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As long as your work is good, they won’t care: Varun Grover

“I don’t understand why people who have the most power are silent on most issues,” says Varun Grover. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

“I don’t understand why people who have the most power are silent on most issues,” says Varun Grover. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury  

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With Aisi Taisi Democracy and Sacred Games behind him, here’s a comic who isn’t afraid of getting political

In Mumbai, your address says a lot about who you are. If you are one of the have-nots, it betrays exactly how much you do not have, and if you are one of those who has a lot, your choice of residence reveals how you see the world and your position in it. Varun Grover chooses to live in the northern suburb of Kandivali, far from the hustle and bustle of Mumbai’s heart, because even after a decade in the city — and a string of successes as a lyricist, screenwriter and stand-up comedian — he sees himself as an outsider. “I want to keep it that way,” he says. “Part of the struggle is reduced if you come with the notion that you don’t want to belong. If you’re okay with the idea of sitting out. If you’re okay with the idea that whatever you’re doing is a fleeting moment.”

By choosing not to belong, Grover gets to save on rent, but more importantly, he gets to be deeply political with his art: Masaan, his first film credit as a writer, dealt with themes like love, sex, and caste in Banaras. Netflix’s first original Indian production, Sacred Games, of which he is the lead writer, would be just another cops-and-robbers thriller without the religious politics embedded in its very core. Aisi Taisi Democracy, the stand-up comedy show that he performs with Rahul Ram and Sanjay Rajoura, is fearless and incessant in its attempts at ridiculing the powerful. As I write this, Aisi Taisi tweets “Lynching is BJP’s NREGA.”

It is Grover’s politics that has dragged me all the way to his living room. One of Grover’s three cats peeks out of another room cautiously, presumably trying to assess if I pose a threat. As Grover calls out to it, all the obvious questions flood my mind: Don’t strong political leanings make it hard for an artist to make it? How do you deal with the cloud of imminent violence that’s hanging over every screening, every performance?

“Many people believe that these things are going to be difficult. But they’ve not tried to be political and to see how people react. Most of the people who actually matter are chasing money and they are okay with compromising on politics if it gets them money and gets the work done. It may backfire someday, but as long as your work is good, they won’t care.”

Privileged space

In a country where a school bus full of children is attacked for a movie about a fictional queen; where artists are frequently kept in line and on-message by the threat of defamation and decapitation, Grover’s explanation for how he managed to carve out a small patch of relatively free space for himself strikes me as incomplete at best. I press further, asking if it is his privilege that allows him to adopt such a position. “Yes, absolutely. People who are privileged can take more risks because of that safety shield that privilege provides. I am Hindu, upper-caste, male, and able-bodied. So everything is on my side. That gives me the extra cushion that Swara Bhaskar won’t get. That is something I understand and acknowledge, which also becomes a reason for me to keep doing it. Because I know I have that privilege.”

Being political

Much as Grover might deny the everyday inconveniences of being political, the vast majority of his colleagues, even the ones with truckloads of privilege, don’t seem to conduct themselves as he does. “I don’t understand why people who have the most power, say people like Amitabh Bachchan, are silent on most issues. It’s probably too much to expect him to stand up for all Indians, or even for his fellow U.P.-wallas... I’m saying at least stand up for your industry. Even that he won’t do. Even on simple issues like censorship. Even with films involving his own family members. I’m not judging him; to judge I need to know why he’s doing that, I just don’t understand.”

Bollywood’s elites may shirk the responsibility, but it is probably fair to say that Grover and his fellow comedians are doing more than their fair share of challenging the status quo of public discourse in recent times. And though their numbers are increasing by the day, stand-up comics in India are an endangered species — their art form requires physical presence, which makes them easy targets for angry audiences.

A matter of time

“Right now, the whole stand-up comedy industry is surviving on pure luck. If you haven’t been dragged to a police station, or somebody hasn’t protested at your show, or if somebody has not cancelled your show, it’s just a matter of time.”

There are situations that can be controlled and others that can’t, he explains. If someone is there specifically to disrupt a show or if the atmosphere in the days preceding a show is particularly charged, there is little they can do to protect themselves. But “it’s always at the back of our minds. That something can happen. Which is why I feel safer doing Aisi Taisi Democracy because there are three of us. There’s a 66% chance of survival compared to when you’re alone and one bullet will be enough.”

Perhaps there was a time when a joke could not possibly have invited a bullet as a response, but this isn’t it. Today, there is a deep cleave in our society — Left and Right, Conservatives and Liberals, Patriots and Anti-Nationals, Hindus and Others — the labels vary depending on the context, but what remains true is that those on opposing sides do not merely disagree, they simply do not engage. In such an environment, does an artist who is political see it as his duty to go beyond milking applause from those who agree with him? To try and talk to the other side? To change people’s minds?

“No, because I don’t think people can change with stand-up comedy. But at the same time, I don’t think we are preaching to the choir. In any show, not everybody is completely with us on all the topics we talk about. We talk about Hindutva, and we talk about the problems with Islam also. If there are Muslims in the audience, laughing at the jokes on Hindutva, they will have to confront the jokes on Islam too.”

It is hard to tell whether this strategy of spreading the ridicule out evenly does anything to bridge the divides reinforced by the daily barrage of hate and distrust on our Facebook timelines and in our WhatsApp forwards. However, there is another subject that, according to Grover, invariably unites a large part of their audiences: patriarchy. “When you talk about that, it becomes personal. We don’t have any motive of changing people. But we like the tension in the room that comes when you talk about, say, how patriarchy leads Indian men to become rapists. There’s absolute silence across all ideologies. We like that tension, we like that moment when everybody’s silent and nobody’s clapping.”

Call-out culture

The flipside of the social media madness that defines our age is that although the democratisation of speech has divided us like never before, it has also led to a scarcely conceivable level of progress in a few isolated bubbles — which fuels further division since the people inside the progressive bubbles are so far removed from the norm. Grover’s own Twitter account, constantly active —and angry and funny and poignant — and ostensibly progressive, is an important part of his public persona as well as a potent platform for his politics. But to many, he doesn’t go far enough. As someone who has called others out and has been called out himself, Grover believes that call-out culture is justified when it is punching up, but ultimately problematic.

“There have been critiques of Masaan from a Dalit perspective and Sacred Games from a feminist perspective. I completely agree with them. In Sacred Games, I was one of the writers, so I didn’t have complete power, but still I am partly responsible for not casting a transgender person for the role of Kukoo, which many people called out. They are right in accusing me or anybody from the team of failing transgender people on that count and we can try harder next time.”

“Coming to the broader culture of calling out, I think it’s problematic just like any mob is problematic. Mobs take your thinking away and put things in a certain perspective. They don’t give you facts. They give you facts with a lens. And then, as a mob, you don’t have the opportunity to remove the lens. So you can never judge something objectively. I’ll probably take it because I know that ultimately my privilege will probably see me through, but I won’t indulge in that kind of thing even if it’s punching up. I’ve done it earlier, but of late I’ve given it a rethink. You may be right eight out of 10 times. But those two times are not really a good cost for those eight times.”

The freelance journalist is based in Mumbai.

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Printable version | Dec 9, 2019 6:06:52 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/as-long-as-your-work-is-good-they-wont-care-varun-grover/article24601835.ece

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