The Branding of Suhel Seth

Hiding behind ‘humour’ to trash someone is not cool. So whose side are you on?

ByMadhu Trehan
The Branding of Suhel Seth
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Sizzle……ssssssss…..The Branding of SUHEL SETH

You know that queasy feeling you get when you go to someone’s house and there are pictures all over the place with the host posing with famous people? There is that kind of discomfort when you write about him. Who would include in his biodata that he was mentioned in a writer’s autobiography? Just mentioned. So, who, then? Suhel Seth, that’s who. Nobody could have written it better *\O/* than Mihir Sharma in Caravan magazine, December 1, 2011, titled “The Age of Seth – How vice pays tribute to virtue in contemporary India.” Read and enjoy.

Who else would describe himself as a ‘bon vivant’ on his Facebook profile? My father’s generation would. Now? Duh! As Suhel wrote in his book about his idol Rusy Mody: that he summered in the south of France |-0 (yawn) and attended the Derby. (Pronounced Daahbee for those of this gen. Few in my office knew how to pronounce it because I’m the only old person here.) That explains all the pictures of Suhel on his Facebook page at the Daaahbee in a matching-contrast baba suit. Yet, he has 89,804 followers on twitter and has tweeted 4,316 times at last count. So clearly his packaging works. Does one dislike him? No, of course not. He’s such a circus and generally too entertaining to dislike. Plus I really feel like a Mummy around him, since he always surrounds himself with cookie cutter babes. His well- marketed wit has become his calling card for television channels. On February 21, 2012, in a Times Now discussion on Kingfisher Airlines, he hogged 90 per cent of talking time. Barely gave Arnab Gowsami a chance and that’s winning the brawl. No kidding or exaggeration. Infamous tweeter, getting into online spats and clearly reveling in the attention he pulls, Suhel’s tweeting has sobered up. What happened?

On November 6, 2011, ITC sued Suhel for Rs. 200 crores for defamatory tweets. Two suits were filed, one in Calcutta High Court for Rs. 100 and the other for Rs. 100 in Bangalore City Civil Court. Filing cases in different cities is obviously done to double up the inconvenience to Suhel. What did our boy Suhel tweet? “YC Deveshwar of ITC has had a sterling track-record of avoiding retirement at all costs…he could also be offered to the Maoists (sic) but then….” Our lovely bon vivant did not stop there. Another one of his tweets: “YC Deveshwar of ITC has just been nominated CHAIRMAN ETERNUS (sic)…forget Emeritus…”

(To be read in anguish) Dear Suhel, what are you doing? Two days after the cases were filed, Suhel spoke to Newslaundry at Vinod Mehta’s book launch of Lucknow Boy, of which he gave a reading.

The third witty tweet: “Yogi Devesh will teach the insider trading course at Tihar School of Business”. (In more anguish!) Suhel, get a grip, please! Now that is a serious innuendo if not an accusation, right?

About five days after the cases were filed, Suhel ingenuously tweeted: “I wish to record that my account is being constantly hacked into…some of the tweets ascribed to me, sadly are not mine…am taking steps!” Curious to know, what steps? That did not cut it with ITC officials handling the case.

Suhel has an Agony Aunt column in The Telegraph (Kolkata). In the November 23, 2008 edition, an advice seeker asked him:

I am a 36-year-old man. My problem is that my wife has left me because of my smoking habits which I could not give up. Now I am really trying to quit smoking so that I can win her back. I am literally at my wit’s end and want her back in my life. How do I get rid of this addiction?

Name and address withheld

Suhel answered:

“Come to Delhi and spend an hour with Anbumani Ramadoss, our unintelligent health minister and he will bore you so quickly with all his rambling that you will give up smoking. If all else fails, walk over to ITC at 36 Chowringhee, Calcutta and ask Yogi Deveshwar for some tips. Remember he is making ITC itself give up cigarettes and diversify to Bingo and clothes so he might be of help too!”

How did Suhel imagine that he could get away with this? Not happy with just the tweeting, television pronouncements, columns, he even went ahead and wrote more stuff in his book Get to the Top that gave more fodder for yet another case to be filed by ITC.

On November 12, 2011, Suhel Seth launched his book Get to the Top, (Random House India) in New Delhi. Hell, I’m not going to make the boring cliché remarks about the crowd. The same 100 who everybody who is not included hates. But, Digvijay Singh, General Manager, The Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi, said: “It’s quite a proud moment for us to be associated with the launch of ‘Get to the Top’ authored by Suhel Seth. At Taj Group of hotels, it’s our constant endeavour to provide promising talent as well as renowned artists with an ideal platform to showcase their work to cultural enthusiasts and art patrons across the country. Suhel’s book would definitely be a great experience for readers from all walks of life and we are happy to support this initiative of his.” Suhel Seth is the Managing Partner of Counselage, a brand management and marketing consultancy and his clients include Krishna Kumar of the Tata group.

