Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Timeless And ageless

At 81, Lalitha Das, the founder of the Bangalore Club for Kathakali and the Arts, is busy promoting the art form

Photo by Vinod Kumar T

By Shevlin Sebastian

On most mornings, these days, Lalitha Das is on the phone. Either she is calling up Kathakali dancers or speaking to hotel employees or tour operators or sponsors. That is because she is preparing for an upcoming Kathakali production. “All the artistes will be coming from Kerala,” says Lalitha, the founder of the Bangalore Club for Kathakali and the Arts. “There is a lot of hard work behind the scenes. But I feel confident after our last programme went off so well.”

This took place at the Chowdiah Memorial Hall on a balmy October evening where the Kathakali classical opera, ‘Karna: The Invincible’ was enacted. In the first scene, the dancers stood one behind the other and raised their hands to the heavens. Right behind, on a screen, there was an image of the orb of the sun rising between two mountain peaks.

In this scene, Kunthi asks for a boon and is granted a son by the Sun God,” says the director and scriptwriter Meena Das Narayan. In the next scene, Karna the baby is adopted by a charioteer and wife and grows up as a commoner. Eventually, he becomes an ace archer who challenges the Pandavas and Kauravas in a display of strength.

Watching from a corner with a smile on her face is Meena’s mother Lalitha. The sequences of the sumptuous cultural extravaganza are dramatic, with dancers wielding maces and jumping across the stage accompanied by pulsating music. Karna is played by Kathak dancer Tushar Bhatt, while his wife Pooja has done the choreography. A total of 55 artistes are taking part.

The idea for a cultural club came up over a dinner conversation that Lalitha had with Meena and her husband, Narayan, after her husband KG Das passed away in 1999. “It became difficult for me to travel to Kerala on my own to watch Kathakali performances. I felt that through the club, we could popularise as well as watch Kathakali in Bengaluru,” says Lalitha.

Today, the club is thriving. But Lalitha has a clear agenda. “I want to promote Kathakali among other communities, like the Kannadigas, Tamilians and the Telugu people,” she says. “Hence, the mudras are explained in detail so that the audience can follow the performance and understand it.”

Apart from Kathakali, the club promotes other classical dance forms like the Kuchipudi, Mohiniyattam and Bharatanatyam.

But the emphasis is on Kathakali. “It is an enduring love,” says Lalitha, who learnt the dance form as a child while growing up in Thiruvananthapuram. Thereafter, at age 17, she got married and left Kerala. Since her husband, a chief engineer, had a transferable job, she moved from place to place: Burla (Odisha), Delhi, Pune, Baghdad and Tripoli. Sometimes, she would organise Kathakali performances whenever the couple were in India.

Asked the charms of Kathakali, Lalitha says, “Kathakali is a combination of excellent music, percussion, and action. There is no other art form that combines all three so well. And the artistes are so dedicated and look beautiful.”

Not surprisingly, her idol is the legendary Kalamandalam Gopi. “When he is in full costume, like Karna, he takes us back to that era,” says Lalitha. “He has the magic to immerse himself in the character. And his eyes are so expressive.” Incidentally, Meena made a documentary on Gopi, called, 'The Making Of A Maestro', which won the Kerala State Award for best documentary in 2010.

Meanwhile, when asked about her future plans, Lalitha says, “I plan to conduct at least five to six performances every year. At 81, I am having the time of my life.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Monday, February 26, 2018

No Harm To Mother Earth

The banana fibre sanitary pads brought out by the Amrita SeRVe (Self Reliant Village) project of the Mata Amritanandamayi Math, can be reused for three years and do not harm the environment

Photos: From left: Anju Bist, Swadha Dwivedi, and Deepa H. Photo by Albin Mathew; Sanitary pads  

By Shevlin Sebastian

On October 9, last year, Mata Amritanandamayi's birthday, several stalls were set up at Amritapuri, Kollam. One of them was selling reusable sanitary pads. The stall was manned by Swadha Dwivedi, 19. Soon, a middle-aged man came up and said, “How did you come up with this idea?”

Swadha felt embarrassed and said, “This stall is only for women.”

The man said, “You are being discriminatory. You can tell us, men, too.”  Later, when Swadha told Mata Amritanandamayi about this incident, the latter said, “You are US born and brought up. So you should not feel shy. You must stay strong. By talking about the pad with a man, you can remove the stigma around menstruation.”

The pad in question is called Saukhyam, a Sanskrit word which means happiness and well-being. It is made of banana fibre. “It is a naturally occurring absorbent substance and has medicinal properties,” says Anju Bist, co-director Amrita SeRVe (Self-Reliant Village). “Nobody has used banana fibres for reusable pads. Amma wanted us to do this.” 

First, the stalk is cut. Then it is put in an extractor machine, where it is converted into thin strips. These have to be washed in baking soda, to make them soft. Thereafter, they are dried in the sun for five days. Then several women in villages administered by Mata Amritanandamayi make the pads. “It provides a livelihood for them,” says Anju.

The great advantage of these pads is that they can be reused. “You can wash it and put it out in the sun to dry,” says Anju. “Also, since they are highly absorbent, a working woman does not have to change them during the time she spends at the office. Finally, there is an urgent necessity for these pads, because of the environmental damage caused by disposable sanitary pads.”

