Thursday, 26 May 2022

LIC: How the dead helped a salesman to become a star agent

 For decades, Bharat Parekh has scanned death notices in daily newspapers and staked out crematoriums in India's central city of Nagpur to sell life insurance, one of the world's oldest financial products.

"You don't need funeral invitations in India. You identify the bereaved family by the people carrying the bier. You approach relatives and friends of the deceased and introduce yourself. You tell them you are offering your free services to settle any claims on life insurance the dead person had. And you leave behind your visiting card," Mr Parekh says.

After the end of the customary mourning period, some families call him. But mostly he knocks on their doors. Mr Parekh makes sure that the death claim is settled in time. He finds out how the death has affected the family financially - are there unsettled debts, do they have adequate insurance, savings and investments?

"I understand death and its impact on families. I lost my father when I was very young."

Mr Parekh, 55, is one of 1.36 million agents of Life Insurance Corporation of India, the country's largest insurer. With 286 million policies and more than 100,000 employees, the 66-year-old state-owned behemoth - which has now made a much-hyped stock market debut - is a household name. More than 90% of its policies are sold by agents such as Mr Parekh.

Mr Parekh has hired more than 30 employees to run his business. Mansi Thapliyal

Mr Parekh is also one of the firm's star agents. He is an avuncular and neatly dressed man who speaks with the enthusiasm of a salesman and the zeal of a preacher of thrift. He has sold $324m (£248m) worth of life insurance, almost all of it in and around Nagpur, a city famous for its oranges. He says he "serves" some 40,000 policies - he earns commissions on nearly a third that he has actually sold. The rest he services - collecting premiums, settling claims - for free.

In a profession with no celebrities, Mr Parekh is one. Breathless media reports talk about him earning more than the chairman of the LIC. For nearly three decades, he has been a member of the Million Dollar Round Table, a group of the world's leading life insurance and financial services professionals. He's invited to talks at schools, colleges, banks and management schools. One of his motivational speeches, which he once sold on audio cassettes, is unabashedly titled: Meet the No. 1, Be the No. 1.

Thirty-five people work for Mr Parekh in his busy office, which offers a bouquet of financial services. Insurance, of course, comprises the bulk of his business. He lives in a sprawling apartment in an upscale neighbourhood with his wife, Babita, herself an insurance agent. One recent evening in Nagpur, Mr Parekh came to pick me up in his shiny new electric SUV, which he loves taking on long drives after 18-hour-work days. "Look, how fast she revs up," Mr Parekh said with childlike glee.

His rise has been swift as well. He has written a book, part memoir and part savings advisory. In it he quotes Walt Disney: "If you can dream it you can do it."

This is clearly a thought in hindsight. The son of a textile mill worker and a homemaker mother, Mr Parekh had literally no room to dream: he shared his family's rented one-room 200sqft home in a squalid neighbourhood with eight others, including his parents, four siblings and a widowed aunt. Life was tough: the siblings packed joss sticks into boxes to make both ends meet.

When he turned 18, Mr Parekh began selling insurance after his morning college classes. He would hire a cycle and cold call prospective clients, while his sister would look after the paperwork. His sales pitch was laced with homespun metaphors. "Life insurance is like a spare tyre when you have a puncture and your vehicle breaks down," he told a motor parts dealer, one of his first clients. He took out a policy and Mr Parekh earned 100 rupees (about $1.30; £1) as commission.

In the first six months, Mr Parekh sold six policies. At the end of his first year, he had earned about 15,000 rupees in commissions, which would go to keep the home. "It was difficult to sell life insurance. I would sometimes go home and cry," Mr Parekh recalled.

Insurance agents often have a bad reputation, and are regarded as vultures, preying on insecurities of clients. None of this has deterred Mr Parekh. Over the years he got smarter. He realised tracking the dead worked better than cold calling the living. His clients range from street vendors to businessmen. He forged relationships and networks.

One of Mr Parekh's clients is Basant Mohta, a fifth-generation textile mill owner, who works and lives 90km (55 miles) from Nagpur. He says 16 members of his joint family - at 88, his mother is the oldest and his year-old grandchild the youngest - have taken out life insurance through Mr Parekh. The two met on a flight. "I think life insurance is important. And more important is an agent you can fully trust and depend on," Mr Mohta says.

Mr Parekh believes part of his success is down to the fact that he has been ahead of the curve and spent on himself. He imported a Toshiba laptop from Singapore and computerised his records as early as 1995. He spent a fortune on getting finance training courses abroad. He bought one of the earliest mobile phone connections in India when call charges were prohibitive, and gave his employers pagers. He invested in an office, cloud-based technology and now has his own personal app. He puts up daily adverts in the obituary pages of local papers. He even sponsors fetes for children and their parents to "catch them young".

Indians have traditionally taken insurance to protect themselves against the risk of dying early and also for tax rebates and bonus pay-outs from the firm's profits. But times are changing. The LIC, by its own admission, is facing "stiff competition" from "mutual funds, bank deposits and small savings instruments, besides physical savings".

The insurer now plans to ramp up its digital presence, so that more clients can buy insurance online. Will this mean a diminishing role for people like Mr Parekh? "Not so," says Singarapu Srinivas, president of Life Insurance Agents Federation of India. "Agents will be always there. Selling life insurance requires face-to-face meetings with clients, who ask a lot of questions."

