Tag: India

3 Days at the 2019 European Union Film Festival of India

eu film festival 2019 india

Reddit is one of the sites that I frequently visit these days, even more than Letterboxd and Twitter. And it was through the r/Mumbai community there that I came to know about the India edition of the European Union Film Festival (EUFF), a platform that showcases the best European cinema has to offer to the Indian populace and which is organized in several cities across the country every year as part of the ‘Europe in Your City’ programme through a partnership between the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (Directorate of Film Festivals), the Delegation of the European Union, and the consulates of respective European member states in India. It was in its 24th edition in 2019 and hosted 23 films from 23 European countries across eight cities between 24 June and 26 September. I managed to catch some of the films in Mumbai at the prestigious Films Division of India. This is an overview of my experience at and a recommendation of the festival for those who are interested in watching both little-known and popular European movies in a festival setting.

The European Union Film Festival of India

Abbreviated as EUFF India, it is one of the few annual film festivals celebrated in India. Although it is difficult to trace the history of the fest online (its website is new), it is safe to assume that it was started as a way to showcase European art of cinema to the cine enthusiasts of India and thereby bridge the gap between the artists from the two states. There’s no denying that it might even be a diplomatic activity aimed at strengthening the relations between India and the EU.

Films Division for euff 2019
A poster of EUFF India 2019 at the Films Division building

The 2019 edition was the 24th year the EUFF was celebrated across eight Indian cities: Chennai, New Delhi, Goa, Pune, Puducherry, Kolkata, Hyderabad, and Mumbai.[1]Interestingly, Mumbai was not in the list for the 2018 edition and it ran in eleven other cities. It was not there in 2017 either. The period of about three months is also reminiscent of how seriously the organizers take the event, using the resources offered by the Government of India for the screenings.

That is why the the entry to the festival is free of cost. Delegates are only supposed to be present at the screenings (the Mumbai screening details is mentioned in the last section here) and enjoy European cinema the best way the artform should be enjoyed in, without censorship and the poor behaviour that is rampant in mainstream theatres.

Special mention to Wishbox Studio for the beautiful EU Film Festival website design and merchandise. As you all know, I am a stationery fanatic and I am not ashamed to admit that I managed to take two cool-looking coasters home.

According to the EUFF website, the annual event is meant to celebrate the vitality and diversity of European cinema and culture. The films are a heady cocktail of romantic comedy, period drama, mockumentary, satire, and socio-political thriller.

My Experience at EUFF India 2019

I, for one, can attest to that fact about the cocktail as I managed to catch 11 of the 23 films that were screened. I attended 3 days of the festival and spent over 9 hours of courageous cinema marathon with 5 back-to-back films on the first day. It was the first time that I did that, an event that I’m told is common for film critics. In a way, I broke my own record of 3 films at the 2018 MAMI MFF, a feat that involved films Widows (2018), Climax (2018), and Leave No Trace (2018). It was exhausting to say the least but when I went to bed that night, it somehow felt good.

euff 2019 india screening
Before the start of the second screening on 21 September

I could not attend the entire festival because of work and some personal commitments. But, it was still fun. I liked the way the screenings were organized, very punctual, and a better crowd that the ones you find at MFF. It was not without its fair share of spectacles either. After the screening of the Austrian film Styx (2018) on 22 September 2019, a squabble broke out between a few viewers which quickly turned into a heated spat in Marathi. A group of elder enthusiasts began accusing a group of youngsters for being a nuisance. The former group got angry when the young men denied any wrongdoing. And it ended with the interference of the officials, even as the audience began preparing for the next screening.

Unlike at MAMI – the only other film festival I have attended so far – there was little time between the screenings. Although most of the titles were between 90 and 100 minutes of running time, it became really difficult to grab a bite between the shows. That is why you always carry some energy bars and a water bottle for a film festival. (Looks like it’s time I devise my own guide as I wait for the 2019 edition of the MFF.) But if you want it right now here’s a nice little guide by Berlin-based travel blogger Adam doling out some great tips to follow while at a film festival.

If finding time for lunch or evening snack is difficult, convincing your body to maintain its posture and not fidget for streaks of 90+ minutes with small intervals between them is where you’ll need a bit of practice and the ability to deviate from your lifestyle (diet and rest preferences). Active film festival attendees around the world (who visit the Big Three or other big ones like Sundance and TIFF) can do this without much effort. I have read stories.

european film festival schedule
The 2019 Mumbai schedule put up at the Films Division building

If you are a disciplined person who eats on time and sleeps on time, then I’m afraid attending film festivals is going to be tough. It is usually very difficult to cajole the fest organizers to push a 2 PM show by an hour because it overlaps with your lunchtime. If you are friends with the organizers and somehow manage to do it, let me know in the comments. I’ll execute your bragging rights.

It should be noted that due to a lack of popularity, none of the screenings I attended were houseful. But that was a relief because in most cases I could enjoy the films in silence with no disturbance from fellow viewers. Most of the audience were discerning and did not engage in activities that are barred from my own imaginary theatre if it is ever built.

Films Watched

I caught the following eleven films at the 2019 EUFF India (in the order of the viewing):

  1. Bubblegum (2017, Bulgaria, dir. Stanislav Todorov)
  2. Tulipani (2017, Netherlands, dir. Mike Van Diem)
  3. The Troupe (2018, Hungary, dir. Pal Sandor)
  4. Diamantino (2018, Portugal, dir. Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt)
  5. The Charmer (2018, Denmark, dir. Milad Alami)
  6. Drifters (2015, Sweden, dir. Peter Gronlund)
  7. Styx (2018, Austria, dir. Woflgang Fischer)
  8. Ashes in the Snow (2018, Lithuania, Marius Markevicius)
  9. #Female Pleasure (2018, Switzerland, dir. Barbara Miller)
  10. Me and Kaminski (Germany, 2015, dir. Wolfgang Becker)
  11. Maria (And Everybody Else) (2016, Spain, dir. Nely Reguera)

