Wednesday 31 July 2019

Malnad remembers VG Siddhartha: Coffee king who created jobs, inspired entrepreneurs

VG Siddhartha was one of the biggest entrepreneurs from Karnataka’s Malnad region, creating jobs for close to 50,000 people, including those from his home district.

The death of Coffee Day founder VG Siddhartha as confirmed by Mangaluru police on Wednesday morning has left many in shock. His body was found at 6.30 am around 9 km from the spot where he went missing near a bridge on the Netravati river, more than 24 hours after a multi-department rescue operation began.

The 58-year-old was one of the biggest entrepreneurs from Karnataka’s Malnad region, creating jobs for close to 50,000 people, including those from his home district.

Siddhartha hailed from Chikkamagaluru district, the central part of Karnataka also known as Malnad, which is famed for its scenic hills, waterfalls, coffee estates and other plantations. The son of a coffee estate owner, Siddhartha’s family has been in the coffee growing business for 130 years.

Known as the coffee king of India, Siddhartha launched the first Café Coffee Day outlet in 1996 in Bangalore. Since then, the Coffee Day group has expanded massively, with the hospitality chain including two seven-star hotels. Siddhartha also had other business interests ranging from the furniture sector to IT to wealth management.

Jairam G Kimmane, a successful businessman from the region, said, “We are distant relatives and know him from 1985. He had established himself in a very big way. We all know him as a man of dignity and accountability. He has given a lot of jobs to people, especially for our people in that region. He is a prudent businessman who has been successful in managing such big plantations and build such a big brand.”

Halappa Gowda, a resident of Siddhartha's village and a long-time acquaintance, said, “He has given jobs to thousands of people who are employed in Hassan, Chikkamagaluru, Shivamogga, Coorg (districts forming Maland). Many people have gathered today after hearing the news. We are all worried about the situation. Even before him, his father used to manage acres of coffee plantations. He took over and has managed the business in the last few decades. He was a gem of a person. Very friendly and acted very humble with us.”

Many people who knew him personally vouch for his prudence in business and said that he was looked up to by entrepreneurs in India.

BS Arun, former president of Shivamogga District Chamber of Commerce, said that Siddhartha had very “good vision and very few people have come up like this over the years”.

“Nobody ever dreamt like him. At that moment, coffee was selling at a very high price, but he thought of retailing and building a brand. While there would be many investing in real estate or tourism, nobody like this invested in coffee and software business. He was a good motivator and provided employment to a lot of people,” Arun told TNM.

While Siddhartha commanded admiration from legacy businessman and people remember him as a job creator, a bunch of new-age entrepreneurs also looked up to him as inspiration.

Yashwanth Nag Mocherla, founder of The ThickShake Factory, a budding quick service restaurant chain, said, “First of all, for me and as well as hundreds of entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs he was an inspiration.”

He added, “He wanted to build the Starbucks of India and even now when they have entered India, they are no match to CCD. My business plan for shakes was what CCD was for coffee. Since then and even today, we look up to CCD for inspiration, just to understand the market potential in every new city we go to. The kind of business that he has built over the last 25 years is phenomenal and don’t forget he was among the top four coffee exporters in the world.”

If you or anyone you know is feeling depressed or suicidal, consider reaching out to one of the following helplines:

Tamil Nadu:
State health department suicide helpline number - 104
Sneha Suicide Prevention Centre - 044-24640050

Telangana government suicide prevention toll free number - 104
Roshni - 040-66202000, 66202001
SEVA - 09441778290, 040-27504682 (between 9 AM and 7 PM)

Sahai 24-hour helpline numbers: 080-65000111, 080-65000222

Maithri helpline - 0484-2540530
Chaithram helpline - 0484-2361161
Both are 24-hour helpline numbers.

Andhra Pradesh:
Life Suicide Prevention Helpline - 78930-78930
Roshni -
Helpline 1: 9166202000
Helpline 2: 9127848584

(SOurce: TNM)

15-20 'sorry' calls... This was VG Siddhartha's last day

Being a single child, though Siddhartha was very ambitious, he was "very sensitive, shy and a loner by nature," say his friends.

It was just another Monday morning for the family of VG Siddhartha. Yes, they were a bit surprised when he left home earlier than usual, but never would they have imagined that his body would be found floating in the Netravati river two days later.

"Though Malavika (Siddhartha's wife) or SM Krishna (his father-in-law) didn't find anything odd with Siddhartha's behaviour on Monday, they were a bit surprised that he left home as early as 8 am to office. Siddhartha normally left around 9.30 or 10 am and it was slightly early for him to leave but there was nothing unusual about his mood that day," said a family friend who had spoken to Siddhartha's wife after the news of him going missing arrived.

According to sources, Siddhartha was at home on Sunday and had made several phone calls. He even had lunch at home with his wife and father-in-law on Sunday afternoon. He stepped out for sometime on Sunday evening and came back to have dinner before going to bed. Something must have happened in the night which led to this decision, suggest friends close to his family.
Family members and relatives pay their last respects to the mortal remains of Cafe Coffee Day founder VG Siddhartha in Chikmagalur Wednesday July 31 2019. | PTI

However, Malavika and S M Krishna are tightlipped about the sequence of events and have just hinted that he had been upset with the recent pressure from the I-T department.

Siddhartha has two sons, Amartya and Ishan. Amartya, the first son, is in the US and Ishan is in school.

He left on Monday morning around 8 am, saying there was work at the office and asked the driver to take him to the head office. After this, around 11 am he asked the driver to proceed towards Sakleshpura.

"He had even informed his family members that he was going to Sakleshpura. They were not surprised as the coffee king loved to visit his hometown and also his father's estate in Chetanahalli," said a close friend.

Siddhartha was the son of Gangaiah Hegde, a 95-year-old coffee planter, who is now unwell and in the ICU in a private hospital in Mysuru.

Siddhartha wanted to fight for the country as a soldier in the Indian Army. At the age of 18, he wrote the entrance examination for the National Defence Academy in Pune to enrol as a cadet but couldn't clear the exam.

Speaking at a conference in Kanpur, Siddhartha had reportedly said that the dejection of failing in the exam led him to join St Aloysius College in Mangaluru to do economics.

After this, against his father's will, Siddhartha decided to do business.

According to a write-up by a very close associate of Siddhartha's family, which was shared on social media, he told his father, "Look, dad, if I lose money in business, think that your son is wayward and ruined 100 acres of coffee estate on his vices. I will still be left with hundreds of more acres to inherit. I will come back and continue our plantation profession. If I succeed in business, then I will give jobs to at least 500 boys of our Chickmangluru district, who just loiter around their college," wrote Vinay Madhav, a close associate of the family.

Being a single child, though Siddhartha was very ambitious, he was "very sensitive, shy and a loner by nature," say his friends. He then worked with Mahendra Kampani of J M Financial Ltd for one year and even opened a stock brokering office in Bengaluru.

According to Vinay Madhav, impressed with Siddhartha, the then Union Minister SM Krishna helped him take over Sivan & Co, an almost defunct stock brokering office in Bengaluru, which had its offices on Church Street. Siddhartha soon became a "hero" amongst people in Chickmagalur. Everyone admired him for his sensitivity and were happy to know that he was marrying Krishna's daughter Malavika. 

"We grew up admiring Siddhartha as a rising star in Chickmagalur district. He used to attend most of the weddings in Chickmagalur and everyone was awed by his simplicity. He spoke to everyone with the same respect and ensured that his roots remained firmly in the local community. We spoke at length about how he had adopted a middle-class lifestyle, despite being a rich kid. It was said that he lived in a single room in Mumbai in a middle-class locality while interning with JM Financial Ltd. and stayed in a single room at Hotel Highlands for a long time after taking over Sivan & Co in Bengaluru. We all respected him a lot," writes Vinay Madhav.

It's unfortunate that the same man who on the outside looked so confident and full of ambition lost his will to live at the age of 60 and declared himself a "failure" in his letter to board members.

His close associate MLA TD Rajendra says, "He was a very simple man with a great family background. He had said that he was a "little upset' with the recent I-T probe which had hit his business. But we never thought he would contemplate suicide," he said.

