The year was 2002. Shah Rukh Khan of DDLJ had been impressing us with his shenanigans in Europe and Maratha Mandir for seven years. Amrish Puri was mouthing his I Love My India rhetoric in Pardes. We were a proud nation, give or take a few Godhras, aroused by our new global expanse while holding on to our lineage and heritage. We were delighted by the desi diaspora. Raj not touching Simran, not even giving her the quintessential shareer ki garmi, was, hell, more Indian than us Indians, more deshpremi than us lesser mortals living in the desh could ever be. In fact, that’s how the desis always had been in Bollywood. From Purab Aur Paschim (1970) to Des Pardes (1978) to Aa Ab Laut Chalen (1999), the authentic, true Indian living in the foreign lands always had his sanskaars intact, pining, longing and rooting for our values and sarson ka khet. And if he or his progenies ever went astray, there always was somebody known as Manoj Kumar or equivalent to show them their path. They were all good guys, they were good Indians, and the good Indians were there to win.
And then came Sanjay Gupta with his Kaante.
Six men of Indian origins living in Los Angeles, speaking in Hindi. Period. Beyond that, Hindustan, deshprem, mitti, sona, aansu, angaare, et al, were asked to take a walk where there was no sunshine. The six men had nothing in common with the quintessential Hindi film leading heroes of the foreign lands. They didn’t care for the roti-making biba in the pind. If they did, the references were very subtle, almost consciously hidden in the boisterousness of the film. Barring one Hindustan-Hindustani scene added essentially for the gallery, they didn’t really cry for the unfurling tricolor. But, most differently, and unapologetically so, they were all bad guys, they were bad Indians, and the bad Indians were there to win.
That they happened to be from India was coincidental, helping us see the story in Hindi.
This was blasphemy. Kaante disrupted everything that Hindi movies had stood for till then. Even if Raj had gone all rogue and rebel, he would have never become Ajju, Major, Marc, Andy, Bali or Mak. EVER. For Gupta took the rule book, and decided to break every single regulation in style, with this rather cocky flair that one had seen traces of in his very first film, Aatish (1994). Minus a few, the characters have no past that the audiences are told about, they don’t know each other from before, they don’t care about each other’s existence, and they are too self-engrossed to even care about the audiences’ interest in them!
With six manly men, a bank-robbery gone wrong, an undercover cop, a Mexican stand-off, six dead bodies and a helicopter chase leading to an almost open-ended conclusion, Kaante was like nothing that India had seen since the existence of Hindi movies. Not that we had not witnessed multiple-hero films or bromances. Not that the anti-heroes were not celebrated before. Not that men were not presented as swigs of swag and swagger. There was Feroze Khan in his Stetsons. There was the Vinod Khanna chin-cleft porn. There was Sunil Shetty sharing muscle space with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the roadside poster stalls.
But Kaante was a raw, basal celebration of the raw and the basal!
Every single frame of the film fetes and feasts on the coarse masculinity of its protagonists. Right from the title sequence onward, Kaante is a ride from gloating machismo at its best to bloating machismo at its worst. Only, Gupta does not try too hard. He knows he has six good looking men. He does not traverse the journey of sweat droplets across ripped muscles. Outside of the close ups at the right angles, showcasing them sharp chins and piercing eyes, he just makes his heroes walk, that’s it. The Kaante walk. The famous Kaante walk. On the streets. In the corridors. Down the steps. And then some. God, that bravado! Oh, and then there are bikes and cars and leather jackets and suits and sunglasses and guns, too. Five minutes into the film, you are all pumped already. The Adrenalin has rushed and gushed.
