the Indian authorities "at an extremely high level."

In October Mr. Farrell met with the Indian chargé d'affaires -- the second in command at the Indian embassy in Washington -- to discuss the issue. Since then, he said, "we've gotten a substantial resolution of the problem." He added: "The backlog is virtually cleared."

Mr. Farrell characterized the problem as an "ongoing issue that has been around for a number of years." He said it had grown more acute as the number of American scholars seeking visas to India has grown. The problem does not represent any anti-American hostility on the part of Indian officials, he said. Instead, it is strictly "an issue of bureaucracy."

That is little consolation for those who have suffered through lengthy delays or failed to get their clearances. Tariq Tapa, whose documentary film project, "The Imaginary Princess: A Muslim Girl's Story," was rejected, decided not to change his subject and re-apply.

"Given the choice between either churning out a half-baked proposal just for the sake of getting back on the one-year merry-go-round with still no guarantee of success, or just walking away clean, I chose to walk," said Mr. Tapa.

"I spent years researching it and months preparing the proposal and building the contacts and context to give it integrity. Starting over from scratch and handing something in during the space of a few weeks was more than absurd; it was offensive, as if I were writing a thank-you note and not a graduate dissertation due in the time I promised my department."

Instead, Mr. Tapa, who said he began to suspect months ago that his project would be rejected, privately raised money to shoot his film. He came to India on a tourist visa last October, has begun shooting his documentary, and expects to finish on time, this April, as planned.
"But I am now required to begin repayment on student loans because I no longer qualify for an academic deferral," he said. "So, to be quite honest, becoming a Fulbrighter has been one of the most financially and emotionally regretful experiences of my life."

fullbright flap

The delay and denial of approvals for a great number of Fullbright scholars planning to conduct research in India has raised a ruckus here, occasioning a weeklong, frontpage series in the Indian Express, as well as editorials bemoaning the bureaucratic control over education, etc. etc. Shailaja's story in the Chronicle of Higher Education spells out the details.

Though India's move deserves criticism and the Fullbrighters our sympathy, one has to read this move in the context of America's increasingly paranoid visa policy, which has cut deeply into the arrival of foreign students in American universities, scuttled hundreds of business trips, and seen reputed scholars sent back to their country by barely qualified border personnel when they reached US shores. One case that made headlines was the turning back at the border of Govardhan Mehta, former director of the Indian Institute of Science. But as Fareed Zakaria points out in a recent Newsweek column, the obsessive, ineffectual and insensitive attention to security (is there any reason these initiatives need to be captained by the ignorant and the rude?) is already costing the US.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

reinventing bollywood (edited version)

By Jason Overdorf (Business 2.0 March 2007)


RONNIE SCREWVALA WALKED THE RED CARPET AT THE glitzy Dubai International Film Festival in December with Oliver Stone and Richard Gere. Westerners might have wondered who he was and why he deserved the company of two Hollywood luminaries, but anyone familiar with the Indian film industry would have understood. Screwvala, one of the leading movie producers in India, is bringing Hollywood-style filmmaking to the subcontinent. And U.S. moviemakers, desperate for new opportunities, want a piece of the action.

India's teeming film industry, known as Bollywood, is extraordinarily prolific. Indian filmmakers churn out 1,000 movies each year. Yet the industry grossed just $1.5 billion in 2005, and only a handful of movies made it to first-run theaters overseas. Compare that with Hollywood, which pumped out 563 movies that year and made more than $18 billion at the box office, including $9.6 billion from international distribution.

Why isn't Bollywood making more money? That question is the driving force behind Screwvala's company, UTV Software Communications. "Broadcasting [in multiple channels] started here in 1992, and it's already a $4 billion business," says the 49-year-old entrepreneur. "Yet this 100-year-old industry is still less than $2 billion. We have to grow." His solution is to revolutionize Bollywood--blow up the business model and replace it with traditional studio rules.

It's a huge job. Bollywood has always been a haphazard affair. Half a dozen prominent families controlled it, but they weren't very businesslike. Movies started shooting with no scripts and little money. Stars disappeared midshoot for weeks at a time to vacation, go home, or work on another movie. Theater owners underreported ticket sales to avoid sharing revenue with producers. It was nearly impossible to figure out whether a movie had made money and, if so, how much.

In addition, Indian story lines did not appeal to many outside the country. To the Western eye, Bollywood movies were chaotic, a surreal combination of Sylvester Stallone and Busby Berkeley musicals. In a typical plot, the hero sang, danced, fought bad guys, got the girl, found his long lost brother, and wept on his mother's deathbed--for at least three hours.