Here are the alarming statistics: Over the entire menstruating life of a woman she will discard anywhere between 10,000 to 15,000 pads. “There are 360 million women who are of menstruating age in India today,” says Swadha. “If, on an average, they use 12 to15 pads per monthly cycle it will add up to 432 million soiled pads that weigh 900 tonnes and enough to fill 320 football fields.”

Meanwhile, one of the attractive qualities of Saukhyam is that it is available in different colours like red, green, yellow and blue. “We want people to buy their pads as if they are buying a salwar kameez,” says Deepa H, a staff member of Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham. “The aim is to remove the stigma around menstruation. Another reason is that because of the fabric, the stains are not visible.”

The prices range from Rs 200 to Rs 2000 depending on whether you are buying individual day/night pads or in packs. “But these can be reused for up to three years,” says Anju. “On the other hand, a woman ends up spending Rs 60,000 over her entire menstrual period during her lifetime.” 

The good news is that customers are happy. “I have used these pads for a year now and feel very comfortable. The banana fibres do absorb well. I like the idea that these pads use natural resources,” says the Mexico-based Padma Gonzales. Adds Sudha Pillet from France: “These washable pads are practical and healthy. They prevent the use of synthetic materials which are harmful to the environment and our health. They are ideal for everyday life. The washing is easy and the pads dry quickly.” 

Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Speaking Non-Stop In Front Of Mammootty

Scriptwriter Bipin Chandran talks about his experiences on the sets of 'Daddy Cool', 'Best Actor' and '1983'

Photos: Bipin Chandran by Albin Mathew; the post of the film, '1983'

By Shevlin Sebastian

When college friend Aashiq Abu asked Bipin Chandran to write a script, he wrote 'Daddy Cool' (2009). In the early part of the film, there is a scene where a news anchor speaks at length, giving the hero Mammootty only the chance to say 'Yes' or 'Aaah'.

It was a time when TV anchors were coming to prominence, and they would rarely allow their guests to speak,” says Bipin. Aashiq felt a mimicry artist would be able to do the job. But they just could not get the right person. During this time, Bipin would read out aloud the dialogues for the cast and the crew. One day, Aashiq said, “Why don't you say the ‘anchor’ dialogues?” Bipin replied, “No way.” However, in the end, he agreed.

On the day of the shoot, at Kochi, Bipin's heart was racing fast. “I had to act opposite Mammootty,” says Bipin. “It was like coming in front of a lion. He was an icon who had won three National Awards. People on the set were also nervous.”

The shoot began. After taking a deep breath Bipin launched into the two-and-a-half page dialogue. “I let it flow and, to my surprise, it was okayed in one take,” says Bipin. “The entire crew clapped because I had done it so well.”

Mammootty said, “You do know how to act. Well done!”

But when Bipin gave another two pages of non-stop dialogue, Mammootty smiled and said, jokingly, “Your throat is going dry. Drink a glass of water before saying anything more.”

Indeed, Bipin is a fluent speaker but he always had problems with the Hindi language right from his school days at Kanjirappally. “I used to memorise most of the answers,” he says. One such quote that he never forgot was the one given by Noble Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein on the 70th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi: 'Generations to come will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth'.

Meanwhile, in 'Best Actor, Mammootty plays a school teacher who pretends to be a criminal from Mumbai as he befriends some goondas at Fort Kochi. “During a fight, Mammootty takes out a toy gun, and in order to impress the criminals, he spouts the Einstein dialogue in Hindi,” says Bipin.

At the time of the shoot, Bipin was teaching in a government school at a tribal area in Mundakayam.

Suddenly he got a call. It was from Mammootty who said, “You wrote all these Hindi dialogues and now you are teaching in a school. Please come to the set.”
Mammootty needed somebody to prompt him. So, Bipin immediately took a taxi and came to the set at Kochi.

Based on instructions from director Martin Prakkat, cinematographer Ajayan Vincent had made a circular track. “Since Martin wanted to take it in one shot, I could not stand next to Mammootty,” says Bipin. “So I sat under the camera, on the trolley and prompted Mammootty and that was how the shot was done. Of course, Mammootty had already memorised the dialogues, so he was able to do it in one take.”

Later, in the premiere show, when Mammootty said the dialogue the audience burst into applause. “It went down very well,” says Bipin. “So, a language which I found very difficult to handle in school turned out to be very helpful two decades later.”

Bipin used another dialogue from his childhood. This was a question he would ask his teachers: “Where do crows go to die?” Nobody could give a proper answer. “When we were studying in Maharaja's College, there was a tree nearby which had hundreds of crows,” says Bipin. “I would always ask my friends the same question.”

Once, during the time he was writing the script for '1983', he was sitting with his friend Abrid Shine and a few friends at a lodge in Kochi when he recounted this story. Immediately, Abrid said, “You should put it in the film.”

And so, there was a scene in the film, when Jacob Gregory, who played a character called Sachin, looked at a crow which has been electrocuted and had fallen to the ground and says, “Where do crows go to die?” Ever since, there have been numerous memes and comments on Facebook and on Twitter. “Somehow, this question is something viewers have never forgotten,” says Bipin. “Interestingly, so far, I have not received a proper answer.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

Monday, February 19, 2018

Living Among The Japanese

Entrepreneur Tiby Kuruvila, from Kerala, talks about his experiences in Japan

Photos: Tiby Kuruvila with his family; (from left) Gijo Sivan, Tiby Kuruvila and Jayaraj TG  

By Shevlin Sebastian

Whenever the Tokyo-based Tiby Kuruvila introduced himself, the Japanese would say, “You Indians are so bright and intelligent.”

