Saturday, June 14, 2008

Excellence in India I

What Indians lacks is an ability to pursue excellence. It is not inculcated into us either by our parents or by our teachers. Nor is it inculcated into us by the society or the media. Many Indians grow up not knowing what excellence is. Instead, they learn the art of ridiculing excellence. And to cover up their inadequacies they get into a habit of celebrating mediocrity.

What is Excellence?

Excellence is not just about scoring high scores in an exam, or getting a top rank in an entrance; it is not about copying another painting exactly like its creator.

Just take a look at our roads. When we build our roads in India, we don’t to an excellent job. We just don’t know what it means to build excellent roads. One rain- and the entire road network of Bangalore get its potholes making it a terrain for a car rally. Each year, we go back to fixing the problem, but it never gets fixed. A population not used to experiencing the best roads does not demand better roads. We do not know how to make them better. Even if someone suggests a better way to improve roads, those ideas are not taken up.

Look at the quality of Indian movies. Though they have had more than fifty years of experience, they still do not know how to make an excellent movie (barring few exceptions). They don’t need to because the audience doesn’t demand it. The Indian audiences is quite OK watching any movie, even a crappy one, to give the producers huge profits. Even the promos do not reveal much expect some dance sequences. Most Indians watch those crappy movies anyway – they don’t care what it is about. Indian movies lack the finesse, the finishing, the tight script, the good editing that make a good movie. They lack in all the essential ingredients which make an excellent movie. They are always half-done, half-baked, loosely scripted, an eclectic collection of unconnected pieces. Indian audience which is not trained to appreciate excellence does not see the difference between a good one and bad one. Instead, we continue to celebrate mediocrity. Any award ceremony is going to illustrate this where even a crappy movie gets the best movie award.

Indian technology products are not the finest either. Many of the products are the run-of-the-mill, clich├ęd, and copies of products already made in the west. For example, take Tally, the most popular finance software sold in the market. It has been hailed as one of the best Indian software products. It is indeed ubiquitous in India, used by many CAs and finance people. The company which makes it has good revenues and is profitable for quite a long time. Though they continue to serve many customers with a product which is cheap and continue to increase their market share, they have not really gone all the way to make the product an excellent one. Just look at the GUI and look at the usability of this product. They are crappy. Look at the extremely unaesthetic display and downright ugly colors. They have never gone onto make it user-friendly and they have never made it look beautiful. We just don’t know what it means to make an excellent product.

Another example is the Ambassador car. For many years it was the most selling car in India, and yet, there were no improvements. There were no new releases. The shape, the model, the engine, the gear system, and everything else remained almost the same for decades. Only recently, when other cars were imported did we see some changes. Some people say, 'when it is perfect, why improve?' I say, that’s a good excuse for being lazy.

So, what is excellence anyway?

Excellence is about doing something the best, giving it your best, with a thorough dedication, passion and perseverance to achieve it. It is about dreaming something fine and something better each time and then going about realizing it.

It is a road that doesn’t break down every monsoon. It is a system which works efficiently, again and again, and on time, being convenient to all its users. It is a product which solves the users’ problem in the best possible manner. It is a process that continues to better the system. It is an airplane that realizes the dreams of the users and its inventors. It is a shaving blade that never cuts your skin and yet gives you clean shave every time. It is a printer that prints the best pictures at the best quality again and again. It is a government that continues to take care of its people’s concerns, solving their issues, and constantly providing better means and better methods to address people’s aspirations and needs.

You will know what ‘excellence’ is when you see it, provided you are trained to appreciate it.

18 comments:

  1. While I agree that we still have a long way to go in achieving excellence, I find that we Indians are not the only ones given in to mediocrity.

    I don't know about Tally, but a lot of American companies too produce mediocre software, depending on how you look at it. The Windows Vista that came with my laptop has a lot of bugs that has caused me immense frustration and sometimes it takes 5 minutes for the system to even shut down.

    On the other hand, I find that ICICI bank's web site is one of the most user-friendly and even beats that of two American banks with whom I have accounts.

    Also the lack of innovation in Ambassador is not because of Indian culture, but because of the policy of the govt till liberalization in the early 90's. With a license to produce only 10,000 cars per annum or so, it was barely break-even to keep the assembly line going, much less invest in R&D. Plus there was no incentive to innovate since there was no competition due to protectionist policies. A parallel example is the Trabant produced in E Germany which sucked even more than the Ambassador, while W Germany produced some of the world's best cars. This speaks more of the merits of free-market economics, not of the E German work ethic. Of course, in the last decade, there has been a number of innovations in the Indian auto industry, from companies like Tata and Mahindra. So if the right business climate is given, it is not like Indians wouldn't strive to create better products.

