It is hard to imagine Varun Grover the way he describes himself. He says that his body goes tense when he sees a traffic cop on the road looking at him and he becomes anxious wondering if he did something wrong. This is the man who goes on stage and cracks a joke on just about anything, unafraid and witty. And in Hindi, the language of authority. But anxiety is what comes to many like him, taking a stand, even through an act of comedy, or a film, in a state that oppresses voices of dissent, he says. And then in true style, he goes back to his old joke – “They will kill Kunal Kamra (popular standup comedian) before they kill me. The day he is killed, I know I’m next.”
Varun was in Thiruvananthapuram for a few days, not as a standup comedian but as a filmmaker. He brought a short film called Kiss to the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK), his first as a director. He is well-known in the circle of delegates visiting the fest – for his scripts (Masaan, Sacred Games), his lyrics, and his standup acts. He has heard plenty about the fest and is happy to be here, Varun says, appreciating the team, the filmmakers, and the audience’s respect for films and makers.
“I have been saying that I will make one short film every year to come here,” he says, laughing. Short films are new for him. He could have told his story in any format – it sounds like perfect material for a stage act. Kiss presents three men in a theatre watching a ‘kissing scene’, timing it, to decide how long it is. Two of them are on the censor board and the other man is the filmmaker.
Ahead of the film’s screening, Varun told his audience what triggered the idea – coming across an instance when a film was censored for containing a kiss sequence that was “too long”. Promptly, he slips in a joke – about why those censoring the film would have felt eight seconds were enough, and 20 too long. And yet, he didn’t put it in his act. He made a film.
Watch: Trailer of Kiss
“I believe the space for negotiating new ideas is shrinking every day. People are labelled liberal or right-wing or what not. It becomes difficult for your voice to reach across. Every person who has something to express has to find new ways. Short films are a new and narrative form for me. When people watch standup, the core politics of a comedian is very clear right from the beginning. Also another advantage of the short film format is that I can fit multiple things, layers of schemes, in 15 minutes. They can be interpreted according to the perspective of the individual viewer. I’m not saying everyone will get all the layers I intended, but if someone gets at least one – freedom of expression or childhood trauma – it is good. Filmmaking as a process is therapeutic,” Varun says.
The childhood trauma he mentions is also part of the movie. In the film, Varun presents the idea that every person who has extreme views may have had a trauma in their childhood. “We all have various things that shape us. If someone wants to be an artiste, or get a software job, there must have been a reason why they chose that space. Once conversation on mental health became slightly mainstream, we all went back to our childhood traumas and tried to discover our own personality. If someone has extreme views on something, there has to be certain currents that shaped them into that person, and if they become aware of it then great. Before change comes awareness. At least awareness should be there on why they are behaving in a certain dictatorial way,” Varun says.
With the word dictatorial thrown in, we move on to the question of Hindi. Varun performs his acts in Hindi. That’s the language that the Union government has been trying to enforce in every state, with speakers of regional languages and experts opposing the move. Varun nods in understanding even before the question is complete. It pains him, he says, even when he loves Hindi. “I love Hindi, Urdu, English… I think all languages are beautiful. I’m trying to learn new languages. I’m trying to learn Marathi now. I want to learn Bangla this year. The idea [may be] of uniformising the world… but ultimately they are trying to eliminate a lot of ideas. Language is not just communication. Language is culture, history, and the ideas that come with it. They are trying to rewrite or eliminate history. I would definitely not want to be seen as part of that movement,” he says.
He’d like to release his next standup clip with English subtitles and see if it translates well and reaches more people. “I will probably put together 30 minutes of a set which I can perform in non-Hindi speaking states also. There are very few Hindi speaking states where comedians are allowed now,” he says, and we get to Munawar Faruqui, a comedian who has been finding it hard to get opportunities ever since unproven allegations were raised by right-wing forces against his content.
“We have to reinvent ourselves so [that] we are not jailed for our stand. We are constantly rewriting content to make our point clearer and not let it get lost in communication. I don’t want to regret sitting in jail, thinking that I could have said something better. I don’t want to be in that position (where you are misinterpreted and hence jailed). If I have full faith in the idea and the communication, then I won’t regret it. So I use minimum words to say the maximum,” he says, adding that he knows the privileges that name, caste and gender bring him.
He says, “Earlier, we had to be sure that we were not saying anything controversial. Now we should be aware of possible misinterpretations, like it’s happened with so many brands. Those kinds of things are really troubling for any artiste.”
Not just as an artiste or a writer, he adds. Even as a citizen you have to be cautious, he says, for everything is under the scanner.
Watch: Varun Grover about TNM