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Sunday, 27 August 2017

# 50 - Confessions of a serial prank caller - The Beginning

It all started when I was an attractive 11 year-old-boy.

Alone in the house and bored out of my wits, I picked up the good old trusty landline and dialled a random number. 

Not very random actually, it was our own number but for the last digit.

Now, until then, I was unaware of the concept of prank calls, I had nothing planned, and barely realised what I was about to do.  

All that was about to change.

But not that day.

As soon as the person at the other end received the call, I panicked and put the phone down, cursing myself for the pointless activity. I vowed never to do this again.

Our destiny is frequently met in the very paths we take to avoid it
- Jean de La Fontaine (1679)

Kismat choti si bachchi hai ... usse hide & seek khelna pasand hai
- Emran Hashmi in ‘Raja Natwarlal’ (2014)

I hadn’t uttered a word in my first ‘prank call’. But it was tough to get over the adrenaline spike, the mild kick associated with speaking to someone I had never met face to face.

Ah, the simple joys from the pre-internet era.

Forgetting my promise to myself, I searched for opportunities to make ‘one more call’. This time, I wanted to have a speaking role. 

A couple of weeks later, the chance presented itself. 

"Helloooo" said the lady at the other end. 

“Hello Madam, I am calling from Doordarshan”.

To this day, I don’t know why I said what I did.

The lady had not been expecting this call, and perhaps because the 90s were a spam free period or people back then were generally more gullible, she believed that the mighty Doordarshan had indeed called her.  With an equal measure of pride and nervousness, she asked what she could do for me.

“We are taking a survey. What is your favourite TV program?” the words simply flowed. Neither original nor funny....but convincing as hell. Why else would the television people call up at 3pm?

She mumbled some popular TV serial's name and after a curt ‘Thank you’, I hung up, my heart pounding against my chest.

It had begun.

For the next few months, I carried on this act – no punchlines, no wisecracks, no revelations or conclusion as such. But it became a hobby, a habit, an addiction.

Sometimes I tweaked my act, asking the receiver their favourite movie, which, I told them, could be screened next Sunday at 4 ‘o’ clock on DD1 if enough people voted for it.

Sometimes I became the radio station guy.

I imagined excited housewives telling their bored husbands about the calls. I still believe that at least sometimes I made their day.

But I was still learning the tricks of the trade.

One fine day I was told that this was the third time that week that this particular household had received a call from Doordarshan. Of course, there was nothing wrong with Doordarshan calling up the same home thrice in one week, Doordarshan had (and I assume it still has) a lot of love to give, and the person I was speaking to merely stated the fact, and didn’t seem to doubt my credentials. 

It was nothing, but I felt ashamed, it was a rookie mistake.

A brief sabbatical followed, and I stayed clean for a month.

Soon I was at it again, In my second innings as a prankster, I became the guy who had dialled a wrong number by mistake, but was convinced that he had gotten the number right.

“What do you mean this is not Naresh’s number. I spoke to him ten minutes back. Hand him the phone immediately!”

“Why won’t you let me talk to Abhishek? Has he forgotten that he owes me 12 bucks?”

But like all creative geniuses, I eventually got bored and stopped with the calls altogether.

Well, it was more because my parents sent me to boarding school.

Kismat Badi Kutti Cheez Hai
– Shahrukh Khan in ‘Happy new Year’ (2014)

The years rolled on, cable television became mainstream, Y2K bug threatened and fizzled out, Amitabh Bachchan started acting his age, the Khans stopped acting theirs......and I grew up, well almost.

While my boarding school wasn’t SRK’s school from ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’, it was definitely no ‘Gurukul’ (pre-Raj Aryan era) either. It was probably then that I came to be aware of ‘prank calls’ as a concept.

And when I was in 11th standard, the hostel got its own landline. It was kept at the hostel reception and was meant only for receiving calls. Strictly from 6pm to 9pm, they said.

The phone was locked in a wooden box so that only the handle could be picked up and the buttons were unreachable.

We were informed that it was incapable of making outgoing calls in any case.

Again, that’s what "they said".

It was a lie we could spot half-a-mile away, and surely in a couple of days, we saw our seniors take the phone out of the box to make local calls to their girlfriends post midnight. 

A security guard had apparently been bribed and he had handed over a duplicate key to the box. 

I and a few of my other girlfriend-less friends awaited our turn to use the phone, we didn’t have anyone to call of course, but we possessed the mentality that unites us Indians.

If it’s free, take it, use it, own it.

A friend suggested the idea of making prank calls from the phone and proceeded with what was the most pathetic prank call in the history of telephony.

I took over and told the others to watch and learn.

Again, without any preparation, I picked up the phone, punched a series of random numbers, and proceeded to utter the words that made little sense then, but would go on to be a popular prank call theme. I am told that even now, 15 years later, boys from the hostel still talk about the legendary prank call.