Meanwhile, Siddhartha, according to his driver Basavaraj Patil, made a minimum of 15 to 20 calls along the way and kept apologizing to people.

In his statement to the police, he said Siddhartha "was making calls to people and saying sorry. I noticed he sounded upset but I had not even in my dreams thought that he would kill himself," the driver reportedly told the police.

The CCB police team from Mangaluru is yet to interrogate the CCD board members and family members to understand if Siddhartha was depressed and if the letter was sent on 27th July or if he emailed it on the day of his disappearance.

(Source: TNIE)

'I've spent 22 years searching for silver in a ghost town'

Robert Louis Desmarais is the only inhabitant of a Californian ghost town, Cerro Gordo, where he has been searching for a lost vein of silver for 22 years.

A 70-year-old former high school teacher, Desmarais used to visit the remote spot in the school holidays to search for ore. But he eventually moved there full-time, to live away from the crowds "up in the mountains, under the stars".

Cerro Gordo (Fat Hill in Spanish) was once the most fruitful silver mine in California.

"It helped to build Los Angeles," Desmarais says.

Convinced there is plenty of silver left, he descends 800ft with a chisel and hammer to "crack rocks and see what's behind them".

He thinks he's found traces of a lost vein in a couple of mine shafts.

"I'm hoping to find it. That's why I'm still here," he says.

"Over 22 years, I've found equivalent to a wheelbarrow full of silver," he says.

For now, he sells the ore in its raw form to tourists for between $5 and $20 a piece.
After Desmarais had been living in the town for a couple of years, someone gave him a cabin, which had once been the home of a miner called William Hunter. That's where he now lives, at an altitude of 8,200ft, with a commanding view of the valley that enables him to see visitors long before they reach the town.

It's not an easy life. Desmarais' wife had to leave because she couldn't stand the altitude, he says. She now lives in Nevada.

Every day Desmarais collects and chops firewood. There is electricity on the mountain, but no water, so he fetches it one lorry load at a time from the town below, called Keeler.

Keeler was once a rail station and thriving town. Silver ore would be sent down the mountain to Keeler, boated across Lake Owens, and put on a train towards LA.

Since Lake Owens was drained as part of the Los Angeles Aqueduct project the population has decreased to 30.
Another town 15 miles from Keeler - Lone Pine - is the nearest place to fetch supplies. It has cafes, shops, hotels, and bars.

As someone who lives completely alone - "apart from the ghosts," he jokes - Desmarais enjoys showing visitors around. He tells them about the history of Cerro Gordo, which was founded in 1865 and quickly grew to host a population of 4,500, and about mining, his great passion.

He'd like to give mining tours underground, but the town's current owners, LA entrepreneurs Brent Underwood and Jon Bier, are against the idea. Mines are "inherently dangerous" they point out.

They bought Cerro Gordo for $1.4m in July last year, closing the purchase on Friday 13 - fittingly for a ghost town.
Like Desmarais, they think there may be riches to be found here.

"We all believe that the missing silver vein may one day be found. They pulled at least $500 million worth of minerals out of the mountain already and there are rumours there is at least another $500 million down there."

The town has been passed down "from dreamer to dreamer" since it was founded, they say. "All along the line there are interesting characters who all thought the hill could be more than it currently was."

Brent Underwood and Jon Bier
The new owners want to bring some life back into the town by introducing overnight accommodation. They took to Reddit to ask what else they should do.
One Redditor suggested building a cinema, but as it happens, Cerro Gordo already has a converted chapel with a projector box and cinema seating. The owners plan to make use of this to screen a variety of films.

Someone also gave advice about what to plant. "He suggested that we grow more grape soda lupine which are very nice and purple and that we get a few goats to control the underbrush that gets close to the houses to prevent fires in the future."

Thanks to this suggestion, Turtle the goat has made the transition to mountain goat.

The last owner asked Robert Desmarais to watch over the town, which he did on a voluntary basis. The new owners have hired him as a caretaker.

He mends windows. He has shot "a few snakes and rats" but never coyotes, which he considers "important, wonderful creatures". He picks up rubbish that "the bad people" leave. Once a month, he fills potholes on the road leading to the town.

One Instagram user wrote: "Thanks for watching over Cerro Gordo all this time, Robert!" Another said: "I want to sit by a campfire under the stars and listen to Robert's stories."

Unfortunately, he'll never see their comments as he doesn't own a computer, or - in fact, any form of technology: "I'm old school."

"I love the animals, the adventure and the beautiful stars."

(Source: BBC)

CCD owner VG Siddhartha’s body found near Mangaluru river 2 days after he went missing

A fisherman had claimed to have seen a man likely to be Siddhartha jumping into the Netravathi river from the bridge on Monday evening, police had said on Tuesday.

The body of Cafe Coffee Day (CCD) founder VG Siddhartha was found from the banks of the Netravathi River in Karnataka’s Mangaluru on Wednesday, two days after he went missing, police said.

The 60-year-old Siddhartha had gone missing on Monday evening from the road bridge between Ullal and Mangaluru over the river around 7pm, his driver Basavaraj Patil had told the police.
The 60-year-old Siddhartha had gone missing since Monday evening from the road bridge between Ullal and Mangaluru over the river around 7pm, his driver Basavaraj Patil told the police.(AFP photo)

“Around 6am today we found a body in the Hoige Bazaar area and we are trying to confirm if it is Siddhartha. We have informed his family and we have also sent the body to Wenlock Hospital to complete formalities. Our investigation will continue,” Mangaluru’s commissioner of police Sandeep Patil said.

A fisherman had claimed to have seen a man likely to be Siddhartha jumping into the Netravathi river from the bridge on Monday evening, police had said on Tuesday.

Siddhartha left Bengaluru on Monday afternoon to Sakleshpur near Hassan, where he has a house and one of his coffee estates. He told Patil to drive towards Mangaluru after a short break at Sakleshpur to freshen-up.

Siddhartha is the elder son-in-law of senior BJP leader, SM Krishna, who was the external affairs minister in the UPA-2 government (2009-12) and state chief minister (1999-2004) when in the Congress.

(Source: HT)

VG Siddhartha: Cafe Coffee Day tycoon's body found

The body of the founder and owner of India's largest coffee chain, Cafe Coffee Day, has been found near a river on the outskirts of the southern city of Mangalore, police say.

VG Siddhartha went missing on Monday after apparently walking away from his car and driver.

On Tuesday, police said a body had been found by fishermen on the river.

The identity was confirmed by members of Mr Siddhartha's family after the body was taken to hospital.

Mr Siddhartha's company, Coffee Day Enterprises Limited, held an emergency board meeting on Monday to discuss his absence. In a statement, it appealed for "the support and strength of all our stakeholders".

In a note to the stock exchange it said the company was "professionally managed and led by a competent business team" which would ensure the "continuity" of business.

Who was VG Siddhartha?
The 59-year-old coffee tycoon, who has been described in local media as "soft spoken" and "self-effacing", was not fond of the limelight.

He was born to a family of coffee plantation owners, but his first company was an investment firm. He used the profits from it to enter the coffee business, according to PTI news agency.

His decision to open a chain of cafes was inspired by a chat with the owners of Tchibo, a German coffee chain. Cafe Coffee Day opened its first outlet in the southern city of Bangalore in 1996. It wooed customers by offering them free internet with a cappuccino.

Mr Siddhartha saw the chain become one of the biggest brands in the country. It remained competitive even against global rivals such as Starbucks.

"He is singularly responsible for increasing domestic coffee consumption in India. There can be no doubt about it. In those days, we were completely dependent upon the export market and the heavy regulations on its sale," Dr SM Kaverappa, former vice chairman of the Indian Coffee Board, told BBC Hindi.

Mr Siddhartha is the son-in-law of former Karnataka chief minister SM Krishna and his wife is on the board of Cafe Coffee Day. The couple have two children.

What do we know about his disappearance?
Mr Siddhartha was travelling to Mangalore on Sunday evening when he asked his driver to stop the car on a bridge over the Netravati river on the outskirts of the city.

His driver told police that Mr Siddhartha then got out of the car and told him he wanted to take a walk. He also instructed him to park the car further ahead.

