Monthly Archives: April 2018

empty stage

How it feels to bomb on stage

At its most basic form, Standup Comedy is an absurd art form.

To go up on stage (and people like Jerry Seinfeld have said this in more eloquent terms), and try to get laughs from strangers, by spilling out the insides of your mind is absolutely weird. Jokes themselves are so subjective – they can either change your world-view, or get you shot in the head by fanatics.

The closest art form is probably singing – you go up on stage, you have a mic, an audience. You have words, and use tunes and tones to communicate. But that is where the similarity ends. A singer can replicate another singer’s song, and is appreciated for how close the singer comes to the original.

In any other art form (cinema, theatre, sports), you have a team working with you. Your success is dependent on how they collaborate with you. Your failures too, can be divided equally. That’s not the case with stand-up.

It is you, standing alone in a dark room of strangers in front of you. They are your thoughts, your words, your performance. Forget sounding like someone else, if you ever tell a joke that belongs to any other comic in the world, it’s the death-knell of your career. Forget copying a joke, even a similar strain of thought could mean THE END, beautiful friend.

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It is this auteristic nature of Standup comedy that makes it unique. There is no team to fall back on, no companions who will see you through. There are friends, of course, but they cannot get on stage with you, or for you.

In other forms, you can always come back. You could muff through the first half of a match, and make a heroic return in the next. You could screw up the first two paras of a song, and come back with a terrific solo in the end. In standup, the audience’s laughter is the only validation. You need validation every few seconds. If the audience does not connect to you in the first few minutes, fat healthy chance of them doing so in a while.

Also, the context to the art form. You could be the greatest standup comedian in the world, but a newbie from Warangal could steal your thunder on his day and sell it in the black market for 250 bucks.

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There are two terms used in Standup – ‘kill’ and ‘bomb’. (Trust comics to use two such terms to describe how they fare!). To ‘kill’ is to do well – to have a good show and get laughs. Of course, kill has other superlatives – murder, destroy, aatank, etc.

On the other end of the spectrum is – ‘to bomb’. To have a shit-show, to muff and fumble and mumble and grumble.

Of course, a lot has been said, written and filmed about ‘killing’ – the success and the glitz of standup. There are books written, shows made, films shot – there is modern folklore associated with successful standup stories.

But nobody talks about bombing. About standing on stage alone and watching your words fizzle out into a silent audience. About standing alone on a stage with your mic, with hundreds of people looking at you, and then slowly looking into their phones.

At one level, bombing is beautiful.

It is like yellow fever – you cannot predict when it’s going to come. It happens to the best, and it happens (more frequently) to the worst. It comes unannounced on some days, and on other, it RSVPs its attendance days in advance. There are days when you expect to bring the roof down, but end up swimming in a sea of silence.

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I obviously can not claim to speak for standup comedians in general, and this is where the blog becomes personal.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve seen me perform, but my jokes are not really family friendly. I don’t know why or how that has come about. Perhaps it is the shock, or the audacity of such jokes that make them such an integral part of my shallow quiver. Or perhaps it was the silly joy in cracking a ‘non-veg’ joke that has somehow shaped who I am as a person.

Which is why I don’t have a great strike rate when it comes to events that ask for ‘clean humour’. ‘Clean comedy’ is an albatross that hangs around every comedian’s neck (I am unsure if that’s the right metaphor – but it looks dramatic enough!). There is money on offer – lots of money – if you’re willing to toe the line.

There are corporate shows – shows for corporate India – mostly bored corporate employees who have been tricked by their HR into an illusion of a good time at an expensive hotel. I can see a bad show coming. Whether it comes announced or unannounced, when you get up on stage – you just know!

For a show to work, there are a number of factors that need to work – I don’t mean the sound and lights and other such paraphernalia. The audience has to be in the right frame of mind, they need to be on the same bandwidth – since a joke is always going to poke fun at somebody or something. They must also belong to your socio-eco-cultural surroundings because standup is subjective and contextual. And to top it all, the audience needs to find what you’re saying funny (or at the very least – stimulating/entertaining enough).

 

So, how does it feel?

It feels crushing. Absolutely heart-wrenching. You have nobody to blame – it is you, thoughts that emanated from your head, told in your voice. And the silence that ensues – is all yours! The humiliation is deeply personal. It is embarrassing, shameful even.

