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I WATCHED A MOVIE ALONE AND I DID NOT CRY

Going to the cinema on your own can be quite a mushkil experience. (Disclaimer: All names and situations in this story have been changed to protect the integrity and marital prospects of the real protagonist, who may or may not be known to the author. He can’t really say.)

(This story was first published as http://www.filmcompanion.in/article/i-watched-a-movie-alone-and-i-did-not-cry on December 5th 2016)

It was 7pm on a Saturday, and Sadagopan Thareja was feeling a bit blue. Perhaps it was the “Gusto Morbido” coffee his friend had brought him from Italy. It was dark. And it was making him very dark.
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Another week, another weekend, another boring night! Va’ Fa Napoli!”  He howled.

The point in contention was Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Now I know what you might be thinking. KJO? Seriously bro? But you see, despite all of Sada’s liberal ideals and slim fit jeans, a part of him still craved for the blushing, idealistic world of green polo neck sweaters and shivering saris. He was, as they say, a little Chaiyya Chaiyya in the head. The only problem was, he was alone today, with no company whatsoever for the evening.

“Why can’t I get anyone to watch a movie with me dammit?”

The film was starting in 45 minutes and a decision had to be made. Should he flip the finger to the world and watch the movie all by himself? He took another sip. Oh uhm. This is sour. What if someone sees me? What if they ask why I’m here? Should I lie to them? That’s just lame. This coffee sucks. So does this world. That’s it! I’m going alone!

[At this point, I would like to mention that the words “Gusto Morbido” simply implied ‘smooth taste’ in Italian and not ‘morbid with gusto’, as Sada had mistakenly understood. The following events would have been very different had he made the efforts to Google it.]

Clickety-click! Jibbity-jab! and Sada had booked a single seat right in the center of the hall. He took a final sip. I’m a big boy. I can do it. I don’t need anyone with me. Come on bae! Lead the way, hombre!

This early enthusiasm was soon moistened by the questions at the ticket counter. Id number WTS4QD9 bhaiya, said Sada gingerly.  Ek tickut hain? Haan. Akele jaa rahe hon? Hmm. Center main bethoge? Aap ticket do na. Ohh accha. Kya? Break-up song. Samaj gaya. Ticket please.

Buying popcorn was a tad easier. Salted ya caramel? Salted bhaiya. Mix le lo, accha hain. Nahi salted thik hain. Share kar lena, aapki dost ko bhi aacha lage ga. The girl standing behind Sada quickly signaled they were definitely NOT together. “Cutie Pie” began to play in the background, adding some unnecessary masala to his popcorn.

fc_2-e1480909222159Munching away, grumbling away, Sada entered the hall, regretting his bold seat selection immediately. A single seat in the center was surely going to attract attention. Was he ready for this? He took a moment. If you’re going solo buddy, then do it yolo. Channelize Danny Denzongpa. 16th November! Sari forces tainat!

Uh, Excuse me. Sorry. Uh. Oops. Eh. Ek second. Excuse me. Madam.

Thank you. And he was in the seat! Wooh. He took a bunch of popcorn and shoved it in his mouth to stop the jitters. You’ve made it till here. Breathe.

The movie began. Aa ah ha han haan. The familiar KKHH tune always got him in the mood. He saw Ranbir, chilling in a bar. Now Sada was chilling in that bar. Ranbir was dancing with Anushka. Or was Sada dancing with Anushka? They were going upstairs. Hmm. And whoa, huh, kya, uff. Whispers from either side.

An agitated Sada looked to his right and saw two very pretty girls, probably best friends, watching the movie. He had a best friend too, but let’s not get into that. The slight snicker in their tone implied they knew he was alone. To his left was an elderly couple, where uncle seemed especially skeptical of the man sitting next to his wife. He exchanged a few curious looks. But by then, Sada had already left. He was in a jet. He was in Paris. He was in a bar. He was on a mountain. He was back in the jet. He was sad in the jet. Anushka was being a real bitch. And why was she was wearing funny kurtas just because she was from Lucknow? Oh sorry, mujhe unke fashion ka “lihaaz” rakhna chahiye. After all woh Urdu speaking city se jo hain. This movie was silly. Thank god Sada met Aishwarya. She knew what to do. She was cool. He was feeling much better by the interval.

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Now typically, one looks forward to the interval as a gentle break from the visual chaos, a time to reflect on the hits and misses of the movie. But for Sada, this was a moment of reckoning. You see till the lights came up, both parties on either side believed he belonged to the other. This had helped soften the initial snickers and glares. But now, the lights were slowly rising. The screen had shut, the people were disengaged. Sada began to sense a strange vibe in the air. Sniff. He wasn’t in Vienna. He was in sweaty Juhhoo. Aishwarya had left him. Anushka had left him. He was standing in the gallows, a man alone, naked and defense less, forced to face the firing squad. Boom! Boom! Boom! The lights were up. He fumbled, then stumbled, then kept his head down and stared at his feet. Like a real man.

The girls looked intrigued at first but soon got distracted by a hot tattooed celebrity sitting a few rows ahead. Typical “Anushka” move, thought Sada. The uncle, who Sada saw later in the men’s washroom, decided it best to ignore his friendly advances. Just like that witch Anushka! On returning however, thankless uncle promptly switched places with his wife.

Uncle has probably never seen a movie alone, thought Sada. There’s no “dard” in his theatrical experience. It’s so superrrficial. And look at that celeb. Phooey! He could never do what I’m doing. Watching a movie by myself. We are comfortable being alone; Ranbir and I. Our pain is our privilege.

