Category: Notes

The answer is Munna Aziz. Always.

You need to understand the 1980s to understand the impact of Mohammad Aziz on the 1980s. It was quite a decade, it was. When glitz was plastic, and glamour was gaudy, and the flamboyant and the convoluted walked hand-in-hand. We were in a zone hitherto unseen on the cultural front – read films, fashion, art and literature – and we were rather proud of where we were going without really knowing where we were going. This was the decade when Pomeranians were the rich dogs, cordless phones outlined one’s social standing, Rupa and Dora were best-selling national brands of men’s underwear, and Halla Gulla Mazaa Hai Jawaani defined young people who wore headbands and paid to watch Karan Shah in Jawaani (1984).

It was the baroquest Baroque that India could ever have been.

Men wore baggy trousers and thought they were the shizz. Women wore plastic jewelry and thought they were the shizz. Hindi film villains were called Dang and Mogambo, and they thought they were the shizz. They were right, of course. Columns of earthen pots painted for the Gay Pride Parade formed the backdrop of dancing ditties featuring heroines wearing conical cholis. Heroes contorted muscles that weren’t even discovered by Science or the human body. Rekha and Jayaprada, our reigning divas, looked like the Klingon warriors from Star Trek. And everybody else looked like Rekha and Jayaprada. Including Amitabh Bachchan, Jitendra and Mithun Chakraborty. Hamming was acting was hamming. They all signed up for the classes.

This coincided with the coming-into-being of Mohammad Aziz, famously known as Munna Aziz, or vice versa, in the world of Hindi Cinema. He arrived on a tanga with Amitabh Bachchan, no less, and, stayed on to simultaneously collaborate with the slushy histrionics of actors including Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, Mithun Chakraborty, Rishi Kapoor, Anil Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt and Govinda with equal ease, and enhanced élan. The voice had just the right amount of ornate density that was the crying need of the hour. The motto of the decade was Expression Without Suppression, and Aziz was meant to be one its biggest, happiest, breeziest votaries. With Mard (1985), Karma (1986), Khudgarz (1987), Pyaar Ka Mandir (1988), Ram Lakhan (1989), Tridev (1989), and then some, he clearly was at the right place at the right time. The hummable, hammable hits were an immediate corollary. From the flashy rhythms of Aapke Aa Jaane Se to the simpering patriotism of Har Karam Apna Karenge, from the excited revelry of One Two Ka Four to the loud proclamation of Main Teri Mohabbat Mein, Mohammad Aziz reflected all that made the 1980s.

Hell, Mohammad Aziz WAS the 1980s!

Aziz entered the Hindi film music scene when there was a rather visible interval of sorts. Mohammad Rafi had just passed away and Kishore Kumar’s presence was being kind of selective. Older singers like Mahendra Kapoor, Talat Mehmood, Manna De or Mukesh were either gone or fading away. The Nadeem Shravan factory featuring Sanu and Sonu was still to happen. Udit Narayan’s Papa was yet to proclaim bada naam karega for his beta. SP Balasubrahmanyam was a glorious glint only in the Madrasi mothers’ eyes. The producers, directors and music directors had reasons to believe that the best alternative to the voice of Rafi was the voice of Rafi. Therefore, Anwar, Shabbir Kumar, Mohammad Aziz and Sonu Nigam chronologically filled in, matching Rafi husk for husk.

But Mohammad Aziz wasn’t a first-copy version of Mohammad Rafi. That would be playing unfair to the artist that he was. Mohammad Aziz was the first-copy version of all the actors that he sang for. He was Govinda’s pelvic thrust, Mithun Chakraborty’s swagger, Shashi Kapoor’s gravitas, Rajesh Khanna’s ham, Amitabh Bachchan’s buffoonery and Dilip Kumar’s melodrama. He was all that they were or wanted to be.

Imagine Rishi Kapoor and his sweaters singing Tune Bechain Itna Ziada Kiya to Sridevi in a single-screen theatre. The setting is right. The trees are around to be danced around. The lehngas are having a cheerful dalliance with the chunnis. There is enough mohabbat-majboor-vaada-iraada in the song to make the coronary arteries give warm cuddles to each other. It’s a love ballad. Only, with Mohammad Aziz, it becomes a loud and proud pronouncement of Rishi Kapoor‘s feelings for Sridevi. To such an extent that it continues to hit you long after you have left the theatre. It stays with you. Forever.

True. Story.

And this is because Mohammad Aziz’s voice was invented for single screen theatres. Be it the urban centers exhibiting state-of-art sound system or mofussil towns making do with their decrepit speakers, if it is Aziz that they played, he would be heard. Whatever be the quality of audio systems, it could not shake or rattle him. Why, even if there were no speakers, you could hear Mohammad Aziz!

But to know the real impact of the man, all that you had to do was travel in a video coach in the 1980s Hindi-speaking India. The worn-out video tapes may get the visuals wrong, they may skip scenes, they may even stop moving, but they would never ever EVER screw around with an Aziz song. The rickety buses all over the country were not running on diesel. They were running on Munna Aziz.

Because Munna Aziz was a concept. A phenomenon.

His presence signified the emergence of the lesser India. From “Beta aunty ko Chooby Chiks suna do”, it now was “Beta, Rafi uncle ko copy karo”. He legitimized the hopes and aspirations of the middle-brow-middle-class India. He was Munna. He was one of them. One of us. That an orchestra singer could actually become part of the mainstream was the Revenge of the Also-Rans. Mohammad Aziz was the biggest tribute to the orchestra culture of India. The orchestra culture of India was the biggest tribute to Mohammad Aziz. They were the fall-out of each other.

Precisely why when his time was up, he went back to where he belonged. To the orchestras. Where ill-fitting black suits with purple ties and fancy glares made for fancy people on stage. Where misogynistic jokes on co-singers made for great content. Where the singers actually thought they were the actors that they sang for, performing for an audience that actually believed in it. The middle India continued to love him back.