One of the reasons for this attitude is that all the Indians in Japan are either in the IT industry, or working as engineers or scientists. “There is nobody from the worker class,” says Tiby. “They usually come from Philippines or Vietnam.”

The Japanese have a huge respect for India. “Since most Japanese are Buddhists, they revere India as the land of Lord Buddha,” he says. “They know about Mahatma Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose.”

The youngsters have a different attitude. “They feel India is growing so fast, at 7 per cent, compared to Japan's 2 per cent, so they are thinking about how they can invest in India, and make money,” says Tiby.

But some misconceptions do exist. Since there are many North Indian restaurants in Tokyo, they feel that all Indians eat naan every day. “For them the curry we have is either vegetable or chicken,” says Tiby. “They are surprised to know that we eat with our hand. After watching movies, they feel that there are a lot of animals on the streets.”

Tiby, who is originally from Kothamangalam, has been living in Japan for the past 19 years. He is the CEO of a company called Pinmicro, which provides indoor GPS platforms. His partners are two Malayalees, Jayaraj TG and Gijo Sivan. They provide digital solutions to improve efficiency in the workplace, be it offices, factories, warehouses or hospitals.

He gives an example. “In a confectionery factory, the management wanted to ensure that every employee who enters the factory should have a air shower (this is usually done at entrances to remove particles on dress), followed by a hand-wash with alcohol to get rid of germs,” says Tiby.

The company had placed cameras all over the factory. But then they realised that nobody can look at the camera all the time. But through Tiby's GPS platform, if a person forgets to do a hand wash, an alert is immediately initiated. “Hence, he or she cannot enter the factory premises,” says Tiby. “This will ensure employees who enter the work place are always clean.”

Asked whether this constituted an invasion of privacy, Tiby says, “We are not recording anything.”

Meanwhile, when asked the advantages of working in Japan, Tiby says, “The technology is at an advanced stage. The transportation is very efficient. It is a clean and safe country.”

And the people have a social attitude. During the devastating earthquake which hit Tokyo in 2011, there was a water shortage. The government instructed that everybody would receive two bottles of drinking water every day. “They would only take the amount specified by the government and not more,” he says. “When there were widespread power shutdowns, there were no reports on any thefts in the numerous shopping areas, which would have happened in other countries. The Japanese are a very self-disciplined people.”

But there are negatives too. “It is difficult to work in Japan since people only speak Japanese,” says Tiby. “It took me a few years to learn the language.”

The business model is still the old industrial style. “So everybody follows what the boss says,” says Tiby. “But that time is over. You have to work fast, make decisions quickly, and be innovative.”

And Tiby can notice this falling back when he goes shopping. Ten years ago, when he went to buy a mobile phone, there were Japanese products from Sharp, Casio and Fujitsu. “Now, it is only Samsung and Apple, and a few Japanese brands,” he says. “Many American, Korean and Chinese companies have gone past the Japanese.”

Another problem for the Japanese is the declining birth rates. “The number of child per couple is very low,” says Tiby. “A small work force will have to feed a lot of elderly people. This will become critical in the next five years. So, the government is doing a lot to attract Indian talent to Japan. There are a lot of Indo-Japanese events taking place in India as well as Japan.”

Meanwhile, Tiby says that even though they live in Japan, the Malayalis are preserving their culture. “For Onam, 500 people gathered and we had Sadya and other celebrations,” says Tiby who is married to Nigi and has two children, a son, Johaan, 9 ½ and Jewel, 7.

Asked his future plans, Tiby says, “I plan to work for the next ten years in Japan till my children reach university. Then I will return to Kerala and help young people who have plans to set up start-ups.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  

“There is a lot of tourism potential”

Says Mubarak Rashed Al Nuaimi, Director of Promotions and Overseas Office, Department of Culture and Tourism, explains the reason behind the 'Abu Dhabi Week' taking place at Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Mubarak Rashed Al Nuaimi looked down through the plane window, as the plane headed towards the Kochi International Airport, he began smiling. “It was so green,” says the Director of Promotions and Overseas Office, Department of Culture and Tourism, Abu Dhabi. This was Mubarak's first visit to Kerala and he had come to celebrate the start of the second edition of the 'Abu Dhabi Week', which is taking place outside the Nehru stadium at Kaloor, Kochi.

We decided to hold the 'Abu Dhabi Week' in India and especially Kochi because there is a lot of tourism potential,” says Mubarak. “Last year, we had 3.2 lakh hotel guests from India. This was an 11 per cent increase, as compared to 2016. The visitors comprised of individuals and families. Many Indian weddings also took place in Abu Dhabi. After Kochi, we will be going to Kolkata on February 23. And later, to other parts of India.”

Mubarak says there are lakhs of visitors from India, who don't stay in hotels. Instead, they stay with relatives and friends. “Amongst this group, the largest are from Kerala, because Malayalis form the biggest group among the expatriates from India,” he says.

