Varun Grover Curated

Comedian, Screenwriter & Lyricist

CURATED BY :  

This profile has been added by users(CURATED) : Users who follow Varun Grover have come together to curate all possible video, text and audio interview to showcase Varun Grover's journey, experiences, achievements, advice, opinion in one place to inspire upcoming comedians. All content is sourced via different platforms and have been given due credit.

  • As a songwriter, do you associate popular places with songs?

    Let’s see… To Benaras, I would dedicate “Pal Pal Dil Ke Paas,” for Lucknow “Ye Kya Jagah Hai Doston” from Umrao Jaan and for Bombay, this song called “Zeher Hai Ke Pyaar Hai Tera Chumma,” from Sabse Bada Khiladi.

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  • If you had to give people one essential travel tip, what would that be?

    Avoid touristy places and you’ll never be at a loss. Even if you say that you went to Paris and didn’t see the Eiffel Tower, that’s fine. Whatever you did instead will definitely be better.

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  • What are some of your favourite travel books?

    One is a Hindi book, Volga Se Ganga, by Rahul Sankrityayan. He’s one of the best travel writers India has had. It’s fiction but rooted in travel, history and anthropology. This book has inspired me to see the world. Another fictional favourite is this novel called Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. It is set in New York, and is about a bunch of Asians and a Trinidadian who play cricket in New York. Recently I was in New York, and I spotted a group of people actually playing cricket and I felt my journey had come full circle. The other book I recommend is Kashi ka Assi by Kashi Nath Singh, a character sketch of Benaras. I was living in Benaras when I read it and the book has unlocked so many secrets about the city for me.

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  • In Sacred Games, there’s a strong sense of place. Was that a conscious writing decision?

    Our writers, both in season 1 and 2, wanted to keep it very authentic. We found that there was an anda bhurji stall near Kyani Bakery that was popular. Bombay has these strange things—five or six anda bhurji places which have a cult following. These spots lend the city its character.

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  • Do you go to a special place to write?

    I live in Kandivali in Bombay, which is fairly peaceful. Sometimes I go to this place in Uttaranchal called Sonapani. It is a homely resort near Mukteshwar that I love. I also like going to Goa because I love the sea and seafood. Usually, I find a spot in south Goa, away from the bustle.

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  • You’ve said in one interview that you found Spain the least racist, and France the most intimidating place. What does that mean?

    India operates on so much chaos that order can be intimidating. France is too orderly… there are different ways to greet people in the morning and evening. If you don’t get it right, people take offense or judge you. I’m sure it’s a part of their culture and they find some meaning and joy in it, but Indians are not so formal. I don’t know whether it is racist or my own inferiority complex in a very white country but people judging you for a lack of manners is not a nice experience. When I crossed over from France to Italy, on the other hand, I was delighted to see folks not obeying traffic signals.

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  • Is there a city that you discovered while touring?

    I didn’t know much about Singapore and its food culture. I didn’t expect the whole city to be one giant khau galli. That was an amazing discovery.

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  • When you’re on tour, do you make time to explore a place?

    I always try to either go a day early, or wait an extra day, or as many days as I can manage. I find a local—either a friend, or someone who has come to see the show—and go out with them. No trip is complete without walking through a city.

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  • What are your memories of travelling as a child?

    We used to live in Dehradun, and my aunt lived in Calcutta. I went to the city for the first time in 1989, when I was nine.We had a 30-hour train journey, which was really epic and we stopped at so many new places. I had never been out of north India. To see the wide, open rice fields of Bengal was something else. I tasted fresh coconut water for the first time in my life. Calcutta seemed like such a huge city. I still feel Bombay is not as big as Calcutta was in my imagination at that time. It remains one of my top three food cities in India. We used to also take frequent trips around Dehradun. Sahastradhara, which had sulphur water springs, was a wonderful place where we often took many of our visiting family members.

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  • Considering your relationship with Benaras, do you think there is an element of fetishization while writing about that city?

    Benaras has always been viewed through the eyes of the white man. You need time to break through the clichés that we have been fed through this gaze. The city is not just about the sun rising on the ghats or a boat ride in the Ganga. It is about small stuff like the old haveli of Bhartendu Harishchandra, the father of Hindi literature, who wrote the first Hindi play. No tourist goes here, even though the haveli has been restored and is in good condition. In the old part of town, there’s another collector of old LP records from the 1930s and 1940s including rare recordings of Begum Akhtar and those from the Benaras classical music gharana. The city has preserved these things. You have to walk around to discover it. And you must also stay at least five days. When I went there six years ago with my wife Raj Kumari, and she was going for the first time, she had only two days. I tried to show her the most non-touristy side of Benaras, but she didn’t like it. She felt it was too dirty; she was hoping for a greater city. We went again three years ago for seven days. Then she also fell in love with the city.