Mr Parekh welcomes the insurer's modernisation moves. "Business will grow further. And we will have more work to do," he says.

And it's a lot of work. For example, when Mr Parekh and his employees are not tracking down the dead, they are celebrating the living. After scanning death notices, he begins sending wishes to his clients on WhatsApp. "I have to send so many birthday, wedding anniversary greetings every day."

On the day we meet, he checks his phone and shows me what looks like a neat list of names, addresses, numbers and occasions. These are the 60 clients who are having their birthdays on the day, and 20 who are celebrating their wedding anniversaries. "I have to wish them all. Some I will send gifts," he says.

I ask him how he keeps track of the lives and moments of some 40,000 insurance policy holders.

"It's a secret," he says with a chuckle.

(Source: BBC)

Tuesday, 24 May 2022

How tall will Mount Everest get before it stops growing?

 Arching over 8,849 metres (29,032ft) into the sky, Everest is the world’s tallest mountain. But will it always be?

Aurora Elmore was approaching Mount Everest's South Base Camp in Nepal. But rather than taking the traditional 12-day hiking route, she was soaring between the frozen peaks, the rotor blades of her helicopter slicing through the thin air with a whap, whap, whap.

It was April 2019, and she was delivering supplies to a team of scientists working on the slopes of the world's tallest mountain. Her reward was a spectacular view: the day was crystal clear, exposing the entire Himalayan range.

Over the next two months, researchers on the National Geographic and Rolex expedition she helped to organise would study the effects of climate change on this part of the Himalayas. Elmore, a geologist and at the time senior programme manager of the National Geographic Society in the US, supported the team installing the world's highest weather station on the flanks of Mount Everest. During the course of their expedition, her colleagues discovered the world's highest evidence of microplastic pollution in snow and stream water close to the summit. 

Gliding closer to Everest's iconic peak, Elmore got a bird's-eye view of them. A miniature city of green and yellow tents, each sheltering mountaineers headed for the top, had formed at Everest Base Camp more than 5km (3 miles) above sea level. Thousands flock to Everest every spring to make an attempt to reach the roof of the world.

And while few of the climbers would have noticed, Everest grew a tiny bit bigger during their time on the mountain.

Mount Everest, along with the rest of the Himilayas, inches further skyward every year. It raises an interesting question – with enough time, just how tall can Mount Everest grow? There are mountains on other planets in our Solar System that dwarf those on our own, so are there limits to how big a mountain can get on Earth?

Mount Everest towers 8,848.86m (29,032ft) above sea level, according to the most recent official joint survey by China and Nepal, whose borders run across its summit. But it isn't the only giant in these lands – 10 of the world's 14 peaks higher than 8,000m (26,247ft) above sea level can be found in the Himalayan range. Everest, Elmore says, is among friends. "If you've ever flown over Greenland or the Canadian Rockies you can see big mountains, but [the Himalayas] are just on another level," she says.

Surrounded by so many other enormous peaks, is it possible to discern just what a monster Everest is? Elmore hesitates before answering. "It's kind of like trying to tell the tallest person on a basketball team," she says finally. "They're all tall, but which one is the teeny [bit taller]?"

The history of measuring the tallest mountain in the world stretches back to 1852. In Europe, Charles Dickens was publishing serialised instalments of his novel Bleak House. North America had started testing its first steam-powered fire engine. In Asia, the height of Mount Everest was a mystery. It was known only as "Peak XV". Radhanath Sikdar, an Indian mathematician, had been employed by the British to work on their Great Trigonometrical Survey. They wanted to gather a more accurate geographical picture of the territory they were occupying so they could control it more effectively, be it for trade or military purposes.

Sikdar used trigonometry. He measured the horizontal and vertical angles of Everest's summit from other mountaintops whose positions and heights were already known. In doing so he made a momentous discovery: the tallest mountain ever recorded. According to his calculations, the mountain stood at 8,839.8m (29,002ft) tall.

Though the technology behind measuring mountains has advanced since the 1850s, his figure was astonishingly accurate, just nine metres off the latest official height. Despite Sikdar's findings, the mountain eventually was named after his previous boss, British surveyor Sir George Everest, who had retired several years before Sikdar's discovery.

At more than 8,848m (29,032ft) tall, Mount Everest towers over the other giants in the Himalayas (Credit: Getty Images)

Since then, teams have continued to work to understand Mount Everest's height. In 1954 an Indian survey determined Mount Everest to be 8,848m (29,029ft) tall, a figure which was accepted by the Nepalese government. But then, in 2005, the Chinese measured it at 8,844.43m (29,017ft) – nearly four metres (13ft) lower. In 2020, teams from China and Nepal jointly agreed upon a new officially accepted height that was 0.86m (2.8ft) higher than the Survey of India's original calculation. 

While these changes in the measured height are partly due to improvements in the measuring technology available to surveyors, there has also been some politics involved. China and Nepal historically have argued over whether the snow cap on the summit should be included in the measurement or not.

But we mustn't ignore that Everest also grows a tiny little bit taller every year too.

