In Conversation with Raghu Ram

You know Raghu Ram as the stern person who worked with Roadies for ten years, hurling abuses at interviewees and putting them under pressure, but what about what the person off-screen?

Tell me a bit about you that you find unconventional.
One aspect of it, is that conventionality is objective, since society has norms, and if somebody is doing something that’s against these norms, or doing it in a different way, then that’s unconventional.
But when you make it subjective, when you ask me what I think is unconventional about me, then nothing much actually, because I’m doing something that seems normal and regular to me.

So for you, unconventional would maybe be a 9to5 job?
Exactly. And I’d never do that.

Would you not agree that the society simply has stated norms but no one’s really following through?
Society does have norms but the world is changing and there’s a new generation coming up - your generation. People who don’t think degrees are as important- even I didn’t. I dropped out of college as well, but now this is becoming more of a norm. It’s not so unconventional for you to actually start work at a young age, get enough practical experience and contacts by the time you’re ready to go into the world. So it does seem that people as a rule don’t follow the norm but that’s not the case.
There’s a tug of war happening here- in all fields in India, between progressive and regressive. Even if you look at politics or the supposed societal modalities, there are people who will say, “No, it was better in the old days; this is how it was done, this is how it should be done, and everybody should be like this only”. Our government also talks like that.
But people are no longer happy to just comply. A lot of people are standing up and questioning the norms, which is leading to a lot of conflict in the country as well - but that is good. Conflict leads to change.
So yes, India is not one country, it is many countries. It depends on how you cut it- you can cut it through gender; rich, poor, and middleclass; religions; languages; states; topography - a lot of things. You can also slice India by the thought process. And it’s not that only one is India and the other isn’t. They are both Indias. More and more people are going against the norms, yes, but there are as many people that are becoming harder about the norms.

It’s great to see that you’ve travelled and learnt so much over the past years even though your childhood was spent in a closed environment, so to speak.
Yes, I feel my childhood was pretty regular - other than the fact that I was bullied, and I’m lucky for that because it was a lot of fun. Also, I feel like I understand the regular psyche of Indians much better, because of how I grew up. The one thing that I feel was different about Rajiv and myself was that we were given the freedom - by our parents, at least, to question. So I’ve got my own set of values. I’m an antitheist, I’m against political parties' corruption, and so forth - these values are my own. They are not handed down to me by anybody. And it’s a work in progress.
I’ve never worked out, but I was born in a time when we used to go out and play, and we used to dance, we used to teach dancing also - we danced a lot. So, because of that also, I feel I’ve been able to do a lot of the things on Roadies that I had to do, for example, the kind of pressure that was put in terms of the number of hours and weeks of work at a stretch; I was able to do it, because I had a normal childhood, which included running around, playing, and having fun. For me, that’s a normal childhood. Regular.

I wasn’t into education too much, but if I were very good at studies, then I’d have been forced to make those choices. I’d have been forced to become a doctor, because I’d have had the marks for it; or the capability to get into an engineering college, so I’d have been made into an engineer. But because I wasn’t, I was just left to find my own self. So I’m glad I wasn’t good at studies. I’m glad I had an interest in dancing and running and playing, I’m glad I had an interest in reading books and observing.

At what point did you start questioning things? Was there a turning point or was it a gradual process?
There were several turning points.
Growing up, when I was in the eleventh standard, there was something called the Mandal Commission that had happened, in 1991. It was the first time I saw students protesting; I didn’t know about politics or current affairs, but I saw it. The next year, the Babari Masjid was broken down, and it was a time of great upheaval in India. In ‘93, there were terror attacks, and Ram Mandir was the worst combination of religion and politics for me – and I heard those guys speak. The biggest issue this country is facing is whether it belongs to Ram, or Babar, or Allah.
I saw political leaders give speeches regarding this and it really disgusted me, because we had so many issues. We’re a third world country. We have overpopulation, problems with education, illiteracy, even a problem in basic resources, and your focus is on discussing whether that temple is there or not? For me, that was the most ridiculous thing. It changed me, and it led me to question, and without even knowing it, my worldview was getting formed. I saw these guys as bullies, because they’re the majority. They’re frustrated as to why the other communities aren’t just bowing down to them. Why does a fight happen anyway? “If we say the Ram temple needs to be there, it needs to be there.” I see that as the big, powerful guy picking on the little guy.
Even when it comes to misogyny or chauvinism, I see men as being the ones in power, and greater in number, and bullying women, as to what they should wear, how they should wear it, how they should or shouldn’t behave, how they are supposedly inferior. So everywhere I see the strong bullying the weak, and having been bullied for so long in my life, I have an aversion to it. I can’t just stand by and see anybody get bullied. I react to it.
So that actually was fundamental in shaping my career- shaping this one aspect of mine of not taking it lying down. And it shaped my life in the sense that now that Aam Aadmi Party came into being, I quit my job and everything else, and got together to fight with them, and I’m really kicked about it. So my worldview’s pretty well formed by now, at this age, but yes, as events happen, my reactions to them will keep shaping me further.

