The summer months are always kind of muggy in Patna. In the early 1990s, they appeared sultrier than normal. The days would be hot and the nights would be dry. There was only so much one could do. And that ‘so much’ was never much, with those prolonged hours of nothingness blankly staring at us. Don’t know if the irregular load-shedding and the dark absence of electricity were the reason behind the dreariness. Or if one could point towards the abrupt kal shaam chhe baje phir mulakaat hogi endings of Doordarshan as the cause. Or whether the limited stock of antaakshari songs (despite the unending stock of holidaying cousins to play them with) was the prime suspect. OR perhaps it was just the mid-teen angst.
But the insipid monotony was real. And there was only so much one could do.
Those were also the days when Aamir Khan was doing snake movies, Rishi Kapoor was wearing his last set of sweaters around trees, Jackie Shroff was giving solo box office hits, and Vinod Khanna was cracking dudhu jokes looking at women in Farishtay.
Yes. There really was only so much one could do.
Or actually, there was. Buzz words like liberalisation and globalisation were just beginning to hover around, and private TV channels were soon to be an everyday fix as a positive fallout of the policy changes. Cable TV was slowly becoming the fashionable thing to do in small town India, a perfect middle class counter point to the safari-suit-and-pomeranian superiority practiced by the elite. My professor parents, of course, thanks to their world view and wisdom nurtured by Brahmanical leanings, had a strong point of view on cable TV or any other form of unsupervised entertainment. EXACTLY the reason why I readily agreed when Ramkailas ji, my trusted aide, and the family Man Friday, recommended that we steal the cable connection since the wires went through our garden.
Till then, our experience in thieving was restricted to pocketing raw mangoes of the awesomely juicy Maldah variety from the neighbours’ yard. So I was not too sure. Having said that, the lure of breaking the boredom and seeing content outside of the staid DD programming was too much of a temptation. The programming options were way too many, beyond the Krishi Darshans and Chitrahaars of the world. There was finesse and flair one wasn’t used to seeing on television. Plus, there was MTV. That thing that was meant to morally corrupt the youth of the nation.
I was ready to be corrupted.
All it took was a pair of garden cutters and some ingenuity, and we were a cable TV household between 10pm and 5am, every day. Opening gates to a world unseen. The firang accent, the cool graphics, the smart promos, the interesting shows… they were all from a distant land. There was Star Plus with its Crystal Maze, Donahue, Oprah and, oh, those kissing cousins in The Bold and The Beautiful. Or the cigarette smoking Tara in the eponymous series on Zee TV, and even the obnoxious Mohan Kapoor on the channel’s Saanp Seedhi, and also Rajat Sharma, giving birth to a different breed of journalism in Aap Ki Adalat. This was all different. New. And real.
And then there was, of course, MTV. All different. New. And surreal.
With its funky graphics, bizarre spots and fast pace. Smelling like teen spirit. With Michael Jackson and Madonna. With Guns ‘n’ Roses, a paradoxical co-existence that could well define MTV. With Right Said Fred declaring his sexiness and Phil Collins his inability to dance. With Pearl Jam, Megadeth, Metallica and innumerous such bands that us small-towners had no knowledge or clue about. I saw images I never thought existed. I saw people I never could be. I saw love. I saw debauchery. I saw a display of colours, commotion and camaraderie. It was culturally alien, unfathomable at times. But it was all eerily eye opening. I could never be them, I knew. And yet, I wanted to know more about them. Every day.
I saw possibilities. And I am not just talking television. I am talking life.
For that Hindi medium boy from Bihar struggling with Itihaas, Bhugol and Nagrik Shastra in school, it was almost like him creating his own itihaas every night. By unshackling himself from all that was around him. By thinking beyond the books and the course material. By taking those fantastic flights to nowhere. I never did stop thinking in Hindi. I did not develop an accent. I never could appreciate Pearl Jam, Megadeth or Metallica. I did not try becoming a different person with brand new reference points. Only, my perspectives changed. I started seeing things differently. I did not know where did I want to go, but I knew what it would be like.
We were caught soon enough by Papa. He said all that we had to do was ask. He was, obviously, very upset. Major mud on our face. But I wasn’t complaining. It was worth the trip. It was not as if it suddenly changed my persona or that I could see doors opening for me. But this entire visual experience, day on day, made me realise that there were so many doors that existed.
It was not just economic liberalisation at work. Or just liberalisation. It was liberation!