To be one of the cultural symbols of a decade that was culturally so decadent must have not come easy to Aziz. Which explains the quick rise and fall of not just Aziz, but all such symbols. Exactly why we need to give them their deserving place under the sun. Mohammad Aziz must never be on the lost pages of History, or be relegated to merely becoming an apologetic footnote. Because he was an integral part of the history when it was being created. His personal documentation of the times he lived in through the songs he sang is pure and unadulterated, even if it does not match with our evolved sensibilities and heightened sensitivities. “Kaun hai woh. Bolo bolo kaun hai woh. Haan bolo bolo kaun hai woh”, he famously asked in Jaane Do Jaane Do Mujhe Jaana Hai from Shahenshan (1988).

The answer is Munna Aziz. Always.

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Chhatth Puja and the GulshanKumarisation of India

My Bihari cousin is getting married to a lovely Tamilian girl.

I am sure the dainty Miss Sridhar must be doing her homework already to know more about what she is getting into. We may not have life sized cut-outs of Ms. Cloaked Rotundity and Mr. Goggled Baldness, but we have enough loud fodder loud enough to make her feel at home. What we lack in flashy flamboyance, we make up with our brassy brashness. We are a raucous country, yes ma’am. When the alphabets were getting distributed, the Biharis decided to take everything with all the hard consonants. Marathis come a close second. Pethe, Kekade and Madke would agree.

But let’s stay on Bihar. Or in Bihar, if I were to take Raj T’s advice.

So we have Litti, Laktho, Thekua, Ghughni, Bhabhri, Makuni, Khaja, Pedakiya, Gaja, Dalpittha as a smattering of names randomly taken from the Bihari fridge. NONE of them sound appetizing. Not one. They taste phenomenal, but they don’t sound like something you may want to consume. And some of them look like what they sound like.

Blame it on the pastoral background of the Biharis, if we were to get all historical and sleuthy. While the neighbourhood Bengal was busy carving intricate creases on their Nolen Gurer Sandesh, singing their Baul and doing their Dhunuchi Naach, Biharis were too busy either tilling their lands or rearing Chanakyas, Buddhas and Mahaveers. So they did not really have the time to create artworks in the kitchen or outside of it. We developed as an ungainly and unsophisticated nation, without any apology and with a definite hint of pride. Take it, world!

And this gets reflected in everything we do. Or say. Or make. Or celebrate.

Which brings me to Chhatth, a festival that some theorists claim even predates the Vedas. At the concept level, it has perhaps the most modern outlook for a festival so ancient. There is no idol worship at all in Chhatth, unlike most Hindu festivals. It is not gender or caste specific. And there is no involvement of a presiding pandit. No random mumbo jumbo being babbled by some patronizing priest working on an hourly remuneration in front of a gaudy concoction of gods. It is a festival with rituals led by the devotee, dedicated to the deity. A hardcore one-on-one with the all-encompassing to acknowledge and achieve the common, combined greater good.

Spread over four days, the worship is dedicated to the Sun god and his wife Usha, greeting and thanking them for creating and controlling all the life forms on the planet earth. While Chhatth follows Diwali, it is no selfish agrarian festival stemming from the contribution of sun to the agricultural produce, coinciding with the cultivation. It is a very noble recognition of the influence of sun in our combined lives, way beyond its material beneficence, with pronounced philosophical undertones. Which explains why the worship of the rising sun is preceded by the veneration of the setting sun.

So far, so good.

Only, I don’t remember getting influenced or enamoured by any of this while celebrating Chhatth in the Patna of the late 1980s. Neither by the philosophy behind the festival, nor by its rather liberal stance. Outside of the exhilarating thrill of traveling at 4 in the AM for the morning arghya, moving past the colourfully lit-up roads to a crowded Pehelwaan Ghaat or Collectorate Ghaat, and then letting the feet play with the cold, moist sand, what actually has stayed with me is the harsh aesthetics of it all.

I am not referring to the festival, of course.

I remember the crowd. A sea of humanity amidst all the muck of the riverfronts. People rushing at the ghaats with their chaadars, fighting for and marking their territories to be as near the slushy expanse of the Holi Ganga. The rich and the powerful moving around with their gun-toting musclemen. The blaring loudspeakers, the long traffic jams, the arguments on the roads, the hawkers selling posters of Hindu gods, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the general wide-ranging cacophony of the people forming a buzzing backdrop. It all came together into something memorably lurid and raw.

Chhath

This rasping rhapsody was amplified by the sindoors on the noses of the parbaitins, or the fasting worshipping ladies. Indeed. A shining, flaming, thick and radiant saffron vermillion marking starting from the tip of the nose meandering into the parting of the hair. Imagine multitudes of ladies with their brightly painted noses half immersed in the muddy waters, offering their obeisance to the rising sun. The effect was mesmerizing. The effect was daunting.

To be fair, though, it was not just these nose antennas that were browbeating me into meek submission to all things colourful and coarse. The GulshanKumarization of India had just about started to happen. The combined might of jhankaar beats recorded in cheap Darya Ganj studios on Super Cassettes was beginning to juice the entire pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses. Johnny ka Dil Tujhpe Aaya Julie was being appropriated as Bhakton Ka Dil Tujhpe Aaya Devi, and then some. People not only seemed okay with these, they were, in fact, revelling in them. It was a crude, uncouth phase in the life of India, both culturally and otherwise. Patal Bhairavi and Bhavani Junction were legit Hindi cinema releases, Rajeev Kapoor was playing the Lover Boy, Rajesh Khanna was romancing Reena Roy, and people were really paying to see Raj Babbar on the large screen.

It was the attack of the lowbrow. And Chhatth was as impacted as any other festival.

