Wonderful Mr. Watterson

I write this post for no reason other than that I read this post about Calvin and Hobbes in Open Magazine  and was annoyed it was yet another summary of things we’ve only heard about a thousand times. When reading about personalities everyone writes about, I wish people brought in a more original, possibly more personal take.

I imagine it must be very annoying to be Bill Watterson. Probably something like Chubby Checker after he pioneered The Twist. Or like having an overachieving older sibling. No matter what you do, there’s this overarching standard everyone’s going to compare you against. It offers you little room to grow or make mistakes.

I have this friend who I imagine what Mr. Watterson is like. This friend happens to also look a little like a clean-shaven Mr. Watterson. My friend has an online persona where he is creative, funny, sarcastic, biting, and wildly original. However, in real life, he doesn’t engage as easily as far as I’ve known him. He is still all of those things, and if anything, even more talented, even more creative, and has a childlike honesty in emotion and behavior. But there’s this additional streak that makes him shy, quiet, careful to not say the wrong things, sensitive, and at the same time, wildly confident, somewhat lacking empathy, and militantly private. All those qualities in him you end up going ‘oh you poor thing for’ – the sensitivity, the childlike honesty, the kindness, the shyness, the quietness – they don’t come from a place of fear or want or defensiveness, they come from a position of strength.

And I sure hope my friend never reads this. He doesn’t like to think so much about things. Everything to him is simple. If it isn’t, he fills in the gaps with the simplest possible explanations and moves on, because he is confident that’ll work well enough.

Somehow, to me, this model explains all of Mr. Watterson’s actions. The badass quitting a job to become a cartoonist. The battle to work on his own terms only. The extremely few interviews given. The quitting C&H when it was at its peak. The slipping in autographs into his books at a local bookstore. Stopping it when he found people were selling it as merchandise. The media-shy behavior. Suddenly resurfacing to do a bunch of comics with Pearls Before Swine. Carefully guarding his privacy even then.

It seems to me like Mr. Watterson shuns attention not because he’s afraid of consequences or the wrong sort of attention, but because he doesn’t see the need for it, or wants to be spared the trouble of having to learn to deal with it. He seems to be among that rare breed of people who are content with what they have and don’t desire for more, not because they feel like any more will be too much to handle, or because they want their life to stay just so, or because they have achieved what they’ve aimed for, but because they aren’t the sort to have shifting goalposts, or who live their life by external metrics and goals.

And if you venerate or judge him for that, he’ll probably smile an amused smile. Because he knows there isn’t anything inherently good or bad in his choices, he picked them not out of principle, but because that’s what works well for him. Or maybe it doesn’t work as he thought, but he sticks with those things anyway, because it works acceptably enough.

I can see how he would have come up with his cartoons. He did something that gave him joy, and its giving joy to so many others was a very welcome side-effect. When he suspected it was close to not giving him joy anymore, he decided to move on.

Oh and his work. People have written reams about what makes Calvin and Hobbes tick, so I won’t go into its broad appeal. Why I like Calvin and Hobbes is, the setups and jokes bring out things about human interactions and relationships so much more organically, so much more easily. And, of course, the fabulous Sunday art. It makes me laugh when people try to find clues about if Calvin says age-appropriate things, or if Hobbes is real or imaginary. Those things don’t matter. Calvin acts like a kid when Mr. Watterson thinks that would be a fun choice for this cartoon idea, and Calvin can just easily be the voice of the cartoonist when Mr. Watterson wants him to be. Hobbes is a stuffed toy when the idea makes sense in the context of the cartoon Mr. Watterson wants to draw. Hobbes is a real tiger when Mr. Watterson thinks that’d be a more appropriate choice. I don’t suppose those things are set in stone, and it feels like a pointless argument, much like about which Hogwarts house you belong to.

Continuing to rave about Calvin and Hobbes feels much like holding on to high school memories, to me. Reading the comics all at once at nineteen blew my mind, but revisiting it or talking about it or sharing the comics more than once in a blue moon feels like you have very little else going on. Besides, what I took away from Calvin and Hobbes feels incredibly personal. I suppose everyone who anthropomorphized their toys as a child feels that.

It feels a little wrong to own any Calvin and Hobbes memorabilia. I actually thought long and hard before deciding not to adorn my walls with a Calvin and Hobbes poster. It feels like an affront to Mr. Watterson.

I occasionally wonder what would be appropriate to say to Mr. Watterson, should I run into him somewhere. I should probably like to say something like ‘Hey, so you know that thing you used to do? It kinda changed my life and touched me a whole lot. Thanks, and I won’t bother you anymore’.

I also occasionally wonder what kind of an interview of Mr. Watterson would feel least like an affront. Or, more specifically, if I got a chance to talk with him for an hour, what I’d talk about. Two or three years ago, I would have probably bombarded him with leading questions and try real hard to pick his brain. Now though, I’d just like to chill with the man. Ask him about how his days go. If he plays with his grandkids, if he has any. What he watches on TV. If he thinks much at all about politics. What he thinks about college costs going insane.