It changed my outlook. It made me more confident. It made me more audacious. It allowed me to dream differently. That gawky teenager, son of academicians, started looking beyond Engineering and Medicine as a career. As did many of us from similar backgrounds. Everything in the world, hitherto unseen, was now around us. And everything was achievable. We did not have to travel to foreign lands to broaden our horizons. The world had come to us. Very soon, the world literally was around us in the supermarkets. In form of Camay soaps and Hershey’s chocolates. As brand new malls and multiplexes. In the queues at McDonald’s. Buzzing in pagers and mobile phones. Surprisingly, none of it made me feel poor and deprived at any point of time. It kept egging me to have a deeper resolve to become better off. Read rich.
In retrospect, that was the bawdiest, and yet the most important, contribution of liberalisation to the small town India, and not just me. We stopped feeling guilty about earning and spending monies, something that Papa would have so not approved. We were okay to let go of our middleclassery. Of course, that came with its own set of struggles. Mumbai, the city I had chosen to move to, gave me its perfumed indifference, showing me my place in the 8:11 local. I gave it my unadulterated confidence. Very soon, we reached a compromise, and the city was home.
Fate brought me to MTV in 2000. And MTV gave me the confidence to change MTV. It had made me embrace its globalness, I made it embrace my Indianness, being a part of the team that made it desicool. I worked with them for ten long years. Fancy designation, et al. Little did MTV know about the role it had played in my life. Even when it was on mute. :)
Meanwhile, we got Ramkailas ji a job as a peon in Delhi. His family continued to be in a remote village in Bihar. We sponsored the education of his son who is now sixteen. The boy uses a smart phone and knows how to Whatsapp. I suspect he also knows how to order mangoes online. Only, he aspires to follow the career path of his father. Become a peon.
Twenty-five years later, I wait for another round of liberalisation.
– first published in Indian Express Sunday edition Eye as a part of their special issue on 25 years of economic reforms –
These are bad times.
The economy does not look all that great. The drought situation is getting worse. Politicians continue to stay aloof and unaffected. Cricketers are getting fixed. Fixers are running cricket. Business leaders are getting their CFOs pregnant. Jackie Bhagnani is still acting.
These are really bad times.
Now, I know there is this terrible terrible urge to hang our heads in despair and feel hopelessly bad about our existences. It does come naturally to most of us, especially after seeing those Rangrezz posters. But you know what, life is not that black, despite how bleak things appear. One can either feel utterly depressed. Or, one can invoke the name of Altaf Raja to make it all disappear. Seriously.
Altaf Raja who, do I hear? For those not in the know, Altaf Raja was the singular reason why the cassette players of the 1990s were mobbed, mauled and molested, day in and day out. Altaf Raja was the demi-god of the autodrivers, their secret man-crush, their muse. Altaf Raja was the snazzy sultan, the ritzy rajah that the entire B-grade population of India wanted to be. But to top it all, Altaf Raja was what kept the people across the country going, giving them hope and optimism, as they sung his songs in the trains, collecting monies for charity, in most cases their own charity.
The first half of the 90s was an exciting period in the life of India. The skies were opening up. The reforms were taking off. We were a bemused and overwhelmed nation, getting exposed to an MTV which played music and a Manmohan Singh who had a voice, amongst other things. The divide between the rich and the poor was beginning to get drastically wider. Rishi Kapoor was still wearing Woolmark-approved pure wool turtlenecks, dancing around trees, and Mithun Chakraborty was singing Gutar Gutar in Dalaal. Not that the last two statements had anything to do with each other.
It was during these times that Altaf Raja made an appearance in the Indian stratosphere. Tum toh thehre pardesi, saath kya nibhaoge, he said it on behalf of the country in his first album in 1996, mouthing the concern that the economic reforms were not to stay forever. Subah pehli gaadi se ghar ko laut jaaoge, that is.
But then again, lest you misunderstand him, it was just a healthy expression of anxiety, and not pessimism. Considering in that very album, Altaf presented the enthusiasm and exuberance of the nation, willing to take on the world: Woh bhi anjaan thi, main bhi anjaan tha. Uss se vaada na tha, kuch iraada na tha. Bas yun hi darr-ling keh diya. Yaaron maine panga le liya. Panga Le Liya summed it up brilliantly. Pokharan-II, the Indian nuclear tests happened soon thereafter.
And THIS – the eternal understanding of his environment and its impact – is what makes Altaf Raja relevant all over again in our lives. Yes, the times are tough. From pathetic rapes to pitiable rappers, from a silent PM to an over-zealous wannabe, from Kalmadi’s fistulas to Kejriwal’s frictions, we have issues and diversions. But we need to embrace our surroundings. And wait. Patiently. Because that is the right thing to do. Thoda intezaar ka mazaa leejiye, sang our man in Shapath. That’s the mantra to live by. Wait and watch, and enjoy the downtime. All material conditions, positive or negative, are temporary. This, too, shall pass. Btw, for the fans of geriatric gyrations, the song has Jackie Shroff and Mithun Chakraborty shaking it with the ladies at the bar. That, too, did pass.
