DVD Hunting in Madras

I reached Madras a full four hours before the Odyssey quiz was supposed to start two weekends back. The presence of another “good” quiz the previous day meant that not too many others were taking the early morning train for the quiz. In fact, I was the only quizzer on that train – not something you normally see on national holidays, when half the quizzers from Bangalore are making their way to Chennai for a shot at glory at one of the “big quizzes” in that city.

Despite having never lived in Madras,

claims to be an authority on the city thanks to the two months he spent there during his internship. He claims to have explored more of the city than anyone who has ever lived there (and I believe him since I didn’t explore much at all during my four years there) and tries to show off his limited knowledge of the city. The point is that I consider him to know more of the city than me, and thus consulted him for options as to how I could kill these intervening four hours. And he suggested that I go DVD hunting.

I’ve never been a fan of the Madras autos. I think the supply of autos is too little (the unions must’ve prevented the city administration from giving out enough licenses) leading to exorbitant fares (and unlike Bangalore, the market is not regulated at all. there is no concept of a meter). Back in my student days there, I would usually take the bus. And the frequent breakdown of my cycle also meant that I wasn’t averse to walking medium distances, unmindful of the usually hot sun.

I was standing next to the Fort local station, across the street rather. I could see loads of these small shops on the other side. It seemed like this was it. This was the famed place where I was supposed to get cheap DVDs, I reasoned. Nevertheless, not wanting to get taken for a ride, I messaged udupendra to check. He suggested that I’d rather try out one of the shops near the beach station.

One “ritual” i try to follow every time I go to Madras is to have an onion uthappa. This is one item that is seldom seen in any of the thousands of Darshinis of Bangalore, and anyways most of the Madrasis make it pretty well. The downside is that it usually takes a long time to make. However, this becomes an up side when you have loads of time to kill. Also, in such circumstances, you decide that it’s worth paying extra for an A/C restaurant. You kill time much more comfortably then. And the probability of you being asked to vacate your seat is also less. All this put together means that you think 48 bucks for an onion uthappa at the airconditioned hall of Saravana Bhavan (near Parrys) is reasonable.

I was soon near a T-junction. I could see an endless line of shops on the other side. However, they didn’t seem to look as good as those near the Fort station. I soon figured out why – all these shops were closed. It was Republic day. And I seemed to be the only guy on that road at noon on that day. And then there was a low voice “saar you want DVDs saar? DVD mobile blah blah…”. It seemed like even in this black market there was a black market (ok very inaccruate statement but i guess you nokw what i’m saying).

I was soon surrounded by three guys, all trying to sell me DVDs which I couldn’t quite see. I tried to ignore them and walk on. “Don’t go saar. This market is closed today. But we will give you DVDs. Excellent collection”. I walked on. What this guy said was true. There wasn’t a single shop open. I had no option but to talk to him. He hailed an auto. Not wanting to risk getting stuck in an auto with two unknown random guys (there wasn’ t much activity around so the area was quite lonely) I walked away. And he followed me. As did his accomplice.

I remember him asking me if i wanted movies. He wanted to konw if i wanted mobiles (I didn’t know this particular market also sold mobiles). He also asked me if i wanted porn (he had a specific word for it if i forget). “Just see collection saar. And you will buy. What do you want? English Hindi Malayalam? I have everything. Latest. Come see saar”. I told him I was interested mostly in old English movies. “Old it seems. McKenna’s Gold saar? Sound of Music? Come and see saar.” It didn’t seem like I had a choice. I just kept pace with him.

Halfway through to his collection he asked me the most important question. “How much will you pay saar?” Udupendra had told me things usually cost between 30 and 80. I didn’t want to quote any number for the fear of quoting too high. I let him go first.

I can’t speak much Tamil but think i’m good at bargaining in that language, as my experience with autowallahs in Madras shows. The entire conversation happens in numbers. No nonsense. No fluff. Just numbers. “Central” “100 rupees saar” “50” “80 – some blabbering in tam which I don’t understand” “60” “70 final” and i get in.

Here it was more complex as I tried to explain the concept of bulk discounts to this guy. I think I did a fairly decent job of it. I told him I’ll pay 70 if i buy <=2 DVDs. And he should give me discount if i buy more. We were walking for some ten minutes now. Myabe I should've followed him into the auto. The walk was endless, and the sun was hot. The thoughts of getting cheated kept ringing in my head. What if he takes me into some inner lane and robs me? What if he beats me up if I don't buy? What if ... blah blah... I was back where I had started off. In the line of shops near the Fort station. Going through stacks of CDs. The young shopkeeper didn’t say much. The two guys who had brought me there couldnt’ stop talking. Every two minutes they would pop up with some random CD – “saar? – this CD has McKenna’s gold.” And I’d add it to my “shortlist”.

I must confess that I wasn’t too impressed by that shop. Compared to the collection at some guy in Bangalore’s National Market (again introduced to me by udupendra) this seemed way too ordinary. This guy just had all the normal standard stuff. The only value he seemed to add was in having more than one movie on a DVD – which sometimes got me worried about the quality. Not too many movies I wanted were there. Mostly stuff I’d already seen. I was questioning the wisdom of allowing touts to take me to a shop. If I’d gone by myself it would’ve been so much easier to walk away from one shop into the next. Though, assuming a competitive market, I don’t think that would’ve mattered. Also, after I wasnt’ too impressed wtih the collection of this guy’s shop, the guy decided that the next shop also deserved some business. So I had another stack of DVDs in my hand, and once again the guy kept popping up with DVDs containing McKenna’s gold.

Ten CDs had been finally selected, twice the number that I’d decided before I went there. A few good collections (the entire charlie chaplin collection, james bond movies, etc.) and a few other “good combinations”.? More importantly, it was 1 o’clock now. Two hours since I’d arrived in Madras. And two hours before the quiz. And lunch to go. And yeah, the business end of the transaction remained.

These guys conveniently forgot about the bulk deal agreement. And started at 700. I was thinking of starting at 450, but started at 500. Numerical advantage, and also some regular swearing by that guy in Tam resulted in my bid going to 600. The offer remained at 700. I reminded him of the bulk deal agreement. He started talking about how two guys had spent an hour in pulling me to this shop, and needed to get compensated. And that the owner of the shop was a young guy who also needed similar compensation.

I’m surprised as to how Tamil Nadu is such a big hub for manufacturing and similar businesses in India. For I find the Madrasi to be an extrmeely poor businessman. A large number of businessmen who don’t really adhere to contracts – like auto drivers asking for more than teh agreed amount after you reach the destination. A larger number of businessmen who try to cry their way through negotiations – like the CD guys here, or a few other auto drivers that I’ve met. Too many guys who try to play the “human element”. Some businessmen who even form unions (like the shopowners at Beach station, or the xerox guys at Velachery). At one point during the negotiations, the guy said “saar money is not important. friendship is important”. “if money is not important you can accept 600”, I replied. I think I was lucky not to get beaten up there.

I paid 650 for the 10 DVDs. An average of Rs. 65 per DVD. One one hand, I thought I had a good deal. On the other there was this feeling that with a little more negotiation I might have got a better deal. I continued walking.

Most of this post was composed in my head while I was going through this – two weeks back. It’s this kind of recalled post, so I’m not sure if it’s very coherent or easy to read. In hindsight, I think it’s too verbose and I’m rambling but I have no enthu to go back and edit it now.

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