So in the middle of the folk songs evoking the Sun god, the shrieking loudspeakers would play one of them Karolbagh ditties sung by Babla and Kanchan. Hum Na Jaibe Sasur Ghar Re Baba. Yeah. Soon enough, these tardy renditions were accepted as a part of the mainstream. The eighties never left the festival. The festival never left the eighties. Every subsequent Chhatth was more of the same. Exciting. Rousing. Breath-taking. And very bloody loud.

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I moved on. Bombay became home. Then I shifted to Mumbai.

Patna, Bihar and Chhatth continued to be a part of my subconscious persona, but not being there meant not being there. My new native city gave me newer references to ponder over. I had graduated from Gai Ghaat to Lal Bagh. I had moved on. Or so did I think. Untill I suddenly discovered the luminous vermillion-nose brigade in a traffic jam at Juhu one fine evening. The parbaitins were back in my life, and how! And I was amazed to see that twenty-five years later, the unhinged aesthetics and revelry were unaffected, give or take a few Sanjay Nirupams trying to make Chhatth the North India Pride Parade. It was beautiful. To be in that jam. To be back there. To relive the scale and the noise. And to revisit the fantastic reasons behind the celebration of this wonderful festival.

Here’s to many such discoveries, Sanjana! And welcome to the family. Some of your new relatives may look like aliens once every year, and their vocabulary may be predominated by words with ट, ठ, ड and ढ in them, but we are good, warm god-fearing people, I promise you. Despite that fluorescent patch on our noses. Or because of it. :)

It was quite the time to Disco!

The last quarter of 1982 was extremely exciting in the history of India primarily for two reasons. The Asian Games came back to New Delhi after a gap of three decades. We realised that we were capable of rising above mediocrity as a nation and make our mark as a progressive and progressing country. Confident landmarks like Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Indraprastha Indoor Stadium and Khel Gaon got added to the Mughal-Lutyen landscape of the capital city, and became a part of the collective national modernisation dream almost overnight. We understood the power and impact of live TV, with the athletic pixels beaming across the country through seedha prasaran on Doordarshan. Offering solidarity to the cause, the TV screens started transforming from black & white to coloured, showcasing the buoyant hues of the tricolor like never before. Ath Swagatam Shubh Swagatam, we sang on 19th November at the Opening Ceremony, welcoming and celebrating the world and India, and I also suspect, the first mega-public appearance of Amitabh Bachchan after the Coolie accident.

The other big event in the life of India was the release of Disco Dancer.

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B Subhash’s Disco Dancer is the rags to riches story of Jimmy (Mithun Chakraborty playing Mithun Chakraborty) who braves acute poverty to become India’s best disco dancer. Fighting the whims and fancies of his punishing fate and inner demons, Jimmy goes on to ace the coveted International Disco Competition, bringing joy, pride and honour to the nation and her people, one pelvic thrust at a time.

There is enough in Jimmy’s stimulating and sterling biography to shake, rattle and roll the viewers. As a kid, he is falsely accused of stealing by PN Oberoi, the evil rich businessman. His mother takes the blame and goes to jail. The mother-child combine is taunted and tormented with the cries of maa-chor-beta-chor (which, for the record, does not sound like what it is meant to sound like), and they leave Mumbai to settle in Goa. Jimmy grows up to sing and dance at local weddings, while Oberoi’s son Sam becomes the country’s most popular disco dancer, and a pompous ass with ill-fitting moustache and trousers. His manager David Brown leaves him because of his wayward ways, discovers Jimmy, and soon enough, Sam is dethroned. Side note: Om Puri playing a character called David Brown is why a lot people from the 1980s still have trust issues.

The now-famous Jimmy exposes Oberoi at a party, and also falls in love with his daughter. Outblinged and outsmarted, Oberoi gets his men to electrocute Jimmy through his guitar, but kills his mother instead. Jimmy gets Guitarphobia, developing cold feet at the Competition, unable to dance. That’s when Rajesh Khanna in a career defining special appearance as Raju Bhaiyya hams what looks like an entire episode of Kyonki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi to motivate Jimmy, asking him to “Gaaaaa!”. The film is still called Disco Dancer. “GAAAAA!”, he beseeches and screeches. Jimmy gets his mojo. Oberoi’s goons kill Raju Bhaiyya to make him ham some more. Our hero kills them back. Oberoi gets electrocuted.

And they all lived happily ever after.

Rajesh Disco 2

This may sound very simplistic and formulaic, thanks to my ha-ha-ha retrospective gaze, but for the 1980s cine-goers, nothing could be farther from the truth. Disco Dancer is not a film. It is a state of mind. This journey of the lowbrow to the high street is an electrifying – in more ways than one – celebration of the absurd and the awe-inspiring, the real and the surreal, the sounds and the silence. Disco Dancer is definitely not a film. It is the overwhelmingly viscous space between the trash and the transcendental.

The audiences, while rooting for the classic good-versus-bad tale, also played cheerleaders to what they thought was the emerging, new India. Where the macho hero could be a dancer, wear shiny clothes on stage and lungis at home, shake his limbs without any love-interest around for most part of the film, be surrounded by fangirls, and still have his mother feed him food with her own hand. This was a protagonist hitherto unseen. Not a brawny rebel, but an artiste, a performer. Who could fail and clam up and cry, but finally emerge victorious. Because maa ka aashirvaad. That a primarily western and alien concept like disco could be mainstreamized, with quintessentially Indian storytelling and a central character that never would exist in real life is what got the audiences to the theatres. Then you had the emotions, struggles, failure, success, vengeance, love and drama. Also, Jesus Christ and Krishna. Plus, a mandatory Rahim Chacha, thank you.

Disco dancing became us.

