Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dhoti row: Why are we so obsessed with clubs?

(Published in, on July 20, 2014, retrieved from

The denial of entry to Justice D Hariparanthaman by the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association has opened up yet another row over the dress codes of clubs, and caused everyone to ask whether this is a “colonial hang-up”.
Even as Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa threatens to take legal action against the club for insulting the “traditional dress” of the state, a discussion has been triggered in India as well as abroad over the sartorial guidelines of clubs.
The TNCA does not ban just dhotis. It bans T-shirts, kurtas, salwar trousers, and sandals for men.
There have been numerous instances in the past, where a colonial era club has been embroiled in a controversy over attire.
A few years ago, there were demonstrations at the Calcutta Club after the artist Shuvaprasanna was asked to leave for not conforming to the dress code – he had arrived to attend an event in kurta-pyjama. Earlier, M F Husain had been turned away for the same reason. Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and Rajaji, had declined an invitation because of the dress code.
The refusal of entry to L K Advani at the Delhi Gymkhana Club prompted a row in Parliament.
In 2002, Professor G Mohan Gopal, the head of Bangalore’s National Law School resigned his membership to the Bangalore Club in disgust, after being denied entry when he arrived in a dhoti for the Republic Day celebrations.
I have personally come across situations which would be howlers in any other country. I was scheduled to interview an author at the Madras Club. I saw him arrive from his room, and then disappear for a few minutes, after a conversation with the manager. Apparently, he could not pass through the dining hall in his informal attire, though he would be free to wear his T-shirt in the verandah, where I was waiting for him. A friend once told me how a journalist was asked to wear a tie at a Press Club. After asking whether that was their only stipulation, he went to the restroom, and emerged wearing nothing but his underwear and tie.
In every such case, the members of the club – or at least, the majority of members – have defended the dress code.
Rather than argue with the codes of these clubs, we should perhaps think about the relevance and importance of such clubs.
Most were founded to allow the white sahibs to bond with each other – and occasionally, with their sycophants in the civil service. Some were established in protest against the racism, which restricted Indians from holding memberships. However, all of them aspired to be British, evidenced by their dress code.
Even now, most people I know sneer at clubs which were always open to Indian members.
I find the pride people take in their membership to these clubs amusing.
Yes, they do have rather good facilities – the libraries are well-stocked, the gym equipment is in decent working condition (since it is mostly used by geriatrics), and the swimming pools are clean.
But these (perhaps excluding the library) are facilities one could find anywhere – including in the recently-built apartment complex where I own a flat.
So, what exactly is the source of the members’ pride? Does it stem from the fact that their ancestors merited the approval of the British? Does it stem from the fact that they married men whose ancestors merited the approval of the British – for most of these clubs do not allow women to join on their own account?
Recently, I was talking to some people at a book event that was hosted in one such club. I was asked whether I thought the “club culture” would last. I wondered what this “club culture” really meant. Was it an obsession with rules? Was it the idea of exclusivity?
I answered honestly – most people in my generation don’t see the point of the clubs, at least in my circle. We would rather go places where we are welcomed on our own merit. We would rather not be told how to dress.
I resent the idea of a dress code universally.
I don’t see why temples stipulate that I must wear a saree or a salwar kameez “with dupatta”, or why men are required to wear “full pants” or dhotis, as if we were convent-school teenagers who had to be kept from checking each other out. You know, “I see your muscled calf and raise you my expansive bust.”
I don’t see why I should cover my head in a gurdwara or dargah. I refuse to travel to any country that enforces a dress code.
Nightclubs say they insist on formal footwear and trousers for men to “keep the riffraff out”. But does the fact that a man wears formal shoes and trousers preclude him from harassing anyone?
Bizarrely, a few years ago, a nightclub called Blacks refused entry to a sari-clad woman. The manager was quoted as saying, “Nowhere in the country are women allowed to enter discotheques wearing saris. How can a woman dance wearing a sari? It attracts unwanted attention.”
I suppose any organisation is free to make its own rules.
We have a choice between indulging them and boycotting them.
I would not want to enter any place that forbids me from wearing a saree, or requires me to cover my head. And everyone is free to decide whether they would deign to humour such rules, or skip the need to do so – by avoiding the organisation in question.

Filmi Chakkar: What Bollywood taught us about love

(Published in The Friday Times, on July 18, 2014, retrieved from

Picture Courtesy: The Friday Times

I belong to a generation that has failed fantastically at love. It’s not that we don’t meet people; it’s not that we don’t fall in love; it’s not even that we don’t finally settle down with someone who is perfect. Our failure lies in the journey towards that person who makes us not want to kill ourselves for ever contemplating a future with him or her.

We do the stupidest things. We panic over the stupidest things. We behave like teenagers when we are in our twenties.

Following a conversation over coffee – which, like most conversations over coffee, dealt mainly with relationships, I had an epiphany. The reason our perception of love is so messed up is...Bollywood.

