Camera Indica

A photographer looks at Mumbai’s Premier Padmini taxis and discovers a lot about the city

Markku Lahdeshmaki’s images provide an amazing insight into the people behind the steering wheel.

For foreigners visiting India, one of the most visible markers of change in the past few decades has been cars. From a time when just two models ruled the highway, the country now has an endless variety of automobiles. Still, a part of the soul fondly clings to those simpler times.

It remembers the Hindustan Ambassador, the plain-looking giant that dominated the market in every corner of India with one prominent exception – Mumbai.

In India’s most modern, urbane and glitzy metro, the preferred vehicle of the cashed-up (for, only they could afford them) was the svelte Premier Padmini. Introduced in 1964, and at first marketed as Fiat 1100, the car was rechristened after Rani Padmini of Chittor in the 1970s.

The Padmini or the “Pad” was, in many ways, a technological herald, prefiguring a day when the country would prefer consumer choice, style and design sense above socialist planning and policy.

As it happened, as the millennium turned, the beloved Padmini too had to make way for others. Its factory was shut down, swept aside by a flood of Fords, Hyundais and BMWs.

In Mumbai, the taxi industry kept their fleets of Indianised Fiats rolling despite the shifts of time. Now it too is moving away from the Padmini.

The city fathers, according to Bob Dylan, once endorsed Paul Revere’s horse. But in Mumbai, their counterparts have legislated against the Princess. Like the sun setting into the Arabian Sea, the day of the Padmini is over.

Markku Lahdeshmaki, a Finnish photographer from Los Angeles, had the chance to come to India on assignment in 2011. “I was so excited,” he remembered, “I had been waiting to travel to India.”

His mission was to photograph solar fields for a large New York financial company. Which he did. But, as is his wont, he tacked on three days to the overseas professional assignment for personal work. With so many potential options in such a vast country, Markku wondered what he could focus on. And then, he found his subject – the Padmini.

Camera Indica caught up with Markku through Skype to chat about his wonderful project Mumbai Taxi Company. Though the project was completed in 2012, many of the images in this article are being published for the first time.

What was the inspiration of Mumbai Taxi Company?
Whenever I’m on assignment, I always try to fit in at least 2-3 days for my personal projects. I had been wanting to come to India for a long time and this project grew out of one of my commercial assignments in 2011.

How did you choose taxis?
When I first came into the city from the airport all the little taxis really caught my attention. One evening I was sipping beer in the hotel bar. I scribbled ideas on a napkin. I couldn’t shake the vision of all those taxis. So I sketched one of them with a man standing next to it. Immediately, I knew I wanted to do this project. The idea was different.

The photos are special and very sensitive. They reveal the city of Mumbai, its landmarks, the shady boulevards as well as congested industrial areas. Was this part of the plan?
I wanted to tell the story of the location and people and environment. With a simple setting. The combination of the car and the particular environment makes the picture.

It seems you posed a lot of the drivers. What was your interaction with them like?
I had a translator who was very helpful. But there wasn’t a lot of discussion with drivers. I wanted to get as many images as possible in the short time I had. So I was really looking for the taxi. And yes, sometimes I asked driver to get out and took the photo with him in it.

They are clearly quite proud.
Yes, they were all so happy to do so.

You captured so many great images in such a short time.
I have a lucky cloud over me! Everything went extremely well. It was lots of fun. Once we were driving to a location. I jumped out and left the driver and translator behind. It was a super busy street. The sun was coming through the trees and kids were playing cricket. But the taxi was on the wrong side of street for the light, so I waved him over. He thought I wanted a lift and maybe was disappointed when I asked him to pose! But he cooperated really nicely.

Were you aware of the special bond of the Fiat/Padmini with Mumbai?
No, I wasn’t aware of that at the time. But I am now. The colour – black and yellow – was also attractive. It suits the car so well. As I learned more about the car afterwards and the project became even more exciting. I made some enquires about buying one, and found out how much it would cost.

How much?
$3000.

Another thing that struck me about these pictures: where are the crowds?
I was choosing the locations carefully. But I was a bit lucky too. I guess. On my website, the lead image is a taxi and driver at the Gateway of India. The place is completely deserted. Apparently there was no one around because of a cricket match between India and Pakistan. India won, by the way!

When you come to new city, is it hard to find your rhythm?
I have built a habit over the years. I worked from early to late. I moved around a lot and sometimes the locations didn’t work. I do look for a bit of a story and then use my imagination to create a scene that could happen in this location.

You have another related series called The Havana Taxi Company which makes a nice companion piece. Its interesting that the taxis of Havana seem to be in great disrepair. Whereas in Mumbai, the vehicles are all shiny and in good nick.
Yes, in Mumbai, I was struck that when the drivers are waiting they are out washing and polishing the taxi. Making it look good. There’s a real pride in their vehicle.

Which series came first and what is the relationship between them?
Mumbai came first. It was my wife’s desire to see Cuba. It’s related in a way, but the car is much more the focus in Havana. In Mumbai, as I said, the images were as much about the environment.