As you can see, the festival also focuses on old films that are supposed to be essential viewing from those specific countries. Some of these European states are not prolific producers like India or the USA, which is another point that the original 23-film list conveys. You can see the entire list for the 2019 edition here on IMDb. The sole documentary on atrocities on women in the 21st century was also a good watch. It should be essential viewing for today’s youth.

euff 2019 films brochure
Two of the films I could not catch

My favourite film out of the lot is Diamantino, which is a satire on government propaganda and cloning experiments as seen from the perspective of an innocent, disgraced footballer whose life has an uncanny resemblance to that of Cristiano Ronaldo who is a Portugal national…

I also liked Me and Kaminski, Maria (And Everybody Else), and The Charmer. All great stories with a touch of uniqueness. (And I also kept wondering why there was no film from the UK. The Brexit deal is still not in motion so technically the UK is still a part of the EU. Right?)

Overall, EUFF India was a fun experience for me. I watched more films than I had originally intended to and was able to do it without any hiccups. I also got to explore tony Pedder Road, Cumbala Hills, and Mahalaxmi areas of Mumbai, which I have not been exposed to much. If I could, I would have attended the fest in its entirety, but that is something that I intend to do for MAMI MFF 2019 as well as for the upcoming 10th Jagran Film Festival (starts 26 September 2019) in Mumbai and the 50th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa (starts 20 November 2019).

Guide for Future Delegates

The entry to the European Union Film Festival is free. Only people above 18 years of age are allowed as the films are not censored. Most of the titles I watched in 2019 had some sort of nudity and sexual content in them with one film (The Charmer) going a bit over the top. It also did not have disclaimers, which is another quality I love about festivals.

All films are with English subtitles.

If you are interested for the 2020 edition and if they run it in your city, keep an eye on their website and social media profiles. They (EU in India) are quite active on both Facebook and Twitter.

Plan your itinerary before and make sure you reach the screenings at least 10 minutes before to get the seat that you want. Other than, it’s just basic film festival etiquette. The location for Mumbai is given below. The most economic way to get to the venue (if its Films Division in future editions also) is to get down at Grant Road station in the Western line of the Mumbai Suburban Railway (local train) and take the #155 Limited BEST bus to Cumbala Hills Post Office. Good luck. TN.

Featured image courtesy: EUFF India

Update: Added bus route option to get to the EUFF venue in Mumbai. (27 September 2019)

footnotes   [ + ]

1. Interestingly, Mumbai was not in the list for the 2018 edition and it ran in eleven other cities. It was not there in 2017 either.

List: All the Films that Opened the Mumbai Film Festival Since 1997

mumbai film festival opening films 2010 to 2019

On 29 August 2019 the Mumbai Film Festival tweeted out a few photos celebrating their decision to choose Geethu Mohandas’s gritty crime drama Moothon as the opening film for its 21st edition scheduled between 17 and 24 October. It is the first time that a Malayalam-language film is opening the festival, which has for the last four years consecutively honored Hindi-language features (with the odd one A Death in the Gunj (2016) a mix of Hindi, English, and Bengali) and majorly English-language ones before that. So, naturally as a Malayalam cinema connoisseur it made me jump up in joy. It also made me want to look back at all the opening films of the festival since its inception. This list is a product of that desire and MAMI’s contributions in decorating brilliant cinema since 1997.

From 1997 when Jaya Bachchan’s comeback film Hazar Chaurasi Ki Ma opened the inaugural edition to 2010 when it selected David Fincher’s Academy Award-winning The Social Network to 2019 when a Malayalam film is about to finally get a seat at the high table. This is a list of all the opening films of the Mumbai Film Festival (MFF) in its two-decade-long history.

mumbai film festival opening films 2010 to 2019
Posters of all opening films from 2010 to 2019 in reverse order / © Letterboxd

Opening Films of Mumbai Film Festival

Listed chronologically along with the name of the director and the primary language of the film. Sourced from a tweet by MAMI (opens in another tab).

EditionYearFilmDirectorLanguage
1st1997Hazaar Chaurasi Ki MaaGovind NihalaniHindi
2nd1999The Sixth SenseM. Night ShyamalanEnglish
3rd2000Crouching Tiger, Hidden DragonAng LeeMandarin
4th2001BanditsBarry LevinsonEnglish
5th2002Taking SidesIstván SzabóEnglish
6th2003Warriors of Heaven and EarthPing HeMandarin
7th2005Human TouchPaul CoxEnglish
8th2006The ChorusChristophe BarratierFrench
9th2007Curse of the Golden FlowerYimou ZhangMandarin
10th2008KatynAndrzej WajdaPolish
11th2009The Informant!Steven SoderberghEnglish
12th2010The Social NetworkDavid FincherEnglish
13th2011MoneyballBennett MillerEnglish
14th2012Silver Linings PlaybookDavid O. RussellEnglish
15th2013The ButlerLee DanielsEnglish
16th2014SerenaSusanne BierEnglish
17th2015AligarhHansal MehtaHindi
18th2016A Death in the GunjKonkona Sen SharmaEnglish
19th2017MukkabaazAnurag KashyapHindi
20th2018Mard Ko Dard Nahin HotaVasan BalaHindi
21st2019MoothonGeethu MohandasMalayalam

Note 1: The festival did not run in 1998 due to a lack of funding by the Maharashtra state government and in 2004 for unknown reasons.[1](MAMI – A Retrospective, The Big Indian Picture, Tanul Thakur and Roshni Nair, October 2013)

Note 2: For your convenience, this list has been duplicated on IMDb and Letterboxd. Updated every year.

