Varun Grover on adapting Sacred Games, and why pro-establishment comedy is against Indian culture

Devansh Sharma

Sep 05, 2019 09:21:20 IST

Meeting Varun Grover is like encountering a sea of calm, devoid of commotion. But soon enough, the seeming tranquility begins to give way to a storm brewing within, perhaps in the deepest recesses of his being. Varun claims that he often resorts to humour, comedy, music, and other creative channels to escape reality. However, he considers it his social responsibility to express his dissent either through social media, or his artistic endeavours, or often both.

Last week, he lauded Karan Johar's Dharma Productions for crediting the writers in the first look poster of Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl. Last year, he also appreciated Johar for crediting screenplay writer Sumit Roy and dialogue writer Hussain Haidry, while announcing his next directorial venture, Takht. Varun has often lamented the fact that writers in India receive far less recognition than their counterparts in the West. For example, Ram is the focal point in the Ramayana, as opposed to its writer, Valmiki. On the other hand, William Shakespeare is the centre of attraction in his own plays, and not his protagonists.

 Varun Grover on adapting Sacred Games, and why pro-establishment comedy is against Indian culture

His recent show, Netflix India's maiden original, Sacred Gamesupends the star-driven hierarchy of Indian entertainment. The show's writing smartly projects the character of the larger-than-life gangster, Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), as a seemingly infallible figure, who eventually admits to being used as a mere cog in the wheel of an impending doomsday scenario, designed and steered by Pankaj Tripathi's Guruji. The reactions to season one quickly catapulted Gaitonde to the status of a pop-culture icon, much to Varun's relief. But this writer feels that he used the gangster as only a bait, in order to lure the audience into the twisted world of Sacred Games.

"The gangster-philosopher theme was one of our biggest achievements in season one. It was a voice coming from beyond the grave, and hence, was an interesting screen device to tell the story," Varun says. "But once it became integral to the show, it helped us understand Gaitonde and his relations with the world at large, and Bombay. Vulnerability was something we were looking for not only in Gaitonde but in all other characters. We have to see them in their barest human forms. What connection people felt to Katekar in season one, of course to not that degree, but they are feeling for Gaitonde in season two. They felt bad for him when he got betrayed, even though we've shown him as a gangster. That was an achievement for everyone, from how Nawazuddin played it to how he's directed in the show (by Anurag Kashyap) to the writing in the show."

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The vulnerability and existential angst of both Gaitonde and the story's parallel protagonist, Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan), was one of the primary themes in the source material that attracted Varun to Vikram Chandra's 2006 book by the same name. "The world of Sacred Games is very unfamiliar: of guns, women, drugs, travels across the world, and shootouts. I haven't seen much of these in real life. But despite all these, the gangster reaches a point where he seeks spirituality and the quest to find meaning of this world. So my ambition was to make the audience reach a point where they forget Gaitonde is a criminal and Sartaj is a cop, and relate to both at a very human level. So that they think these are humans who have been betrayed, and have had daddy issues like everyone. So the existential crisis is what strongly drew me to this material," the writer says.

However, Sacred Games was not the first time he designed a parallel-narrative plot. Four years ago, Neeraj Ghaywan's Masaan — a film Varun Grover had written — also dealt with two tracks, involving Richa Chadha and Vicky Kaushal's characters in Varanasi and Allahabad respectively. The two stories came together poetically at Triveni Sangam, or the confluence of the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. But Varun does not feel he has to be extra-cautious in order to tie two stories or worlds together, as it comes to him organically at the writing stage. "I think the nuances of the parallel-structure format are really incorporated into the narrative on the edit table. If we hadn't had an editor like Nitin Baid in Masaan or Aarti Bajaj in Sacred Games, we would've really struggled to find a design," he says.

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Besides the existential crisis faced by the protagonists of the show, the element of a globally relevant overarching theme made Varun root for Sacred Games even more. "The world around us is actually getting destroyed. Iceland has just given goodbye to a glacier that had existed for millions of years. So many creatures and species are disappearing. The core emotion of our world is doom right now. Because it's right there in the consciousness of the world, that's why they are able to relate to it more. So when we had to explain why a criminal is doing what he did, we took that approach. Even if he's planting a bomb, which is a very impractical, stupid and outrageous thing to do, we had to find something that resonates with people. You hate the villain but you realise what he's saying is true. That the world cannot be improved now, it has to be restarted. That's something the entire team of writers felt that the sense of doom is around us."