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While there was not much to talk about the country’s economy, militancy was rearing its head in Punjab, mills in Mumbai were coming to a standstill, and the honourable Prime Minister was publicly throwing out her widowed daughter in law from her home, we were still dancing. Maruti Suzuki was on the threshold of giving the middle-class-middle-brow India wheels that they had never imagined, Amitabh Bachchan was gearing himself to get back to the studios after a long stay at the hospitals, Chambal dacoits had started wilfully surrendering, Kaur Singh and Satpal were trouncing their opponents at the Asian Games in Boxing and Wrestling respectively, Jimmy was crushing the disco kings and queens from Afreeka and Paris. Things were beginning to look up. Toh jhoomo, toh naacho, aao mere saath naacho gaao. We had reasons to believe. Backed by Bappi Lahiri’s music. And moustachioed men wearing ballerina dresses complete with tutus.

The Buggles may claim that Radio Killed the Video Star, but Auva Auva belonged to Bappi Lahiri and Usha Uthup. Jesus by Tielman Brothers could become the ballad of Krishna, and Jesus did not really mind it seeing the perfect fit. The ultimate winner of the film, though, was the title song, I’m A Disco Dancer. The song starts with Mithun jumping on the stage, and then freezes on a screaming woman’s face for almost 5 seconds. That, in a nutshell, sums up the impact of the film on its audiences. Hypnotic and frenzied. It wasn’t as if Mithun Chakraborty’s histrionics or Bappi Lahiri’s music had any novelty value. Ravikant Nagaich had previously gifted Surakksha, Sahhas and Wardaat to the audiences. But Disco Dancer turned out special because of its very universal, very identifiable theme. The synthetic saga of tribulations and triumphs scored because of its straightforward simplism. And not just in India. It was the first Indian film to pocket 100 crores worldwide, with Goron Ki Na Kaalon Ki becoming an unlikely anthem across countries!

The impact of Disco Dancer was pretty much like the Asian Games. It made us feel all good and gooey till the next big jamboree. The beats were lost to the Madrasi eyesores featuring Jeetendra, and then to the Nadeem Shravan onslaught. Mithun went on to do Ooty films. The buzz around Kaur Sing and Satpal was forgotten already.

But what a thrilling high it was when it lasted! It was quite the time to disco.

(first published on Arré)

Amitabh Bachchan and I want you to read this!

So the Outlook magazine invited me to attend its first ever Outlook Social Media Awards. Abbreviated to perfection as OSM Awards, sweetly echoing the millennials’ propensity for all things abstracted, these awards are meant to honour the best in social media. I don’t really know what I was doing as a jury member among the likes of Shashi Tharoor, Prasoon Joshi, Shilpa Shetty, Ritu Beri, and many such prominent, newsprint-smelling names who routinely remind me of my lowly existence.

But then again, every Bigg Boss house needs a commoner. I was just the right man, come to think of it. Plus, to be fair, I suppose I do know my social media. I can outrage about everything without knowing anything. The astute observers of the magazine had recognised this ability, figured I had the right amount of frivolity and triviality, and invited me.

The night was quite a glitzy affair, as one would expect any such night and any such affair in the national capital to be. There were luminaries galore both on and off stage. The newsmakers and the news disseminators, political bigwigs, business leaders, bureaucrats, filmstars, TV actors, social media megastars, Page 3 people, and a smattering of expats… the aces and the faces all dressed to precision, reflecting the fragrant dazzle of the sophisticated night.

And then there was me. Over-bearded. Overweight. Overbearing.

The very kind, very compassionate (and very blind, I suspect) people of Outlook chose to ignore all that. It was like my shaadi.com profile had briefed them on my virtues. I was soon getting ushered in and being led towards my row and seat amid all the blinding lights and fanfare music.

They made me sit right behind Amitabh Bachchan. The. Amitabh. Bachchan.

Nobody ever makes me sit behind Amitabh Bachchan. Or if they do, there is a gap of a hundred rows or a hundred miles, whichever is more, between his coiffured hair follicles and me. I was sure something was amiss. I checked the name tag on my chair. It said SECURITY.

Now, I take my all-caps very seriously. If you are talking to me in capital letters, say hello to the meek, subservient me. Naturally, I looked around to see if I had usurped the rightful place of, say, an AK-47-bearing black cat commando. Didn’t find anybody looking at me intently with feelings of any kind in upper-case and the people behind me were getting edgy and annoyed. So I had no other option but to perch myself at a place that did not belong to me.

I sat. Behind Amitabh Bachchan. The. Amitabh. Bachchan.

Now, the thing about sitting behind Amitabh Bachchan is that people are looking at you. Constantly. At the event, and later on television. Lots of people are looking at you. And not with love. Everybody who is looking at you thinks and believes you are a jerk. That you don’t really deserve to sit behind the man. You don’t deserve to be there, jerk. You got lucky, jerk. You are a jerk, JERK! This is true for anybody who sits behind Amitabh Bachchan. By default, that person becomes a jerk, even if he were a double Nobel prize winner. Only Amitabh Bachchan can afford to sit behind Amitabh Bachchan and not be called a jerk by the world.

The other thing about sitting behind Amitabh Bachchan is that, well, you are sitting behind Amitabh Bachchan. You are seeing the back of his head, and the side of the side of his face. He is not really turning around to say hi to you. He would never do that. He knows you are a jerk.

So you change angles. Casually. You bend forward. You move rightward. You move leftward. You bend backward. Delicately. You stretch and contort your body to get a better angle. And you fight this intense, uncontrollable urge to grow your neck and use it to hoist your face in front of the man. Because that’s exactly what you want to do. You are excited. You are breathing heavily to capture all the carbon dioxide emitted by him. But at the same time, you don’t want to show any of it. But a part of you really wants to make an event out of the situation. But you take it easy because you are kind of cool like that. AND you hate being in the situation that you are in. More so, because no matter howmuchever hard you are concentrating and trying all those spells you learnt from Harry Potter or the imageries you picked up from Tom & Jerry, you are unable to grow your neck.

