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Eye on India: Business- Bhuvan's Management Mantras

August 2002
Eye on India: Business- Bhuvan's Management Mantras

Oscar nominee Lagaan has found a new role -- one that its makers probably never envisaged -- as an aid to teaching modern management mantras in leadership and team building.


Aamir Khan may possibly have visualised that Lagaan would come to acquire a cult status among people in India. But not even in his wildest dreams would he have imagined having an enthusiastic following among leading lights in the corporate world, top management institutes and even the Indian Army!

Yet Lagaan has achieved just that, giving senior management gurus in India a reason to celebrate. No longer do they need to rely upon foreign films to illustrate a point during a lecture on leadership. Gone are the days when their students would be made to watch Joan of Arc or Goodbye, Mr Chipps in darkened halls and later dissect them in their classrooms. These and other earlier case studies were taken straight from the Sloan School of Management, Harvard Business Review and others published elsewhere and were based on foreign industry experiences and films having little or no relation to Indian conditions. Thus Indian managers mostly learnt their basics through Western models which could hardly be applied to local conditions.

Aamir Khan's epic has changed all that and scored yet another victory against a foreign 'competitor'. Perhaps this explains why despite losing the Oscar to No Man?s Land, the Lagaan party back home refuses to die down.

Apt case study

Professor Biswajeet Patanayak, who teaches 'Human Behaviour at Work' at the Indian Institute of Management, Indore (IIM-I), believes that Bhuvan, the character played by Aamir, is an apt case study for his first year students. Says he: ?Instead of giving my students examples which bear little relevance to their local business conditions, I thought they would connect better with an indigenous case study.? So he decided to use a desi movie that dealt with a sport which to most Indians is a veritable religion.

The case study has been incorporated in IIM-I's curriculum and related questions were even posed at the interim exam held recently. Sample this one from the question paper: 'List and describe the process variables associated with effective team performance. Explain in reference to the movie Lagaan'.

Some of the qualities that the professor considers his students can imbibe from Bhuvan are his transformational leadership, nurturing behaviour, capacity to spot and groom raw talent, a strong ethical fibre, proactiveness, motivational ability, self-confidence and the capacity to dream, among several others.

Dr Patanayak, who has 21 years of teaching experience in this field, feels that other characters in the film too can teach a lesson or two to management students. Take for instance, Bhuvan's girlfriend Gauri?s quiet contribution by way of supportive influence on the more active members of the rustic cricket team. Likewise Rachel (the British Captain?s sister) stands for ethics that provide a level playing field to the underdog. In corporate terms, this would translate into best practices even in the face of opposition and prospects of immediate defeat. Arjan (one of Bhuvan's village team mates) according to the professor can be emulated for ?channelizing negative energies into constructive forces.?

According to Prof Patanayak, Lagaan was fit to be taken up as a model because unlike most Bollywood movies, it did not show larger-than-life images. He said there was nothing in the film which could be termed unusual. He said this case study incorporated Hindi cinema and cricket, two major obsessions of Indians by and large.

Similar predicaments

Other institutes and corporate entities too have evinced keen interest in the film. Besides the interest shown by Reliance Infotech in ?Lagaan management lessons?, the Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) has also asked the professor to explain the concept to its top executives. This theme was also the subject of a three-day workshop that global consultants AT Kearney and Boston Consulting Group and the IIM-I organised in New Delhi recently. Senior management personnel, right up to the level of general managers of state-owed pipeline major Gas Authority of India Ltd, for whom the workshop was held, lapped up not only the parallels, but the parables too.

GAIL and Bhuvan share the same predicament. Both have been challenged to excel in something they have never done before ? Aamir?s team had not played cricket, GAIL is not used to the rough and tumble of a free market economy. According to GAIL chairman Proshanto Banerjee, like Bhuvan, GAIL too has to motivate and innovate ? turn the employees into team players and strive to achieve excellence in adversity. Its MNC competitors are as adept at their business as the English team was at cricket. Lagaan shows how this can be done. Sample this: When Bhuvan is challenged by the English to a game of cricket, he has to tread a lonely path. His fellow-villagers do not share his optimism that they too can learn to play cricket and beat the English at their own game. Accepting the challenge as an opportunity, Bhuvan starts with a little boy. Every stroke of his bat and each throw of the kid?s gola, a mud ball, drive away the villagers? fear of the unknown. The village drummer is the first volunteer. The rest, as they say, is history. Bhuvan also has a knack for spotting talent. He places the bird watcher as a fielder in a position where he would be able to take good catches. In modern management jargon, one would say, the right man for the right job. This transforms the group dynamics; every man sees his aspirations merging with the team?s goals.