After you have seen them walk, you hear them talk. The world is a locker room, and our six men are the happy co-residents. They are brash, they use their middle fingers to communicate, they discuss their women, they call each other assholes, and they are ingloriously crass and crude. “Jab tak main halka nahin ho jaaun, apna dimaag kaam nahin karta hai”, says Bali about going to prostitutes without batting an eyelid. This is the world where Milap Zaveri’s not-so-vague references to a certain male body part with lines like “Mere ko mere chhote bhai ke baare mein sochne de” and “Jab woh naachti hai toh Baburao bhi naachta hai” are considered normal. This is the universe where the home truth of “Isse toh software aur underwear ka bhi farak pata nahin” and philosophical undertones of “Takdeer woh chhinal hai jo mere saath nahin soti” actually make an impact.
The men, complete with their four-lettered vocabulary, are not sorry for, well, being men. And the audiences are meant to be a conscious reflection of their heroes. Because Gupta works with the premise that he has to adult his viewers. Not just with the item numbers featuring Isha Kopikar and Malaika Arora, and the gyrating butts of white-skinned women, but with the pronounced thought that it is okay for boys to be men and men to be mean. I was there, sitting in the theater, feeling it! Having said that, he also does brilliantly capitalize on the vulnerabilities of his heroes. So the attitude of Banda Yeh Dheeth Hai Yeh Kuch Nahin Jaanta is actually followed by the tender Jaane Kya Hoga Rama Re submission. And while the second all-male song, Chhod Na Chhod Na Chhod Na Re, is supposedly just a daru ditty, a Kallu Mama happening in the middle of LA with better-looking people, the director subtly shifts the tone to Chhod Aaye Hum Woh Galiyaan for a fleeting moment. Which is when one realizes that while their suits, glares and alcohols are expensive and exclusive, their angst, agony and ecstasy are universal. Only, Gupta does not give his viewers the time to reflect on this. The prep of the heist is not shown. All that you know of the robbery is the cheekily sassy “Aaj tak uss bank se unnki salary aati thi, ab hamaari aayegi” line. Immediately after the song, the audiences get into it cold. Now there is the anticipation of what is going to happen with these six men, their angst a thing of the past. Now there is only wide-eyed wonder, intrigue and drama.
Kaante does not have only six protagonists, though. Sanjay Gupta is the seventh hero of the film. One can see the director in every frame, shot and dialogue. He definitely knows his guns, glares, girls, and goons. I would know that first hand now since I have worked with him on a project. He is out there to unabashedly tell the world his tale with his virile, brazenly sexy offering. There are top angles, wide angles, low angles, and the shot taking seems ahead of its time, skillfully capturing both the grey indifference and the silver familiarity of the urban landscape housing his macho men. Not for a minute does this rhythm of the film change. The explosions and the gunshots are in-your-face, and there is a considerable portion where there are no dialogues at all, just blazing fires. This roaring testosterone festival, both on and off the screen in the theaters, was an experience never-seen-never-heard-never-felt before.
Broadly basing the movie on Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Gupta does a Tarantino on Tarantino, giving a tribute to QT as QT does to the filmmakers that he admires. And dare I say, he actually ends up doing a better Tarantino than Tarantino himself. For if we were to compare apples to apples, he has constructed an amalgamation – of his personal language, Bollywood’s sur, and QT’s narrative – far better than at least some of Tarantino’s later outings. My belief is Tarantino would also agree with this.
The film is as contemporary in 2020 as it was in 2002. The men look as sexy. Their invincibility looks as fragile. The political incorrectness is as delicious and dark. But Kaante’s competency and contribution go far, far beyond just being a guns-and-guys film which stands the test of time. With this film, Gupta gave a new grammar and language to India, and its audaciousness changed the way we were making and consuming our content. Sanjay Dutt, Sunil Shetty, Mahesh Manjrekar, Lucky Ali, Kumar Gaurav and Amitabh Bachchan gave birth to the loud Chandigarh-Se-Hoon-BC arrogance of Roadies. The film made us perceive and receive the ugliness of the Bigg Boss skirmishes as entertainment. It gave legitimacy to the reality TV cockiness. Sanjay Gupta started the mainstreamisation of the counter-culture. Eighteen years later, the results and reverberations can still be felt.
