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February 27, 2007

Keepin' It Surreal, Desi Style

From Valleywag/PEHub comes this sad tale:

Sequoia Capital obtained a restraining order against Anand Lyer Vaidyanathan, an Iowa man who repeatedly tried to gain access to investor Michael Moritz at the firm’s Sand Hill Road Offices and later claimed he worked there.

Vaidyanathan went to Sequoia’s offices five times during the last week in October and the first week of November 2006, according to testimony from a private investigator hired by the firm. On his first visit, Vaidyanathan asked to meet with Moritz about an investment opportunity. On subsequent visits, he asked about employment at the firm. The receptionist asked him to leave, but he often remained in the lobby for extended periods of time.

Vaidyanathan returned on November 27, handed the receptionist his bank deposit slip and waited in the lobby while the Sequoia team called the police, according to the PI’s testimony. The police arrested Vaidyanathan for trespassing. At the time of his arrest, Vaidyanathan told police the receptionist had made a mistake: that he was actually an employee of Sequoia Capital, according to the PI’s testimony.

Given the rush of VC firms to invest in India lately, perhaps Mr. Vaidyanathan might have had more luck at Sequoia Capital's India offices in Bangalore. Uttering the magic words "middle class", "mobile" and "wi-max" seems to open quite a few doors in the overheated market down there ;-)

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- February 27, 2007 10:46 AM // Bay Area , Technology

February 14, 2007

Asian American Chick Lit

In Jeff Yang's article in the Chronicle regarding Asian American chick lit, there's this observation from author Anjali Banerjee:

"The first book I wrote was actually a pretty straight romantic suspense novel, called 'Night Train Home,'" says Banerjee. "It didn't have any Asian characters and was quite honestly a pretty bad book. But the primary critique I got from agents was that it wasn't 'different' enough: It wouldn't stand out from the hundreds of other works of contemporary women's fiction already being published. And so I decided to tap into my own ethnic background, my own cultural experience, to give my next book a more distinctive flavor."

And:

Which didn't stop Publishers Weekly from calling "Imaginary Men" "'Monsoon Wedding' meets 'Bridget Jones's Diary.'" "Hey, I have no problem with that," laughs Banerjee. "I'd be delighted if everyone who watched 'Monsoon Wedding' and bought 'Bridget Jones's Diary' also bought my book. Unfortunately, there are people out there who see an Indian on the cover of a book and won't buy it. They'll be like, 'Oh, this book isn't meant for me.' It's a bit of a catch 22: You want to be able to write something distinctive, but you also want to have people recognize that there are broader themes in the work, that the work is universal."

The dilemma is captured beautifully here: to be exotic or not, and if so, how much?

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- February 14, 2007 8:07 PM // Books

February 10, 2007

Netflix, "Watch Now" and Bollywood

Netflix made waves last month by launching "Watch Now", their snazzy Video On Demand feature. The New York Times reports

Netflix-by-Internet, in other words, is deliciously immediate, incredibly economical and, because it introduces movie surfing, impressively convention-shattering.

It will not, however, change the way most people watch movies in the short term, for many reasons.

First, it works only on Windows PCs at the moment; a Macintosh version is in the works.

Second, only 1,000 movies and TV shows are on the Play list. There's lots of good, brand-name stuff here -- ''Zoolander,'' ''Chinatown,'' ''Jaws,'' ''Sleepless in Seattle,'' ''Twister'' and so on -- but Netflix's lawyers and movie-studio negotiators have a long way to go before the number of movies online equals the number of DVDs available from Netflix (70,000). Still, the company says that at least 5,000 movies will be on the list by year's end. So far, the sole holdout among major movie studios is Disney, perhaps because of its partnership with Apple's movie service.

Netflix is rolling out the service over several months, so not all subscribers can access it the first time around. For those wishing to jump the queue, however, Hacking Netflix describes a possible workaround. It worked for me and I was able to check out the service. First, kudos to Netflix for an impressive start and a very cool online viewing model - I've now upped my subscription level to five discs out at a time. Next, Netflix wasn't kidding when they said the number of online titles are limited. I actually counted them last weekend (my list of all the "Watch Now" titles are here) and it came to around 750. This includes such classics as Mulva 2: Kill Teen Ape! and Bad Movie Police Case #2: Chickboxer. Okay, okay, I'm kidding! As NYT points out, there is good stuff (and many documentaries and old Doctor Who episodes) in there. The good news is Netflix is continually adding new titles. Consequently, this week I see new items such as Round Midnight that I didn't find last week. I was surprised, however, by the Asian fare on offer. Here are the Indian related films I could find on the "Watch Now" list:


Aadmi Sadak Ka (1977)
Aamne Saamne (1967)
Aas (1953)
Abhimaan (2000)
Barsaat Ki Raat (1960)
Basant (1960)
Baton Baton Mein (1979)
Bhagam Bhag (2006)
Bollywood / Hollywood (2002)
Charno Ki Saugandh (1988)
Charulata (1964)
Chhalia (1960)
Chhote Nawab (1961)
China Town (1962)
Chirag Kahan Roshni Kahan (1959)
Dayar-E-Madina (2006)
Dharkan (1972)
Door Ki Awaz (1964)
Dus Lakh (1966)
Ek Mahal Ho Sapno Ka (1975)
Ek Phool Do Mali (1969)
Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (1986)
Ek Saal (1957)
Ghar Ek Mandir (1984)
Ghar Ghar Ki Kahani (1970)
Howrah Bridge (1958)
Immaan Dharam (1977)
Inaam Dus Hazaar (1987)
Jaali Note (1960)
Jai Santoshi Maa (1975)
Joi Baba Felunath (1978)
Kapurush (1965)
Kitaab (1977)
Lakhon Ki Baat (1984)
Lakhtar Ni Ladi Ne Vilayat No Var (2006)
Maa-Baap (2006)
Madhubala Song Compilation (2006)
Madine Ki Galian (2006)
Mahal (1949)
Mahapurush (1965)
Mamta (1966)
Meharbaan (1993)
Nanha Farishta (1969)
Nayak (1966)
New Delhi (1956)
Night in London (1967)
Prem Geet (1981)
Pyaar Ka Saagar (1961)
Pyar Mohabbat (1966)
Ram Aur Shyam (1967)
Rishta Kagaz Ka (1983)
Sara Akash (1969)
Saraswati Chandra (1968)
Swarg Narak (1978)
Swarg Se Sundar (1986)
Swayamwar (1980)
Thodisi Bewafaii (1980)
Us-Paar (1974)
Vachan (2006)
Zahreelay (1990)

That's about 61 titles out of 750, or about 8%. Not too shabby, particularly as the number of non-desi Asian titles on offer are minimal. As a matter of fact, I only counted Ghost In The Shell and Ninja Scroll but there could be more by now. On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by the Satyajit Ray films available online (Nayak, Kapurush, Mahapurush, Joi Baba Felunath, Charulata). The print on these will, hopefully, be better than the scratchy VCD transfers.

Look at the Bollywood titles, however, and a pattern starts to emerge. There are some real oldies here. Don't be fooled by the release dates on some of the titles - those aren't correct. In fact, there's nothing here from the past ten to fifteen years. Other than Abhimaan and the Satyajit Ray films I didn't see very many of what you would call classics either. In fact, it's mostly filler.

I'm sure a lot of this is due to the difficulties in obtaining broadband rights from the distributors. However, as I noted earlier, desis tend to be tech savvy in these things (just check out some the desi torrrent sites if you don't believe me) and, in fact, were early Netflix adopters. "Watch Now" can be a real trendsetter here too. If I was a desi grocer depending on renting out Bollywood titles for a lot of ancillary income, I wouldn't be worried just yet. But that could change soon if Netflix play their cards right.

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- February 10, 2007 7:56 PM // Bollywood , Diaspora , Film , Technology

Brown Power or Kung Fu? - Hollywood Tries To Pick

Variety writes about the ongoing debate in Hollywood regarding where to invest next. India or China?

Nearly a decade ago, Sony opened a Chinese-language production office in Hong Kong. But the unit has had trouble finding success on the scale of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." In fact, it hasn't made a movie in the past two years.

By contrast, India has proven bountiful for Sony Entertainment Television, which has become an established TV player in the country and is now expanding from movie buyer into local production.

Kaiju Shakedown elaborates more on the difficulties facing Hollywood in China:

China is the world’s biggest movie market but with four times the population of the United States it only has 2,396 movie screens, one fifteenth of America’s 38,000. Hollywood is eager to sell movies to what it views as an underserved market, but China only allows 20 foreign movies to be imported each year. Hollywood wants to increase the screen count by building multiplex chains across rural China, but China won’t allow foreign companies to own more than 49% of cinemas outside of the seven major cities. Hollywood is desperate to stamp out piracy, but China’s efforts to cooperate are sporadic at best. And so China is the beautiful, unattainable market that drives Hollywood crazy.