As someone picked up the call, I said, with a quivering voice, “Bhaisaab, mujhe bachaiye, mere kamre mein ek bhoot hai.”  Save me. There’s a ghost in my room.

To be continued....

[Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. While certain institutions may have been mentioned, the characters and incidents are wholly imaginary.]

Image from here. 

Thursday, 17 August 2017

# 49 - Book Review - The Mahabharata Murders

The premise of a serial killer who believes himself to be a modern day Duryodhana is engaging enough, but an interesting premise alone is rarely good enough for a reader to stick through a 300-page novel. 

So. does Arnab Ray pull it off?

Yes, he does. Superbly. 

The antagonist fancies himself as Duryodhana’s reincarnation, and if you have read the Mahabharata you may have, at some point, wondered if Duryodhana deserved the treatment he received. Of course, he was greedy, vain, arrogant, and possibly, a megalomaniac – in other words, a true blue millennial.
And what does Duryodhana’s reincarnation do in the 21st century? He seeks out those who wronged him in his previous birth of course. Rather, seeks out their respective reincarnations.

The protagonist, Rukhsana Ahmed, a homicide detective in the Kolkata Police has to apprehend the killer before he can get to his final target.

In Mahabharata Murders, Arnab Ray ticks all the right boxes, weaving a tale that is dark, sharp, and as cliched as it may sound - unputdownable.
From the first page you are warped into the first of many crime scenes and as you begin to progress through the book you realise that this not quite the Kolkata of Bhodroloks.

A lot of the characters are people we suspect may lurk in the fringes of society and you are more than glad to have been deprived of the pleasure of their company.  But in the novel, they come alive with all of their menace and quirks, and appear believable, and dare I say it, occasionally likable.
A protagonist that you end up rooting for, minor characters who leave a mark, and just the right amount of shock factor makes this book probably the best crime fiction I have read in years.
And there's, of course, the dialoguebaazi. A cross between lines from Salim-Javed and Quentin Tarantino films, the dialogues and conversations are impactful, even when discussions revolve around mundane topics.

Think the restaurant scene in Reservoir Dogs where the protagonists are discussing tipping, or analysing the meanings of songs.

Strictly, these portions are not designed to move the plot ahead but it is difficult to imagine ‘Pulp Fiction’ without ‘Quarter Pounder with Cheese’. 
A grouch that I have with the book, however, is that it is not strictly a whodunit. But that’s more of a personal preference. The writing and the plot hold on to you and does not let go until you are done.
Oh, and this is Arnab Ray’s finest work yet.

Arnab Ray’s ‘The Mahabharata Murders’ is now available on Amazon and the Juggernaut App in India. Outside the subcontinent, it is available on Kindle.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

# 48 - FICTIONAL interview with Pahlaj Nihalani.

The Sanskaari Chief has left the building. Appointed in 2015, the ex-Censor Board Chief didn’t get to complete his full term, but his tenure has been anything but unremarkable. Whether you loved him (?) or hated him, he made sure that ignoring him wasn’t an option. Born to create news, even his sacking makes for front page stuff.

Below is an excerpt from a fictional interview that he gave to me in my sleep. He was still the CBFC Chairperson back then, and on waking up I was disappointed that it had all been a dream. Nevertheless, I jotted it down. Remember, this was given when he was still the Chairperson, and rumours of his dismissal had been just that, rumours.

We met at his home, or it could have been the sets of a Sooraj Barjatya film.
Chop, chop. 

Kanishka: First thing first. Great job done - 

Pahlaj Nihalani: (interrupts) Thank you. A lot of people are unable to appreciate my efforts to cleanse the country of unethical, un-sanskaari, anti-national elements. But such is the path of the righteous man. I may be criticised, ridiculed, and even removed from my position, but I will continue to do my duty.

Uh, I was actually about to say, great job done on assuming the position of the de facto moral police Head of the country and forcing your opinions down the throats of movie goers. 

Thank you again. As I often tell everyone, it's a thankless job, but someone's got to do it. If nobody stands up, someone has to, no? What will the new generation grow up watching and learning? When we were young, we used to read books - stories, badly written, terrible print quality, couldn't tell if they were photos or drawings...often second hand and dirty. But look at the youth of today...they have videos, on tv, computer, phone. Accessible instantly. Is it fair? You tell me. You only tell me. 

I am not sure what you are talking about.

Never you mind that. The point is, our job is to keep things that are meant to stay inside the bedroom, inside the bedroom and off cinema screens.

You have also censored words from movies, perhaps going overboard.

Let me explain the rationale behind this. Once I do, you will agree how noble and farsighted I am. You see, the kids these days, they don't socialise much. Agreed? 


Now, back in my, or for that matter, your days, where did we learn cuss words from? 

Friends, I suppose. 

