It started when Quick Gun Murugan walked in with his pistols and said "poruki rrrascal". That's the kind of language they use in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly. The angry Murugan on Channel V, whose Tamil was always subtitled inaccurately, redefined humour on Indian television. In a sense, Indian humour now got funny.
True, there were Satish Shah, Jaspal Bhatti and a few sitcoms that made life a trifle better. But what QG Murugan did was make some Indians laugh at other Indians. It will be wrong to say that Murugan made us laugh at ourselves. The 'people like us', the kind of people who have the scope to die in an air crash, the kind of people for whom trendy channels were created, didn't laugh at themselves when they heard Murugan's unconditional love for sambar. They laughed at the 'other Indian'. Thus, in a hypocritical country where nobody ever admitted in public that they found the other man's clothes, language and culture ridiculous, pretended that the poor vernacular man is not looked down upon, Murugan exploited the polite society.
His brand of humour has now pervaded youth channels and Indian advertising. Today the 'real Indian' with his roadside hair cuts, his "What's your good name?", his complaints and morality, has become the icon of a particular kind of storytelling that is not meant for his viewing. It is now called MTV Style.
Yet, Murugan came in because MTV went out. When the relationship between Star and MTV ended, Channel V was formed to fill in the hole. For the sake of pride, it had to be something that MTV in its first incarnation was not—Indian. Remembers Shashank Ghosh, who was then V's creative director: "We had to take a piece of humour from the street and put it on TV".
By the time Ghosh left V, to risk making a 'good film', the grassroots Indian was very much a part of upmarket television. Among the last shows that passed through his supervision was Gheuntak which still runs. It was inspired by former Maharashtra minister Pramod Navalkar who neutralised his own good work of cleaning Chowpatti by dumping what he collected on the beach on freedom of expression. His vision of how the youth should behave inspired V to create one Javalkar who's in perennial pursuit to apprehend V. "We thought Navalkar will object but turns out he had some humour."
As grassroots was making its entry into high-end television, original Indian stand-up comedy was being birthed by the only man who could have delivered it. Javed Jaffrey's Timex Timepass ushered in many clones, none of whom survived, because they were simply not Javed Jaffrey. He consciously built his brand, sometimes even using a special recorded message in his mobile phone's voice mail to contribute to this end. He has continued with that tradition. Today the message on his cell is in a strong middle-eastern accent: "My friend, you have reached the voice mail of Osama bin Laden. I'm not here to take your call. In fact, I'm not anywhere to take your call. Ha ha ha ha. But just write down that you are my friend and that I can rely on you. I have your number also. Probably if I ever need to give you a bomb I'll give you a call and maybe we can get together and have a blast. If you want to leave a message, you can do that after this explosion."
Shekhar Suman, a self-taught Bihari who actually uses words like 'vicissitudes' in casual conversation, and Sajid Khan took stand-up further but they just did what Jay Leno could do better. What has truly endured and become a genre that could have evolved only in India, is the mood, tone and attitude of Quick Gun Murugan. MTV not only does it best today but also seems to have a patent over it. The channel certainly has some key people one may not want as neighbours, but one thing they are not is 'bores'.
Cyrus Oshidar, MTV's creative head on which nothing grows these days, searches for material in a place where Indian television never looks—India. A land where people defecate on the road and censor nudity, where the cell always rings in theatres after the film has started, where postmen asks for "chai paani", where a C-grade film advertises with "First time in India —Underwater rape". Oshidar walks down lanes taking notes or photographing quaint objects and people, "collecting junk I will use later". He listens too. "That's a very useful thing to do. This is perhaps the only country in the world where you can shut your eyes, yet know you are in India. You don't hear the sounds you hear here anywhere else".
His promos have all been borrowed from the India outside his office. The Chai Boy, the Malishwala, the Rupa promo which asked, "Rupa ki banyan pahnoge tho Rupa kya pahnegee (If you wear a Rupa banyan, then what will Rupa wear?)". The Liftman who said, "This is not a comedy". They were all taken from what's loosely called Indian Society. One Tight Slap, which gives us a list of Indians who have to be hit for some good reasons, "is a mirror of our discontent and frustration as a country".
But there are a few campaigns that did not take off. For an aids awareness campaign, he wanted stars like Amitabh, Johnny Lever and Preity Zinta to just repeat the word 'condom' several times. "While some stars agreed, some female stars felt people will think they are loose women if they are caught using that word."
Carefully crafted programmes like Filmi Funda, for which 30 to 40 films are scanned every episode, and Fully Faltoo, which recreate popular Hindi films, fall in line with "the channel's constant inclination to be irreverent," says Alex Kuruvilla, MD, MTV India. But the most popular show Bakra happened by accident. Cyrus Broacha wanted to do something that didn't need a script. "The scripts that I am asked to follow are normally very boring. I wanted something that will not need words to communicate." After a shoot in Worli, Cyrus hid a cameraman behind some cars who filmed Broacha as he went up to a cab driver, gave him some money and said: "Abdul ko dena". He doesn't remember the situation that unfolded but when he showed the tape in the office, "it made everybody laugh. And Bakra happened".
Broacha, among other things, may be the only person who made Colin Powell laugh. Even Bill Gates said he found Broacha amusing though the Microsoft chief may not know Cyrus' open-source-code leanings. MTV doesn't deny that Broacha is its biggest brand, "but we are also clear that MTV is not Cyrus Broacha," Kuruvilla says, "though he is the most loved face of MTV".
It's not as if everybody loves Broacha, though. Apart from the few people who have slapped him on Bakra, he once got into trouble with MTV itself when in an interview he was asked, "What's the most interesting thing you did this year" and he said, "Malaika Arora".
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