KK 

An entire generation of Indians aged a decade yesterday, when they heard the news of KK passing away. For most Indians, KK was a soulful singer. Someone who could breathe life and emotions into a song. Who could elevate a song from the mundane to the mystical. A magician with a mike. 

But KK was personal to me. More than a decade ago, I had decided to learn to play the guitar. It was a childhood dream of mine, and I was a bits-and-pieces singer at school. When I first held the guitar, it was overwhelming. Where should I begin? Which song do I choose? There were the legends of the West – Eagles and Beatles and Scorpions. And then there were the icons of the East – Nusrat and Mohd. Rafi and Sonu Nigam. Where was I supposed to begin? Whose songs could I grasp on to, under confident as I was with both my voice and my guitar skills. And that is when I realised the beauty of KK’s songs. 

Ask any friend who has ever dabbled with the guitar, and they’ll tell you what they think of KK. KK’s songs did not come with the baggage of classical training, like the likes of Kailash Kher, Daler Mehndi, or Sukhwinder. They were easy to strum along to. KK never attempted to complicate his songs with unnecessary harkatein or aalaps. He made beautiful songs accessible. 

Of course, it was a different matter that when you actually got down to sing his songs, you realised how complicated they were. How high the high notes were, how difficult the notes that he seemed to glide over actually were. KK took the complicated, the complex – and made it seem within reach. As he effortlessly slid from note to note, his voice encouraged you to skate along. 

By the time KK burst into the scene, India already had a gamut of playback superstars. Our parents swore on Mohd. Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Mukesh. Kumar Sanu was the voice of the early and mid 90s. Udit Narayan and Sonu Nigam had firmly entrenched themselves as leading singers of the time. KK well and truly belonged to the piracy generation. A generation that grew up around Cable TV – that chose to ‘watch’ their songs instead of merely listening to them. A generation who listened to songs on new FM radio stations, on pirated MP3 CDs, or illegally downloaded from songs.pk or gaanaworld.com. 

As I made myself familiar with his discography, I realised that KK had also sung a number of Telugu songs that I had jived to without knowing the name of the singer. There was Allu Arjun’s Feel my love from Arya. There was Paataku Pranam in which Venkatesh aimed to connect to the youth of the country while playing a guitar, wearing beach shirts, rocking rock concerts – all the while managing to keep his wig intact. I found that KK had sung songs by Rahman before he became the phenomenon he is today. With DSP before he became as enjoyable as his namesake – Directors’ Special whiskey. 

But that’s the thing about KK’s voice. It didn’t try to stand out, to grab your attention. It melded into the vision of the director. Even though he was classically trained, KK’s voice was easy on the ears. He felt no need to peacock his skills in every song. He made difficult songs seem like childhood friends. Even though he was a performer par excellence, his songs could be hummed by even the most tone-deaf person in the room. It’s no wonder that his songs became the anthems for love and friendship for an entire generation. 

As I scroll through his discography, something else strikes me. KK was never attached to any particular actor. His chameleon-like voice could go with just about anybody. Whether it was a Shah Rukh Khan at the peak of his Rio de Janeiro charm, or Allu Arjun before he started shaving. Whether it was Shiney Ahuja, Emraan Hashmi, or Saif Ali Khan – KK’s voice melded into the voice of the star. I dare say having KK sing for you made the actors look cooler. This was because KK could pull off complicated songs easily, but also have a blast with dumb, commercial songs. Check out Bardasht Nahi Kar Sakta or Ding Dong Ding Dole. In fact, such was the versatility of the dude, that even when Himesh Mania was at its peak, Lord Himesh would sing every song in his album, but leave one song for KK. For even the Lord nose! 

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Gradually, the tone of Bollywood music began to change. While Pritam survived the transition successfully, musicians like Shankar Ehsaan Loy, Vishal – Shekar and even Rahman to an extent find work hard to come by. We gradually went from a soulful music industry to one where robots pick a song from the previous decade and proceed to decimate it carefully. 

But even as the songs dried up, KK never fought to remain in the limelight. He never judged a reality show, or made a controversial statement. Singers today have opinions on everything under the sun, but KK was too cool for Twitter. No drama, no shocking interviews. You’ll find clips of him talking to people while chilling on a couch, or of jamming with college students before or after a show. It seemed like the stage was really where KK belonged. 

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I once attended a KK concert, and I shall never forget the night. 

One of the pastimes that me and my drunken friends indulge in, is to check how 90s singers have aged. I firmly believe that live singing is the more exciting, more difficult form of singing, especially in the age of auto-tune and high-def musical technology. We used to spend hours checking out live videos of singers from our childhood. 

While age has come his way, Udit Narayan still manages to turn on his charm at shows. Kumar Sanu – in spite of his voice getting a little shaky – has a huge repertoire of slow romantic songs of the 90s. Abhijeet was the pleasant surprise, managing to retain the honey-coated voice that he used to croon for Shah Rukh Khan, and to speak against the use of Pakistani singers. Sonu Nigam is still pretty solid in live performances. 

But KK is something else. If you had the chance to go to a live KK concert, you’ll know that he had an enviable list of super hit songs – each one a banger, each one better than the previous one. While other singers try to pump up the crowd during a concert, it came naturally to KK. He’d sing a few lines, walk up to the crowd, shake their hands, whisper a few instructions to the sound engineer, turn around, glide through the high notes of a song – to send the audience into a mad tizzy. 

KK knew how to put up a show; it came naturally to him. That night, he sent the audience home sweating, dancing, crying and hugging. I remember going back home after the concert shaking my head a few times – wondering how a person could change a barren exhibition ground into a well of humans charged with emotions. 

While it is incredibly sad that he had to pass away, I am inclined to look for the silver linings. In a way, KK will be forever young in our minds. He’ll remain the cool, hip rock star who sang to an entire generation about love, friendship and life. 

I hope he reaches heaven safely, and finds Irrfan Khan. I hope they both sit on top of a high-rise building in heaven. And just as Irrfan is about to light a joint, KK begins to hum ‘Alvida’…

*****

BRING BACK THE TRAFFIC

(A sanitised version of this blog appeared in my humour column – Urban Bourbon – in The New Indian Express. If you’re touchy about subjects, or generally the kind who feels people shouldn’t say things that hurt others, you’re on the wrong site. Please check out the original column. Thanks!)

You know how they speak of mental age? I have always had the mental age of a septuagenarian. I don’t mean it in the way I spoke or acted – by those barometers, I was always an immature asshole who went through life like it was a video game with many lives. But in terms of pet peeves and things that ticked me off, I always thought of myself as an old man.

Pet peeves rile me up, everyday occurrences spite me. All my life, I have complained and cribbed about traffic in cities. A firm believer of public transport (while not a frequent commuter), nothing annoys me more than people stuck behind each other in vehicles. There is something inherently inhumane about having to sit on the road for hours. I have tried to listen to nostalgic songs, interesting podcasts, make conversation – within a few minutes, I begin to feel like GD Bakshi in an NDTV studio. Road Rage? ‘Rage’ is a strong word, but I admit to suffering from a mild case of Road Irritation.

That’s me whenever I am in traffic.

With IT companies calling their employees back to offices, traffic on the roads is beginning to resemble pre-pandemic levels. The Deja-phew comes sweeping back – of waiting hopelessly in traffic while staring at nothing in particular. Of looking at the time a few times and eventually leaving it to destiny. It’s become the new small-talk across the country:

‘Damn, the traffic has gotten terrible, eh?’

‘Yeah’.

‘But what Will Smith did to Chris Rock was good only. You can’t make fun of baldness/religion/disability/nation/beliefs/intelligence/weight/my grandmother/their neighbours/my dog/anything in general’.

‘Yeah’.

But after the pandemic, instead of cribbing, I’d like to welcome the traffic back with open arms. If I’m being completely honest, I had begun to miss the traffic.

When the pandemic was announced, I used to step out once a day for smokes. One of the sights still flashes in my memory. It had been a few days since Modiji announced the lockdown. I had stepped on to the roads. There wasn’t a soul in sight. My favourite shops were shut, even the stray dogs did not wag their tails to greet me. The streets looked like the sets of a zombie-apocalypse movie starring Tiger Shroff. It made me both sad and scared at the same time. That’s when I realised how much I miss the traffic.

How much I missed the long hours of waiting, the incessant honking of cars – a Morse code of its own. If aliens visit us, they’ll think we honk to communicate with each other. A honk when someone overtakes, or when the light turns green. A honk when the clock strikes 4.20 PM, or if it’s a Wednesday, or the birthday of a local MLA. Honking is a morse code with absolutely no code of honour. I want to hear the white noise of frustrated drivers again.

And how about all the idiots on the road. The folks who gulp down a can of energy drink and graciously leave the last few drops for co-commuters on the road. Or those who occupy the window seats in buses, and spit benevolently upon those on the road. People who park bikes, and quickly run to relieve themselves by the side of the road. Or those cousins of Doctor Strange, who pause all traffic by stretching out their hand in front of incoming vehicles. Give me back that one genius who decides to reverse at a U-Turn, causing the traffic behind him to metamorphose into a gigantic snail. The cow chewing cud nonchalantly in the middle of the road, musing about its increased status in society. The people who sell stuff at traffic spots – analog versions of Instagram influencers. I wonder how they are always in the know when it comes to trending objects – like fidget spinners, or 2 feet long pens.

Increased traffic is a sign of people returning to cities, of humanity crawling back to normalcy. Shops and bars will be open again, playing songs loud enough for Martians to headbang to. Strangers will share drinks and step out as friends. Pubs will echo with the independent voices of young singers. People will gather to listen to comedians with mics in hand and fears in their hearts. People will look at their phones at 11.30 PM and do a mental calculation of how much they drank, how far they must drive, and where the ‘police checking’ might be set up.

I will have to cover my face to avoid leaking drains. I will have to ensure that I’m far away from bus windows, incase someone wants to bolo zubaan kesari all of a sudden. But give it all back to me.

Give me back the traffic – that constantly throbbing lifeline of the city. That vein pumping through the city’s heart – buzzing, honking and smoking. Give me back the chaos, the noise, smoke, and the intermittent spikes in blood pressure. Give me back the traffic. Let me watch my city thrive again!

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BRING BACK THE OLD VALENTINE’S DAY

{A sanitised version of this blog appeared in my weekly humour column ‘Urban Bourbon’ in The New Indian Express. If you’re the sort that gets easily offended, I’d recommend you read the newspaper version. Thank you. Jai Putin!}

I know it’s a month since Valentine’s Day has come and gone. But I have shit tons of shit work on my hands and I haven’t been able to convert my newspaper columns into blogposts. But here’s the thing. A month has gone past since Valentine’s Day, and I wanted to crib about it here.

Now, I’m no Bejan Daruwalla, but I can confidently assume that you spent most of the day finishing work, and looking at funny reels about Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day – the whole day and all the fanfare around it has become a joke. Memes and tweets and stories – self-aware, sarcastic takes on the tradition. This year, cities were not draped in red, and plastic cupids weren’t trapped at the entrance of malls. On social media, I saw more memes and reels on the ‘V-Day’ than any real messages of love, outpourings of feelings.

Honestly, I find it all quite boring. 

It appears that India has gotten over the concept of Valentine’s Day. Independence Day and Diwali have become more marketable occasions to brands. But back in the day, Valentine’s Day was a rather wonderful scam orchestrated by brands and advertising agencies. In those years, scams were more socially accepted phenomena. Chief ministers and Defence ministers would get embroiled in scams. Newspapers were crammed with fodder scams, stamp paper scams, stock market scams and telecom scams. But the one that affected the youngsters of middle-class families the most was the Valentine’s Day scam. 

Every Valentine’s Day featured a practised routine. About two weeks before the day, brands would expand their advertising budgets. Hoardings, malls and restaurants would deck themselves in red. Every single brand – from Vodafone to Nagarjuna Cement would cajole you to spend time with your loved one. Chocolate brands assured you that they could feel your lips, on their fingertips. Toothpaste brands implored you to get closer with confidence, as Sona Mohapatra crooned ‘Paas Aao’ to two random European looking youngsters. Even pen brands would have taglines like Likhte Likhte Love Ho Jaaye!

Television channels would telecast recent romantic hits on loop. Just as the President addresses the nation every Republic Day, Shah Rukh Khan delivered his yearly Valentine’s Day speech while peddling fairness creams, cars, or biscuits. While Capitalism was doing its bit, other stakeholders were also at play on Valentine’s Day. Every Valentine’s Day, the red of the balloons were accompanies by the saffron of religious groups, who would warn of dire consequences if the day was observed. 

Growing up in a small town like Bhubaneswar, the threat was real. If you were unfortunately caught by these groups, they would either thrash you, or forcibly marry you to your partner, before featuring you in the annual local news shaming process. I knew a guy who was caught on Valentine’s Day. He was a soft-spoken guy who had no ‘bad’ habits. He would ride his bicycle to the college and return home after the evening tuitions. On the fourteenth of February, he took his girlfriend on a date. Being a man of culture, he shunned the parks where bushes served as covers. He went instead to the planetarium in the city. The day went by blissfully, but when he was stepping out of the planetarium, he was sighted by a group. They began to crowd around him, and our valiant hero ensured the girl could escape from the scene. When he narrated the story to me – as I smoked by 2 rupees Chhota Gold Flake, it was a genuine fear for me.

And so, the youngsters in my town adopted their own strategies. The general consensus was to avoid public parks, or any establishments with red hearts, for these spots were prone to vandalism. Girls covered their faces with their chunnis, and the guys practised short distance sprinting. Theatres were also targeted. Back then, Bhubaneswar had ONE pub, and the ownership of the place changed every time I visited the place. On Valentines’ Day, the members of VHP would make a beeline for the place and shout slogans. Panicked teenagers would be rushing the fuck out of the place, as news channels reported all of this live. Every year, the same pub, the same story, the same headlines.

Since I have studied Commerce for five years of my life, I try to unnecessarily add economic angles to everything. And so, I have one such thought about the sudden emergence (and gradual death) of Valentine’s Day.

The phenomenon of Valentine’s Day was clearly targeted at youngsters in a post-liberalised India. An American capitalist idea credited to a Roman saint, the hallowed St. Valentine’s the saviour of young lovers (or whatever it is that bullshit story is).