China does its best to flummox its suitor. Their State Administration of Radio, Film and Television is a massive Mao-era bureaucracy that operates like an eccentric uncle.

They recently baffled the world by banning all foreign movies that mix live action and animation, such as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “Space Jams”. Then they ruffled feathers further by yanking “The Da Vinci Code” from theaters at the peak of its successful run, with no explanations given.

In addition to being more open, India offers a number of additional advantages. From Variety:

  • Due to a wave of multiplex construction, the theatrical market is expanding. That's allowing the first steps toward nationwide (rather than state by state) releasing.
  • The pay TV market may boom if mandatory set-top decoders allow subscription revenues to flow to rights owners, rather than mom-and-pop cable pirates. The country is expected to have five DTH satellite platforms by the end of 2007.
  • The development of an organized retail sector of chain stores and supermarkets is driving growth of home entertainment, even as it looks wobbly in the rest of the world.
  • With cell phone numbers growing at more than 5 million per month, mobile entertainment is delivering real gaming and music returns. Because TV penetration is low compared with other, more developed countries, including China, some analysts expect mobile ownership to even outstrip TV.

Other distribution channels like Madhouse and SeventyMM are also emerging. Both adopt the Netflix model with one crucial difference - DVDs are not delivered by mail (the public mail service is utterly unreliable) but via private courier services.

However, as Variety notes, all is not peachykeen in the Indian market. Roadblocks remain:

India's big drawback has been that the level of overall economic development is significantly behind China and its entertainment industry is largely isolated from the rest of the world. Local-language movies account for 95% of the box office, and the soundtracks of Bollywood dominate the music industry.

...

Indian regulators are just as capable of infuriating congloms. Barely a month had passed after a new policy was put in place for mandatory conditional access systems, or set-top boxes, in order to curb cable TV theft by mom-and-pop pirates. But then regulators decreed that pay channels should not be allowed to charge more than 1 rupee (2 cents) per month, in order that the poor also can afford their shows.

Appeals are ongoing, but the notion that either country will enact reforms for the benefit of foreign interests is somewhat ridiculous.


In the big picture, however, the Indian film industry still lags behind that of China in the global sweepstakes:

Although Bollywood is bigger in absolute terms, the Chinese industry has been more successful on a world scale.

"The Chinese films generally have had larger success outside of China than the Indian pictures have had outside of India," says Sony's Michael Lynton. "The market outside India is largely people who are part of the Indian diaspora."

True enough. That's why, while all the cine buffs keep track of Zhang Yimou's latest release (Curse of the Golden Flower), events like Dhoom 2 racking up close to a million bucks in the USA over Thanksgiving weekend while playing in just a handful of screens, continue to surprise. I'm not saying the film is any good mind you - but it just goes to show the power of the brown dollar (and rupee for that matter) cannot be underestimated.

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- February 10, 2007 11:46 AM // Bollywood , Diaspora , Film , India , TV

February 3, 2007

Colbert vs Bollywood & Viacom vs GooTube

A couple of days back, I posted two clips where Stepher Colbert of The Colbert Report ran through a celebrity matchup between the Big B (Amithabh Bachchan) and King Khan (Shahrukh Khan). Now, as it happens, The Colbert Report happens to be a show on Comedy Central which is owned by Viacom . The clips in question were posted to YouTube.

Unless you're tuning in from Ulan Bator, you can see where this is going. On Friday, Viacom asked Google owned YouTube to remove a whole bunch of clips from their site. YouTube evidently has complied. Speedily actually. The clips I linked to are no longer available. If you click on them, that's what it says. The funny part is this: as of the time this post was written, you can still find the same clips on Google Video! Here goes:


and ...

Nice. I wonder how many of the other clips that YouTube have taking down can still be found on Google Video? I'm sure GooTube can claim they are complying with Viacom's request - after all, Viacom asked clips to be removed from YouTube, not Google Video. Still, Google owns both services, so it can't be that difficult to remove titles from the in-house one, can it? Perhaps it's just the principle of it - after all, Google's position is they are doing nothing wrong, so why should they delete anything unless they are specifically asked to? Or perhaps they just haven't gotten around to it yet.

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- February 3, 2007 7:04 PM // Bollywood , Technology