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  2. Our movie makers do not try to achieve their best mainly becuase of a lack of a discerning audience. When the audience is satisfied with two fight scenes, four dance sequences a few emotional dramas and a lot of star power thrown in, why will they want to improvise? Infact these kind of so called "commercial" movies not only have a good run, they also become big blockblusters. I've wondered if it is got to do with the average I.Q. of the population. Ours is around 87 while those of the Japanese and Koreans who make great movies is around 105.

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  3. Excellence is when you are focused on not just competition, audience and external motivations to make a masterpiece. It is a spiritual zen like race with oneself where you endlessly try to improve on your own last iteration.

    What is Excellence? Excellence is not just about scoring high scores in an exam, or getting a top rank in an entrance; it is not about copying another painting exactly like its creator.

    You are just explaining what it is NOT. It would help if you could answer your question with some examples of what excellence IS.

    Excellence examples:

    Tata Nano - iterate till you reach there. Awesome product. Did mediocre indians design it?

    Orchid Garden Eco-village - A wonderful example of how low IQ, mediocre indians create a great customer experience if they set their eyes on the right thing.

    Ravi Shankar: Sitar maestro - unbelievable excellence.

    Sachin Tendulkar: Unlimited excellence in action.

    You write Indians as if it is a group of four individuals who all share common traits. A guy from Meghalaya shares more in common with Koreans than a guy from Andhra.

    How much effort did you put to make this article excellent? Did you do enough research? Did you go through multiple iterations before you arrived at a master-piece? Did you just pressed that "Publish" button from the draft posts when you thought the article is may be far from perfect but good enough?

    Japanese and Koreans who make great movies :-) Awesome observation. What is your I.Q. by the way?

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  4. Hey Sudhar. Don't get too worked up. Sujai is just another house nigger trying to prove other niggers that he is fairer than them.

    Remember. White man hate native. Native bad. Me good native. Me also hate bad native. I more like white man.

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  5. Japanese make great movies. I excluded Western countries here specifically because people might say that the Indian tradition and culture shown in our movies cannot be appreciated by the West. I am not trying to insult Indians here or anything. All I'm saying is that we are not demanding enough as far as quality of movies are concerned. We do accept a lot of trash, a good example is the much hyped Shivaji. It was absolute crap and the people just lapped it up.

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  6. Japanese make great movies.

    Or maybe you get to see only the masterpieces/good ones that reach India. If you were to watch all the movies that Japan produces in a year and then compare them to what you think are "great movies" within that year, maybe it'd be the same percentage (or even less) as for Indian movies.

    Which is not to say that India cannot improve upon the movies it makes. But there are many directors making excellent movies too, and always have been. (Guru Dutt, Gulzar, Hrishikesh Mukerjee, Sai Paranjpe, Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Adoor G., Aparna Sen, Bimal Roy, Vishal Bhardwaj et al)

    A similar filtering effect comes into play when thinking of older movies from the 50s and 60s - the ones we get to watch and remember are the ones that have stood the test of time. If we were to watch *all* the movies that were made in the 50s (for example), our "old is gold" view would take a bit of a beating.
    -chirkut

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  7. Am talking about quantity versus quality. How many Indians movies are made per year? More than 800 I suppose? That amount is much bigger than Hollywood. Out of this deluge of movies, how many movies are watchable? You can count them on your fingers. Most movies we make are formulaic catering to the song and dance, fight routine that people watch. I have to add that regional movies fare better than Bollywood as far as quality is concerned. Bollywood is aboslute escapsim taken to a new high.
    How many Indian movies have made it to the foreign language category of Oscars for the past fifty years? Three. We can't keep saying that the Western audience can't understand our 'values', as we don't even qualify for the foreign language category in Oscars.
    We conduct award ceremonies for Hindi movies in other countries(iifa), we copy and plagiarise straight out of Hollywood, we make cross-over movies and movies targetting NRIs, we talk so much about globalisation, yet we say that the only reason the Oscars elude us is because the West does not understand 'our' sensibilites. Truth is there are univerrsal values that every human being can appreciate irrespective of nationality, color or language. We just don't strike a chord in that department as we focus heavily on cliches, song and dance rituals, gaudy and lavish spectacles, picture perfect surroundings and heroines, and an escapist storyline. A good example is a movie like Devdas which was sent to the Oscars. How do you expect people of any country to appreciate that trash?