When Mr Siddhartha did not return after half an hour, the driver called his mobile phone - only to find the number switched off.

Alarmed, he informed the police who assembled two teams and searched the river on Sunday and Monday.

A fisherman found his body on Tuesday morning.

Why is his letter to the board of directors causing controversy?
In the letter, Mr Siddhartha says he was in debt and had "failed to create the right profitable business model despite my best efforts". It was signed by him and was also shared by his company with the stock exchange. It has since been widely circulated.

Mr Siddhartha's family verified he wrote the letter, police told BBC Hindi's Imran Qureshi.

"I am solely responsible for all mistakes. Every financial transaction is my responsibility," it said. "My intention was never to cheat or mislead anybody. I have failed as an entrepreneur."

However, Mr Siddhartha also accuses a former director general of the income tax department of harassing him, which he says, led to a "serious liquidity crunch".

This has caused a political outcry, with opposition MPs calling it targeted harassment. They are expected to raise the issue in parliament on Wednesday.

The income tax department has denied the allegation and questioned the letter's authenticity, saying that the signature did not appear to match Mr Siddhartha's signature on his company's annual financial reports.

The company board, too, has questioned the letter's authenticity in a statement, adding that it would "thoroughly investigate the matter".

How big is Cafe Coffee Day in India?
Cafe Coffee Day is India's largest coffee franchise chain. It has about 1,750 cafes across the country and some international outlets including in Malaysia, Nepal and Egypt.

However, local media reports have said its rate of expansion had slowed significantly over the last two years in the face of increased competition.

Mr Siddhartha owned a 33% stake in the company, but through his family and holding companies controlled closer to 50%.

The local Economic Times newspaper reported that he had been in talks with Coca-Cola to sell the company for $1.45bn (£1.19bn) although this was not officially confirmed by either side.

Mr Siddhartha's letter said the chain was struggling with financial problems due to debt, taxes and share buy backs.

Shares of the company have fallen by around 20% since his disappearance was reported.

(Source: BBC)

Indian coffee tycoon V.G. Siddhartha's body found floating in river

Authorities in Karnataka recovered the body of coffee baron V.G. Siddhartha floating in a river on Wednesday, two days after his disappearance sparked speculation that he was under intense financial strain.

The recovery of Siddhartha’s body unnerved investors in his flagship listed Coffee Day Enterprises Ltd and sent its shares plunging to an all-time low on Wednesday.

Coffee Day Enterprises held an emergency board meeting on Wednesday and named independent board member S.V. Ranganath as interim chairman. The company has also set up a committee that will be vested with the powers of the chief executive and they will explore opportunities to deleverage the Coffee Day Group.

A letter, purportedly written by Siddhartha and addressed to his board and employees, said he “gave up,” blaming an unnamed private equity partner for pressuring him into a share buyback and tax authorities for “harassment” and decisions that caused a liquidity crunch.

Siddhartha’s letter also mentioned hidden transactions that even auditors and senior managers were unaware of. Reuters was not able to confirm the authenticity of the letter, which was available on social media and published by local media.

While the authenticity of the letter has still not been verified, the board has taken serious note of its contents and will thoroughly investigate the matter, the company said.

Shares in Coffee Day hit their lower limit for the trading day and plunged 20% to a fresh all-time low of 122.75 rupees on Wednesday, fresh off the back of another 20% slide on Tuesday.

“I think the company, its brand, its franchise has value, if it gets sold to an external buyer,” said Deepak Jasani, a senior vice-president at HDFC Securities. “A lot will depend on whether and when the board or top management takes a call on selling the business or not.”

Siddhartha was travelling to Mangaluru, a port city about 350 km (218 miles) from India’s tech hub Bengaluru, on Monday when he asked his driver to wait for him on a bridge while he went for a walk, according to police.

The driver alerted the police when Siddhartha did not return.

“We found the body about half a kilometre from the sea,” said Ritesh D’Souza, 34, a local fisherman who helped retrieve Siddhartha’s body.

Authorities declined to say whether they were treating his death as suicide or foul play.

Siddhartha, 59, was widely recognised for having brought the coffee shop culture to a largely tea-loving India and he was also hailed as one of the country’s early venture capital investors.

India’s opposition parties seized on the letter, accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration of spooking businesses with heavy-handed tactics.

“His is the ugliest example of how agency persecution is wrecking India’s growth story,” tweeted Congress politician Milind Deora. “Hope govt reflects on its anti-business policies!”

The government did not immediately respond to a request for a comment on the allegations made by the opposition.

The Income Tax department issued a statement on Tuesday saying Siddhartha had failed to disclose some income, and it stressed that authorities’ actions were normal.

Siddhartha, who hailed from a coffee-growing family, opened his first coffee shop in 1996, more than a decade before global coffee shop giant Starbucks began its foray into the country. His Cafe Coffee Day chain boasts more than 1,600 outlets servicing a burgeoning middle class.

Siddhartha, who owns a direct stake of 32.75% in Coffee Day Enterprises, was also widely seen as a savvy investor who made some prescient early investments in Indian IT service firms such as Infosys and Mindtree in the 1990s, years before global firms began to bet on Indian start-ups.

His flagship entity, however, faced queries recently over outstanding debt, competition from trendier rivals, and scrutiny from tax authorities over unpaid dues.

Siddhartha, his family and their holding companies pledged or encumbered about 75.7% of their stake in Coffee Day toward various borrowings. Coffee Day’s 2018 annual report showed Siddhartha had personally guaranteed most of the borrowings.

Siddhartha’s letter, which included a list of many assets, stated that the value of the company’s assets outweighed its debts, and these could be use to repay everybody.

(SOurce: Reuters)

Hotel JW Marriott fined Rs 25,000 for ‘illegal tax’ on two bananas Rahul Bose ordered

Fresh fruits are not taxable under the GST law. According to HSN/ Chapter 803, bananas, including plantains, fresh or dried come under zero tax rate and are exempted.

The Chandigarh Excise and Taxation department on Saturday penalised hotel JW Marriott for charging “illegal tax” on two bananas that cost a whopping Rs. 442.50 to actor Rahul Bose. The five-star hotel was slapped with a penalty of Rs 25,000.

After confiscating relevant records, the hotel was served a showcause notice to which they were supposed to reply on Saturday and also attend a personal hearing.

Fresh fruits are not taxable under the GST law. According to HSN/ Chapter 803, bananas, including plantains, fresh or dried come under zero tax rate and are exempted.

Confirming the development, UT Assistant Excise and Taxation Commissioner (AETC), Rajeev Chaudhary said, ” Yes, the hotel has been indicted for illegal collection of tax – because they charged tax on bananas which come under the category of fresh fruits that are a tax free item. Fresh fuits are not taxable as per law. We have imposed a penalty on them.”

The AETC said that a penalty of Rs 25,000 has been imposed on the hotel— Rs 12,500 under CGST and Rs 12,500 under UTGST—for charging the actor Rs 67.5 tax for two bananas. The penalty has been imposed under section 125 of CGST act and section 21 of UTGST act.

The hotel authorities were asked to submit a reply by 11 am today. “The hotel authorities could not give a satisfactory reply to our notice. They did come for a personal hearing and sought more time which we did not allow. Citizens should be alert and can complain to us wherever they find that they are being charged illegally,” Chaudhary said.

Excise and Taxation Commissioner Mandip Singh Brar had ordered a high level investigation to probe GST on two fresh bananas in hotel JW Marriott following a tweet by the actor.

Later, a three member team was constituted by the Excise and taxation department on Thursday that visited the hotel in sector 35 and seized all relevant records. Excise officials had stated that prima facie, the case is also a violation of Consumer protection act, 1986.

While talking to The Indian Express, Excise and Taxation Commissioner Mandip Singh Brar said, “Everyone should be careful as charging tax to citizens on tax free items is not allowed at all.”

The committee constituted comprised Assistant Excise and Taxation Commissioner Rajeev Chaudhary, Excise and taxation officers RL Chugh and Arun Dheer. The committee will continue to probe records of the hotel to see if they are actually depositing tax on other items with the government or not.