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  • What Egyptian food did you relish?

    I’ve had baklava in Turkey and Dubai, but the best and freshest is in Egypt. There is a shop in Cairo, close to Tahrir Square, called Abdel Rahim Koueider. You enter the shop and are transported 500 years into the past. They make 70 types of baklava, with quirky names such as “bulbul’s nest.” In Luxor, I also dined on fish that was freshly caught from the Nile and that was delicious.

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  • Which place has always captivated your imagination?

    Benaras. I lived there and studied at IIT-BHU for four years. The city’s culture and chaos has stayed with me. Everytime I go back, I discover something new about Benaras—a different place or a new ritual that has been followed for hundreds of years. Three years ago, on my last visit in October, I discovered a centuries-old travelling Ram Leela. It is staged in different parts of the city. For instance, the university gates of BHU are a stand-in for Lanka in this version. The city has many, many layers and the foremost one for me is food. It is also the first thing I explore in any place I visit. Internationally, Egypt fascinated me. The history in India often dates back 500 or 700 years, in America it might be 200 years, but in Egypt it goes as far back as 4,000 years. Sometimes our guide would say stuff like, “This is really new, it is only 800 years old.” We saw tombs, caves and the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. Egyptians are also interesting storytellers. The country was traditionally a popular stop on several ancient trade routes from Europe and Asia, so everybody seems to be still selling something, even if they are tall tales. Everyone is a kissago or daastango in Egypt, from the tongawaala and the taxiwaala to the shopkeeper.

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  • How does travelling affect your writing?

    Writing is all about observing and living through different experiences. If I observe well and stay open, stories are born in my mind. Ultimately, being a writer is about having a world view and understanding how people tackle both the political and the social.

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  • Do you think stand-up comics in India are aware enough to talk about politics?

    There are some. I won’t say everybody is. But, then even if they’re unaware of politics, they have their politics in a way. There are people who are feminists but they won’t know it. It’s inherent in them. There are people who are sexist, but they won’t know it. That will come out in their act, without even trying. If there’s a male comic talking about his ex-girlfriend, you’ll know if he’s a feminist or a sexist, even if the act has nothing about the words specifically. That is one layer of politics, which I feel, lots and lots of comics are becoming aware of. Comedy is inherently a progressive art form. It is supposed to take on people who are more powerful than you, take on systems that are more powerful than you. Mainly because that’s always funny. Whoever is in power, if you crack a joke on that person, you get a response. I may be right now a [PM Narendra] Modi fan ”” and there are many comics who are Modi fans, but they’re also cracking jokes on Modi now because it just makes business sense. That’s how comedy works. For them, a Modi joke, if it gets laughs, they will start cracking them. [This is] the business of comedy, the psychology of comedy. Why do people laugh? Because they find some expression which they can’t say in public and they find somebody saying it onstage. That reaction of shock, that reaction of ”˜wow,’ becomes a laugh or applause. They (stand-up comics) know taking on the establishment is a good idea.

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  • You receive so much online abuse. How can a writer work like that?

    There are days when a tweet flares up. Like some tweet goes viral, and there are thousands of people taking offence, screenshotting, and saying, ”˜Ye dekho, isko jaake maaro.’ The way those armies work. On those days, I do two things: One, I completely switch off of Twitter for two days because I can’t take it. That just fucks up the entire psyche. Second, when I come back also, I don’t look at my mentions. I have to do this because it happens once every six months. I have even quit Twitter twice because of this reason. Sometimes it gets too much to handle, and you know very clearly you’re hurting yourself right now by looking at it. The next time I may not come back, if I can sustain without it. But, there’s a strange logic in your head that gets you back, which is your ego saying, ”˜Just because ten people are abusing you, why should you quit? They are the wrong people and they should leave.’ It’s a stupid logic. I know it doesn’t make any sense. But, you tell this to yourself to get back. This has all the symptoms of addiction, I’m aware.

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  • Why haven’t you gotten tired of Twitter, considering you have so many haters?

