Monthly Archives: March 2017

Thank you, Steven Smith

I like to think of myself as an intense cricket fan.

But if I were to lay the facts out in the open, the truth is that I have followed very few cricket tournaments from start to finish.

I don’t mean following parts of innings when time permits, skimming the newspaper, or catching the highlights the next day. I have done all of that. I mean religiously following every ball of the match, taking breaks only for absolute necessities like answering calls from Mother Nature, food, and rolling one.
Circumstances haven’t been too kind to me in the past. As I scan my memory through the greatest moments in Indian cricket, I find myself trapped in a variety of situations that are both comical as well as tragical.

When Venkatesh Prasad made a mess of Aamir Sohail’s stumps, I was praying to God in a hostel. The only reports of the match came from a teacher who brought us detailed reviews of the matches (‘Boys, India won!’ – Yayyyyyy! ‘Boys, India lost’ – Noooooo! )

When Sachin Tendulkar was haunting Shane Warne’s nightmares at Sharjah, I was sleeping in a Sai Baba temple, the cheers and noises from nearby homes the only indicators of India’s progress in the match. When Laxman and Dravid got together to string the most magical Indian fairytale, I was battling a teenager’s curiosity of the world. When Yuvraj and Kaif waged a battle against our colonial masters, I was locked up in a room, craning my ears for cheers from neighbours.

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I have always wanted to follow a Test tournament by the ball.

As a famous Brazilian author says, ‘When you want something with all your heart, but you lead a distinctly middle class life, the universe conspires to screw it up for you’. When a young brazen English team was making Aussies sweat in the 2005 Ashes series, I was fighting off the rigours of a call centre job. Every Test series has been jeopardised by a number of internal and external factors – examinations, semesters, jobs, or mangled affairs of the heart.

But not anymore.

A few weeks before the India Australia tournament kicked off, I washed my hands off worldly callings. I did away with my freelance and content writing work, took a break from the humdrum and revelled in some Laxmi Shiva Durga. I had nothing on my plate. In fact, I didn’t even have a plate.

When Steven Smith flipped the coin against Virat Kohli on February 23rd, I was prepared. The stars had been hesitant to start with, but I had successfully manipulated them into conspiring in my favour.

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If you do not follow cricket, it is difficult to encapsulate what makes Test cricket special. On the surface, Test cricket has nothing going for it.

No other sport is played over 5 days, only to end as a draw. In the age of VR and FX and zip-zap-zoom, taller-faster-stronger – Test cricket is an archaic colonial indulgence that 10 of the world’s countries indulge in. On the surface, Test cricket is a coterie of cartels. But that’s the surface.

Scratch deeper, and Test cricket is the only form of sport where the name conveys the true meaning of the word. Test cricket is a test of human will and perseverance. Unlike other sports, where skill, talent and form can help you bulldoze through an opposition, Test cricket demands the strictest of regimes. It requires excelling across 5 days under the sun. It entails adapting to nature – soil, grass, outfield, pitch, weather – over five days.

While other sports are battles, Test cricket is war. You might lose two sessions, but you have to shake yourself off and fight again. You are required to regroup, refocus, reassess, reassure. Test cricket is cricket at its toughest, its most unforgiving form.

But ride the wave, and it is cricket at its most sublime, most nuanced.

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If one begins to believe in stars and their alignment, there’s no end to the extents even a rational man would go.

Surely it could be no coincidence that for this particular series, the Indian team would be at its strongest and the Aussies at its weakest? That their front line bowler should get injured after two tests? That our middle order should fire when the captain gets injured? That we bounce back after losing the first match? That the tournament would be undecided till the penultimate day of the final Test?

The team that was dismissed to lost 4-0 (‘Australia will lose 3-1 if they play very well’ – Harbhajan Singh. Roadies Judge) fought valiantly. At times, it was brutal. At times it was curiosity to understand the etymology of our swear words. But playing the Aussies has never been easy, given their long line of impressive leaders – Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke.

It wasn’t easy to like Ponting or Steve Waugh. They both came across as insiders, groomed under the brash Australian system that gave them their thick skins. When Waugh encouraged his bowlers to hound batsmen, or Ponting walked up to the opposition to pick banters, they epitomised Australian aggression.