No official statement has been released by the hotel authorities till now.

(Source: Indian Express)

Tuesday 30 July 2019

Overseas students face ‘unacceptable’ visa costs after outsourcing

Universities fear chaos in September as private company struggles with workload

International students and staff at British universities are facing “unacceptable” difficulties and costs in applying for visas, after parts of the application process were outsourced to a company charging up to £200 for appointments.

Universities say that the system, run by the French IT services company Sopra Steria, is already struggling to cope with the numbers renewing their student visas within the UK, and fear that it will be chaotic in September when more than 40,000 students are expected to use it.

“Despite constructive engagement between the Home Office, UK Visas and Immigration and universities, the current capacity and level of service being offered by Sopra Steria remains unacceptable,” said Alistair Jarvis, the chief executive of Universities UK.

“Students and universities cannot be expected to pay to address Sopra Steria’s broken system. We are calling on Sopra Steria to fully address these concerns before the September surge of students so that students can start their courses with the visas they need.”

Until March applicants were able to use a service provided through post offices to check documents and provide biometric information such as photographs. But since then they must book appointments through six Sopra Steria-run centres around the UK or pay extra for appointments in other cities.
 Sopra Steria claims it is working with the Home Office and UK Visas and Immigration to deliver the Tier 4 application service for overseas students. Photograph: Alamy

Universities UK, which represents more than 130 British higher education institutions, has received a stream of complaints about Sopra Steria from its members, and from students unable to book free appointments required to scan documents and take fingerprints.

Sopra Steria offers “enhanced” appointments at its main offices for extra fees, including next-day or emergency appointments from £100 to £200. Appointments can be made online, or through the company’s phone line which costs £2.50 a minute. The company’s website also offers appointments at a “premium lounge” in the City of London starting at £200, “for customers who desire a service with added comfort and privacy”.

Those costs are on top of the £475 that international students typically pay for a tier 4 visa application, and £300 a year surcharge for use of the NHS.

Elisa Calcagni, a student from Chile studying for a doctorate at the University of Cambridge, said: “I was required to enrol my biometrics through Sopra Steria. I had not expected any additional charges but I found it virtually impossible to find a free appointment.

“The time window for bookings on the online system only covers two weeks and there were no free appointments available, or any appointments at all in Cambridge. I called the Sopra Steria support line and they suggested to keep checking the website for cancelled appointments.

“I didn’t want the uncertainty of constantly checking the system with no guarantee of an appointment becoming available, so I elected to pay £100 for an appointment in Croydon, two hours away. Despite booking a timed appointment, there was a waiting time of an hour and then the system wasn’t working properly leading to further delays.”

Free appointments are said to be between 10am and 4pm at the company’s core centres, in Birmingham, Belfast, Cardiff, Croydon in south London, Glasgow and Manchester. In some other cities “enhanced service points” offer appointments for £60 to £125, in many cases located in public libraries.

“As a result, some students are paying to fast-track their appointments and travelling to one of Sopra Steria’s centres, often many miles away from where they live,” Universities UK said.

Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, said the “shoddy” service was the wrong way to treat students making significant educational and financial contributions to the UK.

“While other countries are falling over themselves to attract international students, this Tory government continues to subject them to a hostile environment,” Abbott said.

“Sopra Steria are yet another private contractor, like G4S and Serco, given millions in public funds by the Home Office, and providing a shoddy service.”

A spokesperson for the company said: “Sopra Steria is working closely with the Home Office, universities and higher education institutions across the UK to deliver the tier 4 visa application service. This is tailored to each institution’s needs to provide greater student convenience and choice.

“We are focused on adapting the service to respond to areas of greatest demand and are increasing capacity where needed.”

Other students have also said they couldn’t access online appointments administered by Sopra Steria. Khalid Elkhereiji, a student at the University of Southampton who uses a screen reader to read onscreen text aloud, said it could not deal with parts of the online application.

“This is not a problem that I face with other websites and it meant I was not able to log in without the assistance of a sighted person,” Elkhereiji said.

“I have explained my concerns with the accessibility of the service to Sopra Steria and I believe it is a relatively simple issue to fix. However, I have not had any further updates from Sopra Steria and there has been no confirmation that their website is inclusive and accessible to everyone.”

After eventually logging on Elkhereiji found there were no appointments available in Southampton, and obtained one only after his university intervened.

In 2017 Sopra Steria came under fire for its involvement in NHS Shared Business Services (SBS), a venture it co-owned with the Department of Health, after the Guardian revealed that more than 500,000 pieces of sensitive medical correspondence handled by SBS had gone missing.

(Source: The Guardian)

The aesthetic beauty of math

In 1939, as the buildup to war in Europe intensified, a brilliant French mathematician named André Weil made a plan to emigrate to the U.S. He was thirty-three and didn’t want to serve in the army; his life’s purpose was math, he felt, not soldiering. His escape turned out to be more difficult than he anticipated, in part because, as he would write in his memoir, “the Americans, who so warmly welcome those who do not need them, are much less hospitable to those who happen to be at their mercy”—as we’ve gone on to prove repeatedly since then.

He was vacationing in Finland when the war broke out, and he tried to lay low in Helsinki but was arrested and returned to France, where he sat in jail during the spring of 1940, awaiting trial for desertion. While there, he took some consolation from the fact that jail allowed him to work undisturbed, as well as to read novels and write letters, in particular letters to his sister, Simone Weil, who was also remarkably talented, a philosopher and spiritual thinker.

Though her brother’s incarceration infuriated her, Simone saw an opportunity. His work in advanced mathematics was to her, as it would be to most of us, esoteric. Since you have some spare time on your hands, she wrote to him, why don’t you explain to me exactly what it is you do?

There wouldn’t be any point, he replied. Trying to explain my work to a non-mathematician, he wrote, would be like trying to explain a symphony to someone who can’t hear. Later he would rely on another metaphor, calling math “art in a hard material.”

Mathematics is an artistic endeavor, his words suggest. Yet Simone was skeptical. What kind of art? What is the material? Even poets have language, but your work seems to rely on sheer abstraction, she wrote her brother.

That math is an art, that one of its signature qualities is its beauty—these are ideas that continue to be articulated by mathematicians, even as non-mathematicians may wonder, as Simone did, what that could possibly mean. I myself become wary when a mathematician or scientist speaks about the beauty of her discipline, since it can seem vague and high-handed, if not wrong.

In the same year that André Weil spent months in jail, British mathematician G. H. Hardy penned what is perhaps still the most eloquent attempt to give non-mathematicians a sense of math’s aesthetic appeal, in the form of a book-length essay called A Mathematician’s Apology. As with the letters between the Weil siblings, it was the war that occasioned and shaped Hardy’s book, prompting him to argue that math has an intrinsic value unrelated to any military uses. His Apology is a stylish work and a wistful one. Hardy, then in his sixties, felt that he was past his prime and that writing about mathematics—as opposed to doing mathematics—was symptomatic of his decline.

“A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns,” he wrote. “If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.” Hardy went on to characterize what makes a mathematical idea worthy: a certain generality, a certain depth, unexpectedness combined with inevitability and economy.

My own pursuit of math ended in college, but this rings as true to me, and it could just as readily apply to a great poem. Elegant is a word often used to commend a good mathematical proof. It is a construction that can seem like a kind of magic trick without sleight of hand, in which nothing has been hidden, each step building up another layer of a black hat that turns out to contain, in the end, a rabbit.

Philosophers can argue whether beauty is the property of an object or lies in our perceptions of it; Hardy would have it both ways. The best mathematics is eternal, he maintained, and like the best literature, it will “continue to cause intense emotional satisfaction to thousands of people after thousands of years.” Recent research in neuroscience has lent support to this idea of “emotional satisfaction.” A few years ago, a neurobiologist in London, Semir Zeki, performed fMRI scans of mathematicians while they contemplated equations they’d rated as beautiful, and the region of their brains that lit up has been associated in other studies with perceptions of visual and musical beauty. (Contemplating equations they found less inspiring, on the other hand, did not activate that part of the mathematicians’ brains.) In the brain, a mathematician’s affective response to math is similar to, or maybe the same as, the way in which we respond to beauty in the arts.