    I’m now getting tired, that’s why the frequency is quite low. But, now I’m stuck because it’s an addiction. The day the signs start showing on my skin, my internal scars, I’ll try to detox. But, it’s difficult to leave also because if you leave, these things are not going to change. The world is going to burn anyway. The world is burning on Twitter. Do you close your eyes or do you still watch it? You can’t save it, that I know.

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  • Writing a joke versus writing a lyric versus writing a dialogue: how do you change and adapt?

    I think I’m very restless so it helps me if I switch between these things. I get bored very easily if I write only screenplays. One day if I’m writing a screenplay for three hours, then I [switch to] write a joke. So, I go to Twitter. Twitter is kind of my mental exercise. I read stuff, I think about some observation. Sometimes I take two hours to write one tweet and construct it and reconstruct it.

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  • How did stand-up comedy happen?

    Stand-up happened because I was writing for TV for four years. On TV, I used to write for actors like Ranvir Shorey, Vinay Pathak, Shekhar Suman, Suresh Menon. Then at one point, TV stopped doing that kind of stuff because The Great Indian Laughter Challenge came. These performer-writers came onstage instead of writers being separate and performers being actors. Raju Srivastav and Sunil Pal were writing their own material. There was no space for comedy writers, unless they wanted to do the same kind of, what I think is, cheap comedy which is going on: Comedy ka Muqabla and Maha Muqabla, and Archana Puran Singh, and [Navjot Singh] Sidhu would laugh at everything. I didn’t want to do that. At the same time, Mumbai had a new comedy scene going. The very first open mic, which happened at Blue Frog in August 2008, I was one of the performers. It was a competition and I got only two minutes onstage. I happened to win it. I had no confidence. I thought this is the first and the last time that I am going onstage, because I believed I was very bad onstage. Still somehow I won that day and that gave me more confidence and opportunities to do other open mics. That’s how it started.

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  • Were you always writing poetry?

    The first thing I wrote was a short story, which got published in a magazine called Balhans when I was 10. My first poem was published when I was 11. All of this is because I used to read a lot as a kid. My father is a very keen reader. He would get lots of books. When you read a lot, you want to use those words and phrases. You want to see if you can also tell a story.

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  • How were you and Anurag Kashyap introduced to each other?

    I wrote a comment on his blog in ‘Passion for Cinema.’ He was shooting No Smoking, and he wrote a blog about a day at the shoot. I commented on it with a poem, which he liked. He called me home, and said, ”˜I like your poetry.’ So, I read more poetry to him, and we kind of became, not friends, but acquaintances. We had creative respect, or respect what artists have, for each other. He showed me that respect, and he showed me that love, which became a window to our interactions. For the next three years, we kept meeting at random film festivals, screenings and Prithvi Theatre. Then he was doing That Girl in Yellow Boots. He called me and said, ”˜There’s no money. It’s a small-budget film. But, it requires some poetry.’ That was the first professional collaboration. Right after that he was making Gangs of Wasseypur, and I shamelessly asked him for work. That was a two-year process, during which, I think, we became friends.

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  • For Masaan, you drew from several sources: from your years in Benares (Grover attended IIT (BHU) to newspaper reports to Tagore. In Sacred Games, what did you have to draw on for the writing?

    That’s something I want to do in every writing assignment. You can’t keep [writing] if you don’t have anything personal in it. You can’t write anything in which you have no attachment to the material, no personal investment. That was something which we had to find, and which I had to struggle with a lot. The initial three-month period we were not sure what we were doing. What is our connection with Mumbai police and the lives of gangsters? One personal connection was Mumbai. There are things and places that I have seen and observed that are somehow portrayed in the series. All of us go to ”” all of us writers go to ”” those cheap bars and drink, like Janata in Bandra or Shankari in Versova. So, we found that kind of space for our characters to sit and talk random things about life. The other personal connection, which was interesting for me in the book, was the story of India along with the story of Ganesh Gaitonde (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui). He is a gangster and we see his life from when he was ten years old in 1969 to 2018. In those years, India has seen an amazing journey: the Emergency, Operation Blue Star, killing of Indira Gandhi, of Rajiv Gandhi, Mandal, Ram Mandir, liberalisation, crazy years. We found a way to integrate that into the story, which was my personal input into the adaptation. Because I do political satire and I have a keen interest in politics, it became my point of excitement. We were telling not just the story of a gangster, we were telling the story of a nation.

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  • How did Sacred Games come to you? What was the writing process like?