“The Italians have their mafia, the Columbians have their cartel, the Chinese have their triads. And we, we Indians, what do we have? Nothing!”, goes Major/ Amitabh Bachchan in the film.
That’s not really correct. The Indians have their Kaante.
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.
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.
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)
I am a big fan of Justin Trudoeu Tredaeu Treduae Trudeau. I like Canada. I like Canadians. I also like Punjabi, the language most of the Canadians speak. So, naturally, I was intrigued when I got a mail with the subject “Canada Immigration” from one Suman Jha from Prime Track, an ISO 9001:2008 certified firm specialising in sending people to far out countries. Fairly articulate and persuasive, our man informed me that there was a shortage of skilled manpower in Canada, and the time was right for me to start the process of migrating to Canada without any delay. He also told me that he had profoundly reviewed my profile and that he was very pleased to inform me that my CV had successfully passed through what I am assuming must be their rather stringent first phase of screening process.
This was all fantastic. Only, there was one very minor technical issue. I had not sent him my CV.
So I did what any self respecting man secure with the belief that the best career opportunities were available in Canada with high earning job profiles for foreign skilled workers would do. I ignored his mail.
However, the eloquent Mr. Jha, with his dogged determination and stubborn seduction, would not have taken no for an answer. He sent a few more mails over the next four weeks, reminding me of the interest I had shown, asking me for the details of my documents, and promising me the completion of my documentation under the fast-track services. This was all too good to be true, this outpouring of concern and affection. Unfortunately, random unnecessary work took over my life, and I could not write back to him. Let’s just say the beloved was very much aware of the admirer’s strong overtures, but I had to consciously reject it.
Suman continued to have my best interests in his mind. The natural extension of his love was yet another mail from him.
“It;s a golden opportunity”, he said.
That one sentence did the trick. Guess I was hit somewhere deep inside – the semicolon hitting the colon, as they say – and that was enough to shake me out of my complacence. I was charmed and charged by the radiance of the golden opportunity, ready to immediately take on his offer. I was raring to go. And Canada was waiting.
I wrote a polite response explaining my silence and my readiness, in order. The mail also outlined some very regular practical issues I was facing. But I was sure it was nothing Mr. Jha or Prime Track, an ISO 9001:2008 certified firm, would not have been able to sort.
Surprisingly, my positivity was reciprocated by a very stoic silence. It was as if the fizz had gone from our relationship. It was my turn to follow up.
The professional Mr. Jha had a single-lined response for me. Apt. I deserved it.
He had not asked to me for write my biography. Obviously. I was blinded by the warmth that I had seen, and it had led to some weak moments. He was totally right in chiding me. This is exactly how businesses are conducted. I realised my mistake and apologised profusely to the man who stood between the Rocky Mountains and me.
Sassy Suman was back in the game. He sent me a quick reply asking me for my CV and other documents.
By now I had figured the curt Mr. Jha meant business. I sent my biodata to him almost immediately. I also had some basic queries for him to address. Felt stupid and sorry about sending those inane questions to him, thinking how smart guys like him have to go through such dumb Qs in their line of work. But then I thought Mr. Jha and Prime Track, an ISO 9001:2008 certified firm, must be used to such harmless naiveté of their clients.
He rejected my CV.
Crestfallen, I wrote a rather poignant mail to him. I was hurting. And it didn’t feel good. But despite the grief and the hurt, I maintained my poise and my positivity. I felt like a Himesh Reshammiya heroine. With a smile on my face and a song on my lips, I asked him to reconsider my application.
His response was the complete anti-thesis of the turmoil going in the atriums of my heart. He started using his silence to numb me, and comfortably so. I waited. Twenty-four hours later, I decided to graciously confront him while respecting his point of view.
I knew he would come around. I have lots of money. And come around he did.