Here are ten things Bollywood taught us about love:

The key to compatibility is a difference in station and attitude; khaandaani dushmani comes in handy

Of course, the world is in denial of the fact that Romeo and Juliet were prize idiots. If they had cut out the drama, and eloped quietly, they would have been making babies till they got tired of each other, and Romeo would eventually have been consigned to the Mediaeval version of the sofa.
But Bollywood refuses even to recognise that their story was a tragedy. They set the bar for all grand love stories, and so, for decades, our heroes and heroines have been dying for each other – and as they are required not to offend our cultural sensibilities, they usually fail to consummate their relationship.

The solution to unrequited love is persistence – everyone loves a stalker

You know how the heroine always hates the hero to start with? She’s repulsed by his clothes, his bawdiness, his gang of chamchas, his love of song-and-dance. She turns away when he approaches her; she gathers her gang of chamchis and bursts into retaliatory dance to scare him away; she occasionally calls the cops on him. But once he starts sexually harassing her – by having her car tyres punctured, offering her a ride on a bike so he can do the stop-short move, or sniffing around her at a bus stop, or generally following her and trying to grab her butt – she falls for him.

Every parent dreams that his or her daughter will marry the most evil man alive

Have you, like, met a family that is organising an arranged marriage in real life? Everyone from the istriwallah to the local MP is recruited to spy on the groom, and alert someone from the bride’s family when the ‘boy’ is observed to have a ‘bad habit’. This habit could be smoking, looking at posters of busty women, drinking, or waving to a girl he knows. The alliance will be immediately rejected, and the hounds will be supplied with fresh blood.

But this does not hold in Bollywood. The chief qualification for a man to merit the post of parent-picked groom is that he must be cruel to animals and humans alike. This guy will grab a sandwich from your fat little cousin; he will shoot pigeons; he will leer at your aunties. And your parents want you to make babies with him, till your raggedy lover washes up at your doorstep and allows your fat cousin to score a six in five-a-side cricket.

Without opposition, lovers will lose the enthusiasm to stay in touch

This was the lesson that the painful Mausam tried to reinforce. Hindu boy loves Muslim girl, or the other way around; the parents are happy. The couple is happy. But, someone shifts house, and that’s it. Your love is doomed, unless you happen to travel halfway across the world and meet at a traffic signal.

Singing sad songs in the rain makes more sense than honest conversation

Those three-and-a-half-hour movies would last forty-five minutes if someone had the brains to pretend to get drunk, and blurt out “I love you”. Bollywood has never heard of the world’s most asinine, but world’s most acceptable, excuse: “I’m sorry. It was the alcohol talking.”

If you fall in love with your best friend, hope his wife will die

He won’t notice you, because he can’t hear the mournful alaaps that play out in the background every time he snubs you and you well up. He can’t see your tears because he’s checking out the rack of the new chick in class. But never mind. He will marry and reproduce, and once his wife is out of the way, his progeny will seek you out for his second innings.

The way to a man’s heart is a chiffon saree

Bollywood’s favourite all-weather garment is the chiffon saree. Whether you’re jumping by the seaside, or hurtling towards your death on the Swiss alps, you look best doing it in a chiffon saree. These are especially useful when it rains, and you’re trying to convince a man you have the curves to go with your culinary skills.

There is no scope for love outside college – unless you join the armed forces

If you haven’t chanced upon anything worth your attention along the college corridors, make sure you flunk your final exams. Repeat the process until you get desperate enough to stalk someone into submission. Happy life. Failing this, if you’re a man, your only option is to enlist. Hopefully, you’ll meet a reporter, or a spy, who will make a good bahu. If you’re a woman, go marry the evil pigeon-shooter.

If you have no dress sense, latch on to the certified hot chick

Some mechanic, or the son of some mechanic, will eventually woo her and introduce her to his blind, widowed, or deluded mother. He will usually have a best friend to supply the comedy track to his life. If you play your cards right, the friend will marry you.

It is important to choose a man with a lookalike

Now, what do you do if your lover dies? Cry? Mourn? All right. Now, let’s say he has a doppelganger halfway across the world. Problem solved, no? Just make sure he’s not your lover’s father or son, because, you know, Bollywood mothers tend to lose their kids in fairs and suchlike – and the shock of realisation makes them lose their memories too.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

For whom the bell peals

(Published in the July 2014 issue of Shubh Yatra magazine, retrieved from​)

