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

Charity and good intentions? Salman Khan’s defenders are as silly as Sanjay Dutt’s


The actor Salman ‘Bhai’ Khan has been pronounced guilty by a Mumbai court in the 2002 hit and run case. The court said that Khan was driving without a license and under the influence of alcohol. The actor was driving back home (he lives in Galaxy Apartment at Bandstand in Bandra, Mumbai) late night on September 28, 2002, when he lost control of the SUV, drove on to a pavement outside a bakery in Bandra and killed one person and injured four others, in the process. Khan has been sentenced to a prison term of five years.
Multiple theories have been offered in support of the actor by his lawyers, fans and others who have followed this hit and run case closely. Khan’s lawyers submitted the balance sheet of his charity
Being Human in court and argued that the star had sponsored the heart surgeries of 600 children.
Charity is always good. But that doesn’t cancel out the fact that Khan was drunk while driving an SUV and in the process killed one person and injured four others. And given that the law of the land should take its course. Charity cannot be a reason to pardon wrongdoing. If that were to be the case, alcoholic drivers would regularly run their SUVs on to pavements, in the process kill and injure people, and then start doing charity.
His lawyers also submitted a certificate in court which said that the actor suffered from
arteriovenus malformation in the setting of right trigeminal neuralgia”. Wikipedia defines trigeminal neuralgia as “neuropathic isorder characterized by episodes of intense pain in the face, originating from the trigeminal nerve”. Khan’s lawyers pleaded for a light sentence.
If the actor has this disease why is he doing two films at the same time (
Bajrangi Bhaijaan, opposite Kareena Kapoor, andPrem Ratan Dhan Paayo opposite Sonam Kapoor). He is also scheduled to star in four other movies including  Dabang 3 and Entry Mein No Entry. If the actor has this disease and is not in best shape how come he is committed to doing so many movies? May be his lawyers can give us answer for that.
Outside the court, it has been argued that there is Rs 200 crore riding on the actor. The thing here is that the accident did not happen yesterday. It happened in September 2002. Every producer who has signed Khan since then has known that there was a risk that Khan might be arrested. Nevertheless, the producers chose to go ahead and sign the filmstar. The possibility that Khan might have to go to jail was a business risk that they were taking. Unfortunately that risk has come to be true for the producers in whose films Khan is currently acting.
The film industry as expected has come out in support of Khan. The actress Sonakshi Sinha tweeted that Khan was a good man and no one can take that away from him. He may be a good man but what about the individual who was killed due to Khan’s rash driving? And what about the four others who were injured? Weren’t they good people as well?
The entire support that seems to be coming out for Salman Khan is very similar to the support that came out in favour of Sanjay Dutt when he was convicted in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts case. When Dutt was convicted similar specious arguments were made in his favour. One argument which gained a fair amount of popularity was that he is a good man and hence should not go to jail. Justice Markandaya Katju argued that—Dutt has through his film revived the memory of Mahatma Gandhi and the message of Gandhiji, the father of the nation.
The movies Katju was talking about were
Munnabhai MBBS and Lageraho Munnabhai. Dutt did not make these movies, he just acted in them. The movies were the vision of director Rajkumar Hirani, who also co-wrote them.
In fact, Dutt was not even supposed to play the role of Munnabhai in 
Munnabhai MBBS. The original choice was Shah Rukh Khan, who later declined due to a back injury. So Sanjay Dutt was simply lucky to have first landed and then played the role which made Gandhi fashionable again. And that was no reason to let him go.
Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, argued that Sanjay Dutt should be let go because his father Sunill Dutt was a good man. “Today, I fondly remember Sunil Dutt ji. He used to come to my residence whenever he was in Calcutta. If he were alive, he would have no doubt made all efforts to see that Sanjay does not suffer any more. My heart echoes the same sentiments ,” she wrote on Facebook.
This was another specious argument. If sons were to let go because their fathers were good individuals, who would ever got convicted. Let’s take the case of the late Head Constable Ibrahim Kaskar of Mumbai police.
As S Hussain Zaidi writes in 
Dongri to Dubai – Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia “In the predominantly Muslim stronghold of Dongri, Ibrahim’s baithak was the first place people went to if they had a problem. It was privy to everything-from people discussing their choking lavatory drain to the excitement of the elopement of lovers or cases of police harassment.” Kaskar’s son is Dawood Ibrahim.
The point being that it is easy to offer specious arguments in favour of individuals convicted by courts. At the end of the day what matters is the law of the land. If that is being correctly implemented(even though many years late) everything else is a non-issue.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on May 6, 2015 