The aim of the show is to highlight the various attractions of Abu Dhabi. One of the best places to go is the Yas Island. On it, you can see the Ferrari World, which is the world's first Ferrari-themed park, the Yas Waterworld which comprises the size of 15 football pitches and has 43 rides and a tornado waterslide. Then there is a world-class golf course, beautiful beaches, and the Yas mall. 

“This is the ideal place for a family,” says Mubarak. “Children can roam around with absolute safety.” Apart from this, there is the stunning Louvre Abu Dhabi, an art and civilization museum, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, and the Al Ain Oasis.

There are many beautiful places in Abu Dhabi,” says Mubarak. “And the flight time is four hours only. We always welcome Indians and Malayalees because they are nice people. We love them. They are warm-hearted and they respect people. And India has such a good culture.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Beauty queen Yana Fillipova, selected as Goodwill Ambassador for the Kerala Travel Mart, talks about how she will promote the state

By Shevlin Sebastian

As Yana Fillipova stood in the lobby of a hotel in Kovalam, the manager came up and presented her with a saree. She had a sudden urge to try it on. Immediately, two women employees helped her to wear the saree. “It looked so amazing,” says Yana, while on a recent visit to Kochi. “Then they put some flowers in my hair.”

At Kovalam, she gazed at the Arabian Sea. “Back home, in Altai {Russia], we have no sea,” says Yana, who has travelled to many countries. “The Arabian sea is very gentle as compared to the Mediterranean Sea.”

Yana has just been appointed the Goodwill Ambassador for Russia for the Kerala Travel Mart (KTM), which will take place in September. Last year, both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced that this year would be celebrated as the Year of Tourism in both India and Russia.

Asked about her duties, Yana says, “I have to give publicity about the beauty of Kerala. I will mention places like Munnar and Alleppey and emphasise the importance of Ayurveda. I will do this by uploading photos and messages on Instagram and other social media platforms. They are very powerful tools.”

But Yana has a tough task ahead, to change the mind-set of the people in her own country. “The general impression is that they think India is a poor country,” says Yana. “They believe that most of the people have baths in rivers. This is the stereotype. I feel disappointed when I put up a post about a wonderful place in Kerala, and in the comments section, they ask whether it is possible that in India you have such nice places. I tell them that travelling to Kerala is worth their money, time and effort.”

Not surprisingly, Yana loves the people in Kerala. “They are open-hearted, communicative and sincere,” she says. “In contrast, the Russian people are very closed and serious. You have to spend some time with them before they open up.”

When asked whether the people are like this because of the extreme cold, Yana says, with a twinkle, “People are like this in summer too.”

Yana’s home town of Altai is close to the border of Mongolia, China, Kazakhstan and about 4000 km from the capital, Moscow. “Russia is a huge country,” says Yana. “Right now, the temperature in Altai is minus 35 degrees (centigrade).”

Interestingly she is an English professor at the Altai State Pedagogical University. She is also a singer, a model for print advertisements and a beauty queen.

In November last year, she won the Queen of Tourism award at The Queen of Eurasia competition held in Anatolia, Turkey.

Meanwhile, when asked to compare Russian and Malayali women, Yana says, “Malayali women are polite and calm, but they are shy about revealing their feelings. In most cases, they retain their femininity. Many are happy to take care of their husband and children.”

On the other hand, Russian women are very ambitious. “They behave like men,” she says. “Women take on a lot of male responsibilities, like working in the fire services or the army. They cannot accept the fact that a man should give them money and protect them. They want to do everything themselves. They have become very independent.”

There is one fall-out in this changing dynamics between man and woman. The divorce rate is more than 50 per cent. “I am told that Indian women have also started divorcing their husbands,” says Yana. “It is very sad as it has a big impact on the children.”

Yana speaks from personal experience. Her own parents divorced when she was ten years old, while her brother was four. “So I know how it feels,” she says. “Both of us suffered a lot. It is completely unacceptable. When I marry it will be for life. This is what I want.”

Meanwhile, KTM President Baby Mathew is very happy with the presence of Yana. "We expect more participation from Russia for the event, because of Yana,” says Mathew as she smiled. ” In fact, we are hoping for a record number of registrations this year. We also expect more tourist arrivals from Russia to Kerala in the coming years.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Wrath Of A Yakshi

Scriptwriter Benny P. Nayarambalam talks about his experiences in the films, 'Aakasha Ganga', 'Chhota Mumbai', 'Daivathinte Swantham Cleetus' and 'Spanish Masala' 

Photos: Benny P. Nayarambalam by K. Shijith; Mayuri in  'Aakasha Ganga', 

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, many years ago, the mother of scriptwriter Benny P. Nayarambalam narrated a story. This was about a run-down house, near their own premises on Vypeen Island.

The house belonged to a rich family. There was a beautiful girl in the house. A music tutor would come to teach her singing. Soon, they fell in love. And then she became pregnant. “Unfortunately, the tutor had a wife and children,” says Benny. “When the girl came to know, she drank poison in order to kill herself.”

In those times, there was no hospital on the island. People had to take a boat to reach Ernakulam and go to the General Hospital. “But the family members assumed that the girl had died,” says Benny. “They called all their relatives and informed them that she had died of a sickness.”

