You can rip off The Tonight Show, but you can’t rip off Conan

Because it’s Conan who makes Conan great. It’s why he lends his name to the show.

Conan O’Brien is a master of improv comedy. He weighs in with the funniest possible response to every situation he finds himself in. His wit is acerbic and self-deprecating, which means it doesn’t come at the expense of the people around him. Being your joke’s biggest victim is a great asset in an increasingly sensitive world.

Apart from being a marvellous interviewer, Conan enjoys great respect and admiration from his contemporaries. It does wonders to the quality of conversation on the show.

On the flipside, Jimmy Fallon is the anti-thesis of Conan. He isn’t witty. Neither is he insightful. His greatest contribution to the show is his uproarious laughter which, despite being fake, makes his guests feel comfortable.

Jimmy’s instinctive response to something is to laugh. But it robs him of the ability to counter-question his guests, effectively breaking the volley of conversation. However, he makes up for it by moving to the next cue on his script.

Fun and games are really what keeps The Tonight Show going. The show-runners do a commendable job of identifying activities that get the best out of their guests, accomplishing through format what they don’t through the host.

The format here is the duplicable entity. It took all of one season for Abish Mathew to adapt the show to an Indian setting. He ran with it because it’s a format that’s paper-cut for him. Abish is an all-around good guy but, like Fallon, is more performer and less improv genius.

Someday, I’d like to watch a Conan-esque guy host a late night show in India. In a country with personality cults and inflated egos, we really need some deprecating humour. Now I dunno how long that’ll take. What I do know is that we’ll all know when that day comes. Because the name of the show will be the name of the host.

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Maithili

When you’re a kid, your personality is malleable. It shapes itself in response to all the stuff you see around you. It draws its and bits from the people you love and hate until you get to a point where you’re your own version of a person. My grandma knew this very well. She spent a great part of her last few years tending to me, and in the process, influenced my personality.

And to say she knew a fair bit about becoming a person is an understatement. Grammy was a self-starter. Despite being married off at 16, she taught herself the arts after having five children. She eventually became a teacher in Hubli, teaching hundreds of students Kannada and the social sciences. When it was time for her to go, she had brought up five children, nine grandchildren and tended to a clueless (albeit erudite) husband.

All through her living years, I’d admired Grandpa more. He is a voracious reader and was a very influential newsman in his time. He was all I wanted to be. But after Granny’s passing, I see how hapless he is. He may have given off the aura of having his shit together, but that was because my grandma was out back, sweaty-faced and holding fort.

It has been six years since she was relieved of this mess. I am yet to meet a woman like her. I really hope to see just her one more time to tell her that I’ve made a mistake. She is all I ever want to be.

‘Unwanker’ Pitch by Hipster Fruit Communications

Dear Mr Sridhar,

Greetings from Hipster Fruit Communications, we are a cutting-edge PR firm providing rudimentary communication services in the pretext of differentiation and good vocabulary.

As we understand, you are facing what you believe is a public relations crisis, but is actually a fundamental personality deficiency. You think people think you are a wanker. While in reality you really are a wanker, no doubt about it.

Well, you’ve come to just the right people. We at Hipster Fruit Communications are wankers too, but we mask it with thick beards and Koovs shirts. The highly-acclaimed Urban Poor Socio-economic Classification was actually a long-reads feature on our company culture.

We digressed. Apologies for the digression. We don’t digress often but when we do it is to hint at how well read we are. BuzzFeed is, after all, truly the brain food of our generation.

Let’s get back. You were saying you were a wanker, right? We’re glad that’s established. Here’s what we can do about it.

We’ll call our campaign ‘Unwanker’, and you must know that we spent several brainstorm sessions finalising this name. Other highly effective campaign names that we rejected were, ‘Don’t Wank, Abhi’, ‘Wankim Chandra Chatterjee’ and ‘Pls add two more names before you send out the email’.

First up – we recommend you start saying the word ‘surreal’ more often. A research (Google inc, circa 2017) says that people who ascribe cosmic significance to every mundane detail of life are considered to be deeply sensitive individuals. Please find enclosed a sample scenario where you can use the word:

‘Dude, my chai has malai.’
‘Chai mei malai? That’s so surreal, bro.’

