Rajshri’s River of Hope

Most of us, when we read social media posts about a natural calamity like drought, we click angry-face LIKE and hit ‘Share NOW’, perhaps with a dark comment about government inefficiency. Some of us donate money. Very few volunteer time with an NGO. My friend Rajshri Deshpande went a step further: last month, she set out to single-handedly revive a river.

Rajshri Deshpande

An audible groan runs through the Jet Airways afternoon flight to Aurangabad as the captain announces temperature at destination: 45 degrees. It’s the kind of weather in which an actress-slash-model like Rajshri Deshpande should be safely within a cafe near her beachside home in Mumbai, sipping iced latte and discussing the European tour for her debut film ‘Angry Indian Goddesses’. Instead, she is in a village some 350 kms away, mediating a quarrel between two villagers.

As she uses her tough charm to calm down both heated parties, you realize she faces a challenge even more ancient than drought – the human ego. A barter deal she had struck with the village dhaba for free diesel to run the hydraulic earthmover has hit rough weather. We are in Pandhri Pimpalgaon village 30 kms away from Aurangabad, standing on the banks of the river Bembla, or at least what used to be the 160-foot-wide river Bembla until 2002. It is now an arid dustbowl overrun with thorny scrub, so scorched even the dusk breeze stings our eyes. And here is Rajshri Deshpande, using her education as a lawyer, her talent as an actor and some milky sweet chai to resolve the problem so the stalled work for resuscitating the dead river can begin again.

An old villager remembers the beginning of the end came when the trees on its banks were chopped for wood. Every year after that, the riverbed retained less water. The perennial river soon had dry months in which spiny shrubs and cacti began weeding its riverbed. When the rains came, thorns clutched plastic trash and choked the flow. The loosed sediment slid down its banks and morphed the riverbed into the almost-indistinguishable rolling scrubland where we stand right now.

Rajshri Deshpande has taken it upon herself to reverse the process for this little river Bembla. The immediate plan is to clean out three large pits within the riverbed which can become ponds after the monsoon. While raising funds in the city, she has also asked villagers to pitch not only in their spare time but also a small part of the cost. The larger reason, she explains, is not so much to save costs as to have them feel invested and empowered. The biggest problem here, Rajshri says, is lack of motivation.

Drought Farmer

Farmers and their fields await the monsoon in Pandhri

When it comes to drought, most city-folk are like Jon Snow: we know nothing. Reading media reports we picture emaciated farmers’ bodies scattered across deeply fractured lands. As journalist P Sainath points out in his darkly humorous classic ‘Everybody Loves A Good Drought’ the truth is drought comes in many forms, not all of which look like the clichéd ‘endless parched lands’, not all of them caused by the clichéd ‘cruel monsoons’ and not all of them causing deaths of clichéd ‘starving farmers’.

The truth is different. In Maharashtra, as in many parts of India, drought is man-made, so an above-average monsoon is no guarantee drought will not recur. We may point fingers at the government’s indiscriminate digging of water-sucking bore wells, poisonous urea-farming, destruction of ancient ponds, diversion of rivers for city-dwellers’ electricity and water-guzzling sugarcane factories. But other fingers should point at the farmers themselves – at their focus on instant solutions for immediate profits. The cliché of cruel nature causing drought, I learn, is only partly true.

Secondly, thanks to heavy subsidies on dal, rice and wheat, most farmers do not actually die of starvation. This year, the government is providing free tankers of water twice a week to fill the ubiquitous 200-litre blue plastic barrels clustered like oversized garden gnomes outside every hut. With a little stretch, this is enough for the farmer family’s essentials but not enough to support their extended family: the animals who starve with little fodder and lesser water every year. And for centuries-old farming communities, it is not enough to sustain their withering farms. Year after year, men and boys flee farms to work as construction laborers or, as Nana Patekar cinematically put it, to knock on the windows of your car to ask for loose change. This is the broader problem caused by drought. More often out of loss of will than lack of a meal, 6000 Indian farmers have committed suicide in the last four years.

The biggest problem, Rajshri keeps repeating, is lack of motivation. There are farmers here who are dirt-poor, she says, but there are farmers who have money also. Our donations for water-tankers can help them temporarily, but next summer the farmers will be in the same place… and the water-tanker contractors will be much richer. To make a long-term change, the farmers need to revive their land and rivers. They need some motivation to do things beyond immediate gain. For that they need a little push from outside, just like we all do at times.

