Balaji has established himself with his unique style of irreverent humour. Sudhish Kamath goes on rewind mode with the RJ and finds out that ‘Take It Easy’ has been his catchphrase in life too…
“RJ from basically a shy type, decent family, share auto boy,” as Balaji describes himself within 140 characters on Twitter in his own characteristic “hi fi yoyo English of the street of the Chennai.”
RJ Balaji, who hosts the evening show at BIG FM, is quite the motormouth and once he gets going, “awesomatic” English flows out of his mouth like Chennai traffic, breaking every rule in the book. If there were a grammar police, he would be serving a sentence for killing words and violating permissible speed limits of chattering nonstop.
Apart from being notorious for his attacks on the English language, he sends a shiver down Kollywood’s spine because of his tongue-in-cheek criticism of Tamil films and his unique style of irreverent humour.
He is considered to be so powerful that many in the film industry actually believe that his reviews affect box office business. “If people do everything I tell them, I can win an election,” he tells me during an interview at the radio station after announcing to stop reviewing films “until there’s maturity and tolerance among certain people in the film fraternity.”
As he bids goodbye to his most popular segment 120, Balaji is far from emotional. He is still in a jolly mood, fully confident that he can come up with something equally funny, without needing films to strengthen his following. The photo session was a hoot. The RJ/TV host-turned-actor talks about his rise to infamy.
Moving to a different space is not new for RJ Balaji. “I have changed 24 houses and 11 schools growing up in Chennai because my mother just cannot stay in one place. She would move from Perambur to Thiruvanmiyur to Mylapore... no place close to each other. So I got quite familiar with Chennai even before my graduation.”
He then went to Amrita University in Coimbatore for a course in journalism. “I never knew what an RJ was back then. My cousin worked at NDTV and I really looked up to her. I wanted to become like her. But when I was asked to write a report on the hostel canteen, I wrote an ‘awesomatic’ piece in 56 words with 47 grammatical mistakes and I realised I can’t use my creativity in journalism.”
“That hostel tea kadai” taught him that English journalism was not his cup of tea. Six months into his course, he was at a hair saloon near the hostel, when he saw a newspaper ad of a radio station calling for auditions.
To his relief, the interviewer wanted him to speak in Tamil despite his insistence on speaking only English. She almost sent him away when he sang a gaana to prove he could perform in Tamil. He was among the 60 shortlisted and ended up among the four who were recruited. This happened in November 2006. He hasn’t completed the journalism course since.
“Coimbatore was the best place for me because I had a lot of time to get trained as an RJ. I used to host a serious three-hour morning drive show back then called Hello Coimbatore that was about social issues,” he recalls.
He instantly struck a chord with the city. “Any problem, they would call me. But then after four years, I didn’t want to sound angry all the time and wanted to get back to Chennai since my family and friends were all here.”
He had two offers but settled with BIG FM since they gave him the freedom to plan and design his four- hour slot. That’s how Take It Easy was conceived. “I listened to radio for two weeks. Most shows either used contests or had a celebrity on air and asked them questions about their ‘superhit’ films which were probably running empty. So I made sure that I would speak my mind and added humour and sarcasm. I spoke 16 times or links as we call them and cinema was just one of those links.”
His Cross Talk segment of prank calling became an instant hit with the youth. “Some college kids who were on my show created a Soundcloud account for me and put up the show online. Within a day, it crossed 44,000 hits. Nobody knew the power of the Internet till Soundcloud came to India and said that RJ Balaji was among the top ten global users. And my station was so happy that they made me upload all my shows.”
“The intellectual level of that show was very low. I wanted people to take me seriously. I had strong opinions on all issues but instead of getting started with serious topics, I started on a lighter vein with cinema but also did segments on how difficult it was to get a house in Chennai, the life of an engineering student, auto meters... I never wanted to be tagged as a film reviewer.”
Balaji has done about 20 film reviews over the last year and a half and but for one review that he got flak for, fans have mostly agreed with his views. “My reviews work not because of the humour but because people agree with my views. But I want to lead a peaceful life. If I know I’m going to lose sleep for ten days because people cannot accept what I have said about their films, I don’t want to do it.”
“Besides, it is easy to do non-film content. My strength is conversation and my humour comes out of talking to people. I can do any kind of show. I’ll find another one.”
Does he think he has ever crossed a line?
“In my seven years of being an RJ, I have never entertained gossip about the personal lives of actors and actresses. I have no interest in anyone’s personal life. I spend 120 rupees on my ticket before every review even if I’m invited for the premiere show. I only comment on whether I felt it was worth spending 120 or not.”
Balaji has realised he enjoys acting as well, having made his acting debut with Theeya Velai Seyyanum Kumaru which he calls the “20 best days of my life”. “Sundar C. had asked me to do it because he liked my show and he gave me enough freedom and we would always pack up by 5 p.m.”
He got a spate of offers in films but he turned them down. “They were all too similar. Hero’s friend who would give advice on love. I had a good time doing Vada Curry. If I was the kind to sell out, I would have been nice to all directors and said only nice things about all films.”
If his grandfather got him interested in politics, his mother got him hooked to cinema. “One Deepavali, she took us to Guna, Thalapathy and Chinna Gounder the same day. Even when I had to study for exams and clear arrears, she would take me for a film. You should hear her talk on cinema. I have only ten per cent of her humour.”