Next, we suggest you ditch your usual tee, denims & flip-flops for a pinstripe suit. Our gut feeling is that the Corporate Slave image is a huge leap forward from your wanker image. In fact, we wanted to suggest something more outlandish, but an intern accidentally sent that draft to another client, Mr R Singh, who has totally run with it.

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Our client, R Singh, after we accidentally emailed him the draft meant for you.

Then there are books. We cannot recommend books enough. Of course, we don’t mean you actually read them. You just need to routinely post photos of open books to all ephemeral social networking platforms like Snapchat and its knock-offs (Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and Messenger).

Finally, physical endurance is critical to destroy the wanker image. Nike Running Club is a surefire way of going about it. Download the app, go for a run and don’t forget to post a selfie with the caption, ‘#NoPainNoGain’.

We’d like to state upfront that the above ideas constitute only the initial phase of our campaign. We will be consistently monitoring your progress to suggest new ways of Unwanking in due course. This is subject to you hiring us on a retainer, of course.

Please note that we don’t recommend any lofty ideas such as patience, persistence or hard work as these techniques are time-consuming and incremental in nature. Our commitment to building shallow personas is much acclaimed in today’s instant gratification universe. We’ve always stuck to our motto of ‘Why fix something that’s already broken?’

If you like our pitch, we should definitely meet soon, preferably at a hip place like Social Offline, because who knows when it’ll stop being hip, right?

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Make hay while the sun shines AF, Mr Sridhar.

Kabir Ameerwala
Designation Ninja
Hip Fru Co

Impromptu Acceptance Speech

I’m reproducing a diary entry from 24th July 2016 which I read tonight and felt like sharing. 

I just watched Capote, which is based on Truman Capote’s experience of writing In Cold Blood, his ‘non-fiction novel’. In this film, Perry Smith, one of the imprisoned killers, writes an acceptance speech and says he’d use it someday if he were to ever win anything. I find the film to be so-so, but Perry inspired me to write an impromptu award acceptance speech for myself too, just in case life does me a big one and I end up winning.

It’s incredible how all of you are applauding this success of mine. You’re all here, making this moment real and wonderful, and you’ll will always be part of this moment that I’m seeing – which will soon become a glowing memory that I’ll revisit often.

But I have to say that you all weren’t with me all the time. I mean, I don’t think I saw an applauding audience when I chose writing instead of making shit-ton of money spewing jargon in a marketing job. I didn’t see someone calling out my name to give me an award when I sat down and wondered if I’ll ever make it as a writer in this lifetime, or if I’d just fade away as one of those people who tried but didn’t try hard enough.

I guess that’s how life works. You work so hard and there are these people who make all the sacrifices to make sure you do what you want to do, but then you get recognition in front of a bunch of people who’re mostly strangers who don’t give a fuck that you made it, and won’t give a fuck if you manage to stick around or just fade away. This makes me think tonight is just an ephemeral circlejerk. 

So instead I’d like to thank the reason I live and breathe today – my mother and my father for going through all the ordeals of the world with me. I’d like to thank them first and last, because they made it all happen right from the word go. My mother especially – her patience, her inquisitiveness, her polite motivation, it all kept me going from time to time, it all helped me grow from strength to strength, and I guess, it’s all her, and if I had it my way, she should have been the one standing here and accepting this award.

We’re living in a world that’s a million years old or something. I think it’s time we recognised motherhood as the only effort really worth awarding. It’s so hard to win Award for Best Mom, and yet every other mom you meet is like a two-time winner. So if I’ve not made it clear already – This is for every mother in the world. Thank you, Moms. You power our lives.

Neil Gaiman On The Benefits Of Setting Aside Writing Time

Hey, I’m back to write something super-quick, and I’m sure you’ll find this useful if you wish to pursue writing seriously. It’s something I read on author Neil Gaiman’s journal. This is him helping a Tumblr user get back to writing.

Set aside time to write that’s only writing time. Put away your phone. Turn off or disable your wifi. Write in longhand if you wish. Put up a do not disturb sign. And make your writing time sacred and inviolable.