A Little Bit of MAMI History

In the inaugural year 1997, MAMI screened a total of 70 films from 25 countries. The Big Indian Picture reports it as 65 films from 23 countries[2](MAMI – A Retrospective, The Big Indian Picture, Tanul Thakur and Roshni Nair, October 2013). Govind Nihalani’s adaptation of the Mahasweta Devi novel opened the festival which was then labelled as India’s first independent film festival. This, considering that Kolkata and Trivandrum already had their own versions, Kolkata International Film Festival (KIFF) and International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), respectively. One other major contender for that label was the International Film Festival of India (IFFI). But then MAMI was founded and it kicked off the first edition on 24 November 1997 with much pomp and circumstance. And it naturally ‘assumed’ the title. According to Rupleena Bose writing for MUBI Notebook, it was originally titled as ‘Festival of Films’ when it launched in 1997, which was partly because of a desire to replenish the dull mood of the Mumbai populace after the 1993 bomb blasts.

Either from the people involved in creating the fest or the type of films that were screened (The Fifth Element, Sholay (1975), and Ankur (1974) to name a few), it is safe to assume that many must have thought that it would revolutionize the industry. But more than either of those, it was self-sustenance that pushed MFF to the fore. More than twenty years later and with at least half a dozen more festivals running in India perhaps as a result, I’m inclined to confirm that it is the biggest cinema extravaganza that India currently has in the global landscape.

It is interesting to learn that the opening edition saw about 200 delegates in attendance and Jio’s part was played by Mahindra & Mahindra then which donated INR 5 lakh as sponsorship. The rumour that PepsiCo India showed interest – because of a lack of funds to run the 1998 edition – in sponsoring the fest in 2000 is actually true, but the organizers declined because they did not want it to be named ‘Pepsi Film Festival’. Nonetheless, India Inc. has been historically generous to the festival as past years have seen companies like Indian Oil (IOC), Star TV, Zee Cinema, Sahara, and Godrej contribute for the sake of continuity of the fest. In 1997 if the festival budget was around INR 10 lakhs, in 2013 it was estimated to be about INR 6 crores, thanks to ample funding by Reliance’s Big Entertainment (now ADAG). This type of funding helped MAMI turn from a cash-strapped passion organization into a real harbinger of creativity and vision for cinema on an international scale. In the next decade, it would not only start new competition sections but also run the only film criticism workshop in India – the Young Critics Lab which began in 2009 as a platform for young cinema lovers-cum-writers to hone their skills and take up film criticism as a serious profession.

One key thing to note here is that the organizers did not want the festival to be influenced by the demands of corporate giants, which is why film selection was and has been entirely up to MAMI. This confirms that there is no ulterior motive by certain elements who would want to push a specific film in which they have a vested interest. All the more reason to celebrate the decoration of Indian features as opening films.

What’s in a Festival Opening Film?

A lot, to be honest.

Since 2015 when the opening film was Hansal Mehta’s Manoj Bajpayee-starring biopic Aligarh, MFF has managed to be the starting point of buzz for creative cinema. How else would one explain the almost cult status that the Internet generation has given to Konkona Sen Sharma’s debut feature? Or Vasan Bala’s Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2018) that took Reddit by storm when it released on VOD earlier in 2019? MFF helps native films create buzz, the type that Moothon is currently enjoying as it approaches its worldwide premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) along with other Indian award hopefuls like Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu and Shonali Bose’s The Sky is Pink.

mff opening films 1997 to 2009
Posters of opening films between 1997 and 2009 in reverse order / © Letterboxd

But this was not always the case. One of the main reasons why most of the MAMI opening films have been foreign imports is because of the buzz that existed and which they wanted to bring into the country’s mainstream cinema. Moneyball (2011), The Social Network (2010), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and The Sixth Sense (1999) have enjoyed heightened status and success in Mumbai and elsewhere in India also because they all were opening films.

In 2018, Vasan Bala’s action comedy opened the festival. And despite the hiccup by its producers due to an issue with distributors and theatre-owners, the film got a theatrical release in 2019. The buzz that MFF created in October 2018 definitely needs to be attributed.

An opening film sets the tone for a festival and in some cases it can also influence the rest of it. In 2017, Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz got the honour and the response was lukewarm. Although I could not attend the entire week-long event, I can confirm that the overall fest in terms of footfalls and audience response was much weaker than what it was in 2015 and later in 2018, one of my most successful years as far as MFF and me are concerned.

Some Statistics

I like statistics so it makes sense to take a look at what numbers tell us about the MAMI opening films. Here you go:

  • 12 are English-language features, four Hindi, three Mandarin, one each Polish and Malayalam
  • Three have been directed by women filmmakers, 18 by men
  • A total of eight Oscar wins for three out of 21 titles
  • Only one unanimously poor critical performer (Susanne Bier’s Serena (2014))

Conclusion

I think selecting Moothon (The Elder One) as the opening film for the festival by an organization that is largely influenced by Bollywood cine artists is a breakthrough. Admitting that cinema is the common language that we speak, MAMI has only transcended beyond what it set out to achieve when two decades ago industry stalwarts like Amol Palekar, Sudhir Nandgaonkar, Kiran Shantaram, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Shabana Azmi, Shyam Benegal, Gulzar, Ramesh Sippy, and others came together and sowed a seed that now gives us a taste of the best of Indian and world cinema every year. In 2018, the festival was one of the best experiences I had.

mami 2019 opening film moothon
Nivin Pauly in the MAMI MFF opening film Moothon (2019) / © MAMI

It is important to also note that the main intention of MFF was to create a platform for appreciation of regional films. International films already got the attention they desired, but for a secular and multi-lingual country like India where there are films being made in all major languages, MFF was a necessity more than a fad. The selection of a regional film (Moothon is produced by artists majorly from the south Indian state of Kerala) for the 2019 edition is a step towards an extension of fulfillment of that vision.

It is difficult to trace the history of MAMI but this list will probably act as a type of archive as we move ahead and break more barriers. TN.