It’s rather awkward when one is deemed an expert on a subject one has no practical experience of. Since Hitched was released, I’ve been accosted by journalists, young men and women, uncles and aunties, who expect a verdict on arranged marriage – is it more durable than ‘love marriage’? Why are more people getting divorced nowadays? Is social networking making people act out their marriages for the public? Why do people marry ‘late’? I’ve been accused on behalf of my generation of being too fussy about a partner. I’ve been told the problem is that modern women don’t ‘adjust’.
The fact is, neither arranged marriage nor love marriage makes ‘more sense’. I belong to a generation in which almost everyone has dated, even been in long-term relationships, earlier than their parents have; but most of us have stayed unmarried for longer than they did. I can think of several reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is that we have witnessed too many unhappy marriages to rush into partnerships that seem superficially promising. For the previous generation, marriage was about uniting gene pools. For the one before – our grandparents’ – it was about securing a financial future for women, and perhaps breaking the world’s population record. Our generation tends to think marriage is about people, not progeny and DNA.
Why is it that writers so often find love with their editors or readers, actors with their producers, colleagues or fans, teachers with students, and journalists with each other? I suppose we all look for patronage (well, and flattery). That’s a tricky ask in any marriage, love or arranged. For some people, the way out of a bad marriage is divorce. For others, it’s having children, under the illusion that if you whistle long enough and loud enough, you can drown out your problems. Maybe the impracticality of the latter option has hit us, and that’s why there are more divorces today than a few decades ago.
Often, parents believe it is their duty to step in when their children seem not to know what they want. That’s a terrible idea. A confused person is easy to brainwash, but when s/he comes to his or her senses, s/he will almost certainly harbour resentment against the washer of his or her brains. It’s equally dangerous to foster the idea that someone should get married to make the ‘elders’ happy. Our temperaments and socioeconomic milieu don’t allow us to make the ‘sacrifices’ the previous generation had the luxury of making. And science allows us to take our time to reproduce – worst case, it can be outsourced to a surrogate.
Sometimes, people want to get done with their list of parental duties so that they can time their retirement and budget their pilgrimages. ‘Get child married’ needs to be crossed off that list. What parents often don’t realise is that it has no place on that bucket list. Like Khalil Gibran said (and every parent should read the entire poem): Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
Your marriage is about you, not your family. And it’s fine to hold a prejudice, as long as you’re honest about it. To me, the idea of an arranged marriage always seemed like a compromise, even during extended periods of single-dom. That may not be the general case; but it was the case for me. The events in my personal life since then have proven me right.
So, the only advice I have to give people who are in two minds about getting married is: Never underestimate your instinct. Once that’s taken care of, if you decide to get married, don’t let anyone bully you into a wedding you don’t want, just as you didn’t let them bully you into a marriage you didn’t want. Marry someone you trust, because the easiest way to weaken a relationship is to check up on your partner. If your marriage isn’t working, don’t be afraid to admit you made a mistake. And, to draw a parallel with the airlines’ emergency instructions, get to know yourself before you venture to get to know anyone else.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

“Do it. I made my career taking risks”: To the friend and mentor you were to be, Jehangir

I’ve spoken to a friend on the phone. I’ve been texting my former colleagues. I’ve been looking at old messages I had exchanged with Jehangir Pocha. I’ve looked at the email I had sent him to say I was leaving NewsX, and his reply. I’ve looked at photographs of Jehangir. And I still can barely believe he is gone.

It seems so cruel, so unfair, that someone so vital and positive and considerate and brilliant should leave at a time in his life when he had everything – his channel was topping the ratings, he had a young family full of promise, and he was looking after his health.

When I first met Jehangir Pocha, I was part of a very disillusioned team. NewsX had had a wonderful launch in 2007, under Vir Sanghvi, with such a fantastic pool of talent that many of us found not just great colleagues, but also close friends in the office. When Vir and his team of senior editors left, the organisation sank. Our office was crawling with people who smelled of alcohol and paan. Stinker emails were regularly exchanged. Often, Hindi swearwords would be heard. Most people were waiting to leave. Some of us were too attached to the organisation to want to quit, and were hoping for change.

Change walked in one day, from a game of golf. Just hearing Jehangir speak, I felt a surge of positivity. Perhaps it was the jaunty way he carried himself. Perhaps it was the fact that he seemed permanently amused. Perhaps it was the fact that he sent out a mail which used the term “s/he”. But I knew, somehow, that this channel was in good hands.

Through the first few days of his time in office, he held meetings with every team – anchors, output, input, editors, technicians, PCR, cameramen, graphics. He was keen to understand how everything worked and, more importantly, how everyone felt.

Like most people, I rolled my eyes at the idea of a ‘meeting’. But these meetings were different. Jehangir made no speeches. He asked us questions – sharp, intelligent questions. One would think he had been running a news channel all his life.

Someone addressed him as “Mr Pocha”. He smirked, rolled his eyes and raised an eyebrow in what we would later come to recognise as his signature reaction to most things.

Mister Poah-chah!” he grinned.

“Well, I don’t feel like calling you ‘sir’,” the employee said.

“So call me ‘Jehangir’, man,” he said.

His aura of dignity and confidence belied his age – he was just over 40 at the time, and had one of the most challenging jobs in the media world: take over an English news channel in India, and make it work.

He was always in the news room. He had opinions on everything – the colours of the anchors’ clothes, the wording of the stories, the way his employees behaved in office. But they were just opinions. He was our boss, but he was also our friend.

Once, he saw me reading God Created the Integers by Stephen Hawking, and began to speak to me about science, and my interest in it. After that day, every time he passed by my desk in office, he would challenge me to a sum. The sum was usually a number riddle, involving a “guy from AIESEC who thinks he’s very smart because he’s from AIESEC” – a little joke on himself.

Under him, reporters were allowed to do the stories they wanted. Often, he would have a story idea and choose someone to do it. I got off the desk, and reported. He arranged for me to be off the shift roster for the two stories I wanted to do.

