Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The curious case of Abhishek Mukherjee

A random rectangle that does not represent anything related to the story.
This story does not involve a river. However, it involves a bank.

I know it is not a good idea to start a story with a terrible pun. Cool bloggers do not do that. They start their stories with awesome puns.

To make up for the coolness coefficient, let me provide a disclaimer: the story mentioned here is entirely true, and has resemblances with multiple real-life characters.

This story dates back from 2009 or thereabouts (it could have been 2008 as well, but probably not 2010) — an era when I owned a cellphone whose battery lasted for more than fifteen minutes, Ayesha Takia was an active actress, and Mamata Banerjee was yet to be appointed Chief Minister.

In other words, life was still good.

It was a summer morning. I had run through my usual chores of an unhealthy breakfast rich in cholesterol, a bath that had probably involved a soap (I am more or less sure about this), said “no” to a lady who enquired whether I was interested in a personal loan from Bank X (name withheld), and read Luann on The Telegraph.

All in all, it was a perfectly normal morning.

Then I managed to pull off the impossible: I acquired a taxi in Kolkata. Rumours are that this particular activity is about to replace opening Flipkart packages as the most excruciating one for an Indian, so it was a remarkable achievement.

All in all, it was a perfectly normal morning that I managed to take to the next level.

Then my cellphone trilled — the one that retained charge for more than fifteen minutes. I responded.

“Hello.”

“Am I speaking to Mr Abhishek Mukherjee?” The voice sounded oddly familiar.

“You are.”

“Sir, I am talking on behalf of Bank X.”

I instantly knew who it was.

“Didn’t you call me about twenty minutes back?”

“Yes, Sir, I am extremely sorry that I have called you again.”

“But I told you...”

“It is not about the loan, Sir. I wanted to ask you something personal.”

Dang!

“Sir, can I ask you something?”

No, she could not have fallen for my rich baritone — at least, not this easily. She definitely knows something else about me. What could it be?

“Sir?”

“What is this about?”

“Have you ever been to Indian Idol?”

What was that I told you about a perfectly normal morning?

***

I will digress here a bit. I took the first season of Indian Idol very seriously. Sa Re Ga Ma (without the Pa) was different. Though the standard of Sa Re Ga Ma was generally superior to that of Indian Idol, it did not involve the audience. You could not send text messages to vote in Sa Re Ga Ma.

Indian Idol had me hooked on, and I still remember random names like Ravindra Ravi, Rahul Vaidya, Prajakta Shukre, Amit Sana, and, of course, Abhijit Sawant. After the first season, unfortunately, I lost interest.

***

“Sir?”

“What? Oh, no, no, I have never been to Indian Idol.”

“Are you sure, Sir?”

“What do you mean?”

“Sir, I went to the Indian Idol auditions this year. I met someone called Abhishek Mukherjee there. We became really close, but I have somehow lost his phone number. He does not call me, either.”

Poor girl. When would she learn the ways of the world?

“I am sorry, but I am not the same Abhishek Mukherjee. I have never been to any Indian Idol audition.”

“Are you sure, Sir?”

Huh?

“I mean, I am sorry to bother you with all this. Please do not tell the authorities at Bank X. Please.”

“That is okay. I won’t.”

***

Thus went my otherwise perfectly normal morning, basked in the futile glory of being the namesake of an aspiring Indian Idol participant missed by a female employee of Bank X (or of a call centre with whom Bank X has a contract).

Obviously, I checked for Abhishek Mukherjee, but no one of that name had qualified for that year’s (or, for that matter, any year’s) Indian Idol. On the other hand, an Abhishek Mukherjee had indeed made it to Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Singing Superstar,2010. This was as close as I have made it to a reality show.

Dear woman who had called me on behalf of Bank X over half a decade back: did you find out whether it was the same person?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Another February, Kolkata?

Copyright: Sushobhan Mukherjee (mentioned in the picture as well)
How have you been, Kolkata? It has been ages since I have written to you. In fact, it has probably been a year. It was the first year of my life that I had spent away from home at a stretch, though we have met four times in the process.

Unfortunately, we did not meet last February. Neither will we meet this month. Maybe we will never meet in February — that time of the year when you are at your prettiest, sexiest, and sultriest (“sultriest” is a word; MS Word does not underline it in red).

Let us get back to February. I missed the Book Fair the way I did in 1999, 2012, and 2014 — and they remain the only three years. But then, the Book Fair does not count: I have immensely helpful friends who are kind enough to send me what I need.

You count, Kolkata. You still count.