Once, the craggy limestone peaks that skim the sky of Everest were on the ocean floor. Scientists believe it all began to change about 200 million years ago – at around the time the Jurassic dinosaurs were beginning to emerge – when the supercontinent of Pangea cracked into pieces. The Indian continent eventually broke free, journeying north across the vast swathe of Tethys Ocean for 150 million years until it smacked into a fellow continent – the one we now know as Asia – around 45 million years ago.

The crushing force of one continent hitting another caused the plate beneath the Tethys Ocean, made of oceanic crust, to slide under the Eurasian plate. This created what is known as a subduction zone. Then the oceanic plate slipped deeper and deeper into the Earth’s mantle, scraping off folds limestone as it did so, until the Indian and Eurasian plates started compressing together. India began sliding under Asia, but because it's made of tougher stuff than the oceanic plate it didn't just descend. The surface started to buckle, pushing the crust and crumples of limestone upwards.

Weather stations installed on Mount Everest were damaged by rocks the size of cricket balls that were picked up by the wind

And so the Himalayan mountain range began to rise skyward. By around 15-17 million years ago, the summit of Everest had reached about 5,000m (16,404ft) and it continued to grow. The collision between the two continental plates is still happening today. India continues to creep north by 5cm (2in) a year, causing Everest to grow by about 4mm (0.16in) per year (although other parts of the Himalayas are rising at around 10mm per year [0.4in]).

But understanding how and why Everest's height changes is more complex than just this. While plate tectonics push the summit higher into the sky, erosion claws away at it.

To understand this process better, scientists studied another mountain some 8,700km (5,405 miles) away from Mount Everest, in Alaska.

Rachel Headley, an associate professor of geosciences at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, was part of a scientific expedition to Mount Saint Elias on the border of Alaska and Canada between 2005-2008. The mission intended to understand the complex roles of tectonics and erosion in how mountains grow and shrink. The second largest mountain in both Canada and the US, Saint Elias faces the same effects as Everest, from tectonic activity to erosion, but across a far smaller, more manageable area. "In that region, Alaska, there were very particular weather patterns that had helped these large glaciers grow," Headley says. "And then both glaciers and rivers, landslides, and avalanches were all kind of the processes that connected to tear them down."

Headley's role on the team was to understand the thickness of the Seward Glacier, which runs through the Saint Elias mountains, and how fast it was moving. Both can impact the rate of erosion, which can affect how quickly a mountain's height is worn away. "If we have a thinner glacier, and it's moving super fast… we know there has to be some sliding, which we think is really important for erosion," she says. "Sliding" can cause glacial abrasion, which is when the glacier drags rock fragments across the surface as it moves, creating a sandpapering effect.

Weather can also cause significant erosion to a mountain. Elmore describes one of the weather stations she helped install during the 2019 Mount Everest expedition as being "damaged by rocks the size of cricket balls that were picked up by the wind and thrown at it". Buffetting by debris and ice picked up by the wind takes its toll after a while.

The main routes up Mount Everest have now become so popular with climbers that long queues can form (Credit: Lakpa Sherpa/AFP/Getty Images)

Many of the highest peaks in the world, including Everest, have permanent snow caps that help protect them from this wind-blown barrage. Rock covered in a soft blanket of snow suffers less weathering and erosion than bare rock, says Headley. It also protects the rock from chemical reactions with the air that can gradually degade the minerals in the limestone that comprises much of the uppermost parts of Mount Everest. But there are still places where the rock is exposed to the elements.

"For a tall mountain range, you can basically get to such a steep angle in the rock that it can't actually support ice, and snow, and then you start to get avalanches, and you get bare rock," says Elmore. Rock falls and land slides – a constant hazard on Everest and the surrounding area – both play a role in shaving away at Everest's height, and rivers too. They have been estimated to be cutting gorges into the rock at a rate of between 4-8mm (0.2-0.3in) a year.

But the exact impact erosion has on a mountain's height is still to be understood. Some scientists believe that reducing the weight of a mountain (by taking away the snow, ice and rock it's made of) might actually allow the tectonic plates to push the, now lighter, mountain even further into the sky. 

Headley's colleague Terry Pavlis, who was the lead investigator on the St Elias Erosion Tectonics Project (Steep), explains that, on a large scale, "erosion attacking a landscape allows it to rise up".

In some parts of the world, entire landmasses are still rearing up after the last ice age – something known as isostatic rebound. Parts of North America and northern Europe, including Scotland, are rebounding after the rocky crust there was squashed by enormous continental ice sheets that waxed and waned during the Pleistocene. According to one study by researchers at Germany's University of Postdam, up to 90% of the uplift in the European Alps can be explained by this surprisingly elastic response to the end of the ice age. Experts believe similar glacial isostatic rebound may have taken place on the Tibetan Plateau and in the Himalaya as the ice age glaciers receeded – contributing between 1-4mm (0.04-0.16in) a year to the uplift.

"But there's some kind of equilibrium between how fast that landscape can erode and how high those peaks can get," adds Pavlis.

