ShahRock: Chennai Express Avatar

SRK Chennai Express

Many, many years ago, I had created a cartoon character called Shah Rock for my friend, actor Shah Rukh Khan. Someday, we both hoped, we could do a live action + animation movie starring Shah Rukh and Shah Rock.

Over the years, I have updated Shah Rock in the many movie avatars of Shah Rukh. Here’s the latest – for his film “Chennai Express” which is set to get the biggest opening of all time.

Turn On Your Star Light

Secret of Stardom Shah Rukh Khan

So here’s what I experienced last night:

Travelling by private jet. Check.
Police escort and bouncers. Check.
Being chauffeured in a Rolls Royce Phantom. Check.
Partying with people considered legends. Check.
Twelve thousand screaming fans. Check.

Not many of us experience the superstar life, let alone all in one evening, but I did when I travelled from Mumbai to Chennai along with actor Shah Rukh Khan to receive the Chevalier Sivaji Ganesan award last night. It was a grand event being televised for an estimated global audience of ten million viewers. Shah Rukh was being flown 1300 kms just for a few hours. And as I waited in the whisper-quiet lounge of the Corporate Aviation terminal for Shah Rukh, who was late as usual, I marveled at what a big deal it all was going to be.

But when I look back, what moved me finally were the quiet, almost unnoticed things that Shah Rukh did along the way. The little jokes he shared with the security officers at the private airport. Like the macho security guard whose nametag read “R Meena”. Shah Rukh checked with him about his name again, and asked him where he was from, and said with a grin, “Don’t mind, sir, but in my film, the heroine is called Meena.” As Shah Rukh gave him a brotherly half-hug, the man glowed at the attention not many billionaires gave him.

On the plane, a super mid-sized Challenger 605, he remembered to ask the pilot if the pictures they had taken the last time had turned out well. And reminded the flight attendant to please get more of the little candy sweets he had fallen in love with. As we entered, the cabin was still being fumigated and clouds of surreal smoky mist floated across our knees. When the flight attendant began to apologize profusely, he stopped her, “No, I don’t mind – except that I start feeling that I am doing a love song.”

When we landed, there was a stunning black Rolls Royce Phantom waiting for us. Sitting inside, Shah Rukh was amused to discover that the Rolls Royce had a mute button for the car stereo embedded on the back seat window. With the wide-eyed glee of a child, he pressed it again and again. And we spoke about the joy he gets from the quiet charity he does as he gets older and his plans to spend more time with it. We spoke about prayers and bringing up our children to remember their parents for what they contributed to the planet.

When our car pulled up at the stadium gate, he was still in his travelling clothes – frayed jeans, t-shirt, sneakers and unkempt hair – and was unhappy by the security phalanx pushing away all photographers and cameras till he changed into his formal suit backstage. “This is how I look,” he said with a smile. “What’s wrong if they photograph me?”

A quick change in the van later, he emerged wearing a cravat and a bow-tie and a jet black suit and slicked back hair, looking every inch a superstar. The crowd roared as he walked in and he waved back and sat on his front-row round table. When I pointed out to him an A-list director sitting a few round tables back with his family, Shah Rukh got up and walked into the crowd to him and hugged him. The director sent me an SMS a few seconds later: Wow, I can’t believe Shah Rukh Khan hugged me.

What I will remember about the evening was his willingness to do things far beyond what was expected of him. That is a lesson worth learning: how to give love so totally to others, that their love rushes back to us, as if to fill the space created. How to stop calculating, conserving, protecting and simply become an open-hearted blessing to every person you meet for a little while. To give with the utter confidence that the Universe invariably returns the same goodness. Or even better, to give like one to whom the Universe has already given too much goodness.

At the stadium, on the hottest evening of May, with the temperature above 40 degrees centigrade, it was so hot that within a few minutes Shah Rukh looked like he had been drenched in a thunder shower. But his smile didn’t fade. Neither did the spring in his step when the awards segment and speeches by others continued for some twenty-odd minutes. He danced with little children on stage asking them to please cover for his bad dancing. He joked, complimented, thanked, bowed and won hearts of the twelve thousand fans.