    I was approached by Phantom Films. They already had two writers in the room: Smita Singh and Vasant Nath. They probably wanted a lead writer in the room. I read the novel (by Vikram Chandra). I loved it a lot. It looked like a really, really challenging thing. Though I know that’s not my genre ”” thriller ”” but the novel was so rich, it had so much potential for drama. And, I’m a fan of Netflix. So, this was the process: first we understood each other, then we understood the book together, and later we understood what Netflix wanted.

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  • You mentioned how folks end up chasing a model of ‘mass success’ that is often built on easy-to-digest writing. Do you think writers are encouraged to abandon their ideas for a tried and tested formula? How have you avoided it?

    I don’t think any writer is capable of abandoning their calling. The writers who are chasing a certain model of market-based success are only cut out for that kind of thing, and I can’t imagine them ever creating something timeless or of sustained literary value. Though I don’t believe timelessness carries any more value than being of-its-time alone, as most successful books are. I am just making the distinction on the basis of how they are consumed and their cultural impact. I don’t think I avoided it consciously. I write what I know, and it just happens to be of a certain kind. It’s a coincidence that my ‘kind’ is not the market-trend currently.

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  • What are your thoughts on vernacular, regional and non-English language writing – novels, poetry, the whole gamut – in India, ones that don’t attest to conventional boundaries or mass production?

    I grew up reading Hindi books—children’s magazines like Baal Hans, Nanhe Samraat, Paraag, Nandan, and Suman Saurabh, as well as translated classics in novella format, like Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, The Three Musketeers, and some of Shakespeare’s works. It was a vast, rich world of discovery in Hindi; from teenage years to my early 20s, when I graduated to reading the works of Mohan Rakesh, Ismat Chugtai, Dharamveer Bharti, Amrita Pritam, Manto, and Harishankar Parsai among others. This is true for me, and I will try my best not to generalize it: As a new reader at a young age, it helped that there was quality literature available in my daily language of communication. I grew up in Uttar Pradesh, and to be able to read Shrilal Shukla or Sharad Joshi with their caustic, funny, insightful take on the world around me, at that time, helped me appreciate not just my language but my society too.

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  • : From a small town to national awards and more – what would your message be for those who want to break set career paths the way you did?

    Be honest, be self-aware, and originality will never be a problem.

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  • Which was your last favourite book?

    My last favourite book was Kharaaman Kharaaman by Pankaj Bisht. It’s a travelogue with some great insights into the history and culture of the places Pankaj Bisht visited in the last 30-40 years. All the places are within India and it was an eye-opener to find such gems about our country.

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  • Your work has taken you to different parts of the country and abroad. Any stories or experiences that stood out for you?

    I loved my time in Spain last year because it’s such a chilled out country – music and great food. And people there are (probably) the least racist in Europe so I didn’t feel intimidated like I did in France.

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  • A lot of your work as a stand-up comedian focusses on socio-political issues in the country – things that are going wrong. Which is awesome. But what would a comedian say if he had to speak about all the positives in the country?

    I don’t think comedy is about the positives. It’s a sad truth and it makes comedians the villains for a majority of people. Of course, there are many positives in the country on a daily basis (The Better India reports them regularly and it’s such a relief) but comedy is about pointing out the flaws. As a comedian, my only allegiance is to the joke. And all jokes, no matter how innocuous, have the potential to offend somebody. I will speak about the positives but not as a comedian.

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  • How did Aisi Taisi Democracy happen, given that all three of you lead hectic lives and coming together would be difficult?

    It just happened. Me and Sanjay Rajoura wanted to do a show together and Sanjay asked Rahul if he’d like to join us on stage and play some songs. We didn’t have any long-term plans but all of us enjoyed it and the audience loved it so we continued. Finding time is always a struggle but somehow we do.

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  • What was the inspiration behind Moh moh ke dhage? And which is your favourite song written by you till date, other than Moh Moh.

    The inspiration for a film song is always the script. Sharat Katariya’s script had that lovely moment and then Anu Malik gave a fantastic tune so my job became easier. My other favourite songs are – ‘Kaala re‘ from Gangs of Wasseypur, ‘Kaanpoora’ from Katiyabaaz, and ‘Aaj laagi’ from Ankhon Dekhi.

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  • Do you think there has been a change in the way comedy is perceived these days? Have you come across instances when people were accepting towards jokes even if they did not agree with your viewpoint?