And in that time, this is the deal. You can write, or you can not do anything. Not doing anything is allowed. (What not doing anything includes: staring at walls, staring out of windows, thinking broodily, staring at your hands. What not doing anything does not include: alphabetising the spice rack, checking Tumblr, taking your pen apart, playing solitaire or running a clean up program on your computer.)

You get to pick how long a day your writing time is. An hour? Two? Three? Your call.

Doing nothing gets pretty dull. So you might as well write. (And if you write 300 words, one page, every day, you’ll have a 90,000 word novel in a year.)

Inspired by Gaiman’s advice, I’ve instituted Nothing Hour in my daily life. The idea is to set aside an hour for myself. Hands free. Minds free. Mostly I spend my time pacing. Or walking to a nearby park. Or just sitting on my sofa, absently stroking my dog. I’m happy to say that the idea has been a mild success.

Initially you feel daunted by the prospect of a low-key hour to yourself, but you realise that your mind is not as boring as you make him out to be. When he starts talking, he shows no signs of stopping. But you don’t know that, because you’ve made him numb by throwing him inside the deep end of the Internet.

One more thing. I’ve been using Flowstate, a writing tool to write without obstructions, and it has helped me immensely. If you’re too lazy to click on the link, here’s the concept – if you take your hands off the keyboard for a span of 5 seconds, Flowstate erases everything you’ve written so far. Yep. It’s a brutal motherfucker.

So you’re forced to vomit on screen. It doesn’t matter if it’s puke or pearls. You need to keep you fingers moving. I’ve had mixed success with this. Most of my Flowstate notes are pure bilge. Stuff I’m ashamed to say I’ve written them. Stuff that will never be seen by anyone. Not even me. But I’m happy to report that occasionally I’m surprised by the results. It just goes to show – we may not be as wretched as we think we are.

A slew of mini-habits have cropped up as offshoots to Nothing Hour & Flowstate. One of them is writing a daily journal full of thoughts that I think about during Nothing Hour. Another is revisiting and editing Flowstate notes long after I’ve written them. I’d like to call these mini-habits my determined effort to bring down idea foeticide rates in my head.

Before I wrap, I want you to check out – according to me – the finest book there is on Dramatic Writing. It’ll teach you so much about premise, character and conflict that you’ll start looking at stories in a new light. Don’t believe me? Here’s the Goodreads review.

A Red Blot On A White Kurta

No matter how white it is, if there’s a red blot on it, that’s the first thing people will notice. Or won’t they?

Prime Ministers both, the late Rajeev Gandhi and Narendra Modi have more in common than what meets the eye. For one, both of them were heads of state when organised massacres ravaged the lives of thousands of people belonging to particular ethnic groups.

Rajiv was sworn in as Prime Minister amidst the Anti-Sikh Riots of 1984, incited by Congress leaders as a reaction to the assassination of Indira Gandhi at the hands of her two Sikh bodyguards. Instead of enforcing curfew immediately, Rajiv dilly-dallied. He waited a day longer before allowing the army to act, by which time over three thousand innocent people were murdered. Although reeling from his mother’s death, he acted in the most irresponsible manner, and made the statement that haunts his party to this day –

“When a big tree falls, the Earth shakes”

And then there is Supreme Leader, present Prime Minister and macro-economics whizkid Shri Narendra Modi ji. Following the burning of a train with 58 Hindu Karsevaks in Godhra, Modi ji, then CM of the state, is alleged to have told his officials to not interfere with the angry Hindus on the streets. These rioters ended up murdering two thousand Muslims in Gujarat state. There were also several incidents of rape, immolation and torture. Although he was cleared of all charges, an exposé book by journalist Rana Ayyub contains accounts by officials who were involved providing incriminating evidence against Modi.

Thus, two men who had within their power to save the lives of thousands of people, for reasons best known to them, did not do so.

The historian Ramachandra Guha, in his book India After Gandhi lists this as a similarity between the two incidents.

Both proceeded to take a generalized revenge on the minorities as a whole. The Sikhs who were butchered were in no way connected to the Sikhs who killed Mrs Gandhi. The Muslims who were killed by Hindu mobs were completely innocent of the Godhra crime (which may anyway have been an accident).

The PM of the country (’84) and the CM of Gujarat (’02) issued graceless statements that incited the mob and eventually became justification for the killings. In both cases, the government aided and shielded the rioters.

