Of film critics and their love for Bajrangi Bhaijaan

bajrangi bhaijaan
One of my favourite armchair theories is built around film critics and Salman Khan—the more the critics hate a Salman Khan movie, the more money the movie tends to make. It doesn’t work all the time, but it works often enough to at least be categorised as an armchair theory.

The superstar’s movies get regularly panned by film critics, and yet they end up making a lot of money. Now that doesn’t mean that the critics are wrong about what they think of Salman’s movies. They are actually quite trashy. An apt comparison are the movies that Amitabh Bachchan starred in the 1980s. Movies like Nastik, Mahaan, Pukar, Desh Premee, Mard, Coolie, Geraftaar, Jadugar and Toofan.

Most of these movies made a lot of money nevertheless they are completely unwatchable now, unless you are a die-hard fan to whom the quality of the movie doesn’t really matter. Bachchan’s bubble finally burst with Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswati, which I think is the trashiest film ever made.

Khan’s bubble is still going strong and it was rather surprising that critics liked his latest film Bajrangi Bhaijaan. And these are not the trade critics whose reviews depend on what kind of business the movie they are reviewing is likely to do. These are critics who are genuinely in love with cinema. And they seem to have liked Bajrangi Bhaijaan and the movie has received a spate of ratings of 3 out of five stars.

So what were these guys smoking? How come so many film critics had nice things to say about a Salman Khan movie? Why have things changed this time around? The answer might perhaps lie in what economists call the contrast effect. Comparison comes naturally to human beings especially when they are making a decision. In such a situation, a particular option can be made to be look better by comparing it with something which is similar, but at the same time a worse alternative. This is known as the ‘contrast effect’.

As Barry Schwartz writes in The Paradox of Choice—Why More is Less: “If a person comes right out of a sauna and jumps into a swimming pool, the water in the pool feels really cold, because of the contrast between the water temperature and the temperature in the sauna. Jumping into the same pool after having just come indoors on a sub-zero winter day will produce sensations of warmth.”

This is the contrast effect and it best explains why film critics have fallen in love with Salman’s latest movie. How is that? Look at the movies Salman has starred in the recent past: Jai Ho, Kick, Dabanng 2, Bodyguard etc. Each one of these movies was pretty trashy. In comparison, Bajrangi Bhaijaan is a slightly better movie with some sort of a storyline and very good performances by the child artist Harshali Malhotra(who the audience has fallen in love with) and as well as Nawazuddin Siddiqui.

Hence, this contrast effect between the earlier movies of Salman and Bajrangi Bhaijaan has led to good reviews. In fact, a similar contrast effect was at work when Ek Tha Tiger had released in 2012. The movie was better than some of Salman’s earlier releases like Veer, Ready, London Dreams etc. And the critics had similarly given it good ratings.

There is another learning here. Bajrangi Bhaijaan has been breaking box-office records. As I write this, the movie has already made close to Rs 200 crore on the Indian box-office. Over and above Salman’s fans who watch every movie of his, however trashy it might be, the non-fans have also been streaming into the theatres because of the good reviews that the movie has universally received.

And what this tells us is that if Salman stars in even half decent movies they are likely to earn much more money than the trash that he chooses to star in. Hope he is reading this.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected])