    Yes, many times. And the onus is on the comedians/comedy to break through. To write jokes that are so good that even the person the joke is directed at doesn’t feel offended, and probably praises it.

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  • Share what the Indian film industry looks like from the inside, from the view of a software engineer and an outsider?

    The industry, because it’s an unorganised space, full of people who have struggled to reach here – sometimes have fought with their families to convince them to let them do it – is an eclectic place driven by egos. The sense of self is very prominent in everybody you meet because it’s a place run by faces on posters. Sometimes it gets difficult to deal with people because in spite of all the talent, the insecurity is the first emotion they emanate and permanently carry on their shoulders. But as an observer, as long as you are aware that all of it is just to make a film (and not a life-saving drug) – it becomes fun to watch. As Ghalib said – Baazeecha-e-atfal hai, duniya mere aage.

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  • You have been known for giving shape to your work based on your roots and surroundings. How was the Masaan seed sown in the first place?

    Masaan started as a short film script written by Neeraj Ghaywan. He showed it to me and we decided to expand it into a full-length film.

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  • Both films and standup comedy have the capability of allowing their makers to raise their voices about the social and political environment in the country. Would it be right to say that you make a conscious effort to do so? If yes, will you continue doing so now that your work is highly recognized by more than just a niche section of society?

    I think my writing is socially, politically charged not because of a conscious effort to bring that in but because it’s part of my worldview, my politics. It’s highly opinionated, influenced by the world we live in, and that’s why sometimes I can be completely wrong too. But I feel any artist who has a mic or pen or brush or an instrument in today’s times is required to document the turbulence through his/her art.

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  • Do you think there is gender discrimination in the stand-up comedy world? Is there anything women comediennes can do to counter this?

    There’s gender discrimination in EVERYTHING. Every field of Indian industries (if not every field in the entire world) is infested with patriarchy. The world’s first and strongest religion is patriarchy and its followers sometimes don’t even know that they are devouts. So yes, there’s gender discrimination in comedy because comedians come from the same society that is rich with such biases.

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  • A songwriter, script writer, or a comedian – what do you recognize yourself as first. And which is your favourite thing to do among these?

    I have no idea who I am out of these three. I guess am just a writer who chooses different mediums to explore writing. My favourite is still standup comedy because it gives me an instant, direct connection with the audience. There’s no friction loss, reinterpretation of what I’ve written (through music or film lens/editing) – so the satisfaction is of a purer grade.

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  • Was your family supportive of this decision to leave the corporate life and pursue this career?

    Absolutely. That was the greatest blessing. Both my parents were fully supportive, and in fact my father was happy that I left the boring desk job from the software company. He is an engineer too but he has always been on the field so he found the software jobs boring and restrictive.

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  • Do you remember that moment when you decided that you will quit your software job? And how difficult was that decision because you didn’t have any security before moving to Mumbai?

    I was in this huge office in Pune – a company called Kanbay – and it was a good company; lots of perks and nice colleagues. I remember seeing my seniors in the company – people who had joined it say 10 years ago – and I saw their lives. I figured this is who I will be 10 years on. Because a life in codes can be predicted easily. All of the seniors had a similar car, they dressed the same, their kids went to the same school – it all was somehow depressing for me. So I decided to find a way to get out of this. The decision was not difficult because I knew that if I fail, I have a BTech degree to fall back on. Or I could write some exam and go do my higher studies. There was never any pressure of time.

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  • Do you think engineering helped you in any way even in your present career?

    I think engineering helped me greatly for two big reasons. One, I didn’t have confidence that I could be a writer someday. I always wanted to be but didn’t know how to go about it. So the theatre experience at my college (IIT-BHU) gave me that confidence. Also gave me four years to find myself, to read and make friends and discover a writing style. Secondly, engineering added discipline and a structured thinking to my life. I feel being a writer is a lot about being disciplined. Writing is mostly rewriting, as many greats have said before.

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  • Looking at films like ‘Masaan’ and ‘Sairat’, which are cast in small-town India, or ‘Thithi’, which is a slice of rural life, we don’t see those kind of narratives in commercial mainstream Hindi cinema anymore. Why do you think this is happening?