I sat there with a stoic expression. Fighting envious eyes and my own inner impulses. Like a true warrior. It’s all cool, people. I do this for a living. Yeah. I uttered this to myself, realising I had suddenly developed an accent. Which was the point when Shashi Tharoor on stage posed a question for Amitabh Bachchan. I don’t remember what the question was. I don’t remember what he answered.

All that I now remember is that, suddenly, some thirty-odd photographers with flash-lights of various intensities emerged out of nowhere, pointing their cameras at Amitabh Bachchan and me.

Okay, then.

This was a really, really tricky one. If I stayed all detached and impassive, I would look arrogant or, worse, disoriented. If I looked at the cameras with all enthusiasm, matching my expressions with Amitabh Bachchan’s intonations, I would appear wannabe or worse, an ass-kisser. The last option was to look the other way, but thank god, I am not that big an idiot. Ergo, I did the best I could. I tried what I think is my enigmatic Buddha smile. The sort of smile that the photographers can never blur out of an image, even if they were to obliterate the background. I looked at the camera people with all earnestness. If the baritone needed a back-up, here was the thing to capture.

We were becoming a team, Amitabh Bachchan and I.

He was soon called on stage to give away some award, and I clapped the loudest. Knowing I was being watched. I was now playing his cheerleader, manager, confidante, and mentor all rolled into one already. And I sure was loving and living it. This was my moment.

I looked at him getting up, and bestowed him with the patronising hansi-khushi-kar-do-vida thumbs up. I also benevolently decided at that very instant that I would never tap his shoulder and ask him to put his head down if he sits in front of me at some theatre. I would also let him keep his seat-back reclined even if he and I were on 21A and 22A respectively on an IndiGo Airlines flight. This was becoming a permanent fixture in my life, me sitting behind Amitabh Bachchan. Quite a picture I was painting. The claps went into slow motion, the sounds became fainter, while my eyebrows continued giving a quiet and glowing tribute to Akshaye Khanna.

He came down. He walked past me. He left. Just when I was getting used to the idea.

I looked at the pictures from the event the next day. The photographers at the Outlook Social Media Awards had managed to cut some or the other part of my anatomy from all the pics. Clearly, they hated me. It was almost personal. Meanwhile, Amitabh Bachchan was looking like the superstar that he is. I was looking like the Before version of a Sat Isabgol model in those before-and-after ads for laxatives. It was depressing.

ME

My mother saw the photos, too. Her reaction: “Oh, woh tumhare saamne Amitabh Bachchan hain?” Kaboom!

Me: 1. Amitabh Bachchan: 0.

(First published on Arré)

Jo Jeeta Wohi Timeless

1992 saw the release of Meera Ka Mohan, headlined by Avinash Wadhawan, featuring the chart-busting disco-devotional O Krishna You Are The Greatest Musician of the World. Keeping the cine-goers glued to the theatres also was Kumar Sanu crooning In The Morning By The Sea for Ronit Roy and friends in Jaan Tere Naam. The year witnessed SRK doing one of his earliest roles as a hero in Hema Malini’s directorial debut Dil Aashna Hai. Then there was Amrish Puri singing Shom Shom Shamo Sha while playing a trumpet, sitar and drums in Anil Sharma’s Tehelka. Govinda and David Dhawan found each other with Shola aur Shabnam, and Madhuri Dixit found her tits with Dhak Dhak Karne Laga in Beta. For people with more discerning taste, Meenakshi Sheshadri referred to Chiranjeevi as Tota Mere Tota in Aaj Ka Gundaraj, Rahul Roy became a tiger in Junoon and Salman Khan wore a golden colored wig to pirouette with his inner Thor in Suryavanshi.

1992 was also the year of Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar.

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Mansoor Khan’s second cinematic outing offered a straightforward story. Sanju is a happy-go-lucky boy, smoking cigarettes and bunking classes, leading a carefree life with his carefree friends in Dehradun. His father Ramlal is the sports teacher at the lowest-on-the-rung Model School. There is a clear class divide between the hill town’s elite schools and their local counterparts – nowhere more apparent than the bicycle race on which the movie hinges. When Ratan, Sanju’s elder brother, has a near-fatal accident while preparing for the inter-college race, it falls to Sanju to take over and defeat Shekhar Malhotra, the flashy champion from Rajput College. Sanju feels the combined agony of his father and brother, turns around, prepares for the race, and in the process, discovers himself. Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. End of story.

But despite this basic storyline, Jo Jeeta… is the only movie to have survived the test of time from 1992. Today, 25 years later, if you happen to watch anything made that year, you will be taken to a world that is distant, jagged, and often embarrassing. The stencilled heroes waltz between the plastic and the profane, flaunting a rather coarse machismo challenging Mr Richter. The heroines wear conical bras, their Saroj-Khan-nominated cleavages heaving extra hard to seduce them heartless heroes and their zipped muscles. The villains are odd, outlandish, and over-the-top, and perhaps the most entertaining architectural remains of the era gone by. The films speak a language that is totally different from anything around or about us at present.

NOT Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar.

Tag it with the “Smoking is Injurious to Health” warning, cut Deepak Tijori’s hair short, ignore some of the fashion faux pas that are the vestiges of the horrible ’80s, and hell, it’ll pass off as the real deal even now. It remains as fresh and relevant today as it was quarter of a century back. The simple story, the key messaging and its aftereffects, the lovely everyday characters, the bonding and affiliations, the victories and defeats, the joys and sorrows, the aspirations and ambitions… all of it is universal and identifiable. Now, and perhaps even 25 years hence.

In the multi-layered backdrop of teenage yearning and aspirations, of silent, unrequited and failed romances, of the angst stemming from class divides between the haves and have-nots, Khan recreates the world of Archie comics in an Indian avatar, sans any artificial pompoms and cheerleaders. Just a dash of Farah Khan and Jatin-Lalit freshness, the velvety voice of Udit Narayan, and that’s it.