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on July 29, 2015

Lessons from Ek Tha Tiger even if you aren’t a Salman fan


Vivek Kaul

I haven’t seen a Salman Khan movie in a cinema hall in more than 17 years now. The last time was when I saw Hum Aapke Hain Koun for the twelfth and the last time, at the Sujata cinema in Ranchi, sometime in February 1995. The movie was running in its record twenty seventh week. And as many of you would agree Hum Aapke Hain Koun was more of a Madhuri Dixit movie than a Salman Khan one.
Those were days when movies ran for prolonged periods and the 3200 print release that Salman Khan’s most recent release Ek Tha Tiger had, were unheard of. Money was made over a period of time and not in the first three-four days of release.
Given that, if the people did not like the movie over the first three four days of its release the chances of the movie doing well were rather low. Unlike these days when the marketing blitzkrieg that accompanies a big release is so huge that most people are tempted to watch the movie over the first weekend of its release, and before they realize that they have ended up watching a lousy movie, the producer has made his money. What nobody really tells you is that how much money all these superhit movies make on the “fifth” day after their release?
This strategy also requires a large number of prints of the movie being released to ensure that everyone and anyone who wants to see the movie gets to watch it. Hence the days when house-full boards were put up in front of cinema-halls are long gone.
Getting back to where we started. Salman Khan has attained a superstar status in Hindi cinema over the last few years. His movies have constantly done a business of over Rs 100 crore. Movies like Wanted, Ready and Bodyguard which were remakes of hit movies from down south, were superhits in Hindi as well.
But the movies of Salman Khan have never found favour with serious film critics (leaving out the ones who run film trade journals and have other incentives at work ).
So I was rather surprised when Salman’s latest release Ek Tha Tiger got reasonably good reviews in most of the mainstream media. This got me interested and I decided to break my rule of not spending money on a Salman Khan movie and go check out the movie at the nearest multiplex.
Half way through Ek Tha Tiger I had a throbbing headache. It was similar to the one I had got when I was forced to watch Ready (or was it Bodyguard?) on television with a young cousin. The movie does have a few things going for it. The foreign locales in ETT (as diehard fans of Salman like to call it) are new. Indian cinema goers have never seen movies shot in Turkey, Cuba and Ireland, before this. Also Katrina Kaif has acted better than the dumb blonde she portrays well in most of her other movies. The supporting cast has acted well.
But on the whole the movie is a little better than the mindless crap offered by Salman’s earlier releases like Ready, Bodyguard, Wanted etc. So the question is why had so many film reviewers gone around giving it the kind of good reviews that they had?
They had become victims of what behavioural economists call the ‘contrast effect’. We all tend to compare things before making a decision. Given this, the attraction of an option can be increased significantly by comparing it to a similar, but worse alternative. This is known as the ‘contrast effect’.
Let’s understand this through an example. Real estate agents who help put out homes on rent, use the contrast effect very well. The way it has worked with me whenever I have tried to look for a rented accommodation is somewhat like this.
The agent first takes me around and shows me a couple of apartments which are not in the best of condition. While coming out of these places, seeing my displeasure, the agent typically says that the apartment I showed you wasn’t really great.
“So why did you show it to me?” I normally question him, after we are out of the apartment. In such cases I get stock replies like, “Oh this place came to me only today morning. I hadn’t checked it out before, I wouldn’t have shown it to you otherwise,” or “I am just trying to figure out what kind of place you really want.”