By the second half of the movie, Sada was feeling more at ease with his situation. The girls had moved on to contours of Ranbir’s abs, and uncle had taken the shayari of Aishwarya to heart. This had given Sada ample time to confront his deepest emotions. He was here. On his own. And he wasn’t ashamed to admit it. Par. Var. Digar. Bulleya! It was liberating. Even the slow walk out of the hall didn’t faze him. Hundreds of people discussing and debating, raving and ranting, all except him. Who would he speak too? He would surely stand out.

But now, Sada stood relaxed in the center, quietly mulling over his thoughts. These people don’t really care if I am alone or with someone. They are just walking, preoccupied, disappointed and completely oblivious to my quiet rebellion. This is a battle without a real enemy. No one cares who you watch a movie with. And neither should I.

A friend (maybe lover) had told him years ago to watch a movie by himself. It teaches you things. And now Sada knew it was true. It kills the ego, blunts your defenses and puts life in a firmly humbling perspective. More so, it gently reminds you that ‘watching a movie’ is a lot more than watching a big screen. It’s also the beautiful, awkward, kind of absurd social experience surrounding it.

Not too bad, thought the new and improved Sada 2.0 Thareja. I’ll do this again, as he plugged in his headphones and strolled back into the bubble of blissful anonymity.

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DANCE, DANCE, DANCE SYNDROME

How the magic of movies has shaped the emotional growth of my differently-abled sister.

(This story was originally published on http://www.filmcompanion.in/article/dance-dance-dance-syndrome on August 16th 2016)

It’s 2:30 pm on a Saturday and our family is about to eat a leisurely weekend lunch at our dining table in New Delhi. The weather is swell, the potatoes are well. Everyone seems chirpy. Bhujia is flowing freely. The topic of music comes up. My mother, on cue, begins to recite the first verse of Orsino’s speech from the 12th night: “If music be the food of love, blah blah”. It’s an involuntary reaction, owing to her one and only stage performance as a girl. But this is no surprise to anyone at the table. We continue, crunching. My mother’s pitched soliloquy is soon disturbed by the crushing sound of Anu Malik crooning Jaanam Samjha Karo from, you know this, Jaanam Samjha Karo. The resultant combination – Shri Shri Shakespeare Malik, is toxic to say the least. “I don’t want excess of it.”

The music, (if we can call it that), is coming from my sister’s room, who, as per cue, has decided to skip our family lunch for her preferred weekend routine: Bollywood dancing. Behind that closed, yet far too thin, wooden door is my sister Varuni Agrawal – 29 years old, assistant teacher, music connoisseur, Shiamak graduate, just your regular adult with down syndrome. (If you’d like you can read more about down syndrome here (www.ndss.org) but please do it after.)

You see, this story isn’t about the fact that Varuni is differently-abled, but more so about her absolute, unflinching devotion to cinema and all its strains – music, dance, actors, lyrics, everything. If there’s a film on, any film, she’s watching it – on the TV, on the phone, in the cinema with her friends and a caretaker.

I’ve always been fascinated by her innate ability to memorize songs and remember dialogues and re-enact dance steps with precise perfection, despite all the limitations she might have in learning a language or a complex action. When it comes to movies, Varuni just “gets it”. Almost as if, these stories are able to break a certain invisible barrier of comprehension. That ‘extra’ chromosome, it seems, doesn’t stand a chance in front of the sheer appeal of Shah Rukh Khan.

Now obviously, this is a silly and superficial description of my sister’s special relationship with the movies. So naturally, I looked at my mother for deeper insight. And you know mothers; they never fail to surprise you (even if you occasionally ignore their attempts at Shakespearean diction).

Methinks, she grumbled, thy point is baseless! Varuni isn’t just a fan of the movies; ‘the movies’ have in fact contributed to her emotional development over the years. Tush upon ye.

Emotional development? Movies? Karan Johar? Puhlease! I said, rejecting another piece of cucumber in favor of some Haldiram namkeen. The crunch cannot be compared.

You see, she said, over the years, movies have been able to express themes and emotions that may not have been easy to explain to ‘her’ in simple conversation. Pictures and music have their own unique way of translation. And this effect only gets heightened when the viewer isn’t just getting entertained, but is also, in many ways, getting educated.

Profound, I said.
Eat thine cucumbers, she replied.

I began to think back to our days as children and how this would have manifested in Varuni’s life.

For starters, we were fascinated with Mary Poppins – the ‘original’ British flick combining magic, fantasy and children. And even though we were young and impressionable then, for Varuni, this was in fact, her first repeated interaction with the English language and all its vocal variations (Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, even though the sound of Dick Van Dyke was simply quite atrocious). We must have seen the movie a 100 times, every weekend, and on most afternoons. And it’s strange to think that our own “Poppin Mary”, as Varuni still stubbornly calls her, might have set the foundation for the language she now speaks and writes with confidence at work and on our family WhatsApp group. Who knew, that a spoonful of sugar could actually help a language go down? (The same can’t be said about the mangodi aloo we were eating for lunch. Belch.)

Another really important movie for us as children was Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke. It was again, the only cassette at home and we played it on the VCR relentlessly. And yes, one did have reservations about the story, but it touched upon themes like sibling rivalry and sibling love that were re-enacted at our house everyday. On Holi, we aimed to throw eggs much like that scene between Dalip Tahil and the kids, and we sang the theme song together on our picnic rides every summer.

The point is: these movies had their own special way of communicating a message to Varuni that sometimes was difficult for us as siblings, guardians and parents. It would be unfair of me to not mention the role of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in actually relaying themes like love, marriage, and friendship that were initially complex concepts for her to understand. It’s always nice when today, I hear her address a minor spat between friends with the same sage advice: Relax, she’s your best friend ya!