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Sanju is vain, selfish, and twisted. He exploits Anjali, his best friend, because he knows she is secretly in love with him. He takes Maqsood and Ghanshu, his close confidantes and partners in crime, for granted while playing their ring leader. He cons Devika into believing he is the son of the multi-millionaire Thapar. He actually instigates a fight at his father’s cafe and gets it totalled. Sanju is everything a hero should not be.

But there is something about Sanju that only heroes can be. He is a non-conformist. The defiant cry of Jo sab karte hain yaaron, woh kyon hum tum karein is inspiring if you don’t subscribe to the thought, and comforting if you do. Your heart beats for Sanju because there is a little bit of him in all of us. Or there is a little bit of Sanju that all of us want to be. Precisely why you feel sorry for him when he gets exposed in front of Devika. Or when Thapar yells at him in the presence of all of his guests. Or when Ramlal throws him out of the house.

Ramlal is a strict father. He is also guilty of playing favourites. Which explains Sanju’s continued insubordination and insolence. The father is the system, the man. Sanju is the rebel, while Ratan follows the norm. To such an extent that when Sanju leads the pack in the Sheher Ki Pariyon Ke song, the elder brother plays second fiddle. The love between the siblings is not cardboard, melodramatic, or overtly emotional. And yet, when Ratan is admitted to the hospital, Rooth Ke Humse Kabhi tugs at your heartstrings and tears the ventricles out.

The rich-poor divide and the continuous hostility toward the poor – the pajama chhaps – is a recurring theme in the film. Khan chooses a rather interesting cinematic device to reveal Sanju’s poverty to Devika. A dance sequence featuring a Chaplinesque Sanju, complete with tattered clothes. But you see the light at the end of the tunnel when you hear the Model School team mouthing the lines, Yeh mana abhi hain khaali haath, na honge sada yahi din raat, kabhi to banegi apni baat, arre yaaron, mere pyaron. It is almost poetic, Devika’s changing expressions while Sanju lives up his penury!

Jo Jeeta… appeared at a time when the reforms that would result in opening up our economy had just been initiated. We were still reeling from the garishness of the ’80s, but the theme of class inequality that populated the films of the ’70s still endured. Jo Jeeta… was perhaps the first film that brought home class inequality the way many of us actually experienced it. Not the way Amitabh Bachchan did, raging against the machine and the system. You weren’t fighting for scraps on the streets or refusing to pick coins off the road, but you did feel a twinge of jealousy when you saw someone in a nice car you couldn’t own.

Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar is not just a film. It is a lesson in filmmaking. It is a lesson in character-building. It is a lesson in constructing narratives. It tells us not to take shortcuts. It teaches us the values of hard work. It inspires us to take risks, not follow the norm, be ourselves, and be happy. Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar is, in many ways, a lesson in life.

Thank you, Mansoor Khan. And Happy 25!

POST-SCRIPT: 1992 was also the year a numerically sound Ajay Devgan checked on the audiences’ Jigar, Sunil Shetty made his debut in Balwan, Akshay Kumar started playing the Khiladi, and Sanjay Dutt figured the joys of dry-humping the wet sari in Yalgaar.

(First published on Arré)

When Vinod Khanna asked for doodh and killed a hero!

The first time that I remember seeing Vinod Khanna on the big screen was in Qurbani at Vaishali Cinema in Patna in 1981. The story of the film is a blur now, but outside of the sexed out Zeenat Aman’s Aap Jaisa Koi and Laila O Laila, what still stays with me is Amjad Khan’s sass, Feroze Khan’s style and Vinod Khanna’s swag. It was nonchalant machismo at its best, supplemented by this assured air of self-confidence. The coolth was extempore. The nerves were real. They were all heroes, in the strictest sense of the word.

And our heroes were out there! On that large rectangular piece of awesomeness that showcased moving images from the worlds we did not belong to, and hypnotized our entire being. We were mortals to them gods. It was a deity-devotee relationship, flourishing in those dark shrines not called multiplexes. The television revolution was yet to happen, VCRs were still glints in their makers’ eyes and nobody knew the spelling of cable TV. Films would actually run for twenty-five and fifty weeks. Going to the cinema halls was picnic without the picnic baskets. The cost of samosas was not equal to the GDP of Ethiopia, and the coffee machines hummed consumable froth in those brawny concoctions. There was romance in the aroma of éclairs, cream rolls and popcorns. Watching a film was living an experience. The theatre walls were grimy, the seats weren’t the most comfortable, the loos were stinky, but none of it mattered. That torch light leading you to your seat, and the anticipation of getting transformed into a whole new world to watch those men and women in action was the only thing that mattered.

Then there was Vinod Khanna. The chiselled looks, the rugged sexuality, the undisguised charm, he was all, and more, that a hero could be. Without trying too hard. It was fascinating to just watch him on screen, and get bewitched. Of course, if you had your carnal glasses on, the fog would tell the complete story.

But nobody wanted to become Vinod Khanna.

Because they knew nobody could ever become Vinod Khanna. He was so unabashedly good looking, and in such an exalted space, that one could not even aspire to be him. Amitabh Bachchan was achievable. The hairstyle and the gait and the walk and the dance moves were replicable. Vinod Khanna was beyond reach. Whatever roles he did, whether it was Shyam singing the melancholic Koi Hota Jissko Apna in Mere Apne or Jabbar Singh mercilessly going on a killing spree in Mera Gaon Mera Desh, the bespectacled Professor Pramod Sharma surrounded by students in Imtihaan or that young scheming sonofabitch Anil conning his mother in Aan Milo Sajna, the oomph always elicited empathy. The cameras and the audiences loved him equally.

Which explains precisely how he could move from playing villains to portraying the hero so effortlessly, and then undertake the journey from being a star to becoming a superstar. Hera Pheri made him a phenomenon. This was followed by a series of blockbusters, including Khoon Pasina, Amar Akbar Anthony, Parvarish, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar and, of course, Qurbani.