That’s right. When I first came across your series I was reminded of Raghubir Singh’s project/book A Way Into India. Your project has a similar feel... Your website says: "Most of [Markku’s] ideas are based on values he wants to share; joy of life, peace of mind, sense of humor and appreciation for our existence, basic good things that too often are taken for granted." Did you find these in India?
When in Mumbai and, as always, I am trying to catch images which are positive, hopefully with slight humour. I was very impressed how open, friendly and happy people seem to be and proud of their taxis and the work they were doing. Also always willing to help.

Have these photos been exhibited in India? If so, what was the reception?
No, they’ve not been shown in India yet. But I am interested in the idea. We have a nice little booklet about these images. It is a really nice series. People respond very well to it. We are planning a gallery show and would love to have a Padmini taxi outside the venue.

I understand you’ve also put the Padmini on T shirts?
Yes, we have made some really cool T-shirts with different views of the taxi. In fact, I’ve set up an entire website dedicated to the Mumbai Taxi.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

How virtual reality is changing your insurance customer service experience

Meet Khushi, a first of its kind virtual customer service executive in the insurance sector.

A customer enters a well-appointed room with walls painted in a soothing grey colour. To the customer’s right is a large window from which he can see the Mumbai skyline. Ahead of him is a young lady sitting behind a desk who greets him pleasantly and asks how she can help him, like any service executive in any insurance company.

Except this isn’t a regular room in a bank, and this isn’t your normal service executive.

The ‘room’ is an immersive virtual world that PNB MetLife customers can enter through a VR headset. The lady is a virtual customer service avatar named “Khushi”. The interface known as conVRse, has been developed by PNB MetLife and is one of the first Virtual Reality based customer service platforms for financial services in the world.

Virtual reality (VR) is on the cusp of becoming the next significant digital interface. Google’s Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear, and PlayStation VR are already major players in a market burgeoning with possibilities. VR allows for a truly immersive experience where users can be exposed to different environments. Gaming was one of the first industries to see its vast potential as gamers were transported to new, life like worlds which they could interact with. Today, VR has applications across diverse industries. In healthcare, for example, it is being used by psychiatrists to treat patients with phobias by exposing them to their fears in the virtual environment. It is even being used by NASA to train astronauts.

Goldman Sachs pegs it at an estimated $80 billion industry by 2025 with applications in multiple industries. For PNB MetLife, the aim was to revolutionize customer service by transporting its customers to another world. The idea for conVRse was originated by the team from PNB MetLife during the MetLife Asia Mobile Challenge. The team eventually won the Challenge for their virtual reality based customer engagement project. They further collaborated with LumenLab, MetLife’s Singapore-based innovation center, to develop and enhance the proposition and launched the conVRse platform in India in December 2016.

Any customer visiting a PNB MetLife branch that is VR enabled will be able to try on the VR headset and experience this. On wearing the headset, the customer is transported to a virtual environment and can talk to the virtual avatar Khushi and interact with various elements in the room. A screen in front of the customer shows them the various policy related services that Khushi offers. Khushi (operated and voiced by a remote customer service executive) can capture images of documents through the phone camera for KYC, verify personal information and even change policy details in real time. The environment also includes virtual panels providing information about PNB MetLife and its products. Just looking at a part of the panel can enlarge it to provide more information.

Creating this platform involved two major aspects: the content and the design. To determine the kind of queries Khushi could solve, the conVRse team sat with every department in the company to understand the most common complaints and service requests from consumers. At every step of development, the product was tested with consumers and feedback was integrated.

The second aspect was to create the virtual avatar and the environment. The team spent almost a month at Imaginate, a VR and AR start up based in Hyderabad to design Khushi. They began by designing the nose and painstakingly went through thousands of shapes for every different part of the face till they arrived at a satisfactory one for Khushi. After this was done, they used Intel® RealSense™, a face mapping technology, to mimic the facial movements of real people, so that Khushi’s expressions would be as lifelike as possible. The room in which Khushi sits also evolved to include realistic and interactive elements.

The feedback from customers has been overwhelmingly positive. From the 900 or so customers who have experienced ‘conVRse’ at branches, 95% of them have rated the experience highly. Customers are intrigued by the experience of the virtual environment and spend an average of 8 minutes exploring its various functions. The top requests Khushi services are nominee changes, address or phone number changes and retrieving fund information.

While only 15 special branches in India currently have the service, there are plans to scale up. PNB MetLife is also exploring setting up conVRse zones at ATMs. They eventually intend to equip their sales team with VR devices to educate customers about their products. Abhishek Rathi, Head Marketing, Digital and Analytics says that the final aim of the project is “To simplify insurance, simplify learning and help the customer get the right information about insurance”.

Abhishek identifies the major challenges facing the widespread adoption of VR technology as internet coverage and speeds, the cost of buying VR headsets and their lack of standardisation. However rapid strides are being made in all these areas. Data penetration and network quality is increasing across the country. Along with this, VR headsets that cost as little as Rs. 150 are also being developed. For PNB MetLife, the eventual objective of the conVRse project is to integrate VR with their mobile app. This will enable all their customers to bank from home with the help of Khushi instead of visiting the branch.

If you’d like to interact with Khushi, you can see the experience zones for conVRse here. To know more about Khushi and conVRse, watch the video below.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of PNB MetLife and not by the Scroll editorial team.