The Arabian Nights RJ

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The evergreen Annu Kapoor’s brilliance lies in his ability to turn trivia into literature.

By Inderjit Badhwar


Kamal Shabnam Kapoor, mother of impresario, showman, character actor Annu Kapoor, was a poet, teacher, scholar of Urdu, Arabic and Pharsi (Persian). And how it shows in her ever-greening, multifaceted, nearing-60s son, who, in my view is one of the reasons that Indian FM radio is alive and kicking. Annu’s two-hour show, Suhana Safar on Big FM, starting at 10 am is what makes Delhi’s nightmarish rush-hour a dream walk. You tune into 92.7, close your eyes and, like Alice, you’ve just walked through the looking glass into the Bollywood wonderland peopled by K Asif, Raj Kapoor, Khayyam, Guru Dutt, Nargis, RD “Panchamda” Burman, Ashok “Dadamuni” Kumar….

The melodies and the stories behind the melodies and their creators are woven dreamlike into quilts of many colors by the strands of Annu’s voice and language liberally laced with naturally flowing Urdu, Arabic, pharsi and, believe it or not, Shakespeare.

Annu is ultimately the gold-hearted RJ, wearing his emotions on his sleeve, unafraid to weep when he is moved or burst with Falstaffian laughter as he recalls some one-of-a-kind only-in-Bollywood anecdotes. But he’s more than just an RJ. His show is more than a mixture of Bollywood lore and nostalgic film scores. In one sense, it’s that all right, that’s the formula. But what raises the whole thing sky high is Annu’s special magic, his versatility, and his mastery over inflection, and ability to mix the riotous with the maudlin seamlessly and, often, poetically.

Ameen Sayani’s Binaca Hit Parade voice of the 1950s undoubtedly was what raised the spirit of that whole programme broadcast from Ceylon, when commercial broadcasting was banned in India. His enthusiasm, which brought Sayani into your living room, was exhilarating. Melville de Mello’s boom-boom barrages of flawless This-is-All-India-Radio-commentary still reverberates in your ears. As he was to write: “I was flung by fate and circumstance into a ringside seat from where I was destined to see the last heartbreaking days, hours and minutes of Bapu’s last journey.”

It is from a similar ringside seat that Annu narrates the real life stories of the artists and actors who populated Bolly-wood, the intermitted songs illustrating not only the narrative but also taken from the relevant situation or film. Annu’s nostalgic narrative style is short-storyish, Chekhovian. No small wonder, considering he trained at the National School of Drama and acted in Three Sisters, written by Anton Chekhov, and directed by Ebrahim Alkazi; The Great God Brown by Eugene O’Neill; The Zoo Story by Edward Albee; and Ek Ruka Hua Faisla by Basu Chatterjee.

If Annu’s name and face are familiar to you, it is because you saw him in the runaway musical game show hit Antakshari in the 1990s or in his hilarious role as the loveable sperm bank businessman, Dr Baldev Chaddha in Vicky Donor, for which he won a Filmfare award.

But to me Annu’s the guy who lights up my mornings or gets me thinking about life and its vicissitudes with stories about Johnny Walker’s death-bed words; why Meena Kumari descended into alcoholism and liver failure after a stormy marriage to Kamal Amrohi, and Pakeezah was almost never completed; Vyjayanthimala’s tempestuous affairs; how Gulzar and RD Burman collaborated on impossible songs; why Mehmood became PL Santoshi’s chauffeur; how Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt turned to serious films; Kishore-da’s mischievous lust-life…

What raises Annu’s narration way above what you find in film mags and Bollywood gupshup is that he is ever the raconteur, an analyst, non-judgmental, fully understanding of human whims and capriciousness and the urge to mate and to love. He is never the peeping tom but rather the voice of the people about whom he is talking.

(Inderjit Badhwar is an award-winning novelist, columnist, and former TV anchor/producer. He is Editor-in-Chief of India Legal.  You can follow him on Twitter @indybad. For your feedback, write to us at editor@viewsonnewsonline.com )