THIS was the point where I figured a thing or two about the psychological make of Mr. Jha. He was a man of few words. That’s what he wanted in a man. He didn’t want long treatises. He wanted short jabs. I had to change my strategy to stay ahead in the game. I had to become as succinct as him.
The whole world stood in silence as the mano-a-mano struggle ensued between the two protagonists. And then he spoke. I had nothing but gratitude towards the big man.
Soon enough, I sent him all the documents that were needed. He had given me this extreme resolve to fight, live and survive. The underlying tension had led to this overarching tenacity. I was ready to take on the world!
I knew what I was talking.
It worked. We were now willing to go to the next level. We were exchanging numbers. And I am not just talking account numbers here.
This was not just a mail exchange I was having with the man. This was a life lesson I was learning. We were talking the talk. Kind of.
Just after I hit “send”, I realised that I had ended up sharing some very critical information about myself. And I knew it instantly that it would come back to harm and haunt me.
I had inadvertently revealed that there was somebody else in my life.
Mr. Jha decided we were done. He knew he had to severe all ties with me at one go. Just like that. Or not.
He closed my file, but he opened my life. I am upset, yes, but at the same time, I am content that this experience made me find answers to that one question that has always bothered the mankind.
“Had i asked to you for write your biography?”
(If Close Encounters with Suman Jha is your kind of a thing, you may want to know more about my original heartbreaker, Probaldwip Bakshi.)
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 –
When actor Neetu Chandra saw Alia Bhatt playing a Bihari in the Udta Punjab trailer, she wrote an open letter, as is the norm these days. She was upset about the exaggerated portrayal of Biharis in Hindi cinema. Phrases like “Bihar’s glorious past” made their justifiable entries in the note, as did the obligatory references to Nalanda University and the origins of Buddhism and Jainism. It was sweet, despite the mid-life angst playing peekaboo. Guess Neetu never did see the brown and burnt Ms. Bhatt speaking in what-she-thought-was-Bhojpuri in the film. Because then, just an open letter would not have sufficed! :)
But we are digressing already.
The point being made was fairly spot-on. The state’s portrayal in mainstream media and popular culture always has been rather insensitive, loud and callous. Bihar is unsophisticated, corrupt, rustic, lawless, criminalised and anarchistic, joyously indifferent to anything refined and cultured. Bihar is unruly political goons getting their eyes stuffed with acid in Gangajal. Bihar is years of rivalry between Faisal Khan and Ramadhir Singh, with bloodbaths and gaali galauj galore. Bihar is Pepsi Peeke Laagelu Sexy and other such raunchy Bhojpuri songs on YouTube. Bihar is the blatantly ridiculous buffoonery of Laloo Yadav, and his unscrupulous political machinations, over the last two decades. Bihar is a cunning opportunist singing paeans to Azaadi one day and sharing stage with shady politicians the other. Bihar is that viral photograph showcasing unashamed mass cheating in Hajipur.
AND Bihar is Ruby Rai.
Don’t think anybody would be able to write any distressed open letters complaining against the state’s unsympathetic portrayal in the last few cases. As a bona fide born-and-brought-up-in-Bihar Bihari, I would love to pen a few passionate notes defending the land I grew up in. I would want to dissociate myself from this deviousness and douchebaggery. But I would not. Because I know that the state IS all that and more. The lawlessness and the lawmakers waltz together. They are real. They exist. And they are here to stay.
But then again, the same state produces the best brains that make it to the Civil Services, year on year, clearing what must be the toughest examination process in the whole wide world. The best colleges in the country across streams, including the IITs and IIMs, are filled with Biharis. Super 30 is a produce of Bihar. As are the mega achievers in very many fields around us. They are real. They exist. And they are here to stay.
And yet, Bihar is Ruby Rai.
