Sebi lights a finfluencer fire

After markets regulator Sebi fined top finfluencer PR Sundar, others are running for cover. But not much has changed. Also in today’s edition: how filmmakers use meaningless metrics and off-brand awards to stand out from the crowd.

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A Rolls-Royce costs between ₹6 crore-₹10 crore ($725,000-$1.2 million) in India, depending on the model. It sold just over 6,000 units worldwide last year. One of them might have been bought by PR Sundar, an options trader and ‘finfluencer’.

Sundar is known as much for his options trading courses as he is for his ostentatious lifestyle: a Mercedes, a penthouse, and a laundry list of luxury purchases planned for the future, including private jets.

Sundar isn’t a standalone case. Several well-known (and upcoming) finfluencers market their trading courses using the veneer of their success—cars, houses, and cash. All that is in jeopardy now, thanks to markets regulator Sebi. But will it force the biggest names to mend their ways?

Have finfluencers run their ‘course’?

Ian Talmacs/Unsplash

Indian FinTwit has been in turmoil since this Sebi order (pdf) hit a hallowed name—PR Sundar. The regulator has accused Sundar, his wife Mangayarkarasi, and their firm Mansun Consultancy Pvt Ltd of offering investment advice for money without being Sebi-registered investment advisors. Sundar was offering paying subscribers on his Telegram channel “Daily calls” on what market positions to take.

Sundar settled the case, but has been banned from the markets for a year. He posted a pensive but defiant note on his Twitter handle days after the order was passed.

Since then, finfluencers are ducking for cover. Several have been deleting old tweets, presumably those that could be seen as an investment advisory violation. Telegram channels have fallen silent, and some finfluencers are reportedly taking down their trading workshops and courses from platforms like Rigi.

In fact, Rigi soon issued a statement saying anyone selling a finance or trading course on the platform will need to have a Sebi registration number. That rules out almost every finfluencer using the platform over the last few years. Rigi allows a content creator to not just upload finance courses but also run paywalled Telegram channels. These are breeding grounds for stock tips, technical calls, and pump-and-dump schemes that finfluencers have been accused of profiting from. Just last month, Sebi fined one such Telegram channel called ‘bullrun2017’ (pdf).

But how much impact will the PR Sundar case have on India’s biggest finfluencers? One can, for example, sign up for courses and workshops by CA Rachana Ranade and Akshat Shrivastava on their respective websites; they don’t sell them through platforms like Rigi (they don’t need to). These range from ₹4,000 a course to more elaborate lecture series priced at ₹40,000+.

Shrivastava sells “discussion series” and courses starting at ₹10,000, which even come with material to understand India’s economy, supplied by his wife Ayushi Chand, a deputy director in the Ministry of Finance. (On his part, entrepreneur Ankur Warikoo only has courses on non-financial subjects, like how to set up a startup and use YouTube effectively as a creator).

Even Sundar’s courses and workshops are in full swing. According to his website, his next in-person workshop will be held in Bengaluru in late June. He charges ₹55,000 for a workshop. Sundar’s company Mansun Consultancy has been minting money, at least until the last financial year.

Harish Arjun/The Signal

Now, none of these courses claim to offer a daily stock tip or market position of the day, but many do come with one-on-one calls/Zoom sessions. Can Sebi monitor what goes on during such calls? Unlikely, unless they receive a complaint from a disgruntled customer.

In the meantime, Sebi’s order is unlikely to affect the business models of big-name finfluencers, especially if they are not relying on another platform like Telegram or Rigi to acquire customers. It may, however, discourage those just starting out or getting prominent ones from resorting to easy growth hacks, such as offering the ‘Hot Stock Tip of the Day’. For what it’s worth, there are only 1,326 Sebi-registered investment advisors in India (as of May 2023). No major finfluencer is on that list.

I’m not sure if Sundar ever did buy a Rolls-Royce. In one tweet, he had said he would rather buy the car in Dubai, where it’s a lot cheaper. But he, his wife, and Mansun are now paying over ₹6 crore (~$730,000) in penalties to settle with Sebi. That’s about the cost of an entry-level Rolls-Royce in India.

Will the real award ceremony please stand up?

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There is a glut of content on our mobile phones and TV screens. So much so that film producers now have to market their titles far more aggressively just to get the audience’s attention. This pressure is now driving them to rely on questionable metrics and dubious ‘awards’ for a marketing plank.

Take the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, for example. A few Indian films premiered at the world’s most prestigious film festival, including Kanu Behl’s Agra (produced by Saregama’s Yoodlee Films) and Anurag Kashyap’s Kennedy (produced by Zee Studios). As with almost all films at Cannes, these two are also marketing themselves on how long of a standing ovation they got.

Competing on the number of minutes a film got a standing ovation for is a funny trend, and its origins are unclear. But the record for the longest ovation is 22 minutes, for Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Bear in mind that both Agra and Kennedy are being screened in non-competitive sections of the Cannes festival, so this appreciation for both films isn’t coming from some festival jury. Anyone invited to the festival (or with press accreditation) can attend a non-competitive film screening, and tickets reportedly cost upwards of $6,000 each.