And since I was the first one from both sides of my family to ever go on a date, I fell headlong into the Valentine’s Day scam. The first time I ever spent the Valentine’s Day, I saved up money from my call centre job (the salary was all of 3200 rupees). And gifting was a legit industry (like DVD rentals and puncture shops). Entire stores were devoted to gifting – like Archie’s and Hallmark – brands that have completely vanished today. I had the option of expressing my teenage love through a greeting card – where my deepest emotions were conveyed in the generic words of an underpaid copywriter. Chocolates were accepted too, as were keychains with the lady’s name on it. For the musically inclined, perhaps a CD featuring favourite tracks. For those musically inclined but financially unstable, one could always BURN a CD, tear off the “1000 Himesh Songs in One” tag, and present it to a girl. A meal at a restaurant, or a movie in a dark theatre. If you went out with someone, didn’t embarrass yourself, and avoided getting forcibly married or thrashed – it was a good day. 

In many ways, Valentine’s Day was a video game. You had to save up money, use them efficiently, make a few intelligent choices, and avoid physical harm through the day. Today, Valentine’s Day is spoken of in a sarcastic, ironic manner. As a nation, I can only presume that we have moved past the ideas of a day dedicated to expressing love. The entire idea seems rather cringey, an obsolete blunder from the wonder years. Through an economic lens, brands have now moved to digital sales on e-commerce sites, and the marketability of Valentine’s Day has taken a hit during the pandemic. But this is all boring, self-aware shit that I have had enough of.

Bring back the Valentine’s Day of yore. This modern, sarcastic version of Valentine’s Day sucks. I want the older version back. The one with red balloons, greeting cards, and the goons chasing youngsters from public parks!

*****

A Very Achievable New Year’s Resolution

It happens every year.

By the time November ends, and you’re browsing for jackets, you suddenly remember that all the resolutions you had set for yourself have vanished out of the window. 

Well, not all of them, you tell yourself. You achieved SOME of them. Some of them, you reason, were too unrealistic to begin with. The rest were all frivolous anyway – get fit, quit smoking, eat healthy – utopian desires in dystopian times. 

By December, you go easy on yourself. Just a few more days, and you’ll reset your life. Well, not like Instagram influencers do – they’re an alien breed of positivity-exuding creatures. You’ll do it like a teenager on Orkut – half circumspect, half-excited. 

And then, the last few days of the year whizz by, and here you are – reading this blog on a weekday in the middle of work. Off the top of your head, you know you haven’t set extremely rigid resolutions for yourself. But you can’t deny it – you’d like it if this year was better than the last. 

Don’t be hard on yourself. It’s only human. 

If there is one good thing about the pandemic, it has made us realise the futility of New Year resolutions. Earlier, you had to watch television or step out on the roads to see the hydra-headed grip of Christmas and New Year marketing in your life. Today, it resides next to your bed, on your phone. Ads for gym equipment, diaries and planners, entrepreneurs and fitness coaches asking you to turn your life around. 

But the pandemic proved that new year resolutions are a vague creation by marketing companies. That to be alive and well, to report to work, to get paid, to have someone to talk to – these are all wonderful things in themselves. On 31 December 2020, for the first time in decades, millions of people discarded New Year resolutions, counted their blessings, and stepped gingerly into the new year. 

As much as I hate to admit it, I am a sucker for new year resolutions. I know, I know. You can roll your eyes. But I can’t help it. The tiniest sliver of hope is enough for me to latch on to. 

There is something warm and wonderful about the ability to reset. To start afresh. And I’ll take it. Even though I know the course. 

I’ll stick to it for a few days, and then the 100 meters walk from my home to the gym will seem like the Tour de France. Sankranthi will come knocking in a few days, and I’ll stuff myself like a vegetarian pig. And yet, I do make a wish list for myself. 

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But what does one wish for oneself in the times we live in? Just when we thought the worst was over, we realised that COVID has adopted another avatar and is all set to pounce upon us. Just when we had all got vaccinated twice, and were beginning to step out of our homes, we found ourselves going through the same loop again. Reports of cases rising, warnings across hoardings and headlines, the distressing reports of hospital shortages. 

As someone in my mid-30s, I am allowed to dole out advice once in a while. If you’re younger than me, humour me like I’m a drunk uncle at a wedding party. If you’re older, think of me as the annoying, talkative kid at a birthday party. But here is what I have realised over the last few years. 

It is going to sound like an expansive statement, and you will roll your eyes so far back in your head, you’ll like The Undertaker stepping into the wrestling ring. But hear me out. 

This is what I have realised. Happiness really, is a choice. 

Yes. I know what you’re thinking. Fuck you, you smug asshole. People have lost their lives, millions have lost their livelihood. And I’m dishing out generic, Osho-like lines. 

I understand all of that. I have come to learn that we actually are not as much in control of our lives as we assume. Our family and friends are mostly products of chance. Our health (even though BKS Iyengar’s book says otherwise), is not really in our hands. Our wealth is also a byproduct of circumstances, upbringing and effort. We don’t choose the nation, religion or ethnicity we were born into. We did not choose when we were born, and when we are going to die. 

Which makes me realise, very little is ACTUALLY in our hands. There will always be people better off, and worse off than us. And our ideas of happiness and contentment are constantly shifting goalposts that are mere mirages. 

So why then, are we miserable? 

Look around you. Every single person around you is moping about life, going through it like a punishment. Befriend someone for long enough, and they begin to pour out their miseries like an adopted grandfather. Open a second beer with someone, and you’ll hear them crib and complain about their lives. 

I understand that nihilism is in vogue now, and anything hopeful is considered ‘cringe’. But really, you have survived a pandemic. You are reading this blog in the middle of work. It’s in English, so you’re among the 10% of Indians who read, write and speak in English.  

Which is not to say I am above it, either. I am an expert bitcher. I am the Zakir Hussain of complaining, the Ravi Shankar of cribbing. And when I questioned myself further, I found that it is mostly because cribbing, bitching and complaining are more entertaining. There is more scope for jokes, stories, and relatability among your listeners. Try praising someone for more than two minutes, and you’ll find your listeners stifling mental yawns.

And this holds true for all of us. We are generic in our praise, and extremely specific in our criticism. When you step out of a great movie and your friends ask you what you thought, you generally reply with superlatives – ‘amazing, mind-blowing, extraordinary’. But try sitting through a bad movie, and you could write a Baradwaj Ranganish essay on why the film was miserable. I think it comes naturally to us. 

Think about how generic you sound when you meet an old friend, and how nuanced, articulate and inventive you sound when you have a fight. Examples from the past magically merge with statements that are laced with poison and come zooming out your mouth like a gun in Sunny Deol’s hands. 

And so dear reader, this is what I ask of you this year. Be specific in praise, and generic in criticism. It’s not much of a resolution. In fact, it is barely even a change. If anything, it is a minor flip in your default settings. But I have found that when I praise people with specific pointers, it means something to them. For one, it makes me have to think – to actually ponder over what I liked, to articulate it in my finest words, and to deliver them in the most heartening manner. And the reaction I get is pure joy. Anybody can pay compliments, but to hear a well-worded explanation is a thing of pure bliss. 

As for criticism, there is no point getting into the specifics. In most cases, the person you’re reprimanding already knows of their follies. In most cases, the things we say are instinctive reactions to churning feelings inside us that are brewing up hatred. On most days, much of our criticism gets painted with personal agenda and hatred. 

So, after much thought, this is the easy-to-achieve New Year’s resolution that I came with. It’s easy to follow, helps everybody around you, and if you play your cards well, could also result in a hike at work. Be specific in praise and generic in criticism. 

As for me, I will continue to set mildly unrealistic resolutions for myself. This year, my other resolution is to not kill a human being. I should be able to achieve it. But in case I fail, you’ll read about it in the papers! 

Happy New Year! 

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(An edited version of this blog appeared in my weekly column for The New Indian Express. Read it here.)

(If you received this blog through email, thank you for subscribing. I have stopped sharing my blogs on social media, for it attracts unwanted attention and instant reactions. I cherish the blogging experience of the the early days – where I write stuff and strangers read them and comment if they want to. I despise the modern social-media driven practice of instant reactions and comments. However, a man’s gotta run his shop. So if you like the blog, please let someone else know, and ask them to subscribe too! :))

The Trauma of Online Shows

When Modiji announced the lockdown to the nation in that innocent summer of 2020, I had no idea my life was going to change so drastically.

I was completely unprepared. I had no booze with me, and no herbs to help me sail through the tough times. A friend had left a few bottles of wine in our flat, and I promptly guzzled them down in a few days. With the constant news and mania surrounding our daily lives, my sanity took a hit. I played PUBG all day, and lay in bed like Kaikeyi in Ramayana.

When the second lockdown was announced, I was better prepared. The Telangana government thankfully kept wine shops open. And even though Vijay Mallya has been in the UK for a long time, his products ensured I was in the right spirits. The Gods in heaven ensured that my friends didn’t have to fly to Sanjeevani for crucial supplies.

But the worst part of the lockdown really was how it killed all my sources of income. I perform standup, review films, and write scripts and screenplays for films. I sometimes wish I hadn’t quit my job with Microsoft, so I could continue to rake in the moolah while sitting at home. When I look at my friends in software, I sometimes turn absinthe with envy. But who can argue with the urge to ‘pursue my passion’?

Films don’t release during lockdowns, so my weekly pleasure of watching a film and analysing it was lost. Writing for scripts and screenplays doesn’t pay anyway, so it isn’t too much to deal with. And finally, there is the issue of standup comedy. With lockdowns come the bane of modern standup comedians – ONLINE SHOWS.

With venues shut, we all assumed it would be a good time to get a lot of first-time audience to attend standup shows. They can watch from anywhere in the world, and the tickets are a lot cheaper, we reasoned with ourselves. And enthusiastically put up a series of online shows for people to attend. Little did we know of the issues that would plague online shows.

For one, there is no mic, seating, or performance area. Which means we get audience members lying down like Vishnu on their beds, or sitting on their commode like they are featuring in a 90s ad for piles. Then there are kids who have been asked to study, but are using their tabs to log into comedy shows. There are those that are lying down on their beds with a glass of whiskey, making us all feel like mujra dancers performing for Arab sheikhs. There are gentlemen (mostly men – I find that women are usually more presentable) who are so happy with their dinner that they chew their food during the show. High-definition cameras of today ensure I can tell if he’s having Paneer Butter Masala or Paneer Lababdaar.

Then there are those that will refuse to switch on their cameras or mics. Like Death Eaters waiting for Voldemort to rise, these people will silently observe the show – watching as comics continue to talk to empty rooms and rectangular blanks instead of people’s faces. And of course, there are those that were Mughal kings in their previous births. For them, the work of a comedian is to speak to THEM directly. After every joke, they will add their own comments, often bringing the entire joke to a crashing halt. Like Akbar rewarding Birbal for a joke, they will clap and declare their love or hatred for the joke.

It is in moments like this that I envy musicians. They can continue performing their jokes even if the audience completely mutes their mics. For us, it is important that we receive SOME sort of feedback from the viewers. And the income disparity in India is prominently visible during online comedy shows. For those with high-speed internet, the joke is immediately delivered. But for those with 3G connections, or those who are travelling – the joke takes a few seconds to reach. This means that after I deliver the punch line, there is a deafening silence. And when I have grudgingly moved on to the premise of the next joke, I hear a loud round of laughter! 

What makes it worse is that I usually perform in Hyderabad, the city with the best standup comedy audience. People of Hyderabad are too chilled out to take offence to anything. I have been performing in the city since 8 years now, only twice have I been interrupted in the middle of a show – once by a vegan, and another time by a woke person who interrupted the show to ask if the joke was on the comic, or if it was transphobic. Needless to say, neither of them were from Hyderabad.

Some audiences from other cities come to a standup show LOOKING for offence. They are minutely scrutinising every line, looking for the exact lines to get offended by. But Hyderabad has been kind to me. The people here can take a joke on their language, their religion, their culture, and their cinema. Or it could be that they are simply too lazy to take offence to anything at all!

The problem (as with the real advantage) with online shows that people can join from anywhere in the world. Sometimes, it is late at night in the US. And while I appreciate the efforts of people from the West attending my show, to see them yawn right in front of my face when I begin is disheartening. Then there are those who have seen a few videos on YouTube, and turn up on the show asking you to perform a joke that they heard.

It’s hard to explain to them that standup comedy is not a mushaira, and I can’t simply perform a line that somebody else wrote. Then there are those who begin the show enthusiastically. But every comedy show has a dip – so the comic can build it up towards his final point/joke/punchline. Without this, I’ll look like the love-child of Jim Carrey and Johnny Lever. But as soon as there’s a dip, they turn around and give this expression to the person sitting next to them:

And then there are those who have planned a party – you can see the bottles of whiskey lying around, and the laughter of Kauravas on their faces. These are usually the best kind of audiences – they have bought tickets to have a good time, and alcohol is known to work wonders on people’s sense of humour. That is until they love the joke so much, they repeat it to the person next to them, and high-five each other!

*

As Modiji is gearing up to announce another lockdown to the nation, I am prepared in every other way. I have asked friends who own restaurants to keep a few bottles aside for me. Friends with shady co-friends have been assigned to speed-dials. My hard-disk has been dusted and kept ready for films that aren’t available on OTT platforms. And old friends Osho and Alan Watts have been added to playlists. 

The only thing left is to perform standup comedy. And this is where things might get murky. In case of a lockdown, I will be adding a number of online shows. You can watch them from anywhere, from the comfort of your home. If there are enough people from your continent, (as an experienced nocturnal creature), I could add a few extra shows that are conducive to your time zones.

But if you DO attend my online shows, please remember to keep your mics and cameras on. Please do not chew food or interrupt the flow of the show. And please, for the love of Pandit Gangadhar Vidyadhar Mayadhar Omkarnath Shastri, do not sit on the toilet while listening to my jokes. 

***

Spider-Man and the Question of ‘Real’ Cinema

I have been reviewing films since 2008.

I started by reviewing on this blog, and later reviewed films for magazines and newspapers. Today, I work with Film Companion – probably the nation’s most respected film journalism portal.

And yet, there is one question that I keep getting – ‘According to you, what is good cinema?’. It is a question I have no real answer to. It’s a question I doubt anybody can have a decent answer to. It’s like asking someone what a good painting is, or what a good song sounds like.