Like most news organisations, we got sued over a story. He had written the script, I had done the voiceover, a business correspondent had done a piece-to-camera. The business correspondent and I were sued. So was the cameraman, for good measure. It was a frivolous case. Where most bosses would have sent out an email telling us it was all taken care of, Jehangir called us to his office, reassured us personally that we would not even have to go to court, and that it was an empty case. But he sat us down and asked whether we had any questions.

As we left, he said, "By the way, getting sued is a great thing for your résumés" and winked.

My friendship with Jehangir really began after I resigned from NewsX. He would often speak about how he was going to revamp the channel, and we had all started calling it ‘NewsY’. I wanted to take time off to write a book. I was shy about admitting it, since I had no book contract, no back-up, and no scope at the time. This is what I wrote:

“I was hoping to be part of the NewsX team that will relaunch the channel. But certain developments in my personal life have necessitated that I spend more time in Madras. Under the circumstances, I have decided to leave.

I want to thank you for the trust you've placed in me. I have learnt a lot at NewsX, and have had the opportunity to work on the desk, report and anchor at the channel. Under your leadership, I'm sure 'NewsY' will go the distance, and I will miss being a part of the team here.

Do believe me when I say I will look forward to the relaunch even when I'm not a part of the staff anymore, and my sense of ownership of the channel has grown a little bit more every day of the over-two-years I have spent here. Some of my colleagues have become my closest friends, and I will treasure this part of my life.

Last of all, thank you for the direction the channel has taken since January. I feel privileged to have been part of the journey so far.”

Jehangir sent a reply immediately. I was to see him in his office.

“Are you getting married?” he asked, with a grin, when I went.

“No. I’m not.”

“You’re blushing.”

“I’m...I want to write a book.”

“A book?”


This was 2009. Anyone who had a job was thankful. Anyone who was paid as much as I was clung on for dear life. And here I was, throwing it all away to write a book.

“Do you know what you’re doing?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Good. Then you should do it. I’ve made my career taking risks. So, you’re writing a book?”

“Yeah. Two, actually. And I want to write plays too.”

Jehangir smiled. “Okay, you can go, as long as you make me a character in one of your stories”, he said.

I did eventually write a book, published in 2013. I called up to invite him to the launch, in Delhi. He said he would try his best to make it. He couldn’t come, but called up to apologise. It turned out his mother had been in hospital, and he was in Bombay at the time.

That’s how considerate Jehangir was – he would call up a former employee to apologise for missing her book launch, from his mother’s hospital room.

“So, what’s next?” he asked.

That’s how enthusiastic Jehangir was – he expected me to be thinking about my next book when the launch of my first book was on.

I told him about my next book, which is centred on the idea of consensual incest. Most people would pause when I told them.

“That’s an excellent subject,” he said, and began to speak about stories of consensual incest that he was acquainted with. He offered to help me with my research, an offer I accepted gladly.

That’s why Jehangir is so loved – he was a busy man, with very little time to spare, but during the time he did take out for you, he was all yours. And he would do his best to help you with every little thing.

Congratulations were due to him too. He had just had twins – Darius and Naira.

“Do come home and visit us,” he said.

“I’d love to.”

“And, listen, I’m not being formal. Call up next time you’re in town.”

“Jehangir, I haven’t forgotten that promise. I’m writing a character based on you.”

Jehangir laughed. “Show me when we meet.”

We never got to meet. The character was written, and the play was staged – the character was a witty lawyer with a razor-sharp mind and a love for the well-timed quip. I had named the character ‘Darius’, after Jehangir’s little boy, and I was looking forward to his reaction.

I’m still too shocked to believe it, and too shocked to cry. All I feel is horror and resentment. I knew we were going to become closer over the years. I had already framed my dedication to him in the acknowledgment page of my next book. I had kept my promise of writing a character based on him. And he is not there for any of it.

It’s unfair.

I spoke to a friend yesterday, a friend who knew him very well, much longer and much better than I did. We spoke about how no one had just a single line to say in tribute. Jehangir had a personal bond with every one of the people who had worked under him, however short their acquaintance had been.

And there is no greater tribute to his kindness, generosity, intelligence, patience and affability than the fact that none of us can look at his infectious smile without feeling a sense of absolute emptiness today.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Rahul's nap: 5 excuses the Congress leadership should have used

(Published in, on July 11, 2014, retrieved from

Since the perpetually young 44-year-old Rahul Gandhi was caught snoozing – hold on, let’s not call it that, he was only closing his eyes, resting his neck, allowing his cheek muscles to go slack, and yawning – the Congress leadership has had to deal with its first controversy in its new, powerless state.

Its leaders, who can usually be relied upon to ram their feet into their mouths, initially showed some promise, with the following howlers:

Praful Patel did his version of if-a-tree-falls-in-a-forest-and-no-one-hears-it-fall-does-it-make-a-sound, with this gem: “Just because people close their eyes in Parliament doesn’t mean they are sleeping.”

He was outdone by Rajiv Shukla, who theorised that Rahul Gandhi was shutting his eyes and listening to the debate very carefully, and then posited that Vajpayee used to do the same.

And then, Abhishek Manu Singhvi contradicted himself in trademark style – first denying that Rahul Gandhi napped, and then bringing up the fact that H D Deve Gowda used to nap regularly on the dais.