In fact, motivating herself to take on this project without money, resources or a team was the first challenge for Rajshri. This is what I found most fascinating about Rajshri’s story: while many NGOs, non-profit organizations and volunteer teams are doing praiseworthy projects for drought-relief, hers is the story of how far an individual can walk with a little bit of faith and a little bit of insanity. But that was not how it began.

Initially, she contacted Nana Patekar & Makarand Anaspure’s ‘Naam Foundation’ to take on the Bembla river project. They were stretched thin, they said, but offered her a Pokland earth-mover for free. Another NGO she approached quoted a heavily padded estimate to take it on as a turnkey project. Yet another asked for a 10% profit share from all funds she raised. The monsoon was approaching in less than two months so she finally took a deep breath and braced herself for whatever lay ahead.

Convincing the villagers of Pandhri and Pimpalgaon was her next challenge. It helped that Rajshri’s mother had worked with the Zilla Parishad in nearby Aurangabad so she grew up in these parts; in the parochial village mentality, this Marathi-speaking and Marathi-swearing girl is ‘aamchi mulgi’… our girl. But she still had to work against deeply embedded wrinkles of distrust. Broken promises by successive elected leaders – whose tenure was a snatch & grab race to collect as much money as they could before their five-year term ran out – had made the farmers cynical. On her first visit, an old woman hoarsely predicted to everyone in the village square that like others who had promised to help, Rajshri too would never return.

Dr Ajit Gokhale

Dr Ajit Gokhale’s workshop for the villagers in progress

But she did return, along with an environmentalist and natural solutions expert with two decades of experience, Dr Ajit S Gokhale. He set up a bench in the village field and demonstrated to the farmers using their own soil how urea-farming and tractor-tilling was killing their land.

But information, Dr Gokhale knew from his experience of helping 170 villages, is never enough to motivate. So he asked them his favorite trick question: Has the government done anything for you? In unison, the villagers chorused an angry NO! This was perhaps the only subject upon which they agreed across all caste, class and religion lines. Dr Gokhale smiled and asked: So who made the roads? Did you make them? The villagers were nonplussed by this new line of questioning: roads came from the government, of course. And do you create your own electricity? That too was from the government, they had to agree. The school your children go to? What about ration shops? And fertilizer subsidy? Slowly, the point of the questions began to dawn on them: Dr Gokhale was offering them the option to stop sitting on their haunches and blaming the government for everything wrong with their lives.

When he saw his point had hit home, Dr Gokhale changed tack. He asked: Are any amongst you helping anyone other than your own family? Something altruistic in which there is no thought for your own gain? The villagers squirmed. That, Dr Gokhale concluded, is the real reason for the drought – you don’t think about your neighbor, your village land or even your grandchildren.

He reminded them of the dust-covered ‘Yogeshwar Krushi’ board he had seen while walking through Pandhri village; Pandurang Shastri Athavale’s beautiful concept where the entire village also tills one patch of common land, the produce from which is used to help whoever has unexpected need that year. He advised them to revive that half-forgotten practice. Dr Gokhale’s conversation worked like magic. In less than an hour, they went from helpless victims waiting for relief to citizens ready to take responsibility for their situation.

Next Rajshri picked her two local champions for the project. Dattabhau, at 55, is the senior, experienced and respected one. Having bought his first plot of land by pawning his wife’s mangalsutra, he worked to educate his sons through engineering college and his daughter to an MA in English – so he’s hardworking and future-oriented. Twenty-something Yogesh, on the other hand, is affable and talks with a smile. When most of the farmers were still skeptical, Yogesh was the one who spoke individually to at least listen to her.

But finally, it was the day Rajshri directly dialled veteran Marathi actor Makarand Anaspure to give the villagers a speaker-phone pep talk that they began listening to her with newfound adoration. (An unanticipated side-effect: Makarand mentioned that she was an actress, not realizing she had hidden this from the villagers until then.)

Rajshri Deshpande Drought

The Hydraulic Excavator provided by Naam Foundation. Tractors provided by the villagers.

Since then Dattabhau and Yogesh, along with a handful of village volunteers, supervise the clearing of the riverbed in night and day shifts. It’s been two weeks, and straw-haired Dattabhau who walked with a limp when work began, now sprints with youthful excitement.