MAMI 2019 edition poster

The 21st Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival with Star begins on 17 October 2019 and ends on 24 October 2019. Registrations are now open over at BookMyShow with one pass worth INR 500 ($7).

footnotes   [ + ]

1, 2. (MAMI – A Retrospective, The Big Indian Picture, Tanul Thakur and Roshni Nair, October 2013)

Times My Vehicle Has Hit Another Vehicle Since 2004

cars on a highway

I would have used the term ‘motor vehicle’ but then I would not have been able to include my first-ever road accident that occurred back in 2004. It was a bicycle versus an auto rickshaw crash. This also means that I have been using faster transport mechanisms for about 15 years now, making this a perfect time to chronicle some of my worst road incidents, one of which haunts me till this very day.

Here are six times when my vehicle hit another or when another vehicle hit mine or when both the riders/drivers were equally responsible. Unfortunately, there’s no way to find out who was to be blamed during any of these crashes. We will have to depend on my point of view. Let’s start.

Bicycle Vs Auto Rickshaw – 2004

I had recently been gifted a bicycle – a black Hero Razorback bought from a private dealership in Airoli. Because I had managed to learn how to ride beforehand with the help of a friend named Alex, I was allowed to take it out for rides freely.

I also had a group of friends with whom I often went for cycling sprints. It is while returning home from one of these that I crashed into a stationary auto rickshaw. That day I learned that you should not put all your trust on mechanical brakes.

The fault was mine because I was at a good speed of ~30 kmph in a crowded street. I would have not crashed had I known that rains can restrict ability of a braking system. The rickshaw driver let me go with a minor admonishment but then years later I wrote something generalizing him.

Motorcycle Vs Sedan – 2014

Fast forward ten years and I now ride a motorcycle – a black Honda Unicorn 150 CB. Thanks to my friends Mitesh and Jithin, I quickly learned how to ride the two-wheeler before taking it for a ride on my own.

It is during one such solo riding in Kopar Khairane that I nicked into a sedan’s passenger-side mirror. It was a busy street and I had crossed about ten meters before I looked back at the car and the driver. I mouthed an apology and the driver waved me off with a smile. Don’t know if it was the apology or the admission but none of that has worked for me ever since, as we will learn later.

This was the safest crash because neither of our vehicles sustained any damage.

Hatchback Vs Motorcycle – 2016

This was probably the most devastating and also the one that involved my entire family save for my dad. We were on a pleasure trip to Murud in Maharashtra, a month after we bought a second-hand maroon Hyundai i20 Magna from a family friend. I was still a rookie driver, trying my luck at our first long trip outside Mumbai. That was probably the first mistake.

I was fairly confident of my driving skills, but that didn’t help me manoeuver the vehicle properly as we hit an oncoming two-wheeler. The bike first hit my right-side mirror, breaking it into pieces, and then slipped into a corner of the zigzag road, eventually hitting a tree. The rider did not sustain any injuries but he claimed otherwise. And so did 100 of his friends who he quickly called up to threaten me and my family. We ended up being traumatized and settling the dispute privately as it had soon turned into a religious issue, something that the on-duty policeman seemed to have enjoyed that day.

I like to believe the blame was on both of us, but the financial and emotional damage was one-sided. It temporarily put me in a state of tizzy.

Hatchback Vs Scooter – 2017

This occurred in a crowded place in Kopar Khairane. I was trying to get my car out of the busy street when my front bumper slightly – just lightly like a feather touches the ground – touched the back of a pink Scooty Pep. The helmetless rider, along with his kid, got out and started splashing expletives in Marathi.

I asked him to relax without downing my window glasses. He appeared to calm down as he took a look at the back of his scooter, gave me another look as if I had rammed into his kid and he was forgiving me, sat on and took off. The surrounding brouhaha as a result of the drama did not seem to matter to him at all.

I am to be blamed here, but then I have some questions:

  • Can’t two vehicles even slightly scratch each other when you are out on the road?
  • Why do some people take so much care of their vehicles (more than themselves at times) when they know vehicles are just temporary objects you use to get from A to B?
    • Why do these people wear their vehicle-protectiveness as a hat of pride?

This brings me to my most recent experience.

Hatchback Vs Hatchback – 2019

Around the dusty area of Panvel, my car rammed into a white Maruti Suzuki WagonR, denting its bumper and screwing up the parking sensor. The guy put on his aggressive suit and started talking like, again, I had rammed into his person. So much drama evolved from that minor crash that I almost ended up giving him the keys to my house. I began my response by admitting my mistake and that’s where onlookers started grabbing popcorn.

I was driving at 60-70 kmph and it was raining, together which led to the crash. But the lack of basic empathy from the victim left me startled, as I moved on to a state of depression for two weeks.

Hatchback Vs Sedan – 2019

This was on our way to Girgaum Chowpatty. Just before the Metro cinema turn, a golden Honda City scratched into my car and sped off before the lights turned red. I think it did more damage to their car than it did to mine, so we’re square, I guess.

The traffic policemen witnessing the scene remained motionless for a few seconds. Then they went back to chatting. Thankfully, it would have cost me a few hundred bucks for the mistake of someone else because my PUC certificate had expired the previous month.


Riding or driving on the roads these days does not come without its fair share of issues, regardless of who’s to be blamed for the ‘issue’. And the best way to stay calm and live life is to use public transit and avoid private travel as much as you can. You need peace? Use your car and bikes less often. TN.

Why I Don’t Use Zomato

Opinion on Zomato

Disclaimer: This is an opinion based on my personal experience with Zomato and facts sourced from online news publications. It is, in no way, intended as a form of attack on the subject party or its reputation.

Zomato used to be my go-to app for online food delivery and I used to love it. So much that my sister and I used it almost every week (and often more than two times a week even) to order food from random “ghost kitchens” across Navi Mumbai. When we ‘got bored’ with popular delivery-only kitchens like Faasos and Behrouz Biryani (owned by a single parent Rebel Foods) along with our favorites nearby from our apartment, we experimented with new ones. Suggestions that Zomato recommended would be a better choice based on our location, ordering habits, and perhaps order history too. Such an amazing piece of food tech; I thought it was one of the best things to come out of India’s startup boom. An app that ensures I never have a bad meal, makes me a better foodie, and never lets me sleep on an empty stomach.