A year in exile, especially at this age, made me think deeply: what would I miss out on if I settle down away in another city? Why did I condition myself to be with you when I grew up?

Was it family? Perhaps. Would I have felt bad if my family was with me at Navi Mumbai? I cannot answer that question.

Do people not settle down outside the blue-and-white monster that Kolkata is threatening to become?

It cannot be about talking in Bengali. Telephone service providers are reducing rates drastically. Internet and social media are bringing the world closer with every passing day. Conversing in Bengali is not an issue anymore.

What, then? What was it? Did I even crave to return to the city anymore — the city immune to progress? Did I?

***

My father called one day, about a fortnight back. He did not sound right. He had a sore throat. It was that time of the year in Kolkata when cannot make up your mind between keeping the fan switched on or otherwise every night. If the fan is “on”, you need a sheet; if you do not, you cannot sleep.

He had tried one of those combinations. It did not work. The irreparable damage had been done. He was a victim of “season change”, or, in other words, Kolkata February — the greatest city-and-month combination that has ever existed.

February in Kolkata makes you feel small, very small. You feel torn between summer and winter, both forcing you, trying to convert you to their “team”. Winter had taken control, but with summer joining the fray, the battle is intense.

Whose side will you take?

The first droplets of sweat of the year run on your back on a sunny afternoon. Summer wins.

The sweat leaves a mild chilly feeling once it dries out, the breeze magically making its way through the t-shirt. Winter wins.

Who do you support?

Fan or no fan? Sheet or no sheet? How does one choose?

Walking to the market with the gale of the ruthless mornings making your cheeks raw. Sunny mornings that kiss your cheeks to bring them back to life after a cold night. How does one choose?

You are torn.

Winter wants to desert you. Summer wants to be welcomed.

Winter refuses to go.

Winter refuses to make way for summer.

You are caught in between.

And you enjoy both. And you inhale February. Kolkata February. You inhale the aroma of unknown flowers and of bed-sheets soaked in afternoon sun and of peas kochuris; you inhale the innocence of a teenage boy trying to show off in front of a girl in a yellow saree on Saraswati Pujo morning.

Maybe they will end up in a relationship in five years. Maybe they will end up with others, and have a good laugh with each other twenty years from now. I do not know what will happen to them. What I know, however, is that a Kolkata February is about that coy smile.

Kolkata February is childhood. It is about memories of not being brave enough to approach your first crush, about blushing when she walks past you, about trying to muster courage to talk to her, about stammering when she talks to you on her own.

They took away my sky and my park and my wide footpaths and Phantom cigarettes and Gold Spot and Johnny Sokko.

They could not take my Kolkata February away, and I am certainly not going to allow them that.

***


I have to come back to you. You will embrace me, won’t you, the way you do every time? Give me time, some time…

Sunday, February 8, 2015

On AIB, puns, satire, and kaala-khatta

Source: IFOWS
I did not like the AIB Knockout show. No, I really did not, and I was somewhat vocal about my opinions on social media. If you have seen my tweet or Facebook post that day, you would know what I am talking about.

I had found the jokes clichéd and repetitive. They got so predictable after a point of time that I could almost predict the punch-lines (though I will never be able to erase memories of the kaala-khatta joke on Ashish Shakya for the rest of my life).

Let us make this clear: I have nothing against politically incorrect jokes. In most known circles my incorrect jokes make people wince in annoyance at the horrible quality or the poor taste, but nobody can blame me for being politically correct. In fact, I discriminate based on so many parameters that I sometimes lose track.

But let us get back to the roast. I was surprised when almost every anchor lauded Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh for being sporting enough to be the part of a roast. They missed the point of a roast, which is supposed to be insult comedy; and you do not appreciate a person for not reacting to a roast; they was doing only what they were supposed to do, which was to accept faeces.

But why were they apologising? Did they, too, not get the concept of a roast? Why, then?

The more I thought, the more obvious it became. Though the people present were cool with the concept of a roast, the YouTube viewers may not be. They were probably circumspect of whether the viewers would feel offended. Unfortunately, though they reduced the bar by being politically correct once in a while, they could not escape the inevitable.

I realised (they had probably realised this even before the Dhoom-3 fiasco) that people who mattered thought differently. I will not go into clichés like “this country is open to bribes but not to jokes”, “corruption is fine but humour is not,” and more. Everyone knows these one-liners by heart by now.

The allegations made were obnoxious, almost laughable. I completely agree that the language was crass. I do not swear (yes, really), and do not hold respect people who swear frequently in high esteem. 

But.