He has reason to be: in ten days, they have completed one pit and soon, when the work is done, it will support two villages: Pandhri and Pimpalgaon, with a combined population of 2500. By official statistics, around 80% of them are small farmers with less than five acres for their cotton, soybean, millet, jowar, bajra and pomegranate fields. But for Dattabhau, all of them are faces he has known his entire life. If they manage to complete all three pits before the rains, the water will also benefit a zopadpatti (slum) nearby. And just maybe, if the rain gods are benevolent, then the five toilets in the village can be reopened so they don’t have to go every day for a long ‘morning walk’.

As Dattabhau lithely climbs a concrete backwall across the dry riverbed, he points me its cement slab: This wall is government work… means total duplicate work. Where they need ten bags of cement, they use two bags. That’s why this happens… He shows me gaping holes with exposed twists of metal rods, and then adds with pride: By government rate, our river project would cost Rs 30 lac, with our work it will be not more than Rs 3 lac. Ten times difference…

Later, I discovered this little Bembla river shares its name with another larger, more infamous Bembla river in nearby Yavatmal, which became an icon of corruption for its massive, misguided dam project which remains incomplete even after 25 years. The biggest irony: after spending Rs 1857 crores, the Economic Times reported that the project is providing water to a mere 1,200 hectares – which is the exact size of Pandhri and Pimpalgaon villages put together! When Dattabhau estimated a ten-time difference between his costs and government costs, he was way, way off.

Rajshri Deshpande's Team

Rajshri with her champions. Dattabhau stands second from left. Yogesh second from right.

At dusk, we sit on a charpoy overlooking Yogesh’s field, and a small crowd gathers around. Rajshri tells them she is arranging for a medical camp with the help of a hospital in Aurangabad whom she contacted through her older sister, a doctor. She needs them to let her know through Yogesh which kind of doctor they need to visit them. The conversation flows into dinner at Yogesh’s two-room corrugated-roofed house. Like most village homes, it has porous walls: neighbors and children wander through and join conversations and meals without questions asked. Rajshri discusses the next steps over dinner: once the digging work is done, they should plant trees on the banks, to complete the reversal of the original degradation process.

One of the guests’ cellphone bursts into devotional song. Light-eyed pomegranate farmer Thombre picks up and speaks rapidly in Marathi. He shyly offers his ancient Nokia phone to Rajshri tai. The call is from a woman who heard about the Bembla river work, asking if Rajshri can come to help their village next.

‘If you motivate one village,’ Rajshri says to me as we leave, ‘it becomes an example for others. And in future, villagers like Yogesh and Dattabhau can manage it themselves. I will help from outside. It may not be easy, but it can be done.’ When you consider that a river which ran dry for fifteen years is being revived in a little more than a month, you realize this is not ‘Savior Barbie’ optimism, nor is it too faraway a dream.

At night, after the village babies have rocked off to sleep on their swinging cotton hammocks, after the nightly hari-katha song of the village women in the Vitthal temple porch has fallen silent, Rajshri checks one last time with Yogesh and Dattabhau to see which villagers are going to monitor the work for tonight.

“Yogesh, next year I want to see a bumper crop in your field,” she says, as she sits in her car. Thombre asks shyly if they can talk to Makarand Anaspure once again from her phone. She laughs. But tai… only to thank him… for his support… We should thank him, no? Thombre stammers. Everyone laughs as the car starts.

The battered car is throbbing warm even though the air-conditioning is a full noisy blast. Rajshri Deshpande adjusts the steering wheel and braces for the eight-hour drive to Mumbai, as she has done seven times in the past month. But she knows the more difficult challenges await her back home. So far, through family, friends and a personal contribution by Masaan writer Varun Grover and director Neeraj Ghaywan from their National Award money, she has raised Rs. 1,25,000; somehow she will have to get the remaining money. There are other problems too, some undreamed-of: like the one where a stranger came to surreptitiously take pictures of their worksite to con people online for donations: what can one do in such cases? She takes a deep breath and straightens her rearview mirror. In the distance, Dattabhau watches as the car turns past their tree-canopied Hanuman temple onto the highway: the highway from where the fast-moving world will soon slow down to marvel at the miracle of an ancient river come back to life.

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FATHER & SON: A LIFETIME JOURNEY

Last night, my father was felicitated as a real-life hero by one of the biggest stars in the world on a television show – my personal journey to seeing him as a hero took forty years.