Screwvala broke into Bollywood in the late '90s, teaming up with anyone willing to work by his rules. UTV has produced a dozen movies with all the earmarks of professional filmmaking: budgets, marketing and distribution plans, real preproduction, and three-month shoots. The company distributes them worldwide and milks Hollywood-style ancillary revenue, from product placement to soundtrack rights and video-on-demand. Screwvala has also cut the running times and dumped the disorganized and stale story lines. His hit Rang de Basanti (The Colors of Spring) tells the story of India's disaffected urban youth; it also made more than $2 million in the United States. "We're breaking the mold," Screwvala says, comparing his experience to the days when Star Wars and other independent films paved the way for new genres in Hollywood.

Screwvala likes pioneering. The former game show host started his business career walking around Mumbai, asking apartment dwellers to try a newfangled gadget called a remote control. He got Indians to give up their single-channel, government-run television and brought cable to the country in the 1980s. He used the money from that to get into television production, making a steady stream of animated cartoons that attracted U.S. producers looking to outsource their own animation.

But all the while, he had movies on the brain. "Indians have always been voracious movie viewers," he says. "That's in our DNA. But we're as strong in commerce as we are in creative. It seemed to me that there was a huge opportunity here."

He was right. Now U.S. filmmakers, their revenue streams threatened by videogames, the Internet, and video-on-demand, knock on his door. This year, along with his Indian films, he's partnering with Sony Pictures and Fox Searchlight on movies starring Chris Rock and Will Smith, as well as an adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake. News Corp. and Disney bought stakes in UTV last year.

And Screwvala's plan is starting to bear fruit. In 2005, UTV took in $52 million--$32 million of it from movies--and turned a modest profit. That made it the second-largest producer in India, counting box office and ancillary revenue, a meteoric rise for an industry newcomer. And its "new" business practices are spurring changes at competing studios. Contracts, budgets, and balance sheets are more common. So are shooting schedules, bigger marketing budgets, and the exploitation of ancillary revenue. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, Indian films will generate $2.3 billion by 2010

UTV has many other ventures, including 15 straight-to-DVD movies, an animated feature co-produced with a U.S. company, and a U.S. television series. But Screwvala has yet to reach his ultimate goal. "We have a good relationship with Disney," he says. "I'm hoping it can help us get some of our films into Wal-Mart." Spoken like a true Hollywood producer, albeit with a distinct colonial accent.


Indians crank out nearly twice as many movies as U.S. producers but reap less than 10 percent of the revenue.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]


2005 films released




$1.5 billion



$18 billion

Sources: Box Office Mojo; MPAA; PricewaterhouseCoopers


Find a fragmented industry

Enforce standards and discipline

Grow the market via exports

Saturday, February 03, 2007

on the inheritance of loss

I've already criticized Booker-prize winner The Inheritance of Loss for being slight and dull. Over the last day and a half, which I spent reading fellow shortlister The Secret River by Kate Grenville, however, I began to think of Kiran Desai's book as far worse than I had initially.

My problem with Inheritance, I came to realize, was that it is a self-Orientalizing, feelgood novel, whose principal characters are all cute, cuddly brown folks who speak in a comical version of English and whose lives are tragic because they aspire to Western ways and Western standards of living and fail (inevitably, it seems is the implication). I presume that if a white person had written such a book in our postcolonial times, it would be blasted as patronizing and offensive.

Moreover, Inheritance fits among those books and movies (Life of Pi, Life is Beautiful) whose sole purpose seems to be to reassure us that all people are essentially good folk, that tragedy and comedy are one (a fellow coming home destitute, yes, but he IS coming home, returning, the book implies, to the place where he belongs--no upward mobility here!--and doing so in his cute and cuddly and humorous brown way, in some Auntie's nightdress stolen from a clothesline). Far from compelling us to look inward, to think hard about what we have made of the world, and acknowledge our own complicity in the countless evils that surround us--however good people we may be at heart--Inheritance and books like it allow us to close our eyes and conclude with great self-satisfaction that the poor buggers across the road are really quite happy; such a cuddly, resilient people they are, after all.

What is sad to me is not that people should enjoy reading such pallative fiction--I don't believe every piece of writing should be like a cruel mirror thrust into your face--but that the judges for what is meant to be a contest for serious literature have chosen to reward it and hold it above more deserving candidates that UNLIKE Inheritance of Loss are doing the work that literature is meant to do. This year, my not so humble feeling is that The Secret River does that in far more compelling fashion.

Now, every "literary" Indian will read Inheritance of Loss. The smart ones will say to themselves, "Well, I don't see what all the fuss is about," though ninety percent of them will say so shamefacedly, as if they can't possibly know as much as the brilliant Booker judges. Very few will pick up The Secret River--surely one of the most perceptive, excoriating and penetrating accounts of the brutality of colonialism that there has ever been. Literature is about moral choices, not just of the characters within the pages of books, but the moral choices and moral characters of readers as well. Safety-valve books, like Inheritance of Loss, that allow us to stand back from the moral issues at their core and say "that's not me" do not deserve our highest accolades. As riveting as a thriller, rumbling along with a growing sense of dread to a conclusion that will unsettle you for days after you read the last page, The Secret River is exactly NOT that sort of pallative fiction.

