Hindi Medium

English medium types like me read an Oscar Wilde short story called The Model Millionaire in school. The story is about how Hughie Erskine, despite being poor, gives away whatever little he has to somebody who he thinks is an old beggar.

Irrfan Khan-starrer Hindi Medium has elements of that story. The film portrays in stark contrast the nobility of a poor family against the pettiness of a rich couple. It conveys many truths about sections of India’s new (and old) urban elite.

The title of the film refers to the Hindi-language education of the two main characters in the story. One of them has an inferiority complex because of an inability to speak in “proper” English. Though they are wealthy, their educational and particularly non-English language background marks them as misfits in Delhi’s high society circles. Hindi Medium is about the social dynamics of being newly rich in a still-clubby urban India, and on the social challenges faced by the urban poor.

The film also shows how elite schools have become less about learning, and operate more like social clubs that have signaling value. It’s almost as if becoming a part of that club gives confidence – and connections – to an individual. Obviously, this is not what an educational institution should be about.

But the confidence factor matters. Believing it’s possible to succeed is the first step to actually being able to succeed. Developing that confidence, especially when you are an “outsider”, is not easy. The insanity of school admissions shown in the film is not exaggerated. It is particularly bad in cities like Delhi, and this is a problem created by bad regulations. The shortages are manufactured, as government clamps down on supply.

Government schools in a India are bad because teachers and administrators have no incentives to do any better. There is practically no accountability in the government school system. Consumers are choosing private schools because those schools deliver better learning outcomes for students. If they don’t deliver a good product, private schools will lose their customers. Unlike government schools, private schools go out of business, so they have a strong incentive to keep doing better.

The Union and state governments are doing the opposite of what they should do – rather than reducing entry barriers and making it easier for new schools to enter the marketplace, large numbers of existing private schools are being shut down across India. This hurts the poor the most, as they are forced to go back to the ineffective government schooling system they finally had the chance to escape.

The policy issues here are complex and multi-faceted, and this is where the film’s solution to the problem is wrong. Everybody sending their children to government schools will not improve those schools – for government schools to change, the incentives for those schools have to change. There needs to be accountability. There are very good reasons why the rich and poor alike wish to send their children to private schools. But I’m delighted somebody made a film like this, and that it is being watched and appreciated widely in India.

It is a movie with a great message, delivered in an entertaining way. These lines from a song in the film capture the spirit of India’s new generation and why the new India has achieved escape velocity:

इक जिन्दड़ी मेरी, सौ ख्वाहिशाँ

इक इक मैं पूरी कराँ

मुिश्कल हुमें रोकना !

Not Just Luck By Chance

This is Part 2 in a two-part series on Bollywood and Entrepreneurship. Read the first part here

Conviction: In recent times, one of the best films about the film business was Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance, released in 2009. It tells the story of Vikram Jaisingh, an aspiring actor, and his efforts to make it in Bollywood amidst cut-throat competition. Vikram believes that success and failure are simply choices people make. In a dramatic scene, his girlfriend breaks down when she learns that she has been overlooked for a lead role in a movie she had spent years chasing. Vikram tells her that so far you’ve believed in and relied on others, now believe in yourself.

He tells her that opportunities are not found, they are created. Apne raaste par chalte raho, chalte raho…dheere dheere saari duniya tumhare raaste par aa jaayegi (Keep traveling your chosen path, gradually the whole world will start following you on that path), says Vikram Jaisingh. Played expertly by Farhan Akhtar, Jaisingh goes on to become a superstar. The movie keeps the viewer guessing whether he was just lucky or “created luck” by sheer hard work, drive and conviction.

Conviction is indispensable for entrepreneurs, particularly the truly innovative ones. Success is elusive and hard to come by. When starting out, family, friends and everyone around you wish you well but they also harbour doubts. Personal conviction is paramount, but it is also very important for entrepreneurs to have a mentor and guide who has unfailing conviction, someone who can advise and course-correct when required while believing in the dream. While it’s difficult justifying a stressful lifestyle and long work hours indefinitely without showing some accomplishment; as an old saying goes, the distance between madness and genius is only bridged by success.