But rightly so. Very much warranting that depiction. I will not blame the wisely manicured societal commentators for making the likes of Ruby Rai, Laloo Yadav or the next buffoon that the state will produce as Bihar’s prime protagonists. They make great copy, yes, but they are NOT figments of somebody’s imagination. Their existence is authentic. Which is exactly why they deserve to be discussed, dissected and disseminated. That mumbling, bumbling, tumbling girl was exactly how Ruby Rai was. Dumb. And dumber. Densely looking into the camera with this dazed, dopey look, making a fool of herself. She may be a minor, and stupid, but she clearly knew what she had done, or not done. Her parents did, too. We can blame the system as much as we want, but she merited the public shaming. While I feel sorry for her, it was important for issues like these to become national news. For the sake of Bihar.
Because things in Bihar are more deep-rooted than one can ever imagine. The scam is not new. Let me do a quick flashback to the Patna of 1990. I was in class 10th. CBSE had introduced the Open School exams for candidates who had to take a break from studies. My school happened to be the centre for the same. It was good to see girls coming to our all-boys’ unit to attend those special classes. Thank you, CBSE. When the Open School exam results were put up on the notice board, we wanted to know how our girls had fared. (Yeah, they had become our girls by then, only they didn’t know that.) There was one particular candidate who had scored 20, 20, 20, 19 and 19 in the five papers, getting 98 out of 500. Her name sounded familiar. Her father was, and still is, a mega politician from Bihar. She had scored less than 20%. This spoke volumes about her aptitude, intellect and acumen. Very soon, the Bihar board results were out. The girl had passed with flying colours!
She is now in public space, taking forward all the good work done by her father.
And that’s my point. Bihar is a sad reflection of its rulers, and not just the political class. While a complete socio-political-cultural analysis of the state is outside the scope of this note, the fact of the matter is that the powers-that-be have mauled and molested it since independence without any fear of any consequences. And are continuing to do so, making Bihar into what it is. The flaw isn’t with the education system or any other systems of Bihar. It is with the people who are meant to be responsible for implementing those systems.
Some, like Ruby and her parents, give in and become a part of those people. For their ilk, cheating isn’t the easy way out. It is the only way out. How would Ruby know what Political Science is, if her teachers, and their teachers, are also the products of the same set up! Test them, and even they would fail the Board examination, confusing Political Science with Home Science. “Tulsidas Ji, Pranaam”, was the only line she famously wrote in the essay on the poet-saint Tulsidas in her re-exam. My belief is that her tutors may also not be able to go beyond this.
The rest don’t give in. They quietly struggle, work hard, become engineers, doctors and civil servants, some even write long treatises on what is wrong with the state of affairs in Bihar. And while Bihar never leaves them, they do leave Bihar. The brain-drain is a sad, continuous reality for the state. From my batch itself, barring the classmates who had family businesses in Patna or who got government jobs in nationalised banks and insurance companies, most of us are out of the state. I am talking about people who owe their identities, thought processes and individualities to Bihar, and proudly so. Only, we are not in Bihar. Neither would we want to be there. Because the ones that go back – especially the ones who get churned out from the IAS factories – quietly become those people. Agreeing with, and sometimes even spearheading, the sorry state of affairs.
The exposé of Ruby Rai, therefore, is a good thing. More than probing the cheap tactics used to get her to top the Board exams, I would want to question this rather ballsy bravado that led them to get the girl face the cameras and journalists, and actually believe that they would get away scot free. THAT must die. I repeat, my heart bleeds for the scars she must be getting, but then, all that she had to do was study some. Read. Work hard. That’s what most kids her age do. Even in Bihar. She was the privileged one. Her parents had the monies. She could have asked them to get her the best tutors, the best teaching tools, the best education. Instead, “Maine to Papa se kaha tha pass karwa deejiye, unhonen toh top hi karva diya” is the route she took.
She needs to pay for it.