But writing fiction only to take an anti-establishment stand is not what Grover completely warms up to. The abandon with which he speaks against the incumbent regime only goes to show that he does not let such fears get to him. "Ideally, there is nothing I can't say in stand-up comedy. I try to not get afraid as long as I can speak. Fiction is a different form. Of course, I choose to tell a story that resonates with me personally, whether it is Sacred Games or Masaan. So my full devotion is to the story. What comes organically to the story, I do say those. I'm a person with a strong worldview, but I don't force-fit my politics on the show. I try my best not to let any prejudice enter the writing in fiction," says Varun.

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While explaining something, he often moves his right hand in a way to show that he's emphasising on a point. The same hand flaunts a glittering blue nail paint that goes well with his blue shirt. The decision to paint his nails is perhaps a demonstration of his gender fluidity. He has been an active endorser of gender parity in the industry, flagging the absence of adequate female representatives at every roundtable interview he's invited to. Being a man in a misogynistic world, he makes sure his privilege is acknowledged every step of the way.

However, gender discrimination and writers not receiving their due form only a fraction of the multiple issues he has against the prevailing system. The heavy right-leaning philosophy of the central government, along with a weak opposition, are some of his other concerns. But on the brighter side, he also feels that they lend themselves to good writing in comedy, as demonstrated by his group, Aisi Taisi Democracy, also comprising fellow 'anti-establishment' comedian Sanjay Rajoura, and Indian Ocean member Rahul Ram.

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"The world today has become quite bizarre. But more than that, it has become much more accessible. People are consuming news on phone now. And it has become a source of entertainment for them, whether on TV or on phone. So when I crack a joke on politics, they get the context. Comedy essentially works when the audience has the same level of awareness as the comedian. Also, lives have become much more stressful now. Irrespective of how rich you are, unless you own a chopper in Mumbai, you're stuck in the same traffic jam whether in a luxury car or an auto-rickshaw. So people come to my gigs primarily to have a good time. Even if there's a [Narendra] Modi supporter, they'd still laugh at my joke on the prime minister because even they know one joke would neither harm Modi nor them."

However, unlike comedian Kunal Kamra, Varun does not place the onus of feeding the anti-establishment narrative — that seems to be on its way out in the industry — strictly on other comedians. Right before the launch of Amazon Prime Video India's Original Comicstaan season 2, Kamra had claimed that he had blocked all the comedians who served as mentors on the show. This was his response to when said comedians ignored his posts of "Don't vote for Modi" before the Lok Sabha Elections earlier this year.

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"Of course, everyone has the choice to decide how they want their comedy to be. But if you have a voice, or a mic, you only have three options. The first one is anti-establishment comedy, which I know isn't the easiest in this atmosphere. The second one is neutral comedy, which is great as long as you take on a big celebrity. For example, if you crack a joke on Amitabh Bachchan, then that is great, because he is the 'God of Juhu' or something. But if you're a pro-establishment comedian, then that's as much a conscious choice you make when you become an anti-establishment comedian," he says, before adding that if the latter is your choice, "then you're wasting the time, effort, and thoughts of comedians around the world in the last 70 to 80 years, or even longer."

"The history of dissent is much longer. There used to be a position called the vidushak in the king's court, who used to crack jokes on where the king is f*cking up. Tenali Raman was a vidushak and so was Birbal. The king used to pay him in order to know where he's going wrong. So if you become a courtier instead of a court-jester, then that is a failure," says Varun.

Besides comedy and fiction, Varun is also known for wording Hindi film songs — from 'Moh moh ke dhaage' in Dum Laga Ke Haisha (for which he won a National Award), to the Sonchiriya album more recently. "I like to write according to the narrative. That's why I don't have a bank. Composers contact me to ask me if I have a bank they can pitch but I don't have one. I prefer to write according to the character, the story, the language the character speaks in, and the world they inhabit. I've never had any training in music. So when I see my name in the same credits as people who have spent 20 years of their lives to learn the skill, it's a cheap thrill for me. I do have a sense of meter and rhythm, which is the core of every lyricist," he says.

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However, the writer clarifies that for him, transitioning from one form into another is rather smooth, and rarely involves getting attuned to a particular writing structure or mood. "For me, it's like going from chaat to Chinese in a buffet," he says, pointing to the lavish spread in front of us at The Lotus Cafe in Mumbai's JW Marriott. "The rhythm of every form is different. But at the end of the day, it's just writing. Since I love cooking, I plan it according to the meals of the day. You need to know the ingredients. For example, you can not, or rather you should not, put jeera in pasta. But you also need to be aware of the expression you'll bring to the table," he signs off with a smirk.

All photographs courtesy of Charvi Shrimali.

Updated Date: Sep 07, 2019 10:07:10 IST