For some reason, Steven Smith doesn’t seem like a mean guy. Unlike Ponting and Waugh, his face doesn’t betray a sharp, incisive man. Steven Smith seems like a captain burdened by the history of being the Aussie captain. Australian captains were always expected to lead. To take the attack to the opponents’ chin. Unlike Ponting and Waugh, Smith has none of the natural grace or technique. He resembles a crab grappling to survive on the pitch. The nervous shakes of the hand, the shifting outside off stump.

And yet, he stood strong, the best batsman on the tour. Captaining a ship of greenhorns in baggy greens.

Does that seem like the face of a cruel, aggressive leader? No! It's the face of an innocent man burdened by history. Like Draco Malfoy, if I may say so.

Does that look like the face of a cruel, aggressive leader? No! It’s the face of an innocent young man burdened by his history. Like Draco Malfoy, if I may say so.

Perhaps that is what endears him to Indians,  makes him stand out from his Aussie brethren. That he apologised after the tournament proves that he not only possesses better technique than Virat Kohli, but also a larger heart.

This tournament helped me understand the eternal puzzle in my head – the Aussie fan. I had imagined them all to be beer-guzzling hooligans who sledged and heckled. As I followed ball by ball coverage on r/cricket, the difference struck me.
Perhaps it is a cultural difference. The way we approach and consume cricket is different from the Aussie style. As fans from both sides sledged, heckled and hurled insults across each other, I was able to see beyond the surface. Beneath the shell of ‘Behnchods’ and ‘Cunts’, lay a mutual respect for each other.

Perhaps Indians tend to get overtly aggressive because of our colonial history. Or perhaps the biting truth that we are absolutely miserable in Australia. That we know deep within that we won’t be able to even draw the series when we go down under.
As the home season comes to an end, it is time for IPL. The glitz of the tournament blurs international boundaries, and loyalties melt and metamorphose into personal loyalties.
While my bread and butter, my chai and sutta is located with Sunrisers Hyderabad, I shall keep an eye out on Rising Pune Supergiants too.

The one Test tournament that I followed ball-by-ball, is being called one of the greatest tournaments between the two sides. It was a glorious summer of cricket.

A summer of leather and wood. Of sessions that swung this way and that. A summer when the two greatest exponents of the sublime art of batting led their sides.

One came off victorious at the end of an arduous war. The other won a billion hearts.

Thank you, Steven Smith.

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Featured Image courtesy: Sky Sports.

Irom Sharmila NDTV

Will Irom Sharmila purchase her groceries?

When Irom Sharmila won a meager 90 votes in the recent Assembly elections in Manipur, she elicited two distinct reactions.

One, was liberals guilt-tripping the people of Manipur for not voting Irom Sharmila to power. The second reaction, mostly from right-wingers, was to mock her guts, to call her a media-created goddess. Irom Sharmila, who had spoken of her desire to get married, have children and lead a normal life after the elections, vowed never to contest elections ever again.

 

THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS

Irom Sharmila (not ‘Iron’ Sharmila as a lot of people confuse her as) began her fast in the year 2000. Hrithik Roshan had made his debut and his film was still playing in some theatres. Govinda was a popular actor, and the Internet and mobile phones had just made inroads into India’s cities.

Her fast began on Nov. 3, 2000 and was triggered by the gunning down of 10 civilians while waiting for a bus. She demanded the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, that has been in force since 1958. Ironically, AFSPA owes its roots to the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance of 1942, enforced by the British to quell the ‘Quit India’ movement.

The AFSPA gives the state extraordinary powers in order to retain the peace and harmony of the land. Currently enforced in five of the seven North-eastern states and Kashmir (and temporarily in Punjab), the nitty-gritties of AFSPA have been debated for decades now. 

Under AFSPA, congregations are illegal, the forces have the right to search, frisk, raid, arrest, interrogate and shoot at sight suspects without citing any reason or warrant. The Act also provides protection to the armed forces, as the steps taken are purported to be to in good faith. The Central Government’s intervention is needed for any prosecution of the armed forces/officers.