But then after using it for nearly three years, it kicked me in my stomach. It took some time to hit me that under all that glam – zany ads still discussed in marketing circles and various LinkedIn posts, exciting features and discounts, talks about being a unicorn startup within just five years of inception, very deep pockets, international presence and associations, and a leader in the sector – it was still a business. An entity that aspires to become fully profitable (possible paywall) someday using the same model that it used to fondle my taste buds. It took me consecutive order gaffes, a few interactions with its customer support, some web research, and a visit to a hospital to realize that it was not really servicing me. But slowly turning me into a junkie who would soon become helpless without it, and worse, grow addicted to it.

I was not going to have it. So, I permanently deleted my Zomato account in January 2019, deleted the app, and wiped all its data from my smartphone to never look back. I haven’t yet tried my hands on other headline-grabbing restaurant and food delivery aggregators like Swiggy, Uber Eats, and Foodpanda, but I’m sure there is little difference between them and Zomato much like there’s no difference between all the telecom companies in the world. I use Vodafone’s cellular network and I cannot stand it. Not because it overprices its service but because it regards me as a milking cow. Which makes me note that my issue with Zomato is part of my larger issue with corporatism, a problem that I am very well a part of, and to an extent, even have benefited from.

It is also the reason why I recently turned down a close friend’s request to join his new business. I just do not agree with the idea of a business that exists only for the purpose of profit-making. And sooner or later, in these harrowing times, every business does stand the risk of turning into one. Most young entrepreneurs incubate their startups with “good monies” in mind. Only a very few don’t make that transition and that is why you never hear about them.

Let’s not digress. Here are a few personal reasons why I don’t use Zomato anymore and perhaps never will.

One Too Many Menus

Ordering food through Zomato is easy and it hardly takes a minute to do so after you have selected the items off the menu. It’s absolutely fantastic, and the only other app that comes close to the same convenience is that of Oyo Rooms. Ola’s Android app is the worst.

Once my sister and I began experimenting with different outlets, ordering items that sounded international enough to give them a try, we started experiencing the real issue at hand. Because a lot of these “ghost kitchens” (also known as dark kitchens or cloud kitchens) – outlets that only deliver food; no seating arrangement, only online ordering – vie to get more orders every day of the week so that they can sustain in the long run, they maintain multiple versions of their food menu. One for food delivery aggregators, one to be added in the flyers that would be disseminated locally through newspapers and whatnot, and one for their own website which would eventually be used to attract customers before they can say goodbye to Zomato. The prices in all these versions are different, some tweaked to bear the extra costs that the restaurant has to spend as overhead. This approach makes sense because there has to be some incentive if your target user takes interest, registers, and buys from your own website rather than through third-party apps. The concept of multiple versions of a food menu works until it doesn’t.

Zomato prefers its restaurants to add the menu items through its backend system rather than upload screenshots of the actual menu. Although, I should add, it does allow them to upload the screenshots for users who may want to call and order. What this sometimes results in is errors in the prices as well as the menu items. There can be duplicates, erroneously inflated prices, and even mismatch in the name of the dish and the actual dish that gets wrapped and sent out with the help of law-breaking delivery boys on decrepit scooters.[1]Zomato has been in the news for a variety of wrong reasons including ridiculous work conditions for its delivery boys who have often been caught stealing from the orders they are fulfilling. (“Zomato delivery boy seen consuming food from sealed orders in a video” – ETtech, 11 December 2018)

Although Zomato, India’s largest restaurant search portal, has guidelines to ensure that menus are uploaded with proper price tags and itemization, I have experienced discrepancies in their prices several times. The eateries that do not allow ordering through the app but require you to call and order often charged me extra. Because you don’t know what the total bill will be after listing your items and because you sometimes forget to ask and because most people assigned the job of taking telephonic orders in these low-cost dark kitchens do not have basic hospitality etiquette, you sometimes wait for the order to arrive and along with it the bill with a total cost that’s nowhere near what you expected. One plate of Vegetable Pulao for 350 rupees? The menu said 220!

The aggregator may not have anything to do with such incidents, but it does play a major role when you order through the app. Take, for example, the time when I saw two instances of the same dish: Chicken Tandoori and Tandoori Chicken. A food vlogger or critic may try to distinguish between them simply because they feel it’s expected of them, but for someone like me who only knows that chicken and tandoor go and taste well together, it makes no difference. Both are the same to me, yet the price mentioned against them were not. There was a difference of over 80 rupees between the two. I ended up ordering the costlier one (one full plate) just because I thought this would actually be the first time I order Chicken Tandoori and rejoice at the quantity. I was wrong. I tried contacting the customer support but they were busy structuring a social media-worthy conversation with me. I went offline.

All of these minor issues that came between me and my food ordering journey irritated me but I still kept ordering because you crave for things that you cannot yourself make. And dining out is a massive attack to one’s anxiety meter these days.

Ease of Listing

I used to receive (and still do) so many flyers at my house sent out by new eateries in and around my location, inviting me to order food from their kitchens through one of the aggregator apps, that it became difficult to not take a look at their menus offering delectable food and exciting discounts that would put a smile on my wallet’s face. No foodie can ignore an offer that lets you enjoy four different appetizers in less than the cost of a six-month second-class suburban local railway pass from Thane to CST.

I, along with a lot of my friends and relatives, wondered how so many dark kitchens were mushrooming by the day. I have been staying in a Navi Mumbai node for more than a decade now and it is only in the past year (since mid-2017) that I have observed so many new restaurants and delivery-only entities coming up. A quick search on the Zomato website for restaurants that would deliver to my place gave me 464 different listings to choose from. That’s roughly one restaurant per 10,000 square meters of area if I include all of Kopar Khairane and parts of Ghansoli, Bonkode, Turbhe, and Vashi.[2]Because this does not necessarily mean that the outlets are in Kopar Khairane only. The list contains ALL the outlets that are willing to deliver to my address, which is why these places were also considered. My apartment is just less than the tenth of that.