Or, I don’t know, maybe I give Mr. Watterson’s privacy and RonSwanson-ness way more importance than Mr. Watterson himself does, and maybe in a decade or less, he’ll start blogging about landscapes or woodworking or Cleveland politics. Or maybe become a champion of DRM and self-publish on Amazon.

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Sustainable writing.

A month back, I tried to create a Writing Packet. The Desk Jokes came quick and hard. It took me all of fortyfive minutes to fill up two pages with mostly-good jokes about current events. And then I got really nice ideas for two sketches. I started watching videos of Jehova’s Witnesses in action, as my sketch was about that. And then it got too late, and I went to sleep.

The following morning, my two sketch ideas seemed lame. I was loath to touch them again. Thinking about them makes me physically ill.

It’s not because those were terrible ideas. Even if they were, it shouldn’t hurt to just write them out. Usually we are bad judges of our own writing ideas, and the important thing is to be plodding along and cranking out as much as possible. But if I can’t seem to write something in one session, it’s done.

Which means I have tons of half-baked ideas that haven’t reached their full potential. I don’t incorporate feedback into my work because I don’t want to look at it again. I don’t do second drafts. And that way of working is terrible, terrible, terrible.

Rome was not built in a day. My subconscious doesn’t want to accept that.

I read Amy Poehler’s Yes Please recently. The first chapter is all about how writing is really hard. We don’t hear that enough. There isn’t enough that we are taught about how to be satisfied with a terrible first draft and work on a better second and third and subsequent drafts. I suppose my blogging is one of the reasons I never grasped that – when I blog, it is just the first draft. I don’t edit, I don’t review, I don’t even read again. That’s why there are so many 3000+ word posts which should ideally all be 1000 word posts.

I deal badly with criticism of my work as well. I don’t mean badly in the ‘GTFO, there’s nothing wrong with my writing’ way. It’s more like ‘Ugh, but if I change that, I’ll have to change everything’. Partly it is because I don’t know how to receive and filter feedback. I don’t know which ideas to incorporate and which to discard. There isn’t a clear map on how to go from disconnected thoughts of people who might not be the best judge of writing, to a clear roadmap of what to change and how much.The other part is, my mind seems to consider writing as an arduous task and groans at learning I’ll have to do it all over again.

I finally got the idea for a nice long screenplay, an idea that’ll be good enough for Amazon Studios. I have it mapped right down to the scenes, and I’m too paralyzed to even write Act 1 Scene 1. I can’t seem to get it out of my head that I don’t yet have good ideas on how to make my characters stand out and not just be badly-researched archetypes. I am annoyed at knowing my first draft will be imperfect, nay, terrible.

I can’t get behind the fact that it’s not going to go like the time I discovered stick figure cartooning and spent a whole weekend feverishly drawing. It’s going to take time. Multiple sessions. And I’ll have to sustain my enthusiasm through all of it. I’ll have to spend time daily trying to write.

Which brings me to the big question. How do you keep yourself constantly inspired? So far, anything creative I’ve attempted has been on impulse. I go through an experience, I listen to a shred of music, I watch five minutes of a movie, and I get this feeling, this itch, and I need to channel that itch in a creative way. And I have to quickly put that feeling in words or some other tangible form to keep referring back to it. Usually if I write down how I feel about a sunset and where it’s leading me, if I come back to it two hours later, it’ll read lame to me, and won’t inspire me the same way as before to write down whatever it was the sunset inspired me to originally. It’s annoying.

I guess the trick lies there. To make these ideas bulletproof. To make them sustainable. Even if there’s just a shred of feeling, I should be able to preserve that to be able to come back to it. Right now, I operate on anxiety that I won’t be able to come back to this feeling, so if it’s something that’ll require more than a session to complete, I give up even before I start. That’s what I need to start fighting.

With me, it’s usually art begetting art. And when I say Art, I just mean whatever way I express myself. I listen to a different kind of song than I’m used to and it takes me to a different world and that word leads to something I need to nail down. Or I watch a movie which starts off with excellent characters and then the director ruins it, and I get annoyed and want to rework it the way I saw it in my head. The difficult part is to sustain those raw emotions. Like, the second time you watch a bad movie, it doesn’t irritate you as much.

Like anything, this process requires sustained practice to become better at. I need to set aside time regularly and TRY. Even if I do nothing, I should spend the time doing nothing else if not writing.

That sounds crazy. But that might just work.

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The Brothers RK

I know the work of RK Narayan more intimately than RK Laxman’s, even though the latter’s is more ubiquitous. Political cartoons, at the dose of one a day becomes so routine that you tend to take them for granted.