This unique relationship even extends to more heavy themes like death, fear, and separation that we would typically shield her from, for obvious reasons. But the movies, the movies found their unique way of passing on this message, without the intimidation or parental baggage. So for example, the funeral scene in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham or the pain of an orphan in Baghban, or even the sudden demise of Mihir from Kyunki Saas, might not have meant much to us as viewers, but for Varuni, they were essential inductions into life, reality and mortality.

Today, I see her as a proud and empathetic adult, and I know, that a lot of her value system has been influenced by her favourites like Munna Bhai MBBS, that have glorified difference, debate and the idea of accepting everyone the way they are. And conversely, even your typically ‘masala movies’ have allowed her the freedom to escape into a world that she may or may not get to practically experience – romance, marriage, even adulation from chanting crowds. These are all distant realities, but for those 3 minutes of Chittiyan Kalaiyan, it all seems to make sense. I can see the entire range of emotions on her face, as if she is truly living the moment, the beat and the lyrics. This interplay is priceless.

And somewhere this does get me thinking. Isn’t it strange how we, as a community, still restrict the idea of the movies (and the Arts) to just Entertainment, but never Education? A second fiddle to more respectable fields but never really a source of serious value, intellectually and emotionally? But moving pictures have serious power. I don’t need to tell you that. They can transcend barriers of place, caste, language, but most importantly, people, despite their differing intellectual levels. It’s just unfortunate that we don’t capitalize on this ‘soft power’ for purposes that are larger and more meaningful. For I can see the valuable influence it has had on the emotional growth of Varuni.

With all this in mind, I finally decided to hop across and request my sister to join us for lunch. Three knocks and I was glaring at her, with admittedly a dash of elder-brotherly anger. “Varu, come to table. Now!”

Her response? Smooth as the cucumber I had just refused to eat.

“Bhaiya! I’m busy okay.”

She then curled her right index finger imitating Sridevi from the movie Laadla.

“Understand? (snap) You better understand!”

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IF WES ANDERSON WAS BORN WES AGRAWAL

Wes Anderson photographed in London last month

(this story was first published on http://www.filmcompanion.in on 13th June 2016)

It was 8 pm at night and Wes Agrawal was sitting in his lavish suite at The Beverly Hills Hotel, sipping on some warm Darjeeling chai. The night before the Oscars. What a year it had been!

The Grand Nainital Hotel

His latest release, The Grand Nainital Hotel had opened to raging box office reviews. And no one was more surprised than The Wes himself, considering the uniqueness of its plot. The story of the legendary concierge Rustam Patel and his lobby boy Hero Moustafa as they voyage across the slippery slopes of Himachal Pradesh in search of the rightful heir to one Little Flower Hall, Ranikhet. It was a story straight out of a Pandit Wodehouse novel. With a classic Wes touch, of course. The film had received 9 nominations, including one for background set design. Wes had planned to share that with the Shimla Tourism Board if he won. Correction: He had agreed to share it in exchange for zero press coverage on Owen Wilson’s antics in the Manali hinterlands.

But all that was for tomorrow. Tonight, Wes was feeling contemplative. He had completed 15 years in the business, and what did he have to show for it? A few Stardust critics’ choice awards? This was, in fact, the first time he had even been considered by the Academy of Motion Pictures. And that was just not cool.

Moonrise Garden

His last release, Moonrise Garden, had been largely panned by the critics for encouraging hormonal teenagers across the world. The story traced a pair of young lovers who flee their New Friends Colony homes and hide in the shady environs of Lodhi Gardens instead. This causes a local search party; including the sub-sector-inspector, played by the brilliant Bruce Kumar Willis to fan out to find them. The film did well at the box office, but much of the profits went into repaying the next-door Habitat Center for their night parking charges. Those privileged hipsters.

Some say that Wes has become a little distant from ‘the scene’. He doesn’t like LA; he doesn’t work in Hollywood, and still insists on living in that farmhouse in Mohali. But Wes didn’t think that was the problem. He just felt his ideas were a little ahead of their time.

Fantastic Mr Ox

Take his stop motion animated feature for example – Fantastic Mr.Ox. A telling masterpiece that captured the complex dilemma of an urban ox as it tried to resist returning to its original farm raiding ways in Punjab. The story takes a turn as Mr. Ox is forced to help his community of farm animals, including Bindya the bakri, survive the milk vendor’s sudden retaliation. The stop motion technique gave this film a delicious charm, not dissimilar to the original story by the famed Rahul Dalal.

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Sometimes, Wes feared that ‘his quirky image’ was a doing of other directors who were unhappy with his success. For instance, his railroad epic The Muzzafarpur Unlimited had created quite the furore in the community. Anurag Kashyap even openly questioned Wes’s near idyllic depiction of rural Bihar. The lack of blood and gore, the adherence to bright orange pastels (and pistols) and the use of music from The Who for key chase sequences was ‘apparently’ not reflective of the ‘local culture’. But Wes had never cared about that. He had his own voice, and that was that.

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What better example of this avant-garde attitude than his oceanic extravaganza –The Life Traumatic with Sarvesh Zissou. Producers told him it was impossible. They said it would go over budget. But Wes, oh Wes, he was deeply moved. Says IMDB: “After his business partner chokes on a mythical fried squid during a fishing expedition, famed oceanographer Sarvesh Zissou rallies a crew of misfits to find and hunt down the chef who may or may not have used the new Philips air-fryer everyone had been talking about. How could you fry a squid with just air? Maybe the lack of lubrication killed his partner? The film was considered too complex a theme, but ardent fans swear by its underwater cinematography and seamless product placement.” Also, the use of red monkey caps instead of fishing hats was considered a costume coup.