Mr Bachchan’s Touching Personal Tweet on the Morning of the Telecast

One of my fondest memories of my father was waking up early in the mornings and seeing him out on the verandah, perched on his favorite rocking chair, scratching out his novel onto the pad propped on his knees. Through my bleary little eyes, I used to marvel at his dedication — I struggled to wake up early during exams and he did this almost every day of the year!

Like all children, my father was my hero. For the world, he was known as a prolifically creative author, painter and cartoonist, but for me his most remarkable quality was that he never imposed his parenthood. In fact, he trained me to call him by his first name. So when he came home from work in the evening, I would drop my cricket bat and run to him, happily shouting: ‘Hiii Aabid!’ Outsiders were sometimes shocked. But most remarked that we looked more like friends than like father and son. And that made him happy.

Teenagehood happened. And gradually, without realizing it, my opinion changed. I began resenting the fact that, unlike my friends’ fathers, he could not afford to buy me roller skates, then a skateboard, then a bicycle, then a Zx Spectrum computer. I blamed him for not being ‘fatherly’ enough in teaching me worldly things — how to shave, how a bank works, how to drive a car.

I didn’t realize it then, but I spent my adult life trying to not be him. In my twenties, I sought solid father figures, in bosses and in spiritual teachers and left home; I looked to these new ‘fathers’ to tell me exactly what to do in every situation. Because that’s something my real father never did.

Since I secretly blamed him for his unreliability and his selfishness in pursuing his joy, I became the opposite: a steady dependable breadwinner who earned enough money that my son would never see me as a loser. Dad’s Bohemian spirit could not survive in an office for six months, I stuck to a corporate desk for more than a decade. With a sadness veiled as pride, I confessed to friends that everything I had wanted to enjoy in life — my first cellphone, my first car, my house — I had had to buy myself.

In between my busy career and marriage, the distance between us grew into monthly phone calls, mostly initiated by him, which began awkwardly and ended abruptly. The distance between us had grown so much that when he began a neighborhood campaign to save water by fix leaking taps for free, he didn’t tell me till many months later.

In my forties, after my son was born, I began seeing him differently. I experienced such an intense love for my son — I wondered if this was how my father must have felt when he saw me growing?

After I quit my full-time job to become a consultant in 2012, I began spending more time with him. In early 2013, I wrote a blog post called ‘Saving The World One Drop At A Time’ about his one-man NGO, which now had a name as quirky as his personality: Drop Dead Foundation. My blog post went viral and was translated into Italian, Spanish, Greek, Malagasy and Russian. Word of his inspirational campaign spread and he began getting more praise, awards and love than he had seen as an artist.

It was a still a home-run enterprise, working from his laptop and living room in a dingy suburb. When I offered to contribute money, he refused point-blank saying this was not a family enterprise, it was a social enterprise: if it had to run, it would run with the support of society or not at all. So I began helping him occasionally with media and PR. Still, I kept a safe distance between his world and mine. As the creative head of a major movie studio, I felt uncomfortable editing his NGO documentary in the ramshackle edit suites that were offered to him free.

As I faced the challenges of my own marriage and fatherhood, I began appreciating him even more. I appreciated that in becoming a husband, he never fully gave up being a freedom-loving human being – what I had all my life put down as selfish now seemed sane. As a father, I found it was more loving to give my son the freedom to learn on his own rather than forcing my conclusions on him. As I watched my son’s intelligence grow rather than his obedience, it made me feel as happy as my growing must have felt for him. My relationship with dad warmed into Sunday lunches, surprise gifts and more regular, friendly conversations. I began working on a documentary about him, put out four English translations of his novels onto Amazon Kindle format, and helped him sell his older books for film and TV adaptation rights.

Then in early November, on one of my little spiritual circle’s weekly group calls with my brother and our mentor GD, the last piece quietly fell in place. One of the participants on the call complained that he forgave others, but never completely. GD asked us to remember all the people in our lives whom we were still subtly punishing. He asked us to connect with that part of us which secretly held on to the energy of a punisher, a mini-tyrant or a stern judge meting out justice to others. “One of the easiest ways to catch where this is operating in your life,” GD said, “is by asking: who are you still subtly making wrong? Who do you think needs to be fixed? Is it your boss, your friends, your parents, your partners, your company…? That’s where the resentment is hidden. The tail of the elephant which you are still holding onto…”

I remembered dad. I don’t know what happened but in a flash was bridged what seemed to be a lifetime’s distance: he became fully my father again.

