Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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Social Concerns


Mobile Mania

Movie director Sydney Pollack’s new tongue-in-cheek campaign on mobile telephone etiquette seems most apt for India.

Titled, Shut Up, it shows Pollack’s trailer opening with a man in the middle of a personal phone call. Pollack then appears with a script in hand, providing stage directions to the caller, who is annoyed on being disturbed. "Oh, I'm sorry - is my directing interfering with your phone call?" asks Pollack. "How rude of me!" The trailer concludes with the following message: We won't interrupt your phone calls. Please don't interrupt our movies. Silence your hand phones.

A priestly discourse
Indian cinemas are being invaded by a battery of cellular phones whose cacophony of noises drowns those from the screen. The other evening, two young men came to blows over the use of a mobile. When one of them protested the other’s consistent babbling into his mobile, it lead to frayed tempers and hot words. Finally, the blows came.

India is now on a cell phone high. With more Indians than Chinese signing up for mobile connections every month -- a symbolic milestone for India trying to catch up with its rich and more prosperous northern neighbour -- India seriously needs to have a social etiquette in place.

The Chinese cellular market had 374 million subscribers at the end of 2005, and is expected to grow 15% to reach 432 million by the end of this year. India's stood at 76 million last year and is forecast to grow 68% to 128 million this year.

Through 2010, China's portable phone subscriber base, the largest in the world, is likely to grow at a compounded annual rate of 11%, compared with 31% for India's, the fastest-growing major market worldwide. India may take a while to catch up with China. Nonetheless, the mobile mania has firmly gripped India.

Schoolchildren, housewives, vegetable vendors, priests, corporate executives and just about anybody else find that they can no longer do without a cell phone. Children chatter with friends about comics and films, women discuss the day’s food menu, vendors talk shop and executives draw elaborate business plans – all over the mobile.

But to those without a cell, such ceaseless prattle can be nerve wracking. The man in the theatre lost his cool, and much of the movie that day. Indian film star Anu Prabhakar wants to pat Pollack for trying to root out this annoying habit of talking when the movie is being played. “Why can’t people just switch off their cells during a performance”, Prabhakar wants to know. And most of the time, he says, men and women use their mobiles for inane of reasons. Take a plane. Even before it reaches the parking bay after landing, people have whipped out their little gadgets to announce their arrival! “Is the car ready”, one asks. “Is mom home”, the other questions. “Is it too hot outside”, the third tries to get a weather update. And, the endless conversations continue till the passengers exit.

But the mobile madness can at times cross the boundaries of decency. Once I remember going for the cremation of an old aunt. In the midst of sorrow and tragedy, I saw men unashamedly using their hand phones. One guy was discussing the stock market. Another was debating the day’s political events. A third man was cracking jokes, and all this a hundred yards away from where the bodied were waiting to be cremated, a hundred yards away from where men, women and children were grieving over their loss.

Unfortunately, the cellular phone has become a symbol of status in India; the more expensive an instrument one has the better is his/her rating in the community. Some walk around with more than one and get perplexed when both ring at the same time!

With bizarre sounds emanating from mobiles – the ring tone can sound like the call of a bird or the notes of a musical instrument or a popular folk tune – the assault on one’s ears is terrible. It is a virtual noise pollution.

Let me end this piece with a witty anecdote. It was a tender moment on the big screen. The hunk of a hero had taken a demure girl in his arms and was just seeking her lips when a shrill ring interrupted the magic of the moment. A cell phone had decided to play spoilsport. Well, Pollack must have used his mobile to call cut.

(Posted on this website on July 20 2006)