Zomato restaurants in Kopar Khairane
A search result showing the number of food outlets delivering to my address / © Zomato

There’s only one reason for that: ease of doing business. In other words, ease of listing online.

Had it suddenly become so easy to get certificates and licenses from the local authorities to run such outlets? What with so many of them coming up in every block and nook and corner in Kopar Khairane itself, I would believe so. Was it so easy to get an entry into the Zomato database? Well, not if you just go by what’s on the surface.

According to its website, it is easier to create a listing for a new eatery than it is to achieve a verified user profile, a possible gimmick to attest their hard work in creating an unbiased platform with genuine user-generated content (UGC). For a listing, just supply basic details like address and contact numbers, and you are ready to go. However, India Filings reports that you will need a lot more than that. Along with the eatery registration and shop act license, you will also need a Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSAI) license (the most important) and a Goods and Services Tax (GST) registration certificate. Zomato then collects and verifies these documents and the information in them before making your outlet’s listing live on the platform.[3]According to a Medium article by The Indian Restaurateur (cited elsewhere in this editorial), Zomato also engages in surveying and addition of restaurants at its own will without the solicitation of the restaurant owners. While the listing goes live without the knowledge or approval of the owner, the owner cannot control it unless he ‘claims’ it. This has been seen as coercion by the author. (The Zomato Story – 26 March 2018)

Recently, two more things have been added to this list of requisites: fire safety license (especially if it’s a restaurant with proper seating) and food hygiene ratings. Earlier in 2018, founder Deepinder Goyal himself penned an article titled “Responsibility” on the Zomato blog announcing their move to put up scanned copies of safety licenses on listings, where he also mentions that at the time of publishing that information was available only for a handful of restaurants. What number might that be among its over 1.2 million listings across 24 countries is a mystery to me, but Goyal seems optimistic about the “complex, deep, and systemic” problem of the increasing number of life-threatening fire hazards in restaurants (the Kamala Mills tragedy of December 2017 has been cited). Two months before that deadly incident in 2017, Zomato had also claimed that it rolled out food hygiene ratings for restaurants by tying up with third-party auditors who would provide a detailed assessment of establishments, which could then be presented as a badge on their listings.

But I have my doubts. Despite the long list of requisites and so many fancy terms and gimmicks to ensure that I never have a bad meal, never end up in a place that violates fire safety rules, and never sleep on an empty stomach, it is difficult for me to trust Zomato. Especially when Goyal again claimed to have delisted non-compliant restaurants for not furnishing the FSSAI license. My question is then: how did the listings go live in the first place?

It is in my imaginative power to connect the dots and assume that Zomato closed its eyes far too many times to let a massive wave of profit-making businesses use its model to market and sell food to unsuspecting customers like me. It knows that there are no users without merchants. Which would justify the uptick in demand and investment activity that food aggregators received from 2017 as reported by Salman S H in Livemint. The report further says that Zomato was lucky enough to get good backers as early as 2016 when it first started grappling with issues such as fake reviews, spurious listings, and listing discrepancies. To quell this and to continue showcasing its worth well to its investors, Zomato was forced to welcome the wave without a flinch. Result? Ill-aimed restaurants going hostile on their innocent, hungry audience.

Fake Reviews and Some More

It is perhaps the biggest, unsolvable menace for Zomato. It has been trying with all its might to fight fake reviews through various operations that are described and named in a way they somehow reminded me of Uber’s transgressing Greyball tool. I am referring to its Project Fairplay.

When I removed Zomato from my phone, I had a basic account with a handful of reviews, zero photographs, and some personal information in my profile. Although its concept of “foodie levels” had pushed me to post more reviews and updates so that I could become an “expert” in Kopar Khairane (especially after seeing that the expert in Vashi was a teenage kid), and eventually receive free food offers from new restaurants looking to market themselves in exchange for a clean 5-star rating, I stopped spending my time to create content for the aggregator and used it only to order meals and book tables, and in a few rare cases, pay for food online using its partner in crime, Paytm. I stopped reviewing after an online wellwisher pointed out that I was only helping Zomato get more free UGC.

Much like Google’s Local Guide and Amazon’s Vine programs, Zomato depends on its end customers to produce unique content. The incentive here is a badge on your profile that you can boast about on Instagram. Perfect for its primary target audience.

Although Zomato does not permit restaurants soliciting reviews (which it calls ‘bribery’) in return for free food and an Instagrammable experience, it does happen, rather blatantly. And the aggregator conveniently closes its eyes again. It’s a straightforward process and one that also helps Zomato register new users into its system whom it promises to never let go. (Days after deleting my account and hours after blocking Zomato from sending me promotional text messages, I still received them. To this day I see messages asking me to order through the app to get a certain discount. I like to believe Zomato still has my phone number.) Top users who have been solicited pass the “free food” message to their friends and followers and eventually the website becomes a haven of free food grabbers. While that helps it gain unique users, the side effects are life-threatening. Fake reviews, fake ratings, fake comments, leading to an overall artificial experience for the end user.

A restaurant with huge financial backing without proper operating licenses can easily get inside the Zomato database, ‘game the system’ through planted reviews, run a few ad campaigns on the app (to titillate the ‘moderator’ so that it can close eyes a couple more times), and then begin its onslaught on hungry customers.

Although it claims that it has been trying to weed out the menace of false reviews from violating customers or fake users, there hasn’t been much impact. In October 2017, Zomato’s then Chief of Staff Surobhi Das introduced the concepts of ‘blackmail’ and ‘bribery’ and also suggested a basic feature to help obliterate them. While blackmail means customers asking for a free meal in return for a positive review, bribery, as we just saw, sees the roles reversing. She continues: “These are nascent but growing problems at Zomato, and while our machines and neutrality team do a stupendous job at identifying and mitigating the menace, we decided to create a larger systemic fix for the issue.” And then ends up suggesting the fix: a “Report Abuse” button which restaurants can use to report reviews that they think are non-genuine. Four months later, then Associate Vice President of Product Marketing Tanvi Duggal followed up and wrote about the aggregator’s anti-bias and anti-spam algorithms which would help them get rid of and prevent fake reviews. If they caught a restaurant indulging in such an activity, they claimed they would put up a ‘shame banner’ on top of their listing. In the one year since I used the app since the announcement, not once did I see an instance of a shame banner. Zomato knows better than punishing its restaurants.

