Varun Grover: ‘We Were Telling Not Just the Story of a Gangster, We Were Telling the Story of a Nation’
The comedian on writing India’s latest Nextflix sensation ‘Sacred Games,’ meeting Anurag Kashyap and the politics of stand-up comedy
Varun Grover writes jokes, lyrics and scripts. There are writers who can’t do one thing right; Grover does all three exceptionally well. The comedian’s stand-up routines on YouTube ratchet up views in the millions. His comedy act, Aisi Taisi Democracy, with fellow troublemaker Sanjay Rajoura and treble-maker Rahul Ram, has completed more than 40 shows. He has written the lyrics for the two Gangs of Wasseypurs, and won a National Award for “Moh Moh Ke Dhaage” in Dum Laga Ke Haisha. And, he’s written Masaan.
This month, Grover is also one of four writers on Netflix’s Sacred Games. It’s a flimsy excuse to interview him, but which writer would miss an opportunity to pick his brain? Edited excerpts:
How did Sacred Games come to you? What was the writing process like?
I was approached by Phantom Films. They already had two writers in the room: Smita Singh and Vasant Nath. They probably wanted a lead writer in the room. I read the novel (by Vikram Chandra). I loved it a lot. It looked like a really, really challenging thing. Though I know that’s not my genre — thriller — but the novel was so rich, it had so much potential for drama. And, I’m a fan of Netflix. So, this was the process: first we understood each other, then we understood the book together, and later we understood what Netflix wanted.
For Masaan, you drew from several sources: from your years in Benares (Grover attended IIT (BHU) to newspaper reports to Tagore. In Sacred Games, what did you have to draw on for the writing?
That’s something I want to do in every writing assignment. You can’t keep [writing] if you don’t have anything personal in it. You can’t write anything in which you have no attachment to the material, no personal investment. That was something which we had to find, and which I had to struggle with a lot. The initial three-month period we were not sure what we were doing. What is our connection with Mumbai police and the lives of gangsters? One personal connection was Mumbai. There are things and places that I have seen and observed that are somehow portrayed in the series. All of us go to — all of us writers go to — those cheap bars and drink, like Janata in Bandra or Shankari in Versova. So, we found that kind of space for our characters to sit and talk random things about life. The other personal connection, which was interesting for me in the book, was the story of India along with the story of Ganesh Gaitonde (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui). He is a gangster and we see his life from when he was ten years old in 1969 to 2018. In those years, India has seen an amazing journey: the Emergency, Operation Blue Star, killing of Indira Gandhi, of Rajiv Gandhi, Mandal, Ram Mandir, liberalisation, crazy years. We found a way to integrate that into the story, which was my personal input into the adaptation. Because I do political satire and I have a keen interest in politics, it became my point of excitement. We were telling not just the story of a gangster, we were telling the story of a nation.
How were you and Anurag Kashyap introduced to each other?
I wrote a comment on his blog in ‘Passion for Cinema.’ He was shooting No Smoking, and he wrote a blog about a day at the shoot. I commented on it with a poem, which he liked. He called me home, and said, ‘I like your poetry.’ So, I read more poetry to him, and we kind of became, not friends, but acquaintances. We had creative respect, or respect what artists have, for each other. He showed me that respect, and he showed me that love, which became a window to our interactions. For the next three years, we kept meeting at random film festivals, screenings and Prithvi Theatre. Then he was doing That Girl in Yellow Boots. He called me and said, ‘There’s no money. It’s a small-budget film. But, it requires some poetry.’ That was the first professional collaboration. Right after that he was making Gangs of Wasseypur, and I shamelessly asked him for work. That was a two-year process, during which, I think, we became friends.
Were you always writing poetry?
The first thing I wrote was a short story, which got published in a magazine called Balhans when I was 10. My first poem was published when I was 11. All of this is because I used to read a lot as a kid. My father is a very keen reader. He would get lots of books. When you read a lot, you want to use those words and phrases. You want to see if you can also tell a story.
So, how did stand-up comedy happen?