And there’s another sense in which math could be considered beautiful. In addition to the aesthetic appeal of a particular equation or a proof, there’s a kind of cumulative marvelousness to math, to its landscape of ideas. Here is an elaborate model world, in which the more you explore, the more fantastic it gets. “ ‘Imaginary’ universes are so much more beautiful than this stupidly constructed ‘real’ one,” Hardy wrote.

As for the Weils, Simone wouldn’t let her brother off the hook. After he told her he couldn’t explain his work, she urged him, in her next missive, to just please try. The letter he finally wrote, in which he did attempt to present his area of study to her, is still cited by mathematicians—not for its breakneck review of the history of number theory, which gave Simone headaches, but for its description of the process of mathematical discovery. Progress in mathematics, he wrote to her, is often made by working out analogies between one subject area and another. “Nothing is more fecund than these slightly adulterous relationships” between analogous theories, he wrote; “nothing gives greater pleasure to the connoisseur.”

It’s worth noting that Simone didn’t doubt the value of mathematics, but she suspected that in the hands of her brother and his contemporaries, mathematical research had grown too abstract. For her, ancient Greek geometry was the epitome of mathematical thinking and of a piece with other ancient Greek achievements. In that culture, she believed, art and math and science were all bridges between the human and the divine, beauty a means of access to grace. Mathematics, she would write, “is first, before all, a sort of mystical poem composed by God himself.”

Eventually Simone and André both made it to America. André would enjoy a long and illustrious career, while Simone would travel back across the ocean, to England, where she would die in 1943 after an illness left her unable to eat. In a memoir, published in 1992, André would remember a vacation in the mountains his family took when he and Simone were young: “My sister had this vacation in mind when she later wrote that contemplating a mountain landscape had once and for all impressed the notion of purity upon her soul,” he wrote. “I was left with a totally different impression. Seeing the shafts of sunlight criss-cross in the distance at sundown gave me the idea of composing on several planes simultaneously.”

As with the mountains, so with mathematics—the beauty of the discipline, to her, resided in its mystical connection to the divine, while to him it lay in the marvel of its connections, its adulterous relationships. Pressed to say why we deem something beautiful, we might all come up with something different. The very idea of beauty might slip away as we try to articulate it, and yet we would still know it was there.

(Source: The Paris Review)

Monday 29 July 2019

The crane wife

Ten days after I called off my engagement I was supposed to go on a scientific expedition to study the whooping crane on the gulf coast of Texas. Surely, I will cancel this trip, I thought, as I shopped for nylon hiking pants that zipped off at the knee. Surely, a person who calls off a wedding is meant to be sitting sadly at home, reflecting on the enormity of what has transpired and not doing whatever it is I am about to be doing that requires a pair of plastic clogs with drainage holes. Surely, I thought, as I tried on a very large and floppy hat featuring a pull cord that fastened beneath my chin, it would be wrong to even be wearing a hat that looks like this when something in my life has gone so terribly wrong.

Ten days earlier I had cried and I had yelled and I had packed up my dog and driven away from the upstate New York house with two willow trees I had bought with my fiancé.

Ten days later and I didn’t want to do anything I was supposed to do.


I went to Texas to study the whooping crane because I was researching a novel. In my novel there were biologists doing field research about birds and I had no idea what field research actually looked like and so the scientists in my novel draft did things like shuffle around great stacks of papers and frown. The good people of the Earthwatch organization assured me I was welcome on the trip and would get to participate in “real science” during my time on the gulf. But as I waited to be picked up by my team in Corpus Christi, I was nervous—I imagined everyone else would be a scientist or a birder and have daunting binoculars.

The biologist running the trip rolled up in in a large white van with a boat hitch and the words BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES stenciled across the side. Jeff was forty-ish, and wore sunglasses and a backward baseball cap. He had a winter beard and a neon-green cast on his left arm. He’d broken his arm playing hockey with his sons a week before. The first thing Jeff said was, “We’ll head back to camp, but I hope you don’t mind we run by the liquor store first.” I felt more optimistic about my suitability for science.


Not long before I’d called off my engagement it was Christmas.

The woman who was supposed to be my mother-in-law was a wildly talented quilter and made stockings with Beatrix Potter characters on them for every family member. The previous Christmas she had asked me what character I wanted to be (my fiancé was Benjamin Bunny). I agonized over the decision. It felt important, like whichever character I chose would represent my role in this new family. I chose Squirrel Nutkin, a squirrel with a blazing red tail—an epic, adventuresome figure who ultimately loses his tail as the price for his daring and pride.

I arrived in Ohio that Christmas and looked to the banister to see where my squirrel had found his place. Instead, I found a mouse. A mouse in a pink dress and apron. A mouse holding a broom and dustpan, serious about sweeping. A mouse named Hunca Munca. The woman who was supposed to become my mother-in-law said, “I was going to do the squirrel but then I thought, that just isn’t CJ. This is CJ.”

What she was offering was so nice. She was so nice. I thanked her and felt ungrateful for having wanted a stocking, but not this stocking. Who was I to be choosy? To say that this nice thing she was offering wasn’t a thing I wanted?

When I looked at that mouse with her broom, I wondered which one of us was wrong about who I was.


The whooping crane is one of the oldest living bird species on earth. Our expedition was housed at an old fish camp on the Gulf Coast next to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, where three hundred of the only six hundred whooping cranes left in the world spend their winters. Our trip was a data-collecting expedition to study behavior and gather data about the resources available to the cranes at Aransas.

The ladies bunkhouse was small and smelled woody and the rows of single beds were made up with quilts. Lindsay, the only other scientist, was a grad student in her early twenties from Wisconsin who loved birds so much that when she told you about them she made the shapes of their necks and beaks with her hands—a pantomime of bird life. Jan, another participant, was a retired geophysicist who had worked for oil companies and now taught high school chemistry. Jan was extremely fit and extremely tan and extremely competent. Jan was not a lifelong birder. She was a woman who had spent two years nursing her mother and her best friend through cancer. They had both recently died and she had lost herself in caring for them, she said. She wanted a week to be herself. Not a teacher or a mother or a wife. This trip was the thing she was giving herself after their passing.

At five o’clock there was a knock on the bunk door and a very old man walked in, followed by Jeff.

“Is it time for cocktail hour?” Warren asked.

Warren was an eighty-four-year-old bachelor from Minnesota. He could not do most of the physical activities required by the trip, but had been on ninety-five Earthwatch expeditions, including this one once before.Warren liked birds okay. What Warren really loved was cocktail hour.

When he came for cocktail hour that first night, his thin, silver hair was damp from the shower and he smelled of shampoo. He was wearing a fresh collared shirt and carrying a bottle of impossibly good scotch.

Jeff took in Warren and Jan and me. “This is a weird group,” Jeff said.

“I like it,” Lindsay said.


In the year leading up to calling off my wedding, I often cried or yelled or reasoned or pleaded with my fiancé to tell me that he loved me. To be nice to me. To notice things about how I was living.

One particular time, I had put on a favorite red dress for a wedding. I exploded from the bathroom to show him. He stared at his phone. I wanted him to tell me I looked nice, so I shimmied and squeezed his shoulders and said, “You look nice! Tell me I look nice!” He said, “I told you that you looked nice when you wore that dress last summer. It’s reasonable to assume I still think you look nice in it now.”

Another time he gave me a birthday card with a sticky note inside that said BIRTHDAY. After giving it to me, he explained that because he hadn’t written in it, the card was still in good condition. He took off the sticky and put the unblemished card into our filing cabinet.

I need you to know: I hated that I needed more than this from him. There is nothing more humiliating to me than my own desires. Nothing that makes me hate myself more than being burdensome and less than self-sufficient. I did not want to feel like the kind of nagging woman who might exist in a sit-com.

These were small things, and I told myself it was stupid to feel disappointed by them. I had arrived in my thirties believing that to need things from others made you weak. I think this is true for lots of people but I think it is especially true for women. When men desire things they are “passionate.” When they feel they have not received something they need they are “deprived,” or even “emasculated,” and given permission for all sorts of behavior. But when a woman needs she is needy. She is meant to contain within her own self everything necessary to be happy.