Like a number of tourists who walk towards a man selling clinkets on a bicycle, stare and ask about every product, and casually walk past without buying a thing. There is no redemption, no salvation. There are no second takes, or peppier second-halves. It’s just you, and the mic, and the silence through which you can hear your soul being ripped apart.

So, what do you do?

You feel the sweat trickle down the back of your neck, and patches of sweat in your underarms. You continue to look at the audience, and find a few people looking at you with sympathy – hoping you do well, but curious to see how cringey it can get. You can see in their eyes a rich blend of curiosity and sympathy.

You stand and you take it. You wade through the soul-crushing sorrow and do your time on stage. You soak it all in, say goodbye, and rush out. You smoke a ton of cigarettes and wonder what went wrong.

You wonder why anybody would subject themselves to this? Why would someone put themselves on stage in front of strangers and think they’re funny? Why??

But later, you meet your comedian friends and tell them of the ordeal. And the first thing your friends will do – no matter which city or what age – is laugh. They will laugh long and hard – more than all the laughter that you could have got, if the show had gone well.

And then, you realise it’s alright. They’ve gone through it too, or probably will. That if you cannot see the funny side of your failure, why would you even want to be a comic in the first place?

And then you smile and go back home. Wondering what a strange fucking profession this is.

Strange. But nice.

 

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Why I don’t post blogs these days

The last few months have been really slow on the blog.

If you have been a loyal reader, I am utterly sorry to disappoint. All the posts have been about cricket and films, and not even good posts at that. Just lazy, haphazard shit that I scribbled out in the last minute. I know, I know.

I received a snorter of a mail in my mailbox about the lack of posts, and I gave it some thought. I introspected for a little while and found the answer waft its way to me in brilliant bullet points. Ancient sages and thinkers were firm believers in the belief that the better the herbs utilised in the thinking process, the clearer the Bullet Points come to you when you seek answers.

So, without much ado, allow me to list out the reasons below for your kind perusal.

  1. Laziness: 

The primeval reason. The reason why millions of humans are not writers. The laziness of sitting down and thinking of something, to articulate, give examples, extend the thought, provide counter-points and rebuttals, and then reply to erudite comments like ‘Fuck yourself!’ – it is energy sapping after a point. I have been reporting to a day job, and then sparing time for open mics and shows in the night – leaving me with no motivation to update the blog.

 

2. The Lure of Money 

Again, not the most original of explanations. In the last one year, I have begun writing for a few websites. I write a weekly humour column for the Bangalore edition of The New Indian Express (Bangaloreans, check it out – every Saturday with TNIE), and articles on sites like Arre, DailyO and 101India.

The pay is decent, and the presence of a deadline makes it urgent and binding. Also, there are people to go through the article, suggest changes, make sure it is served well. And at the end of the day, I get paid for it too.

When I write for my blog, there are no such amenities. I have to drag my ass off to the chair and think about writing it. Just before I begin writing, I notice there are 345 comments out of which 325 are spam comments about Viagra and gardening tools from Russia. Deleting them takes a while, and the idea that was fresh as salad in your head now looks like mango chikki.

I then have to type out the blog, and then share it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Which is a pain in the ass. And if an article does well, Facebook sneaks up the suggestion to spend some money and boost it so more people can read it!

 

3. A little clued out of the scene 

Before I started blogging professionally, writing an article was rather easy. I just had to scroll through Facebook and ideas would spring out of the screen and wave to me. I had to smoke a joint, gather my thoughts, and fire away at the keyboard to much appreciation and fanfare.

However, like a fantastic drug that overstays its welcome in your system, that began to backfire. Due to my background and the work I do, I have three distinct kinds of people on my Facebook list –

a. University students who believe in bringing about revolution

b. Engineers/IT employees

c. Standup Comedians.

Each of these categories have their own stance and opinions on everything, and scrolling through my feed became a nightmare. I would read an Arundhati Roy article about Afzal Guru, and then a SwarajMag piece on how she’s full of shit. It was chaotic.