Stand-up happened because I was writing for TV for four years. On TV, I used to write for actors like Ranvir Shorey, Vinay Pathak, Shekhar Suman, Suresh Menon. Then at one point, TV stopped doing that kind of stuff because The Great Indian Laughter Challenge came. These performer-writers came onstage instead of writers being separate and performers being actors. Raju Srivastav and Sunil Pal were writing their own material. There was no space for comedy writers, unless they wanted to do the same kind of, what I think is, cheap comedy which is going on:
Comedy ka Muqabla and Maha Muqabla, and Archana Puran Singh, and [Navjot Singh] Sidhu would laugh at everything. I didn’t want to do that. At the same time, Mumbai had a new comedy scene going. The very first open mic, which happened at Blue Frog in August 2008, I was one of the performers. It was a competition and I got only two minutes onstage. I happened to win it. I had no confidence. I thought this is the first and the last time that I am going onstage, because I believed I was very bad onstage. Still somehow I won that day and that gave me more confidence and opportunities to do other open mics. That’s how it started.
Writing a joke versus writing a lyric versus writing a dialogue: how do you change and adapt the meter?
I think I’m very restless so it helps me if I switch between these things. I get bored very easily if I write only screenplays. One day if I’m writing a screenplay for three hours, then I [switch to] write a joke. So, I go to Twitter. Twitter is kind of my mental exercise. I read stuff, I think about some observation. Sometimes I take two hours to write one tweet and construct it and reconstruct it.
Why haven’t you tired of Twitter? (Grover has close to two lakh followers, and presumably, an equal number of haters.)
I’m now getting tired, that’s why the frequency is quite low. But, now I’m stuck because it’s an addiction. The day the signs start showing on my skin, my internal scars, I’ll try to detox. But, it’s difficult to leave also because if you leave, these things are not going to change. The world is going to burn anyway. The world is burning on Twitter. Do you close your eyes or do you still watch it? You can’t save it, that I know.
But, you receive so much online abuse. How can a writer work like that?
There are days when a tweet flares up. Like some tweet goes viral, and there are thousands of people taking offence, screenshotting, and saying, ‘Ye dekho, isko jaake maaro.’ The way those armies work. On those days, I do two things: One, I completely switch off of Twitter for two days because I can’t take it. That just fucks up the entire psyche. Second, when I come back also, I don’t look at my mentions. I have to do this because it happens once every six months. I have even quit Twitter twice because of this reason. Sometimes it gets too much to handle, and you know very clearly you’re hurting yourself right now by looking at it. The next time I may not come back, if I can sustain without it. But, there’s a strange logic in your head that gets you back, which is your ego saying, ‘Just because ten people are abusing you, why should you quit? They are the wrong people and they should leave.’ It’s a stupid logic. I know it doesn’t make any sense. But, you tell this to yourself to get back. This has all the symptoms of addiction, I’m aware.
“The world is burning on Twitter. Do you close your eyes or do you still watch it? You can’t save it, that I know”
Do you think stand-up comics in India are aware enough to talk about politics?
There are some. I won’t say everybody is. But, then even if they’re unaware of politics, they have their politics in a way. There are people who are feminists but they won’t know it. It’s inherent in them. There are people who are sexist, but they won’t know it. That will come out in their act, without even trying. If there’s a male comic talking about his ex-girlfriend, you’ll know if he’s a feminist or a sexist, even if the act has nothing about the words specifically. That is one layer of politics, which I feel, lots and lots of comics are becoming aware of. Comedy is inherently a progressive art form. It is supposed to take on people who are more powerful than you, take on systems that are more powerful than you. Mainly because that’s always funny. Whoever is in power, if you crack a joke on that person, you get a response. I may be right now a [PM Narendra] Modi fan — and there are many comics who are Modi fans, but they’re also cracking jokes on Modi now because it just makes business sense. That’s how comedy works. For them, a Modi joke, if it gets laughs, they will start cracking them. [This is] the business of comedy, the psychology of comedy. Why do people laugh? Because they find some expression which they can’t say in public and they find somebody saying it onstage. That reaction of shock, that reaction of ‘wow,’ becomes a laugh or applause. They (stand-up comics) know taking on the establishment is a good idea.