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Technically, he was not the hero in Qurbani. Hell, he doesn’t even get the girl in the end! But check out the man in the song Hum Tumhen Chaahte Hain Aise. Despite the Feroze Khan aesthetics hovering around a gyrating couple on a fishing boat, Vinod Khanna is all that you would notice. Or want to notice. The casually flowing hair being hit by the sea breeze, the underplayed and non-theatrical expressions, the half-acceptance of the unrequited love, and those lovely longing eyes telling so many tales! You cry for the man despite him not shedding a singular tear. I stand corrected. He was the hero of Qurbani. And perhaps one of the few heroes existing in Hindi Cinema at that time.

And then he left the industry in 1982. Randomly. For the truth. Or whatever.

He came back in 1987 with Satyamev Jayate and Insaaf. A lot had happened in the world in those five years. Vaishali Cinema had shut shop. Jeetendra had given five sleeper hits with the help of his PE teacher. The Bachchan phenomenon was on a decline. The newer generation of actors, including Anil Kapoor, Sunny Deol, Sanjay Dutt and Jackie Shroff, was yet to take off. Mohammed Aziz and Shabbir Kumar were churning out hits. TV antennas were becoming a part of the Indian landscape. Video cassette parlours were mushrooming. The motion pictures industry was going through a major crisis. Filmstars could be hired at a price and consumed in molested VHS tapes grasping for breath in night-long marathon sessions. The heroes were becoming more accessible, everyday commodity.

Not Vinod Khanna, though. He still had the charisma. He still was out there, even in his second coming. While Satymev Jayate did not work, Insaaf was a hit. I still remember how the hall erupted in taalis and seeties when the screen said “RE-INTRODUCING VINOD KHANNA”, celebrating his incredibly potent existence amongst us.

He was back.

But. Something was amiss. His charm seemed laboured, his presence awkward. Not that Hindi cinema or the viewers had evolved in those five years. We were still the same, if not deteriorated by the Jeetendra/ Rajesh Khanna onslaught of the Tohfas and Maqsads of the world. We wanted the Vinod Khanna phenomenon to blast off again for very selfish reasons. We were looking for a hero amongst the crowd of newbies and fallen veterans. In Dayavan, Batwara, Chandni, CID and Jurm, we saw traces of the man we used to worship. The screen presence was still as scorching, the smile could still kill millions. But it was not the same. He was getting old, obviously. It was not about that, though. Or just about that.

I figured what it was in Farishtay, the 1991 film from Anil Sharma of the Tara Singh handpump fame.

Farishtay wasn’t just Dharmendra in a yellow cap and Vinod Khanna in a deep red Stetson hat, dancing on the streets of Mumbai with a bunch of Film City extras half their age in the title song. Farishtay also was the tragic realisation that your gods had feet of clay. Farishtay was a beautiful man desperately clutching on to his stardom, and failing to do so.

Vinod Khanna plays Dheeru to Dharmendra’s Veeru in the film. Beyond the Sholay meta-reference, the film is all kind of odd villains dotting the world, and our saviour-angels taking them head on. Between fighting villains and dancing with heroines, Vinod Khanna’s character has a major fixation for milk. So far so good. Only, milk here refers to things beyond milk. Way beyond milk. “Doodh peene ka mazaa hi kuch aur hai”, declares Dheeru to this buxom bar-girl, “Khaas kar woh doodh kisi tandurust aur doodh-doodh-doodh-doodharu gaai ka ho, aap jaisi” while continuously looking at her breasts, and making a major show of it. (Play to go directly to the scene)

And that’s when my hero became just another guy, just another ageing actor. That crass and vulgar display of his baser emotions wasn’t acting. It was an old man refusing to let go. He may have done forty more films after Farishtay, but Vinod Khanna, my superstar, faded way back in 1991.

Vinod Khanna killed my hero. Vaishali Cinema is becoming a mall. The world, as I knew it, does not exist anymore.

I have made my peace. I hope he does, too.

(first published on Arré)

Chintan Upadhyay is my friend. And my friend is NOT a murderer.

The year was 1996. Mumbai was still a little bit of Bombay, the fair-haired megapolis accepting us migrant cousins, the mofussil India denizens, with open arms. Chintan Upadhyay and I were amongst the very many who had come to the city to make her our home. Mumbai was beautiful and affectionate, inspiring and challenging. The taller-than-tall apartments wowed us, the shimmering lights of the Crossroads mall and the display windows of Rupam and VAMA showrooms aroused us. We were romancing with the local trains and rented homes in decrepit lower middle class societies, savouring our starvation in late night road side bhurji-pavs amidst the golden-brown haze of the sleeping city, revisiting our tangential dreams. And we knew we were growing up in an environment that we would romanticise about some day.

But I am digressing.

Chintan and I were together at the Faculty of Fine Arts, the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. (I was ragged by him the day I had joined college!) He wanted to become a painter. I wanted to be an Art Critic. Neither of us could take the isms and theories that we thought the world, the art world in particular, was drugged with. We wanted to create our own idiom, our own language, our own movement. We did our bit in college, questioning everything around us, celebrating the yellow and the red cards thrown at us. We wanted to change the world. We were rebels without a pause, our shabby kurtas spearheading the mutiny. Baroda gave us the freedom to be. We revelled in it, especially Chintan. Little had I ever imagined that his freedom would be abruptly curtailed some day.

But I am digressing again.

The Faculty taught us to think differently, humouring our attempts to create the revolution. Revolution of another kind was getting simultaneously created by one Dr. Manmohan Singh. The wise man sure was doing his bit to prod and perturb us lesser mortals. While Ganesha was drinking milk straight from the carton, McDonald’s was about to get launched in India. While masjids were getting demolished, what once were the goodies in the foreign-returned-suitcases were now being seen at the local stores. Liberalisation and Globalisation were ceasing to be mere buzz words. We could see the results in the hostel common room with MTV’s funky graphics and Malaika Arora’s legs staring at us, as we discovered a whole new universe, all bright and beautiful.