After more than a decade of reviewing films, I have come to the conclusion that there really is no way to slot films into good, bad, and artistic. Cinema is truly an unique art form. It is not like painting, or music. It is not dance, or standup comedy. No other art form incorporates dozens of other art forms within it. No other art form lets you pick and choose aspects of itself – you could hate a film’s story, and yet be bedazzled by its cinematography. You could abhor an actor and his craft in a film, and yet be bowled over by the background score, or sound design. So when people dismiss films as bad or mediocre, it shoots a tinge of sadness through my heart.

A few months ago, Martin Scorsese raised a furore among cinema buffs when he declared that Marvel films weren’t really cinema. A number of opinions were thrown up among fans and detractors, and it is something that set me thinking. Is Marvel really cinema? Or is it not??

I have never been a huge fan of Marvel. The one film I truly enjoyed was the first Ironman, for the manner in which they shattered the stereotype of the superhero’s alibi. When Robert Downey Jr. flashes a smile to the press and declares ‘I am Ironman’ (ironically the last line he ever speaks), it made me gush ‘That’s so cool!’.

But since then, I have never really gushed over any Marvel film. I have had to review the Avengers films for Film Companion, and frankly, I found it to be underwhelming. The films that are usually hyped up – like Deadpool – make me want to yawn and throw up at the same time. Every Marvel film essentially has the same format. A self-aware superhero jacked up with superpowers and wisecracks, a few laughs strung into the script till the supervillain appears. A moral lesson (Power, responsibility, duty) that is used in the ending that culminates in an orgasm of VFX.

Over the years, I have watched nearly every Marvel movie that has released (thanks to fanatics posing as friends, and lovers who would rather stare at a screen than look at me). I did appreciate the jokes, and the self-awareness, but I found it hard to take the films seriously.

That is, until I watched Spider-Man: No Way Home.

I am not steeped in superhero culture. I haven’t read too many comics featuring the origin stories. I cannot rattle off names of heroes and villains. In fact, I have spent more time watching Shaktimaan than any of the Western superheroes that began invading our country after liberalisation.

But there was something about the film that drew me in. Perhaps it was the flipping of the trope of the hero’s double life. The film begins with Peter Parker’s identity exposed. Perhaps it was because the hero had to deal with a real-word problem – getting through a college admission. Or perhaps it was because I went in for the first day-first show – surrounded by maniacs across age groups.

(SPOILERS AHEAD: KINDLY AVOID IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THE FILM)

But it was when Tobey Maguire appeared on the screen did I well and truly lose my shit. Tobey was the first superhero that I loved. Not enough has been written about the original Spider-Man movies.

For the first time, a superhero wasn’t jacked up on steroids and arrogance. Tobey’s Spider-Man was a geeky loser who hung out around chemistry labs and magazine offices. He briefly gets the girl, but quickly loses her to his best friend – the son of a rich, illustrious supervillain. He delivered pizza and got bullied at school. As a school kid, I connected to Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man like no other before, or since.

Such was the impact of Spiderman in my life – I was in school and got bitten by a spider during the lunch break. I waited for everybody to leave for the classes, and ran up to my room. I closed the doors (didn’t want people to know of my powers), and switched off the fan (with great power comes great responsibility to save electricity). I then went up on my toes, and jumped! Nothing happened, of course.

Tobey Maguire’s Spiderman revived a whole genre. Before him, superhero films were campy and clunky. They took themselves too seriously, and the VFX made you suspect your nephew was the Creative Director.

I’m Batman…and I’ve got big, rubber nipples.

To see the man on screen again – his warm face having smudged around the edges, his shoulders drooping, his eyes tired – made me feel a number of things deep within.

And this is where Marvel showed its coolness. They didn’t portray him as Akshay Kumar – a 45 year old trying to compete with teenagers. They showed him having back pains. As a man who hides his superhero costumes under pullovers, jeans and sneakers. When he speaks to the Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, he doesn’t inspire him to smash the villains, but rather to be kind to himself.

Exactly a decade ago, a friend showed me a video on YouTube. It was the CEO of Marvel, discussing the company’s plans for the next 10 years. It was the first time I heard of names like Black Panther and Dr. Strange, and I remember scoffing at the idea of heroes who did magic and used a flying hammer to defeat heroes.

For years since, I harboured a grudge that Marvel had completely destroyed the superhero genre. But watching the latest version of the film made me realise that they had taken a hackneyed genre and elevated it. The heroes in Marvel do not merely want to capture the villain anymore. They are battling their inner demons, or seeking answers to questions like ‘What is the point of life?’. In that sense, they could be hanging out with Ramana Maharishi even as they are battling Thanos.

But what really stayed with me was the experience of watching the film. In front of me, a man in his 40s stood up and cheered when Tobey Maguire appeared on screen. Behind me, 10 year old kids stood up on the chair and clapped when Andrew Garfield appeared – all confused and guilt-ridden.

When the three of them worked together in the climax, the theatre was a sight to behold. Youngsters and old people alike – hooting and clapping. And it was precisely at that moment that I thought – ‘Isn’t this cinema?’

The ability to make people purchase tickets, come to a hall, to hoot, cheer, laugh and cry. To have people across age groups rooting for fictional characters. To have films that are mostly actors jumping in front of green screens – and yet connecting to people across the globe.

Why is this not cinema?

Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. While I might personally find that all his recent films are merely rehashes of each other – he will go down in history as one of the greatest of all time.

And yet, when he made Taxi Driver, similar arguments were thrown up by the filmmakers of the 70s. They cried that this was not cinema – this was a perversion, an excuse to show blood, gore and sex on screen. They were as wrong as Mr. Scorsese is today.

I doubt there could be a concrete definition of what cinema truly is. But on that Thursday, as I walked out of the theatre with emotional children and satisfied fathers around me, I realised that cinema is more than just good frames and great lines.

It is also about giving people an experience that they will cherish all their lives.

REVIEW: Break Point

Up until the year 2000, every sport in India had a token superstar. Their pictures would feature on the top of magazines like ‘Competition Success Review’, or railway magazines like ‘Wisdom’. For athletics, there was PT Usha. For chess, there was Vishwanath Anand. For badminton, there was Pullela Gopichand.

Unless you read the Sportstar, of course. As a magazine, Sportstar featured detailed cover stories across sports. Which meant that I knew a little bit about various sports. I followed the rivalry between Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen. I read about Davor Sukor and Ronaldo’s (not the dude who kissed Bipasha Basu!) exploits at the FIFA World Cup. I followed Oscar De La Hoya’s domination in boxing. Sportstar gave me a peek into various sports.

But when it came to tennis, it was always about the two Indians – Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupati. It’s hard for today’s generation to imagine two Indians dominating a worldwide sport back in the 90s. There was barely any infrastructure, exposure, or private tournaments. India wasn’t doing great even in cricket, with our biggest cricketers throwing away matches like it was a dice game in Mahabharata.

Which is why Leander Paes’ bronze medal in Atlanta 1996 Olympics was such a big deal. It came out of nowhere, and immediately magazines began to feature the flashy, dark-skinned kid across their covers. In a few years, the combination of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupati would be a regular in interviews, hoardings and even cameos in movies. The iconic chest-bump, the massive hoardings for Adidas, and the almost homo-erotic ad where the two posed shirtless.

Lee and Hesh in an ad that would give our politicians a heart attack!
(Picture Courtesy: India Today, Clicked by Bandeep Singh)

Funnily, I had never stepped on to a tennis court, or even touched a tennis racket up until then. The first time a few of us stepped on to a tennis court, we pretended to be Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes.

Break Point, streaming on Zee5 is a rare exception. Indians aren’t great at making sports films, or documentaries. What we end up making instead, are hagiographies. Mary Kom was an embarrassing film that featured a Priyanka Chopra looking playing a Manipuri boxer. Saina featured a Parineeti Chopra who seemed to share a passion for both badminton and gajar halwa. And the film Sachin: A Billion Dreams – had so much god-worshipping, I was half-expecting a pundit to pop up in the middle of the screening with a hundi and begin asking for chandaa! We Indians are too scared to rake up sticky issues, and too black-and-white in our narrations of sportspersons’ lives.

Which is why it is wonderful that the documentary is director by the director couple – Nitesh Tiwari and Ashwini Iyer Tiwari. They are no strangers to sports dramas (Nitesh directed Dangal), or stories of triumph against extraordinary circumstances (Ashwin Iyer directed Neel Battey Sannata). But more importantly, they bring with them a body of work as tellers of unique and gripping stories.

And there couldn’t have been a more juicy story than the two boys who were called ‘The Indian Express’ across the world. Two young boys playing against the leading ‘goras’ of the world. Money, friendship, and a rumoured love triangle causing a rift between the two. A brain tumour, public feuds, and substantial scoops of Bollywood thrown into the mix. In fact, the two of them fit right into the Jai-Veeru prototype of Hindi cinema. One was explosive and boisterous, the other silent and brooding. It was a story that had all the makings of a Bollywood potboiler.

If a documentary is supposed to help us get to know a person better, Break Point certainly succeeds in painting interesting pictures of the two leads. On one hand, you have Leander – boy genius (he won the Junior Wimbledon in 1990) who played with swagger and bravado. The one with the wild shots and funky hairstyles, the dude who dated a number of Bollywood stars. The guy with enough courage and belief to make Bhuvan seem like a backbencher.

And then there was Mahesh Bhupathi – the silent South Indian who looked like he’d lost his way from a vipassana center. Solid in his game, but rarely flashy or exuberant, Mahesh Bhupathi was the brooding sort who seemed content to be the less-spoken about among the two. If Leander was the alpha, Mahesh was the gamma.

But more than just the two sportspersons, the filmmakers paint a picture of the players’ roots. The Tiwaris also introduce us to the duo’s parents – both sportspersons in their own right. Both obsessed with the success of their sons, both willing to sacrifice so that their children fulfil their dreams. Remember, this was the time when it was impossible to take up a career in sports unless your parents undertook a Bheeshm Pratigya to make you a sportsperson.

But the documentary (which features in 7 parts) succeeds in its pacing. It wastes no time in setting up the characters’ childhoods. By the end of the first episode, the duo have already begun competing in international events. Their characters have been established, and the seeds of the rift have already been sowed in the relationship. Instead of meandering about, the film focuses solely on the ‘meat’ of the story – the ignominious split between the two, and the rift that made the world sit up and take notice. There is speculation, and tidbits of gossip. It is a sports documentary, but it also feels like watching a gossip update on the ‘Zoom’ channel.

After watching the documentary, my curiosity led me to googling the two athletes. I was surprised to find that the both of them have dated/married Bollywood stars. I learnt that Leander won lots of Grand Slams with other partners, as did Mahesh Bhupathi. And also that while they were going through their most successful years, they were barely speaking to each other.

The documentary does a good job with finishing every episode with cliffhangers, and presents a climax and denouement that is at once satisfying and emotional.

If anything, the documentary leaves you with questions of ‘What if?’. What if the two had spoken to each other and sorted their issues out? What if they had continued to have a long partnership, as is the wont with doubles tennis? Would there legacy then not been that of ‘what ifs’, but of ‘what else’?

Break Point is a satisfying watch if you grew up in the 90s, and happened to follow the ‘Indian Express’ through their Grand Slam victories. It makes you wonder how two Indians rose to the top of a sport in which India had no real global superstars.

As it stands, Break Point is a satisfying watch, probably the best Indian sports documentary I’ve watched so far.

***

Why are we so scared of writing?

No profession in the world has been as glorified as that of a writer’s.

When you think of a scientist, sportsperson, or film star – there are many images that strike the mind – in a wide variety of colours and personalities. But ask people what their idea of a writer is, and you’ll get the most cliched image – that of a black-and-white person in a beard and long hair, shot in soft light in the 1940s – a face too serious to smile, an expression to inscrutable to decode.

For more than 12 years now, I have been earning my bread through writing. I have written copy for advertising, short stories, three unpublished novels, award shows, film reviews, screenplays and web series. I have been writing and performing my own jokes for nearly a decade now. But when I tell people I’m a writer, the first question I get thrown at me is – ‘What books have you written?’. Most people have this image of a writer to be serious, or profound, or intellectually more stimulating than a Magic Wand Rechargeable vibrator.

Or there is an element of awe – like writing is a gift that god blesses upon the chosen ones. That being a writer somehow makes people intrinsically different from everyone else – a little hatke. It is assumed that writing requires some special talent and intelligence. I am yet to win a Pulitzer for my writing, but I can safely tell you that they couldn’t be further from the truth. I was extremely mediocre at academics, studied B.Com (the course you choose when you don’t know what you want to B.Com), and possess no other special skill to speak of (unless you count remembering bad Jackie Shroff movies).

Much of this myth stems from how our schools promote writing. We are never encouraged to write anything stimulating, anything off the treaded path. Think back to all the writing you did in school – you were either vomiting out the answers you were supposed to memorise. Or inane assignments like ‘Write a letter to your Municipality Office asking for a new bus stand’. Any writing that didn’t fall in line with your parents’ dream of buying a new house – was actively discouraged. All through 20 years of education, we were taught to mug up, memorise, and vomit. Mug up, memorise, vomit. On loop – across courses and curricula. You’ll find teenagers who can waltz through the world’s toughest competitive exam, but freeze when asked to write a few paragraphs of an essay.

Which is why people are so awed by any form of creative writing. It throws up the image of a rebel who fought against the existing structures of the world to plant a flag of individuality in the stormy sea of everyday life.

They couldn’t be further from the truth.

Writing is like any other profession. In fact, if you are a coder, you share more in common with a writer than most other professions. Like with other fields, writing can be either for your own brand, or for others on hire. Writers in that sense, are just like professionals in any other field – only poorer.

*

When I ask people why they don’t write anymore, the first reaction I get is of ‘fear’.

Modern society has tricked us into inculcating a deep fear of writing in all forms. We are all reminded that we don’t read enough. We are reminded of our previous generations – the simple joys of their lives, the struggles they faced to read and write – a luxury that we are throwing away. Old people love to remind us that we aren’t reading and writing enough.

But then, that’s what old people do. Old age offers us all the opportunity to look down upon people who come after us. When was the last time you heard an old person praise youngsters for anything? It’s a socially accepted (even respected) toxic trait that’ll go on and on till humans walk this earth.