So that things are not taken for granted any more. So that the likes of Bachcha Rai, the Principal of the Vishun Rai College, and Lalkeshwar Singh, the former Chairman of Bihar State Education Board, get arrested. So that the outrage forces the administrative class to take preventive and corrective action. Across spaces. I hope there are many more of her that get exposed. It will be a very very good thing for Bihar.
Yes, Ruby Rai is all that is wrong with Bihar. But Ruby Rai may just become all that will be right with Bihar.
Ruby Rai Ji, Pranaam!
– This article was first published on arre.co.in. The girl was just granted bail after a five week stay at a juvenile home. The case continues. As does Bihar. –
When I took up the case of the 9 year old Jiya Dhulgaj and her struggle to get admission in an English medium school in Kalina/ Vakola with Mr. Vinod Tawde, our honourable Minister for Schools, the last thing I was expecting was this to become a mini-movement of sorts, eventually helping me discover a wee bit more about the world and her people. :)
I met up with Jiya last September at my old workplace, where her mother Hina was responsible for cleaning the women’s rooms. Saw this puny little thing hiding behind her mom, and what a charming, endearing and bright number she turned out to be! I spoke with her parents about her studies, and was overwhelmed seeing their resolve and focus to get the child a good education. Karamjit and Hina, janitors with a monthly income of 15k between the two of them, informed me that the girl was staying at her granny’s place in Nalasopara, and not with them at Vakola, only because she had got admission at an English medium school there. The medium of education defined evolution/ development to them, and I could kind of figure why. They wanted her to become a doctor. While they were happy with the arrangement, they sincerely wished if the girl could get admitted somewhere in Vakola or Kalina itself. I was told that no English medium school in the said areas was willing to consider her case for reasons best known to them.
Armed with the rhetoric of Right to Education, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, and the government’s spotlight on the girl child, I thought it would be easy for me to get Jiya the admission. Especially if I was leading this, going to schools and meeting up with the principals/ administrators, flaunting my visiting card and education. I could not have been farther from the truth! Between her parents and me, we went to almost ALL the English medium schools of Vakola, Kalina and the nearby areas. Some of them were established schools, and some aided government schools. This was December, 2015.
Cut to July 2016, and I had a slate of continued failures staring at me. I’m sure the schools had their own reasons and compulsions, but it was frustrating to see the way things were. I even wrote to a former MP and a few other people in the public domain, but that didn’t really work. So I tweeted to Mr. Tawde.
While the honourable Minister never did revert to me, despite the reminders, my tweets to him went viral, courtesy the behemoth that social media can be. Very soon, my friend and storyteller extraordinaire, Varun Grover took it upon himself to take this forward. His post on Facebook on the plight of Jiya was circulated widely across social media, and in no time, I had people from all over the world writing to me to help.
My inbox was full of kind men and women giving details of the contacts they knew. Some people like Sneha Ullal Goel, the Managing Editor of Elle Decor India, physically went to one of the schools we were pursuing to get the admission done. Anvi Mehta, Puja Pednekar and Richa Khare, journalists from DNA, HT and Hindu, went beyond their journalistic duties to actually become a part of the process, helping us with leads. Of course, their respective publications also gave the issue the space it deserved in their papers.
And then I got a tweet from Ms. Poonam Mahajan. Member of Parliament from Mumbai North Central. She wanted to see us.
We were at Ms. Mahajan’s office at the appointed hour the next day. Seven months of continued rejection despite our best efforts had already frustrated me, so if I were to be honest, I was not really looking at anything beyond sympathy coming from her office. I was soon made to eat my words!
Poonam Mahajan is a rockstar! End of story.
She sat us down and spent almost an hour talking to us and the child. Not just about the admission, but about things around and about us. I later figured that she was not really well, and that she had come to her office only to see us. She was humble, she was humane and she was human. No airs about anything, and with a discussion-range moving from schools to books to Pokémon Go, and everything in between! She was all that a leader must be. She told us in clear terms that she would not do any sifarish to get the girl admitted. That her office would only talk to the schools and see if an interview could be possible. And if they don’t have space, she would not be able to do anything about it this year. No false assurances, no random pledges, no nothing. But a whole lot of positivity. Hell, that’s how I want my MP! Her able team reflected the boss’ enthusiasm, and was extremely proactive in taking things forward.
