Being an actor

There are actors who step into a role with consummate ease and make it so much their own that its impossible to envision what the plot would be without them.

I can never think of James Bond without Sean Connery. I recall with perfect clarity the pent-up excitement with which my older sister and I would go along as schoolgirls with our Dad, to watch it in the theatres. We have never since bonded (sic) with any of the others who reprised this role after Connery. Last June when I visited Edinburgh, I was as devastated as a teenage groupie to find that I had missed the great man’s public appearance by just a day. So near…

Last week, when I watched Bangalore based author, Anita Nair’s maiden attempt at writing a play, I was drawn in by one character. I was familiar with the script as the first reading of Nine faces of being while it was a work-in-progress was done in my courtyard in April 2010, as an initiative of ‘Under the Raintree’. Nair, an acquaintance of many years standing, had just completed the first draft of the adaptation of her own novel, Mistress and had requested ART to help her visualize the play.

Obviously then, I had a connect with the play that debuted at Jagriti. When I had learnt that Prakash Belawadi would be playing the role of old Koman, the weathered by time and experience Kathakali dancer, I knew it was a good thing for the play.

I have known Belawadi from the time I was sixteen; his older sister was my senior in college and she was one of my idols. Prakash was not in our college, National College, Basavangudi (where I did my pre-university or plus 2) but he was always hanging around the place. When I was in my first year there, I got to play the part of Shaari in Chandrashekhar Kambhar ‘s bold  drama Jokumaraswamy. Belawadi’s Dad, the legendary Make-up Nani who had kindly agreed to come and do our make-up (no effort in theatre was too trivial for him, I guess), had to cancel at the last minute and Prakash stepped into the breach. That was the first time I actually met him and after fits of teenage giggles, which left him with shaky hands, I recall my older sister taking over to do my make-up.

Years later, I met him again while I was a reporter with Deccan Herald and he was with Indian Express. He, like many of us, was a huge fan of Allen, whom I was lucky enough to marry later. In later years, we were only marginally in touch. In December 2009, when I wanted to launch Allen’s novel Sentinel House, it was Prakash who made it all came through as part of Bengaluru habba at Ranga Shankara. He made a splendid speech that evening, imitating Allen’s mannerisms brilliantly and turned what could have been a maudlin posthumous launch into a mirthful affair, the way Allen would have wanted it.

All of the above personal digressions are to establish that I do have a soft corner for Belawadi.  Notwithstanding this, I can be an impartial critic and I could not fault a single thing about the way he enacted the role.

I was bowled over by the man’s masterly acting. Simple mundu and veshti, kohl-lid eyes (dancer !!) , his diction, the pitch of the dialogue, the expressions which flitted from the self derisory to lightly mocking and later to real concern…you owned the stage, my friend.

prakash belawadi

How short is short enough?

When I don my editor’s cap, I’m constantly tussling with my writers and assistant editors about the use of abbreviations. I maintain that it is perfectly fine to use ‘won’t’, ‘I’m’ and others of their ilk in magazines and websites. But I am not for using them in books, except when they are part of a dialogue and then only because it would sound distinctly odd for a character to say, “I do not” in casual conversation instead of “I don’t”.

Over the last few years, many of my colleagues in journalism and publishing have bemoaned the way interns and trainees seem incapable of using English that is not ‘sms’ language. And I have shaken my head and sighed and we have sipped our g and t’s or our coffees with perfect empathy.

I have had a revelation of sorts recently, and having done some rapid re-ordering of my opinions, I now wonder if we are in fact stumbling blocks in the path of progress.

Most people know that ‘goodbye’, evolved or grew shorter from ‘God be with you’. But did you know that for a fairly long time it was spelt as ‘Godbwye’. Bill Bryson, in his compelling book ‘Made in America’, points out many such examples of the evolution of language.  I hail this as the precursor to the sms text that u n i use.

In India, we routinely follow what is termed as UK English. In my firm, while providing content to a client, one of the key questions is if they want it in UK or US English, the latter obviously for clients based in the US and Indian technology companies that target a global audience.

UK English has hiccupped its way along and it seems to me that we are holding on to the Empire’s coat tails with an iron grip. I think it’s time to relax it – the way to keep a language alive is to let it grow. If Americans could give us perfectly sensible words like ‘frostbite’ to replace ‘chilbains’, ‘bedspread’ instead of ‘counterpane’, there is a strong case to be made for simplifying language. To take this point further, language is all about communicating. So if the effort and the time to do so are minimized, it ought to be welcomed in an age when all of us seem to be gasping for time to breathe.

This does not mean bad grammar or spelling mistakes should be ignored but if a new generation develops a new lingo that will animate the language, I, for one am all for it.

Let’s take baby steps though. So if you are wondering about slipping in such references as ‘btw’ into your next PPT, a word of caution:  I would still use the short lingo only in text messages or informal emails. I would use the language in the hitherto accepted way in formal communications and publications that we put out.


