Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Start up lessons from a 90's Malayalam movie

Being part of start up's has now become acceptable and aspirational, lets spare a thought for the tireless and enterprising tribe of entrepreneurs of the 80's and 90's. We are privileged to be part of an era which has seen the likes of Flipkart and Ola, there is acceptability and encouragement from the most unlikely corners for a new venture and idea. The narrative has changed for the better just recently for budding entrepreneurs. Rewind a couple of decades back and the world was so different. Even if you had a brilliant idea and the skills and capabilities to build a business the circumstances were not encouraging.

Recently I saw a Malayalam movie - "Varavelp" starring Mohanlal. The movie which released in  1989 tells a story which effectively depicts the challenges of starting up in the 90's.

The Plot
Murali (Mohanlal) returns home after 07 years in the gulf. His 2 brothers and their families are very excited to see him after all his job in the gulf was the reason behind the changing fortunes of this family. In the late 80's of Kerala this context could be applied to any family and that wouldn't be an exaggeration. In such a scenario our protagonist returns back to lot of love and respect of his family and the society. Thanks to the foreign remittance the family debt is over and both the brothers started their own small businesses. Murali seems to enjoy all the pampering and adulation. He begins to enjoy the mundane village life, something that he has grown up in but missed for the better part of the decade. This is what prompts a decision in him to not go back to the Gulf. He has some savings from his labour and now that the family is better off after turbulent times he finds wisdom in staying back.

All hell breaks loose when he informs this decision to his brothers.
Their initial reaction was shock and they along with other elders in the family tried to counsel him. Once they realised that his decision was not going to change, the 2 brothers  started pursuing him to invest in their respective business.

On one such day, our hero comes across an advertisement in the local daily which mentioned a bus for sale along with permit for private route transport from a nearby village to the town. This got him excited. After a brief consultation with his childhood buddy, he decided to go for it. He brought a small office, hired a driver, a conductor and a cleaner and began operations. Initially he splurged his savings on  expenditure that could have been avoided. He in fact rented a car and followed the bus through the route, the earnings of each day went in such expenses. His inexperience in business showed in all his decisions. Cash flows went unchecked, discount coupons were given to anyone who asked for it. Obviously cracks begin to appear our hero was smart enough to recognize these and took control of operations. Just as things started looking slightly better he runs into the beuracratic hurdle. In one of the inspections, his bus was found not to have proper first aid kit and the fitness certificate of the bus has expired. Our hero had overlooked these aspects and now has to pay a very heavy price in fine, hurting his cash flows even further. A series of operational blunders due to his inexperience follow.

As it is a second hand bus, the maintenance of the vehicle costs alot and as our hero did not have any knowledge about mechanics and automobiles he ends up losing alot of money. Then his bus meets with a small accident hurting one of the pedestrian. He now has to pay a huge compensation and bear the hospital bills of the injured. As a fall out of this incident our hero becomes very stern with his employees and warns them that they will have to pay with their job if any such incidents happen again. The employees are very surprised by his change in demeanour as he was always soft and considerate. There is now a cold war between the entrepreneur and his employees, all this continuously affects the service and the revenues of the enterprise. Murali our hero realises that his venture is about to fall apart and now makes a last ditch effort to bring things under control. He fires the conductor who he identifies as the main instigator and takes over the role himself. He now has a better grip on the operations and takes steps towards reconciling with the rest of the team. Things slowly look to inch back into the green when he faces the toughest situation yet.

The fired conductor takes his grudge to the workers union. The workers union interfers and demands reinstating the conductor. The labour unions fuelled by the leftist ideology has been a nemesis to many entrepreneurs even now in Kerala. Our hero takes on the entire might of the labour unions head on. He refuses to budge and categorically states that he is in charge of his business and he took the decision of firing the employee only due to his non cooperative attitude. The labour Union however has a political necessity to protect their constituency leading to a very bitter face off which includes protest by union leaders right in front of the bus and not allowing it to move.

After facing so many problems, Murali has become stronger and resilient. He goes to the court and gets an order for the police to ensure the safety of his bus and staff. By this time it was too late and the damage had been done. With his business not in good shape and with no clear agenda of how he would turn things around and with no collateral he does not get access to funds for his operational costs. With continuous harassment through different means from the union, Murali knows it is just a matter of time before he will have to pull the plug.

He reaches out to his brothers, friends, relatives for a bail out. All his pleas were responded with either a blame that all this was his doing and they had advised him against it or with sympathy but no help. All the admiration and love of a gulf returned Malayalee had vanished in no time. In such a situation he winds up his business with a heavy heart and a debt that he had amased through his venture and a bus with no takers to buy.

We would think that this failure might have had the better of our Hero but the experience was not for nothing. The movie ends with our Hero contacting his friends in the Gulf to help him with a visa. He decides to go back to the Gulf but only with an intention to return with enough money to start a new venture.

Our former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee mentioned this movie as an example on the state of affairs for the local government towards global economic changes during the inauguration of the global investor meet held at Kochi on 18th January 2003

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