The exact details of this equilibrium are still being explored. In a region like the Appalachians in north-eastern North America, or the Scottish Highlands, erosive forces like rivers and landslides are cutting mountains down lower and lower, Headley says. "But in regions with tectonic activity, the tectonic force can be driving the mountains up slower, faster, or at around the same rate as the erosion is cutting it down. We don't fully understand all the drivers in those types of systems."

The most recent official height for Mount Everest was agreed following Chinese and Nepalese surveying expeditions to the summit (Credit: VCG/Getty Images)

So how are mountains actually measured nowadays? One of the most common instruments used is the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), which records the precise position of the mountain peak using a network of satellites. GNSS can "measure heights to the millimetre," according to Pavlis. The challenge, for a mountain like Everest, has always been the weight of the equipment. "It's hard enough to get to the peak – try adding a 30lb (13kg) instrument," he says.

A helicopter taxi to the top with the heavy luggage is out of the question – the thin air around Everest's summit means the engine can't produce enough power and there's too much drag from the rotor blades to operate safely. The strong winds and jagged creeks also make touching down anywhere near the summit dangerous. One helicopter pilot did set a world record by touching down briefly on top of Mount Everest in 2005, but only after the manufacturer stripped it bare of every unessential item to make it feather light.

Luckily, GNSS systems have gotten smaller over the years. Now they weigh more like 1.2kg (2.6lbs) and are "about the size of a lunchbox, maybe a little smaller", says Pavlis. But the devices still need batteries, which can struggle in cold temperatures. The average temperature at the summit of Everest during the summer monsoon months is a balmy -19C. And there are other complications too. "There's an antenna that's about, you know, half a metre in diameter. And those have to be set up somehow so that they are absolutely stationary," Pavlis explains. 

To gather millimetre-accurate results the instrument then has to record for several hours. In the thin air of Everest's "death zone", operating these instruments can be hazardous for surveyors. Members of a Nepalese expedition to take GNSS measurements on Everest in 2019 spent two hours on the summit – far longer than most who make their way there – after arriving at 03:00 in the pitch black and biting cold.

Another option, often used in addition to GNSS for the most accurate readings, is Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR). "GPR uses radar pulses to image below the surface, so it can tell us the thickness and internal structure of snow and ice overlying the rocks on Everest's summit," says Elmore. "There's something like 4m (13ft) of snow and ice on the top of Mount Everest, but that can change depending on the climate."

The mountain that measures the greatest distance from the centre of Earth to its peak is Chimborazo in Equador, at 10,920m (35,826ft)

While Elmore and her team were conducting their own scientific experiments on Everest they leant the Nepalese expedition a GPR device so they could take measurements from the summit. "It had to be a specific design of GPR, one that was super lightweight so [it could be carried] to the top of Everest, but that also had the right transmitter and receiver to measure the ice," says Elmore. The device had recently been used at the summit of Denali, the tallest mountain in the US, so they knew it was up to the job.

Despite the many hurdles they faced, the Nepalese team's expedition to measure the height of Everest was successful. They had hoped to answer questions about whether a deadly 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal in April 2015 had affected Mount Everest's height. Initial reports indicated the mountain had shifted 3cm (1.9in) to the south-west by the large earthquake, which killed 9,000 people and damaged hundreds of thousands of homes, but had not changed its height.

The project, however, soon became muddied with international politics. A few months later a team of Chinese surveyors conducted their own measurements during an expedition from the other side of the mountain. They had their own figure, which didn't include the snow cap. The Nepalese figure, on the other hand, did. In October 2019, the two countries decided to combine their data and in December 2020 they released the figure for the new official height – 8,848.86m (29,032ft), including the snow on top.

As China and Nepal found, deciding exactly what you measure, and how you measure, is fundamental to establishing a mountain's height. For example, to agree upon how tall a mountain is, we must first agree on where the bottom is. But that's not as easy as it might sound.

For centuries mountains have been measured using sea level as the base from where their height is calculated. But the Earth is not perfectly round: it bulges along the equator. And sea level isn't static, it is pulled and changed by our planet's gravity. Plus, Everest isn't sticking out of the ocean, it's nestled among a landscape of other mountains. 

Many complex calculations have to be done to establish where sea level would actually be, and Everest's relative height to it. When that starting point is changed, everything changes.

The Himalayas began rising around 45 million years ago as the Indian and Eurasian continental plates collided (Credit: Rik Olde Engberink/Alamy)

But let's say scientists started their measurements from the core of the planet instead. Everest would no longer be considered the tallest mountain on Earth. The mountain that measures the greatest distance from the centre of Earth to its peak is Mount Chimborazo, in Equador at 10,920m (35,826ft). What about starting from the seabed? The accolade of tallest mountain would then go to Mauna Kea, a volcano in Hawaii that arches 10,000m (32,808ft) from the ocean floor.

Looking beyond our own planet, we can see examples of just how enormous mountains can become. Olympus Mons, a volcano on Mars, towers 21km (19.2 miles) into the sky and stretches 624km (388 miles) wide. It is roughly the size of the state of Arizona. Because gravity on Mars is weaker than on Earth, and because Mars doesn't have tectonic plates shifting and colliding beneath the surface, the ooze of lava that flowed out of the Martian volcano in the planet's past was able to grow to monstrous proportions.