But you’ll be forgiven for thinking that any film going to Cannes has won some prestigious recognition. The lines between the Competition section and others, such as Director’s Fortnight and Un Certain Regard, are blurry for ordinary viewers. It’s true that most films are still screened before being admitted, even in non-competitive sections. But from what I understand from conversations with film writers and directors, the selection process also hinges on a filmmaker's existing relationships with the people associated with the festival. If your film has premiered at Cannes in the past, you’re more likely to get another invite.

Back home, something similar is happening with the Dadasaheb Phalke awards. The original award is given by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to one individual every year, someone with a lifetime of achievements in cinema. Previous recipients include Rajinikanth, Manna Dey, Amitabh Bachchan, and Satyajit Ray; the first ever recipient was actress Devika Rani of Bombay Talkies (the studio, not the anthology film) fame.

Two other award functions have been using Phalke’s name to recognise films, but they have nothing to do with the official award. One, called the Dadasaheb Phalke Film Foundation, handed out awards to a long list of films, TV shows, and actors just last week. Winners included Anupama (Best Serial), Rocket Boys (Best OTT Series), Anupam Kher (Best Actor), and Mahima Chaudhary (Most Inspiring Actor), among others. The other, called the Dadasaheb Phalke International Film Festival, seems to have official backing, with a letter of appreciation from Home Minister Amit Shah adorning its website. But the festival is run by a private entity: it’s founded by Anil Mishra, who is also an advisor to the Central Board of Film Certification. Phalke’s grandson Chandrasekhar Pusalkar is the festival jury’s president, and Mishra’s son Abhishek Mishra is the festival CEO. It was at this event where Vivek Agnihotri’s film The Kashmir Files won an award for Best Film, sparking a series of fact-checks.

Nevertheless, awards and film festival premieres are a crucial marketing tool. And as more and more content bays for our attention, these little achievements (‘real’ or not) may become the difference between a hit and a flop.

Last Scroll Down📲

Annie Spratt/Unsplash

Who’s responsible? Today is Meta’s annual general meeting. Out of 13 proposals by shareholders, one named Proposal Seven is related to India. It alleges that Meta has become a tool of propaganda, hate speech, and political bias in India, the company’s largest market (by number of users). Shareholders and civil liberties organisations who have floated the document are proposing that Meta commission an independent inquiry into its business decisions and whether the company encouraged hate speech in India. In October last year, Meta’s Oversight Board also said hate speech against minorities is one of the strategic objectives deciding what cases against Meta it will review.

Beating records: JioCinema and Star India are both going to town with record viewership numbers. Star got 482 million viewers for the tournament’s first 66 matches, an all-time high, the network said, citing data from the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) India. It hasn’t released data for the final few matches yet. Meanwhile, JioCinema broke global sports live-streaming records with 32 million concurrent viewers at one point during the IPL final. Will Star and Reliance also make profits off IPL? This story in Business Standard lays out the math, demonstrating how hard it will be to earn handsome returns on these pricey IPL rights.

Ready Player One: Video games are taking over the movie business. Hollywood producers have gone from adapting old Western literature and folk tales to bringing video games like The Last of Us, Super Mario Bros, and Sonic The Hedgehog to life in big-budget films. These bets are clearly paying off. To date, The Super Mario Bros Movie has grossed over $1 billion worldwide.

I’m offended: Indian authorities have been trying to moral police the content on OTT platforms for a long time. While domestic creators are just getting comfortable with self-censorship, state morality is hurting international content, Livemint reports. Platforms like Netflix and Disney+Hotstar (when it had HBO Originals) have begun receiving complaints from viewers about abusive language or other obscenities in American titles they offer. Executives say they’re stuck. They don’t want to offend the government, but they also don’t want to piss off paying subscribers by censoring premium content.

Meanwhile, the UK is demanding that platforms make sure all their content complies with media regulator Ofcom’s ‘impartiality’ norms. But Netflix and Disney+ say this requirement is ‘nebulous’; Netflix is even threatening to purge its UK catalogue in protest.

Spiralling: Financial services firm Fidelity has marked down the value of its stake in Twitter Inc. once again. It says the social media platform is now worth just a third of the $44 billion that Elon Musk paid to buy it last year. Twitter is struggling with serious issues; just last week, its tech weaknesses were on public display during Ron DeSantis’ disastrous presidential campaign launch.

Trumpet 🎺

This week, HBO delivered a devastating finale to Succession (no spoilers here!). Followers of the Roy family saga are already calling it among the greatest shows HBO has ever made. But apart from a cinematic legacy, the show has had an outsized influence on conversations around luxury fashion, giving birth to the now-abused term ‘quiet luxury’. Several Instagram accounts dedicated to breaking down the costume design of Succession have defined it as the discreet use of luxury brands, such as $250 plain T-shirts and $600 baseball caps with no obvious logos or brand markers.

Succession is now such a phenomenon it seems to have caught fashion marketeers’ fancy in India too. So much so that Reliance’s AJIO Luxe e-commerce website has an entire (mobile only) landing page dedicated to the fashion of Succession and its theme of ‘quiet luxury’. The show’s stills redirect to brands Reliance franchises in India, including Tom Ford, Bottega Veneta, Emporio Armani, and even Kate Spade and Scotch & Soda, probably the sort of brands the Roys wouldn’t want to be anywhere near.

That’s all this week. If you enjoyed reading The Impression, please share it with your friends, family, and colleagues. And please write to me anytime at [email protected] with thoughts, feedback, criticism or anything you’d like to see discussed in this space. I'd love to hear from you.

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