However, when the girl was placed on the pyre, she opened her eyes and asked for water. “This was only seen by an uncle,” says Benny. “The rituals were going on and there was a lot of noise. The man concluded that if the girl remained alive, it would bring shame to the family especially since she was pregnant. Instead of water, he poured kerosene and lit the pyre.”

Soon, a curse fell on the family. Members began to die one by one. And they fell into financial problems. “I used this as the crux of my story for 'Aakasha Ganga' (1999),” says Benny. The film starred Mukesh and Divya Unni. Mayuri plays the girl who dies and becomes a yakshi who torments her family and kills a couple of members. Thanks to the taut script, it became a box-office hit.

This was not the first time Benny received an inspiration from real life. When the shooting of 'Chhota Mumbai' (2007) was taking place, several local youngsters of Fort Kochi were hired to act in the film. The film was about the small-time goondas of the area. “I became friendly with one man, Ramesh (name changed),” says Benny. “Later, I came to know that he was actually a leader of a gang of ruffians, but on the set, he was well-behaved.”

Many years later, Benny met Ramesh accidentally at Lal Media, Kochi, where dubbing and editing of films take place.

It took me a while before I remembered him,” says Benny. “So I asked him what he was doing at Lal Media. He replied that he had a small dubbing to do. After 'Chhota Mumbai' he had got a few roles. Ramesh said, 'Sir, now I have become straight and am earning my living like this.'”

Suddenly, an idea sparked in Benny to write a story about a man who is involved in criminal activities but has an acting talent. And then how slowly through acting, he becomes a better person and stops all criminal activities. “That is how the character of 'Daivathinte Swantham Cleetus' (2013) was born,” says Benny. “Mammootty is a goonda. Then he gets the chance to play Jesus Christ. The people do not know he is a goonda. But when he acts, he does it so well that he is purified in the process.”

Meanwhile, rather than get purified, the people got drenched during the shoot of the Lal Jose film, 'Spanish Masala'. This was taking place during the La Tomatina festival in the town of Buñol, Spain. During this event, participants throw tomatoes at each other. It is held on the last Wednesday of August.

Actor Dileep and his mother, played by Kalarenjini had to walk through the immense crowd. “Nobody knew we were shooting,” says Benny. “Kalarenjini was wearing a red blouse and saree. Most of the foreigners, including men and women, wore only shorts. Many men were bare-bodied. So when they saw Kalarenjini in a saree, they just stared at her. Then the people began talking among themselves and stared at her. We felt quite tense. But in the end, because she was a woman, nobody did anything.”

But assistant director Raghu Rama Varma did not have the same luck. He was standing at the end of the street. When they saw that he was wearing a shirt and trousers, they ripped the shirt off. “In the end, he was left with two pieces and a collar,” says Benny. “When he came to us holding these scraps, all of us burst out laughing.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

Monday, February 12, 2018

M. Ramachandran, the Chairman and MD of Jyothy Laboratories talks about his perennial best-seller, the whitener Ujala, as well as his own success story

By Shevlin Sebastian

When M. Ramachandran was growing up in Thrissur, he noticed that his father always wore a white shirt and mundu. One day, Ramachandran resolved that he would also wear white. And now, for decades, he always wears a white shirt and trousers. “In fact, I don't have clothes of any other colour,” says the Mumbai-based Ramachandran, the Chairman and Managing Director of Jyothy Laboratories, while on a recent visit to Kochi.

In fact, this propensity to wear white resulted in him making a product, Ujala (named after his daughter) that has become an enduring bestseller for the company. “When I was working in Mumbai, I found that while washing my clothes, the original white was not returning,” he says. “So I wanted to make a whitener that was extraordinary and far better than all the other products in the market.”

During this time, the drug manufacturing company that he worked for as an accountant closed down. So he decided to start a business. “But I asked the chemists in the company whether they could come up with a top-class whitener,” he says. They did, but it took two years of trial and error.

Ramachandran started with a base capital of Rs 5000 in 1983 and began making the product in a shed on a property that belonged to his father in Thrissur. However, despite hiring a few girls, the sales were slow. Ramachandran felt despondent. After a few months, he was about to close down the business, when he got an order for a thousand bottles from a businessman in Mallapuram district. “That was the turning point,” he says.

Ujala went from strength to strength. And it was able to take on the powerful Robin brand of the multinational Reckitt and Colman and take a major share of the market. “There were also about 150 look-alikes of Ujala, but they could not succeed,” says Ramachandran. “These businessmen formed an association and complained to the Excise and Income Tax departments. There were a lot of raids but nothing could be found. I have a principled business, so I did not feel scared.”

Today, the company has a turnover of Rs 2000 crore and has other whiteners like Mr White, insecticides like Maxo, soaps like Margo and Neem toothpaste. The company has also acquired Henko.

My method is simple,” says Ramachandran. “Through our market surveys, we identify a niche market, and our R&D team at Mumbai will work for more than two years to develop a unique product. The aim is to provide the highest satisfaction to the consumer.”

To ensure quality, the company manufactures its own products. “We have 32 factories in 16 states,” he says.

At the moment, Ramachandran is very excited about T-Shine, which is used for toilet bowl maintenance. “There are no safe products in the market,” he says. “They are all hydrochloric acid-based. This is highly corrosive. You can see the effects because of the yellow stains that appear in the bowls. That is nothing but a sign of corrosion. When you use these products, you also experience an acid smell. It can affect your respiratory system.”