    This is my theory and maybe it’s too much of a broad brushstroke, but for the last 8-10 years, the mainstream is running on the orders of the “MBA” brigade. Even Sudhir Mishra [filmmaker] said this in the documentary on Indian Ocean, Leaving Home [2010],that the MBAs or the corporate brigade eliminate things that they don’t understand. It’s not like that that issue is attacking them in any way, but because you don’t understand it, you want to eliminate it. They only want to present that picture, which they understand because they are working on charts and surveys, which tells them that this is what works and this is what will sell. People are scared to experiment. Look at the music videos of the 1990s. They were far more experimental. They used to show a lot more beyond song sequences in Hindi cinema. They were breaking rules and formats. Today’s music videos are of a far inferior quality than the ones that came out in the ’90s. Because today even music videos are being controlled by the MBAs and in their minds they have a clear definition of what works. The reason Phantom [Films] is able to make an Udta Punjab or Masaan is because the same creative people are producers, too. They are putting in the money and green-lighting the projects, too. But at the same time, because of this MBA culture, there is that flip side that by chance if a Masaan works or a Bheja Fry [2007] works, or an Ankhon Dekhi [2014] works, which were made on budgets of 1.5 crore or two crore, then this enters their mind – “Ok, so let’s do smaller films which cost only a few crores.”

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  • Have you seen audiences evolve in terms of how they used to receive humour in the years since you were working on ‘The Great Indian Comedy Show’ and now? Are they more insular now or have they become more receptive?

    I would say accepting only because it will be difficult for any society to become more insular, especially a society like ours where things are largely free-flowing. Yes, there may be some efforts at controlling but because things are free-flowing, extremists are scared about how can someone abuse so openly or whatever happened with AIB for that matter. There is the backlash, but that backlash comes as an afterthought. Even if I wanted to do another AIB roast-like show, there may be trouble, perhaps, post the show, but there won’t be a problem before the show itself. People have become more open because there are more kinds of humour available. Publicly you may say you don’t like it and that you don’t watch it, but when the same thing comes on your WhatsApp, you will have a good laugh. You may not show it to your child, but even your child is consuming the same kind of humour and is thinking, I won’t show it to my father.

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  • So is it fair to say that you are someone who wants to put his politics out there?

    Yes, I would say I am a political artist. I want to be somebody who is known to have a political voice and is very aware that being political is cool. It is not something that only the “losers” or uncouth people do. In today’s day, this may have reduced to a great extent, but there was a time when people from IPTA [Indian People’s Theatre Association] or the PWA [Progressive Writers’ Association] came and worked in the industry. The number of such people has gone down. I’m not only doing it because it is necessary, but because it happens naturally. A lot of people want to be political. They have a political voice, but [remain silent] because they want to remain in the industry or because they assume that if they say something they may offend someone or that people may start avoiding them, that assumption itself is inherently flawed. I cannot change that mindset by myself but I would like to change it to the best of my efforts. I am cracking jokes about [Narendra] Modi-ji and Rahul Gandhi, too, and I’m still not facing any backlash in my social life or in my career. This is something that has been established earlier also. People like Sahir Ludhianvi or Javed Akhtar or Shabana Azmi, who have always been vocal, have not been ostracised by society. Everyone has a political view, but people are scared of speaking up. And we have seen the repercussions of not speaking up in the case of Udta Punjab [2016]. And again because there was Shahid [Kapoor], there was Aalia [Bhatt], there were big stars involved, Ekta Kapoor’s production house was involved, that’s why so many people came out and spoke up. Had it been a small film, people wouldn’t have come out. But it’s good they came out because now it sets a precedent that we stood up to Pahlaj Nihalani and so ten other films in future may benefit, which is a great thing.

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  • As part of your stand-up comedy routines, whether it is through Aisi Taisi Democracy or your other shows, are you looking to push the boundaries of what is acceptable humour, or do you draw a line somewhere thinking that what you say may be taken as offensive?

    Definitely, I am attempting, in my own way, and also through Aisi Taisi Democracy, that even if we cannot change norms, at least we can get people to start questioning. In our society, when things get uncomfortable, we find an easy way to reject it. We label it. This is our way. It’s like when someone says “Hindustan”. Now Hindustan consists of both good and bad people. But if you reject Hindustan, that all Indians are like this, which is what foreign nationals sometimes do, this is how racism works. I don’t want any labels attached to what I or we are doing and we still do our comedy. For example, this has happened with AIB [All India Bakchod]. Though they are trying very consciously to break out of that label, but it has now stuck that “Woh gaaliyaan detey hain (they use abusive language).” While you were enjoying what they were doing, you played along, but the moment you didn’t like something they did, you put a label to reject them. We are trying to stay clear of such labels. We don’t want to be called “leftists” or “rightists” or have any other label attached to us. That’s why my idea on the show [Aisi Taisi Democracy] and my idea on Twitter or politics is “equal opportunity offender” in a way.