Gaurav Shrinagesh, Managing Director, Random House India, also had wonderful things to say: “Publishing Get to the Top was a very enjoyable process as was working with Suhel Seth. This is a much-needed guide arising from a local context while written by a man who is a global Indian. Random House India is proud to be associated with this book as it exemplifies our policy of publishing cutting-edge books which are contemporary in their approach.” Much needed guide? …..cutting-edge books which are contemporary in their approach? Random House sure sounds like a BTMUC (Behenji Turned Mod in Utter Confusion, a term often used in my time). Nothing worse than a middle aged person trying to be trendy, probably the most annoying word in the English language. But what looks worse than koshish?

Suhel, always gracious in interviews, was good enough to give this one at his book launch. But here is a riddle for viewers. Whose voice is stopping him from talking and finally cutting off the interview suddenly? Hint: a very good friend of his. Perhaps his best friend.

Our intrepid reporter Sanjana Agarwal bagged a few interviews at the book launch. Enjoy.

After ITC filed the two cases against Suhel, the publishers and Suhel got cold feet about certain references to Yogi Deweshwar in Get to the Top. There was a recall of the first edition and another edition was rapidly reprinted replacing the offending chapter titled ‘Bitch with Conviction’. In the first edition of his book, under the chapter “Bitch with Conviction,” Suhel wrote:

Vicious stuff. Suhel, my dear, what were you thinking? “….am willing to be sued by him”? ITC went ahead and did just that.

The reprint must have put an unwelcome hole in the publishers’ pocket. If you compare the two versions, would it be too cruel to say that backtracking on this is cowardly? Rs 700 crores would make anyone sweat up a storm.  Under the chapter “Bitch with Conviction”, Suhel replaced it with:

‘I feel it is imperative I take a principled stand: which does not succumb either to popular recourse or for that matter to business reasons”? Principled stand when you have just backed off by going through a whole reprint? “Consistency of a stand is reflective of the values you believe in or stand for.” Consistency? Writing about your beliefs is antipodean to writing copy for advertisements. It really has to ring true. Ironical that Suhel chose words that euphemized it into the exact opposite of what he was doing. He could have just replaced it with fluff and not addressed the subject at all. In fact, since his book is advice on how to Get to the Top, he could have replaced it with some good advice for when you find yourself at the bottom: “When you find that you have stepped into **** right up to your neck, the smartest move is to climb out of it and back track as gracefully as you can.” That would have explained (some what) what he was forced to do.

Who was his publisher? Popular, crackerjack Chiki Sarkar, who at that time had the top slot at Random House India. Chiki has now moved to Penguin, in which her father is the largest stakeholder. And who is her father? Aveek Sarkar, who not only owns The Telegraph where Suhel has his column, but has the discomforting distinction of also being sued for defamation in the Telegraph by ITC, more than a decade ago. Aveek Sarkar has been reportedly looking for a settlement. Since Aveek Sarkar cannot write anything about ITC until the case ends, why would ITC settle?

Well, it’s great to have a friend like Chiki Sarkar. She stood up for Suhel.

But the fun is not all over for ITC. This month they filed their third suit for Rs 500 crores against Suhel for defamatory remarks in his book Get to the Top. They had bought copies of the first edition. Suhel’s company Equus had worked for ITC from 2002 to 2007 on advertisements and continued to be associated with them for another two years. ITC terminated their association with Suhel in 2009. ITC officials believe that after 2009 Suhel started bad mouthing them. Suhel resigned from Equus and started his own company Counselage. He has denied he ever tried to lobby for any of ITC accounts. Never to shy away from making his stand clear, Suhel was generous in giving Newslaundry another interview after he had been sued yet again by ITC.

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What a soup a couple of ‘innocent’ tweets can get you in. When we bang off any angry reply to an infuriating, abusive tweet, who knows which court you can end up in? Most tweeters and bloggers live in a cocoon of anonymity. It gives a warped sense of power to abuse whoever they like with no consequences. Why does Facebook have less abuse? Because Facebook usually includes the person’s profile and identity. But Suhel is not anonymous and does not seek anonymity. Hiding behind “humour” to trash someone is not cool. So whose side are you on? Are you now feeling sorry for Suhel? Hell, just a few tweets? Should Suhel get a break? As evident from his book launch party, he has enough fans. But there are plenty who support ITC also, especially those who have suffered the brunt of abuse from those who have access to the media and twitter. I have seen enough people go up to ITC officials and congratulate them for suing: “Finally somebody is going to teach that loudmouth a lesson”. Yet, I have also seen Suhel’s friends rally around him. This is not a David vs. Goliath story. Both have their own strengths. Should ITC settle? Does that mean opening the floodgate for more abuse? Is this going to teach all tweeters to temper their casually done offensive language to public figures? Will we now tweet more responsibly?

Now there is an oft-repeated slogan: THINK before you tweet. And I thought the whole idea was not to. Just fit it in 140 characters.

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