I quit Facebook for a few months, but that resulted in nothing except mosquitoes turning up for my shows. So I returned to Facebook, but this time armed with a boon from Sage Vishwamitra (the world’s friend – the original Zuckerberg). I unfollowed each and every person on my Facebook list.

Everybody. I know not everybody is evil, and it is probably extreme – but how does it matter? It took me about an hour, but was completely worth it. Now my wall is a blank slate with a few desperate ads suggested by Facebook. The only two pages I get content from are Writers Write – a page for aspiring writers, and The Dodo – a page that posts about dogs, cats, and animal rescues.

This has resulted in me retaining my sanity. And my Facebook wall becoming a warm, fuzzy place rather than the digital Kurukshetra that it was earlier. However, with this unfollowing business, I am also a little clueless about what is happening. I’m not necessarily complaining, but it’s part of the reasons that came to me in clear Bullet Points, so I had to mention it here.

 

4. The times we live in

When I look at my earlier posts, I notice one common thread running through all my posts – a certain anger. A frustration about the state of affairs, governance, jurisdiction. I have had people come up to me and ask if I have anger issues (which I most certain do, of course – but I don’t tell them. Why should I? Fuck those guys!).

However, over the years, I have refrained from expressing my opinion on my blog due to the cacophony of opinions. I mean, have a look at Twitter and Facebook – opinions and rage being hurled about from every side. After a point, it doesn’t matter if you are on the right side, just participating in a discussion brings about ugliness and leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

And that is what stops me from expressing my opinion here. I may be right, or I may be wrong – it’s an opinion, after all. But anything I say will be used to buffer one side of an argument, and none of it will be clean or civil. I felt like my blogs were dung cakes that are being taken off my wall and used to fuel larger bonfires on social media.

And when was the last time you saw someone admit in facebook comments – “Hey you know, you’re right. Let me read up on that, it might help change my opinion”? I’ll give you a hint – the number of Test centuries that Venkatesh Prasad has scored in his life – SHUNYA.

So what’s the point?

 

5. What do I want the blog to be? 

The blog was pretty much the first creative platform where I wrote and expressed myself. But after 11 years, and with me becoming a professional writer and humorist – I am unsure of where to take the blog.

I mean, it has to be different from the other platforms that I write on, or what’s the point? It already seems like a white, WordPress-like elephant in the room. I am unsure of the direction the blog needs to take. But here is what I have in mind –

a. A blog cut off from the ugliness of the world. Watching a number of Dodo videos for months at stretch, I began to wonder why the blog cannot be a happy place. A place where politics, or films/sports are not discussed. There’s lot of shit-sites for such shit-posting. The blog could be a place where other stuff can be discussed.

b. A journal of sorts. I know, I know. The idea makes me flinch a little, but I do not mean a ‘Dear Diary, it is snowing in Sambalpur today’ sort of a journal. I mean an unorganised stream of thoughts.

c. An angry space. This was the final option. I thought, instead of running from my weakness – anger – I will bring it all out here. No sharing on social media, no replying to comments. Just a space to vent out all my anger and frustration.

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I am still confused about the direction the blog needs to take. It’s been 11 years after all.

But those are the reasons I haven’t been posting on my blog frequently. I just thought you should know…

Imperfect Sanjay Manjrekar

Book Review: ‘Imperfect’ by Sanjay Manjrekar

I have always felt that great cricketers make poor writers.

Writing requires the discipline and sage-like patience of the first session of a Test match. And I believe most great players have run out of their patience and hence choose to either steal cheeky singles or go for the almighty slog while writing their books.

I had read Allan Donald’s White Lightning – but the book tells us a lot about the man, his thinking, and his motivations – but reveals little about apartheid, and the colourful days of South Africa’s return to cricket. Shoaib Akhtar’s Controversially Yours suffered from the author ‘performing’ too much. In his effort to present a colourful story, Shoaib sacrifices narrative for histrionics.

And then, the most boring book I’ve ever read in my life – Sachin Tendulkar’s Playing It My Way – written in collaboration with Bore-ya Mazumdar. Sachin’s book – like his track record in Rajya Sabha – is devoid of any excitement. It has been stripped of any human emotion like fear, envy or resentment.

Which brings me to Sanjay Manjrekar.