I’m fairly sure the UPA, which is otherwise unoccupied for the moment, will come up with more howlers, but here are a few to aid their cause:

Rahul-ji was not napping; he was praying

In this, he is following the footsteps of his allies. A few years ago, then Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar generously offered to pray for rain in the face of farmer suicides.

Clearly, as the Parliament was discussing price rise, and no one has been able to come up with solutions, our Gandhi family scion decided that actions speak louder than words, and spent his time communing with the Almighty for deliverance.

Rahul-ji was empathising with the visually impaired

We all know Rahul makes a habit of empathising with people by temporarily stepping into their shoes – or, their homes, and appropriating their food and bedding.

In this vein, he was simply trying to understand what life must be like for a visually impaired politician on a regular day in Parliament. Now, let’s all appreciate how thoughtful, generous, insightful and perceptive Rahul Gandhi is.

Rahul-ji was meditating

He wanted a break from the din and confusion of the Parliament. Sitting right behind the speaker as he was, he needed to focus all his energies on meditating upon the latter’s words.

Price rise is a serious issue, and Rahul Gandhi had to channel all his Zen towards understanding it.

Rahul-ji was protesting, like Yogendra Yadav

I mean, AAP are bachus, okay? They were born, like, yesterday. And if Yogendra Yadav can protest by sleeping, why the hell can’t Rahul Gandhi do the same? He is, after all, from the fourth generation of this democracy’s most dominating dynasty.

And if he’s going to get his own meme out of it, is he not entitled?

So what if this was not a police station? You are equally captive in Parliament. Your food is subsidised and supplied by the taxpayers. You are paid a pittance to potter about. The only real difference is that, as an MP, you are empowered to give yourself a hike, which is not quite the case when you’re a prisoner. But let’s not split hairs, now.

Has that Rahul Gandhi meme gone up on Reddit yet?

Rahul-ji was observing a moment of silence for Brazilian football

He is a citizen of the world, you see. And if Angela Merkel can skip meetings because of the German team, hell, Rahul Gandhi can skip a few paragraphs in mourning the Brazilian team.

As if it were not bad enough that the World Cup is held at timings that are the opposite of conducive to all the gainfully employed in this part of the world, Brazilian football officially died one night, and no one bothered paying homage.

Rahul Gandhi, though, decided that 12.33 pm was the appropriate time to observe a moment of silence.

In fact, if you look closely, you will even see a black...well, not armband, but neckband.
Subtlety, as we all know, has always been his strong suit, and this was his subtle tribute to the exit of Scolari’s thugs from the tournament.
So, before we get all excited about his erstwhile mentor Digvijay Singh saying he doesn’t have the temperament of a leader, let’s be judicious and understand that someone who is yawning and snoring is not necessarily sleeping. Ask George Berkeley.

Friday, July 11, 2014

All for a song

(Published in The Friday Times, on July 11, 2014, retrieved from

There are several reasons I avoid parties – the drive, the tedium, the food, the people, the compulsory socialising, the cheap alcohol, the prospective husbands produced by serial matchmakers...but most of all, the singing.
At any party, there comes a point when people run out of conversation. In most societies, this would be the cue for the goodbyes to be said. But not in this part of the world. In this part of the world, this is when everyone starts turning to everyone else, and saying, “So, let’s have a song.”
First, this thwarts you from bidding farewell, because “Okay, so I’ll take off” is the socially accepted cue for “Arre, no, you have to sing one song at least before you go.”
Second, even if you have been preceded by someone else, it condemns you to a longer stay at the party, because it is offensive to leave when someone is singing, or when someone else is about to sing. And since the singing goes on in an infinite loop, you’re stuck unless you have a foolproof excuse. The only such excuse is a wailing baby. Unfortunately, I have not gone forth and multiplied, and so am denied the luxury of using my spawn to make my escape.
Third, this convention requires you to invest energy in saying “Wah, wah” or “Kya baat hai”, clicking your tongue in admiration, sighing in ecstasy, and drawing in a breath as you would if you’d bitten on a chilli; worse, each of these must be timed just right.
As if all this were not bad enough, the singers at parties may be roughly divided into the following categories:
People who sing well, but are diffident: As a card-carrying member of this lot, I know my protests are mistaken for coyness, and so every person at the party feels compelled to redouble his or her efforts in making me sing. In the process, you end up wasting so much of everyone’s time that you feel guilty if you leave without singing. There are times when I wish I could take a leaf out of Llewyn Davis’ book, and say, “Look, I’m not a trained poodle”. Or, snap at the doctor sitting next to me and say, “Do I ask you to give us a lecture on body parts? Why the hell are you asking me to sing?”
People who sing well, and want validation: Right, okay, so they sing well. And they will find people who ask them to sing again. And again. And they won’t stop. At the end of each song, they will beam and look at you. Unless you bubble and brim over with enthusiasm, unless you have tears in your eyes and foam frothing out of your mouth, they will be disappointed. “I think you didn’t like my singing,” they will say, and force you into a eulogy – and an appeal for an encore.
People who have the right technique, but the wrong voice: Lata Mangeshkar. Enough said. Her prepubescent voice makes me want to puncture my eardrums, just so the tiny hairs on my neck will stop rising. Unfortunately for us desis, she set the tone – quite literally – for the mass idea of the perfect female voice. And so, for decades after she first screeched her way into cinema, women have been aspiring to 8-year-old voices.
And then, there are the Kumar Sanus of the party. They have been told they can sing well, and perhaps they can, but you wouldn’t know it, because each of their syllables is filtered through their noses.
People who have no technique, and no voice, but believe they can sing: This is the worst. And when they have the floor, they will not let go. You feel so sorry for them, you want to make them feel better, and so, you say something neutral, or clap, or cheer. However, this is perceived by them as encouragement, since they are not aware that they are deserving of your pity. Not only have you screwed your evening, but also the evenings of hundreds of people at future parties. Nicely done.
Children whose parents think they can sing: My favourite breed of children is that which clings to its mother’s chunni and starts crying if a stranger talks to it. My least favourite breed of children is that which is happy to perform at the command of its doting producers. Most children sing off-key. Even on the rare occasion that a child gets the notes right, its unbroken voice is so irritating to the ear of any human that has not played a role in its creation that it is simply cruel to have to listen.
Sometimes, I long for the day when I will have a meltdown at a party, when someone asks me why I’m leaving so soon, and scream, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth! But here it is...”