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Maybe it was time for Wes to return to his roots and explore another familyesque dragedy like The Royal Tenenbaumbanis. The epic saga of a dysfunctional Sindhi family who reunites one last time for their father’s dying wish – a papad and chaas party. The story ticked all the right boxes: drama, laughter, love, incest, even a mandatory slo-mo helicopter scene, making one Karan Johar extremely uncomfortable.

This last film had been particularly personal for Wes, having grown up as an awkward child in a house filled with over performing engineers. His love for the movies had made him shun the family ball-bearing business, and this was his fitting reply to the folks that gave him a middle name like Biloo.

But much of this has been written about in the past. With these 9 new nominations, Wes Agrawal was now staring firmly into the future. So much so that the tea was now cold, but Wes was too preoccupied to even notice. What would he do next? Maybe another animated feature? Maybe this time with dogs? Dogs seemed like a popular subject. Maybe he would make it like those Japanese style anime cartoons? Maybe he would shoot it in Japan? Hell, maybe even dub it in Japan? Maybe he would call up his friend Bill Murray? Hm. Or maybe just order some chole bhature. Mmm

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WHY I THINK ABOUT AMRITA SINGH WHEN I THINK ABOUT SMOKING

 

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(this story was first published on http://www.filmcompanion.in on 11th May 2016)

Now, now don’t pretend. You know Amrita Singh –the Hindi film actress, ex-wife of Saif Ali Khan, Best Supporting Actress Filmfare 1994 (Aaina), star of legendary films like Betaab, Mard and my personal favourite – Chameli ki Shaadi. This story involves her. Somewhat.

It was summer vacation of Class 5, and I was in Bombay for the first time. And as all tourists from Delhi do, I had only one request: “Shooting!” My uncle, our reluctant host, somehow managed to arrange a viewing at Mehboob Studio the next afternoon. “Mehboob” I thought? That’s a funny sound. “Haan, Mahboob”, said my driver. “Mah jaise mard, aur Boob jaise, arre boob”. As you can probably imagine, this was my poetic introduction to basic anatomy.(I was a late bloomer).

But that said, this magical male bosomed studio was something else. There were crowds, there were vanity vans, there were strobe lights. I’d never seen anything like it. Word from my driver was that Jaggu Jackie was entering. I saw him in a black SUV, wearing a bandana, Ray Bans, carrying the then 3-year-old Tiger Shroff on his shoulder. Man, that kid had six packs even then I tell you. But I wasn’t interested in Jackie Shroff. I was staring at Amrita Singh. And when I say staring, I mean staring like a 10-year old does, at a proximity of 2 feet, separated only by a thin rope of sorts. Now in most cases, an established actress would be quite used to little boys staring at her rather intently. But this was slightly tricky. I wasn’t staring at her in awe, I was staring because Amrita Singh was sitting on a chair, smoking. Like a boss.

I’d never seen a woman smoke before. I remember screaming out loudly to my Mother – “Mummy! Amrita Singh cigarette peeti hain!” Oh, the horror. I pity her children. Because what followed was the coldest, meanest, cleanest stare I have ever received from a woman, leave alone a well-respected actress. Amrita Singh traded a look with my mother. The kind that clearly said: get this pesky kid out of my face or else. But I didn’t care. I just gaped, googly eyed. I’d never seen anything like this before. A woman could smoke? Who knew?

Nothing was the same after that. I went back to Delhi after the break and life continued, but my mind and heart stayed in Bombay. What the hell was going in that part of the world? It was like I’d had briefly tasted wonderland.

My uncle soon left Bombay, and that was the end of my physical visits to the promised bosom land. But, I continued to visit in my mind. And with age, the themes remained the same, only the characters changed. By Class 9, my new fascination was Channel V and MTV. And the VJs – Nonie, Sophie, Nikhil, Shehnaz. And their clothes. And their accents. They just looked cool. Far cooler than anyone I’d met in my city. So naturally, I wanted to know where all this action happened. And to my pubescent mind, the answer was simple. A magical place called PO BOX No. 4, Tulsiwadi Tardeo -the postal address at the end of every show.

And I’m not being cute. In my mind, Tulsiwadi Tardeo was Hollywood. It was New York. It was where stuff happened. My city was just black and brown and dull greys. But this place –Tulsiwadi was fluorescent green, and shocking pink and bright neon. People spoke differently here. They walked differently here. We were just mere consumers in our Lutyen living rooms. But these guys, these Tulsiwadians, they were creators. Man, I was hooked and booked.

Now, the logical flow to this story would be to talk of my utter disappointment on actually visiting Tulsiwadi, and realizing that it is much more a collection of old buildings and rusted studios than the epicenter of show business. But the truth is, I still haven’t been there. I’ve been living in Bombay for six years, but I haven’t gone. Even out of curiosity. In fact, I’m not even sure where it exactly is on the map.

Why you ask? Despite all this innocent nostalgia? Well, I’ve just been busy. You know, complaining about the city. The roads, the traffic, the people, the pace. “This city consumes you!” “I can’t live like this anymore.” And all this angst just got me thinking. This city, much like it’s economy, only works when it’s conceptual. You need to buy into the ‘idea’ of Bombay, and not so much it’s actual real estate. That’s the only way to make sense of it. It’s not great to live in. It doesn’t offer much in terms of standard of life, but almost everyone I know, especially those in a creative field, are here because at some point in their life, they bought into the ‘idea’ of the city. Maybe it was Jackie Shroff, maybe it was Simpu Singh, maybe it was Buniyad or Antakshari. It doesn’t matter. This idea fuels the pace. This idea fuels the traffic. It gives the stubbornness to live here. Unfortunately, the more you stay in the city, the more you forget why it was special in the first place.