This is where part-one of the act ends. Then the agent shows a place which is slightly better than the few run down places he had shown to me a little earlier. But the difference is that the rent in this case is significantly higher.
This is the “contrast effect” at work. The attractiveness of the apartment shown later is increased significantly by showing a few “run down” apartments earlier. The critics who reviewed Ek Tha Tiger had fallen victims to the same “contrast effect”. They had found the earlier movies of Salman Khan so lousy that in comparison a slightly better Ek Tha Tiger was felt to be much better.
The contrast effect has been put to great use by retailers as well to increase the attractiveness of certain products. A 1992 research paper written by Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky, shows this through an example of a retailer who was selling a bread making machine. The machine was priced at $275. In the days to come the company also started selling a similar but larger bread making machine. The sales of this new machine were very low. But a very interesting thing happened. The sales of the $275 machine more or less doubled. As an article on the website of the Harvard Law School points out “Apparently, the $275 model didn’t seem like a bargain until it was sitting next to the $429 model.” (you can read the complete article here)
This is a trick used by retailers all over the world to great effect. By displaying two largely similar but differently priced products, the sales of the product with the lower price can be increased significantly by making it look like a bargain.
The contrast effect can also be put to use while making financial negotiations, like in the case of a job offer. In this case it makes sense to start with asking for more than you expect realistically. “The contrast effect suggests a strategic move: ask for more than you realistically expect, accept rejection, and then shade your offer downward. Your counterpart in the financial negotiations is likely to find a reasonable offer even more appealing after rejecting an offer that’s out of the question,” points the Havard Law School article points out.
Another area where contrast effect is used to great effect is while selling a fraudulent financial scheme which is basically a Ponzi scheme. In 1919, Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant to the United States of America (US), promised to double the money of investors who invested in his scheme in 90 days.
The news spread quickly. Money started pouring in as no other investments in the market at that point of time, promised such high returns, in such a short span of time. At its peak, the scheme had 40,000 investors who had invested around $ 15 million in the scheme. Meanwhile, Ponzi had started living an extravagant life blowing up the money investors brought in.
On Aug 10th, 1920, the scheme collapsed. The auditors, the newspapers and the banks declared that Ponzi was definitely bankrupt. It was revealed that money brought in by the new investors was used to pay off old investors. Thus an illusion of a successful investment scheme was created.
Charles Ponzi was not the last guy to run a fraudulent Ponzi scheme. Such Ponzi schemes have continued since then and keep cropping up all the time.
The contrast effect is at play when investors decide to invest in a Ponzi scheme. It becomes relevant in the context of a Ponzi Scheme when the prospective investor starts comparing the returns on the various schemes available in the market for investment at that point of time to the returns being promised by the Ponzi scheme. The high returns of the Ponzi Scheme stand out clearly and attract gullible investors.
So film reviewers are not the only “victims” of the contrast effect. It is at work in various facets of our “financial” lives as well. There was another big learning for me from the Ek Tha Tiger experiment. The next time I convince myself to watch a Salman Khan movie at a multiplex the least I could do is watch the morning show and not waste much money in the process.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on August 20,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/bollywood/lessons-from-ek-tha-tiger-even-if-you-arent-a-salman-fan-423669.html
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected] He is not a Shahrukh Khan fan)