Very soon, the interviews were fixed with a few schools. The child was refused admission in the first school that we went to. Fair enough. But the second school accepted her after a one-on-one. Today was Jiya’s first day at Mary Immaculate Girls’ High School, Kalina. :)
And THIS is how a little underprivileged girl brought people from varied walks of life together and created a vibe so strong and positive that this happy ending became a foregone conclusion. Thank you, all you lovely people on Twitter, Facebook and in life. Beyond all the outrage and fights and debates and discussions, beyond all the jhagdas and ladaais, there is so much love around us. I hope and pray all of us get lots of that. It is beautiful.
Also, Mr. Tawde, a reply would not have been a bad idea. Lekin koi nahin. You must have had your own rationale. Here’s lots of love for you, sir. From all of us. If at any point of time you want to discuss educational reforms so that there are no more such cases, talk to social media. You will be surprised to see how constructive the space can be.
I know, right :)
Sajid Khan is an intelligent man.
Not everybody will agree with the statement, I know, and you will throw Himmatwala and Hamshakals at me. And you will not miss. Having said that, while I am still not sermonising that he is more sinned against than sinning, I don’t think half the world has seen either of the two movies. I have, and I have suffered them. BUT I also have picked up gems from both that are quintessentially Sajid Khan. Quirky, funny and fun. Wonder how many of us are aware of the random tribute – in black & white, no less – he has given to Alfred Hitchcock in Himmatwala, with Mahesh Manjrekar duplicating Marion Crane from the famous shower scene of Psycho! Of course, I yearned for more, and, of course, I felt disappointed. However, my faith in the man stays. He is not an auteur, and I don’t think he aspires to become one either. But he certainly gets humor better than most of his contemporaries. (I’m looking at you, Rohit Shetty.) The problem, and I say it only from a regular viewer’s perspective, is that he doesn’t know where and when to stop.
The nostalgic eighties/ nineties cheese make the cinema of Sajid Khan, coupled with a micro-focus on the audiences who get his references. Getting Shabbir Kumar to sing I Don’t Know What To Do in Houseful 2 was a masterstroke. It may not have been even registered by half the world, but for legions of Shabbir Kumar fans, it was an emotional reunion with the hamming hummer. Way different from, say, an Altaf Raja being experimented with, and made a mess of, in Ghanchakkar or Hunterrr. This was unadulterated Shabbir Kumar for the unadulterated Shabbir Kumar fans. And getting Ranjeet to play Papa Ranjeet, again, in Housefull 2, was, well, a very Papa Ranjeet thing to do. Only Sajid could get Ranjeet to give a homage to Ranjeet! And I am still not talking about the random Jeevan, Shatrughan Sinha, Sanjeev Kumar, Rajesh Khanna moments that he inserts (I wouldn’t be surprised if some of it is done unknowingly!) in scenes and scenarios which also double up as his narratives.
But Sajid is not just about nostalgia or talking only to the hardcore fans of nostalgia. He also gives the identifiable Tom & Jerry cartoonish coloration to his characters and situations to appeal to the sensibilities of the newer, younger viewers. (Who, I suspect, are sometimes as young as five. Days, that is.) Crocodiles and pythons attack the crotches of his heroes, diapers fly, and cute slap-fests, including one with a monkey, are integral parts of his movie-making. Some people find these funny, others find these unfunny. But the theatres get the laughs, sometimes louder than normal. Purpose served. Then there are the cringeworthy prejudices, some subtle and some not-so-subtle. The bimbetteness of the womenfolk is glorified, the lecherousness of the mankind is glamorised. Oh, and an occasional repulsive appearance of a dwarf maid cavorting with Mithun Chakraborty also makes inroads. But I would still refrain from donning the judicial robes here. History will evaluate and appraise Sajid Khan – and David Dhawan plus a few more directors for that matter – for the kind of films that they have made and the kind of laughter their humor has elicited. But they sure will make it to History, even if as post-scripts. Purpose served.