That I wanted someone to articulate that they loved me, that they saw me, was a personal failing and I tried to overcome it.

When I found out that he’d slept with our mutual friend a few weeks after we’d first started seeing each other, he told me we hadn’t officially been dating yet so I shouldn’t mind. I decided he was right. When I found out that he’d kissed another girl on New Year’s Eve months after that, he said that we hadn’t officially discussed monogamy yet, and so I shouldn’t mind. I decided he was right.

I asked to discuss monogamy and, in an effort to be the sort of cool girl who does not have so many inconvenient needs, I said that I didn’t need it. He said he thought we should be monogamous.


Here is what I learned once I began studying whooping cranes: only a small part of studying them has anything to do with the birds. Instead we counted berries. Counted crabs. Measured water salinity. Stood in the mud. Measured the speed of the wind.

It turns out, if you want to save a species, you don’t spend your time staring at the bird you want to save. You look at the things it relies on to live instead. You ask if there is enough to eat and drink. You ask if there is a safe place to sleep. Is there enough here to survive?

Wading through the muck of the Aransas Reserve I understood that every chance for food matters. Every pool of drinkable water matters. Every wolfberry dangling from a twig, in Texas, in January, matters. The difference between sustaining life and not having enough was that small.

If there were a kind of rehab for people ashamed to have needs, maybe this was it. You will go to the gulf. You will count every wolfberry. You will measure the depth of each puddle.


More than once I’d said to my fiancé, How am I supposed to know you love me if you’re never affectionate or say nice things or say that you love me.

He reminded me that he’d said “I love you” once or twice before. Why couldn’t I just know that he did in perpetuity?

I told him this was like us going on a hiking trip and him telling me he had water in his backpack but not ever giving it to me and then wondering why I was still thirsty.

He told me water wasn’t like love, and he was right.

There are worse things than not receiving love. There are sadder stories than this. There are species going extinct, and a planet warming. I told myself: who are you to complain, you with these frivolous extracurricular needs?


On the gulf, I lost myself in the work. I watched the cranes through binoculars and recorded their behavior patterns and I loved their long necks and splashes of red. The cranes looked elegant and ferocious as they contorted their bodies to preen themselves. From the outside, they did not look like a species fighting to survive.

In the mornings we made each other sandwiches and in the evenings we laughed and lent each other fresh socks. We gave each other space in the bathroom. Forgave each other for telling the same stories over and over again. We helped Warren when he had trouble walking. What I am saying is that we took care of each other. What I am saying is we took pleasure in doing so. It’s hard to confess, but the week after I called off my wedding, the week I spent dirty and tired on the gulf, I was happy.

On our way out of the reserve, we often saw wild pigs, black and pink bristly mothers and their young, scurrying through the scrub and rolling in the dust among the cacti. In the van each night, we made bets on how many wild pigs we might see on our drive home.

One night, halfway through the trip, I bet reasonably. We usually saw four, I hoped for five, but I bet three because I figured it was the most that could be expected.

Warren bet wildly, optimistically, too high.

“Twenty pigs,” Warren said. He rested his interlaced fingers on his soft chest.

We laughed and slapped the vinyl van seats at this boldness.

But the thing is, we saw twenty pigs on the drive home that night. And in the thick of our celebrations, I realized how sad it was that I’d bet so low. That I wouldn’t even let myself imagine receiving as much as I’d hoped for.


What I learned to do, in my relationship with my fiancé, was to survive on less. At what should have been the breaking point but wasn’t, I learned that he had cheated on me. The woman he’d been sleeping with was a friend of his I’d initially wanted to be friends with, too, but who did not seem to like me, and who he’d gaslit me into being jealous of, and then gaslit me into feeling crazy for being jealous of.

The full course of the gaslighting took a year, so by the time I truly found out what had happened, the infidelity was already a year in the past.

It was new news to me but old news to my fiancé.

Logically, he said, it doesn’t matter anymore.

It had happened a year ago. Why was I getting worked up over ancient history?

I did the mental gymnastics required.

I convinced myself that I was a logical woman who could consider this information about having been cheated on, about his not wearing a condom, and I could separate it from the current reality of our life together.

Why did I need to know that we’d been monogamous? Why did I need to have and discuss inconvenient feelings about this ancient history?

I would not be a woman who needed these things, I decided.

I would need less. And less.

I got very good at this.


“The Crane Wife” is a story from Japanese folklore. I found a copy in the reserve’s gift shop among the baseball caps and bumper stickers that said GIVE A WHOOP. In the story, there is a crane who tricks a man into thinking she is a woman so she can marry him. She loves him, but knows that he will not love her if she is a crane so she spends every night plucking out all of her feathers with her beak. She hopes that he will not see what she really is: a bird who must be cared for, a bird capable of flight, a creature, with creature needs. Every morning, the crane-wife is exhausted, but she is a woman again. To keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work. She never sleeps. She plucks out all her feathers, one by one.


One night on the gulf, we bought a sack of oysters off a passing fishing boat. We’d spent so long on the water that day I felt like I was still bobbing up and down in the current as I sat in my camp chair. We ate the oysters and drank. Jan took the shucking knife away from me because it kept slipping into my palm. Feral cats trolled the shucked shells and pleaded with us for scraps.

Jeff was playing with the sighting scope we used to watch the birds, and I asked, “What are you looking for in the middle of the night?” He gestured me over and when I looked through the sight the moon swam up close.

I think I was afraid that if I called off my wedding I was going to ruin myself. That doing it would disfigure the story of my life in some irredeemable way. I had experienced worse things than this, but none threatened my American understanding of a life as much as a called-off wedding did. What I understood on the other side of my decision, on the gulf, was that there was no such thing as ruining yourself. There are ways to be wounded and ways to survive those wounds, but no one can survive denying their own needs. To be a crane-wife is unsustainable.

I had never seen the moon so up-close before. What struck me most was how battered she looked. How textured and pocked by impacts. There was a whole story written on her face—her face, which from a distance looked perfect.


It’s easy to say that I left my fiancé because he cheated on me. It’s harder to explain the truth. The truth is that I didn’t leave him when I found out. Not even for one night.

I found out about the cheating before we got engaged and I still said yes when he proposed in the park on a day we were meant to be celebrating a job I’d just gotten that morning. Said yes even though I’d told him I was politically opposed to the diamonds he’d convinced me were necessary. Said yes even though he turned our proposal into a joke by making a Bachelor reference and giving me a rose. I am ashamed of all of this.

He hadn’t said one specific thing about me or us during the proposal, and on the long trail walk out of the park I felt robbed of the kind of special declaration I’d hoped a proposal would entail, and, in spite of hating myself for wanting this, hating myself more for fishing for it, I asked him, “Why do you love me? Why do you think we should get married? Really?”

He said he wanted to be with me because I wasn’t annoying or needy. Because I liked beer. Because I was low-maintenance.

I didn’t say anything. A little further down the road he added that he thought I’d make a good mother.

This wasn’t what I hoped he would say. But it was what was being offered. And who was I to want more?

I didn’t leave when he said that the woman he had cheated on me with had told him over the phone that she thought it was unfair that I didn’t want them to be friends anymore, and could they still?

I didn’t leave when he wanted to invite her to our wedding. Or when, after I said she could not come to our wedding, he got frustrated and asked what he was supposed to do when his mother and his friends asked why she wasn’t there.

Reader, I almost married him.


Even now I hear the words as shameful: Thirsty. Needy. The worst things a woman can be. Some days I still tell myself to take what is offered, because if it isn’t enough, it is I who wants too much. I am ashamed to be writing about this instead of writing about the whooping cranes, or literal famines, or any of the truer needs of the world.

But what I want to tell you is that I left my fiancé when it was almost too late. And I tell people the story of being cheated on because that story is simple. People know how it goes. But it’s harder to tell the story of how I convinced myself I didn’t need what was necessary to survive. How I convinced myself it was my lack of needs that made me worthy of love.