His teachings, though, are not restricted to just helping people cope with the larger issues. Altaf Raja has created many a sparkling gem that are relevant to us in our everyday lives across audiences. Even more so in this day and age, when everything around us is getting redefined and restructured. Refer to the lucidity with which he discusses the complexities of the gender roles and the set of social and behavioral norms that are considered appropriate in the context of the modern times. Biwi hai cheez sajawat ki. Biwi se ghar ko sajaate hain. Sautan ka shauq purana hai. Sautan ko sar pe bithate hain. Bharti nahin niyat sautan se. Sautan ki sautan late hain. Balle balle, oh yaara balle balle. Wow Yeah. Wow Yeah. Brilliantly put. Sajawat. Aesthetics. This is why the purists love him.
The most pertinent message of Altaf Raja for his audiences, however, is in this timeless creation called Kar Lo Pyaar. There are discords and disputes all over. Conflicts have divided the globe. The world is fighting a furious war with itself. And I just used three sentences with exactly the same meaning. Precisely the reason why the world needs to hear these immortal lines in his mellifluous voice. Kar lo pyaar, kar lo pyaar, kar lo pyaar, kar lo pyaar. Pyaar gazab ki cheez hai padh lo aaj subah ka parcha. Pyaar karoge muft mein ho jaayega yaaron charcha. This is poetry at exceptionally sublime levels. No other song in the world has EVER tried rhyming charcha with parcha.
Wikipedia says Altaf Raja has had a mix of twenty-three film and non-film albums so far. But none of this matters eventually. Because it is not about his songs or the albums. It is about the man. Who goes far beyond the songs or the albums or the hits or the platinum discs. Altaf Raja is a concept. He is the victory of the mundane over the elite, of penury over pomp, of the coarse over cultivated, and of hopes over realities.
Thank you for taking the panga, sir!
(Originally published on firstpost.com)
(Recently posted this small piece on ‘I love trashy hindi movies’. Ainwai.)
While the world and its cousins were all talking about the sad news of Rajesh Khanna’s demise, Yahoo also ran this rather random, and well, poignant news report on actor Satish Kaul that I am sure most of us would have missed.
For those who don’t know, Mr. Kaul was the A-grade actor in B-grade films like Kabrastan and Khooni Mahal and the B-grade actor in A-grade films like Karma and Ram Lakhan. His duet with Rama Vij in Bahu Beta aur Maa is a great lesson for the film actors of generations-to-come on how to emote through an entire love song while suffering from acute constipation, mouthing lines like Dhaga ragon ka sui mein piro ke button laga doon oh meri sajni oh soniyoe.
Amongst his more popular roles, he played one of the dead sons of Dilip Kumar in Karma. Apt. Also, his dead brother in the film was Shashi Puri, another actor born to fill the pages of a respected forum like ‘I love trashy hindi movies’, but we shall reserve that for some other time.
Mr. Kaul was found rather dashing in gaudy costumes, and he played Madhusudan, Yuvraj Anandsen, Yuvraj Ajay, Yuvraj Vajramukti, Suryamal and many more such characters that would continuously wet Ramanand Sagar’s ornamented underpants in serials like Vikram aur Betaal and Dada Dadi Ki Kahaniyan on Doordarshan. From what I remember, he also played the bit role of the over-the-top filmstar in Aziz Mirza’s TV serial Manoranjan, again, on DD.
Apparently, Mr. Kaul, after working in 60-odd Hindi and Punjabi films (Amongst other movies, he was also the hero of Munda Naram Te Kudi Garam. Respect.) and running a film school (the ad on OLX mentions he has done close to 300 films, btw), is now going through some very rough times. And since he has no place or family to go back home to, he just got himself and all his trophies collected over the years from organizations like City Club, Jalandhar and Agarwaal Mahasabha, Bulandshahar, checked into some Red Cross Senior Citizens’ Home in Ludhiana. Quite a moving story, this, because it really is painful to see old actors, dyed hair, wrinkled skin, rusted trophies, et al, trying to live what was but no longer is. No matter howmuchever bad they were as actors.
BUT this is where the Yahoo report turns rather arbitrary and funny and actually starts begging for a place of its own in a forum dedicated to all things trashy.
I quote from the report: “But the question is what’s the reason behind this situation? Copyright! Our country is quite very lenient on copyright laws, and hence, it leads to this. Injustice, right? So what’s the solution? A strong copyright law that gives due admiration to all”.
