Sunday, January 31, 2016

Rocket Singh—Salesman of the Year: Of Spiderman, and Ramayana

I really don't know what prompted me to watch Shimit Amin's Rocket Singh—Salesman of the Year again. There are many films which on re-watching bring a new perspective. Released in December 2009, I remember watching it and liking it a lot. I was just a few months in my very first job, with no experience of how companies are run. Now, nearly six years have passed, and with some experience of working in different organizations, I wanted to see if I could understand better the inherent message of the film. 

Rocket Singh—Salesman of the Year is the story of Harpreet Singh Bedi (Ranbir Kapoor) who stays with his grandfather P.S. Bedi (Prem Chopra). He gets 38.72% in his B.Com, and is quite satisfied with it, and has no intention of pursuing an MBA. He wants to be in sales. He gets a job as a salesman at At Your Service (AYS), a firm that sells assembled computers. Brimming with idealism, he goes to meet a client, who asks for a bribe for giving the order to AYS. Harpreet refuses and instead submits a written letter of complaint against the client for asking a payback. His bosses at AYS are furious with him, and humiliate him for taking this step. Dejected by the constant ridicule of his colleagues, and the unethical practices encouraged at AYS, he secretly starts his own firm Rocket Sales Corporation while still working for AYS. He promises excellent customer service to his customers, and within a few weeks, starts grabbing the market share. Of course, AYS' boss eventually gets to know, and then problems ensue for Harpreet.

There is a lovely moment in the film when Harpeet and his grandfather are watching the scene of the battle of Rama and Ravana in Ramanand Sagar's Ramayana. Essentially, a similar battle is fought between Sunil Puri's AYS, and Harpreet's Rocket Sales Corporation. Rama started all alone in the jungle with no resources with him to fight his battle with Ravana, but he made friendships, and partnerships with people, such as Sugreev and Hanuman, along the way to Lanka, and was able to defeat the giant Ravana. Rama's victory is hailed as the victory of good over evil. Ravana was one of the smartest and most knowledgeable persons ever in the history of existence, but his arrogance became the cause of his downfall. Likewise, Harpreet starts off all alone, but along the way he makes partners, such as Koena, Giri, Nitini, and Chhote Lal, that help him start his firm. His firm does not engage in evil practices, and thus, its victory is symbolic as that of good over evil. He is able to grab the market share from AYS because of his superior service, whereas AYS seemed to have no idea what customer service is all about. Its arrogance that no one can defeat them became the cause of its downfall, even though it used all the resources at its disposal. To extend the argument further, one can argue on the ethics of Rama's battle in taking the help of an insider Vibhishan who knew all the secrets of Ravana; in a similar fashion, Harpreet starts as a firm while being an insider in AYS. Though he follows the rule of ethics by noting down all the resources of AYS that he used for starting his firm, but this action of his is certainly illegal. But the thing is that the film does not try to condone his illegalities, rather it duly punishes Harpreet for them. In this, David versus Goliath battle, Rocket Sales emerges as the winner over AYS, like Rama did over Ravana. 

When Harpreet is constantly humiliated by his colleagues, they throw paper rockets at him. Harpreet is on a call with a new client, and a rocket lands at him. On an impulse, he names his firm Rocket Sales Corp., and then, he throws back the rocket at his colleagues, who are surprised that he threw back one at them. Later, when his friends advise him that he is taking a big risk, he responds by saying, "Risk to Spiderman ko bhi lena padta hai. Main toh phir bhi Salesman hoon." Actually, it was not Harpreet who said this line for the first time. It was Nitin who had taught him this line, when he took Harpeet along on his first client visit. When Nitin interviewed Harpeet, the room had a poster of a Spiderman as the salesman with the tag line—There Whenever You Need Him. When Harpeet launches his own firm, he promises 24-hour customer service. Thus, the true champion of the Spiderman poster was not Nitin, but Harpreet who took a big risk, and promised the same service as that mentioned in the poster. Harpreet was the Spiderman. At one point, Giri says, "Tu jo lagta hai vo hai nahi, jo hai maloom nahi", as if Harpeet channels his ordinary Peter Parker persona into that of a Spiderman.  