Last, Sajid Khan knows how to get his audiences to have some random, mindless fun with confusions and conundrums galore in all his outings. Yes, these are random, and yes, they are mindless. But, hell, some of us enter that big dark room to let go! The climax of Housefull had Queen Elizabeth talking in Marathi and yelling the “Jai Maharashtra” war cry, arbit Russian folk dancers forming the backdrop in a strictly British set up, Boman Irani LOLing and saying “Tu toh homos hai” to Arjun Rampal and a roomfull of Brits laughing uproariously and behaving demented because of a Nitrous oxide leak. Do the math already.
The Sajid Khan formula – if there is one – doesn’t always work, of course. It did not, for sure, in the Saif Ali Khan-Riteish Deshmukh starrer Hamshakals. It was a universally panned film, and for all the right reasons. As his loyalist, I felt cheated when I saw the film. While I had not gone expecting any high art, my biggest grouse was that Sajid Khan failed his audiences as Sajid Khan, the director. The film was loud, alright, but not ludicrous. And THAT was its failing. It isn’t easy making his kind of movies, and I am sure Sajid figured it himself while making Hamshakals. I hope his next one, whenever it happens, gives him back to us. Meanwhile, Sajid-Farhad tried being him in Housefull 3, and, well, didn’t really succeed. “Sirf bhaunkne se koi kutta kameena nahin ho jaata“, Papa Ranjeet had predicted in Housefull 2. And rightly so, despite my disagreement with the kutta-kameena analogy.
Hamshakals had one redeeming thing, though. The Cocaine Ke Paraathe song. It is as moronic as it can get and it is not funny when seen in isolation. But it was the high point of the film. Vintage Sajid Khan. Ridiculous to the core, and giving you those laughter trips you know you would eventually feel extremely guilty about. You can switch directly to 2:08 if you do not want to see the set up.
And why am I remembering the man now? The entire #BREXIT noise took me to the climax scene of Housefull 2, obviously! (Stupid Brits, no, really.) And I actually came across an article on drug laced parathas being sold in Chandigarh. Like, for real.
Guess I am not the only one who gets enamored by the genius of Sajid Khan!
It isn’t the super-singer with his studded jacket hand-horning away to the 31st night stardom OR the Honey-laced Bhangra regurgitation and the repulsively captivating resultant haze thereafter OR the Gurgaon Chapter of Pheromones Inc. flaunting their Lajpat Nagar jackets and Tank Road denims, getting their marauding machismo to pose for the camera OR the plain loud and happy Punjabi-Bihari Being Human Jaat-ness of the moment which typifies Delhi for me in this picture.
Delhi is this lady in blue, first row, third from left, holding what looks like her grand-daughter next to the invisible speaker stacks which must be the size of Qutab Minar. Swaying her arms. Swinging her body. Her physicality isn’t important. Her essense is. That aunty. Is. Delhi Aunty. That aunty is all what Delhi is.
Ecstatic. Blissful. Loud. Unaware. Unapologetic. Orgasmic. And happy.
The only thing missing are the leopard prints. I am assuming the hair is peroxide-painted or henna-dyed already. And that the girl in red would soon get married and get her honeymoon pics clicked in Pattaya wearing those choodas. And that the uncle behind them comes up with exactly the same expression in all his pictures.
The Kejriwals, odd-evens and other such unfortunate incidents would continue to happen to Delhi. As would some sweeping generalisations like I just did. But as would the ladies’ sangeets, the jagraatas and the trips to Sarojini Market.
A happy new year to you, too. See you soon at the Mata Ki Chowky. :)
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)