Filmistaan is my tribute to cinema: Nitin Kakkar

(Published in, on July 9, 2014, retrieved from

More than two years after Nitin Kakkar’s Filmistaan won the National Award, it has finally released in theatres. The film was this year’s The Lunchboxa soulful, quirky, unpretentious film that won the hearts of everyone who saw it.
As the film completes a five-week run in the box office, its director Nitin Kakkar chatted about the making of the movie, in an exclusive interview with
Of course, Filmistaan has had a great reception at festivals, and had won the National Award. But were you nervous before the theatrical release?
Yes, I was very nervous. It’s my first film, and with no names attached, it’s difficult to compete with [established] giants, and perform at the box office. So I am glad we sustained five weeks. It’s always a great feeling when one’s work is loved and appreciated.

Of all your big moments during the film's release and after, of all the things that the big stars must have told you, is there any one moment which feels truly special?

There are so many of them...I had never imagined that the legends of the film industry would watch my film and have such good things to say about it. I remember what each one said, and it’s always going to be very special to me.

When we were talking earlier, you said filmmaking is a lonely process. Can you take me through the process withFilmistaan?
With any film, especially when you’re the writer-director, what happens is that you’re in the process of writing, and if you’re writing on your own, there’s nobody else, right, so it’s just you. And then finding someone to finance it, is again a lonely process. Later on, as you move on, you realise that once the ball gets rolling, when you have a producer, and when you get a whole team on board – art director and cinematographer and everybody – there’s a real feeling of getting started.
But then, it becomes lonely again. You’re in the edit room, with the editor, and thinking about how things are unfolding. It is a very lonely process. Eventually, when the film is made, and you’re showing it to the audience at festivals, you’re again travelling, either alone or with the cast, and saying come on, watch our film. (Laughs) So, in totality, it looks like it’s all that jazz, but then it’s a very personal process.
It takes a lot of guts to make an indie film, and then shop for producers and for someone to release it, as opposed to making a commercial film, or being commissioned a film. When did you know that you could do this?
Frankly speaking, it’s the desire which is very strong. It’s the internal fight that you have to deal with first, the idea that you can do it. And then, later on, when you’re going out, you’ll find hurdles. It’s like any business. Like, let’s say you want to open a restaurant tomorrow. First, you ask yourself: where will you get the funding from? Then, will that work? Will the food be good? Will people come in and enjoy the restaurant?
So, here also, it’s the same thing – the urge, and I think it’s the desire of seeing the story, which has to be strong enough. If that desire is strong enough, you know you’ll see it through.
When you’re writing the film, you have a certain look and feel and idea in mind. Then, comes the casting, and the actual making of the film. Does the transition affect the story in any way?
Well, I think that the film can only be better than the script. I like open discussions more. I’m a guy who, once the script is done, wants to get on the floor and get on with the shooting. It goes to another level. You try and take it beyond the script. Then, when it is on the edit level, you look at all the magic that happened on the sets, and you say, “Okay, this is what I have.” And then, you try and edit it in just the perfect way. And it goes to another level.
So, it keeps evolving. And I’m not very rigid with my characters, or even my actors when they’re doing what they do. I’m very collaborative, that way.   
Filmistaan is a very character-driven story, and so the casting becomes very important. Did you already have actors in mind when you wrote the story?
No, I usually don’t have actors in mind, because I think that restricts you. You write the script with your understanding of the characters, and then you start a talaash to find the right actor. Sometimes, you have it in your mind that this can be the right guy, or that can be the right guy. But that’s a different process. Only once the scripting is done, do you start the process of casting for it.
Actually, one good thing about filmmaking is that there is no single rule. Nothing is fixed. What you’ve done for one film, you won’t necessarily do for the next. Sometimes, you may wait months for one particular actor, because you need him for that story. I know that the next film I do, my process may be completely different. That’s the beauty of filmmaking.
There’s a lovely scene in Filmistaan, where a police officer is asked to appear on camera. And though he suddenly transforms from bossy to nervous in front of the camera, he’s also very happy to be on camera. And this is a pan-India thing. People like to be on camera, even if they have no idea who will see it.
(Laughs) Yes, there is something about the camera that is magical. I get very conscious when even a still photographer is clicking a picture. And I think that’s somewhere there in human beings that most people tend to get camera conscious. If you look at all these old pictures, the black and white ones, you see how people will make their eyes so bade-bade for the shot, you know? (Laughs) And there’s also a certain romance to the camera. Everyone has this slight thing that “Arre, main TV pe aoonga tau famous ho jaoonga”. That’s there, I think. And if you shoot something with people on the road, they always want to see how they look on camera, you know?
So, this idea was there, and I also wanted to show that my main character is this street-smart guy. If you have a problem, he will crack it now.
There’s all the humour in the film. But there’s also a very poignant story at the centre, of this man who wants to become an actor, and who’s constantly preparing himself to. And every day, in Bombay, you come across these people who sort of wash into the city, with this great desire to break into cinema. Some people spend all their savings on acting classes and workshops by famous actors, hoping to get noticed. Some people work out in gyms all day, and start off as extras and hope to become heroes. And the heartbreak of all this is seen very subtly in your film.
See, what we were trying to do in Filmistaan is to look at the person. You know, we have this thing where we take everything at face value. You see someone who is a new face, whom you don’t recognise, and you immediately decide, haan, this guy must be a struggling actor. And that’s how you treat him. Whereas, if it’s someone you know from ads or posters, someone you recognise, your attitude changes. You think, “Arre, I know him, yaar. I’ve seen him, he’s that model.” That’s how all of us are, right? We categorise people immediately.