Nitin's character was an equally interesting one. He is exceptionally smart, and he had the same idealism, like that of Harpreet, when he started, but due to the nature of corporate world, he gave up on it, and became like the others. When Puri finds about the scam, he throws all members of Rocket Sales Corp. out. At that point, Nitin is sitting in front of a job portal with his daughter in his lap. It is the circumstances of feeding his family that might have caused him to change earlier also. I was reminded of Subhash Ghai's Taal, where Vikrant had this two sets of principles. One from his ma, and one from his mama. Following his mother's utopian principles landed him nowhere, while following his uncle's practical principles gave him instant success. It is hard to judge Vikrant's success, because he did try to follow his mother's principles. It is the harsh reality that coming-of-age movies often ignore. Doing what you really want is easier when you have the cushion of something to fall back on, but for people like us, making ends meet is also equally important. In Wake Up Sid, Sid fails in his exams, but he has the luxury of living on the credit card of his father. He moved out of his father's house, and then the reality confronts him that he needs money. In many ways, Rocket Singh—Salesman of the Year could be a middle-class version of Wake Up Sid.  

The film is painstakingly detailed and is meticulously researched. Nitin's tricks that he teaches Harpreet, such as putting the tie in pocket while eating, the ability to read upside down, and never leaving one's real name in the entry register, show the extensive research. Harpreet's friends call him HP, which at times remind of the computer company HP. In the end, Puri comes to meet Harpeet at a Croma store. The store seems to have a specific context. Croma is owned by TATA, a group known for its ethics and service, and it is in that store that Harpreet finds a job. When Harpeet, Koena, and Giri are making their plan in the dhaba outside their office, Duniya Mein Logon Ko from Apna Desh plays in the background. Even that film is based on the honesty of a young man, that becomes a liability to his corrupt superiors, like in the case of Harpeet. 

Shimit Amin's previous film Chak De! India became a case study on leadership. There is a lot to learn from Rocket Singh—Salesman of the Year, too. At one instant, we see there is a poster of the famous Peter's Laws The Creed of the Sociopathic Obsessive Compulsive. A similar poster can be created based on learnings from the movie. 

Peter's Laws
  • Money cannot buy everything. Thori conversation, thori persuasion, thori negotiation can help in winning over someone.
  • Customer service is of paramount importance. As someone who works in a similar firm where this is Gospel's truth, I can totally relate to this aspect.  
  • Sales hi aisa ek field jahan numbers se zyada akal chahiye hoti hai.
  • Treat employees as partners, and then, they will put in their best effort. Never treat them like they do not matter. Even Chhote Lal can assemble computers, and all he craved was a little respect from his colleagues.
  • Think of people, and numbers will automatically come.
  • Even zero has a value. Puri ridiculed Harpeet as a zero in front of everyone, but in the end, that zero proved his immense value.  
  • Never forget those who helped you out when you had nothing. They took a risk on you when you had nothing, so don't betray their trust. As Shah Rukh Khan beautifully summed up in Luck By Chance, "Unhe mat bhoolo jo tumhe tab jaante they jab tum kuch nahi the, bas yahi hain jo tumse hamesha sach bolenge."
  • Every person has two types of qualities, those that take him up, and those that bring him down. The ones he uses more will show where he ends up.
  • Aaadmi ek baar bik jiye, toh dusre hamesha use bikau samajhne lagte hai