Zomato has been around for over a decade now and still hasn’t been able to find a proper solution for fake reviews. In its defense, I would agree that it’s an unachievable goal. As someone who has professionally handled brand reputation for different brands, I can attest to the burgeoning menace of fake reviews online. It is just a sibling of the larger menace of “fake news” that we have been dealing with lately. Amazon has tweaked its product reviews system countless times to tackle the issue in vain. There are millions of products across its regional websites that bear artificial reviews posted by genuine customers who just said yes to certain merchants getting in touch with them on private email for a modern barter deal. This is a part of an actual email I received on 2 February 2018 from an Amazon dealer selling fitness bands and Bluetooth speakers: “I would like you to help me in the promotion of my products online by posting a positive review about the products…” Even as Amazon advertises and asks local businesses to shake hands with it, fake reviews enter the system through media that’s always one step ahead of its algorithms. Notably, Zomato’s acquisition of US-based review platform and Yelp!’s competitor Urbanspoon in January 2015 did not yield results either, which is why it shut it down five months later.

For a tech-savvy Internet user who does not blindly follow and believe in everything written online, especially on such sites including the leader of the lot, Quora, detecting a fake review is easy. For example, an obvious red flag is a 100% positive review. Sometimes the tone itself can help you understand if the user is being genuine or if money exchanged hands in the back. Detecting a fake account is easier: a history of only positive reviews on a profile with the possible use of emojis?

As long as there is competition, there will be fake reviews and there’s nothing that Zomato can do about it. Such reviews deceive the end user and do not provide an original opinion about the service that is being sold. Service that goes directly into the user’s body, which is where and why things start looking grim. This malpractice is one of the primary reasons why I don’t use Zomato.

Interactions with a Careless Lot

If Zomato’s indifference in subjects important convinced me about its wickedness then a few interactions with their customer support is what made me hit the deactivate button. The incident with the support trying to play funny with me above is a real story. Because there was nothing they could do about it, they instead engaged in banter. I chose to not continue.

But I detected the peak indifference in Zomato’s overall brand when I once interacted with them to complain about a mouldy dish. Other than the fact that it takes a good 10-15 minutes to make the support personnel understand the issue, there is a serious lack of connection. Most of the responses you get from them (over the chat function) are rigid templates that sound like they were churned out by a robot. Moreover, they deliver it in a tone and language that implies that they are written in stone and there’s no way you can circumvent them. That is both a good and a bad thing.

Of course, as a business, they have to stick to their policies, but I doubt their customer support has ever resolved an issue, and if they did, resulted in satisfaction to either party. The problem is with their substandard chat program and a sheer unwillingness to be fluid. For instance, you cannot cancel an order once placed through Zomato. Even if it has just been five seconds. There’s no option to do so. The best way, therefore, is to contact customer care, engage in banter with them, and hope to get your chat screenshot featured on ScoopWhoop, and then boast about it on Instagram, because you just lost the chance of boasting about your lunch order because something just went wrong with it, didn’t it?

My Visit to the Hospital

There’s no evidence that my Typhoid diagnosis was related to my food-ordering habits through Zomato. So I will refrain from hinting at it. The consulting doctor only told me that the root cause of my ailment was ‘consumption of uncooked, undercooked, or stale food’. This was the period when I was ordering a lot of food from delivery-only outlets. I am accusing them. My point here is about the lack of food quality standards in restaurants that deliver through Zomato.

In August 2018, after it found that licences and registrations of around 40% of all restaurants listed online across various channels were not verified, FSSAI underlined its order (possible paywall) to Zomato and other food delivery apps to delist unlicensed entities. While most of them responded in the positive, suggesting that they were trying very hard for the ‘greater good’ and ‘the larger benefit of food safety in India’, they were very possibly unperturbed by the order. In its Terms and Conditions as of 5 July 2019 (updated on 31 January 2019), Zomato states that “…the liability of any violation of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 and applicable rules and regulations made thereunder shall solely rest with the sellers/brand owners, vendors, restaurants, importers or manufacturers…” and goes on to reiterate that it won’t be liable if the food that you order is not up to your dietary requirements.

Swiggy and Foodpanda have this condition phrased slightly differently but the meaning is just the same, which excuses them from any issue or litigation that may arise from an unsuspecting user who gets diagnosed with a disease because of consumption of ‘bad food’. (Unfortunately, there’s no way to put two and two together and prove that a person got ill because he consumed so and so from a dark kitchen which he ordered through an aggregator app.) This is the reason why I assume they don’t care about restaurants checking off all the items in the health and safety list. The idea of such an enterprise is mind-boggling. Uber can confirm too.

The problem of unscrupulous food outlets delivering unhygienic food to clueless users is not novel. Such restaurants have existed before and people have ordered from them even before Zomato entered the scene in 2008. The change after the arrival of delivery apps can be described as two-fold: one, the birth of and subsequent rise in delivery-only food outlets (which were nonexistent before and which, unfortunately, have pushed many diners to death due to increasing losses and competition), and two, unpunished continuation of businesses or ‘bad actors’ who provide low-quality service.

Let’s take an example: You order from a new restaurant, and when the food arrives you are not happy with it or the service or some other aspect of it. So, you retort through the only ways available to you (rant on social media or rate the restaurant negatively or contact customer support), and then you forget about it. If the restaurant already has a good reputation – which it may have through fake ratings and reviews – your review is a black dot on a white paper, and the effect it will have on the business or its operation continuation is zero. There’s even the possibility of your review being flagged down through the use of tools facilitated by Project Fairplay. And that rant you posted on the Facebook page? Well, it does not take much time for a few lines of text to get buried when the platform you are using generates millions of such media by the hour.