With the character in Filmistaan, throughout the film, you feel he’s a buffoon, he’s doing all these dumb things. But everyone has a soul. And when you look at the soul, you realise that there is a nice human being inside.  And you think that each of us is fighting our own ladai inside, you know, at our level? And all of us know inside whether we’re good at something or not. And if you’re not good at something that is your passion, it’s very sad. Because even when you know you’re not good, the urge is so strong. And, sometimes, it can be so strong that we overcome the weakness, and start learning the trade, and start believing in ourselves. That’s what I wanted to bring out.
Filmistaan seemed to me more like a fable than an actual story, you know. Because everything is so over-the-top, and sofilmy. And I was thinking that it’s because the main character, the hero, is so crazy about cinema that he tends to be filmy in life as well. Is that how you feel?
Hum sab filmi hain. We’re all filmy. Such is the impact of Bollywood that when you grow up, there are only two things you know for sure – playing cricket is zaroori; and watching films is zaroori. And the dialogues we hear in film, we use in real life all the time. Not just actors, not just people who are crazy about cinema, but people in the press, people in IT companies...we all use these filmy lines, no?
Filmistaan is my tribute to all the films I’ve watched growing up, and to the impact of Hindi commercial cinema. So, we wanted to use all the Bollywood clichés in the film, and yet try and make it look a little fresh, with our own tweak to it. So, we have on purpose used a lot of Bollywood lines, a lot of things that are always there in a Bollywood film. And we did that very consciously, because it was a tribute.
When the film won the National Award, did you feel it was an award given to you as the writer, or to the film as it speaks to people, or to the sentiment behind the film – the idea that India and Pakistan, despite all our problems, have this shared history, and we access it through our common craze for films?
Ah...I don’t know. I think, when you make a film, you’re just the initiator. And then, there are so many energies that come in, which make the film. We feel that the director is the face of the film, but there’s so much more to it. Every actor brings his own energy to it, the cinematographer brings his own energy to it, an art director brings his own energy to it, the editor brings his own energy, the music composers bring their own energy.
So, I think the best way to gauge a film’s quality is: Does it touch your soul? Do you feel connected to it? And if you do feel connected to it, then we are home, as filmmakers. We have done what we wanted to do. But if you don’t relate to it, then we have a problem.
To answer your question, I don’t know. Maybe it has touched people. During festivals, wherever we have gone, we have got some amazing reactions. Converting that into awards, of course, we like it, of course it helps. But to me, the biggest award is reaching a larger audience.
And how did you decide what kind of music you wanted to use? Like I said, it’s funny in parts, it’s poignant in parts. And often, music plays a key role in guiding the audience to what sentiment the director is trying to tap into at that point. Your reaction changes depending on the mood of the music you hear at any point. It must have been tricky for you, to decide whether you wanted to go with filmy music, or Sufi music, or where you wanted to use wacky music.
See, the mould of Fimistaan is very important, the structure was very important. And I knew music was going to play a big role. As for what kind of music, my brief to Arijit (Datta) was, “Let’s not bind ourselves with anything. Let’s do something that comes from inside”, rather than decide what kind of music this scene needs, or that scene needs, up front. So, we discussed the script, and we felt that the music should be soulful. And I like Arijit’s music. I like the way he sings. So my brief was, “It has to touch the soul”. I didn’t want to use electronic sounds. I wanted to keep it earthy, so that it touches the soul.
And I think what has also majorly worked with the music is the lyrics. Ravinder Randhawa wrote the lyrics, and he’s brought so much of himself into it, and I think that’s a brilliant blend of good words and beautiful music. So, the impact is really strong.
I once heard it said that the partition of Punjab is more tragic than the partition of India. Being Punjabi yourself, was this sentiment something that you grew up with?
Yes, the germ of the idea is very personal. My granddad was from Lahore. And my dad moved to Jalandhar, and from there, he moved to Bombay. I was born and brought up in Bombay. But every time I go to Punjab, there’s a lot of talk about Lahore, and a lot of talk about “the other side”, which you can’t visit. And actually, in the great divide of India which happened, the major state that was affected was Punjab.
I find this whole partition thing absurd, frankly speaking. The idea that you live on that side of the line, and we live on this side of the line – it’s absurd. And we wanted to put this point across, and make people think, but not preach about it.
When you take a film to a location which you haven’t visited, there’s a lot of research you must have had to do, with respect to the accents, with respect to the way people live, with respect to the houses, the way people interact and so on. How did you go about this?
We did a lot of YouTube research. (Laughs) We were listening to a lot of Pakistani shows, to understand their accent, how they carry their interactions, how they use words. So, the actors did a lot of research themselves, and did a lot of preparation before we started filming.
You have this hilarious argument over Sachin and Afridi in the film, which becomes suddenly serious. What role do you think cricket plays in India-Pakistan relations?
I think cricket actually divides, whereas film binds. You know? You see the places, the music, the people of that country, speaking your language, and you feel a bond. Whereas with cricket, you’re standing with your jhanda and saying your country is the best. Any game is like that, but the spirit with which you watch is so bitter. And if you look at the bigger picture, I think it is cricket which should win, and not the country which wins that matters.
In our film, we tried to see it from a perspective where it is more micro. We’ve got inside the soul of the characters, and looked at how these things play out.
Have you heard from Pakistanis about the film?
I have been getting a lot of love from Pakistan via messages on Facebook. For a moment I wondered since the film is not released there, how did they see it, then I remembered a scene from my film and knew how!