Times Of India

Times Of India

Since it was enforced in 1958, there have been a number of humanitarian mishaps attributed to the armed forces. There have been reviews, promises to repeal AFSPA in parts, commissions set up by Central governments to analyse the impact of the Act, and a number of extra-judiciary killings have been reported, in a country with a recurring judicial killings problem. It must be remembered that AFSPA can be repealed by the state governments, as seen in Punjab and Tripura, which successfully lifted AFSPA from their states.

IROM SHARMILA’S FAST

Irom Sharmila’s protest, where she vowed not to eat, drink or cut her hair till AFSPA was repealed in Manipur completely, made her the world’s longest hunger striker. Support and awards flowed in, editorials and interviews continued to be published in her name.

Irom Sharmila’s name featured in quizzes, GK Refresher booklets, posters in universities, and articles by foreign correspondents in India. For 16 years, Irom Sharmila presented herself in court every two weeks. For 16 years, Irom Sharmila protested against AFSPA and demanded its removal. It was a unique protest, one woman taking on the system through nonviolent means for 16 years.

Somewhere along the 16 years, her family turned its back on her. Somewhere along the 16 years, she fell in love with a man and got engaged to him. Somewhere along the line, support for her within Manipur reduced, with even death threats sent out for her choice in partner. For 16 years, Irom Sharmila was confined to a hospital ward, tubes running through her body as she was force-fed by the state since it is illegal to take one’s life.

And then, on August 9, 2016, Irom Sharmila decided to end her fast, and contest electoral politics.

DIFFERENT BALLGAME

In spite of offers from a few political parties, Irom Sharmila decided to fight it out alone.

She vowed to repeal AFSPA in Manipur if elected as the CM, and took on Okram Ibobi Singh, three time Chief Minister who was nicknamed ‘Mr. Ten Percent’ for every deal signed in the state, according to a leak by Wikileaks.

While it might have been a courageous move, it reeked of political immaturity. Politics, unlike people’s movements, is a different ballgame. No amount of visibility, experience or public life can guarantee political victory. It’s like Sachin Tendulkar competing in Table Tennis – he has to start from the basics all over again!

A protest is based on foundations of ideals, beliefs and devotion to an idea. Politics is based on nothing at all. No ideals, no principles, just numbers. Cold statistics. Going with the Congress was out of question, as the INC was in power for 10 of Irom Sharmila’s protest years. Partnering with BJP was impossible as it is the ruling party at the Centre.

Irom Sharmila formed her own party – People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance and took on the Chief Minister in his own den. On paper, it was a victory for the movement – the face of a movement who entered the political arena to take the battle to the domain of electoral politics. JP Narayan did it in 1977, as the nation bent under the Emergency enforced by Indira Gandhi. More recently, Arvind Kejriwal stormed to power, winning nearly every single seat in the Delhi Assembly elections. So it certainly wasn’t the first time.

But it had had happened too suddenly, and seven months in politics is equal to the blink of an eye. JP’s campaign was built from the grassroots through hundreds of rallies and arrests. Kejriwal’s routing at the Delhi elections came on the back of a nation-wide anti-corruption campaign that hogged headlines for weeks at stretch. Irom Sharmila got the support of intelligentsia, Kejriwal (who also gave her Rs. 50,000) and supporters in social media, magazines and journals.

Unfortunately though, India does not vote in the boardrooms of newspaper offices, or in university campuses. India votes in its zillas and gram panchayats. In government schools and lanes of roads wide and narrow. In government ration shops and dispensaries, in farms and factories, in huts and houses.

Irom Sharmila won only 90 votes. There were more NOTA (None of the above) votes than the votes she won. After 16 years, Irom Sharmila jumped on to a different domain and lost a heartbreaking election. Articles, memes and editorials guilted the people of Manipur for not choosing Irom Sharmila.

16 years of protests, brought to an end by one false move.

Irom Sharmila swore never to contest elections again. She fought the system for 16 years, but the world has changed in these 16 years.

Perhaps Irom Sharmila will get to lead a regular life now. Perhaps she will get married and have kids like she professed a few years ago. May be Irom Sharmila will get to enjoy the joys of regular life, of marital bliss, the reassuring banalities of everyday married life. Or will she?