Before we could realise it, we were in a strange, uncomfortable place. We could no longer figure who or what were we rebelling against. It was an odd conflict brewing in our hearts and our heads. This dispute wasn’t just between ideas and ideals. The fight was amongst our sanskaari past, our hum-le-ke-rahenge-azaadi present and our shiny-disco-ball future. And it was a very very tough fight. Our middleclass idealism was being hit on its backside by this new India we did not know much about. But we realised we wanted to embrace this India. Despite the guilt.

The pride in penury was stupid.

We were the gareeb consumerists, sold to the idea of consumerism, though not having the means to live it. It was during these days in Mumbai that I curated what was Chintan’s first independent exhibition. Titled This Has Been Done Before, the exhibition was our tribute to the Turkish artist Bedri Baykam, making a point against what we thought were the prejudiced norms, aesthetics and points of view in the world of Indian art. The catalogue was complete with a “Common Minimum Programme” for young artists. We had heated debates on what should the communication be. Chintan wanted to be loud and vociferous. I was recommending a more subdued approach. We ended up calling Picasso and Gauguin ‘derivative artists’, and talked against the “biased and old fashioned attitude of the artists and art historians of the present century”.

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This Has Been Done Before catalogue | 1998

This is how my piece began: “What, exactly, is Chintan Upadhyay? A frustrated phallicentric nerd out to prove the sexual connotations and escapades of everything surrounding him? Or a confused, overgrown kid, still in an animated awe of his trinkets and toys, but whispering voices of discontent against the system promoting their production? Is he just another faceless addition to a metropolis, coming to terms with the various layers of personae being gifted to him by the assemblage of cultures in a big city? Or is he simply an artist, sensitive to all things red, blue and green, exploring for an order in disorder despite his own sarcastic sneers against this search?”

chintan 1.pngMulticultural face in a cosmopolitan city (Mumbai) | Acrylic on canvas | 10’ x 6’ | 1998

The exhibition was a failure.

Not Chintan, though. He was sharp enough to realise that all the personas that I had spoken about had to be a subset of this overarching singular persona that he had to become. The Common Minimum Programme was, therefore, out of his life. As were the thoughts of creating an artists’ collective. He had to get there first himself. He had to be in a space where he would be self explanatory and nobody would have to elaborate on “What is Chintan Upadhyay”. He latched on to the right people, allowing them to manufacture him. He figured the importance of marketing, of full page ads in Bombay Times pushing his works. Commemorative Stamps, his 2002 exhibition, flaunting the presence of filmstars and other pretty people at the opening, and a completely new artistic language, was a super hit. A brand was born.

There was no looking back after that. Chintan was always the supremely talented one. He realised it in time that it was not about being just an artist. It was about being a popular and successful artist. The kind that sells. It was about earning and spending and earning some more to spend some more. The Raphaels and Van Goghs and Manets and Monets were meant to be seen in person. The fancy perfumes were meant to be sprayed on. The aircrafts were meant to be flown in. The conflict that was, soon ceased to be. It had been dissolved and resolved.

In the quest to become a consumerist, he became a heavily marketed consumable product himself over the next ten years. We continued to play conscience keepers to each other, although I now suspect our chats, infrequent and few, were more to flaunt and justify our acts and actions than question them. I don’t know how convinced I was of the transformation of the Multicultural face in a cosmopolitan city to the mass produced Chintu, and also those performance art sessions created to shock and awe, but I guess he knew what he was doing. Chintan and Hema – another friend from the Faculty of Fine Arts – became the ‘it couple’ of the Mumbai art scene. His ganda bachchas were all over. She was kicking some serious ass as an artist of repute in biennales and triennales across the globe. Chintan’s compromises – artistic and otherwise – were worth the heartburn. He had become famous. He had arrived. He had become one with Mumbai.

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But then again, success and fame have their own trappings. The couple learnt it the hard way. After some very petty fights and a very public spat over their divorce proceedings, their love story came to a tragic and abrupt end. Hema was murdered. What followed was a macabre prime time drama that continues to get rolled out. Insinuations, charges and counter charges. Cops playing art critics, reading motives in his doodles and diary entries. And a man in jail since 22nd December 2015, held as a suspect in the double murder of the ex-wife and her lawyer.

I am not here to offer arguments. But I know of Chintan’s expedition from 1992 to 2018. Twenty-five long years, how it all panned out, how our values, successes and failures got defined and redefined. I know of his hopes and desires, fears and apprehensions. I know he is very many things, or that he became very many things that I think he was not. But one thing that I know he certainly is not, and can never be, is a murderer. Not after the prolonged and tedious journey he took from the Borivali shanty to the Juhu house, redefining his art and himself in the process. It was hard earned. He would never ever squander it away.

I understand it sounds simplistic, my conclusion, but I also understand it is the truth. I know the man. I know his life. I don’t care whether the matter is sub-judice or whatever the technical term is which prompts people to not have an opinion on an on-going case. My friend Chintan Upadhyay is NOT a murderer.

I am innocent  I am innocent (I hope you know why) | Performance art | 2013

More than two and a half years of confinement of an artist, of a sensitive, intelligent person is not a done thing. Especially if it is leading to clinical depression. But, apparently, this is how the system works. Guilty until proven innocent, psychological traumas be damned. The only consolation is that he will come out of this unscathed. He will emerge more insightful a person and more piercing an artist. Loud and vociferous, as he used to be!

I may ask him to go back to the Common Minimum Programme when we meet up. He owes me a chai and a long conversation. And, while we are at it, the bastard also owes me some money back from the college days!