After cocktail hour one night, in the cabin’s kitchen, I told Lindsay about how I’d blown up my life the week before. I told her because I’d just received a voice mail saying I could get a partial refund for my high-necked wedding gown. The refund would be partial because they had already made the base of the dress but had not done any of the beadwork yet. They said the pieces of the dress could still be unstitched and used for something else. I had caught them just in time.

I told Lindsay because she was beautiful and kind and patient and loved good things like birds and I wondered what she would say back to me. What would every good person I knew say to me when I told them that the wedding to which they’d RSVP’d was off and that the life I’d been building for three years was going to be unstitched and repurposed?

Lindsay said it was brave not to do a thing just because everyone expected you to do it.

Jeff was sitting outside in front of the cabin with Warren as Lindsay and I talked, tilting the sighting scope so it pointed toward the moon. The screen door was open and I knew he’d heard me, but he never said anything about my confession.

What he did do was let me drive the boat.

The next day it was just him and me and Lindsay on the water. We were cruising fast and loud. “You drive,” Jeff shouted over the motor. Lindsay grinned and nodded. I had never driven a boat before. “What do I do?” I shouted. Jeff shrugged. I took the wheel. We cruised past small islands, families of pink roseate spoonbills, garbage tankers swarmed by seagulls, fields of grass and wolfberries, and I realized it was not that remarkable for a person to understand what another person needed.

(Source: The Paris Review)

Sunday 28 July 2019

Can Mohanlal and Mammootty keep up with new-gen Malayalam films?

The two superstars have ruled Kerala’s film industry for decades. But as a new generation shapes Malayalam cinema, how will they negotiate their future path?

Getting two superstars at the peak of their game to act in your movie? That’s the easy part. The harder bit is making sure neither of them feels shortchanged, and more importantly, that their vocal fans are pleased. That was the quandary Malayalam director Fazil found himself in when he convinced Mohanlal and Mammootty to play the lead roles in his 1998 movie Harikrishnans. The struggle shows: in the movie, if Mammootty’s Hari began a sentence, Mohanlal’s Krishnan would finish it. The two stars, playing hotshot lawyers, dominated the screen for a large part of the movie, with almost equal screen time. 

But Fazil’s biggest challenge was solving who would end up with the heroine Meera (Juhi Chawla in her only Malayalam movie so far) in a way that would make everyone happy—so instead of giving her the agency to choose one, or even neither, of the two heroes the director shot two endings. The story doing the rounds was that viewers in South Kerala, between Thiruvananthapuram and Ernakulam, saw Meera choose Mohanlal, while Mammootty was the lucky man in other districts, though the makers have maintained that the experiment was random, and not targeted at geographies. The move backfired when the Censor Board stepped in to object. 
Mohanlal, Juhi Chawla and Mammootty in 'Harikrishnans' (1998)
This is one of the more bizarre examples of the way the Mammootty-Mohanlal star show has played out in Kerala over the decades. No other actors in Malayalam cinema have commanded the kind of fan following and loyalty that the two have had, and for years, they have dominated public imagination with their embodiment of the Malayali man on screen. Their films were seen as a reliable barometer of the trends in the film industry, and perhaps in Kerala’s social life as well.

There are many similarities between the two men, who get along well, unlike some of their more raucous ‘fans’. Both are terrific actors, and a truly neutral observer would find it hard to choose between them in their best roles. They have rarely been outspoken about their views on important subjects (though Mammootty has never hidden his Leftist affiliations), and both have been criticised for their wishy-washy stand when one colleague was accused of planning the sexual assault of another. Alongside their many great, author-backed roles that can undoubtedly be included in any film studies class, they have also portrayed misogynist, communal, casteist characters that have set back the discourse around gender and discrimination in the industry. And most significantly, they have survived and held onto their No. 1 position.

But Malayalam cinema itself has changed a lot in this century. A new generation of actors, writers and directors have been slowly expanding the limits of the industry, which had been collapsing under the collective weight of its two stars and their larger-than-life characters. These so-called “new generation” films made a mark with younger viewers who craved stories that rang closer to the ordinary person’s life, one that the superstars seemed to have lost touch with.

As films like Kumbalangi Nights and Angamaly Diaries find new viewers on streaming platforms, and neighbouring film industries remake popular hits such as Premam and Bangalore Days, a younger Malayali viewer, or a non-Malayali, is more likely to watch out for Fahadh Faasil and Dulquer Salmaan, rather than the two big Ms.

Can the two superstars navigate the shifting sands in an industry that has been at their beck and call for years?

The rise of the superstars
Mohanlal and Mammootty established themselves in the Malayalam film industry during the late ’80s and early ’90s, a period which coincided with the emergence of a number of talented scriptwriters and directors, some of whom made their mark with funny, accessible movies about the struggles of the middle-class Malayali man. At the time, there was no one star ruling the roost—Prem Nazir, arguably Malayalam cinema’s first superstar, had graduated to playing roles nearer his age (he died in 1989), and the macho Jayan had tragically died in 1980, while shooting a helicopter stunt.
Mohanlal in 'Manjil Virinja Pookkal' (1980)
Mohanlal’s path to stardom finds parallels in Rajinikanth’s. His first big-screen appearance as a villain in Manjil Virinja Pookkal (1980), and he played a variety of supporting roles and was part of several multi-starrers before turning hero. But, unlike Rajini, who did many off-beat roles before getting boxed in, Lal’s roles aligned closer to his middle-class, boy-next-door image. He was a regular in Sathyan Anthikad and Priyadarshan films as he organically carved an indelible mark for himself in Malayalam cinema, often finding himself sharing the screen with Mammootty, who had begun his career a decade earlier. 

It was a film originally written for Mammootty that catapulted Mohanlal as Malayalam cinema’s emerging superstar. In 1986, roughly 100 films after his debut, Mohanlal got bumped up from playing the boy-next-door to a crown prince in RajavinteMakan (The King’s Son). Loosely based on the Jeffrey Archer bestseller Rage of Angels, he played Vincent Gomes, a calm, formidable underworld don. The film, a huge box-office success, also marked the actor’s switch to an action hero. 

Mammootty, on the other hand, began his career playing roles much older than his actual age, often getting stuck in the image of a dutiful husband, father and son. Two films released in different years are credited for his emergence as a star. Some point to PG Vishwambaran’s revenge action thriller Ee Sabdam Innathe Sabdam (1985), said to be the actor’s first big solo hit. Others think that Avanazhi (1986), an action-packed police story, propelled him to superstardom.  

“Till then he was trapped in the image of a suitcase-bearing father travelling in a Premier Padmini, but these films were a big shift,” said Mukesh Kumar, a social media film critic.

Till the mid-90s, despite being established stars, both Mammooty and Mohanlal chose to showcase their acting chops in the films they did. Mammootty, in particular, was the first superstar to blur the boundaries between mainstream and parallel cinema, acting in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Mathilukal and TS Suresh Babu’s Kottayam Kunjachan (1990) in the same year. 

Slowly, the alpha male
As the two established their dominance over the industry, the star began to take precedence over the actor.

Mohanlal of the 80s was the quintessential middle-class hero, usually in Sathyan Anthikad films such as TP Balagopalan MA (1986) or Nadodikattu (1987), as well as the charming, boyish lover in Kilukkam (1991), Vandanam (1989) or Yodha (1992). But in these movies, there was the scope for a few interesting characters for women as well—be it Karthika in Sanmanassullavarkku Samadhanam (1986), Sumalatha in Thoovanathumbikal (1987) or Shobana in Nadodikattu (1987), they were all part of his character’s coming-of-age arc. The actor’s turn as Solomon in Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal (1986) was radical for its times, one that challenged puranitical notions of love and romance. In Manichithrathazhu (1993), his psychiatrist character, Dr Sunny, only enters the story right before the interval, and he wisely underplays the role, becoming a perfect foil for Shobana’s phenomenal performance as Ganga/Nagavalli. 

These were not the sort of roles you would see Mammooty play. His hero was rarely the mild romantic lover but had much more responsibility on his shoulders. In many movies, he played a stern husband, brother or dutiful son, which also explains why youngsters preferred Mohanlal over Mammootty back then. Be it Sangam (1988), Nirakoottu (1985), Aavanazhi (1986), Inspector Balram (1991) or Dinarathrangal (1988), the heroines of these films were rarely memorable and depended on him to save them. Fittingly, one of Mammootty’s most memorable heroines in this period was Narayani in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Mathilukal (1990), a woman we only hear, never see on screen. 