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  8. I think the main problem has to do with the Indian obsession with songs in movies. For example, take the movie "Jab we met". A nice movie, well scripted. The only sore point was the songs. The songs simply didn't fit into the rest of the scheme of things and actually clashed badly with the situations. Without the songs, it could have easily been a good movie.

    More than a decade ago, Western audiences at some film festival found the critically acclaimed "Bombay" unwatchable with the songs, and asked for them to be removed.

    Unfortunately, in both cases, the songs have become immense hits. Which leads me to wonder, why don't we produce songs that have nothing to do with movies, just like in the West? Why do all Indian hit songs have to be part of movies?

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  9. rags, I don't feel the need that Indian movies have to "prove" their worth at the Oscars. You seem to be looking to the West (Oscars) to validate Indian movies.

    BTW, majority of the movies made in HW are also crap, cliched, sequels and remakes, and there are very few movies that get critical acclaim. Most of them show dysfunctional people and dysfunctional lives - maybe some people enjoy watching that, while others enjoy watching colorful and escapist movies. To each their own, and one is not "better" than the other - it's all subjective.

    Indian movies are made for Indians, and that's more important to me than to make a movie that international audience can appreciate. This plays into the thinking of looking to the West for approval and making movies to satisfy them. Why? Why do we have to constantly do things to appease the West, instead of making movies that are more tuned to Indian sensibilities, find inspiration from Indian literature and are made for Indians first?

    As I said in my earlier comment, I do think that there's room for improvement, but I don't care for an Indian movie making it to the Oscars as a parameter that'll prove that Indian movies have made it. To me, one Satyajit Ray is more than enough for many HW/Western directors combined.
    -chirkut

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  10. "rags, I don't feel the need that Indian movies have to "prove" their worth at the Oscars".

    Why not? Why don't we want to compete in an international arena? International recognition is very important if you want Indian cinema to be appreciated anywhere. Ok, the Oscars are West dominated, I can understand that. Is there any other film festival where Indians have "proved" their worth? Where Indian movies are critically acclaimed? Ok, if Western sensibilities don't understand "our" culture how come they are able to understand Iranian, Japanese, Korean and so many other foreign cultures?

    "majority of the movies made in HW are also crap, cliched, sequels and remakes, and there are very few movies that get critical acclaim"
    I agree with this. I am not holding Hollywood as a standard of comparison for all other movies.

    "This plays into the thinking of looking to the West for approval and making movies to satisfy them".
    The international arena of film making is heavily dominated by the West. Hence award functions too are heavily dominated by the west. Only when we come out and challenge them at their own game can we attempt to consolidate our position in world cinema. That is exactly what Japanese film makers are doing. We can't remain frogs in the well forever.

    "Why do we have to constantly do things to appease the West"

    This argument is pretty funny because Bollywood film makers are making movies which are straight rip offs from Hollywood, copying everything from songs to stories to scripts, infact Bollywood is copying Hollywood to please the Indian audience as they are scared that the dubbed Hollywood movies will simply outperform their desi movies. Do you see any sort of originality in this type of approach?

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  11. Why not? Why don't we want to compete in an international arena? International recognition is very important if you want Indian cinema to be appreciated anywhere.

    I could turn this question around and ask you why international recognition is so important to you? Looking for approval/validation from the West betrays a lack of confidence in one's abilities, and India sure doesn't need any approval from the West (which is different from learning/collaborating with other countries).

    I personally do not feel the need that an Indian movie has to be made keeping in mind international recognition - Deepa Mehta takes care of that department. Make *good* movies (like Satyajit Ray etc. did) and international recognition will come. Even if it doesn't come, it doesn't matter, as international recognition shouldn't be the sole - or the top - criteria for making a movie. BTW, you do know that the Oscars are heavily politicized, just in case you were thinking that Oscars are awarded only on the sole basis of merit.

    Do movies like Arth, Manthan, Ankur, movies by K. Viswanath, Balachandar, Adoor G, etc. stop being great if they haven't won any international recognition? I think not.

    You're probably watching a different set of movies than I am. I see plenty of promise in recent movies like Omkara, Black Friday, Maqbool, Dor, Teen Deewarein, RDB, Chak De India, etc. and the folks who directed them.