For my end, I’m just trying to remember ‘that thing’ that got me here. You know, for the times I see a big rat blissfully strolling along the footpath, or when I dodge an overflowing gutter spilling into my drive way, or for that time I mistakenly stepped over a homeless man after a drunken evening at Bonobo. Bombay is not always a wonderland. But in my head, it could still be one. That’s the magic. And that’s my plan to exist here. Not to crib and curse, but maybe to just remember. To remember the sounds and shapes that made it distinctly special. They might be idealistic. They might not all be true. But who cares. To me, they are still welcome antidotes for the times I feel a little low, those peculiar whimsical days of Mehboob-Amrita-Tardeo.

(A disclaimer: As with most things in the city, some facts in this article may have been distorted for literary punch and commercial effect. I don’t actually think about Amrita Singh when I think about smoking. That would be creepy. I’m also not very sure how old I was when I was first came to Bombay, but I would imagine a bespectacled lanky boy in Class 5 makes for a compelling protagonist. And did I really step over a homeless man outside Bonobo? Well, I’m not an animal. Shame on you for believing that. )

 

 

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THE STARTUP

Through the lobby way, mixing with the shadows, past the linen tray, there comes the smell of onion & potato. Caramelized Potato – opium of the masses. The smell, fueled by cunning carbohydrates, glides swiftly across the plastered column of my living room, jumps across the medicine cabinet, dodges a Wi-Fi antenna here and there before landing at a door. This is no ordinary door mind you. A sign dangles from its scrappy doorknob. One of those room service signs that has obviously been stolen.

DO-NOT-DISTURB.

But the smell, gosh, it powers through. Whoosh! Through the tiny slit under the door, rising high, high up towards the ceiling before crashing down fast. Boom! Breaking just before a plate of half-eaten Marie biscuits. It creeps left, straight into a buzzing cellphone, launches right onto some scattered Post-Its before resting on a strip of scotch-tape dangling from a tiny white board. A staple flies in the air. The smell, still starchy, waits a while, narrowly missing the closing cap of a black marker pen (tic), before diving head first into the welcoming hollows of an old ink-jet printer. Two bodies slouched behind silver macbooks look up, sniffle and sneeze respectively. This isn’t ideal. But when you’re a startup, nothing really is.

Meet the small office, home office. A new age incubator for a new generation of enterprising Agrawals. SOHO, Silicon Valley, Sequoia Capital, rolled into one. Right here in Safdarjang Enclave. Down the road from Rajendar Da Dhaba. U-turn from VLCC.

Entrepreneurship – you might like to know, has been a key strand of my family’s genetic make-up [Manufacturing Overhead Cranes since 1956™], so when my sisters decided to plunge into their own business, it came as no real surprise. When they decided to set up shop making wedding films instead of welding frames, the family was more than supportive. And when this “shop” was inaugurated in the confines of my sister’s bedroom, with the dining table as the conference table, the home internet as the office internet, the kitchen as the official open pantry, no one really complained, although it was agreed that a line must be drawn soon.

But, we are, in essence, still a binnis family. Such ambition is generally expected, and encouraged. All kids must make some moolah and every floor should have at least one jhoola. Simple.

11am. A phone begins to ring. My youngest sister, [Partner and Chief Operating Officer] picks it up in a flurry. The tone of her voice hardly matches the tone of her pajamas.

Hi! This is Filmy Weddings. Naam to suna hi hoga?

She smirks the smirk of a dialogue well delivered.

Ya ya. We do wedding films for all regions, religions & orientations. Oh Iscon Temple? How cool. Classic and simple. Have you by any chance considered drones? Haan. Those flying fighter plane things. But we’ll use them for aerial shots ok. It looks very surreal. And, if you want, we can shower some flowers from the sky? Aise hi. Effect ke liye. Waise who’s your pandit? Ramnath Ji? Arre, he’s the man. The camera loves him. Opening montage bilkul solid banega..

My cousin sister [Co-Partner and Co-Chief Operating Officer](they’re trying to avoid another Ambani episode), slouched next to her, interjects in whispers. Just-say-yes-na. Stop-asking-so-many-questions. And-sound-more-professional. Bhagwan-ke-liye.

February seems ok. But let’s meet ASAP and finalize things. Our office? Actually, uh the thing is, we’re getting some renovation done. Vaastu shaastu you know. How about Hauz Khas? Social?

The “renovation” she was mentioning was just Vishnu – my Dad’s right hand man, our family handyman, preserver of all things, fixer of broken things, accountant, plumber, mechanic, magician. Also default Operations Head at Filmy Weddings™. Vishnu had just walked into the room [head office] to fix a broken geyser in my sister’s bathroom [executive washroom].

Vishnu can fix anything mind you – pumps, bulbs, lamps, cars, calculators but geysers – geysers really trouble him. He struggles with a broken fuse for a few painful seconds. Brr. Crk. Tgg.

Vishnu. Aap bahar fix kar do. Main baad main naha loongi.

Bas ek minute. Almost ho gaya crk yeh.

Vishnu.

Tgg atak gaya crk hain. Uff!

Bahar.

Arre. Yeh toh bas..

Abhi.

Useless geysers. He exits, low on confidence; fuse in hand, leaving the main door ajar. Not a problem though, considering one of the key features of the Filmy Weddings Vision Document is the company’s strict Open Door Policy™.

[Sec B, Para 2.3: Treat visitors like wedding guests. Welcome them even if uninvited.]

This time however, the open door was a more than welcome opportunity for my Mother [not yet a board member] to stroll in on the operation. And she was looking rather mad.

(In a non-negotiable tone that only mothers can perfect)

I need to wash those pajamas. Give them to me now.

Mom, we’re trying to work here.

Let me remind you. This is a house. Not a hotel.

I know.

I’m not here to do your laundry.

Mummy! Kya hain?

And why don’t you girls ever keep your plates in the kitchen?