You mentioned that politics was something you were primarily against, and yet on the other hand you strongly support AAP. How did that happen?
Politics has traditionally been a tool of oppression that criminals got into. The cliché is there for a reason, and it disgusted me. I never even had a voting card; I’d never voted up until 2014 - that’s when I first voted in my life. It is abhorrent to me - the things that politicians do just for their personal gain - communal riots, corruption, scams. So when the Anna Movement happened, I was there in Delhi and Mumbai and elsewhere as well, because for me it represented a common man standing up to the might of the entire government, to the political class. And I would be there, standing up. I’ll always be there, for the underdog, standing up for the evil, powerful people. So yes, Anna Hazare was there, and from then on it was Arvind Kejriwal and Aam Aadmi Party, and I’ve been with them since.

Do you largely see yourself as a spokesperson for the underdog?
Not a spokesperson, no. I’m not doing this to represent anybody. I do it because I can’t do otherwise. Underdogs are my favorite, but I can’t assume to represent them.

The one thing that’s always stood out in all the auditions in Roadies is how you’re so firmly against anybody who’s trying to look down on women. Was this something that you were brought up with, or something you developed later on?
Yes, it’s always present.
It’s ridiculous. People are so conditioned, that they don’t even question it. Our biases and our fuckups and bigotries are inherited by our parents. Our education doesn’t happen in school or through textbooks, because in school we’re taught that everybody is equal, that unity is in diversity, and what not. But those aren’t our values at all. It comes from our parents. And if parents keep saying that girls need to be or behave a certain way - or if they say that Muslims are antinational, that’s going to stick.
The best part with me was, I was not taught, I was shown. My mother used to work- she was a journalist, quite an eminent one - in the '80s and '90s, when it was very unconventional for women to work. That, combined with the fact that Rajiv and I were not good at studies, led people to say, “Their mother isn’t interested, so of course the kids will go to waste.” But my father stood with her, always. He would be the one getting up, helping her prepare food, helping us get ready - Rajiv, my sister, and I - for school, dropping and picking up my mother from the office, going to his own work, helping us with homework, putting us to sleep - and the entire cycle repeated. He’s not an activist, but he led by example. He showed me how a man should be, what a woman is capable of, and how people will always talk crap but you should do your own thing. Don’t give them importance, don’t let them control you. He didn’t tell me that, he showed me, and I learnt it.

I’ve read about how you wanted to portray a stern persona onscreen on purpose. How much of that is true offscreen?
Not much. A little, but see here’s the deal.
Fundamentally, there are different sides to every person. I’m actually a very shy person; normally, I’m very soft spoken. But I’m passionate about everything that I’m involved in, and there’s a lot of energy also. So it’s kind of like two opposites, but then I think we’re all made of opposites. There’s a little bit of everything in everyone. So what I found when I was doing Roadies was that it helped if I put one side of my persona, really amped it up, and put it out there, and put everything else away from it. It also helped me preserve a sense of privacy. Being misunderstood meant that they didn’t know me, that my privacy wasn’t invaded. For ten years, anything I did that was in the positive space - like sponsoring a girl child’s education, or performing for the jawaans in the army at the Indo-Pak border - whatever I did, I never let that come out in the press.
People didn’t understand me - they just didn’t get me. Why is this guy so angry? Because if you look at it, the good guys are supposed to be quiet, mild, docile. So I was saying all the good things, but I was taking on the bullies in their own language and behavior, and they couldn’t reconcile with this or understand this, so I used that to propagate this whole enigma of “You don’t know me.”

There is nobody who meets me and doesn’t ask me “How are you in real life?”, till date. So that is a part of me, yes. But if you’ve read my book, you’ll realize that I actually dissociated myself from that person; I gave him a name (Roadies Raghu) - and he’s gone now. He’s not there anymore.