These were the reasons why Jyothy Laboratories decided to make a 100 percent organic product. “That is the need today,” says Ramachandran. “Old technologies should give way to the new. We took two-and-a-half years to create this product. Instead of corroding the surface, it protects them. We provide a film so that when water falls on it, it is like falling on a lotus leaf. It just slides away. So the shine remains forever.”

Meanwhile, when asked about the business environment in Kerala, Ramachandran says, “Politicians and ministers have a desire to encourage business. But the bureaucracy has a negative approach towards us. That has not changed. They say, 'You are going to make money, so give me something'. There is a delay in getting permission to start projects.”

For those who have manufacturing facilities, they have to contend with the high wages. Added to that is the menace of Nokku kooli (organised labour unions who charge money just to watch other people lifting loads). “It is one of the most dampening things about doing business in the state,” says Ramachandran. “People in Mumbai say, 'Don't go to Kerala, there is Nokku kooli'.”

Finally, when asked to give tips to youngsters who want to be entrepreneurs, like him, Ramachandran says, “First of all, join an organisation or a career for which you have an aptitude. Work for a few years and gain experience. In my own life, I had 14 years of experience while working in a medium-scale industry.”

Ramachandran learnt about purchase, sales, R&D, product development, distribution, controlling the field staff and financial management. “So that reduces the chances of failure,” he says. “Most people jump into business thinking that the aim is to make money. But that attitude will ensure failure. Your attitude should be, 'I want to make a very good product'. And you should be able to work very hard. The success will come your way.” 

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

#Mramachandran #JyothyLaboratories #Ujala #Tshine # Nokkukooli #MrWhite #Maxo, #Margo #Neemtoothpaste #Henko 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Footballer Iain Hume, of the Kerala Blasters talks about his experiences in the Indian Super League

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Iain Hume with his family. Photo of Iain by Albin Mathew 

On a recent Sunday morning, Kerala Blasters footballer Iain Hume set out from his hotel in Kochi accompanied by his wife Chrissie, and daughters Keira, 14, and Alyssa, 7, to the Kodanand Elephant Training Centre at Kaprikad, 50 kms away.

There the family interacted with the elephants. They got an opportunity to scrub a bull elephant, which was lying on its side. “For us to touch and clean the animal has been a unique experience,” says Iain. “In England, we see elephants only in a zoo.”

The family had come on a ten-day holiday from their home in Birkenhead, Liverpool. “They loved it, especially the time we spent on the backwaters,” says Iain. “It was their first visit to Kerala.”

As for Iain, he is now regarded as a Keralite and has become a celebrity. So much so, that whenever he steps out in public, he is greeted enthusiastically. “Although I live at the Marriott hotel, I went to the Lulu Mall next door only once in the past three months,” he says, with a smile. “But I have no complaints. I am having such a great time.”

At a one-on-one meeting what strikes the most about Iain is his intensity and energy. What is also striking is the tattoos all over his body. There are three English roses to represent his wife and two daughters. Then a quotation goes right across one arm: 'Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take, but the number of moments that take our breath away'. “I have the birthdays of my children on my ribs, and elephants on my calves,” he says. “I am fascinated by them.”

Meanwhile, when asked about the status of the Indian Super League (ISL) vis-à-vis world football, Iain says, “Football leagues in Spain, England, Germany, France, Portugal and South America are more than 100 years old. The ISL is only four years old, but there is a massive improvement in the local talent. The average age of the players has gone down by four to five years. Most of them are now between 20 and 25 years of age. It can only get better.”

Having played for four teams Iain has a good idea of the personality of the Indian player. “With my hand on my heart I can say I have not met a single Indian player that I have not liked,” he says. “They have a lot of love inside them. Indian players can be quite emotional. They take a while to come out of their shell but once they do, they are warm and friendly.”

As for the fans, he says the most passionate are in Kolkata and Kochi. “When we are on the ground, we can feel the love,” says Iain. “They just love their team, state and football with all their heart.”

But he is also the first to admit that the fans have been disappointed by their performance this season. “But that is understandable,” says Iain. “Fans support the team unconditionally, but they also want success. That's the case with fans all over the world. We players also want to win. There is no lack of effort. A lot of things have gone against us. But we are working as hard as we possibly can” (Unfortunately, for Iain, he suffered a season-ending injury during a league match against FC Pune City on February 2).

Iain pauses and adds, “We play sport to win championships, not just to take part. If anybody tells you he is playing just to participate, most probably, it is a lie. You do play for the love of the game but sport is competitive. Nobody remembers the team which came second, third or fourth. Everybody wants to reach the pinnacle. Having been part of a team, ATK (‘Amar Tomar Kolkata’) which won the ISL, it is an unbelievable feeling.”

Meanwhile, Iain also had some moving off-the-field experiences. In Kolkata, he, along with a few other team members went to an orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa. “It was painful to see so many children who were disabled,” he says. “Since I have young children, it made me appreciate a lot of what I have. The plus side was to know that these children are being cared for and not living on the streets. These last four seasons in India have been one of the most memorable of my life.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

Thursday, February 08, 2018

When Her Dad Got Star-Struck by Mohanlal


Actor Priyamani talks about her experiences in the films, 'Otta Nanayam', 'Grandmaster', 'Raavan', 'Chennai Express' and 'Thirakkatha'

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the film 'Otta Nanayam' (2005), actor Priyamani played a beggar girl called Chippy. A shoot was scheduled at the Ernakulam Junction station. Priyamani had to beg from real-life passengers accompanied by a group of beggar kids. She was dressed appropriately: a black paavada, a cream blouse and a face without make-up. The camera was placed in a hidden position.