What I loved was that little moment that happened when, after he received the award, we were on our way back to the vanity van. A young girl was leaning against a wall with her back to us, talking on her phone. Shah Rukh mischievously tapped her on the shoulder and walked past without looking back. When she half-turned and saw who had just tapped her, the phone almost fell out of her hand.

This is not to say that Shah Rukh has been a paragon of virtue all his life, or even all evening. He was distracted, snappish, and even grumpy at times – but when he turned on his heart-light, he was a joy to behold. I knew that some of the generous promises he made would not be met. Some of the humility was public necessity. But in that moment, what mattered was that even that came from a space of wanting to give joy.

As the midnight rolled into the next day, the tiredness slowly began to tell in the way his eyes strained and lines deepened. But he somehow didn’t allow it to crystallize into a ‘no’ to the universe. Though he was under medication for a severe back spasm and due for surgery in a few weeks, he stayed till four am – till their pilot called to remind them they were running out of landing clearance time. At the after party, he posed for pictures with every fan who requested for it – other South Indian actors and directors, screaming girls from the awards show crew, glowing wives of executives, young starlets, reporters, police officials, random fans… Finally, even the photographer who was taking the pictures requested for a keepsake picture.

When it was all done, I dropped him to the airport. It was amusing to see the bleary-eyed terminal come alive with heads turned and voices whispered: “Is it…? Really…?!!” From the glass frontage I could see Shah Rukh, dead-tired and eyes squinting with sleep, beginning yet another series of greetings as he walked with his team to his aircraft. After a few hours of sleep, he would be up for his shoot in another city. Beginning yet another day of the superstar life.

As I drove back from the airport alone, the Rolls Royce felt large and roomy and… empty. The secret to the superstar life, I learnt, is not in the $2m car or the $22m jet, it is in giving superstar-sized doses of love. It’s in turning on your heart-light. And the quantum of joy we give others is what is reflected back to us, whether we are businessmen, politicians, healers, social workers or actors. And giving joy to those around us is something we all can do right where we are. Whether we are stars or not, we can all turn on our star-light.

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For more posts on this blog related to Shah Rukh Khan, click here

The Silent Movie Star

I have written on this blog in the past about my concern with regards the negativity on Twitter*, and last month, it claimed a victim in actor Shah Rukh Khan who went off Twitter indefinitely. A piece I wrote about this aspect of social media, especially connected with Bollywood, was carried by the Mumbai Mirror newspaper today. Here’s the entire, unedited piece:

shahrukh-khan-dabboo-ratnanis-2013-calendar

One of the reasons I admired this young television actor Shah Rukh Khan, even before I knew him personally, even before he would be called ‘the biggest star in the world’, was his refreshing candor in interviews. It wasn’t just about humorously taking on rivals and loving himself with childlike frankness – he could equally take potshots at himself publicly. He was articulate, he made sense – but didn’t he know, I always wondered, celebrities shouldn’t say such things!

Fans don’t need it. Having fallen in love with a carefully scripted screen character, they are happier to not break the fantasy. Moreover, distant stars, when they come too near can often be revealed to be as dim as lamppost lights. And it is not their fault. Beyond a genetically-gifted physicality and acting talent, why would we expect them to not be flawed and human like the rest of us? Why would we demand from them an informed point of view on politics, society, culture and life? Shah Rukh Khan, it turned out, did have one and he shared it freely.

Celebrities learn quickly that it’s safer to stay with the lowest common denominator of public opinion – to talk in platitudes against corruption, for women empowerment and praise colleagues, especially dead ones. But something inexplicable within Shah Rukh always rebelled against playing the role of a Barbie-doll celebrity. He shared the truth about the insomnia he sometimes faced and his terror of losing fame. He admitted his imperfections and lampooned his own flops. Against all marketing logic, it worked in his favor.

People began praising him for being a canny publicist, but he was also a publicist’s nightmare because he didn’t stick to any pre-written script. A few months ago, his company’s digital marketing person lamented to me that he could be so much bigger on social media if he just followed some basic ground rules. But he just never listened, she complained.