    Yes, I know about plagiarism in BW and I'm quite critical of it. But that's not what I'm talking about and it has no relevance to the crappy movies that HW makes which are lapped up by audience who mistake special digital effects for a good movie.
    -chirkut

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  12. " Balachandar, Adoor G"
    I have seen movies done by both of them. They are good film makers, I am not taking that way from them. Infact I love Balachander movies for their eccentricites.
    "Omkara, rdb, Chak De, Maqbool"
    I've seen these movies too . They are pretty good.All I am saying is quality movie makers are too few and far between. My point is quality versus quantity.

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  13. Isn't Omkara based on Shakespeare's Othello?

    To be fair to Indian movie makers, "quality" is a subjective notion. It should be realized that movie making is a business and producers make films which have the highest probability of commercial success. Only a few off-beat producers produce art movies for the sake of winning international awards. Hence it is a small wonder that most movies made in India are formula-driven.

    Regarding award winning Korean movies, how many of us watch those anyway? The audience for those is quite limited. Most Indians would rather watch Shah Rukh or Rani Mukherjee running around trees, singing love songs.

    I am not ridiculing that, btw. It has nothing to do with IQ. I know bright people who enjoy such masala movies and also not so bright people who like art films. As they say, "different folks for different strokes". I used to be a big fan of Rajni films (except for his recent ones), and we all know they are as much masala as one could possibly get.

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  14. Ledzius, Rags, et al:
    I don’t think I was discussing what ‘kind’ of movies. People from different cultures have different tastes and it makes sense to cater to those tastes in those local markets. Frito Lays has come up with many local flavors to suit Indians. Sometimes tastes rub onto each other. We in India may end up liking cola drinks while some English people end up liking curry.

    I don’t think I was discussing which flavor is better or which kind of movies is better.

    I was interested in how we end up making movies. For example, a pure fantasy play such as Matrix, or a parody of Kung Fu movies as done in Kung Fu Hustle, or comical figures such as Hulk, are exaggerations, not very different from our homegrown exaggerations created by Rajnikanth. However, these exaggerations are still palatable to a wider audience, not just the West, and the reason is the quality of movie-making which is quite impressive. A heavy-budget Hindi movie doesn’t seem to resonate with same quality- as seen in Devdas or Shivaji. Money is not going in the right place to make the movie better; the money is being used just to embellish the settings and backdrops.

    A Rajnikanth movie could be lapped up by Japanese audience. That means our movies could be taken up my others, but the quality of movie making in India is seriously fraught with incompetence, lack of seriousness, and frivolity.

    There is no demand to push the envelope to make things better. Though we have more than seventy years of movie-making experience, our movie making is still very immature. They look like school projects to be displayed during science fair exhibition, not the actual products that go into the market.

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  15. For example, a pure fantasy play such as Matrix, or a parody of Kung Fu movies as done in Kung Fu Hustle, or comical figures such as Hulk, are exaggerations, not very different from our homegrown exaggerations created by Rajnikanth. [..] A heavy-budget Hindi movie doesn’t seem to resonate with same quality- as seen in Devdas or Shivaji.

    Selective sampling size leads to biased conclusions. I could pick any movie from the Apu trilogy and the three movies that you admire above would fall way short. Or I could pick an Indian movie that has won critical acclaim recently and compare it to a trashy movie in the West to make a point.
    -chirkut

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  16. "It should be realized that movie making is a business and producers make films which have the highest probability of commercial success"
    .
    Isn't that the same the world over? Movie making is a business everywhere in the world. No one does movies for charity sake. Then how do film makers of other countries which produce significantly less amount movies able to produce critically acclaimed movies? We are the world's largest producer of movies. We actually have an edge compared to the other developing countries while making movies as so much of money gets invested here. Shouldn't we be getting better products?

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  17. Rags, "critically acclaimed movies" are not always commercial successes and also vice versa. Omkara which was critically acclaimed, failed at the box office. On the other hand, OSO, a masala movie, became an immense hit.

    As Sujai pointed out, Indians have different tastes compared to Western or Japanese audiences. If Indians prefer watching corny romances with a lot of songs, then that's what the producers are going to produce. You cannot really blame them for that.

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  18. For Indians "Excellence" is a spot of applause. For example ShahRukh Khan or Amithabh Bachchan are "excellent" actors because you can applaud loudly in their movies. A gold medalist is an "excellent" student because you get applause when you get a gold medal.
    A coachimng class is "excellent" because it churns out "rank" holders another reason for applause.
    IIT" is excellent because you get good salaries after graduating from there another reason to applaud....

    In the Indian mind "Excellence" and "Quality" are not connected at all.....

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