But like most things, old people have no idea what they’re talking about. Take reading, for example. In our parents’ time, the act of reading meant one of a few things – a newspaper, a magazine, or a book. That was it. For all the brouhaha about reading, these were the only things that were being read, by entire generations!

Now, take the average youngster of today. They have access to news articles in one tap. News is delivered in snapshots throughout the day. Opinions are given out, statistics are accessed from a young age. Statuses, stories, updates, messages – we are surrounded by writing. In fact, the average youngster today reads more in a day on Instagram than their parents read in a week. And yet, we are constantly shamed into believing we don’t read enough.

Or take writing. Mails, statuses, opinions on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. If our earlier generation strove for brevity in words, the younger generation has perfected the art of conveying a hilariously nuanced point within 140 characters. They are on WhatsApp groups all day – discussing, debating and bantering. If you create memes, you are doing what poets toiled with all their lives – to merge an image with an idea to induce humour, joy, or inspiration.

The truth is, today’s generations read and write much, much more than their parents could ever dream of.

And yet, why are youngsters today exhibiting a morbid fear of writing? I have thought about this long and hard.

The most common retort I get when I ask people why they don’t write, is-

‘I tried writing. But I hate the stuff I write’.

This has got more to do with the perceived notions of writing, than with their own skills. Since we have very little functional experience of writing, we nurture the belief that words are supposed to flow like a gossamer beautifully from mind to paper. That when we sit down in front of the laptop, words should flow out of us like Ganga from Shiva’s head. That great works of writing will be created just like Shaktimaan was created from the divyashakti that emanated from the foreheads of seven rishis. But that’s absolute bull.

It makes no sense to judge your own writing. To expect perfection in everything that you type. One – that is not true even for the greatest writers on earth. Two – it is an extremely silly idea. Every time you sit down to write, you aren’t running a race against Shakespeare and Wordsworth.

When you go out to play a game of cricket – are you competing with Sachin Tendulkar? When you sing in the bathroom, are you trying to outdo the vocal gymnastics of Mariah Carey? Then why did writing become such a scrutinised activity?

Ernest Hemingway said, ‘Write drunk. Edit sober’. While you need not actually get drunk to write, what he meant is that writing and editing are two different tasks. To write and judge your writing at the same time, is like trying to wash up while taking a dump at the same time. What you’ll end up with is a gigantic mess.

The second problem I notice is that writing has become extremely performative.

It is assumed that everything you write has to be put up somewhere. Along with our opinions and our pictures, we have made our writing a social media experience as well. If it isn’t good enough to be put up somewhere, we assume there is no intrinsic value in what we write. But that’s a terrible way to go about writing. Everything you write should not be treated like precious gems that need to be put on sale in a marketplace. Instead, treat your writing like the muck that comes out when you pick your nose. It’s not important where it goes; but rather that it came out of you in the first place!

That extremely gross analogy apart, one needs to let go of the performative aspect of writing. If anything, writing is an extremely personal action – one that comes close to meditation.

Try this sometime.

When you’re extremely agitated, try sitting down and penning your thoughts. After a point, the grudges, those balls of wool of thoughts in your head – when they are all laid out bare, you’ll find that most of the things that anger or scare you are silly. When our thoughts are put into words in front of us, they show themselves for what they really are – twisted thoughts whose only aim is to cause pain.

Writing helps give clarity to your feelings. Especially the lesser feelings – like jealousy. The next time you find envy rising inside you like unwanted bile, sit down and try to write about it. You’ll find that when your feelings are forced to masquerade as words, they sound petty and small. Insignificant. You’ll find that you’re greater than such measly thoughts.

Unfortunately, writing has gone from something extremely personal, to an act as performative as a celebrity’s sex tape.

Write without an aim, without expecting likes or follows or shares. Don’t compare yourself to Shakespeare and Wordsworth and all those older gentlemen who would be selling essential oils on Instagram if they were alive today.

Write a mail to a college friend you haven’t spoken to for years. Review a product you purchased, a book you read, or a restaurant you visited. Share something original on a WhatsApp group. The truth is, modern life gives you lots of opportunities to write, but we have all gone into our shells.

You have the Internet and social media – you have access to a million potential readers – something that all the writers of yesteryears would have given their right arms for. Take writing back to what it is – a calming, meditative, personal experience. Let your fingers dance over the keyboard like a teenager who’s had their first LIIT.

Write everyday if you can, and be kind to yourself. Write everyday, and throw away what you wrote into the dustbin without reading it. If it’s something worth remembering, you will remember it. Our brains have a way of sieving through the shit and retaining the gold.

Death is the only real truth of life. Climate change, a global pandemic, Suneil Shetty releasing a new movie – those are the things that you must be worrying about. Not something as intrinsically beautiful as writing.

Write a story. A message. A joke. A note to yourself in the future.

Liberate yourself from the fear of writing.

Remember when the Internet was fun?

I do.

I first heard of the Internet from an uncle. As he changed from his formal trousers into a comfortable lungi, he told us – “You’ll be able to chat with anybody in the world”.

I processed the word ‘chat’ for the first time. “You’ll be able to see anybody and talk to them,” he prophesied, even if it would take the world a decade to fulfil his vision. ‘And no need for sending letters any more’. The last statement seemed a little dystopic to me, since my favourite holidays pastime was writing letters – to school friends, pen friends, competition post cards to Disney shows and to Readers Digest for their godawful bumper lottery.  

The internet first came into our lives surrounded with whispers of excitement. I remember being thrilled about getting my first email ID – a very embarrassing hriday_dilse@yahoomail.com – and watching along the years as the logo on my digital letterbox went from R (Reddiffmail) to Y (Yahoo Mail) to G (Gmail). Since my parents had made it their life’s purpose to rob me of any joy, the Internet was a secret, hidden indulgence.

Much of my early days on the internet were spent in talking to kind strangers. People who had no connection to me in real life, but bonded over cinema, sports or random news items. It was around the time that I began blogging for the first time, and discovered that I could write – when strangers expressed their appreciation for my blogs. It was a strange double life! I would spend my days and nights in shitty call centre jobs, and then rush to the Internet cafe for two hours in the evening, and type out a blogpost. The next day, I would return with another idea for a blogpost, and read through the comments for the previous one. It was not very different from our current social media obsession – only much slower, and a comment literally made my heart burst with joy.

And then came Orkut – the first time our digital and virtual worlds collided with each other. For all its kitsch silliness, Orkut helped me connect to my school crush. As we sent each other scraps, posts and ‘testis’, there was one common aspect to our lives on the Internet – we were all polite and friendly to each other. I don’t remember a single hate comment on my blog from the early years. Orkut did not have people spewing halahala at each other. The internet was a space where you could express your talent, meet strangers, or waste time on asinine hobbies. Like the time I spent as the admin of the ‘I Love Antara Mali’ community on Orkut. Or trying to discuss cricket matches as Sullen Gavaksar and Harsh Bhogle.

At school, the internet was spoken of in revolutionary terms. After the Y2K problem fizzled out, words like ‘e-commerce’ and ‘globalisation’ came into vogue. We were informed that e-commerce would transform the world in every way, and that borders would vanish. That the Internet would change the world in a beautiful way.

Around the beginning of the previous decade, the internet began to get ‘too real’. Everybody you knew in life – however briefly – entered into your corner of the internet. The Internet went from meeting and befriending strangers – to a place where your acquaintances could follow you digitally. And along with the acquaintances came their opinions. Friends began to take positions on opposite sides of ideological fences, and we began to follow people based on ideology, rather than familiarity. And somewhere down the line, the word ‘Internet’ was often followed with suffixes like ‘addiction’, ‘trolling’, and ‘depression’. 

As someone involved in standup comedy, movie reviews, and newspaper columns, I have to put myself out in front of the public nearly every day in some form or the other. I tried avoiding it for as long as possible, but the rise of social media as the ultimate tool of advertising cannot be refuted. While there definitely ARE nice people on the Internet, like the Parsis, they are vanishing. Every Friday, when I put up my review for Film Companion, I am reminded that I’m merely a cunt who likes poking fun of filmmakers. On standup videos, I am told that I spread hatred in society.

To expose myself to people on a daily basis, knowing fully well how toxic the internet is, took a toll on me. And that is when I realised something about the Internet. Your corner of the internet is like a tiny little garden. You need to tend to it; weed out the unwanted bits, and nurture the parts of the garden that make you happy. If left unattended, it is going to transform into an Amazonian jungle with vicious creatures lurking within. 

It reached a stage where I couldn’t remember what it was about the internet that I had originally fallen in love with. People appreciating my work, and giving me the love and confidence to pursue my passion as a profession. At the risk of sounding narcissistic, my favourite thing about the Internet was the kindness of strangers appreciating my work.

If this was a film, this moment was the scene where the hero has an epiphany! If my favourite thing about the Internet was the kindness of strangers, what was stopping me from being a kind stranger myself?

And so I decided to give back. These days, I lurk around the distant corners of the internet, thanking people whose work has given me joy. And it’s not the musical superstars or filmmakers I’m talking about. These are musicians with a few hundred followers on Spotify, YouTubers passionately making videos without bothering about riches. Bloggers who inspired me to take up writing, and humorists who made me look at the world differently. I went about thanking them personally. 

The one common reply I get from them (apart from ‘thanks’) was that it ‘made their day’. I’m on a spree now, and would recommend it to you as well.

If there is somebody’s work that gives you joy, send them a note. Especially if they are not already a superstar asking you to buy Daniel Wellington at 20% discount. If they are a troubled teenager typing away on a keyboard, or a musician creating work that are as far from the mainstream as Mithunda – send them a personal note of thanks.

In your own small way, you’ll be making their corner of the internet a little brighter.

(A sanitised version of this column appeared this week in The New Indian Express. If you live in Bangalore, I’d recommend you subscribe to the paper so you can read the column. If not, well, there’s always this blog, where you’ll find a spicier version of the same column!)

Kindly Shut the Fuck Up about Mental Health

Ever since Sushanth Singh Rajput’s demise, I have been getting a number of phone calls from forgotten college friends. ‘Long time, man’, they say, masking their concern with friendly nostalgia. Their concern stems from my being a comedian, and unmarried. 

I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I was as far from Bollywood as Chunkey Pandey to the White House. The gesture was sweet of course, but after the 7th call, it got infuriating! I was not depressed, but a few more of these calls would make me run up to the terrace. 

The suicide also sparked a new wave of hysteria on that dark, dystopian platform from hell – Twitter. Every time a celebrity commits suicide, the world spews out a set of cliched responses: 

(i) Gone too soon!

(ii) Please don’t take the extreme step. 

(iii) You can talk to me anytime you want.

As I said in my column for The New Indian Express last week, those are useless messages. The word ‘depression’ casts a long shadow – along with words like death, decay and destruction. The word ‘mental health’ conjures up images of Salman Khan in Tere Naam – Bhai’s hands chained to the walls, crying to the heavens for help. The discourse around depression cannot change as long as the vocabulary around it remains the same.

The real problem with suicide is the attitude we have against it – a condescending gaze. Even though we don’t expressly say it out, we look down upon people who consider or commit suicide. Look at the words used in these posts – strength, support, saving. It is clear that we look at suicide as a sign of weakness, of desperation.

But I have always had a completely different view of suicide. I have been understanding of it. If someone has decided to end their lives, it is because THEY felt they’d had enough. They probably could have fought it, they probably were too young to know that life evens itself along the way. But the choice was theirs to make.

It is one of the only real powers we have as human beings – to end it all. A wonderful Exit button that we all possess. The people who committed suicide were aware that they could have fought harder, they could have tried to overcome their odds. They were aware that a suicide would put a full stop to their story, and bring misery to their loved ones. And yet, they chose to do it.

The thing that pisses me off the most though, is the preachiness around suicide. Within days, everybody on my list became a mental health expert. ‘You can come speak to me’, the messages all read, ‘even though I don’t read books, and have NO experience with counseling. I spend my days consuming shallow shit that surfaces on the Internet and use it to form my fuck-all opinions, but sure, you can speak to me’.

No, Suresh. They cannot come speak to you. Counseling is supposed to be done by professionals, not well-meaning friends. People take courses and practice for years to earn the right to counsel people going through depression. It requires patience, therapy, and sometimes even medication. Depression is not a bad mood that can go away by speaking to a friend. It’s like saying ‘If you find a lump on your breast, come see me. I like tits’.

*

EVERYBODY IS A THERAPIST

And let’s assume the friend DOES come to speak to you about something they’re facing – what then? Are you equipped to deal with their issues? Do you possess a list of counselors to refer them to, just in case your magic-wand of a personality doesn’t solve their problem?

The truth is that most people who preach about depression on social media have a stock set of solutions they offer: 

a. Workout

b. Meditate

c. Inculcate Discipline

Every time I read such messages, I pray for a Corona vaccine to be invented, so that the lockdown is called off and Udipi Tiffin Centres open, so I can smash their faces into bowls of sambar vada. But since we all have ample time on our hands, let us dissect each of those points one after the other. 

1 – ‘You should workout’: 

This suggestion comes from a neanderthal understanding of a problem. That you can solve depression by using brute force. By huffing and puffing, by sweating it out in the gym. This suggestion is usually recommended by people who find it hard to grasp the concept that the mind and body are two different components. For their benefit, here’s a ready reckoner: 

These people believe that when you burn calories, the blood goes into your brain and destroys all the negative thoughts. It believes that when you lift weights, you are lifting a burden off your mind. 

How the fuck is working out going to help someone with depression? Sushanth Singh Rajput used to workout – in fact the last picture of him showed him stepping out of the gym. Fighting depression is not like fighting fat. You cannot wear boxing gloves to a chess match.

2 – ‘You should meditate’: 

This school of thought looks at the problem like a mythological story. A ritual where you sit and control your body and mind, and God appears in front of you and grants you a boon. Some sort of a miraculous, Vedic solution to mental health problems. 

There are reams of paper dedicated to dissecting meditation, but nobody defines it at its simplest. That it is an attempt to free the mind from thoughts. Temporarily. And that it is fucking hard to practice. That the thoughts will eventually return. That it works for some, but is not for everybody. And certainly not permanently.

But no, speak to a friend and they’d recommend you meditate. It worked for Agastya Muni, so why shouldn’t it work for you??

3 – ‘Inculcate Discipline

The third suggestion revolves around creating a daily schedule. Keep yourself busy, walk around, do stuff. They believe that by infusing into our lives a passion, a calling, some sort of love for everyday life – we can be free from our thoughts. Because your problems are like mosquitoes. They will vanish when they notice you’re busy.