In the honeymoon days of Twitter, many stars entered this Twitter heaven with Karan Johar as Saint Peter welcoming them aboard. Stars began chattily calling their fans ‘tweeple’ and using cool acronyms like LOL and ROFL. This new platform promised stars not only direct access to their fans but also a way to comment and clarify without being misquoted. For younger stars, it could become a great way to create an identity and build a reliable, quantifiable fan base for that all-important Friday.

But with it came an unexpected dark side. One actress, after a terrible home production, was shocked off Twitter upon receiving an unprecedented barrage of lewd, personal hate tweets. Stars, who had been used to being psychologically protected by their coterie, began to directly face the brutal wrath of the teenaged boys and fanatic groups. Then came the humorists – the stand-up comics who found a career in being nasty to the celebrity target of the day. One small typo, such as the unfortunate misspelling of the final alphabet of ‘my girl gang’ by a young actor last year, could mean weeks of viral embarrassment.

With thicker skin and professional support, stars reworked their online strategy.

Many stayed off Twitter till a film release drew near, a few hired professionals to tweet on their behalf. Bollywood on Twitter slowly began to get organized around powerful fan groups – with nicknames like the Shahid Shanatics, the Akkians, the Salman Khan FC – some of whom became a nightmare for film critics and haters.

Haters, known as Trolls in Twitterverse, hit out at every star, including Shah Rukh. Some of it is genuine opinion, some of it fuelled by vested interests. For someone familiar with Twitter, it’s easy to see from a timeline (a Twitter word which simply means the history of their tweets) if accounts had been created for the sole purpose of criticizing one person. Such accounts had almost no followers and did not tweet about anything else day after day. This was all part of the new social media battlefield and every major star today takes it in their stride.

But gradually, something even more dangerous had begun evolving. Journalists who could not get access to Shah Rukh would juxtapose a few personal tweets about his family or religion, fill in their own assumptions in between, and put it out as an original interview. Others would launch online attacks on the basis of a fragment of a sentence. Fanatic Twitter gangs, from all ends of the religious spectrum, would use his words to attack him… and worse, each other. Even political leaders began using his words to fire salvos against each other’s countries. Everyone, it seemed, had begun using the glitter of his stardust to shine their cause.

On January 9, Shah Rukh posted one final tweet to his 3,624,395 followers – almost equivalent to the population of Singapore: “Sad, I read so much judgments, jingoism, religious intolerance on the net & I used to think this platform will change narrow-mindedness, but no!” (sic) It was retweeted 2255 times and continues to be retweeted every day even today. A month later, his fans, desperate to have him back, trended the hashtag topic #WeLoveSRK at a worldwide level for 24 hours on Valentine’s Day. But he has not tweeted since.

It is a wilder world today than it was when the outspoken TV actor with a dimpled smile who spoke at 2x speed made his debut. And one in which, I personally, would not grouse Shah Rukh Khan his decision to hold his peace for now. Whether he returns or not remains to be seen, but if he doesn’t, I would feel saddened because the media would become a little more manicured and the online world would become a little more plastic in his absence.

TIMELINE: Some of my favourite tweets from the @iamsrk account:

  1. On a beach alone. Stars,big brave & brite inspite of the dark. If it wasn’t for the night v wouldn’t see them so strong. That’s how v should be

    the now silent @iamsrk page
  2. Most of the time ppl dont want to get to know u, instead they want to tell u, who they think u are. Let them maintain their fictions about u
  3. Still am not used to the fact that when I meet new ppl I am a bit awkward, while they meet me with a familiarity of years…its sweet.
  4. Watching Bambi on tv. Is it ok for a grown up man to feel moved watching cartoons or should I switch to Expendables & be all grown up macho
  5. Comparisons, as unavoidable as they are, make u one of many. It leads towards fear of freedom. Only thing to do in numbers is to laugh together
  6. My son. Have a face not just arms. Be a name not a number. Be a human beıng not just human resource. Worry not who u could be… just be who u are.
  7. Just read this… Superstars live on this mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. Superstar, do u know who ur real friends are?
  8. The illusion that you could hold to yourself the things you most want & lose the things you least wanted to keep is the struggle of lıfe…
  9. You cannot live hollow within urself & fill ur hollowness with empty things, empty promises, conveniences and fear of confrontations…
  10. (His final tweet on January 9) Sad, I read so much judgements, jingoism, religious intolerance on the net & I used to think this platform will change narrowmindedness, but no!