From what I understand, the person you call “Roadies Raghu” was conceived much before Roadies even started though.
Yes. Roadies is, in a way, a product of my worldview and my take on human behavior and psychology, actually. The reason Roadies caught on and has been relevant for three generations was because it had a lot more layers; it wasn’t just “You can run faster and jump higher.” It was a situation that was created where people were given all the choices, and whatever they chose had consequences, and it was based on game theory - and a lot of other things.
So, yeah, that was Roadies for me, and therefore, the person that was on Roadies was already well underway of being formed by the time Roadies came out. My personality also changed and developed as we went on, largely because I became stupidly famous- for no reason. I’m a Director and a Producer, and I’d been doing that for eight years before Roadies started, and I was not supposed to be on camera. I was asked to be there because I was the only guy who could speak Hindi; and then suddenly, BAM. It wasn’t even supposed to be aired. They’d forced it, ki chalo karte hain, so they aired it, and suddenly everything changed. I was not ready for the things that started happening with me. When you are an actor or a cricketer, you spend years honing your skills. You’re aiming for it, you’ve got your eye on the target. Like, I’m going to go, I’m going to crack this audition and get this film, or I’m going to crack this and make it to the National team. So by the time it happens to you, you’re somewhat prepared for it. Maybe it happens in varying degrees. But for me, it was out of the blue, and I had no concept of what was going to hit me. I changed, but not in good ways. I became darker, I became reclusive, I became a lot more paranoid.

I understand the concept of maintaining sternness as a way of maintaining privacy, but was abusing onscreen something you’d intended on doing frequently, or did it just end up happening?
Like I told you, for the first two years, the auditions weren’t even aired. We didn’t even shoot them. Now, I realized it’s the way people talk. I’m from a government school from Delhi, so this is very normal for me. We would talk like that. Like I said, when you’re there, you want to prepare for the audition, but then people used to notice the cameras and their real persona would disappear. When you’re in a position like that - for example if you’re on stage, you would change yourself, right? You won’t behave the way you do at home or when you’re with friends. So that was happening, and using unparliamentary language or abusive words was actually a very easy way to convince these guys subliminally that what is happening here is not for cameras, because this language is not used on camera. So he was forced to focus on me and not the camera, and he realizes that this guy (Raghu) probably means what he is saying and he’s not saying it for the camera, because he wouldn’t even be able to use it. So that injected an element of reality into these interactions, which were every time ending up in a very fake zone.
Also, when I did lose my temper as Roadies Raghu, it was freethrowing. I used to get into fights and all of that. So yes, it just happened. It wasn’t a preplanned or a thought out thing, because nothing like that had happened. It went a long way in creating the impression that this show is real and raw. Language is just one aspect of it. There are so many others - the fact that we never said anything, or that we never interfered, or that whatever happened, happened. These are the things that also grew the legend and the interest of the people.

Why did you publish your book?
It was my way of saying goodbye to Roadies. I always wanted to write a book because I don’t watch TV or films much, but I do read books - especially autobiographies. And I felt I had a story to tell, especially because so many people seem to be so fucking fascinated with me, and with what I had to say. So, I always wanted to do it; and I waited, because a lot of things would come out in the book about why and how I conducted the auditions, what the idea behind it was, and so on. But once I wrote it, the mystery and the enigma would be broken and I would not have been able to catch in on that, so I decided to wait for my story, my Roadies journey to end.
The book is called Rearview: My Roadies Journey, and it’s very autobiographical, and it actually starts from before we were born; but the story I wanted to tell was of a bullied kid who was considered a failure, who went on to have these experiences.

Are you planning on publishing another book?
Well, the publishers are asking me to write another book, but I don’t write fiction much, so for me, I should do something very different, very big- for example, if I was playing a bigger role in Aam Aadmi Party, that would be a book. So, I have nothing right now that I can report in a book. You can consider this period as me researching for my next book, by living (which I’m not doing a very good job of. I need to travel a lot more, I need to meet a lot more artists, and I need to read a lot more books. I need to live a lot.)

Tell me a story about you that doesn’t have anything to do with Roadies.
I am going through another phase of self-discovery. Up until two years ago, my life was going in a direction; I was a Producer on a show called Roadies, I was on camera, I was considered a celebrity, I was busy all the time. I had a family, I had a house. Now? I left my job, started a startup, so it’s back to the struggle; my wife and I split - so, for the first time in, ever, I’m single, and terrified to mingle, because I’ve never done it. So for me, I’m not sure how much I’d be able to make of it, but here is an opportunity to create, to explore other aspects of my personality and start from scratch, and see how far I can go and in which direction. So, that’s a story that is still in the works.