Exactly. But these little innocent flowers - the generation that we will pass on the torch of greatness to, they don't have any real friends! They are learning everything from the movies. You see, by blocking out the abuses and dirty words from the movies, we are forcing them to socialise, to go out, to figure out the words. This will in turn build friendships and unity, will galvanise them to stand together in times of need. I love children. They are the fuel for this nation. They need to, they need to-  


No. They need to step up and start mingling. Just not with the opposite gender of course.  

I see. But what about blocking words from movies that are A rated already? I mean, I watched 'Deadpool', and half the dialogues were muted out. I had to second-guess the jokes based on lip-reading.

Hmmm. That is indeed worrying, we will have to blur out the lips from now on then.
No, nooo. What did we adults do to deserve this?

You are adults. Why do you need to hear abuses? Mazaa aata hai gaali sunne mein ? 

Thoda bahut. But what about that 'intercourse' dispute? You asked for 1 lakh votes, and the channel got them. But you went back on your word...

[Moves to the corner of the room and refuses eye contact]

I guess we can't discuss that.

[Comes back]

You beep beep beep beep...I specifically told you not to bring that up.

Calm down sir, did you just say beep beep beep? Literally, beep beep beep beep?

Yes, I was exercising what they call in the west, self-censorship. You see, I practice what I preach.

Speaking of the west, you censored a kissing scene between Daniel Craig and Monica Bellucci from Spectre. Was it necessary, considering that the audience and Bollywood have matured to such kind of content?

Just a kiss!? Let me make it clear, what Monica bhabhi and Mr Daniel did in the movie was unpardonable. Unimaginable. Un-


Listen you handsome devil#, don't try to act smart with me. I have said this before and I will say it again, this is India. What works outside doesn't work here, and what works here doesn't work outside. We are a lot like the ambassador car in that way.

Quite up-to-date I see. Anyway, you have mentioned earlier that you feel the content on television programs and the internet should also be subject to prior checks.

Yes. We are working on a proposal right now. You see - children are like, like, computers. They are impressionable. And the filth they show on the TV and internet are like viruses. And I am......Kaspersky.
[Looks pleased with himself].

Are you by any chance talking about Pehredaar Piya Ki?

No, but that sounds interesting. Who is Piya? Who is the Pehredaar? How do they meet? Tell me all about it.

Maybe later. Your appointment and some of your decisions have not gone down too well with the industry. Does that hurt?

Yes. But it's a meetha dard, it's a sign that I am doing my job well. My friends have always known that I am a man of strong principles; when you deal with PN in professional capacity, you forget that I am your friend.

Who are your friends from the industry? Let me guess, Alok Nath?

Very funny. But yes, he was a friend, but then he appeared in that ad, you know, the, the, anti smoking ad. And they showed Sunny Leone in it. So, I have stopped talking to him.  

You are aware, that films such as ‘La La Land’, ‘xXx : Return of Xander Cage’ and ‘Office Christmas Party’ have had portions removed.

Of course, I am aware, it is my job to be aware. See, if you use bad words, drink alcohol, or refer to things not acceptable in our society, be prepared for cuts and beeping.
I would just like to point out; in XXX you cut a scene where Vin Diesel is drinking Cranberry juice. His character in the film is a teetotaller –

See, there is a scope for confusion. Who knows, if it was actually cranberry juice or alcohol. If I can get confused, everyone can. Understanding?

Yes, in’ La La Land’, you censored the word ‘pitch’, I imagine that you misheard it as bit-

(Interrupts) Don’t say bad words. Again, if I misheard it, so can the others na?

What about ‘Office Christmas Party’?

No need. We celebrate Diwali. Last time we did celebrate Christmas, I became Secret Santa  to everyone in the department. I suspect it was all planned. Yeh sab nahin chalega. I will fire them.

No, no. I meant the movie, ‘Office Christmas Party’.

Oh, that one. Again, they were saying bad words. A word that rhymes with..(thinks) ‘Kill Do’, and another that rhymes with (thinks)(thinks) (thinks) Terminator.

[He proceeds to write in a notepad the words ‘Dildo’ and ‘Vibrator’ and shows me the same. He then tears the page off and sets it on fire].

But Sir, here is the thing.  In the film, the word ‘dildo’ is muted out, only to reappear later in the same conversation, less than 3 seconds later. In the same film, the phrase ‘one second’ was also muted, presumably by accident.*

^%$^ch##  %$^%$^&& . Tu $ ^^%$^%$

Siiiir! What happened to self-censorship?

Self-censorship gaya ***** ki *** *****. GET OUT.

Last question sir, last question. Please. There are rumours that you may be replaced very soon. Your opinion on the same.

Let them talk. Everybody knows the kind of work that I am doing here. The kind of work I have done in the last couple of years. I have even bigger plans, revised guidelines. I have faith in the government. It will take the right decision. So I have hope.

Us too, Sir, us too.
# - Come on it was a dream.

* - This really happened. Read the article

Image from here. Video from here