Will Irom Sharmila lead a regular life? Is it possible to dive right back into a life that one gave up nearly two decades ago? Will Irom Sharmila be able to cook for herself and take an afternoon siesta?

Will Irom Sharmila buy her groceries?

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Featured Image Courtesy: NDTV

Recommended Reading:

Armed Forces Special Powers Act – The Debate. By Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses

AFSPA – A Soldier’s Perspective

Why I had to shut down my Start Up Company

2015.

Narendra Damodardas Modi had swept to power, his popularity at its highest peak. Modi was blazing across the world, encouraging investors, businessmen and conglomerates to ‘Make in India’.

Freshly admitted into the MPhil course at the University of Hyderabad, my department sent me on a trip to Gujarat for the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, where I rubbed shoulders (and elbows and toes) with some of the biggest Indian business heads who chose not to live in India. Perhaps it was the exposure to their business heads that sowed the seed in my own head.

Or perhaps there was always a silent entrepreneur in me. I had never seen anyone run a business from close quarters, and all my transactions with friends were limited to drugs. But sometimes, you just know.

On that winter day in 2015, I basked in the confidence that there existed an entrepreneur in me. Silent, but strong.

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Part 1 – The Idea

Every great business idea attacks the roots of a common problem, and we were no different. The University of Hyderabad offers its students a range of benefits – from taxpayer internet connection to taxpayer coconut chutney. However, the dining hall – appropriately called ‘mess’ – leaves a lot to be desired.

They serve breakfast till 9, which is when classes begin in the departments. Students have to rush for breakfast, and by 8.15 the line resembles a queue for National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Long winding lines for soggy bondas and liberal dosas that chose to transcend barriers of taste and feel. Food stalls on campus were all far away, and didn’t open till 11 AM. This was where me and my friend come into the picture.

Our plan was simple. We would deliver breakfast to rooms, on a daily, weekly and monthly subscription basis. There existed a number of vendors just outside the back gate, and since both me and my partner had access, we could provide fresh, hot, healthy breakfast to students for as cheap as 30 bucks.

We discussed the idea with a few friends, and got their approval. We printed posters and pasted them across the campus. Pamphlets were slipped under every door, WhatsApp and word of mouth publicity was also used to spread the word.

A few MBA friends spoke to me on the value of ‘scaling up’ and ‘claiming the verticals’. We discussed angel investors, mergers and 2nd round of funding’. Publicity material involving Jackie Shroff (with arguably regressive ideas) were circulated among friends and well-wishers.

Breakfast in Bed

In a week’s time, Breakfast in Bed was raring to go!

 

Part 2 – The Team

At this juncture, it is appropriate that I introduce you to my partner – Rahul – you must have heard the name. Rahul was a part time MPhil student, full time rockstar. He had Jimi Hendrix curly hair, wore yellow John Lennon shades at night, and lived life on his own terms. Rescuer of stray kittens, roller of pristine joints, and a daily challenger to Yama when he rode his bike.

We had met a few years earlier and connected over a common love for the holy herb, psychotropic substances, and all matters transcendental. It was his idea – and it must have been the conviction in his tone, or the dexterity in the joint – I agreed.

As a lurker of the subconscious terrain, it is important to note that a number of ideas strike you on a daily basis, but some stay longer and knock on the insides of your brain. In a few days, I saw the light of his argument. He was Steve, and I was Wozniak. He was Duckworth, and I was Lewis. I had no culinary experience, and my know-how was limited to the fact that I know how to eat; but I’d been a lifelong eater of dosas and vadas. I couldn’t make a good vada, but I could tell a good one from an excellent one. Roger Ebert never made a movie, but his contribution to cinema is far greater than most who did.

 

Part 3 – The Idea in action

And so we set off on this adventure of a venture, our only capital being confidence and the wishes of our friends. The plan was to have a vendor right outside the gate, take orders from customers, and deliver hot, fresh food within 25 minutes.  

Me and Rahul would share the load – alternating between taking orders and delivering them. Every half an hour, one of us would collect the orders (at a shop five minutes away), and deliver them to satisfied customers.

There was something inspiring about the process. For someone who lacks even an iota of discipline, this seemed like a cause worth waking up to. We would be up by 6, and wait for calls. They came slowly at first, and then in waves. One of us would roll a quick joint, while the other took three quick puffs and plunged into action.