Update: Since the article has come out, I have been overwhelmed at the emotional response from people around the world. Some fans have taken it upon themselves to translate it into various languages. Here are the links for the German translation, Russian translation, French and the Arabic Translation.

Moved by the hundreds of touching messages, I compiled and emailed them to Shah Rukh to remind him of the heartwarming support he still has on Twitter. Click HERE to download the compilation. 

*Read Also: Angry Birds – The Addictive Nastiness of Twitter

Title photo by Dabboo Ratnani. All Rights Reserved.

Saving The Planet, One Drop At A Time

An inspiring true story that shows just how simple it can be for one person with an idea to make a difference.

Aabid Surti

Aabid Surti is an odd character. A few years ago, the angular, bearded author was invited to meet the President of India to receive a national award for literature at a ceremony in the capital, New Delhi. He politely declined. Absorbed in writing the first draft of his new novel, he cited the reason that he did not have time. But what he has made time for every Sunday for seven years now, is going door-to-door in Mira Road, a non-descript suburb of Mumbai, with a plumber in tow, asking residents if they need their tap fixed for free!

As a distinguished Indian painter and author, Aabid has written around 80 books but no story so moved him as the truth about water scarcity on the planet. “I read an interview of the former UN chief Boutros Boutros Ghali,” he recalls, “who said that by 2025 more than 40 countries are expected to experience water crisis. I remembered my childhood in a ghetto fighting for each bucket of water. I knew that shortage of water is the end of civilized life.”

Around the same time, in 2007, he was sitting in a friend’s house and noticed a leaky tap. It bothered him. When he pointed it out, his friend, like others, dismissed it casually: it was too expensive and inconvenient to call a plumber for such a minor job – even plumbers resisted coming to only replace old gaskets.

A few days later, he came across a statistic in the newspaper: a tap that drips once every second wastes a thousand litres of water in a month. That triggered an idea. He would take a plumber from door to door and fix taps for free – one apartment complex every weekend.

As a creative artist, he had earned more goodwill than money and the first challenge was funding. “But,” he says, “if you have a noble thought, nature takes care of it.” Within a few days, he got a message that he was unexpectedly being awarded Rs.1,00,000 ($2,000) by the Hindi Sahitya Sansthan (UP) for his contribution to Hindi literature. And one Sunday morning in 2007, the International Year of Water, he set out with a plumber to fix the problem for his neighbors.

He began by simply replacing old O-ring rubber gaskets with new ones, buying new fixtures from the wholesale market. He named his one-man NGO ‘Drop Dead’ and created a tagline: save every drop… or drop dead.

Every Sunday, the Drop Dead team – which consisted of Aabid himself, Riyaaz the plumber and a female volunteer Tejal – picked the apartment blocks, got permission from the housing societies, and got to work. A day before, Tejal would hand out pamphlets explaining their mission and paste posters in elevators and apartment lobbies spreading awareness on the looming water crisis. And by Sunday afternoon, they would ensure the buildings were drip-dry.

By the end of the first year, they had visited 1533 homes and fixed around 400 taps. Slowly, the news began to spread.

In March 2008, director Shekhar Kapur, who was working on his own water conservation film, heard about Aabid’s efforts and wrote on his website: ‘Aabid Surti, thank you so much for who you are. I wish there were more people like you in this world. Keep in touch with us and keep inspiring us. Shekhar.’