Ek Thi Tigress: Why Mamata tilts at every windmill


Vivek Kaul

Mamata Banerjee ko gussa kyon aata?” is an intriguing question.
Why does she brand people who tend to disagree with her as Communists and Maoists? Very recently Shiladitya Chowdhury was arrested under non-bailable sections when he questioned the West Bengal government’s policy farmers during a rally being addressed by Banerjee. As The Hindu reported “Eyewitnesses said that Ms Banerjee was heard giving directions to isolate him from the crowd, referring to him as a “Maoist.””
A few months back she had called some students “Maoists” after they had asked her uncomfortable questions during a television interaction organised by CNN IBN. “I must tell you that you are CPI(M) cadres, Maoist cadres … I cannot reply to CPI(M) questions,” Banerjee had said on that occasion before she walked out of programme. This happened in May.
A little earlier in April Ambikesh Mohapatra, a professor at Jadhavpur University had been arrested for posting cartoons of Mamata Banerjee on the internet. “They don’t do any work but think of ways to frame me,” Banerjee had said justifying the arrest and alluding to the CPI(M) being behind the cartoons.
And now she has taken on the judicial system in this country. On the occasion of the platinum jubilee celebrations of the West Bengal assembly she recently said “at times favourable verdicts are given in return for money. There are instances when judgments have been purchased. There is corruption among a section of the judiciary. I know there can be a case against me for saying this. But this must be said and I am ready to go to jail for saying so.”
Now why does the Chief Minister whose alliance has 227 out of the 294 seats in the state assembly want to go to jail? Even if we were to leave out 43 seats which belong to the other alliance partners, her party, the All India Trinamool Congress has 184 seats in the assembly.
Why does the Chief Minister of a state whose party has absolute majority in the assembly, bother about small dissent so much so that it forces her to label the dissenters as Communists and Maoists?
The answers to all these questions lie in the 42 years that she has spent in politics.
Mamata Banerjee entered politics in 1970. As Monobina Gupta writes in Didi – A Political Biography “As an undergraduate in Kolkata’s Jogmaya Devi College, she became active in Chhatra Parishad, the Congress’s student wing. The college union was then controlled by the Democratic Socialist Organisation(DSO), students wing of the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI)…Her dogged fight against the DSO drew the attention of some Congress leaders, even though she did not known them personally then.”
By the late 1970s Mamata was at the forefront of the protests happening in Kolkata (then Calcutta). “Mamata was out on Kolkata’s streets defending Indira Gandhi after the latter lost the parliamentary elections…From waving black flags at the then prime minister Moraji Desai on his visit to Kolkata to getting into a bloody fight with the Left student activists in Ashutosh College, she was gaining a reputation for being a strong combatant of the CPI-M,” writes Gupta.
Mamatas big stroke of luck came before the 1984 Lok Sabha elections. Indira Gandhi had asked Mamata’s then mentor and Congress legislator Subrata Mukherjee to find a suitable woman candidate. As Mukherjee tells Gupta in her book Didi– A Political Biography “The elections were approaching. Indira ji suddenly asked me to find a woman candidate. The Congress was in a bad shape. Finding a woman candidate was a tough job. I suggested Mamata’s name, and she got her nomination from the Jadhavpur constituency.”
Indira Gandhi was killed by her bodyguards Beant Singh and Satwant Singh on October 31, 1984. In the sympathy wave that followed, Mamata Banerjee won, becoming a Lok Sabha member at a young age of 29. She defeated CPI(M) stalwart Somnath Chatterjee. The Congress party won 16 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal.
This was enough to rattle the CPI(M) led ruling Left Front government . It unleashed violence across the state and attacked Congress workers. “This was the scene Mamata entered flush with the success of her maiden electoral victory…She had courted danger right from her days as a student activist. The first in a series of trips Mamata made in this period as to Magrahat in South 24 Parganas, where a Congress worker was brutally murdered and his wife gang-raped by alleged antisocials backed by the CPI-M. Media reports spoke of the horror of the incident – the assailants ‘playing football’ with the murdered worker’s severed head. Mamata’s visit and her meeting with the family of the deceased made front page news,” writes Gupta.