If you fancy yourself a literary person--or even if you don't--please, please, please read this book.

why i won't be buying windows vista

With all the hype about Microsoft's new Vista operating system--forecast to save the PC manufacturers from the doldrums of flat sales in the west and limited growth in developing countries--I took a moment to think about why the whole wide world have become such suckers. When Windows XP came out, were you that impressed? Was there any "Wow, this is so much better than Windows 98!" Has Microsoft Office improved since 1997? Have you enjoyed the endless security flaws and "critical updates" that you have to download, only later to discover that they cause more problems than they solve?

The answer is no.

So why then does everybody keep upgrading? The only reason there is a compulsion to upgrade is that classic teen justification: everybody else is doing it. I remember the day that was driven home to me, when I first faced compatibility issues with Office 97 and whatever version I'd been using. Fortunately, I was in Asia and able to pick up a pirated copy of the new stuff for less than $10. I had no qualms about it, despite all the propaganda telling me that piracy will kill babies in America and so forth. How could I? When it's so obvious that Microsoft has gone from exploiting its monopoly to kill its competitors to exploiting its monopoly to drive new sales--at highly inflated prices?

Soon, I hope, Google's model of online-based, pay as you go software will put an end to Microsoft's monopolistic practices. But the new system may not go far enough to make software free. And I'll say it now: If you are paying for software of any kind, you are an idiot. I know you won't believe me. You'll swear up and down that Windows and the expensive software that comes with it is imperative for your business/social life becasue you have to be compatible with all the other fools out there in cyberspace. You'll wax eloquent about how easy to use Windows is, with its plug and play functionality and other bells and whistles. And when I say the next word in this sentence--Linux--you'll roll your eyes and stop reading and say to yourself "Oh it's another one of those open source techie types."

That's right folks, six months ago I converted to Linux in the form of the easy to use "ubuntu" version. This is how I did it. I went onto the web using my Windows-based machine and downloaded the free software, burnt it onto a CD following the instructions available on the web site, wiped my laptop clean of Windows (it had crashed anyway so I'd just replaced the hard drive and was ready to restore all my old files), stuck the CD in the drive and fired it up. It took about 30 minutes to get ubuntu running as the operating system, with all the built-in hardware running normally except the wireless LAN card. No matter, I used a LAN cable to stay connected to the web and waited for ubuntu to run its automatic update software--as easy to use as Windows, or easier. Within 15 minutes more I was up and running.

That's right: 45 minutes and I was free of the Microsoft prison of pay and pay until we make things so difficult you have to buy a new PC altogther. I got OpenOffice, which is compatible with MSOffice and lets you set it up so it saves your files as Word, Powerpoint, Excel etc formats, for zero dollars. I got Firefox for zero dollars. I got a clone of Adobe Acrobat for zero dollars. I got a CD/DVD burner and media player for zero dollars. And on and on. When I needed software to read downloaded comic books, that was also free. All of these programs were as easy to use and as cool-looking as any of the software I've ever purchased, adn the ubuntu operating environment itself acted almost exactly like Windows. The only trouble I've ever had is with a few recalcitrant Indian web sites that (in very slavelike fashion) continue to work only with Internet Explorer and not Firefox--the most frustrating of these being the site of low-cost airline Air Deccan.

So I say, before you buy that pirated copy of Vista--I'd NEVER admit the possibility that you'll actually pay full price, when the Nehru Place distribution is so much more convenient--download a copy of ubuntu and install it on your machine. If you like, you can even partition your disk so that one portion can run on Windows when you so choose. See if it's really as hard to use as everybody says but the opensource advocates--I know, I know, they sound like they've been drinking the Kool Aid. See how much fun it is to pick up software from home, without the irritating trip to Nehru Place, for free instead of for Rs. 100-200 here and there.

I, for one, will never buy another piece of software again. Especially not Vista.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

let them watch cricket

Trying to break the habit of interfering with private enterprise, the government of India decided that cricket remained one area that it had to step in. Today the information and broadcasting ministry ruled that the private television channels that have bought the exclusive broadcast rights for Indian cricket will have to share their feed with the state-owned broadcaster Doordarshan in exchange for 75% of the ad revenue DD gets from the cricket ad spots.

Though it's good news for the poor who don't have cable, this is bad news for cricket because it devalues the broadcast rights and therefore reduces the amount available to pay players, build infrastructure etc., etc.

What should be done?

There's no need to prevent the poor from watching cricket, but the 75% sharing plan isn't sufficient because it divorces the market-savvy sales teams of the private channels from the product they are selling. Now DD can sell ads and share the money with the rightsholders, but the channel's not great at selling. Instead, if it so desires DD should be allowed to show the entire broadcast--ads and all--from the content owner, and the content owner should pay DD a cut from its ad revenue for the access it's getting to a few hundred million more TV sets.