Okay. That helped.
PS: Whoever has given the VO in this report, you are my dream girl. I would love to give you due admiration some time. Quite very lenient I am. Promise.
Posting something I had written for “I love trashy hindi movies” long time back…
Understanding the exact factors leading to the kind of socio-political-cultural change the TV serial Ramayan could bring into the Indian subcontinent has always been a rather baffling experience for me. Despite my best efforts, I have never been able to crack how on earth could the Maganlal Dresswaala foreground and the rapturously revolting Ravindra Jain background catch the fancy of so very many viewers across the country. Seriously – and this is where it gains significance in our forum – Ramayan, at best, was B-grade cinema in a pukishly pretty mythological avatar, with a rather cracked conglomeration of lousy actors, lousy sets, lousy costumes, lousy wigs, lousy masks, lousy special effects and lousy everything else.
Compared to Ramayan, the other lethal mix of Punjabi-Bollywod aesthetics and Gujarati-Bollywood imagery, Mahabharat, was a shade better in terms of production values. But even this BR Chopra creation finds its rather important place under the sun in our space, essentially because of the wealth of actors it could contribute to the cause of B-grade cinema. Gajendra Chauhan, Girija Shankar, Pankaj Dheer, Nazneen, Arjun, Puneet Issar, Mukesh Khanna … quite a few of these guys actually stemmed from the abyss and then went back again to where they belonged immediately after the serial got over.
Okay, before some of you decide to burn me, my laptop and my computer table (and Vijaypat Singhania’s hospital, MF Husain’s paintings and a few cybercafés, while you are at it), this is not meant to be a comment on the epics. It is the sheer shoddiness of these serials, and the scars that that they have left, that I am commenting on, specifically talking about their actors.
Deepika Chikhalia: Ekta Kapoor used to be a normal girl growing up on Mills & Boon and Nancy Drew, playing hopscotch with her little sister Tushar. Till she watched Deepika aka Seeta in action, that is. And that’s where she found the prototype of Tulsi, Parvati and what have you, all rolled into one. Deepika was the immediate cause for E-jee’s mental degeneration that has led to the K-attacks being inflicted on us. Ms. Chikhalia went on to do two bit roles in a few movies opposite Rajesh Khanna (this was in the bloated-rectangular-face phase of RK’s life; the bearded-dried-tomato look followed later) and also became a respected Member of Parliament. Yeah, that’s the same place where Hema Malini and Dharmendra also go once in a while. Uggh.
Sanjay Jog: He was the non-smoking brother of Ram. Jog did impress in his character of Bharat, but his career could not move beyond Jigarwaala or Naseebwaala. Wonder where he is right now. He would have found employment in any of the BATA showrooms. Nobody takes care of footwear as he does, seriously.
Sunil Lahri: From bhaiyya Ram to bhaiyya Kishan… wow! If somebody could do a two bit role in a two bit actor’s debut film (the reference, of course, is to Aaja Meri Jaan) then that man must surely be out of job. I rest my case.
Vijay Arora: Vijay Arora sang Chura Liya to Zeenie baby. And then he played the lead in Nagin aur Suhagin. And then he widened his eyes and landed up as Meghnad, looking like Karunanidhi without his glares, speaking Hindi in Punjabi. Arora’s rapist-in-a-dhoti look did not find any takers following the epic, and though he did do ten odd movies subsequently, his career graph could never go further north.
Talking of actors from Ramayan, special mention to Padma Khanna aka Kaekayi. Guru Suleiman Chela Pehelwan, Ghunghru ki Awaaz, Sultana Daku, Kasam Durga Ki… Padma Khanna was destined to do B-grade Hindi films, though she did end up doing a not so bad job in whatever better movies she could act in. And, of course, there was Dara Singh, the king of the B-bling. Nalayak. Boxer. Lutera. King Kong. Raaka. Badshah. Hercules. Samson. Faulad. Rustam-e-Baghdad. Jagga Daku. Sherdil. Khakaan. Tufaan. And this on-screen Hanuman also could squeeze Mumtaz in his spare time. I bow to thee, master!
Before I move to actors from that other epic Mahabharat, let me reiterate that my list is not at all comprehensive. I am sure I have missed quite a few gems. I would put the blame squarely on Jambwant, yet another of those Ramayan characters, for my sudden loss of memory. I just remembered him, and unfortunately, my thought process is stuck now. If you are not familiar with him, imagine a fat man with thick black hair all over his face and body. Then imagine the same man constipated for 10 continuous days and despite all the sat isabgols of the world, unable to get it out. Now imagine the same man attempting to utter “Shree Ram”. Yeah, that was Jambwant. And yeah, thanks for sympathizing with me.