Not many people recognised me,” says Priyamani. “Maybe one or two did but they were not sure whether I was indeed Priyamani.”

Anyway, Priyamani began asking for money from passengers sitting at the window seats. “Two men gave us one or two rupees coins,” she says. “But one man yelled at us and said, 'Why can't you get some job instead of begging. Every afternoon, we see people like you. Why do you beg?'”

Priyamani ignored him and went to the next passenger. “It was a strange and weird experience,” she says. “The way people stare at you. And to lead a life where you don't have any money can be so difficult.”

Priyamani had a completely different experience on the sets of 'Grandmaster' where she acted opposite Mohanlal for the first time. It was also the first time that her father [Vasudeva Mani Iyer], along with her mother and brother came to watch her act on the sets. “The main reason was because my father is a big fan of Mohanlal,” she says. “But on the set, my dad was star-struck.”

When Vasudeva came face-to-face with the superstar, he felt flustered and said, “I have been a fan since my childhood.” Later, he told Priyamani, “I should not have said that.”
Meanwhile, there were some problems with Mohanlal's mobile phone. “My brother Vishakh is very good with electronic stuff,” says Priyamani. “He tinkered with it and solved the problem. Mohanlal was very happy and grateful.”

Chicken Soup For The Soul

In the Hindi film 'Raavan' (2010), Priyamani was playing the role of Abhishek Bachchan's sister. The shoot was taking place in Jhansi. The stars were staying at a palace which had been converted into a heritage hotel. Priyamani was suddenly laid low by flu. She felt very weak. Nevertheless, she decided to go to the dining hall with her mother and have some food. Soon, Abhishek heard that she was unwell.

He came over to their table holding a white bowl in his hands. “This is a ginger chicken curry which I just made in the kitchen,” he says. “It has got a lot of medicinal value.” Priyamani was not sure whether he was pulling her leg or not.

Nevertheless, she smiled and accepted the dish. “It was quite tasty,” she says. “Abhishek is a good cook.”

In 'Chennai Express', Priyamani had the chance to interact with another Bollywood star, Shah Rukh Khan. The shoot, at Wai, in Pune district, was for the song, '1,2,3,4 Get on the dance floor'. “Shah Rukh Khan is a very cool person,” says Priyamani. During breaks in the shoot, they would play 'Kaun Banega Crorepati'. He had downloaded the app on his Ipad and acted as the quiz master. “Nikitin Dheer [who usually plays villain roles], and I betted small amounts and tried to answer the questions,” says Priyamani. “Time passed so quickly, thanks to KBC.”

When the tears rolled down

The shoot for the film, 'Thirakkatha' (2008) was taking place in a tea estate at Wayanad. Priyamani played Malavika, an actress who had faded from public view. In the morning, the shoot was of a romantic song, 'Palappoovithalil', in which she wore several bright costumes.

For the second half of the shoot, make-up man Renjith Ambadi had to change her look entirely since her character was suffering from cancer in the film. So, he had to make her head bald and give her a pale look. It took three hours. After he finished his task, when Renjith looked at her, tears began to roll down his face.

I did not ask him the reason why,” says Priyamani. “But I suspected that I was a reminder of some person who had passed away.” Priyamani realised the effectiveness of the make-up when she walked into the set. “There was a pin-drop silence,” she says. “People just stared at me silently.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthpuiram)

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Meeting great mountaineers like Edmund Hillary, Junko Tabei and Tensing Norgay

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: The first page of the six-page article published in Sportsworld magazine. The photo is of British mountaineer Doug Scott; At the seminar in Darjeeling: Tensing Norgay (extreme left) Nawang Gombhu and Sir Edmund Hillary. Nawang, the nephew of Tensing, was an equally illustrious mountaineer. He became the first man to climb Mount Everest twice; The tiny Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei surrounded by fans at Darjeeling 

The other day when a friend asked me who was the most interesting personality I had met in my journalistic career, the images of Edmund Hillary, Junko Tabei and Doug Scott flooded my mind. All of them were members of the Everest brotherhood: people who had climbed the highest mountain in the world.

I met them at a seminar on mountaineering in the hill station of Darjeeling in West Bengal. The date was May 15, 1985. To get an exclusive interview with Hillary I went to the Sinclair’s Hotel at 8.30 a.m. I was told he was having breakfast. So I went outside the restaurant, beckoned a waiter and passed a note requesting an interview. The waiter duly showed it to Hillary, and told me that I could meet the mountaineer after breakfast.

Accordingly, after breakfast was over, I was led in. Hillary was sitting with his second wife June (his first wife Louise and daughter Belinda had died in an aircrash in Nepal in 1975). He was extremely courteous and apologised for keeping me waiting. June smiled encouragingly as nervously I asked my questions.

And Hillary was visibly taken aback when I asked whether he thought of death during his ascent to the top of Mount Everest. I guess he never expected a young man to ask such a question. But his answer was memorable:  “I was frequently frightened. I knew one mistake would result in me plunging to my death. So, the triumph is not only over the mountain, but over all the fears and anxieties that are raging inside you.”