Motivational insights

The movie was also recommended for viewing to employees of the Hyderabad-based Dr Reddy?s Laboratories for unusual examples to back up theoretical practices that human resource managers learn the hard way. Saumen Chakraborty, Senior VP, Corporate HR says he was surprised when his CEO called from the US to ask him if he had seen Lagaan. ?He asked me to make a presentation to our colleagues on the HR management aspects that have been so beautifully captured.? Says Chakraborty: ?The film teaches you to think of problems as opportunities, to dream big, define goals and be determined in the face of opposition. Or for that matter the celebration of small wins, the building up of a team while recognising each member as being different and understanding the soft part of motivating each one of them.?

Sudipta K Sen, Chief Executive Officer, Comsat Max and President of the VSAT Service Providers Association, echoes the same sentiment. 'There are many takeaways from this movie on Relationship Management. A leader's capability to create a shared vision, effective conflict management, converting team-mates? weaknesses into strengths and finally while encouraging constructive dissent, creating a highly motivated and cohesive team to be a winner,' he avers.

Says Rajinder Ahluwalia, a management expert who has started drawing parallels from the film in his Art of Self-Discovery workshops: ?An effective strategist always listens first. When Captain Russell throws a challenge at Bhuvan, he responds with silence inducing the former to increase the gains ? revoking the lagaan (tax) for three years ? before Bhuvan accepts. Overconfidence always leads to an error as was proved later in the film.? Another expert from the same workshop points out: ?When the team gets carried away at the start of the match and commits errors, Bhuvan never loses his cool, another important quality of a leader. When Kachra the spinner is ineffective the first day, Bhuvan does not criticize him. Instead, he intervenes and stops other team members from running Kachra down. An effective communicator, there is no loose talk or ambiguity on Bhuvan?s part.?

Teaming up

Even the Indian auto industry, it seems, can draw inspiration from Lagaan. As pointed out by Dr Patanayak, the basic premise is that Bhuvan's cricket team and the British cricket team in the film can be likened to domestic companies ? less equipped, resourceless and backward ? and multinational companies ? well equipped and resourceful ? respectively.

Says Raj Warrior, Editor, Auto India: ?Our auto barons should see Lagaan, not because they don?t know how to run their teams but just because they should seriously think of getting together as a team. ?Why now?? you may ask. Because the circumstances they face are similar as those dealt with in the film.?

Giving the example of Ratan Tata, Rahul Bajaj, Venu Srinivasan, Abhay and Arun Firodia, Anand Mahindra and CK Birla, Warrior argues that they are all faced with questions of survival and love using their charisma to tell the government how important it is to ensure the success of Indian enterprise in the face of MNC onslaught. ?They are poorly capitalized and are just learning the game of world class vehicle manufacture that the MNCs invented and perfected. I can see one major problem facing them: They seem to be working at cross-purposes. While most of them feel that some sort of tie-up with a foreign company is welcome to shore up their own products, they argue that allowing the MNCs free access to Indian markets will be detrimental to them. But why don?t they team up to ensure that they can compete in this environment using the unique skills that each enterprise brings to the team? If these stalwarts get together they should work on one car or utility platform that spawns vehicles with different looks for each company?s needs. Take a look at GM, Ford, Toyota, Renault and Fiat, that?s what they are doing already. Any reason why Auto India Inc cannot??

The success of Lagaan has also made the Indian corporate world wake up to the power of cinema as an effective tool to enhance sales and capture consumer attention. Till recently, companies in India generally opted for sponsorship deals with sports such as cricket. However, the mind-boggling commercial success of some recent movies has compelled them to eye Bollywood as a sales promotion avenue. Sunil Alagh, managing director of Britannia Industries, makes the same point as Patanayak. 'The two things people in India love are films and sport and in Lagaan we have a combination of both'.

In military mode

Leave alone the corporate world, even the Indian army has not remained untouched by Aamir?s magnum opus. Defence College, Hyderabad has urged Prof Patanayak to develop curriculum for its personnel and explain the ?fundamentals of Lagaan management? to its faculty members. Besides, Prof Patanayak has been invited to Ordnance Factories Staff College, Nagpur for a lecture on the Lagaan case study.

Says Fasih Ahmed, an ex-armyman turned columnist: There is little reason why the Indian Army should not seek recourse for its own Human Resource Management (HRM) woes the Lagaan way. While on the one hand it is unable to attract youngsters to fill up vacancies in lower ranks, on the other hand it has very little to offer by way of motivation for an overly prosperous ?midriff? (Lt Colonels to Brigadiers). The predicament of the army over the last decade has been its inability to tap the right human resources from universities and colleges which it feels is getting drawn in large numbers towards greener pastures being shown, offered and at times even assured by the corporate world. Fasih mentions a report titled ?Review of Policy: Management of Officer Cadre? that was tabled sometime back. It aimed at making some major policy changes in order to improve the profile of the middle rank but unfortunately no follow-up action was taken. This is where, he says, perhaps the Lagaan philosophy may come in handy. ?The Army chief along with his principal staff officers, particularly the Military Secretary and the Adjutant General, need to put on Bhuvan?s cap and do some quick and purposeful thinking to tilt the balance in their favour,? he concludes.

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