What are you doing now, post Roadies?
Rajiv and I have a company now, called Monozygotic.Monozygotic is a biological term for identical twins. We’re doing a lot of interesting stuff for the internet. We’ve done a couple of things so far, but nothing that’s really been out there.
A lot of our projects have been in the development phases and now, coincidentally, in the first week of April, there will be a couple of things that will come out together - three of our projects will be out there. I got bored of television. It’s the same thing every year - same thing, a little different; same thing, a little better; same thing, a little more. But on the internet, everything is so very different, fundamentally. It forces you to stay young and creative and have fun. You don’t get dated and become dinosaurs.

If you had to take five main lessons from all your life, what would they be?

  1. Travel.
  2. Read books. And by that I don’t mean storybooks. I mean people who’ve lived life and who’ve written their autobiographies or about their travels.
  3. Meet a lot of artists.
    What all three of these do, is open your mind.
    By going to different places - by visiting different places, you’re exposed to different cultures, and you know that ours isn’t the only way things happen. The problem with our country is that we think we’re number one. We’re number one in thinking we’re number one. We’re not. There is something called the Happiness Index. We’re 118 on that list out of 156 countries. We’ve actually slid down from last year. We’re not number one. But we keep saying, no, we’re the best, because we’re not open to other aspects or other ways of living. It’s a regressive mind, a closed mind- and travelling opens it up.
    Reading other people’s points of views also makes you understand about someone who’s living in a different era, in a different time, in a different continent, yet he’s reaching across time and space and talking to you about what he went through- or she went through. There are major life lessons to be learnt from them.
    Artists are, by and large, progressive. They have an open worldview. Poets, musicians, dancers, writers, directors - whoever; they have a store of experiences which is not normal, and which they need for their art, and they’re just chilled out, cool, fun people. You’ll learn a lot.
  4. Question whatever you think you know.
    Question the reason behind why you think they way you think. Maybe you’re wrong. Be open to that. It’s okay. You don’t have to be born right and spend your life being right all the time.
  5. Walk your talk.
    If you say something, do it. Talk is not cheap. You cheapen by talk by not meaning what you say and by saying what you don’t mean. Walk your talk.

Why don’t you teach psychology?
laughs
I’m not educated enough?
But no, I could be wrong in so many things. Like I said, I try and be open to the possibility that I could be wrong. The thing is, a lot of times you’ll find that old grandmothers are almost doctors. Just using the things that are lying around in the house, they’ll be able to take care of the problems you have. When the kids come down with random aches, they’ll just say iska lep laga do aur subah uthke yahan par jao, or tulsi ka chaai piyo, and it works. But they’re not doctors, they can’t open a clinic. However, it’s the life experiences and the knowledge that’s been passed down, or even trial and error - they’ve lived so long; they know stuff. But that doesn’t mean they could practice it as a profession or influence others. If people want to learn something, great, it’s their choice. I could be wrong. But they should be okay with that also, they should be open about it. If I sit in a classroom and tell them, “I’m your teacher, and you have to learn whatever I say”, that doesn’t work.
Plus, I don’t like human behavior. I find that humans are mostly bad, with some good, and not the other way round. Mostly, human beings will do whatever they think they can get away with, and the concept of afterlife and ye paap hai doesn’t stop.
Also, I’m not a fan of the Indian Education System, though I am a fan of education. But our education system caters only to the top 5%, and there are so many of them. So every college, every entrance exam- everything, they’ll only take the top. The rest of us are just left to fend for ourselves. Of course, going to college allows you to gain experiences, but that’s not something you’ll learn in the classroom. It’s only something you’ll learn during festivals or events or organizing rallies.

Which animal do you most relate to?
Dogs.
Elephants, even.
I’m into wildlife a lot, and there’s no one animal that I fully identify with. There are a lot of things about a lot of animals that are fascinating and that I like.
But I find it strange to relate to them; their thought process and circumstances are so different, in a 'Eat or Be Eaten’ kind of world - sure, it’s there in our world too, but we can protest against it; it’s not like the antelopes can make a union and hold a protest rally- bhook hartaal pe jaa rahe hain, ghaas nahi khayenge jabtak sher humei khaana nahi chhorenge. That doesn’t happen. The lion will just go and feast on them for a month.

How would you solve the Earth’s problems in 15 words?
Four words: Accept and Respect Everyone.
The world’s problems will be almost gone.
Here’s another: Make a huge ship and fly to Mars.
Leave planet Earth alone. Her problems will be solved. Mars' problems may start, though.

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