The distance from Shamshabad - where the spanking new Rajiv Gandhi International airport is located - to Hyderabad is roughly 20 kilometers. Just out of the airport, the road is silky smooth, but then it deteriorates rapidly here's a frenzy of construction everywhere, and potholes and traffic bottlenecks abound. In a way, the short, bumpy ride prepares me mentally for the longer one I am about to undertake into rural Andhra Pradesh in the company of Tata Motors' Rahul Shyamsukha , and rural marketing company Insight's Khurram Askari and A Khadeer.
The journey really began when we hit the road to Warangal, in Telangana district, about 150 kilometers from Hyderabad. Shyamsukha (manager - SCV passenger, Tata Motors ), Askari (CEO, Insight) and Khadeer (manager - strategy & activation, Insight) have the challenging task of introducing Tata Magic - the passenger version of Tata Motors' Tata Ace - into a market dominated by well-entrenched, three-wheeler people mover brands.
Magic was launched in August last year, and Andhra being one of the biggest three-wheeler markets in India, it is an obvious target. The state accounts for almost 25% of sales for players like Mahindra Alpha, Piaggio Ape and Bajaj, Shyamsukha says. "The three-wheeler industry sold just over 50,000 units last year, and since launch we have sold around 2,600 Magic vehicles in Andhra, with 90% sales in rural markets," he adds. The rural activation I am about to witness involves using Burra Katha, an ancient style of storytelling - with a Rajnikant clone thrown in as a bonus - to create buzz, influence key opinion leaders, and generate leads and follow-ups.
As we cross into the hinterland, the fresh monsoon air is rejuvenating. But the threat of heavy rain looms, and that spells bad news for the rural activation team: an activity might even need to be cancelled due to heavy showers. The roads, though, are remarkably well maintained - in stark contrast to the approach roads to the Hyderabad airport. Askari insists that Andhra has one of the best road networks in India.
The roads also tell me why the demand for three-wheeler people movers is so huge here: state transport network APSRTC is the main transport link between feeder towns and villages, but its service is woefully inadequate. It's the three wheeler passenger vehicles that ferry people for as little as Rs 2 a trip - a speeding Ape or Alpha or Bajaj, overflowing with people hanging on for dear life, is a common sight. Drivers cram as many as eight to 10 passengers at a time, and Askari educates me about the local 'innovations' that are brought into play to extract the maximum out of each trip.
We reach Warangal at noon and I am eager to see 'Rajnikant' in action. But the troupe had left the city for the next location, Parkal - about 35 kilometers from Warangal. Farmers are making up for lost time due to an extended summer, but excessive rain is also a concern with low-lying areas getting flooded. It's not just the farmers who're preparing for the harvest season.
Tata Motors is doing the same for Magic - seeding the market so that when money is available, Magic becomes the first choice. On reaching Parkal, we're told the Burra Katha troupe has moved ahead to Mogulpalli, a village with a population of 1,800. We reach Mogulpalli and there's the float with a scenic background mounted on a Tata Ace. Next to the Ace is the Magic demo vehicle. The ground staff is already distributing pamphlets among the crowd, which is building up quickly.
Suddenly, with a loud screech, the mike comes to life. 'Mavaikaa mavaikaa jara manchi matha cheppaiya, Tata Magic bandi kondam padavayya,' the singer playing the dhappu (a flat drum) starts in Telugu. On cue, a man dressed in a flashy shirt with a scarf round his neck appears - that's 'Rajnikant' ! There's another man dressed in a dhoti-kurta ; Khadeer tells me he's the lookalike of Telugu actor Rao Gopal Rao.
The Rajnikant lookalike jumps onto the float shouting, 'Basha! Basha!' (the name of the hero in Rajnikant's eponymous super hit) and the name draws the crowd towards the float like a magnet. 'Rajnikant' delivers his dialogues with aplomb, punctuating them with the trademark swish of the scarf and the twirl of the glares.