Chachi! Stop touching things.

Blue, green, yellow, pink, she says, while arranging the Post Its in an aesthetically pleasing order. She used to be a designer you see.

Stop it Mummy.

I need these pajamas. And open these windows! You want to suffocate or what?

Mummy. Chachi!

Guys? I ask, slipping my head through the sliding door that connects my room to my sister’s room/office. This wall is really thin. Just keep your voice down. Please.

Bhaiya, we’re working.

I know.

No. We’re working. You’re not.

I’m on a sabbatical. Chill.

Why don’t you go to a coffee shop or something?

Why? This is my house.

This is also my office.

Is it, really?

Please get a job.

Do you need freelancers?

I don’t work with family.

You both are fam..

Bye.

As I feel the sliding door close on my face, I can hear the distinct approach of my Tauji [My Dad’s elder brother, father of my cousin sister/Co-COO] walking in from the other end. The door was open of course. I say distinct approach, because his walk has a certain cheerful quality to it, the kind of swagger and clank reminiscent of a classic P.G. Wodehouse Bertie Wooster walk – slightly fumbled, partly noisy, golf cap in tow to protect from the blistering cold. He wanted to know the status of the new Agrawal venture. Although, much like his corduroy trousers, his understanding of their business was a little outdated. Not Tauji’s fault though, considering he belongs to the original start-up generation. The kind that built businesses around beautifully round ball bearings. He’s bought factories, shut down factories, dealt with banks, rejected funding, regretted funding. And what could be more exciting than a new venture in the family. He’s certain that Agrawal 2.0 can use his binnis pedigree.

So girls, how are the numbers looking?

What numbers?

You know, the numbers. Margins beta. Margins.

We haven’t done the numbers yet.

You must. Double entry bookkeeping. Aata hain?

Papa, we don’t have any money. What should we account?

Business needs liquidity. Take a risk. Take a loan. Try karo. Have fun guys.

Arre. We don’t need a loan. We need work.

Network. Network. Phone milao. Meeting karo. Business is all about people. Go for it guys.

We are meeting people. Through Facebook na. We just need more buzz.

More what?

Buzz Papa. Buzz.

Accha. Chalo show me the 5-year plan..

Kya?

Koi exit plan?

Huh

Business plan?

Hmm

Tauji stumbles out grumbling. Maybe the Agrawal legacy was just a distant dream. Behind him, my Mother walks back in with some fresh laundry and socks. The smell of liquid detergent mixed with diced potato is mesmerizing.

See. This is washed. That is unwashed. I need those pajamas. Abhi.

Mummy! Bas karo.

Guys, about that freelance thing? I can work from home if you want. Flexi timings..

Sshh!

On cue, Lakshmi, our maid, (we do have a mythical household) slips through the open door to pick up the day old biscuits and glasses from the room. Vishnu troupes in behind her, beaming the smile of a man who had maybe won the battle of the geezer this time. He plugs in the fuse confidently. Brr. Crk. Goddammit.

Vishnu! Kya kar rahe ho? Baad main, please.

By the way, shouts Tauji from the lobby, have you printed business cards yet? I think white is a good idea. Off white bhi try kar sakte hon.. Call Roopak Ji for dimensions. 9821..

My mother, still witness to this family board meeting, tries to bring things back to order. I need those pajamas. Or wash them on your own. Two scoops of Surf. Rinse cycle 3.

Didi, jhadu lagana hain kamre main?

Problem fuse main nahi, yeh geyser main hain.

The Agrawal sisters share a look with each other. The kind perhaps that the Ambani brothers shared when Dhirubhai decided to take their business out of the family kitchen for good. Kar lo duniya mutthi main. Filmy Weddings could no longer function out of home. It was a startup dammit, not a cooperative khadi business. Imagine if Zuckerberg’s Mom kept asking him to wash that grey jumper all the time? Or if Steve Jobs was consistently nagged about the lint on his black polo necks? Maybe a coffee shop was a good idea. Or even that office space in Shapurjat. Maybe they can even convince Vishnu to freelance with them. Perhaps even Lakshmi if the price was right, and her timings were flexible. And does one really need a conference room? And does that conference room really need to have adrak chai and biscuits every hour? The partners seemed to finally agree. Business had to be separated from family. Relocation was the only choice. They got up to leave, but remembered to flip the sign on the bedroom door.

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1

I HEART STORIES

Let’s start at the beginning. Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Lady or the Tiger, Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat (I was in a convent). In school, I barely passed Maths (Fuck You Sets. You think you’re better than me Surds?), but come English period, and I was home. Stories were currency, and Mrs. George asked us to express without fear. So I did. I wrote Letters to the Editor bordering on homicidal threats and Free Hand Essays about friendly mosquitos battling depression due to a new repellent in the market. Even Hindi was fine when the stuff was scripted. Dwarka Jahu Ju, Dwarka Jahu Ju, if you get my drift. Sudama Charit? Probably not.

Naturally, I went on to do Engineering, because there’s nothing more fun than to see your youthful creative exuberance get throttled by some measly, yet surprisingly sprightly diodes. And triodes. And transistors. And inductors. Ooh. And if that isn’t enough, you can choose to have it circumcised into little bits and bytes by embarking on a promising career as an SAP programmer. (That’s Systems Applications Products and something). #include <thingswerequitedull>

That’s right. Hashtags before hashtags. Will the real shady nerds please stand up?

Luckily, I stumbled into Advertising.

Now here was a place I liked. Everyone looked similar, and everyone drank coffee. And you could sometimes wear slippers. I worked hard, slept late and dreamt stories. Of cars and shoes and TVs and alcohol and NGOs. Of little children and stubbled men and troubled housewives. “5 BIG ideas this year” scribbled on my Post It pad.