Harpreet is genuinely a nice person that Koena has to tell him that if he can't disturb people, how will he become a salesman. It is his niceness that becomes a problem for him to survive. At one point, his grandfather admonishes him for his act. He responds that he did not teach him how to do a thief's work; if he'd taught him, he wouldn't have to become a thief. It shows how important an effect of upbringing is on a person's actions. His screensaver is a picture of Guru Nanak. When his grandfather prays in front of Guru Nanak to give him blessings, Harpeet feels guilty of stealing an order, he cancels the pizza order, and goes back to eating daal. It shows this belief in a higher entity that is watching us all. He is so calm even when his boss shreds him to pieces in front of a client, I felt like why doesn't he hit back? It is, then, he realizes that his boss is ridiculing him because he is letting him, and he wants to teach him a lesson. In spite of all this, Harpeet never has any anger towards his boss when he comes to visit him in the store in the end, and gives a spiel. There are really very few people like Harpreet these days. Even his girlfriend has to tell him to use her.

Now, the elephant in the roomPuri. He is a terrifying figure. He is cunning, and can read people very well. He himself started as an entrepreneur. He has adapted to change well. He started with typewriters, then moved to fax machines, and finally, sells computers. His motive is profit at any cost. He paid bribes and engaged in unethical, and possibly, illegal practices. However, I won't judge him for this. Running a business in India is nearly impossible with its humongous red-tape, and license raj. Even if one tries to be ethical, the clients won't let them. They would demand a share as happened in the case of National Chemicals. Even for getting a simple fire safety clearance, one has to grease palms. Of course, there are businesses that are absolutely ethical, but it is difficult to look at them in isolation of the business environment, which is why there is a big brouhaha on the ease of doing business. Puri did well in establishing his business, but he lost the human aspect of treating employees and customers with respect, dignity, and fairness, which he needs to course correct. There is a thoughtful moment in the film when he is standing in front of his numerous awards. He would have disrupted the market when he started, and now, a new player with a completely new business model has come up disrupting the market. That is the way innovations come into place. 

Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, based on the concept of objectivism, described its four principal characters in terms of what a man should be. It said, "Howard Roark is the man who was 'as man should be,' who lives for himself and his own creativity, indifferent to the opinions of others. Gail Wynand is the 'man who could have been,' who rises from the poverty of his youth into an extremely rich and powerful position, but uses his superlative talent not to create for himself, but to control others, which leads to his own demise. Peter Keating is 'the man who couldn't be, and doesn't know it,' who wants to achieve as well as make a name for himself, but lives off the support and condolence of others, which is what leads to his demise. Ellsworth Toohey, is 'the man who couldn't be, and knows it,' who sets out to destroy others through guilt and altruism, because he knows that this is the only way he can accomplish anything." In some ways, the description of the four characters could be mapped to the characters of Rocket Singh—Salesman of the Year. Harpreet is the idealist as man should be. Nitin, his boss, who was like Harpreet when he started, but lost out on so many promotions because of his idealism, hence, abandoned it, and became like the others. He is the man who could have been. The other salesman in the office, who have no idea that they are being used, and are fighting among themselves without any idea of what they stand for personify the man who couldn't be, and doesn't know it. Finally, Sunil Puri, the owner of AYS, the much feted and popular leader, is 'the man who couldn't be, and knows it, as he comes to realize that even after he has purchased the brand of Rocket Sales, he cannot provide the same service as them. 

Rand's hero Howard Roark is a selfish man in the positive sense that he is true to his values, to his convictions, to his thinking, to his mind, to his self. To be true to his self, a man must first have a self. She argues that the ultimate moral value, for each human individual, is his or her own well-being, and she believes that selfishness is a virtue. At many times, Harpreet tells us that he is only doing this for himself, "Apni hi to parwah kar raha hun." That is the ultimate goal that we all should aspire forto take care of ourselves. After all, if we won't, then who will?

Dialogue of the Day:
"Uljhe nahi to kaise suljhoge,
Bikhre nahi to kaise nikhroge."
—Pankho Ko, Rocket Singh—Salesman of the Year

P.S.— Sell the pencil was quite like the pen scene in The Wolf of Wall Street


  1. nice one.. very small things you noticed.. good movie as well. but i think u missed one thing... a painting... i cant send you the ss here.. i will tweet u.


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