Could Everest become a similar giant? In the 1980s, a researcher at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, UK, attempted to estimate what such a limit might be on Earth, taking into account the strength of gravity and the strength of the rock underlying the mountain. The calculations, which made "no presensions to serious geophysics" estimated the theoretical maximum height of a mountain range with a granite base – as Mount Everest largely has – to be 45km (28 miles) on Earth. 

But there are a number of barriers – apart from our planet's relentless weather – that might stand in the way of this, according to Headley. For starters, "you would eventually run out of your tectonic forces, and then it would stop growing", she says. Scientists believe that eventually the Earth's mantle will cool to such a degree that the planet-wide dance of plate tectonics will end. Until then, earthquakes and landslides will also erode away the mountain too.

"At some point, [the mountain] becomes so steep that it's unstable and chunks start falling off," Elmore says.

With the wind, snow and ice buffeting, cracking and splitting the rock, Everest is unlikely to ever reach the sizes seen on Mars. "We have our weather systems, and weather is really good at creating erosional forces," Headley says. "Basically, the fact that we have water, whether in the form of ice or snow, or just rain, is what really can limit mountain growth."

For now, Everest keeps edging, bit by bit, into the sky as other forces try to tear it down. Elmore's 2019 team discovered global warming was yet another of these, driving considerable thinning of the snow and ice on the upper reaches of the mountain in recent decades and revealing more bare rock to the erosive impacts of weather.

Olympus Mons, a volcano on Mars, towers 21km (19.2 miles) into the sky and stretches 624km (388 miles) wide

Everest is also far from being the fastest-growing mountain on our planet. The closest contender for the top spot is perhaps Nanga Parbat, a neighbour to Everest located in the Pakistani Himalayan range, which is 8,126m (26,660ft) tall and growing at 7mm (0.27in) per year. In 241,000 years it could overtake Everest to be the tallest mountain on Earth, provided rates of erosion don't change.

Others, such as those in the Swiss Alps, are also growing rapidly thanks to an imbalance in the amount of erosion taking place. Scientists found that uplift is more than 50 times faster than any negative effects from erosion here. But the Swiss Alps are far shorter than Mount Everest and most studies suggest the mountains there are currently growing at 2-2.5mm (0.08-0.1 inches) per year

Meanwhile, Everest retains its allure as a mountain at the extreme of what can be found and endured here on Earth. Its reputation as the highest peak on our planet continues to attract climbers from all over the world, even as its height continues to shift.

Over a video call I ask Billi Bierling, a mountaineering journalist who hiked Everest herself in 2009, whether an extra millimetre, metre or mile higher matters to people like her. She is relaxing on the sofa at her mother's house in Germany, preparing to head back to Nepal for the summer season in March.

"The exact measurement doesn't matter," she says, laughing warmly at my question. "What matters is that it's the highest, and that you go to the highest point. If you're having a bad day, or someone is not very nice to you, or they put you down, you can think to yourself, you know what? I've climbed Everest."

For most who reach the summit, it is simply being there that counts.

(Source: BBC)

Monday, 23 May 2022

For every KGF 2, there's a Jai Bhim. A balance that South has, Bollywood doesn't

After Baahubali, a handful of films from the South have dominated the Hindi belt and the global market. But for every RRR or Pushpa or KGF, there's a Jai Bhim. Here's how South cinema manages this intricate balance.

Let's go back to 2010. Enthiran (Robot in Hindi), starring Rajinikanth and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, and directed by Shankar, managed to set the screens on fire. Enthiran is probably the first film to attain pan-India success. In 2015, SS Rajamouli's Baahubali: The Beginning made everyone sit up and take notice of regional cinema. Rajamouli followed it up with Baahubali: The Conclusion, which received greater critical acclaim and commercial success.

Today, films from the South have become super hit ventures in the Hindi belt, normally dominated by the Khans, Kumars and Kapoors. Allu Arjun's Pushpa: The Rise, Jr NTR and Ram Charan-starrer RRR and Yash's KGF: Chapter 2, despite being regional cinema, have performed exceptionally well in the North belt. In short, South films have breached northern territory.

The common talking point in all these films is its larger-than-life scale and hypermasculinity. So, is South cinema bringing the 80s back?


To understand that, let us tell you what we mean when we say '80s cinema'. In the 80s, films were mostly about the hero overcoming all odds and emerging as the saviour of the masses. Are films in the 2010s and 2020s following the trend? The answer would be a big no.

Commercial films have always been about superheroic, larger-than-life heroes. Be it Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Malayalam or Kannada, our heroes are capable of anything and everything. Our heroes survive bomb blasts, bash up 100 people and yet remain unscathed. This trend will never go away as it is ingrained in our blood and minds.

Then, why do films like RRR, Pushpa and KGF work well in the Hindi belt? It is safe to say that Bollywood's recipe for a masala or mass film has been failing for over a decade. None of the commercial films has been able to make a mark beyond a certain point. This is where South films differ.

Directors down South nail the perfect recipe for a mass film. Of course, there are duds. But, commercial films, when done right, will transcend borders. And the recent examples are a testament to the theory. Take for example RRR's interval block, who would have thought that Jr NTR's Komaram Bheem would unleash a bunch of wild animals in his attack against the British. Here, we must give credit to SS Rajamouli's wild imagination. He also executed the scene with the utmost perfection. So much so that it made us jump from our seats.