Later, just outside Bhanu Bhawan, I watched all these great mountaineers interacting with each other during a tea break, especially the irrepressible Junko Tabei. She was barely 5’, with shoulder length black hair and bright eyes. There was something schoolgirlish in her behavior and it was hard to believe she had come become the first woman to have climbed Mount Everest, and would later climb the highest peaks on all seven continents.  

Meanwhile, as Junko moved from person to person, she eventually came and stood beside Hillary and said, “My, you are so tall!” Hillary, who was 6’5”, suddenly bent his knees till he reached Junko’s height, and Junko put his arms around him and convulsed in laugher.  And, of course, there was famed mountaineer Doug Scott with his Gandhi specs and shoulder-length hair, who also hugged Junko. Suddenly Doug reached into his bag, took out his camera and passed it to a photographer. He too wanted to preserve the moment forever. And watching all this with an enigmatic smile was Tensing Norgay.

The passage of time results in one unavoidable circumstance: death comes calling. Norgay (1986), Hillary (2008), and Tabei (2016) have all passed away, while Scott, now aged 76, is holding the fort of being one of the first Britishers to have climbed Mount Everest. All of them have been extraordinary people. And in the process of climbing an outer mountain, they climbed an inner one, too. 

(Published as a middle in The New Indian Express, South India editions) 

#EdmundHillary #JunkoTabei #DougScott #MountEverest #TensingNorgay

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Remembering the Holocaust

On his recent visit to Kochi, Dr Martin Korcok, Head of the Sered Holocaust Museum in Slovakia, talks about what the Jews went through in his country during the Second World War

Photos: Dr Martin Korcok, by Melton Antony; the inside of the museum; a train transport  

By Shevlin Sebastian

Every night, [in 1939], the BBC, before the news broadcast, would play the national anthem of its allies,” says Gertrude Silman. “This included the national anthem of Czechoslovakia. I would listen to it because it enabled me to be close to my parents.”

When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1938, the parents of Gertrude decided to send her to their relatives in Liverpool. So, on April 1, 1939, she embarked for England. But it was a place that Gertrude found difficult to adjust. “I was very homesick,” she says.

Her younger sister Charlotte Bushell also followed her. “When I said goodbye to my parents, I was told that it was for a year,” she says. “But it turned out to be much longer.”

In the meantime, their father was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp [in occupied Poland] in March 1942. Later, he perished there. Soon, Gertrude's mother went missing. “She was one of two million people who has not been accounted for,” says Gertrude. In the end, both the sisters, who live in England now, never saw their parents alive. As Gertrude says, “I have nice memories of home, but it is tinged with sadness because our family was destroyed.”

Adds Charlotte: “Whatever happened to us is not in the past but lives within us.”

Both Gertrude and Charlotte were speaking for the documentary, 'The Feldman Sisters', which was shown at the Uru Art Gallery in Mattancherry recently by Dr Martin Korcok, the director of Sered Holocaust Museum in Slovakia. He had come to give a talk titled, ‘Museums as keepers of memory’.

One of the aims of Martin is to educate the younger generation about what happened so that history is not repeated again.

With that end in mind, Martin has made several short films with survivors. “From my experience, I realised that young people will have a better understanding if they meet a survivor,” says Martin. “But there are very few survivors these days. Many have passed away. And for those who are alive, it is not easy for them to come to the museum and speak about their experiences. So we decided to make these short films. Thus far, we have been able to show how the Jews lived before the war. At that time, Czechoslovakia (the country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on January 1, 1993) was one of the most liberal countries. Then the Holocaust happened.”

In terms of statistics, in a small place like Slovakia, during the Second World War, more than 70,000 Jews were killed. In fact, Slovak girls, who went on the first transports on March 25, 1942, were the first Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz. “The aim of the Nazis [from Germany] was to make Slovakia ‘Juden Free’ – without Jews,” says Martin.

Nearly all the Jews were initially held at the concentration camp at Sered. In 2009, Prime Minister Robert Fico announced that the camp would be converted into a museum, in honour of the victims. “The funds have come from the government as well as the European Union,” says Martin.

Meanwhile, the situation has not changed much for Jews in Europe today. “Because the people have been supporting right-wing parties, Anti-Semitism is rising in Europe,” says Martin. “However, compared to countries like Germany, Britain and France, where you have soldiers and police in front of synagogues and Jewish schools, the situation is much better in Slovakia.”

Nevertheless, Martin detects Anti-Semitism on the Internet among his countrymen. “If there is an article about the Jews when you read the comments, you can detect a lot of antipathy for the Jews, but the only difference is that there are no personal attacks,” he says. Incidentally, from a high of 1.39 lakh Jews before the war, today there are only 2700 Jews in Slovakia.

Back in Kochi, Martin was very happy with his experience at the Uru Gallery. “The members of the audience were active participants,” says Martin. “They asked whether the perpetrators were prosecuted after the war, or whether they succeeded in re-integrating themselves into society along with the victims.”

Martin paused, smiled and says, “The Indian people do care about subjects like the Holocaust, racism, xenophobia, and genocide. It was nice to see that India is a country that allows such subjects to be discussed openly. It is a sign of a great civilisation.”  

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)