Her confrontation with CPI-M continued in the years to come. In August 1990, the Kolkata police was following her 24×7 relaying her activities to the higher ups. On August 16,1990, Mamata Banerjee stepped out of her Kalighat residence and walked towards Hazra junction to be a part of the procession she had called for. The atmosphere was tense and Mamata was attacked. As Gupta writes “The attackers had come prepared. Swinging his stick, Laloo Alam, a CPI-M worker, hit Mamata hard on her head, she (i.e. Mamata) writes in her memoirs. ‘The right side of my head (just a hairline away from where the brain is) had cracked open and I was bleeding profusely. I was still undeterred…When I saw them getting ready to hit me on the head with an iron rod, strangely in that grave circumstance, I covered my head with my hand,’ Mamata narrates.”
Covering her head with hand nullified the impact of the blow on her head, and broke her wrist. Over the next few days Mamata was at a nursing home fighting for her life. She survived and thus started the second phase of her political career. It took her 21years more to beat the Left Front and form her government in West Bengal. Along the way she quit the Congress party and formed her own party, the Trinamool Congress.
Mamata Banerjee was a leader of agitations who became the Chief Minister of West Bengal on May 20,2011. All the agitations over the years ensured that confrontation became an integral part of Mamata Banerjee’s career and her nature. As Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay writes at www.asiancorrespondent.com “The bottom line is that as a leader of agitations you require to be spontaneous and have the ability to cock a snook at your adversary.” (you can read the complete column here)
This is a trait that has become in-built in her and explains to a large extent why she has been spontaneously branding her dissenters as communists and Maoists. The aggression that came out in all the protests, dharnas and bands she called for against the CPI-M, still needs to come keep coming out, but in other ways. That explains to a large extent why she is hell bent on shooting herself in the foot and is needlessly taking on the judicial system by calling it corrupt.
What also does not help is the fact that she sees herself as having been betrayed time and again. “Much of the excess of Mamata’s emotional rhetoric stems from a lifelong sense of betrayal. The hurt and anger run through most of her writings. In school, the classmates she helped stabbed her in the back; the party she grew up ruined her chances of routing the CPI-M by striking undercover electoral quid pro quo deals with the communists,” writes Gupta. She concludes that all this has led to a situation where Mamata Banerjee is “haunted by a constant apprehension of persecution and conspiracy.”
Hence, this is a major reason where even a hint of dissent gets labeled as a communist or a Maoist conspiracy.
The traits that Mamata had developed over the years held her in good stead as she fought the CPI-M rule in West Bengal. And those are the traits that she can’t seem to get rid off now. As Mukhopadhyay puts it “I have long maintained among friends that she is the Uma Bharti of West Bengal. Meaning, both – and they are inherently well-meaning leaders – can lead an agitation to its logical culmination but cannot govern in their wildest dreams. In politics you require the chutzpah to ensure that the government – or people in authority – of the day bend before your agitation. But in governance you are required to listen, think, put one against another and act.”
“In governance you need to be routine (diligent if you prefer this word), ensure that the horse comes before the cart (meaning systems are followed) and above all grant the others, the right to disagree with you and agitate if they wish to exercise their democratic right,” Mukhopadhyay adds.
But this is easier said than done because for this to happen Mamata Banerjee will have to stop being Mamata Banerjee.
To conclude, let me put it this way. Salman Khan has been labeled a tiger only in reel life. Mamata Banerjee has been a tigress in real life. But its time she stopped being one because it’s hurting her more now, than ever before.
(The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on August 17,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/politics/ek-thi-tigress-why-mamata-tilts-at-every-windmill-420914.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])