Similarly, when Yash's Rocky in KGF fires bullets against the villains, you cheer, hoot and whistle for him. That is the magic of commercial cinema. And it takes a lot of imagination, conviction and perseverance to get it right.


Is South cinema all about mass and commercial films? Again, a resounding no. For every RRR, Baahubali and Pushpa, there are films like Jai Bhim, The Great Indian Kitchen, Kaala and Pariyerum Perumal. In the South, there's a market for every kind of cinema. Be it commercial or art house films, the audience embrace them with the same love.


Malayalam cinema has been spearheading a change in the way films are being conceived and told. Films like Premam, Kumbalangi Nights and Jallikattu have proven the fact that content is king. One can take a simple story, but when it has solid substance, it does wonders at the box office.

Coming to Kollywood, Suriya's Jai Bhim, which skipped theatrical release, moved the audience and created a lasting impact. The film did ruffle a few feathers. But, at its core, Jai Bhim had a solid story. Similarly, filmmakers like Vetri Maaran, Pa Ranjith, Mari Selvaraj and Ram have stayed away from the 'conventional' tropes and developed their own film language.

This is probably one of the main reasons why South films get wider recognition, irrespective of the medium.

Let's go to the Telugu film industry, which was all about commercial cinema once. But, not anymore. There's a wonderful balance there. If films like Pushpa, Akhanda, and Aravinda Sametha are made, there are films like C/O Kancharapalem, Pelli Choopulu and Awe, which are also being given their rightful due.

Who would have thought that KGF: Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 would put Kannada cinema on the global map? But, director Prashanth Neel and actor Yash believed in it. Films like Kirik Party, Rangitharanga and Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana, among others, have highlighted the best of Kannada cinema.

In the South, there's a space for everyone. Be it ideological films or films that highlight left-wing politics, directors can make a film on diverse topics, and with conviction, unapologetically, unabashedly. And, there lies the success.

(Source: India Today)

Sunday, 22 May 2022

When kids have to act like parents, it affects them for life

 Some people who have to be responsible for their siblings or parents as children grow up to be compulsive caretakers.

Laura Kiesel was only 6 years old when she became a parent to her infant brother. At home, his crib was placed directly next to her bed, so that when he cried at night, she was the one to pick him up and sing him back to sleep. She says she was also in charge of changing his diapers and making sure he was fed every day. For the majority of her early childhood, she remembers, she tended to his needs while her own mother was in the depths of heroin addiction.

From as early as she can remember, Kiesel says she had to take care of herselfpreparing her own meals, clothing herself, and keeping herself entertained. At school, she remembers becoming a morose and withdrawn child whose hair was often dirty and unkempt.

It was a dark time made even bleaker by her mother’s violent outbursts. “During dope sickness, she would unleash a lot of fury onto me,” Kiesel, a 38-year-old freelance writer, told me. “I became the buffer or scapegoat of her rage to divert it [from] my younger (much more defenseless) brother.” (Kiesel’s mother is no longer living.)

At one point, she said she learned to take her small brother and kitten into their bathroom and barricade the door to keep them safe. “I felt a lot of weight on my shoulders, like my brother could die without me there,” Kiesel remembered.

She started breaking out in severe hives for months at a time, which she believes were triggered by the “burden of loneliness and responsibilities at that age.” Becoming responsible for an infant at such a young age came with a toll, she explained. “I sometimes picked on my brother or was quick to shove or slap his arm because I was overwhelmed and didn’t know how to handle the shrieks of a 2-year-old when I was 8.”

“It’s been a challenge for me to separate out feeling like I’m a parent to them.”

Eventually, at age 9, Kiesel and her 3-year-old brother were taken in by their grandparents, but the trauma of their former living situation stayed with the children. By the time Kiesel was 14, she said she suffered from daily panic attacks, OCD, and depression. It wasn’t until she was older, she said, that she began to understand the connection between her childhood experiences and numerous chronic illnesses.

Kiesel’s story is one of what psychologists refer to as destructive parentificationa form of emotional abuse or neglect where a child becomes the caregiver to their parent or sibling. Researchers are increasingly finding that in addition to upending a child’s development, this role reversal can leave deep emotional scars well into adulthood. Many, like Kiesel, experience severe anxiety, depression, and psychological distress. Others report succumbing to eating disorders and substance abuse.

“The symptoms look similar to some extent, from cradle to grave,” Lisa M. Hooper, a professor at the University of Louisville and a prominent parentification researcher, told me. Some of these behaviors start out in childhood and become exacerbated in adulthood, she explained.

“Children’s distrust of their interpersonal world is one of the most destructive consequences of such a process,” writes Gregory Jurkovic in his book Lost Childhoods: The Plight of the Parentified Child.

While there is a large body of literature that focuses on the neglect children experience from their parents, there’s less examination of how this neglect puts kids in roles of parenting each other. And there is virtually no empirical research on how this affects relationship dynamics later in life—both with siblings and others. Scholars agree that there are gaps in sibling research—primarily an incomplete understanding of how these relationships and roles are affected by abusive family environments. Hooper noted that “the literature is very scarce in this area.”