What people don’t understand is that people like Sushant Singh Rajput, Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain – were globetrotting superstars. They had schedules, and managers and assistants to take care of every minute of their waking time. They had timelines and discipline and schedules. And it didn’t make a rat’s ass of a difference.

*

Depression is a difficult subject to broach, let alone discuss with someone. Depression doesn’t come tallied like a Balance Sheet – with symptoms, causes and effects. People who go through it might not have fully grasped what they’re going through in the first place. 

There are experts around the world who have been trying to study depression for decades, but cannot predict patterns with certainty. The only known methods of dealing with depression in the world right now are counseling, therapy and medication.

And guess what? You’re not equipped to help with any of those solutions. Cliched as it may sound, depression really is a state of that person’s mind. It is not necessarily brought about by a lack of money, friends, fitness or routine.

If you’re really concerned, point your friends to counselors. Finding the right counselor is tougher than finding a girlfriend on Tinder in Puttaparthi. It involves making a number of appointments, and several hits and misses. If you really want to help, make that search for your friends easier – direct them to the right people.

But till then, for the love of god, kindly shut the fuck up about mental health!

***

Stop Assigning Tasks to Everyone You Meet!

Till a few years ago, I was what could be described as ‘gregarious’. I liked stepping out, meeting new people, making friends and hanging out with said friends.

But over the last few years, I have become increasingly hesitant to step out of my house. The prospect of having to meet people seems daunting. It’s a little ironic that this coincides with the time I decided to become a writer and stand-up comedian. But the reason is a very specific one. Ladies and Gentlemen, kindly brace yourself for the kind of rants you hear from old men who reach the bars early.

Every generation has a different set of societal pressures. A hundred years ago, there was pressure to work in one’s ancestral property to provide food. A few decades ago, the pressure was to get married, have kids, and produce mediocre progeny to completely unnecessary dynasties. In today’s times, it’s a different kind of pressure.

The pressure of meeting people who randomly meet you, assign tasks to you, and vanish. That’s the reason I detest meeting people these days. Nearly every person you meet assigns some or the other task to you, whether you know them or not. It’s a rampant, vile practice that nobody speaks about. Everybody you meet is adding to a gigantic, imaginary To-do list in your head.

These task-assigners come in various shapes, sizes and categories.

THE WOKE PEOPLE

Most people assume that performing comedy in front of right-wing rogues is the toughest. Surprisingly, right-wingers do possess a sense of humour. The real problem are the left-wing, woke people. They have woken so much out of their slumber that any joke that doesn’t fit their moral text book needs to be put to sleep. In fact, apart from woke people, the only more dangerous place to tell a joke is in front of a pride of lions in the Gir forest! For a woke person, there is no perfect intellectual. The idea of a perfect woke person is a constantly shifting flagpole that is humanly impossible to adhere to.

I had the rare misfortune to host an Open Mic at a vegan restaurant in the city. The kind where rich folks wear kurtas and sit on mats in order to remain ‘grounded to their roots’. Vegans are the most intolerable among the woke-folks. Of course, people are free to make their own dietary choices, but it’s the sanctimonious ‘I’m doing it for the planet’ tone that is intolerable.

I mean, Gandhi fasted for years and he’s called a chutiya on Twitter. But Neha wants to be respected because she said ‘No’ to paneer! Give me a fucking break!

I was performing a silly joke about Shah Jahan and how he cut off the workers’ hands because the Question Mark wasn’t used in Indian languages in the 16th century. Right in the middle of a joke, I got interrupted by an audience member. I called her out for interrupting me in the middle of a joke, and we spoke after the show.
‘That joke is able-ist’, she said.
‘How?’
‘Well, it is the perspective of an able-bodied person who is mocking people without hands’.

Have you ever had a moment when as an atheist, you begin to believe that God exists? That God created somebody this stupid only to make their ancestors pay for ghastly crimes? It was one of those moments.

‘You do know that it’s a myth, right? There isn’t really enough evidence to prove that Shah Jahan actually cut off people’s hands after they built the Taj Mahal’.
She gave me the look I used to give my Maths teachers in school.
‘Even so, that joke is able-ist. You are perpetuating a violent idea through your joke’.
‘Are you telling me people are going to listen to that joke and cut off other people’s hands?’
‘…Ahem, maybe you should choose to read up on Disability Studies, and you wouldn’t be so insensitive in your jokes’.
‘Why don’t you tell me what the studies say?’
‘I’m sorry, it’s not my responsibility to educate you about the world’.

That’s the thing about woke people. They are constantly dropping names on Social Media. You should read this. Maybe watch that. For you see, I’m an educated person willing to debate my views on social media for hours, but I do not possess the skills to summarise what I have learnt in a couple of sentences.

In that sense, I like that right-wing folks do not assign any task to you. They are absolutely sure of their views. If you disagree, you can go fuck yourself. Irrespective of whether you agree with their opinions, it is hard not to be impressed by the confidence. But debate with a woke person, and you will be tasked with reading three books, a couple of essays on EPW, and four academic papers on JStor before you’re worthy of having an argument!

THE RECOMMENDERS

If the woke-walkers are an army of brain-dead people marching at you while echoing each other’s opinions, they can only be defeated by their worthy opponents – the Recommenders.

These are people who have watched a series or film and can’t stop fucking raving about it. ‘OMG!!! YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THAT SERIES? Are you serious? You’re a critic. You SHOULD watch it. MUST. OUGHT TO. BETTER WATCH IT’.

If the recommenders are an army marching, they are commanded by seniors in their own army. The recommending generals who make recommending a competitive game of tennis.

‘Have you watched Better Call Saul?’
‘No, I haven’t. But OMG, have you watched Fargo?’
‘No, I haven’t. But I’ve watched The Wire. Have you?’
‘No. I haven’t’.
‘You MUST watch it. It’s one of those shows that will blow your mind’.

This game has no rules, and no winner. It can go on for a few minutes, hours, or the entire night. But the recommenders are also guilty of another crime. If you ask them to describe the show, they mostly refuse. ‘I can’t describe it. I’ll do a shoddy job. You MUST watch it’.

What they’re essentially saying is that they have the time and resources to watch a show that ran for an entire decade, but cannot be bothered to indulge you in a two-minute summary. Because THAT would require some skills and intelligence.
‘You just watch it. It will blow your mind’.
Everything seems to blow the minds of recommenders. It is a mind or a school in Pakistan? To get blown every Friday??

THE NUMBER SHARERS

The third in the list are those that immediately want to exchange numbers after meeting you.

I have met people at parties with whom the only commonality I shared was to belong to the same species. ‘Give me your number, I’ll give you mine’. I thought this was true only in case of pretty women, but apparently, it’s a rampant social disease.

Despite the fact that it takes 2 seconds to find someone one by searching on social media. ‘Give me your number, I’ll call you’, they say. And then stare at you till you take out your phone. ‘Unlock your phone. Use the swiping pattern. Let me see it so I can theoretically know everything about your life. Unlock your phone RIGHT NOW and save my number. Or I’m going to stare at you till you drop dead’.

The number-sharers are not easily pleased though. Some of them will take out their phones and give you a call. ‘I called you’, they’ll say. ‘That’s my number. Save it’. Trapped like a teenager in Shakti Kapoor’s bedroom, you have no option but to nod.
‘Give me a call when you’re in this locality the next time’.
Sure.
‘And let me know if you have any shows coming up, man. Just ping me on WhatsApp or something’.
Sure.
‘And oh, have you watched this series…?’

THE WRITERS

As a culture, we have strange ideas of writing and writers. When I tell people that I’m a writer, the first question I get is ‘What books have you written?’. It is hard for people to wrap their heads around the fact that there are other types of writers than authors.

We have made writing so performative, so cliched – that an entire generation of youngsters is more comfortable solving complex mathematical equations to arrive at one common answer, than write a short essay that displays their uniqueness. But even though I belong to the camp of writers myself, writers are one of the worst committers of the crime of assigning tasks.

‘Hey, can you read what I’ve written? Do let me know what you thought’.
No hello, no introduction. No cursory line of courtesy asking if I would be interested to read their work. Forget niceties, there is no context to what was sent – no summary, no one-para description of the content within. I am supposed to open the document and plunge into ‘EXT. DAY. SCENE 1 – A dusty Jeep arrives outside the village. We see a child inside the Jeep, with a snake around its neck’.

I have had one dude send me his script over 5 long WhatsApp messages. Another dude met me at a party after a few years and cribbed about me not giving him feedback. That’s the thing about writers – while their wallets are thin, their egos are massive. If you do not reply to their messages, they take it as a personal insult. ‘Since you are a professional writer’, the dude would say to me in the balcony as we passed joints, ‘I expected you to respond professionally’.

I think the problem lies in the fact that writing is considered an art. And because it’s considered an art, people don’t realise that to review it is actual work.

THE FILMMAKERS

I review movies professionally, and as a reason I get sent at least 20 to 30 videos every week. Most of them have no introduction, or summary, or any sort of hint about what the video might contain. Just thrown my way with the cursory message that says, Hey, check this out.

I understand that film making is a tough business. But how do you expect to be taken seriously when you don’t even follow the basic rules of professionalism? The common message attached to the video links go something like Hey, the video is just about 5 minutes so please watch it. Sure, it might take about 5 minutes to watch your video. But it will take me about 30 minutes to analyze it. And then another 30 minutes to put it in words. And then some more time to find you on social media and reply to your message and then discuss it with you.

So in essence, you are asking me to work for 3 hours. For free. Without even the basic modicum of courtesy. People think that it is some sort of a joyful activity to review films. But it is actual work. Imagine if you were a software engineer working. And I suddenly drop in at your desk and say, Hey, can you write this code for me, please? People do not even take permission. Do not even drop in a line that says, Hey, do you mind having a look? Do you have a few minutes free?

And if you do not respond to their messages, they come back and check in a weeks time. Like it was a fucking assignment to begin with. And when you fail to respond to their unprofessional messages, they get pissed off.

Which gives rise to the question. What is the professional way to ask somebody to review your work?

I don’t know what are the industry guidelines but I personally would like it if you first asked me if I would be interested to check out your work. And be ready to accept a ‘No’ if I’m busy. The next step would be to send a short summary along with the link. And then leave it for me to decide if I want to have a look or no. Because it’s a favour I’m doing you. It’s not a contract. I’m not getting paid.

*

So that was it. That was my rant. If you belong to any of the above categories, please stop assigning tasks to everybody around you. We live in tough times as it is.

Thank you for reading. Now please go to the comment section and tell me what you thought of my article. Right now!!

Irrfan

I have always hated questions that begin with ‘What is your favourite __________’

Favourite film/band/cricketer – these questions expect you to do a quick scan of your entire life and point to ONE definitive answer. It is such a rude thing to do – to make the person undergo the unwanted hassle of scrutinizing all their memories because you want a one-word answer that you will judge them for. It is no surprise that I scored the lowest CAT score among all the human beings I know of.

When Irrfan Khan passed away, I got a number of requests from people asking me to write about him. At first, I was hesitant. I had read a number of articles, and they all sounded like eulogies. Emotional outpourings whose every paragraph reminded you that he was no more. But that’s the thing about cinema – it keeps you immortal. It’s the reason Samba is known today, it’s the reason Tuffy the Dog still resonates with people.

*

At the risk of sounding heartless, I did not feel a personal loss when Irrfan passed away. I do not feel a personal connection with people I know in real life, so I’d be lying to say I felt that connection with Irrfan the actor. In fact, I do not feel a personal connection with anybody in cinema. This works as a double-edged sword when I have to review films. On one hand, it gives me an impartial view of the film. On the other hand, I feel handicapped when I think that I will never be as moved, as touched as other viewers of cinema. But let’s talk about Irrfan.

For a lot of Indians, the journey with Irrfan began much before they knew who he was. I had watched films like Ek Doctor Ki Maut, Karamati Coat and Kasoor, without knowing of Irrfan, or the magic he would go on to create on screen. In Chandrakanta the Doordarshan show with no visible ending – he played a set of twins that were unintentionally hilarious. I first noticed him in the criminally underrated Haasil. As a teenager, I would read Kaveree Bamzai’s reviews in India Today, and that is where I saw his name mentioned for the first time. Since then, I have watched nearly every Irrfan movie that has released.

While the entire nation might be mourning his demise, the truth is that most of his films played to empty halls. In spite of all the films he made by selling his soul out, Irrfan was quickly branded as an ‘off-beat’ actor. ‘I don’t want to think in a movie hall, yaar’, a friend of mine would say when I invited her to watch The Lunchbox. She chose to watch Phata Poster Nikla Hero instead. This is probably the reason why Irrfan had to sign a number of shoddy mainstream films. So that at least a fraction of those audiences would choose to explore the films that he truly cared about.

And boy, did he sign many of those shoddy films! Yours Truly had the pleasure of watching most of them in a cinema hall, using money earned through shitty call-center jobs. Charas: A Joint Effort, where he is saddled between Jimmy Shergill and Uday Chopra. Thank You, where he is cast alongside Akshay Kumar and Sonam Kapoor. And the string of blatantly copied Hollywood films – Chocolate, Footpath, The Killer, and Rog, among many others. Unfortunately, Irrfan rose to stardom in the 2000s, a decade notorious for blatantly copying movies from the West without even an iota of dignity or acknowledgment to the original makers.

Another often ignored aspect of Irrfan’s relatability were the advertisements he chose to do. Indian advertisements are minor soap operas – with families, drama and conflicts thrown in as 30-second vignettes. It is all over the top and dramatic. And there, Irrfan knew that to stand out, he had to look the viewers in the eyes, to simply talk to them. Whether it was the Hutch ka Chhota Recharge or Syska LED, most Irrfan Khan advertisements involved him staring directly at the viewers – making a point. He also shot a spoof with AIB when the entire film industry was shunning them, perhaps acknowledging that the Internet was no more the younger brother of the large screen. While his acting was nearly flawless, Irrfan certainly knew a thing or two about relating to his audiences.

And it wasn’t all just for the camera. In a country where the biggest stars are Muslim, Irrfan was the only Khan who called out maulvis on live television for their dogmatic views of the world. Ballsy, some would say. But what can possibly deter a person after he’s signed a film involving Sonam Kapoor and Bobby Deol?