Things were finally looking up. And I was about to catch my big break.

F.M.C.G. Fast Moving Consumer Goods – stuff like soaps, shampoos and hair oils that get quickly picked up at stores. I know this sounds boring, but in our little Advertising world, F.M.C.G. (Learn this word. All the cool kids say it), is the Holy Grail. F.M.C.G. brands have the deepest pockets, which means they are the biggest spenders on TV & Newspapers, which in-turn means the stories we create will be seen by many people, maybe even our parents, which would finally give them something to be proud about. In my case, this would be right after the time I won ‘best actor in a female role’ at a school dramatics competition. In class 11. Did I mention I was in a convent?

On this lucky day, I found myself meeting with a new, juicy F.M.C.G. client. Could this be it? My big campaign that people will remember for years to come? The big story I’ve always wanted to write? Will girls actually like me now? What will be the title of my autobiography? I need something punchy. Like Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish. Damn you Steve Jobs!

So? I asked my client, beaming with virgin enthusiasm. Is it soap? Is it a wash? Is it a looopah?

A bit of all, he replied. This is classified information.

Yellow. I want my book to be yellow. I don’t know why.

What we have is a revolutionary new product. A new category I would say. A Facewash plus a Hairwash plus a Bodywash.

A Bhacewash!

Umm

Or Fhodywash?

A three in one product, he stressed, that will wash the face, the hair and the body together. In one synergized motion. Just like nature intended it.

That’ll be one solid cleaning.

The new product will do much more than cleaning; he smirked, in a well-rehearsed smirk. It’ll give you fairness of the face, silkiness of hair and the smell of a bodywash. All in one. Then he crumpled his fingers together. ‘3 solutions, 1 revolution.’

Woof. My spider sense was tingling. So chief, what’s the secret ingredient?

Ss. Coffee beans. Coconut oil. Fresh strawberries. Together, he repeated, they’ll make your skin glow like a bulb, your hair flow like a feather and your body smell like Wimbledon. A slide appeared to show this graphically, as if on cue.

Amazing. Coffee, Coconut and Strawberries. Who would’ve thought? How do you mix all these together? I was so damn curious.

It’s a research and scientific process. It’s a science thing. The scientists at our laboratory are building a mechanism to integrate the ingredients. So.

I wasn’t listening. I was scribbling. Do they take the coconut oil and then mix it with coffee concentrate and then add chunks of strawberry in it? No wait. Maybe they take a strawberry base, like a paste and then emulsify it with coconut oil and then sprinkle coffee beans into it? Oh wait. They probably just crush the strawberries and coffee beans together and mix that paste with coconut oil, right? Add some petroleum jelly for lubrication? I did Chemistry in college.

It’s not that simple, he reiterated. There’s science involved and the scientists at our labs are working on integrating the ingredients. It’s very molecular.

Science Shmience. I wanted to know. Experiment. Observation. Inference. Can I talk to the scientists? Maybe there’s a story in it? Huff. I can smell it.

It’s not that simple.

But how will I make the campaign? I need to know what kind of strawberries and what kind of coffee beans. And is this loose coconut oil or packaged coconut oil? That changes everything.

I believe there was some Titration done.

They must have tested thousands of samples..

Emulsification of the Bunsen Burner.

If you can just get me the lab tests..

Atomization of the covalent bonds.

I did Chemistry you know.

 

Things were silent for a while. Then he went and closed the door. More silence. Whispers.

The thing is, this product; it’s like umm – a cocktail, with three flavours. But think of it like a cocktail, if it’s not so much a cocktail but more Coca Cola.

I don’t understand.

Uhm. You think it’s a cocktail, but it’s actually just Cola. Like uh a drink in Bombay. You think there’s alcohol in it, but the truth is there isn’t.

So there’s no alcohol in the Fhodywash?

Nope.

What?

The coffee, strawberries, coconut oil – um like the alcohol, uhh they’re not there. No. They are there. But they’re umm emotive.

Emotive?

Emotive. As in for effect, for the emotional feeling, for the feel yaar. They give our consumers the feeling that this stuff is real.

But it is real.

Yes.

But it’s emotive.

Right.

What is this product again?

Mostly soap and water. And bubbles.

You serious?

No. Joking. It’s not that these ingredients aren’t there. They’re just extracts.

Oh like concentrates? Like Juice. Where you squeeze out the best qualities?

Not concentrates. ‘Extracts’. It just uh smells like the ingredients.

Like artificial flavouring?

Sort of.

Without the flavouring?

Yup.

I never liked Chemistry.

 

What about legal implications? Is this even allowed?

It’s legal if you say extract. That means it’s there, but not really. Say 0.1%. But we do 1-2% to make things bulletproof. Plus then you can put big pictures on the packaging. Which is very important. Tell your designers.

 

But what about the Advertising Council? They must have some rules about claims?

It comes down to numbers chief. Who’s the biggest Advertiser these days?

You guys.

And who sits on the board of the Advertising Council?

Our guys.

And who pays whose bills?

Uh

So, campaign meeting Tuesday?

 

As I wiped my tears and dreams away in the auto ride home, I couldn’t help but wonder how messed up this was. Here I was, ready with the cover and colour of my autobiography, finally about to make my parents proud, and these guys tell me that it’s all ‘emotive’. It’s not real. Toothpaste main namak? Emotive. Tel main Aamla. Emotive. Facewash with freshly ground apricots sourced from jungles of Columbia? Emotive. Dentist approved toothbrush? Don’t say it. I have sensitive teeth. This was deception. This was cheating. We were sitting in our high offices taking the piss out of the common man by pawning products that weren’t even real. Emotive! Exploitive! I was angry and betrayed and disappointed. It’s a matter of conscience! I screamed at work. We’re selling our souls! Business had taken over art again! Then I got very drunk. And then I calmed down.

