During a recent week-long business trip of South-East Asia, one of the things I looked forward to was to see how the local media reports on India. Naturally, I expected Indian IT and outsourcing to hog most of the limelight. I would have bet on the booming Indian retail and mobile phone sectors getting some column centimeters. Outside of business, I thought India’s role in international politics and the nuke deal with the US will get some mindshare. I couldn’t be farther from the truth, as I discovered in due course of time.
The trip got off on a high as, on the flight out of India, I read Tata Chairman Ratan Tata’s extensive interview in The Economist. Further, I read the cover story on Bharti, India’s largest mobile service provider and now Wal-Mart’s partner in India, in the latest issue of Fortune.
On the first morning in Bangkok, as I browsed through Bangkok Post, there was no mention of Infosys or Wal-Mart’s entry into India. However, the sports page had a picture of Jeev Milkha Singh, India’s top golfer, who turned out the best performance of the day for Asia in the Royal Trophy (a Europe vs. Asia version of the Ryder Cup).
The next morning, I eagerly picked up a local newspaper to catch up on what’s happening back home. Page 5 had a picture of a Hindu Sadhu hanging from a tree. Upside down. The report was on Ardh Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival in which Sadhus lead half a million devotees into the sacred Ganges for a holy dip. "Is that all they have to report on India?" I thought aloud.
A couple of days later, a local English newspaper carried two stories on India. The first was a short snippet in International News titled ‘Leopard Attacks Girl in Kashmir’. A longer story was on how Tsunami affected Indian women were selling kidneys to survive. Another newspaper in Hong Kong carried a fairly large story on India’s tennis sensation Sania Mirza, who incidentally is ranked outside of the top 50 in the world. The newspaper carried the attractive Indian tennis star’s picture to go along with the story
So, four days in the region and still no big news from India? Little did I know that this was about to change. On a flight out of Hong Kong, I noticed a Chinese gentleman reading a Cantonese language newspaper. I couldn’t believe what I saw on the front page. There were six (yes six!!!) pictures of former Miss World and Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai, there was another picture of the Beauty Queen hand in hand with her beau, another Bollywood star, Abhishek Bachchan. There was a picture of Abhishek’s mother with family friend-politician Amar Singh and a picture of the Taj Mahal. I requested the Stewardess to get me an English-language newspaper. On the front page, I was informed about the engagement of Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan. As I reached my hotel, I switched on CNN for some world news. To my horror, I saw that even CNN was reporting the news of Aish-Abhishesk engagement as the ‘Brangelina’ of South Asia. "Et tu CNN?", I thought. I hear that newspapers from Romania to Taiwan to Brazil have reported on the engagement of the two stars.
A couple of days later, another Indian film star was all over the news media. Shilpa Shetty, a ‘has been’ Bollywood actress, was reportedly paid a huge sum to be a part of ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ on UK’s Channel Four. She was continually harassed by other inmates of the house, and the whole incident had taken a strong racist overtone, and snowballed into a huge diplomatic row between Indian and Britain. On my last day at the airport, I noticed each and every newspaper in the stand report extensively on the issue. Thankfully, in the business page, I found a small footnote on VSNL, Tata’s telecom company, entering the European market. At last, some Indian business news to restore my sanity.
Well, as they say, there’s no business like show business. When it comes to Bollywood, while it’s an obsession in India, the rest of the world seems to be equally smitten by it. And in countries that have not lost jobs to India, its still the Sadhus, the Tigers and the Taj Mahal that the general public identify India with.