The poster had a 16+ alert. The YouTube clip started with a disclaimer that you are entering the politically incorrect zone. It was not as if I was not warned of what was to follow: if foul language bothered me, I had the option of clicking on another fornicating (see, I do not use foul language) video. If I did not and decided to watch the one-hour thing, I cannot blame others for having to hear swear-words.

Also.

The attacks made at everyone, including Arjun Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, and the man who stole the show, Karan Johar, were apparently direct, crude, and no-holds-barred. The trio hit back with gusto, and everyone was happy.

Not everyone, apparently. Pune Police, for example, lodged an FIR against at least 16 people for "behaving in an obscene behaviour in a public place". When I read this I contemplated for a while whether eve-teasing falls under the same category, then gave up.

Not a single person who attended the show (Hiroo Yash Johar — the lady who “presents” Dharma Productions movies, Deepika Padukone, Alia Bhatt, Sonakshi Sinha, and more) looked offended. If the roasters, the roasted, and the paid audience were all happy, what right did it give others to demand for apologies from AIB?

Right.

It had to come to that word. AIB can offend someone with their creation, however ill-made. If that person feels insulted, he can 
(a) outdo them at their trick by preparing a better clip, or 
(b) take it in his stride and laugh at himself, or 
(c) question, in a civilised way, AIB’s right to create the video.

Let me put myself in the shoe of the person. Obviously (a) is beyond my scope, but I usually resort to (b), which is my favourite option. I love making (good-natured) fun of people, but do not mind if others make fun of me, atheism, JK Rowling, India, the Bengali, VVS Laxman; okay, maybe not the last one, but you get the idea.

On the other hand, if someone is completely devoid of people laughing at their expense, (c) is a decent way to hit back. A challenge is cool, which is probably why you cannot translate the word into Bengali. Coolness is not for us Bengalis; we have proved exactly that by getting cartoonists arrested.

Let us get back to the point. The men who matter did none of these. Instead, they alleged AIB of being “seditious pornographers while plotting the downfall of Indian values of civilisation”. That is probably a serious allegation (given that five of the eleven words in it have more than eight letters in them).

I do not understand what seditious pornography is, but what I do understand is that what AIB was trying to create is a form of art, and here is the important part: nobody has a right to ban art, irrespective of its quality.

Art does not have a specific language or form. We create art because we want to express our feelings; that is what gets us to write, paint, dance, or become a Chetan Bhagat. We do not aspire to become Jane Austens on day one; all we want to do is to write and write and write and write till we bleed. Trust me, the thought of insulting someone else does not even cross our minds.

That is what art is about. It is not about being good or bad, but it is about the right to express myself. You cannot stop someone from expressing his feelings just like that. It is a crime to ask them to apologise for being creative.

I agree AIB were making money out of it, but that was because they are good at it. If they had eight million clicks when they took it down (and a 10: 1 like: dislike ratio) they must have been doing something right. Obviously, if I roasted someone nobody in their right sense would pay to watch the show, but that is not the point. Had I been good at it, I would have made money out of it too.

Humour, with its strange healing power, is probably the strongest form of art (the Knockout was not); and whenever a joke is written, it is always at the expense of someone — unless it is an innocent pun.

But a pun is not the only form of humour. Puns rule (I often get the feeling I suffer from witzelsucht), but there is more to humour than them; the satire, however subtle, involves offending someone, even if it is to a limited extent and the person concerned does not feel offended.

AIB has only increased the extent and intensity. They have done what all humorists do, though the quality could have been better. Yes, it was an experiment. Yes, it failed in terms of excellence, but it succeeded when it came to mass appeal.

It is very important that AIB did not actually accuse someone of anything. They joked. I repeat, they joked. When the inimitable RK Laxman took up his pen, he was not being a journalist backed by proof. He wanted to make money of making others laugh, and few careers can be as noble.

Since the advent of YouTube, since the arrival of the young brigade with fresh humour, it seemed for a while India has grown up sufficiently to accept jokes aimed at it. I guess I was being a moron, as always. We may keep on reproducing and bringing grumpy children into a world devoid of laughter, devoid of even the right to laugh or create jokes.

That has always the biggest unaddressed problem in contemporary Indian art: it has managed to offend people who matter, and offend strongly enough for them to react. While you may get a kick out of the fact that you are finally being recognised, you will soon realise that the noose is going to get tighter and tighter with every passing day.

There is good news, though. It is not easy to strangle humour, just like that. 

***

PS: The images below are taken from AIB's Twitter handle. I could not help share this, especially for the last line.



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