In Kiesel’s case, looking after her brother as a kid has led to a tenuous and chaotic relationship with him over the years, fraught with bouts of estrangement and codependency. Though they remain close,  there were periods where she and her brother didn’t speak for months at a time. “My brother is constantly on the edge of some crisis (a health crisis from his drinking, homelessness, etc.) so it is a worry that never goes completely away,” she told me in an email.

“Chronic, unpredictable stress is toxic when there’s no reliable adult.”

Her brother, Matthew Martin, 32, acknowledges the role their upbringing has played in these dynamics. “She was the only protector that I had,” he recalls. “My mother was a hard-core addict from very early on.” Throughout his childhood and early teens, he says he relied on Kiesel for the emotional support his mother couldn’t provide.

“We’ve had our fair share of arguments about [my addictions] and it’s hard, because she wants me to have some longevity. She wants me to be around for her the way that she was for me.”

* * *

From the age of 8 until she left home at 15, Rene, who asked to be identified by only her first name because she was concerned about upsetting her family, says she would pick up her three younger siblings from day care, bring them home, feed and bathe them, read them stories, and put them to bed. “Basically, I played the role of mother,” says the 50-year-old Oregon resident. She remembers standing on a chair as a child and cooking dinner for her entire family. In spite of the enormous burden of responsibility, she recalls it as a role she cherished. “I have really fond memories, particularly of reading them stories in bed at night.”

But Rene’s home life was far from peaceful. She says her mother’s alcoholism prevented her from properly caring for her five children, placing the task of child-rearing on the shoulders of Rene and her older brother. (Rene’s mother is no longer living.) But just as Rene took care of her younger siblings, she and her older brother relied on each other for emotional support.

“I think that it’s important to recognize that a lot of parentification is codependent,” she says. “Perhaps one sibling is the one who does the dishes and cleans the house, and takes care of the mom who is sick or drunk.” She explains that the other sibling might be the one who provides more emotional support, either by listening to problems or comforting.

Just as Wendy assumed the role of “mother” for the Lost Boys in Peter Pan, parentified siblings often forge symbiotic relationships, where they meet each others’ needs for guardians in a lot of different ways.

“If you’re parentified and you leave your younger siblings, it’s like having a parent abandon them.”

“We know that siblings can buffer each other from the impacts of stressful relationships with parents,” Amy K. Nuttall, an assistant professor in human development and family studies at Michigan State University, told me. This may account for why some parentified siblings who come from abusive homes end up maintaining close, albeit complex, bonds into adulthood, with some “continuing to attempt to fill parental needs at the expense of their own.”

Still, Nuttall adds, others may distance themselves from their families altogether in order to escape the role.

Rene found herself homeless after she was kicked out of her mother’s house when she was 15 years old. She says her siblings still blame her for leaving them behind. “When you think about it, if you’re parentified and you leave your younger siblings, it’s like having a parent abandon them,” Rene says. For years after, she was plagued by feelings of guilta common experience among people who have been parentified.

Sibling relationships usually generate a lifelong bond, yet for Rene, freedom from caretaking responsibilities came at a cost: the loss of her family. “I don’t have a relationship with my siblings anymore,” she says.

* * *

Unpredictable childhood trauma has long-lasting effects on the brain. Studies have shown that people with adverse childhood experiences are more likely to suffer from mental- and physical-health disorders, leading people to experience a chronic state of high stress reactivity. One study found that children exposed to ongoing stress released a hormone that actually shrank the size of their hippocampus, an area of the brain that processes memory, emotion, and stress management. Individuals who have experienced emotional or physical neglect by a parent are also at a greater risk of suffering from chronic illness as adults.

“Chronic, unpredictable stress is toxic when there’s no reliable adult,” Donna Jackson Nakazawa, the author of Childhood Disrupted and a science journalist who focuses on the intersection of neuroscience and immunology, told me.

“I did a lot of that kind of parenting her, in a way, because what I was trying to do was get parented myself.”

Nakazawa has conducted extensive research on the body-brain connection, with a focus on studies initiated by the physicians Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda. Their work on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) has since grown into a burgeoning field with hundreds of peer-reviewed studies. The findings show that people who experienced four categories of childhood adversity—neglect and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse—were twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer and depression as adults.

More links have been found between childhood stressors and adult heart disease, diabetes, migraines, and irritable bowel syndrome.

Jordan Rosenfeld, a 43-year-old author from California, attributes her own digestive issues to her childhood. When her mother was in the throes of substance abuse, she says, there were times she didn’t have food to eat. By the time she left home at 18, she began suffering from chronic pain after eating.

In adulthood, Rosenfeld noticed it was hard to regulate her emotions around hunger. “If I’m out with friends and we can’t decide on a restaurant, and I’m hungryI can actually go into a little bit of a meltdown,” she told me. “And I can trace that back to literally not having been fed as a child at various junctures.”

From an early age, Rosenfeld recalls having to remind her mother when they needed groceries and pulling her out of bed in the mornings to get to school on time. “I did a lot of that kind of parenting her, in a way, because what I was trying to do was get parented myself.” Because of this, she said she often distrusts that other people will take care of things. “That’s why I tend to step up and do it myself.”