Local newspapers began to write about Drop Dead, which prompted a further flood of grateful emails and spontaneous messages. One of the most heartfelt messages was from superstar actor-producer Shah Rukh Khan, a longtime fan of Aabid’s work as a comic book creator. After reading the newspaper report titled ‘City of Angels’, he wrote to Aabid: “…It sounds like one of the little big things my dad would have done. Strange that I have enjoyed [your comic] Bahadur in my childhood and enjoyed reading your tap story so many years down the line… when I am father myself. God bless you and yes, I believe in angels after reading the newspaper.

In 2010, Aabid Surti was nominated for the CNN-IBN CJ ‘Be The Change’ Award. In the same year, a television crew from Berlin flew down to follow him on his Sunday rounds which continued come monsoon or shine.

It’s hard to say how much water he has saved with his mission, given that the faucets he fixed could have continued leaking for months, and maybe years, had he not rung the doorbell one Sunday morning. But conservatively, it could be estimated that he has single-handedly saved at least 5.5m litres of water till date.

In the summer of 2013, the state where Aabid lives is expecting its worst drought in 40 years. Months in advance, the Chief Minister Prithviraj Chauhan has warned citizens to begin conserving water. While ministers lobby for drought-relief packages worth millions of dollars, Aabid sees his own approach as simple and inexpensive.

As he rings another door-bell on yet another Sunday in Mira Road, seven years into his one-man mission, he says: “Anyone can launch a water conservation project in his or her area. That’s the beauty of this concept. It doesn’t require much funding or even an office. And most importantly, it puts the power back in our own hands.”

I would call him a modern-day angel; I am lucky I get to call him dad.

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UPDATE (MAY 2013): Much has changed for dad since this post. He was given the Sparrow Award for conservation and funding to continue his work. He also received funding from the Rotary Association and a few other organizations, and offers to spread the news further. This blog post itself went viral and got dad featured on DailyGood as one of the Everyday Heroes. Global Voices Online further translated this post into Italian, French, Spanish, Malagasy & Greek!

In April 2013, he was once again invited to meet the President of India, for his Drop Dead project.

This time he went. 

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Honoring the Impulse

“Congratulations, you have arrived!”

A friend sent me this message when he saw me on KBC (the Indian version of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’) with actors Shah Rukh Khan, Katrina Kaif and Amitabh Bachchan.

As I marveled at the many layers of unintended irony in his comment, even I wondered how I got onto a historic episode of KBC – that, too, as the companion of Shah Rukh Khan, described by Time magazine as ‘the biggest star in the world’.

Looking back I can give you the short answer: I didn’t do it.

If you want the long answer, read ahead: In the many years that I have known him, I have almost never asked Shah Rukh (aka SRK) for anything unless it was work related. Last month, however, I spontaneously felt like sending him a message requesting if I could come backstage for his episode of KBC. Everyone who has worked with him knows he gets a zillion messages a day and doesn’t respond until it’s a matter of life-and-death (and leaning towards the latter).

“Please do come” he replied almost immediately.

The morning of the taping, I felt very strongly like going for a haircut. I tried to ignore the feeling but it was too strong. I literally saw myself taking my bag in hand and leaving suddenly for the salon. Even I was amused as I shaved and primped my normally unkempt look – I jokingly wondered if I was doing it to impress the Katrina! As I left home, I felt compelled to carry my favorite electric blue Zara pullover though the temperature outside was in the high-80s.

I still had no clue what lay ahead.

As I drove into Filmcity, SRK invited me into his vanity van. While he caught up on a hurried lunch at 5:00 pm, we chatted about cricket and life, and then he left for the soundstage. I entered the shoot floor a while later looking for the control room but could not find it. As I walked across the darkened studio floor, Karuna Badwal, who heads SRK’s Red Chillies Productions, found me.

Meanwhile, the television crew needed to know who was coming on the show as the contestants’ family/companions. They discussed it with Shah Rukh and it was decided that Karuna, his personal manager Pooja and myself would be his companions for the show.

Suddenly there was a flurry of activity. We were made to sit on pre-designated seats while the lights were properly focused on us. We were miked in case we needed to talk. A dab of make-up for the ladies. Instructions were rapidly shot. A cameraman positioned a foot away from my face for ‘reaction shots’. As the light beams swiveled across the floor and the opening fanfare began to play, I wondered: How on earth did this happen?