Mukesh Khanna: Naam – Bheeshm Pitamah. Baap ka naam – Deenanath Chauhan. That sums up our man in Mahabharat. Khanna moved on to become the quintessential Thakur/ policeman across various movies, progressing from Jaidev Singh to Suraj Pratap Singh to Shakti Singh to Mangal Singh to Thakur Raghuveer Singh to Khushwant Singh to Thakur Harnam Singh to Rana Mahendra Pratap Garewal to Rai Bahadur Mahendra Pratap Singh. Btw, those were real names of the characters he has played, no kidding! Meanwhile, he also produced, directed and acted in this brilliantly tacky TV serial called Shaktiman, which has helped a whole load of unintelligent lower middle class kids stay the same all their lives.
Girija Shankar: No blind man can look as lecherous as Dhritrashtra looked in Mahabharat, simultaneously eyeing Gandhari, Kunti, Draupadi and all the hired straight-out-of-a-dandia-night extras with his kaat-loonga looks which only Girija Shankar could produce. Amongst his 15 unforgettable movies subsequent to Mahabharat, I would give special mention to Divine Lovers (produced and directed by B. Subhash of Tarzan fame), where he plays this Indian guru cum psychologist cum psychiatrist cum doctor called Dr. Pran! Please watch this movie to witness Bappi da’s English songs, Mark Zuber’s claws, some quality soft porn action (Don’t judge me. I was in college then!) and Hemant Birje’s bare bum (Don’t judge me. Even if I was in college then!).
Dharmesh Tiwari: Tiwari played Kripacharya in Mahabharat. Then he acted in Aurat Aurat Aurat. His claim to fame is that he has been the President/ Secretary of Cine and TV Artistes Association for the longest time. Obviously, they follow the BCCI model.
Pankaj Dheer: From Mera Suhag to playing Karna in Mahabharat and then to the Zee Horror Show, Dheer’s filmography could have been more impressive had he got the right breaks. Pity, because he could act better than lots of the other guys.
Gajendra Chauhan: Gajendra as Yudhishtir could display a whole plethora of emotions in the show. Sample this.
The poignant: (nasal twang) “Mumble, mumble, mumble, mata shri!”
The brave: (nasal twang) “Mumble, mumble, mumble, bhrata shri!”
The sensitive: (nasal twang) “Mumble, mumble, mumble, Panchali!”
The decisive: (nasal twang) “Mumble, mumble, mumble, Duryodhan!”
Yeah, he was quite an actor, this guy. Which is why he could still be seen as Pinky’s dad in Billa No. 786 and as a car salesman in Baghban.
Roopa Ganguli: Krishna saved her in Mahabharat. Wish he was also around to save her from Bahaar Aane Tak, Inspector Dhanush and Meena Bazaar. Good actor, though. She has done a few quality Bangla films, making up for her debacle in the Hindi market.
Puneet Issar: A blur of massive chest hair is all what I remember of Puneet Issar from the show. Of course, he had already proven his talent in Purana Mandir, Saamri, Zalzala and Zinda Laash before he cracked the role of Duryodhan. I guess he had done enough of sari pulling already. After Mahabharat, Khooni Murda and Roti ki Keemat are enough indicators of Issar’s superb body of work. And if that does not impress you, unravel this man through his directorial debut Garv: Pride and Honor. I am getting goose bumps already.
Arjun: He was quite the hero of Mahabharat. And with actors like Praveen Kumar and Gajendra Chauhan playing his brothers, he did not have to work extra hard for that, either. Unfortunately for him, he did not find any takers in the film industry, and was reduced to playing the comic villain sidekick in films after films. Don’t know where he is now. Poor sod, his vanvas continues.
Nitish Bharadwaj: He who perfected the art of smiling with his lips sealed and the art of nodding with his head unmoved, Nitish won quite a few admirers for his performance as Krishna. The charm did not last beyond the great war. A few insipid movies like Trishagni, Naache Nagin Gali Gali and Sangeet later, he was back in his Krishna avatar, only this time asking for votes for BJP. As of now, he wears Made-in-Ludhiana pullovers and is some kind of a lower level spokesperson for his party.
To come to their defense, the tragedy of most of the religious stars is that their screen image becomes so very imposing that the audience just refuses to accept them in form of any other character. Despite the roaring mega-success of Jai Santoshi Ma, Anita Guha could not do anything significant, EVER. This, precisely, is the reason why most of the religious stars’ careers – including the ones discussed – have taken such sharp nosedives after their initial success. Unless, of course, they have been saved by Kanti Shah and his producer brethren. Thank god for that! ;-)