Rosenfeld’s mother, Florence Shields, remembers it was a depressing time in both their lives. “I had welfare for a while and I think that my diet—because of drugs and alcohol—wasn’t very good, and she probably got the brunt of that.” As a recovering alcoholic, Shields, who is now retired and lives in Petaluma, California, says she lacked the tools for parenting due to her own upbringing and history of tragedy.

“I’ve always been somebody who thinks it’s my job to offer help and advice even when it’s not asked for.”

When she became a mother at age 24, Shields was still grieving the loss of her older brother who died unexpectedly when she was 18. Opioids and alcohol were a way of coping with this loss, she says.“It’s like that grief is in there with you because that person is with you for the rest of your life, so when sad things come up, there he is.”

While both Rosenfeld and her mother have since attended therapy sessions together as adults, the effects of parentification continue to this day. Shields recognizes that her earlier struggles with addiction have profoundly influenced her daughter’s behavior. “Jordan is very orderly and in control,” she said by phone. When Rosenfeld’s father later remarried and had more children, Rosenfeld learned to project her role of caretaker onto her siblings. “I spent a lot of time babysitting them as a teenager and I think it’s been a challenge for me to separate out feeling like I’m a parent to them.”

This has often caused rifts between the siblings into adulthood, Rosenfeld said. “I’ve always been somebody who thinks it’s my job to offer help, care, and advice even when it’s not asked for.”

* * *

How does someone learn that becoming self-reliant is safer than trusting others? Nakazawa believes that in destructive parentification, “you don’t have a reliable adult to turn to.” And if a child’s early experiences at home consisted of making sure everyone else’s needs were met, then the “child doesn’t feel seen.”

This sense of responsibility and compulsive caretaking can follow them into future relationships as well. “You tend to project it onto other people in your life,” Rosenfeld said. This isn’t surprising, says Jenny Macfie, an associate director of clinical training at the University of Tennessee and another prominent parentification researcher, as “adults who report role confusion in their childhoods may have difficulty with their identity development,” and this, in turn, can affect a person’s romantic relationships.

“It’s very easy for me to get into caretaking roles with people who basically exploit my nature.”

For the first half of her marriage, Rosenfeld found herself regularly putting her partner’s needs ahead of her ownessentially mirroring her childhood role.

Others echoed this experience; Kiesel said she struggles with learning how to establish firm boundaries with partners and believes this is directly tied to caring for her brother at a young age. Similarly, Rene says finding the right balance between expectation and autonomy has been a constant problem in her relationships. She’d like to find a partner but has doubts. “It’s very easy for me to get into caretaking roles with people who basically exploit my nature.”

But these effects often go beyond the individualstudies by Nuttall and others have found that destructive parentification in a family can carry over to other generations as well. “Mothers who were overburdened by taking care of their parents during childhood have a poorer understanding of their infant’s developmental needs and limitations,” Nuttall explained. This, consequently, “leads to a parenting style that lacks warmth and sensitivity.”

* * *

As of today, there is scarce research on treatment or prevention efforts. How can a parentified sibling heal? Nakazawa believes that recognizing how these psychological puzzle pieces all fit together can be a step in the right direction. 

“Physically and mentally, the architecture of the brain has changed, the immune system has changed, and without that validation, you can’t begin an appropriate healing journey.”

Some people have found community through Al-Anon, a support group for the loved ones of alcoholics. “The group has a really strong focus on explaining what codependency is and offering solutions for learning new behaviors,” Rosenfeld explained. She’s attended the meetings for more than a year now and said she’s noticed a tremendous change in her habits and awareness of how to set boundaries. “I’ve learned that I can’t just blame people in my life with substance-abuse issues for causing me suffering; I have a choice in taking care of myself,” she said.

Despite negative outcomes associated with parentification, researchers say that going through that experience also confers some advantages that can help people later in life. Hooper believes that people who have been parentified as children possess a greater capacity for resiliency and self-efficacy. Nakazawa echoes this. “Current [American] culture thinks of resiliency as gutting it out and getting through, and one foot in front of the other,” she said. “But resiliency is learning and making meaning from what happened.”

“People begin to see that their path to well-being must take into account the way trauma changed their story.”

A common thread found in people with these shared childhood experiences is a heightened sense of empathy and an ability to more closely connect to others. This is not to say that the negative impacts of their childhood are diminished, Nakazawa says, but that many are able to forge meaning out of their suffering. “People begin to see that their path to well-being must take into account the way in which trauma changed their story,” she explained, “and once they’re able to do that, they can also see how resiliency is also important in their story.”

For Kiesel, the freelance writer who cared for her brother from a young age, counseling and Al-Anon have helped her feel less personally responsible for her brother, though she laments the lack of support networks for siblings who have been parentified and have their own specific needs.

Though her relationship with her brother remains tenuous because of his addictions, she continues to look out for him by regularly calling and checking in on him every month.

Martin admits that to this day, she remains the voice of positivity and reason in his life. “I’m struggling with my own demons, but like my sister says, there is a future there for me.”

As Kiesel explained: “Our mother and grandmother died a few months apart, and our grandfather a little over a year later—so essentially, we’re all we have left.”

(Source: The Atlantic)