What Ek Tha Tiger has in common with Mona Lisa, Harry Potter and Rajinikanth


Vivek Kaul

Salman Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger releasing on August 15 is expected to do roaring business. A famous film critic who runs a film trade magazine feels the movie will break new grounds and has the potential to earn more than Rs 200 crore.
Once the film has done the roaring business you will find film critics, analysts and even you and me giving all kinds of reasons for the success.
The film was shot in Turkey, Ireland, Cuba and Iraq, countries that most Indian movies haven’t been shot before.
For once, Katrina wasn’t just arm candy.
Unlike other Salman movies this one really had a story.
Bhai was doing what he does best: beating up the baddies.
The film had an uninterrupted six day long weekend (starting from August 15, the Independence Day to August 20, the day of Eid).
All Salman Khan movies releasing during the Eid weekend do well.
And so on.
But these will be explanations about something that has already happened after it has happened. The film may have worked because of all of these reasons or none of them. We really wouldn’t know.
Lets take the case of the famous painting Mona Lisa to understand this phenomenon in a little more detail. The painting was commissioned by a wealthy silk merchant. He wanted Leonardo da Vinci to paint his wife Lisa Gherardini del Giocindo. By the time da Vinci got around to finishing the painting in 1519, nearly 16 years later, he had moved to France from Italy. Hence, Lisa Giocindo nor her husband ever got around to seeing what has turned out to be most famous painting in the world.
The painting hangs at the Musée du Louvre in Paris. Nearly 80% of the 6 million visitors who come to the museum annually, come to see the Mona Lisa. But the interesting thing is that for most of the five centuries of its existence the Mona Lisa was an obscure painting. As Duncan J Watts writes in Everything is Obvious – Once You Know the Answer “for centuries, the Mona Lisa, was a relatively obscure painting languishing in the private residences of kings…even when it was moved to the Louvre after the French revolution, it did not attract as much attention as the works of other artists.”
It was only when an Italian named Vincezo Peruggia stole the painting in 1911 that the painting became famous. Peruggia managed to hide the painting for two years but was arrested while trying to sell it to an Italian museum. The painting came back to the Louvre.
Since then the painting has attracted large crowds. It has also led to a situation where people have explained the reasons behind its popularity. Some have talked about the smile and the novel technique employed by da Vinci to produce so gauzy a finish. Some others about the play of light and so on. As Watts writes “To oversimplify only slightly, the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world because it is the best, and although it might have taken us a while to figure this out, it was inevitable that we would. And that’s why so any people are puzzled when they first set eyes on the Mona Lisa.”
They wonder what the fuss is all about. As Watts explains “Of course, most of us, when faced with this moment of dissonance, simply shrug our shoulders and assume that somebody wiser than us has seen things that we can’t see…It sounds as if we’re assessing the quality of work of art in terms of its attributes, but in fact we’re doing the opposite – deciding first which painting is the best, and only then inferring from its attributes the metrics of quality.”
A more recent phenomenon is that of Harry Potter which has been a smashing success. But Joanne “Jo” Rowling, better known as J K Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, had a tough time finding a publisher for the series.
In 1995, she finished the first Harry Porter book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It was rejected by 12 publishers before Bloomsbury agreed to publish it. The publisher wasn’t really optimistic about the book and the initial print run was 1000 copies, of which 500 were distributed to libraries. The advance Rowling got for the book was £1500. The book and its sequels were a smashing success. According to the Forbes magazine Rowling was the first person become to dollar billionaire by writing books.
Of course after the success of the book many reasons have been pointed about why Harry Potter was successful and was a phenomenon waiting to happen. Michael Maouboussin explains this in a research paper titled Was Harry Potter Inevitable? “Our society often associates success with quality. In a fiercely competitive market, the thinking goes, only the best products rise to the surface. Once a product is a hit, whether a blockbuster movie or a
bestselling book, we readily point to the attributes that make it so appealing..” he writes.
What this basically means is that it is easy to rationalize success once it has happened. But that doesn’t mean that those were the reasons for the success. Mauboussin calls this the halo effect or ‘our proclivity to attach attributes to what has succeeded, solely because of the success. The halo effect creates substantial distortion in our thinking.”
A similar phenomenon is now playing out with E L James’ Fifty Shades of Gray which has outsold Harry Potter. “Sorry Harry, it looks like you’re losing your magic. Erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” outsold all seven Harry Potter books on Amazon.co.uk on Wednesday, making author E.L. James the website’s best-selling writer ever,” wrote the Sunday Times of London recently. A small cottage industry has sprung up trying to analyse the success of this book which many have dubbed as “mummy porn”.
The film actor Rajinikanth is another great example of this. Realms have been written on trying to explain his stupendous success. But as Manu Joseph wrote in the Open “Rajinikanth is another proof that not everything can be analysed just because there is something called analysis. There is no reason why Rajnikanth exists, there is no reason why he did not retire as a Marathi bus conductor, and no reason why he instead became the Superstar who can have theatres go up in flames if he is ever killed at the end of a film. There is nothing in him or in Tamilians that explains his fame. He is the very end of analysis. Some things happen for no reason. And it is no coincidence that the people who really love him are people who do not know that there is a form of employment called analysis.”
To conclude, the explanations people come up with to explain the success are at times largely irrelevant. Watt explains it the best when he says “Ultimately…it may simply not be possible to say why…the Harry Potter books sold more than 350 million copies within 10 years…In the end, the only honest explanation may be the one given by the publisher of Lynne Truss’s surprise bestseller, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, who, when asked to explain its success, replied that “it sold because lots of people bought it.” Similarly Ek Tha Tiger will run because a lot of people will watch it.
(The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on August 10,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/bollywood/what-ek-tha-tiger-has-in-common-with-rajinikanth-harry-potter-413290.html/)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer who can be reached at [email protected])