The following night, I got an urgent message from him saying that he had just landed into the city and needed my help for an interview the following day. I noticed in myself a level of welcoming towards him I had never experienced before. I offered to help him with the paperwork, his clothes, and the questions. I told him not to worry — I would be there for him whatever time he wanted for however long it took.

By chance, I found out later that night the ‘interview’ was an appearance on one of the biggest reality TV shows in India, called ‘Aaj Ki Raat Hai Zindagi’. It is an adaptation of BBC One’s ‘Tonight’s The Night’ hosted by superstar Amitabh Bachchan, the Indian equivalent of Sean Connery. The show felicitated ordinary people doing extraordinary things and dad was being felicitated as one of the heroes because his ingenious effort in water conservation had saved over 20 million litres of water.

En route to the shoot, I spoke to my brother on the phone. He was pleased to hear about dad getting long overdue recognition, and equally pleased at the transformation in my energy towards dad. He offered to send remote core healing for both of us during the hours of the show recording. He pointed out that in my wholeheartedly supporting dad, we were both being supported by the universe.

Backstage at a reality television shoot is a confusing, intimidating world — hundreds of audience members hunting for holding areas or canteens, dozens of crew members angrily muttering into walkie-talkies and multiple layers of security asking who you were. While I was at home in this world, dad was lost. Knowing I was there seemed to calm him. I helped him choose the outfit, guided him on signing release forms, and as we waited for the delayed shoot to begin, we paced across the studio lot till sunset chatting about life. Anyone looking at us would have mistaken us for friends.

The creative team of the TV show, noticing his youthful quirkyness during research, had designed his entry onstage with dancing girls to a Bollywood song. They told him of this idea only just before the show but dad was not flustered. I helped him quickly learn the hook step in the vanity van, but beyond that his lifelong joie-de-vivre and innocence made it a perfect entry onstage.

I saw my father differently as he stood on the stage. I have seen many superstars sharing a stage with Mr Bachchan and they struggle to divert any spotlight away from this imposing legend. Dad was doing it effortlessly, just being himself — a solid human being. Every anecdote was greeted with laughter and his palpable love was returned by the audience in showers of applause.

“It’s not only about water,” dad said at one point. “If you can’t save water, save the sparrows who get cut on kite string every year or help stray dogs who get diseased. But do something for the world which does so much for you.”

We all bathed in the magic of this one human being, alight with the fire of belief, who was making this grand strobe-lit studio stage seem small and hollow in comparison. At the end of the show, Mr Bachchan was so moved he offered a surprise personal donation towards Drop Dead Foundation. Being a media person, I have grown cynical of stars’ grand public acts of charity because I know it’s mostly for PR — later the money comes from the studio, movie producer or channel, if at all. But Mr Bachchan surprised me by adding with endearing humility a small request that this not be a part of the telecast. Dad got up and did a little victory dance.

Backstage after the show, dad’s work continued — he shared brochures of Drop Dead Foundation with the camera crew and the production team, some of whom felt inspired to begin this work in their own neighborhoods. In between post-shoot interviews, he enrolled housewives, schoolgirls, elderly couples with spare time. He wasn’t a hero only when the camera was rolling, he was the real thing.

As I watched the episode later on television, I was a little sad that much of the magic of the evening had been edited out due to time constraints. But perhaps it was perfect — the world didn’t get to see him in his full glory, but I did. And it had taken me a full forty years to see it.

I share this not to say that my relationship with my father is special, but that this is the journey every father and son must make. And the circle between father and son is closed not because a father does something grand and glorious but because a son is willing to finally forgive him for not being the perfect father. Simultaneously he finds he is forgiven for not being the perfect son.

A few days ago, my six-year-old son was having a play date at home. As I sat nearby reading a book, I overheard my son boasting to his five-year-old friend: “My papa starts his work in the night, even before its morning.” I almost fell off the couch. I quietly prayed that my son’s journey from adoring to hating to finally forgiving his father is as perfect as mine has been.

Thank you dad for everything.

With my father and son

With My Father and My Son

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To watch the episode of Aaj Ki Raat Hai Zindagi on which dad appears, click here.

To know more about Drop Dead Foundation or to ask how you can contribute, click here.

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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.

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.