Obama, Salman Khan, QE-3: Why we have to wait for 6 Nov


Vivek Kaul

Richard Nixon, who was the President of the United States between January 1969 and August 1974, appointed Arthur C Burns as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve of United States (the American central bank) on January 30,1970. “I respect his (i.e. Burns) independence. However, I hope that independently he will conclude that my views are the ones that should be followed,” Nixon said on the occasion.
Burns did not disappoint Nixon and when it was election time in 1972. Since the start of 1972, Burns ran an easy money policy and pumped more money into the financial system by simply printing it. The American money supply went by 10.6% in 1972.
The idea was that with the increased money in the financial system, interest rates would be low, and this would encourage consumers and businesses to borrow more. Consumers and businesses borrowing and spending more would lead to the economy doing well. And this would ensure the re-election of Nixon who was seeking a second term in 1972. That was the idea. And it worked. Nixon won the second term with some help from Burns.
As investment newsletter writer Gary Dorsch wrote in a column earlier this year “Incumbent presidents are always hard to beat. The powers of the presidency go a long way….Nixon pressured Arthur Burns, then the Fed chairman, to expand the money supply with the aim of reducing unemployment, and boosting the economy in order to insure Nixon’s re-election…Nixon imposed wage and price controls to constrain inflation, and won the election in a landslide.” (you can read the complete column here)
History is expected to repeat itself
Something similar has been expected from the current Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. It has been widely expected that Bernanke will unleash the third round of money printing to revive the moribund American economy. Bernanke has already carried out two rounds of money printing before this to revive the American economy. This policy has been technically referred to as quantitative easing (QE), with the two earlier rounds of it being referred to as QE I and QE II.
The original idea was that with more money in the economy, banks will lend, and consumers and businesses will borrow and this in turn would revive the economy. But the American consumer had already borrowed too much in the run up to the financial crisis, which started in September 2008, when the investment bank Lehman Brothers went bust. The consumer credit outstanding peaked in 2008 and stood at $2.6trillion. The American consumer had already borrowed too much to buy homes and a lot of other stuff, and he was in no mood to borrow more.
The wealth effect
The other thing that happened because of the easy money policy of the American government was that it allowed the big institutional investors to borrow at very low interest rates and invest that money in the stock market. This pushed stock prices up leading to more investors coming into the market.
As Maggie Mahar puts it in Bull! : A History of the Boom, 1982-1999: What drove the Breakneck Market–and What Every Investor Needs to Know About Financial Cycles: “In the normal course of things, higher prices dampen desire. When lamb becomes too dear, consumers eat chicken; when the price of gasoline soars, people take fewer vacations. Conversely, lower prices usually whet our interest: colour TVs, VCRs, and cell phones became more popular as they became more affordable. But when a stock market soars, investors do not behave like consumers. They are consumed by stocks. Equities seem to appeal to the perversity of human desire. The more costly the prize, the greater the allure.”
As more money enters the stock market, stock prices go up. This leads to what economists call the “wealth effect”. The stock market investors feel richer because of the stock prices going up. And because they feel richer they tend to spend some of their accumulated wealth on buying goods and services. As more money is spent, businesses do well and so in turn does the economy.
As Gary Dorsch writes “Historical observation reveals that the direction of the stock market has a notable influence over consumer confidence and spending levels. In particular, the top-20% of wealthiest Americans account for 40% of the spending in the US-economy, so the Fed hopes that by inflating the value of the stock market, wealthier Americans would decide to spend more. It’s the Fed’s version of “trickle down” economics, otherwise known as the “wealth effect.”
Why Bernanke won’t launch QE III soon
Given these reasons it was widely expected that Ben Bernanke would start another round of money printing or QE III this year to help Obama’s reelection campaign. Bernanke has been resorting to what Dorsch calls “open mouth operations” i.e. dropping hints that QE III is on its way. In August he had said that the Federal Reserve “will provide additional policy accommodation as needed to promote a stronger economic recovery.” This was basically a complicated way of saying that if required the Federal Reserve wouldn’t back down from printing more money and pumping it into the economy.
But even though Bernanke has been hinting about QE III for a while he hasn’t gone around doing anything concrete about it. The reason for this is the fact that Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate against the incumbent President Barack Obama has gone to town criticizing the Fed’s past QE policies. He has also warned the Federal Reserve to stay neutral before the November 6 elections, says Dorsch. As Romney told Fox News on August 23 “I don’t think QE-2 was terribly effective. I think a QE-3 and other Fed stimulus is not going to help this economy…I think that is the wrong way to go. I think it also seeds the kind of potential for inflation down the road that would be harmful to the value of the dollar and harmful to the stability of our nation’s needs.”
Romney even indicated that he would prefer someone other than Bernanke as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. “I would want to select someone new and someone who shared my economic views…I want someone to provide monetary stability that leads to a strong dollar and confidence that America is not going to go down the road that other nations have gone down, to their peril.” With more and more dollars being printed, the future of the dollar as an international currency is looking more and more bleak.
Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan also echoed his views when he said “Sound money… We want to pursue a sound-money strategy so that we can get back the King Dollar.”
Given this it is highly unlikely that Ben Bernanke will unleash QE III before November 6, the date of the Presidential elections. And whether he does it after that depends on who wins.
Of Obama and Salman Khan
As far as pollsters are concerned Obama seems to have the upper hand as of now. But at the same time the average American is not happy with the overall state of the American economy. “According to pollsters, two thirds of Americans think the US-economy is still stuck in the Great Recession, and is headed in the wrong direction. Only 31% say it is moving in the right direction – the lowest number since December 2011. The dire outlook is explained by a recent analysis by the US Census Bureau and Sentier Research LLC, indicating that US-household incomes actually declined more in the 3-year expansion that started in June 2009 than during the longest recession since the Great Depression,” writes Dorsch.
But despite this Americans don’t hold Obama responsible for the mess they are in. As Dorsch points out “Although, Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the future, many voters don’t seem to be holding it against Democrat Obama. Instead, the embattled president is getting some slack because he inherited a very tough situation. In fact, Obama’s strongest base supporters are among also suffering the highest jobless rates and highest poverty rates in the country.”
Obama’s support is similar to the support film actor Salman Khan receives in India. As Manoj
Manoj Desai, owner of G7 theatres in Mumbai, recently told The Indian Express “Even when the fans are disappointed with his film, they never blame him. You will often hear them say, bhai se galat karwaya iss picture main. (They made Bhai do the wrong things in this movie)”
What’s in it for us?
Indian stock market investors should thus be hoping that Barack Obama wins the November 6 elections. That is likely to lead to another round of quantitative easing. As had happened in previous cases a portion of that matter will be borrowed by big Wall Street firms and make its way into stock markets round the world including India.
(The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on September 5,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/world/obama-salman-khan-qe-3-why-we-have-to-wait-for-6-nov-444474.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a Mumbai based writer and can be reached at [email protected])

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)