Writing with a purpose

If I had hundred rupees for every bad introductory letter / formal mail I have ever read, I could go out for a champagne dinner each week!

Organisations need to write such letters/ mails for several reasons.  It could be to seek an appointment for a meeting, to invite a VVIP for an event, to get publicity for a cause or sponsorship for an event.

The basic objective is to get a foot into the room, and then get 10 minutes to pitch your case. Often though letter writers put the cart before the horse and start making their case before they have even got the attention of the person they seek.

Your introductory formal letter is a reiteration of your brand and you have to get all the nuances just right.

Common mistakes:

  • Making your letter too long.
  • Recapping your or your organisation’s pedigree in exhaustive detail.
  • Exaggerated claims of superiority over every other player in your field.

A letter that will get you a hearing or least merit a reply would have to:

  • Fit into one printed A4 page with enough space on top and bottom for the salutations.
  • Crisply introduce yourself and your organization.
  • Make valid and credible assertions.

Try it and let me know how it goes!

Making the most of meetings

If you are a business owner or a manager, check if you are in fact enabling your consultant and/ or agency to do their job.  Absurd as it might sound, clients often derail meetings when they ought to be maximizing time efficiency.

As tempting as it might be to hold forth to a captive audience about unconnected issues, (your associates have no choice, they are bound to sit and listen to your digressions), do not use meetings as ego-boosters. They are a colossal waste of time.

A little small talk is good and conducive to fostering a friendly working relationship.  But make sure work gets top priority, and does not become an also-ran.

Clients who are prepared for a meeting and stick to a clear-cut agenda will use the collective energy and time productively to set objectives and deadlines, chart progress and measure results.

Breathing free

Not many in the media gave adequate coverage to this pubic service message from Breathefree, a Cipla initiative on the eve of Diwali.

I’m reproducing excerpts here as I find the release a true example of a company using the the information platform in a responsible way. There’s no overt touting of medicines, rather it emphasises preventive care. Perhaps they can send it out to all schools and colleges just before next Diwali?.

“Research by the Chest Research Foundation (CRF) – Pune, shows that the burning of fire-crackers increases the level of sulphur dioxide 200-fold above the safety limits prescribed by World Health Organization (WHO). This gaseous air-pollutant along with other noxious gases emitted from the burning of fire-crackers aggravates the risk of triggering an attack in 30 million asthmatics in India and also has the potential to cause new cases of asthma.

Fireworks are one of the provoking factors for childhood bronchial asthma, particularly in children between 6-12years and it has now been established that 26% of people without any prior history of respiratory ailments develop symptoms of coughing, wheezing and breathlessness especially during Diwali.

From the beginning of Diwali till the end of February, there are about 30-40% more cases of asthma reported in the OPD. It only makes sense for all to restrict if not completely avoid firecrackers and show concern for others.”

Softselling – A PR Success

I have not come across a better example of soft-selling a brand / organisation.

A few days ago, The ITC Windsor had invited Bangalore’s glitterati and the city’s sizeable Spanish expatriate community to an evening of  Spanish flamenco music and dance juxtaposed with Rajasthani folk music and dance. The evening was a success, with the Indian performers winning as many hearts as the Spanish artistes.

A little known fact made the evening all the more special for several women and stressed the hotel’s commitment to going that extra mile for its guests.

The day of the event happened to be on Karva Chauth (a dawn to dusk fast undertaken by married women in and from North India for the wellbeing of their husbands. The fast is broken by the woman when she sees the reflection of the moon in a plate of water).

The hotel’s unassumingly efficient PR head, Vinita Bartlett had carefully assembled several Puja thalis (special plates) for the married women who were observing the fast. They were discreetly escorted up to the terrace where they were able to fulfil the ritual satisfactorily and the women then went on to enjoy the boisterous evening.

When I marvelled at the extraordinary effort that she had put into it, Bartlett demurely said it was only in keeping with her boss, General Manager Anil Chadha’s edict to her to make sure that the hotel does its best always to assist its guests.

Needless to say, The ITC Windsor won several brownie points for this PR initiative.

What a brand says

I am constantly amazed at the issues that come up with brand building for small businesses. My clients are smart, they have to be or how would they start their businesses? Where they falter is in grasping the need to start with a cohesive communication platform.

From my experience in working with small and medium clients in leisure/ hospitality/ entertainment and technology, some plain hard facts need to driven home.

1) Its not enough to get a logo (usually done in haste without understanding the underlying brand value)

2) There is no great rush to have a website – a badly designed or empty website will put off a visitor and probably damage the intention of using the website as a marketing tool.

3) Its important to have consistency in all collateral – logo, website, ppt, brochures, invitations.

Takeaway 1: Make the time to evolve a clear communications package that effectively conveys what you have to say.

This can’t be a ‘one size fits all’ strategy. What will work for one kind of business will not necessarily work for another. Each business has its own character and it is imperative that it has its unique communication strategy.