*

Every time I sit down to discuss, write, or critique acting, I am reminded of a quote by Naseeruddin Shah. Shah says that most audiences do not have opinions on cinematography, production design, or background score. But every single viewer, whether they have had any experience with the form, can tell if the acting is good or bad. There is something about the trade that connects to people directly, that they instinctively know if the acting is good or bad.

Difficult as it is to gauge the art of acting for a non-actor like me, I shall attempt it nonetheless. While much has been written about Irrfan’s acting abilities, not enough has been said about his chameleon-like ability to adapt. On the surface, the primary reason why he stood out among his peers was the realism in his portrayals. In a world where everybody was on all the time at full blast, Irrfan would slip in a subtle 67-off-83-balls sort of innings to steady the ship. He was a ray of realism in the world of hyperbole. Whether it was the modulation of his voice, or the use of his eyes, or physical mannerisms.

But scratch the surface, and you’ll find that Irrfan was also smart at another level. He knew how to adapt to the film he was working in. He knew how to amp it up in commercial cinema. Watch for example Hindi Medium, Piku, and Madari – and you’ll find him dishing out the kind of heroic acting that mainstream Bollywood needs. One can only suspect it came from a deep understanding of markets, audiences and genres. To play subtle when needed, and unabashedly amp it up at other times. It is something other actors who are usually termed ‘underrated’ (Akshaye Khanna) have failed to do over decades. That was perhaps Irrfan Khan’s biggest strength. While everybody in the industry was trying to either fit in, or stand out – he had mastered the art of standing out even while fitting in.

When I re-watch his films, it is this trait of his that distinctly stands out. For an actor trained in acting and theater, he steals the thunder from established movie stars. Watch Piku, and you will find him effortlessly slaughter Amitabh Bachchan – the biggest legend in Indian cinema, and Deepika Padukone – the biggest female actor of the time. Watch Life in a Metro, and you’ll find him overshadowing an otherwise talented cast of Kay Kay Menon, Konkona Sen Sharma and Sharman Joshi. In Haider, where Vishal Bharadwaj miraculously managed to extract a decent performance from Shahid Kapoor, it is Irrfan’s cameo that kicks ass.

Perhaps he always thought of himself as the outsider. That must be the reason why his best roles were those of outsiders. The ghost in Haider, the older bachelor in Life in a Metro, the exasperated CBI officer in Talvar, the cheating right-hand in Maqbool, the immigrant in The Namesake, or the lonely widower in The Lunchbox (read my review of the film here)

Of course, there will be a number of regrets over the coming years. That the decade that he most flourished in was the decade of massive plagiarism. That he had to act in films that were rip-offs of legendary Hollywood films. Or that he never got to work with filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akthar and Dibakar Banerjee. Or that he was just beginning to come into his own, to form a legacy that would live on for decades.

When he crossed the seas to Hollywood, he brought a certain dignity to his roles. For years, actors like Naseeruddin Shah, Anupam Kher, Om Puri and Aishwarya Rai had essayed roles in Hollywood. But they seemed ill at ease. Brown faces that sat uncomfortably among the rest. But when Irrfan took up roles in Hollywood films, he upped the game. Instead of masking his hard ‘r’s and ‘t’s with a fake accent, he let them stay, to show his uniqueness.

Irrfan Khan had a way of gobbling up everybody and everything else around him. Films lit up when he arrived on screen, and dimmed out when he left. He could stand tall among legends, and reduce them to caricatures.

Haunting. Perhaps that’s the ideal word to describe his screen presence. A feeling that stayed with you when you went home after watching a film. So you wanted to watch the trailer of the film once more before jacking off to sleep. In a country that sees more than 2000 releases over 365 days, Irrfan Khan had a way of creeping into the back of your mind and staying there for years.

Haunting.

How ‘Tiger King’ manipulates you

Nobody makes documentaries like them Americans.

Even for a person who grew up on David Attenborough’s brand of sober glorification of the world, I have to give it to the Americans. The age of neutral, balanced documentaries is long gone. Today, we need our documentaries to look and feel like thrillers with cliffhangers.

Tiger King – the documentary on Netflix is classic Americana. Crazy people with crazy pursuits, everybody believing they are on the right path. A fascination for the East, while being deeply entrenched in the beliefs of the West.

But that’s the thing about documentaries. On the surface, you are watching real facts. Real people, real places, real events. But the truth is merely an illusion. Sprinkle some editing and background music, and it is possible to depict Hitler as an unassuming painter. Americans make their documentaries like films. And Joe Exotic is the hero. A second generation immigrant fighting the odds against a reputed large corporation (PeTA). An underdog punching above his weight.

But for a protagonist to work, one needs an antagonist. And that is the reason the show props up Carole Baskin as his nemesis. In fact, the show spends an entire episode – Episode 3 – in convincing you that she is the embodiment of all that’s evil in the world.

Just from the point of view of the craft of documentary filmmaking, the episode is wonderful. To claim that a person killed her husband and fed him to tigers sounds like the story narrated by a grandmother on LSD. And yet, the documentary does it successfully. It shores up a number of people to buttress its claim. The ex-husband’s secretary, his former family, competitors like Doc Antle, and Joe Exotic himself. And yet, the only person whose opinion should matter – the police officer in charge of the area at the time of the crime – is slipped in innocuously, and as it turns out, without much significance. In fact, by the end of the episode, you won’t be blamed for firmly believing that Carole Baskin killer her husband and fed him to the tigers. And that is one of the documentary’s great strengths.

By the fourth episode, you are already sympathising with Joe Exotic. He is portrayed as the simple-minded buffoon. A bumbling, emotional idiot who lives in such a make-believe world that facts and repercussions are but mere clouds that can vanish on a good day.

But look closely at the things that Joe Exotic is shown to have done through the documentary. He manipulated three men into falling in love with him. One of them was admittedly straight and was driven to commit suicide on camera. He shot and killed animals and buried them in his backyard. He committed arson on his own premises and ruined the career of his producer. And paid a man to commit murder. And yet, the show’s great victory is in the sympathy it stirs up in the eyes of viewers.

Which then brings us to the topic of the tigers on the show. Here’s the thing – the show doesn’t really give a fuck about the tigers. Except for the cursory text at the end of every documentary, it really does nothing to help their cause. The show does exactly what Jeff Lowe does through the series – pimps the tigers out for attention and drama.

As we speak, there is a wave of hatred spewing against Carole Baskin. People are petitioning for him to be forgiven and the POTUS -himself the host and producer of a reality TV show and subject of a number of documentaries – has promised to ‘look into it’.

And that is how Tiger King manipulates your mind!

Fuck the Left, Fuck the Right!

I stopped blogging about politics in 2016.

As a frantic consumer of news and a student of journalism, I was disheartened by the clear political slants in news organisations. It seemed unfair and unethical to my younger self. I felt cheated; like someone had taken my deepest beliefs and turned them into a David Dhawanian farce.

But five years down the line, I have reconciled to the future of mainstream news. I understand that news organisations will no more position themselves as beacons of neutrality. It took me some time, but I have made my peace with it. Over the last few years, I steered clear of journalism and politics, choosing instead to pursue a career in comedy, satire and stand-up – a field that is more honest and neutral than actual news portals of today.

The last few years have also taught me something else. That both the Left and the Right in India are run by myopic nutjobs.

To get a better idea of my context, you need to know a little more about my life. I spent the first 15 years of my life growing up in a conservative, god-fearing environment. My school was a gurukul-ashram masquerading as a modern educational institute. Our uniform comprised of a white shirt and white trouser; no footwear or ties. The day began and ended by chanting prayers, shlokas and vedas. My childhood aims (and I am not exaggerating here) were: 

  1. Becoming a Bhajan singer 
  2. Doing an MBA and then a PhD in Mahabharata!
  3. Joining the university band and spending my entire life spreading the message of god. 

While it might seem laughable today, these were the only things I could imagine back then. My parents trusted God more than common sense, and when I was kicked out of my school, my mother left me in Whitefield, Bangalore to ‘fend for myself’. I was 15, and brought back home by a kind Odiya couple who took pity on me. That was my upbringing. One in which there was no space for logic or debate. 

It was the kind of upbringing in which watching cricket was frowned upon. My Sportstar and Cricket Talk magazines – a treasure trove worthy of documentation today – were thrown away or burnt in front of my eyes. Novels (even harmless ones like Sherlock Holmes and Hardy Boys) were frowned upon. Watching cricket was considered a waste of time. 

I hadn’t entered a cinema till 2002. 

It is perhaps an act of rebellion that I am involved in all of the above fields today. I am an aspiring novelist, a humour column writer for The New Indian Express, a standup comedian, and a film critic. Perhaps in my own way, I’m living my life defying the rules that were imposed on me as a child. But that was my upbringing till I said ‘Fuck it!’ and cut off my connection with my parents. 

I spent the next ten years in a Leftist environment. I had been working as a copywriter in an ad agency for nearly three years, and I saw no future for myself in that field. You know how you sometimes know that you’re terrible at a job, and yet can do nothing about it? 

I had gotten into Advertising because I was smitten by the glossy papers of Brand Equity in The Economic Times. I liked reading articles by Santhosh Desai, and was fascinated by the ad campaigns initiated by Prasoon Joshi. My boss at the agency – the greatest boss I’ve worked under – remains a friend to this day, and continues to advise me on matters of life. 

But it took me a year to realise that I was miserable at the job. I realised I could come up with witty lines when there was no demand (or need) for them. But when it came to actual brands and real targets, my mind froze! I spoke to a friend of mine and he offered me his place to stay for a few days. One thing led to the other, and I joined the Journalism course in a Central University. 

In the beginning, it was Utopia. Suddenly, all the skills I’d considered to be of no value actually turned out to be productive. My ability to write, to convey my deepest feelings, to speak freely on topics, to take a stance on things that felt unfair – these were all credit points in my course. 

It took me but a few months to develop a God Complex. I graduated from the course with a specialisation in Print Journalism and New Media. Around that time, my blog took off in a big way, and I gained the confidence to pursue a career in writing. I spent a year and a half working as a teacher in Kurnool, and then joined the University again to pursue an MPhil. 

Unbeknownst to me, I was getting sucked into a Leftist environment. 

It is easy to notice the telltale signs of a Right-wing environment. There is brazen devotion to the country, to God, and an overt pride in one’s beliefs and practices. It is much harder to discern recognise the signs of being drowned in a Leftist environment. 

For one, there is more self-awareness. On the surface, you’re doing it under the garb of enlightenment. Look at the posts of any Leftist, and the first thing that strikes you is the sanctimonious tone. Every post, every message is coated in humility, a sense of humour, a self-aware recognition of one’s privilege. 

But scratch the surface, and you’ll find it is the same shit. A myopic view of the world. A hatred that has seeped so deep into their soul that anything pertaining to the nation, or religion has to be met with stiff opposition. 

Dig deeper, and you’ll find a deep-rooted bias towards Islam. A patronising bias that stems from the need to protect the seemingly ‘voiceless’ and ‘downtrodden’. A bias that has shut them up to any criticism. You’ll also find a condescending outlook towards anybody that practices religion. A seemingly neutral, polite voice that is too blind to see its own bias. 

I spent 10 years amidst University folks, pandering to their world-view. Agreeing to their opinions because I wanted to fit in. It was then that I noticed a few cracks in this seemingly perfect marble palace. 

When I would crack a joke at the Right-wingers, I was met with applause. But when I cracked a joke on left-wingers, I was met with a frozen silence. A jab at Hindutva would get me action on the top of a terrace. But a joke on Islam would get me blocked across all platforms by the same girl. 

Thankfully, Stand-up Comedy entered my life to rescue me from this condition. Around 2016, I began to perform professionally. Standup comedy was a much more democratic field. It consisted of engineers, journalists, poets, social outcasts, retired professionals, NRIs, teenagers who refused to fit in at their schools – in spite of a small number, the diversity in stand-up was fascinating. 

Stand-up Comedy is democratic in another way. There is no clear political slant. The emphasis is on making a point, on delivering a laugh. In the beginning, I was shocked to find comedians have a Right-Wing slant one day, and a Left-wing slant the next day. Indoctrinated as I was in steel-cage ideologies, my mind’s first response was ‘Ha! Hypocrite!!’. It took me a while to understand that Standup Comedy was more journalistic than the journalism followed in our country. There was an emphasis on facts, and an audience that could laugh at themselves. 

The last few years have also taught me something more important. 

That the Left-wing and Right-wing actually have more in common than you think. While they may seem to occupy opposite ends of the spectrum, they share more in common than they differ. 

They both depend on 100% loyalty to their ideology. You cannot flirt with the other side, for you stand to lose your friends and peers on this side. While the tone, grammar and subtlety might differ, they are both toxic schools of thought that thrive on trolling – the cheapest of all human behaviour in the modern, digital world. 

Take recent instances for example. Right Wingers bay for the blood of Muslims on Twitter on a daily basis. And if you thought the Left was more graceful, you should check out how they celebrated Boris Johnson contracted the Coronavirus. Hundreds of tweets wished he’d die of the disease that is killing thousands of people around the world. 

And you know what’s the fucked up part? There really isn’t any Right or Left wing in the truest sense. The most common perception of the difference between the two is on ideological grounds. But in India, every party doles out subsidies and benefits to people. If you go purely by economic policies over the last 20 years, it’ll be hard to tell the UPA governments from the NDA governments. 

Which means that in India, the only line of difference is Religion. In their own way, the two sides have legitimised Religion in our everyday consciousness. And yet they are both too stupid to recognise that they’re both idiots. 

This is something that has rankled me for long. How come there hasn’t been a truly Centrist voice in India? And by Centrist, I don’t mean the hollow, spineless political model of the Indian National Congress. I mean an ideology that gives you the freedom to choose what you want from either the Right or the Left. 

An ideology that allows you to appreciate the other side, and criticise your own side. Is it too Utopian an idea to imagine in 2020? I think not. 

And that, Dear Reader, shall be the pursuit of this blog going forward. And my rally cry shall remain the headline of this article. One that needs to be ingrained into your consciousness if you wish to remain sane in the world of social media and 24/7 news channels – Fuck the Left, Fuck the Right! 

How did we reach here?

Something about hometowns makes you want to write.