You see my hangover really got me thinking. It was probably dehydration. Sure this ‘emotive’ business was manipulative and straight-to-hell worthy, but it was also ingenious. We were selling soap water as the fountain of youth, and people were buying into it. Not just into the product, but into the ‘story’. Man is an emotional being. And we were being ‘emotive’. The penny dropped. (For me. Not for the public. You’re screwed.) This was the biggest story of them all. Fiction turned into non-fiction. Imagination turned into reality. Creativity turned into profits. I could finally spin the biggest story of them all. Mrs. George would be so proud.

You know, people keep calling Advertising a surrogate profession. How it’s a safe hideout for closet writers and artists. But I disagree. Every once in a while we too get to flex our literary muscle. We make stories. Big, bold, beautifully imagined stories with gut wrenching emotive arcs. For the ‘feel’. Fhodywash. ZPTO. MMR. PUF. 3X whiter. 5X stronger. 0 transfats. They’re not real, but heck, nor is Nancy Drew.

Rushdie started in Advertising you know. Just saying.

I heart stories

 

0

A HEALTHY OBSESSION

You know those people, who constantly obsess with their health? Can’t eat this, won’t touch that, slow on carbs, high on salad, air fryer! preservatives! is this eggless mayonnaise? We’ll this story isn’t about them. It’s about another kind of obsession. And how it made me rather healthy. Sort of.

O.C.D. or obsessive-compulsive-disorder is a strange problem. Problem. Pro-ba-lam. It makes you want to say things and touch things and count things and repeat things, in a certain manner and meter, with no real objective or purpose in mind. Just a slight trigger and you can’t stop till the feeling subsides. I don’t really know what ‘the feeling’ is, but it’s there. That’s why it’s an obsession. And probably why it’s a disorder.

It-this-thing, has been bugging me since pretty young. I remember turning book pages in a certain order and velocity, writing P.T.O. furiously on every sheet – bottom right corner of course, touching bare walls in college and jumping steps, for no particular reason at all. Ask my imaginary friends and they’ll confirm. Kidding. But things were on the edge. There were doorknobs and door locks and sweaters before exams and the gas. One must always check the gas. In case it’s. Now see what you’ve done.

(An unavoidable break)

As you can guess, O.C.D. has not been a source of much inspiration in my life. And over the years, I’ve worked quite hard to curb its enthusiasm. Lost some nerves. Lost some hair. Lost some love. But things are better now. I don’t knock thrice anymore. And my shoelaces aren’t always balanced. The only issue that remains is numbers. My Achilles heel. I just don’t like some numbers. Like 3 and 9 and every prime till 79. And 13 and 15 and anything with 6 in between. And odd numbers and squares and even numbers that come in pairs. And square roots with commas and sequences with points and zeroes that are conjoint. Yuck.

But I see them everywhere. At work, on spreadsheets, on menus, license plates, my watch, at the gym.

I like to exercise. I burn calories and heavy thoughts and it helps me expend this excess, unnecessary energy accumulated through the day. But these numbers – damn them.

Let’s take the treadmill. Enter the speed of your run. 5 is no good, I’m hardly even walking. And it’s a prime. Which is the devil. 6 is fine, but it’s not sweat worthy. Plus 6+2 is 8 and that’s the cube root of 2 and I just don’t like cubes. They’re not even even. Everything should be even. Like 10 or 12 or 14. But 14 is in the 7 tables. So 14.2. I’m going to run at 14.2 speed and burn some calories. 123 calories. No. 125. Can’t. 127. Won’t. 128. Bah. 138. Stop!

2.74 kilometers at 14.2 speed with 138 calories in 2.5 minutes. Wait 2.5? Aargh.

Next up are some friendly push-ups. 15 reps, sets of three, says the instructor. I can’t do 15 reps, three times. 15 x 3 is 45 and my pin code is 40005 and it just doesn’t sound right. Twelve I tell him sets of two (24 is when I found love so). 13 he insists. 14 I beg (28 is when I found drugs so.) 11 and sets of four he pushes. Ok, if I can leave the last one at 10 because 10 fours are 40 and that’s one less than 41, and my bus number was Z1 and it just feels right. Go get your freak on, he says. Hah. If he only knew.

Weights. Today is triceps. 5 kg set one. 7.5kg set two. End with 10kg set three. First the left tricep. Then the right one. Then both together. But that’s three sets for triceps sir? And three ways of doing triceps? And they’re called ‘tri’ ceps. I just hate triangles. I’ll do four sets of everything and then one bicep? Like a square with a big diagonal. Ok? My head hurts.

This would be a typical day at the gym. And I’m not even starting on the days for abs, where the numbers go into hundreds and the mind is free to imagine while resting in an upside down position, the blood pumping bullshit into my brain on repeat. Yikes.

You might think that going to the gym has clearly backfired. It was supposed to temper my obsessive handicap. That hasn’t happened. I’m still counting numbers. I’m still smelling gas. O.C.D. is a part of me now. Like a bad metabolism or a mole on the left palm. I might not love it, but it’s probably just a matter of perspective.

So here’s my idea. I’ve decided to befriend my disorder. I don’t fight it. I milk it. I exercise the fuck out of it. Unleash it at the gym you know. I might lose my mind, but heck, at least I’ll get ripped as hell. 5.7 pack anyone? Sure. Have the calf for a half marathon? You betcha. Uh tricep? More like I-can-make-you-wanna-cry-cep.

So suck you GQ. Eat this Men’s health. Brothers of the world: take my friendly advice – drop those damn protein shakes. Go grab you inner chi and try my special O.C.D.*

(*Satisfaction not guaranteed)

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