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My earliest memories of Sanjay Manjrekar are of confusing him with Sachin Tendulkar. They were both openers, and around the same height. They both batted with impeccable technique, but for a few key differences – Sanjay wore a white helmet and played a lot slower than Sachin did.

He was however, a terrific fielder – and has pulled off some amazing catches in his playing days. I also recall that he retired sometime around 1997 and then went on to sing songs, before finding his voice in the commentary box.

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Now, the problem with writing a book in India is the classic India question – Tune Kya Kiya Hai, bhai?

It is a problem people like Sanjay Manjrekar and Murali Karthik face in the commentary box. Every time they make a comment on a player’s game, the first thing trolls ask on social media is ‘What right do YOU have to talk about a player like Kohli’? Unfortunately, in our pea-brained understanding of critique, you have to achieve something equal or greater than the person you are critiquing to be able to say anything about the person.

Sanjay Manjrekar – a well read and erudite cricketer – knows the importance of an impactful first chapter. And he takes a leg stump guard from the very first ball. In fact, the very first line in the book talks about how the author has never touched a bat since the day he retired. That his idea of a perfect day is to sit in the darkness of a theater and watch a movie. That if his father wasn’t Vijay Manjrekar, he probably would have been something else in life.

Sanjay Manjrekar understands the importance that cynicism plays in the life of an Indian, and rests those fears from the first over. Having forced the reader to change his line and length, Sanjay Manjrekar goes on to play the steady, assured innings that he had built a reputation for.

What Manjrekar does differently – and thank god for that! – is refusing to rabble in numbers and statistics. I find most Indian autobiographies to be detailed statistical sheets. What he does instead, is to make it an engaging personal story. The name ‘Imperfect’ makes a lot of sense as you go on to read about the man, his obsession with technique, and the constant, looming fear of a perfectionist.

Instead of cramming the book with chronological numbers and statistics, Manjrekar takes a path of his own. The first chapter is dedicated to his father – the legendary Vijay Manjrekar – and yet, he does not adopt a reverential tone. Chucking a chronological narrative, the author has divided the chapters as ‘Pakistan’, ‘West Indies’, ‘Australia’ – and my favourite – Mumbai school of batting.

Shivaji Park in Mumbai.

Shivaji Park in Mumbai.

Having read Arvind Adiga’s Selection Day, I have been fascinated with Mumbai, and the constant churning out of batting geniuses who arrive from the jagged shorelines of Mumbai. In the chapter ‘Mumbai school of batting’, Manjrekar lays bare the grind, grime and grit that makes Mumbai kids bat for days at stretch. There are wonderful snippets – like the ‘mantra’ Mumbai kids tell themselves before every ball – ‘I am not going to get out this ball’.

The book also changed my opinion on a few characters – Ravi Shastri and Gavaskar, for example. I generally find the duo overbearing and omnipresent. But reading the book, I was able to see Shastri in new light. A man who could have chilled out, joined politics, run a business – and earned millions. But the fact that he has been involved with cricket since the day he retired – is proof of his love for the game. Similarly too, with Gavaskar. There are heart-warming stories of Gavaskar being Sanjay’s senior at Nirlep (cricketers in those days worked desk jobs during off-seasons), and how Gavaskar would give him advice to tackle bouncy pitches from his cabin.

There is also my personal favourite – the much-maligned Manoj Prabhakar. Stories of his humanity, his jest, and how he was the first Indian bowler to learn the art of reverse swing from the Pakistanis. One of my pet-goals in life is to redeem Manoj Prabhakar in Indian media, and Manjrekar’s book paints a warm picture of the man who bore the brunt for match-fixing.

Instead of talking down to the reader, Sanjay peppers the book with wonderful anecdotes

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But more than anything, the book is an honest portrayal of the man himself. For someone who sounds unabashedly biased towards India in the commentary box, Sanjay Manjrekar displays tremendous maturity as a writer. He is comfortable talking about his slide, his lack of form, or the need for fame.

He has no qualms admitting that he wanted the ‘fame’ that came with Indian cricket. He admits to shouting at Mumbai bowlers while he was the state captain. He also admits that he was not the most talented and used hard-work and OCD-levels of preparation in his technique. He bares his heart out in the portions where he was dropped from the national side, and on playing in the domestic league after tasting the giddying heights of being a national player.