It isn’t the same with cities we choose to settle in. It takes months, often years or decades – to belong. And the reason for our moving wasn’t always to create great art, or document our priceless thoughts. It was to earn organic brown bread.

But as I was surfing through my hometown on a white Activa, my bloodstream flush with bhang and bhog and the last remaining assets of Vijay Mallya, I noticed something peculiar. The Odisha government had put up a huge hoarding of large, willful defaulters. Names along with their organisation and the amount defaulted. For some reason, it brought a smile to my face. These willful defaulters had done me no harm. And yet, I seemed to gloat in their public humiliation.

Won’t it be wonderful if this was done all over the country, I thought. When I reached home, I found that the Yogi government in UP has put up names of anti-CAA protesters on large hoardings in Lucknow.

Those who had protested against the CAA have their names, photograph and addresses in large, bold letters for everybody to read. Not after a court ruling or arrest warrant, but because they protested. I mean, what the fuck? Why not just go full Taliban, then? Come in blue robes and execute people on open streets already.

What is even more shocking is that nearly 40 people died in the riots that took place last week. And yet, it doesn’t seem to affect us. Other news items that have taken over – India playing Australia in the Women’s World Cup finals, Yes Bank putting the ‘No’ in nosediving. The annual hollow celebration of Women’s Day so brands and business conglomerates can make more money. And Coronavirus.

The death of 40 people a little over a week ago seems to have vanished from our memories.

But how did we reach here? A decade ago, as a Journalism student, we were asked to track and collate news items. I remember if there was a riot or a death caused by mob violence, it would remain in the news cycles for at least a week. Rewind the clock further back to 20 years as a school student. When the Gujarat riots occurred, news and opinions ran for nearly two weeks. The photograph of the tailor who’d lost his shop troubled me at night. And yet, the death of 40 people doesn’t seem to bother us anymore.

How did we reach here?

I remember when Yogi Adityanath was appointed as the Chief Minister. I found it absurd and shocking. This was a person who had openly instigated violence and riots. Someone who had promised to install statues of gods and goddesses in mosques. Someone who dressed in saffron robes and was the head-priest in a temple. Imagine if a bearded, topi-wearing mullah asshole became the Chief Minister of one of India’s states. We would all collectively lose our minds. But nobody batted an eyelid when Yogi was made the Chief Minister. ‘‘Yogi’ is just a name, man’, one of my friends said. Sure! And diarrhea is just over-processed food! But we didn’t reach here due to Yogi Adityanath.

The journey began years ago, when terms like ‘Anti-national’ and ‘Presstitude’ were formed. Back then, the words seemed like idiotic creations of Twitter trolls. But what we failed to notice was that these were ways to undermine any criticism against the government. How do you ridicule the credibility of criticism? Completely rob the critic of any ethics first. These terms slowly became mainstream, spreading into the country’s veins like slow-acting heroin.

The journey began years ago when we realised we needed a Prime Minister with good oratory skills. Look at the US, man! Have you seen their Presidential debates? It looks professional, man. Not like our sad, fucking debates. We lost the plot when we as a nation decided that oratory skills featured among the key skills required by the most powerful man in our country. It’s another matter that the same man stopped giving Press Conferences or interviews shortly after coming to power. It also didn’t matter to us that there wasn’t anybody of significance in the Cabinet. With Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj gone, the government is a throwback to 90s cricket when an entire team of nobodys worked around Sachin Tendulkar.

The journey began when we stopped digging deeper; when we stopped expecting more from our leaders. What option do we have, yaar? Would you rather want Congress in power? Rahul Gandhi? That clowning glory of embarassment? When instead of looking for higher and more, we started comparing our future with the most hollow, shallow, ass-licking dementor of our past – the Congress party.

*

But it is foolish to only blame the Right-wing for this mess. Like they say in hinterlands, ek wing se taali nahi bajti. The Left in India is also responsible for the mess that we are in.

The Indian Left is the most obtuse, idiotic assortment of half-ass intellectuals there is in the world. The group of people who go by the generic tag of the ‘Indian Left’ have no ideology or common ground. While some are staunch atheists, the others openly wear their Muslim identity on their sleeves. That the two stances are at odds with each other doesn’t seem to bother anyone. It is celebrated as ‘diversity’.

The Indian Left is so bereft of ideas and leadership that Swara Bhaskar is now the face of the Left. Really? Swara Bhaskar?? Of all the people you could have chosen to represent you – you chose this actress whom nobody knows. Whose body of work – Ranjhana and Veere di Wedding – is an embarrassment to cinema and taste?

The Indian Left is so bereft of ideas that there is practically no difference between a Congress politician and a Leftist public intellectual. That you could be forgiven for confusing a Congress political scion with a Leftist journalist who spent their entire careers with their tongues on the rectums of politicians.

But the biggest blow by the Indian Left to Indian citizenry is to blow away their credibility. To weaken their own words by crying wolf over stupid issues, by indulging in hyperbole and reducing the impact of their own words. When liberals use words like ‘fascist’ loosely, they are doing two very important things.

  1. They are insulting the memory and lives of people who went through actual fascism. By randomly throwing comparisons between Modi and Hitler, you are selfishly using the death of millions of people to make a political point on Twitter. No matter what Modi does, it will never be the same as putting millions of Jews in Auschwitz.

2. The second and far bigger danger is that of desensitisation. When you use words like ‘Dictator’ and ‘mass-murderer’ loosely, you’re essentially reducing the impact of the words. Gradually, people become immune and desensitised to the words. To a point where nothing seems scary or dystopian enough. It is something even a kid playing Trump cards will tell you – don’t use up your Trump cards in the beginning, for you’ll have nothing else to show later.

It is something that can be seen in public political discourse today. When liberals use terms like ‘Hitler’ or ‘Fascist’ – the words don’t mean anything anymore. The words have been de-fanged, the public have become numb to such statements. Today, no matter what Indian Liberals say, they will never be taken seriously. For all its intellectual heft, the Indian Left has a brain with a cleft.

*

So, where was I all along?

For the last four years, I was wearing noise-cancellation earphones. I didn’t bother putting my opinion out. On one hand, I was unsure if it would make any difference. On the other hand, I constantly wondered which side of the debate I was feeding into.

Both the Left and the Right in India comprise of fuckwits who cannot see beyond their own bigotry and ideological myopia. To truly stay sane in India, one must realise that Buddha was right all those hundreds of years ago – Follow the Middle Path. Fuck the Right, Fuck the Left.

It took me all this time to realise that there is no real difference between the Left and the Right in India. They are both petty, ideologically hollow echo-chambers that consider themselves superior than the other.

*

And that is how, dear friends, we reached this point in our nation’s history. When the Right is too complacent to care. And members of the Left are bumping into each while sleepwalking.

Realistic, achievable New Year Resolutions for all

(A saner, sober version of this blog appeared in The New Indian Express Jan 1st, 2020 in my column ‘Urban Bourbon’. If you live in Bangalore, do remember to pick up the Tuesday edition of the paper. This is the blog version, and is meant to be cruder. Thank you!)

*

Viewed objectively, a New Year is just another revolution by Dharti Mata around Surya Devta. It is a run-of-the-mill (or a circle-around-the-sun) matter. But if you looked at the celebrations, you’d assume humans discovered another planet to fuck over.

New Years is a day when everybody makes money. Expensive restaurants, liquor shops, Babas who promise salvation while the rest of the world is engaging in carnal karma. Personally, New Years has always been a bit of a mixed bag.

It is also true that everybody spends money on the day. I have been to those New Year Bashes, where people fight for alcohol like the world is ending. Food is ‘unlimited’, and there’s always that one asshole who decides to show everybody what he’s consumed all night. As sense dawned on me, I chose to spend the night with a wide vista of substances inside me.

But it is only when we wake up the next day that we realise that the happiness and joy were temporary. That social media is still annoying as fuck; that life is still a long struggle against colleagues, children and parents.

And resolutions are responsible for this disillusionment.

The concept of New Year resolutions began with Babylonians who kept promises to please the gods. While priests in our lands were cursing each other and everybody else in sight, the priests in Babylon followed a peculiar custom. On the day the new year began, the king stood in front of the gods without jewelry and clothes. The priest would then slap the king till he shed tears, to prove the gods’ superiority. Clearly, the need to participate in a social custom on New Years existed even back then!

But somewhere down the line, resolutions stopped being about promises to god but to oneself. And that is where things begin to get murky. It is easier to expect things from gods, but to expect things from ourselves is taxing on the soul.

Apparently the most common resolution is to lose weight, followed by saving money and eating healthy. I have no idea how the survey was conducted, but it turns out that only 8% of Americans who made resolutions went on to achieve them. This is clearly a crisis and Yours Truly has found a solution.

The trick to achieving New Year resolutions is to set a really low bar. To set realistic, achievable resolutions that appeal to the mind and body, without being taxing on the soul.

And this is where I speak from personal experience. Every year, my top resolution is not to kill anybody. I know it sounds easy, but it requires some resolve and patience.

Haven’t you ever been watching a film only to find a kid howl like a feral wolf? Didn’t you fantasize about stuffing popcorn into the evil child’s mouth? Or how about the guy who jumps the line while you’re waiting for a ticket for your train? Didn’t you ever consider jabbing the nibs of the three Pilot Hitecpoints that you carry with you, into the guy’s posterior?

But with this resolution, you exercise restraint throughout the year. And at the end of the year, when you find yourself hunting for places to party, and not a space in the jail to lie down at night – you’ll find that it was all worth it.

The other resolution is a combination of eating healthy and saving money by uninstalling Swiggy and Zomato.

I do not believe in Christ, the Holy Father, or the Holy Principal – but I’m sure the two apps are the work of the devil. With their hourly notifications nudging you to eat the trash that’s being produced around the city. Offering discounts that get you further addicted to their products. At the risk of sounding like a spaced-out conspiracy theorist, I firmly believe the two apps are evil.

Also, fast food costs money and causes anxiety. One must choose one’s food, and then track the little scooter on the app till it reaches one’s house. And then accept the food (hoping it is untouched), and then give the delivery person 5 stars and a tip (‘Concentrate on your studies’ doesn’t count, apparently).

The trick is to only consume slow food. Food that takes time to cook, to eat, and to get rid of. Not only will you lose weight, dear reader, but you will also achieve a double-whammy of saving money.

I know what you’re thinking – these hacks, not resolutions. A perfect new year resolution must make you work every day, and involve coordination between body, mind and soul. It must give you a sense of overall happiness and satisfaction. Allow me to reveal my final resolution – to kill as many mosquitoes as possible this year.

Mosquitoes are the largest killers on earth, killing more living beings than even human beings. Killing mosquitoes will not incur the wrath of animal rights activists; even Maneka Gandhi has no sympathy for mosquitoes! And thanks to capitalism, one can choose from mats, creams, gels, liquids, badminton racquets and ultrasonic devices – to get rid of the evil creatures.

Life is frustrating, and every once in a while, you’ll feel an urge to smash somebody to pulp. Climate Change is real, and World Peace sounds like something grandmothers will narrate to little kids when they sleep under the stars in dystopian times. And while life does not allow us to express our truest desires, it gives us the freedom to kill mosquitoes.

So there you have it. A new year resolution that will keep you working all year, and will also give you and your family a sense of purpose. On that note, dear reader, I wish you a Happy Mosquito and murder-free New year. Please avoid getting confused between the first and second resolutions – the trick is to be nice to human beings, and evil towards mosquitoes – achieving nirvana in the process! Happy New Year.

*****

The Legacy of Shah Rukh Khan

Every week on social media is a new life-lesson, and last week witnessed the outpouring of love and admiration for Shah Rukh Khan across my wall, my feed, my neighbourhood and my soul.

Every year, Indians rise up in admiration for a celebrity. Till a few years ago, it was Sachin Tendulkar’s birthday that littered my wall. Now, it is Shah Rukh Khan. I suspect this is a digital carrying-forward of Gandhi Jayanti and Buddha Jayanti and Hanuman Jayanti and all the other Jayantis that we observe in our country.

I also got to watch the David Letterman interview that was very smartly plugged in by Netflix. The interview was hardly a surprise, as was David Letterman. The entire episode seemed to be shot through the lens of exotic Asian superstardom. There were no questions about films or acting – and the only time Letterman mentioned a film (DDLJ), he got it wrong. Of course, Shah Rukh Khan bossed the interview. He is probably the only celebrity who doesn’t wear that insufferable mask of Indian humility.

The outpouring of Birthday messages made me realise something else about Shah Rukh Khan’s celebrity. There was no mention of his films or acting – it was sheer love, across ages and regions. Teenagers who were born after Shah Rukh Khan made his last great movie. Older people who were born before Shah Rukh Khan himself was. Even in my shows, when I ask people what movies they watch – I invariably get a few Shah Rukh Khan fans.

But there was something sad about it all too.

The tributes that were flowing in weren’t really about his craft or body of work. They were about his origin story – of a Delhi boy breaking into and ruling the big, bad world of Bollywood. They were about his wit and charm, with an almost resigned tone about the future of his films.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t watch Shah Rukh Khan’s films at the peak of his popularity. And yet, I had a personal relationship with Shah Rukh Khan’s films. I started watching films the year Shah Rukh Khan debuted on the screen. The first two films I ever watched were Hatim Tai – starring Jeetendra and bad VFX, and Maine Pyar Kiya – on a small, black-and-white television set. My family believed films were harmful for children and I was banned from watching films or humming their songs.

Which was all fine, till puberty perturbedly knocked on the door. Our class had a Narada-muni of sorts. A guy whose parents were cool with him watching movies at home. This guy would watch all the latest movies and come back to narrate minute-by-minute descriptions of the films.

Sometimes, the descriptions were more detailed than the films – ‘And then Rani Mukherjee comes to the college in a see-through pearl dress…

‘Just pearls?’

‘Just pearls’. 

The descriptions were also generally longer than the actual movie’s duration, which helped during long meditation and bhajan sessions.

Meditation sessions which were supposed to be about getting rid of thoughts, were filled with images of Shah Rukh Khan running in slow motion towards Anjali or Pooja or Neha. During vacations when I heard songs at shops or at weddings, I knew the exact situations the songs popped up in.

These were the years when Shah Rukh Khan was on a roll. Every year brought along a few hits by the man, and I would ask my friend to narrate and re-narrate the stories and imagine them all playing out in my head. Which is why, even though I find the word ‘fan’ rather cringey, I have a special relationship with his movies, and have probably cracked what he needs to do get back on track!