Our customers – both friends and strangers – were glad to see us. We provided relief from the corrupted food in the mess, and they greeted us with sunshine smiles. ‘Don’t have change? No problem, bro! Give it tomorrow!’.

Hesitant teenagers who opened the door surreptitiously because their girlfriends lay inside thanked us for the few hours they got. Some customers invited us in –

‘Smoke one? Sure, bro!’

‘But I’ll have to leave early, huh? Have orders waiting…’

I understood what Nobel scientists meant when they said that their work wasn’t work at all. The smiles of customers, or the coy smiles of the girl in the pyjamas, who was surprised that a delivery boy spoke English like the Queen’s plumber.

I was a changed person. I’d wake up at 6 and ask my lady to leave as the orders would start pouring in. At night, I’d receive anonymous messages saying, ‘Hey, what’s for breakfast tomorrow? :-)’. I’d quickly put the phone on silent and go to sleep, for it would be a long day tomorrow.

Life was good, and there was a reason to wake up every morning.

 

Part 4 – The Bubble Bursts

2015 witnessed a number of economic crises, primary among them the Chinese stock market turbulence. Shanghai share index plummeted 8.49% of its value, and the billions lost in international stock markets were dubbed Black Monday and Black Tuesday by international media. The economy of Greece was also going through its bleakest phase, defaulting on a loan repayment of an International Monetary Fund loan.

All of this of course, had no impact on us. We picked up masala dosas and bondas from a small shop and delivered it to hungry students who smoked chhota Gold Flake. Our downfall was brought about by internal factors, rather than external agents.

It was in this process that I learnt the first hard lesson in doing business. It cannot be run when there are two partners, and they’re both sleeping partners. Since both of us were stoners, the morning proceedings began by rolling a joint. Since we’d partied the previous night, sleep was hard to fight off. The results had begun to show.

Orders were getting confused for each other. A horrified vegetarian professor complained about two bright yellow Egg Dosas that had shown up hungover on her table. When I messaged ‘Hey, tomorrow we have special Pongal for breakfast’ to my angel investor, I got no response. A customer complained that his dosa had some mud on it, a clear indication that it had touched the ground at least once. Rahul’s brother, who had graciously helped us with deliveries, refused to deliver in the Ladies Hostel, as his girlfriend had gotten suspicious of him getting breakfast for other girls.

Friends who’d supported us with weekly subscriptions, asked us to hang on for a bit. We mixed business and pleasure into a heady cocktail and took gigantic shots. We would sometimes gobble up a dosa with our friends, and stay back to smoke one, only to realise there were 17 missed calls on the phone!
Part 5 – How the High and mighty fall!

Breakfast in Bed, born from a million myriad mirrored dreams, began to unravel in front of our eyes. We were like Nokia, struggling to cope with a changing world. Meanwhile, evil capitalist money was being pumped in through organisations like Foodpanda and Swiggy. Our socialist-welfare model of cheap food and friendship (and one banana free!) couldn’t cope.

Like Ambassador and Gold Spot, we slowly faded out. Swiggy and Foodpanda had swanky bikes, uniformed-delivery agents with packaged food. Breakfast in Bed had two dope-heads with a bike, delivering food wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper.

And here is the second lesson I learnt from the experience – Accountancy. Rahul was a student of the liberal arts, and couldn’t be bothered with the debit-credit of things. But I was a Commerce graduate, with Honours in Accountancy.

In a month, our cash flow resembled the Hussain Sagar lake, our fund-flow the Musi river. The only incentive to deliver an order was that we could pocket the money, so thoroughly had we blurred the lines between revenues and pocket money! The orders began to dry up – the only orders were from friends who wanted Rahul to roll them their morning joints.

 

Part 6 – The Beginning?

With heavy hearts and light heads, we shut down Breakfast in Bed. It wasn’t ceremonial or momentous, rather like a cancer slowly playing out its destiny. We continued to get stray calls for a few weeks after, but the enterprise was more or less wound up.

Rahul was handling the vendors and suppliers, while I was battling the monsters within me. In a few days, I told the lady she didn’t need to leave early, and I couldn’t gauge if there was happiness or sadness on her face.