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  • You have a fairly active presence on Twitter. How do you look at your involvement with that medium?

    Twitter is very important to me because I find it very important to express myself. It’s one medium where there is no loss. In all other mediums – whether it is film or poetry – you sometimes have to say things in a roundabout way, particularly in films. The song that I wish to write, but which ultimately gets recorded, very often, there is a big difference in that. Twitter, therefore, is a medium for clear communication. Secondly, for me, it is very good writing practice. I believe in writing a lot and that one must write through the day. Twitter is a place where I have set a lot of challenges for myself – that I won’t make grammatical errors, won’t use short spellings, will use full sentences and will say what I want to say, clearly. Every tweet is a writing challenge for me. At times, I spend a couple of hours to frame a particular tweet. If I see that it is 20 characters over the limit, then it is a challenge. I’m playing a game with myself.

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  • In a recent piece you wrote, you said you feel like an outsider to some aspects of Mumbai. Tell me how do you handle the various dichotomies within the industry itself – the divide between the producer-technician, between the Anglophone film family insider and a first-generation, outsider such as yourself?

    It’s difficult but enjoyable as well because it’s human tendency to root for the underdog. And when you know you are the underdog then, perhaps, you do better work. There is less pressure, too, because when you achieve something, it’s more than what people expect. Being an outsider or an underdog you are not even supposed to belong here. You are constantly made to feel that. And being a writer, it’s even more so. Even now, if I speak of the present, as compared to a rank newcomer, I have achieved something. I have some songs. I have some films. But even now, if I go for an award function, you will see that technicians and writers are made to sit right at the back, way behind. If you have come with your wife or partner, they may also make you sit separately on two different seats. This treatment is very visible. And being an outsider and being a writer, it’s a double whammy. At the same award function, you may see a star, who is no longer a star, but he will still be given top billing while some top writer, and I’m not saying that I am one, who has won every possible award that year, doesn’t get the same level of respect. That feeling stays with you, but it also fuels you because it angers you.

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  • You referenced Dushyant Kumar’s poem ‘Tu kisi rail se guzarti hai’ for the song in ‘Masaan’. How important is it for a songwriter to be familiar with poetry or poetic traditions?

    I think it is very, very important. Not because it will help you someday but because of two things. Firstly, any writer or poet’s job is to show the world something that they have not seen before, or to show them something that they have seen already in a new way. If you don’t know what has been said previously, there is a chance that you may repeat it. Then you are wasting your own time, someone else’s time and the opportunity that you have been given. Secondly, there is no better “gym” [training ground] for a writer than reading. Of course, you write and you learn, but you read and you learn a lot [more]. When you read a lot, you reach a stage where you are brimming with ideas internally to such an extent that you have no option but to write. So to read that kind of literature enhances your worldview, helps you realise that “Yes, this too is possible”. This is our learning process right from childhood. When a child sees other people walking, only then does he attempt to walk. He copies them. Imitation is a very ingrained process of creativity. You start with imitating. You get a reference point.

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  • The films for which you’ve been recognised as a lyricist, be it ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ or ‘Masaan’ or ‘Dum Laga Ke Haisha’, are essentially about non-metropolitan places, small-town India. You seem to have been bracketed as a lyricist who can only write songs only for such kind of films. How do you react to such comments?

    I understood this right at the very beginning that people love this kind of bracketing. When Wasseypur released, I was hoping that if one song works, then life will turn out for the better. But three or four of Wasseypur’s songs, Womaniya and Jiya ho Bihar, became popular. The film also did well so the songs got a bigger boost, but despite that I didn’t get any more work. I didn’t get any signals from within the industry that I was going to get more work. Then I realised that people are bracketing me as somebody who can write only this kind of a film, this kind of lingo. Their impression was, “He doesn’t know any other language. He is born there only – Bihar or Jharkhand – and he can only write like this.” And this is exactly what happened. I got offers for a couple of Bhojpuri films, but not a single offer for a Hindi film. So that is what happens here very quickly, that if someone has done certain kind of work, then people don’t want to think beyond that or apply any more effort. And this is despite the fact that I’m a Punjabi. Instead, the question being asked was how is someone who is Punjabi, writing Bhojpuri songs.

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