But even before the film’s theatrical release, you showed it to friends from Pakistan, and you’d gone to film festivals, right?
Well, many of my friends from Pakistan liked it a lot. And people in the audience, when I’ve travelled to film festivals, who are from Pakistan but settled abroad, have also seen it. Most people are very affected to it. They are not looking to criticise. They are looking at it as an honest film, which speaks from the heart. And this is in all of our hearts. The creation of Pakistan and Hindustan, the fact that this line was drawn, is political. The decision was made by a group of politicians, without taking into account the feelings of the common men.
I have met a lot of Pakistanis, and they’re just like us, and we’re just like them. Especially, as a Punjabi, when I connect to them, they’re just the same people, just like our neighbours in our home in Punjab. We’ve just created a divide in our minds, and we’ve scarred it so badly that it will take a lot of time to heal. This is just one effort to begin a healing process.
Once a political divide is created, it can’t be unified into one nation. And this divide has gone on for 60-65 years. I can’t speak for the politicians, I can’t say whether it’s right or wrong or whatever. But as humans, if you open your heart, you can have understanding even if you belong to different nations.
Filmistaan happened when you were working on another film, right?
Yeah. I was working on a film which was based on the stories of Saadat Hasan Manto. And I really enjoy his writing, and am very deeply influenced by him. That film was supposed to be my first – we were planning to incorporate five short stories into the film, and it was to be on Partition. Unfortunately, that did not happen.
And I was doing a lot of research for that film. I had done a lot of groundwork in looking into Manto Sahib’s life. So, it came in very useful for Filmistaan. I’ve always felt life is what happens when you’re making other plans. And you think you’re doing everything, but I feel there’s a bigger power in play, which works for you. When that film didn’t work out, this one took shape.
Do you plan to work on the Manto film now?
No, I have another one in the pipeline. And my aim is to keep making films that are honest, from the heart, films that speak to people, films that I care about.
Can you talk about this next film?

I am working on my next film with ROMP.  It’s a little early to reveal anything as of now. All I can say is, it’s not a love story.

To finish off, I’m taking you back to what we spoke of earlier – the idea of aloneness, and how sometimes a creative process can be lonely. As you delve into filmmaking, do you also find it important to spend time alone?
Yeah, I think it’s very important to spend time with yourself. Because, most of us in cities, we become machines. We get into a rhythm of getting up in the morning, having our baths, eating breakfast, getting into the car and doing to office, coming back and watching TV, having dinner, and going to sleep. After a point of time, this routine is so mechanical, you don’t even have to think.
Spending time with yourself – going on treks, scuba, bike rides to Ladakh – it’s all important for me. For me, it’s like meditation. With scuba, you’re only concentrating on your breathing, and the world around you is something you haven’t seen before. So, you get out of that space which you’ve been in 24/7, running constantly, and you learn to break out of it and enjoy the solitude, which gives you happiness, freedom, and allows for retrospection. It energises you.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.