Sanjay Manjrekar comes across as a logical, rational, disciplined man. A man obsessed with his craft, a man who clamoured for fame, but also realised when he saw Rahul Dravid, ‘that his time was up’.

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The last cricket book I read – Sachin’s Playing it my way – reads like a Sanjay Manjrekar innings of the 90s – slow, safe, steady. Sanjay’s book reads like a Sachin Tendulkar innings in the late 2000s. He starts a little shakily, takes time to settle in, and then pulls out glorious drives, completely at ease.

Sanjay Manjrekar’s Imperfect could not have been better named. It is humane, witty, and a thoroughly satisfying read. I’d go so far as to say it’s the best cricket-based book that I’ve read.

*****

Why Indians cannot connect to Shape of Water

Why Indians Cannot Connect to ‘The Shape of Water’

Directed by Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water swept away the Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, Director, Original Score, and Production Design. The story of a mute woman who rescues and falls in love with an amphibian god had swept the world away.

I have never been a fan of the Oscars and hate the way they are looked at as the gold standard for cinema. Nonetheless, I walked into the hall and took my seat amidst a fully packed hall. In spite of the Indian government’s best efforts to make you squirm in your seat before the movie begins, there was a sense of excitement as the movie began.

Around half an hour later, I found that the audience wasn’t really enraptured by the film.

You can always tell when the audience is blown away by the film. There are stray giggles that escape in the darkness, gasps and groans that dance in the silent darkness. There was none of that in this movie. It didn’t take me to long to figure out why.

As Indians, we have seen this premise over and over again. Picture this – what comes to your mind when I tell you the following premise?

The underdog protagonist is going about life, when an otherworldly creature enters their life. The protagonist can’t help falling in love with the creature, as they see themselves in new light for the first time. After changing the protagonist’s life, the creature has to go back to its world in a heartbreaking climax.

What image does this description flash in your mind?

If you are an Indian who grew up on local cinema, there are high chances you can name at least three movies with a similar theme. The most obvious answer would be Koi Mil Gaya. Not only did it have a blue creature, it also used halogen lights that lit up when Jadoo was happy or excited.

I also remember watching a film called Sahasa Veerudu Sagara Kanya, where a young Venkatesh rescues a mermaid who acts like Shilpa Shetty. Indian cinema has an obsession with otherworldly creatures – apsaras and fairies and angels. We also have movies with dogs, horses and elephants as lead characters. Not to mention our obsession with snake-women!

(ALSO READ: The Greatest Bollywood Snake Movies of all time)

 

The most horrifying ‘outerworld’ movie I’ve seen though, is an Odiya film called Keun Duniyaru Asila Bandhu (Which world have you come from, friend?). The filmmakers wanted to capitalise on the success of Koi Mil Gaya, so they hired a midget, painted him brown, gave him a little space suit and made him dance around. The result was a creature who would give Odiya kids sleepless nights for years!

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Indians have watched the story play out screens over and over. To an extent where the story isn’t gripping enough anymore. Admittedly, Guillermo del Toro is a visionary – a unique filmmaker amidst factories that churn out wholesome packages. But how can a delicate love story compare to the excitement of Moti the dog killing Amrish Puri to avenge Jackie Shroff’s death in Teri Meherbaniyan?

 

How can Indians be moved by the Amphibian God leaving to his world, when they’ve already seen Ramu the elephant sacrifice his life for Rajesh Khanna? Which emotion in the world can compare to Rohit Mehra getting dissed by the computer teacher for being unable to copy a folder?

You see, Indians cannot be excited about the shape of water – we have songs called Paani ka rang vekhke. We are quite familiar with the shape, colour, and shape of water. To make a film a hit in India, you need to have Salman Khan blasting his way to Mars, and then convincing three aliens to be nice to three other aliens.

Guillermo del Toro is a visionary and a modern great. The Shape of Water has been garnering accolades around the world. But sorry, Mr. del Toro, we are used to more. We are used to extraterrestrial beings talking to us and praying to Krishna. The film is great, but it did not have any songs, and there was no post-interval twist.

So good luck with your next movie, Mr. del Toro! Or as Jadoo would say-

‘Dhooooooop!’.

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