May be the business didn’t go all that well. But so was the case with Steve, Walt, and Spielberg. Rahul brought a kitten to the room, but like our customers, it left our room and returned to the Mess.

Maybe it was for the better! May be I wasn’t ready to handle the inevitable onslaught of Venture Capitalists and Mergers & Acquisitions that would follow. Maybe it was an indication that my Pixar awaits me in the future. May be there’s an idea lurking in the dark, waiting for me to stroll into the forest again.

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Meanwhile, I hear the students of the University are struggling to buy cigarettes…

arunabhkumar-kSQE--621x414@LiveMint

TVF Snitchers

Ever since YouTube became a household necessity in India, if there’s one group that has revolutionised content consumption across the nation, it is TVF. The Viral Fever began in 2010, and in a couple of years, was churning out videos that were surging through YouTube Top 10 lists.

They were fresh, brazen, and irreverent. And unlike their biggest competitors – AIB – they were not a bunch of elite South Bombay dudes telling the nation how to behave. TVF’s videos, sketches, and webseries have now become a part of pop-culture folklore. Look at the comments on YouTube and you find content-thirsty youngsters baying for the next episode.

While India’s Startup story is much feted and celebrated, the sad truth is that the biggest Indian startups are simply clones of Western organisations. Ola, Flipkart, Oyo Rooms simply brought to the Indian population an idea that already existed in the West. TVF, however, was the unique Indian startup story. A bunch of IITians venturing into the archaic, nepotistic Indian entertainment industry to shake it up.

As a subscriber, you could be assured there was a fresh video in your list every week. In a nation with the largest youth population in the world, TVF revolutionised content creation in three major ways. 1. They recognised the apathy that youngsters harboured towards mainstream TV and films. 2. TVF placed their bets on a huge Indian population with YouTube on their phones and time on their hands. 3. They foresaw the entry of content platforms like Netflix, Amazon and Hotstar, and successfully created their own platform for content.

TVF’s primary target audience is the youth of the country – embarrassed by soap operas, and a little jaded by Netflix and Torrents. A population starving for local content, for there’s only so much pasta one can eat! TVF’s web series – Pitchers, Tripling, and (my favourite) The Making Of…have achieved cult status online. In a country where the most popular TV show features three men dressed as women, TVF provided humour that didn’t make youngsters cringe, or change the channel in disgust. Slowly but surely, TVF was elevated from just a YouTube channel, to a youth icon.

Which is why the allegations against Arunabh Kumar are so shocking. What began as an anonymous blog has grown to more than 50 allegations from different women. 50 allegations is no joke, and puts one in the company of Amrish Puri in Vishwatma. However, there is one sad truth in the entire case.

The court of law does not recognise blogs, Twitter threads or Facebook debates. For any action to be taken, an FIR will have to be lodged. Without that, there might be some loss of reputation, a few people might uninstall the TVF app, but it will be business as usual.

I do not agree with the call to ban TVF in totality. TVF is more than just Arunabh – TVF is Nidhi Bisht and Biswapati Sarkar, and Jeetu and Naveen, and all those wonderful people who run the channel – a bunch of 20 somethings who dared to shatter the nepotism and bureaucracy that passes off in the name of the Indian entertainment industry.

How TVF reacts to this case will go a long way in crystallising the perception of workplace sexual harassment in India for a long, long time. If action is taken on the basis of evidence and facts, it will be seen as hope in the minds of millions of young women of the country. If Kumar walks free, it will be seen as a victory of clout over doubt.

Trial by social media is a dangerous trend, and the last year witnessed two such massive cases. The case of the biker who abused an AAP volunteer, and the Delhi Metro policeman who was suspended for being drunk, whereas he had a heart attack – these are disturbing trends. I would like to reserve my judgement till the time there’s an actual FIR lodged.

It is difficult, and the lady who does it has to put a lot on the line. But like most of life’s tough decisions, there’s simply no other choice. It remains to be seen if TVF remains The Viral Fever. Or it comes to mean The Vulture’s Free.

Like Shah Rukh Khan says in his movies, FIR milenge, chalte chalte!

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(Featured image courtesy: LiveMint)