There are many customers who have reported such cases, as Rajitha Menon writes in Deccan Herald. “Until a customer personally knows the place from where he or she is ordering food, one cannot trust the place,” she ends the article citing an expert on the matter. At the time of publishing, Zomato had 170 unique reviews on TrustPilot with an average overall rating of ‘bad’ (72% users gave it a negative rating against the 17% who thought it was between ‘good’ and ‘excellent’)[4]It has a TrustScore of 1.5 out of 10. Foodpanda 1.1 out of 10 with 81 reviews. UberEats 0.3 out of 10 with 5200+ reviews. . It figures because TrustPilot allows companies to only respond to the reviews. Then again, even the Danish review platform is not immune to bogus content.

When you order from a delivery-only food outlet, you don’t see the place where the food will be prepared or the front desk from which you can grasp a good enough idea about its cleanliness standards. You only see the food menu and the images of food posted by the outlet’s employee and fellow users, some of whom may have been paid to do so. Here you are depending on two entities: the food outlet and the aggregator app, both of which exist to turn their businesses into profit, one way or the other. While the outlet not maintaining safety and health standards is a topic for discussion for some other time, the point that I wanted to focus on here is the lax attitude of Zomato. It does not help create trust.

As a counterpoint, when you visit a restaurant for lunch or dinner, the onus of ensuring that you are not walking into a death trap and that you will be served healthy and fresh food is on you. When you are ordering food online through an app, it falls on the mediator. But, as we have seen above, Zomato and other apps exist only as a medium for you to order food. It gives you plenty of options to choose from, gives you the ability to pay online, and then throws you under the bus if anything goes wrong with the food. The responsibility of ensuring you don’t end up in a hospital remains with you, rendering the existence of an aggregator useless to some extent.

Zomato has always been a business, but has only turned into an unfriendly one recently, as planned or otherwise. Unfriendly at least in my eyes. (And I recently found out also in the eyes of restaurateurs.) And I use that word carefully not because it takes its customers as hostages to raise more money, but rather because it has a direct impact on people’s eating habits, and more importantly, their health.

Conclusively, I like to believe Zomato has all the resources to fight its demons and bounce back as a people’s service, correcting what went wrong for it and aiming at doing what’s right. People in India seemed to notice when it recently disrupted the system, but if it somehow also manages to shift the gaze at the things that really matter, it will enjoy a better time serving its customers who would turn into loyalists. That is why I am not entirely dismissing the possibility of using it in the future. I can’t say when that will happen or if it ever will, especially considering there are reports about it getting nearer to its profit-making position. All I can say right now is that I do not agree with the brand in its current form. TN.

footnotes   [ + ]

1. Zomato has been in the news for a variety of wrong reasons including ridiculous work conditions for its delivery boys who have often been caught stealing from the orders they are fulfilling. (“Zomato delivery boy seen consuming food from sealed orders in a video” – ETtech, 11 December 2018)
2. Because this does not necessarily mean that the outlets are in Kopar Khairane only. The list contains ALL the outlets that are willing to deliver to my address, which is why these places were also considered.
3. According to a Medium article by The Indian Restaurateur (cited elsewhere in this editorial), Zomato also engages in surveying and addition of restaurants at its own will without the solicitation of the restaurant owners. While the listing goes live without the knowledge or approval of the owner, the owner cannot control it unless he ‘claims’ it. This has been seen as coercion by the author. (The Zomato Story – 26 March 2018)
4. It has a TrustScore of 1.5 out of 10. Foodpanda 1.1 out of 10 with 81 reviews. UberEats 0.3 out of 10 with 5200+ reviews.

Few Observations During the Day of Poll (Lok Sabha 2019)

poll day observations - lok sabha 2019

People who know me know that I voted for the first time in my life yesterday. It was a breezy experience for me, but not without a few critical observations I made during my time at the local polling station.

  • The electoral list is not smart enough and randomly assigns voters to polling booths. That is why a certain man in his 60s kept cribbing (rightly so) he had to climb the stairs to the third floor of the school
    • Or the local election body did not think to go through the voters’ age before assigning classrooms as booths. Ground floor for people in their 50s and above or those with special abilities and the highest floor for the youth – or something like that
    • A lack of elevators and ramps in at least two of the polling stations in my locality meant people with special abilities went back home without posting their ballots or did not even consider. Save for the brave ones
  • It is impossible to choose a candidate who is a saint; but then can politicians ever be saints?
  • Some candidates have absolutely poor aesthetic and logical abilities; just looking at some of the party logos made me think about their volition to contest
  • Despite police bandobast, the locality was a bit more lawless than it is on any other day. People carrying 20 chairs on a motorcycle, parking in the middle of the road, misbehaving with policemen or government officials (although, usually it’s the other way around), and staring at the opposite sex became more apparent, unhindered
  • A lack of interest in going to vote because of the heat or the polling booth is not near where they live.[1]Turnout in the Thane constituency was a measly 50% (approx.) in 2019, worse than the Mumbai average.

Walking out of the polling booth, having my left index finger inked gave me a good feeling even though choosing whom to vote was a mind-numbing exercise the previous day. It sort of made me feel good about the idea of democracy but then I came home and things were back to normal within an hour. Which makes me liken the idea of voting to that of any activity that you do for pleasure. You crave for it before you do it. But once you have done it, you really start questioning its impact. TN.

And lastly, here’s the mandatory selfie I took after I voted.

View this post on Instagram

The look of a first-time voter.

A post shared by Tejas Nair (@tejasnair_) on

Featured image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

footnotes   [ + ]

1. Turnout in the Thane constituency was a measly 50% (approx.) in 2019, worse than the Mumbai average.