One thing was clear: “I” didn’t do it.

The next day, I kept thinking about the mysterious happening – I didn’t visualize or affirm it. I didn’t manipulate it or ask to be his companion. He didn’t plan or intend it either. Neither did anyone working for the television company. Everyone was simply responding to situations. And without realizing it, it all fell in place.

I left it at that until yesterday I came across these lines by my brother and mentor GD which seemed to explain it so perfectly:

“Life is our friend. And the way it guides us is by sending subtle messages and impulses. When we hear and honor the impulse, there is joy – there is magic. When we don’t, the result is depression and stuckness.

“The only thing you need to do is honor the impulse you are getting in this moment.  That’s it. No great plan or vision is required. One simple step – that’s it! When this one step is taken, the impulse for the next step will come by itself.

“There is constant guidance, but it is only revealed step by step. But the mind – having no trust – wants the whole plan all at once. That’s where it gets stuck. Our job is to take small, trusting steps – our job is not to figure out the entire plan.”

RIP Yash Chopra

These days, the Indian film Industry seems to remind me every few weeks about the impermanence and urgency of Life. Yesterday, I attended the chautha (fourth day funeral rites) of an old film industry colleague, and this evening we got the shocking news that 80-year-old Yash Chopra – perhaps the greatest director-producer in Indian cinema – expired. Ironically, he expired a few weeks before the release of his swansong ‘Jab Tak Hain Jaan’ which means: “as long as life continues…”

Quite unlike his legendary stature, he was known as a laughing, life-loving man, fond of good food and good humor. So here’s my way of putting a marker for the end of an era for Bollywood.

Angry Birds: The Addictive Nastiness of Twitter

These days, I find Twitter is becoming an ongoing competition of insults. Like a global ‘Yo Mama’ contest. Or a twisted version of ‘The Hunger Games’ where anyone famous is targeted. In less than the time it takes a director to set up a single shot of a film, the armchair critic has ripped it apart with authority. And exaggerated its boredom as if the rest of his/her life is a never-ending orgasmic celebration.

The winners of this game – those who come up with the nastiest, funniest and most exaggerated put-downs – get rewarded in RTs or retweets. It is an addictive game — to have thousands of followers for someone who was not known beyond his college canteen is a thrill.

I should know: in the days before Twitter, I did this for a living. As a teenager, I used to be a caricaturist and cartoonist for a Bollywood film magazine. Not just thousands of readers, big stars too enjoyed my jokes on their rivals. It felt like a free ticket to get attention and approval without contributing anything really in life.

But there is a price to be paid. I can tell you from experience that a mind which is unforgiving to others’ faults cannot love its own. Attacking others verbally has repercussions even if your ‘victims’ never know who you are. Because what you give out to the Universe, comes back to you in some form. Yes, this applies even on Twitter.

There is a difference between attacking others and pointing out the truth. It’s amazing when people share what they see without fear or favor – when they make razor-sharp, insightful, witty observations. But maybe we don’t need to counter-balance the clichéd star quotes and manufactured PR praise with an overdose of bitterness. Just because they don’t feel right, we don’t need to become wrong. And when you are nasty you say a lot more about what you hate in yourself than about anybody else. Plus, it makes you feel rotten.

A few days ago, this subject of exaggerated nastiness on Twitter came up during a conversation with actor Shah Rukh Khan. His observation was that it comes from a deep-seated desire inside some people to be an opinion-maker, because mass media only allows a few famous people to be influencers. I found it quite insightful. And it made sense that in a shouting crowd of opinions, only the loudest, nastiest or most shocking would be noticed.

But I feel we can be funny and smart and truthful without needing to viciously destroy someone else. With a little effort, we can earn our tiny moment of personal glory while honoring others who have earned it too. I try to remember this when I am tempted to attack someone with a brilliantly witty put-down. And when in doubt, I remember the old adage: Tweet others as you would like to be tweeted.