Meanwhile, Mohanlal’s masculine avatar had slowly been taking shape in movies such as Devasuram (1993) and Aaram Thamburan (1997), which both dealt, in different ways, with the crisis of the upper-caste Hindu man as the foundations of a feudal society slowly crumbled.
Mohanlal and Mammootty in 'Athirathram' (1984)
In 2000 came Narasimham’s Induchoodan, possibly the most larger-than-life alpha male that Malayalam cinema had witnessed until then. If in Devasuram,Mohanlal’sMangalasseri Neelakandan was a flawed hero, Narasimham’s Induchoodan smothered all those chinks. 

Of course, the tone of these roles was not new to Malayali viewers, who were already familiar with Mammootty’s turn as the foul-tongued, patronising district collector in Renji Panicker’s TheKing and Suresh Gopi’s pompous cop outings in Commissioner and Ekalavyan.

Mohanlal’s Induchoodan was writer Ranjith’s ultimate tribute to machismo. He was brash, had great exit lines, beat up the bad guys and was treated as a demi-god. Induchoodan’s relationship with his heroine was even more problematic—despite having a double post-graduate degree, she is treated with wink-wink-nudge-nudge irreverence. In fact, when he suggests a marriage where her primary role will be that of lover and child producer, not an equal partner, she eagerly accepts it. 

It’s no coincidence that the rise of the toxic male character dovetailed with the shrinking space for women. While until mid-career, Mammootty and Mohanlal shared screen space with actors such as Shobana and Urvashi (and later, for some time, Manju Warrier)—who had commanded significant screen space and played a variety of complex roles—this new breed of movies starred much younger women, whose primary requirement was looking pretty. 

Meanwhile, Induchoodan became the template of a hero we would see over and over again—as Zakir Hussain (Praja, 2001), Velayudhan (Naran, 2005), Karthikeyan (Ravanaprabhu, 2001), Kashinathan (Thandavam, 2012) or Sagar (Sagar Alias Jacky Reloaded, 2009). Though Mohanlal occasionally shined as an actor (UdayananuTharam, 2005; Thanmathra, 2005; Pranayam, 2011, Bhramaram, 2009), by the mid-2000s, the alpha male persona had taken over the actor. 

Mammootty, on the other hand, preferred to mix things up. For every Dubai (2001), Rakshasa Rajavu (2001), Chronic Bachelor (2003) or Phantom (2002), he balanced it with a Kazhcha (2004), Palunku (2006), Ore Kadal (2007), Paleri Manikyam (2009) or Kaiyoppu (2007). For the actor, 2005 was a significant year as he tried a huge image shift with Rajamanikyam. Unlike Mohanlal, Mammootty had always been mocked for his inability to pull off comedy. But he changed that with Bellari Raja—an uneducated buffalo seller who spouts chaste Thiruvananthapuram slang, he stunned even the harshest of critics with an effortlessly comic act backed up by a powerfully funny accent. It did, however, lead to a series of distasteful comedy films that, while often box-office hits, didn’t really add anything to his career. 

Right behind Mammootty and Mohanlal was Suresh Gopi, who rose to fame with Ekalavyan (1993) and was regarded as the ‘third superstar’. Dileep also held steady with his brand of comedy (which later became problematically sexist and vulgar) to create a fanbase among the family audience. But none of them, it was clear, could match up to Mammootty and Mohanlal in terms of acting chops or popularity.

An overhaul
Over the past decade, as Malayalam cinema was going through a dip in quality, a fresh crop of writers and directors slowly began weaning audiences away from this formula. The trend, which started with Rajesh Pillai’s Traffic and Aashiq Abu’s SaltN Pepper in 2011,led to a new wave in Malayalam cinema. These films were often breezy, broke clichés (and sometimes winked at them) and featured a hero and heroine who looked and sounded ordinary in a way a new crop of viewers could identify with. 
Mammootty in 'Mathilukal' (1990)
But the economics of cinema still lean heavily on superstar films, so the two actors continue to wield huge influence on the industry.

“Many stars have risen in between and then faded away in due course, but the value of the two big Ms has remained intact.There has been a shift in prominence during the past few years, with content proving the key factor, which has resulted in the emergence of some “unconventional” stars. But when it comes to ensuring initials at the box office, only these two have been successful in a consistent manner,” said Vijay George, a film critic. 

The biggest change, however, has been off screen. As Malayalam films became more popular among a new audience, because of outward migration as well as subtitles, the public actions of actors and their roles were beginning to be scrutinised more closely. This came in large part due to the Women in Cinema Collective, formed by a group of women in the industry after a colleague was assaulted.

The case did not just expose the deep misogyny in the industry, it also threw light on where its biggest stars stood, and their responses were sharply criticised for being inadequate. Both Mohanlal, president of A.M.M.A, and Mammootty received severe public backlash for reinstating actor Dileep, accused of orchestrating the attack, into the industry body. 

Another incident saw Mammootty’s fans viciously troll Parvathy, a talented actor who is also a member of WCC, for her criticism of his misogynist role in Kasaba.

But none of this has affected their standing among fans.

Earlier this year, Mohanlal’s Lucifer, an unabashed superstar vehicle, grossed over Rs 200 crore while KumbalangiNights, a relatively smaller film, staggered along, winning hearts at multiplexes. One celebrated the alpha male while the other made a villain out of him.
Mohanlal in 'Lucifer'
Mohanlal now packages himself as a brand in himself, investing in big-budget extravaganzas that work on his star power. His film announcements are planned with much fanfare, be it Pulimurugan (2016) or Lucifer. 

“Mohanlal isn’t interested in getting out of his comfort zone. It’s one reason why he continues to give dates to (directors like) Major Ravi or B. Unnikrishnan. But for now, his strategy to just work in films that exploit his superstar image seems to be working well,” said Krishna Kumar, a film critic.

It is rumoured that for a cameo in last year’s Kayamkulam Kochunni, he pocketed a cool Rs 3 crore (considering that most of the middling reviews for the movie praised Mohanlal’s role and the movie made Rs 100 crore, it doesn’t seem like a bad investment).

Meanwhile, Mammootty, who keeps doing his share of middling superstar glorification vehicles, remains the more accessible superstar. He is prepared to step out of his comfort zone (like in the recent Peranbu or Unda—his first Malayalam movie in a while to work with both viewers and critics), work with new directors and strike a balance between films that satisfy both the actor and star in him.

Aswathy Gopalakrishnan, a film critic who works with, says that superstar culture is alive and relevant even today.

“It’s the superstar actor, often male, who calls the shots on a film set. And the satellite rights business has boosted his power. Mohanlal has reinvented himself into a brand, thus smoothly fitting into every field within the show business. He is on TV selling retail products and hosting reality shows, and has narrowed down his work in feature films to big-budget projects helmed by high-profile names. Mammootty has taken more risks as an actor by working with new directors and associating in films like Unda, which have a sturdy political voice. What is more significant about their movies is their transformation into a device of Malayali nostalgia. In recent years, a number of stage shows, television programmes and feature films have paid tributes to Mammootty and Mohanlal, although they are far from being retired from acting business” said.
Fahadh Faasil, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Nivin Pauly and Dulquer Salmaan
The big-budget star vehicles continue to co-exist with the new generation films. Lucifer was so popular its makers have announced a sequel. Unda played in theatres at the same time as the small-budget Thamaasha, a gentle, witty take on body-shaming. 

“In Malayalam cinema, we have always cohabited. We can’t exist in isolation,” Mammootty had said in an interview some years ago. 

Over four decades, 400 films and several awards later, Mammootty and Mohanlal continue to be spoken of in the same breath, though their journeys have been vastly different. But some observers are watching closely to see how the two negotiate their future path.     

“I think unless the content is king, the star cannot do it today. A star can probably bring day one opening, nothing more than that,” said Pillai. 

(Source: HuffPo)