*

The last three decades in Hindi Cinema will be known as the era of the three Khans. Three non-brawny men who rewrote the rules of a 50-year old game that required the heroes to bash up goons and change society with one sweep of the hand.

Among the three, it is not hard to see that Shah Rukh Khan is clearly the better actor. There are films that nobody else could have pulled off. Using a blend of charm and vulnerability, the man changed the grammar of the Hero. It is difficult to imagine the current brand of Bollywood stars ruling the roost without the grammatical changes that Shah Rukh Khan made to the mould of the Bollywood hero. Shah Rukh Khan is also blessed with spontaneity, something that is rare in our superstars.

Unfortunately, after a point, the longevity of a star depends on the films that the actor produces. It is no surprise that the biggest Hollywood superstars – Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio produce their own films. And that is where Shah Rukh Khan has struggled.

Films produced by Shah Rukh Khan all have one common factor. On paper, they all seem game-changing and genre-bending. But when they finally materialise, they bring along all the excitement of semiya upma.

From Asoka to Ra.One to Zero, the films have done so badly, I’m surprised Bejan Daruwalla hasn’t asked the production house to be rechristened Lemon and Green Chillies Entertainment.

And at the other end of the spectrum is Aamir Khan. Mostly a template of stock expressions being played out over 30 years. His dialogue delivery from Andaz Apna Apna to Secret Superstar is honestly much the same. There are stock expressions for anger, sorrow and resolve. But Aamir Khan is a great producer, and that is half the battle won.

The role of a producer, the visionary behind the project – is enticing. But many great actors have burnt their fingers in trying to be the visionary. Sprawling film empires have been reduced to rented studios because of the unbending vision of its leader.

And here, I shall become Bejan Daruwalla. Aamir Khan should produce a film for Shah Rukh Khan. A film where he is required to only act.

For that is what he finally is. An actor. And maybe that is what people should remember him for. Nobody remembers Marlon Brando for his drunken outbursts. Or Sachin Tendulkar for his table tennis matches.

Shah Rukh Khan’s best performances have all been in films where he was just the actor. Where his only task was to emote in front of a camera, and play a different shade of vulnerable.

Aamir Khan should produce the film, and Shah Rukh Khan should act in it, and Salman Khan should provide outside support.

May be then the actor will be remembered for his acting, and not his wit, charm or other complimentary qualities.

*****

If you’re a fan of Shah Rukh Khan, you should read my other blogs on him:
1. Yeh Jo Bhes Hai Tera

2. How I knew Jab Tak Hai Jaan would be crap.

3. The World of South Indians according to Shah Rukh Khan. 

Why I am not a part of any ‘movement’ anymore

Long, long ago, when you couldn’t disable the Blue Tick on Whatsapp, there was a time when I used to ‘feel’ strongly about things.

It’s probably got to do with being in one’s 20s. Feelings ran through me like surplus blood being pumped from the heart to important parts of the body. Happenings around the world would make me feel things.

Issues angereme and news moved me. I stared into the distance as scrambled thoughts slowly fell into place like an expert Tetris player – forming a sequence of actions that I must engage in.

I would stay up at night thinking about it. After a hurried breakfast and a quick morning-joint, I would sit down and type out what I felt about the issue. There was no external motivation to write those blogs – I wasn’t paid, and prior to social media, nobody really knew me to provide instant validation. The only impetus to keep writing was how issues made me feel.

Unfortunately, I can’t bring myself to feel like that anymore. Since I’m someone who looks at almost everything through the lens of age, I initially dismissed it as a by-product of being in one’s 30s. A general world-weariness that reminds you that it’s better to jack off and sleep than worry about this slowly-burning world.

But I realise there could be another layer to it.

I cannot bring myself to be a part of any movement as the entire process has become exhausting. Every movement, every issue and cause is raked up using anger, vitriol, and trolling. To spread the word about something – somebody needs to be brought down.

This wasn’t the case a few years ago. I remember when the Anna Hazare movement was at its peak. I was cynical about the movement and refused to be a part of it. But the general tone back then was not one of anger. People mostly joined candle marches, shared articles on their Facebook walls, and went about their work. Good times!

Today, everybody is a troll. The most popular news channel of our time is that noise-monger who reduces journalistic ethics to Khushwant Singh’s Book of Jokes Vol. 7. Our politicians sound like teenage Twitter trolls. Every movement is based on anger and resentment.

Look at the Communist movement. Most of the Communists you’ll meet in your life are affluent, urban people guilty of their privilege. They are grasping on to a hollow ideology to wash some of the guilt off their souls. The Ambedkarite movement, in spite of being founded by a true progressive visionary as BR Ambedkar – has also been reduced to hate-mongering. The MeToo movement was also reduced to mud-slinging and anger after a point.

Even more shocking was the recent Ecological Movement (or whatever the fuck it’s called) – the one where celebrities and rich people told us that the world is ending. I find it laughable when celebrities who live lavish lives and consume fuel and labour that could feed entire colonies – suddenly wake up to the crumbling state of the world.

Get off your fucking Hummer and take the bus, asshole. Or stop the pontification just because you read an article on BuzzFeed.

The recent face of the Climate Change movement – Greta Iceberg – even her tone is one of anger and resentment. How dare you! – she screams at strangers in a stranger country. I doubt a 12 year old could be filled with such seething anger. Unfortunately, we have convinced ourselves that the only way to raise one’s voice for an issue is through anger, trolling, slinging mud at others. That there is no more space for discussions, or gentle humour, or erudite editorials.

And that is why I do not feel connected to any movement these days, no matter how crucial it is to our existence. It’s too stressful on my delicate mind.

Let me know if there’s a movement built around discussions and memes. I’ll become the face of that movement. Till then, lemme quickly go roll one and watch another Greta Iceberg meltdown…

Go fuck yourself, Daddy, and hello again, WordPress!

Here’s a lesson you must imbibe in your life, young one: NEVER LISTEN TO ADVICE FROM YOUR MBA FRIENDS.

If you haven’t pursued an MBA yourself, there should be no reason for you to listen to your MBA friends. I made the mistake of listening to an MBA friend of mine, and bought into his Shiv Khera-ish lecture of ‘pushing things up one notch’.

‘How long will you keep writing on WordPress, bro?’ he asked me one day, amidst clouds of smoke and hope. ‘The world has moved on to other platforms. When you started the blog, even mobile phones weren’t around’.

Which is not completely true. I started in 2007 and Nokia was the Apple of the world’s eye back then.

‘But you’re missing my point. You need to scale things up. See, if you’re trying to create a brand (Am I?), people need to experience a professional UI’.

I nodded my head. I have found it’s the best way to avoid speaking to one’s MBA friends.

‘Let’s create a site for you’.

The above line can be interpreted in a number of ways. As a line mouthed 40 minutes into a movie, it could be the inciting incident transforms the protagonist’s life.

Spoken to me however, the line is impotent.

I am as technologically suave as Shakuni attending a Tech event in Cupertino. My friend asked me to choose a domain hosting site, and I duly chose GoDaddy. I mean, Mithun was doing their ads at the time – would you blame me? My friend graciously created the site for me, and (probably) shook my hand at the end of the mission.

And so there I was, over the last four years – trying to handle my own site.

If it was supposed to inspire me, it had the opposite effect. Earlier, I was just some guy who got high and typed keys onto a site. Now, I was a writer who was seeking to create his own brand. I mean, if someone gave you a choice between the two scenarios, which one would you take?

Running my own site sounds nice from the outside. It has a nice ring to it, and I used the line a few times at parties where I forgot to bring my personality.

I run one of India’s longest running humour sites.

Oh, nice. What’s it called? 

Heartranjan.com

Art-?

No. Heart. Heartranjan. 

Okay. Let me note that down. Heart Dungeon. Dot com? 

No, not Dungeon. Ranjan. Cos my name is Hriday Ranjan…so…heartranjan.

Oh, okay. Humour site, eh? Hmmm.

 

I thought running your own site was like having your own digital castle, where you can lounge and look at the world from the balcony. What I didn’t know was it was closer to running your own garden.

You have to get down everyday and weed out the rubbish. On WordPress, my spam was handled by disciplined employees. On my site, I received 200 comments a day from strange Russian companies.

I also noticed that spam messages are getting smarter. Earlier, a typical spam message would read:

Use Tadalafil for Erectile Dysfunction. 50 mg. 

Short, sweet, to the point. Easy to notice and do away with. But over the recent few years, spam messages trick you into believing somebody in the world cares about you – and then twist the knife into your heart. Modern spam messages read like this.

Hey 😀 Thanks for the post, I found it absolutely engaging and must say, you do raise some terrific points. However, I must say I wish you had expanded on few of the issues that you raise in the post if your dick is limp, use Tadalafil 50 mg for Erectile Dysfunction.

The messages trap you into hope, and then smack you with a product. And imagine getting 200 of these everyday! I can’t remember writing anything interesting in the last four years, probably due to the pressure of ‘running my own site’.

Days turned into weeks, weeks into months and months into years. Over the last four years, I have become a standup comedian, a newspaper columnist for Indian Express, a critic for Film Companion, and an A++ accredited roller of joints.

You wouldn’t blame me for ignoring a mail from GoDaddy that my billing needed tending to. I thought it was their Annual Ronadhona Subscription time, and ignored the mails. Turns out my domain ran out and somebody else bought it.

I spoke to their agent Naresh, and was informed that I need to pay thousands to recover the site, with no guarantee of recovering my content.

I did some research and found that GoDaddy wasn’t developed by a son who wanted his his ailing father to achieve his dream. It was a company founded in the US with nearly 6000 employees around the world. GoDaddy could go fuck itself.

I dropped the plan, asked Naresh to go fuck himself in Corporato – Thank you SO much for ALL the help, Naresh. I hope you rise to great heights one day. 

Which is when I found that my wordpress site was still intact. It waited for me to build a house and was there for me when I returned. Of course, the subscribers are all gone -from 3000 to 7, but those can be gained back.

It must be good to go back to typing without an agenda or pressure. And for the reader to scroll through stuff that was written just for the fun of it. Which is why I have returned to WordPress again your dick is limp buy Tadalafil 50 mg and experience magical results.

Why I stayed away from the Aamir Khan Intolerance debate

I have spent a good part of the last five years on Facebook.

Not the early days, when Facebook was a glorified Orkut, and people were still sharing pictures, stalking pretty girls, and generally being nice to each other. Not that Facebook.

I am talking about the Facebook where people log in at 9 AM, and pour out their fears, beliefs, and political ideologies when dear old Facebook asks them ‘What’s on your mind?’

However, through much of last week, I filled my wall with terrible PJs.

Eg. Every Diwali, I loathe those holier than thou messages. ‘Diwali mein Ali hai, Ramzan mein Ram hai. Toh? Mongolia mein Mongia hai, naachun, behenchod?’

It’s not much of a joke, to be honest. But I put my foot down and refused to get drawn into an argument over the Aamir Khan intolerance debate. Here’ why.

IT IS FUCKING STUPID.

It is something the media does, and something we fall for, every single time. This is their modus operandi. At a press event, ask somebody who has NO relation to politics, a political question.

It might be a Baba who just spent a good part of his afternoon twisting his hand around his back and bringing it out from the front. It might be an actress who has spent a decade in India but can barely speak an Indian language. Or an actor who has been in movies since he passed out of school.

If you ask me about Quantum Physics, I’ll probably say gravity is caused by a gigantic underground spider’s asshole.

We need to stop asking political questions to our religious heads, actors and sportspersons. For one, they haven’t spent time in colleges, reading and getting an informed opinion on issues. And they are bound to mouth something idiotic.

WHICH IS WHAT THE MEDIA LOVES.

 

The Aamir Khan incident was another example of their terrific acumen. They take a portion of a speech, print out reams of paper and pages on the web, and leave the rest of us to trip over it tirelessly on our Facebook pages.

I am growing weary of Facebook by the day. The way Facebook is going, makes you wish back fondly for Orkut. Orkut days were actual achhe din. You logged in, said nice stuff to people you knew, checked the profiles of people you liked, and went back to desibaba.com. Simpler days.

Ever since the Anna Hazare movement – the Big Bang of online activism – happened, all of Facebook has slowly turned into a Wasseypur. On one side you have the jingoistic right, and on the other the cynical left. The Centre doesn’t matter. Because Rahul Gandhi.

And the online Wasseypur is at it for half a decade now. The Left liberals throng one corner of the space. They are the kinds that the enemies like to refer to as Sickulars and Presstitudes. Because let’s face it, if there is ONE group keeping things classy on the internet, it is the BJP.

The liberals are the Ramadhir Singhs. Experienced, softer, but incisive and effective. The BJP guys are the Khans. Faizal, Daanish, and Sardar Khan. They are inexperienced, but hot-blooded. The kinds who begin shooting at the drop of a hat, going berserk, living their online lives on the edge, for they may be blocked or deactivated at any point.

 

I used to be a part of the mob, too. I used to put up my political musings on my wall, and gently collect the logs together, bring my friends, and light the wood. And then I would sit and watch the fire grow, twisting the wood a bit, blowing into it, adding a little fuel to the fire.

And I would spend days engaging in such arguments. But these days, I feel like Bheeshma. I want to lie on my bed of arrows and watch the proceedings, but pray do not draw me into the quagmire, O Shakuni!

At the end of a week, we all proved that Aamir Khan was right all along.

I mean, the guy said something, it got twisted into something else, and everybody lost their fucking minds. And so what if he said it, man? Big fucking deal.

I have felt the same way many a time. There have been lots of times I wished I could leave the country. In spite of me being born here, my country doesn’t give me the best amenities. I am an honest, law-abiding citizen who contributes to the nation’s economy.

What do I get in return? Terrible government healthcare, abysmal transportation facilities, a police force that is both sloppy and slimy. There have been moments I have wanted to leave the country because I couldn’t take a walk on a road with a woman I like. Without having people call names, or flash their dicks out.

I have felt like leaving the country a lot of times. And it doesn’t make me an evil person. And even if it does, fuck you. You’re not the Taliban. I will say what I want to say. You can go fuck yourselves, guys.

 

Uh, oh.

I just wrote an angry, rant-y blog about the issue. Damn it.

You see what I mean? I need to leave Facebook, man.

Fuck Facebook.