Contentment: Clarity, confidence and conviction mutually reinforce each other, eventually leading to breakthroughs. A hint of success and achievement can alter public perceptions. The idea of the personal computer was considered outlandish, but the entrepreneurs who pushed its development are part of business legend today – history is replete with many such examples.

Success and recognition are accompanied by pitfalls, and they can breed a sense of contentment. Contentment breeds a stasis that can destroy an organization. Again, the role of a mentor who helps maintain the entrepreneur’s focus and passion is critical. Contentment can quickly undo the positive effects of the other three Cs. The biggest risk is not taking enough risks.

The hunger and drive never really dies in effective entrepreneurs. In the movie Guru, Gurubhai asks his shareholders whether they want to become the largest company in the world, now that the company is the largest in India. Vikram Jaisingh describes a friend working in theater as “content” – after working in theater for several months, he had achieved some success and was unwilling to rock the boat.

When entrepreneurs combine the first three Cs and ward against the fourth, stars are born.

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Guru, Deewar and My Lessons From Bollywood

I’ve written earlier about the parallels between film-making and entrepreneurship. Much like management guru Philip Kotler’s 4 Cs for marketing, we can also define 4 Cs for entrepreneurship, and these can be illustrated with scenes from Bollywood movies.

 Clarity Intellectual and operational clarity come from continuous effort and relentless application. In Mani Ratnam’s Guru, which is an unofficial biopic of Reliance founder Dhirubhai Ambani, the protagonist Gurukant Desai, also known as Gurubhai, is asked to defend himself from charges of tax evasion and bribery in front of a government investigation panel. Gurubhai begins his speech by asking, Khada ho jaaoon, ya iske liye bhi license chahiye? (Should I stand up, or do I require a license for that too?). He goes on to question the very legitimacy of India’s now-infamous license-quota-permit Raj and government interference in the economy, which strangulated entrepreneurs through the 1970s and 1980s, and continues to constrain entrepreneurial activity today:

In the full glare of the media and a powerful, antagonistic government commission, Gurubhai unapologetically explains why he did what he did, and how his actions were necessitated by government policy. He is able to hold his own and emerges triumphant because he has an uncommon clarity of purpose. He rejects the charges of government, saying he does not feel the need to apologize for building a world-class business. Agar paisa ban sakta tha, to maine banaya hai (If money could have been made, I made it), he says.Confidence Kishore Biyani, founder of Pantaloon Retail, was asked at the TiE Entrepreneurial Summit in Mumbai last year what he felt like when deep-pocketed companies like Reliance Industries entered the retail industry. Mr. Biyani gave a pithy reply – he recalled the confrontation scene between Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor from Yash Chopra’s classic Deewar, released in 1975. Amitabh Bachchan chastises his younger brother for being impractical and idealistic. He tells him that his honesty and commitment have earned him no material gain, to which Shashi Kapoor delivers one of the immortal lines from Indian cinema, Mere paas Maa hai (I have my mother).

Kishore Biyani, known to be a movie buff, invoked the scene in the context of his response to seemingly unbeatable competition. He paraphrased Mere paas Maa Hai to Mere paas Indian consumer ki understanding hai (I understand how Indian consumers think and behave). That was his competitive advantage, and he was quite unperturbed despite the perceived threat to his business because he knew his strengths and weaknesses well.Entrepreneurs typically don’t have enough resources, they have to be resourceful. Just money doesn’t always do the trick – and this applies as much to startups as it does to large companies attempting to do something path-breaking. It has been several years since Reliance and others entered the retail industry – while Pantaloon has managed to scale and grow profitably, the deep-pocketed contenders continue to struggle.This is part 1 in a 2-part series on Bollywood and Entrepreneurship.

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