But perhaps the fact that refuses to leave my mind is this – after this unforgivable bout of state-sponsored terrorism, both leaders reaped rich rewards. Gandhi went on to win the ’84 General Elections with an overwhelming majority. Modi won the 2002 Assembly Elections with a two-thirds majority.

I’ve usually heard a statement that goes something like, ‘You cannot put a price on human life.’ This is 100 per cent false. A stray incident cannot spark communal violence. It has to be first orchestrated using illicit muscle. And illicit muscle must be enraged by a hateful speech. So let’s change that line to suit this occasion. Sometimes, the price of human life is only an insensitive statement.

PS. In the times of Buzzfeed, I thought it bodes well to create a quiz as an aside. So go ahead and take the Rajiv – Modi Insensitivity Quiz here.

For Screenwriters

I recently bookmarked two articles that helped me understand the creative processes screenwriters employ.

The first article spoke about the necessity for an unforgiving work ethic to succeed as a screenwriter. The writer admonishes us for our over-indulgence in screenwriting tools – such as stationary, screenwriting software and other such paraphernalia. Instead, he asks us to focus on the only thing we need to indulge in to become better writers – to write. This reminds me of what Sudeep Sharma, writer of NH10 and Udta Punjab said in this chat with First Draft.

I’m a very structured sort of person, when it comes to writing or when it comes to doing anything for that matter. It’s a lot less talent, and more of hard work. I’ve never considered myself a particularly talented writer, it was more like 100% hard work… One reason I’ve also been able to survive here (in the industry) is because I work hard. I’m not as talented as a lot of people around me, I can’t write naturally if you will, it takes me a lot of time to think about every sentence I put down. It’s a very studied process. It took me a while, at least 3-4 years to even grasp it.

When I got in the industry, it took me far longer to approach directors or walk up to people and say I’m a writer. What happened as a result, is I studied a lot. I would read at least one screenplay and watch one film every day, over 5 years, almost like a ritual. You end up finding clever ways to make it happen, it was the only way to grasp and understand the structure. I religiously pursued it for that long because it was the only way to learn. I also read books by Robert Mckee and William Goldman to expand my horizons.

The second article dealt more with the process of creation. How do screenwriters go about writing stuff? The writer spoke with three screenwriters to share their processes.

The first screenwriter talked about finding fodder for her writing by going out on the streets of Los Angeles. She believed that because the city is such a thriving ecosystem of people on the road, she could observe them and interact with them (“They want to talk” she says in the video) to takeaway whatever creative fodder she could use now or in the distant future.

She also spoke about spending a lot of time walking and documenting anything that moves her. She works out of a little library where there’s a gentle hum of silent people around her. She said that it’s the best atmosphere for her to get some writing done.

People watching is a big part of her process, and she likes clicking photos of stuff that interests her. She then marks these photos and sends an email to herself titled ‘XO’ like a little cheesy email to herself saying ‘Hugs and kisses’. She later uses this material whenever she’s writing, pulling out whatever little trinket of inspiration that she can use for her assignment.

My favourite part of video featuring her was about a little single-screen theatre she watches movies at. She believes that watching people on-screen is also watching people. Because it’s observing people doing things.

This other dude who spoke about his process was the writer of Life of Pi.

This Life of Pi dude said a couple of nice, informative things. The first thing he said was about how we aspirants get really disappointed when we meet our heroes. We see how much they’ve accomplished and feel that the gap between them and us is so huge that there’s no point trying. If, instead of this outlook, we were to look at improving ourselves bit by bit every single day, dutifully giving to our craft what it deserves, we’d become very successful screenwriters. This makes a helluva lot of sense.

The other thing he said was a more personal and tangible thing. He speaks about process where he plots out characters, relationships and story arcs using little post-it cards which he sticks on his office wall. He then keeps going back to it to check if he’s getting the flow right. While showing off this stuff, he highlighted how it’s important for a writer to be able to write one scene using multiple POVs. This, he said, is important because you, as a writer, end up understanding more about your character when you whip up multiple viewpoints for the same outcome. This, in turn, helps you explain it better to your director, actors, etc.

This note helps me immensely whenever I’m struggling with a process and want a refresher course on how to get started. I hope you find this useful too.