Besides, I never had an idea of RK Laxman’s persona. It is easier, I suppose, with writers, to put some part of them into their work, and RK Narayan’s first three books seemed quite autobiographical. His memoir gave a lot of insight into his personality, and that of people around him, but his youngest brother Laxman is hardly mentioned. His older brother Pattabhi and younger brother Seenu are mentioned as part of the many experiences he narrates, but Laxman is only mentioned as being ‘ready with one foot on the pedal of his bicycle to drop off my piece in time for the evening Mail’, and maybe a couple of more mentions.

And when you keep commenting about the nation in the voice of the common man, it is easy to get this idea of RK Laxman as being this old gentleman who’d fit right in with your grandfather’s friends circle, who all went to the bank in the morning, and spent evenings endlessly discussing politics over endless cups of coffee brought dutifully by a wife with whom he wasn’t overtly affectionate.

Oh well what did I know.

I think I read his book The Hotel Riviera when I was fifteen or sixteen. It felt scandalous to my young-adult-literature-reading mind. Not that I wasn’t by then used to reading saucy stuff, but that was not from people who drew cartoons and who your entire family loved. That was reserved for Khushwant Singh and Kamla Suraiya to write erotic stories and poetry. And even their work had a faraway tinge to it, because it was based on people you’d never run into in situations you couldn’t comprehend. But here was this icon of South Indianness, this beacon of Brahminism, writing about hotel managers who stared more than you’d like at women’s bosoms, and about kept women and sexually frustrated men. It’s kind of like you’re totally fine with seeing people kiss on the subway in NYC, but when a couple do it on the Bangalore metro, a small part of you squirms. I put the book away.

It didn’t end there.

When you read The English Teacher and My Days, you are struck by the relationship between RK Narayan and his wife, so much that he pines for her decades after she dies, even having sessions with a medium to communicate with her. You come to expect the same of his brother.

But RK Laxman’s first wife was a dancer named Kamala. I suppose back then that was kind of like marrying a filmstar. They actually separated and divorced. In my teens, it was incomprehensible that someone from that generation and that kind of a family background could ever be capable of divorce. Of course, since then, I’ve wised up and heard more scandalous stories from the extended family history that were earlier deemed too saucy for my delicate ears, so it doesn’t seem like a big deal to me now. And then he married again, this time an author, also named Kamala.

Apart from the famous Common Man, I really enjoyed the illustrations he had made for RK Narayan’s works. I loved how he drew the characters in Grandmother’s Tale, which is actually the story of his great-grandmother. The granny in her nine-yard saree with her head covered as was typical for widows back then, the eighteen year old Bala looking nothing like I imagined an eighteen year old to look like, the ageing Vishwa looking like every grandfather ever. I don’t like my favorite books to ever be made into picture books or movies because it’s always better in my head, but here, the caricatures augmented the story so well and brought subtle mundane aspects to the characters’ life alive because of so much attention to detail.

And I distinctly remember an illustration for RK Narayan’s Ramayana which depicted Rama as bearded. We are so used to Raja Ravi Varma’s depictions of what Indian gods should look like, and it shook things up for me a little bit. Why not a bearded Rama? Why not a simply-dressed Sita with curves and her hair worn low? Why not a fat and hairy Dasharatha? It was empowering, freeing, to think this way.

I suppose RK Laxman was a private person, who didn’t like to talk about his family or his life or experiences much. I know there’s his autobiography titled The Tunnel of Time, but I don’t know if he actually talks much about his life in that, because otherwise you’d have it plastered all over the newspapers instead of homilies about The Common Man.

I’d love to have picked his brain. He seems an infinitely more interesting person. His life seems more colorful. He seems to have been more in the moment than his reflective writer brother. I wonder about his perspective as a Youngest Child. Most writers seem to be tortured Oldest Siblings. How did he spend his younger days? What sort of conflicts does he face personally? Who are his friends? Does he draw lewd stuff in his spare time? Does he find The Common Man as just a day job or does he have a strong bond with the character? Does he have any regrets?

I understand the impact The Common Man has had on Indian cartooning. However it feels plain wrong and restrictive to focus on only that aspect of RK Laxman. He didn’t flinch while taking down our holy cows. Let’s not make him one.

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High School

The issue of the NPS student being suspended and subsequently committing suicide has caused some discussion about how high school was back in our day.

When I think back to my high school days, I hardly remember much about it. I find this strange because I used to be the sort who remembered a lot of random details about things no one else cared about.

But yeah, I did like my 8th 9th and 10th better than PU. I went to a CBSE school and there’s a kind of snobbery that comes with it. Switching to PU was a wholly different world.

For starters, my class in school had been pretty diverse. Muslims, Christians, people from various other states, people who’d just moved back from the Gulf. PU on the other hand was remarkably unicultural. Everyone was from the same neighborhoods. Nearly everyone was Kannadiga and those who weren’t spoke Telugu. Everyone was remarkably fluent in Kannada. Including the teachers. English as a medium of instruction was seen as a mere suggestion. Teachers freely lapsed into Kannada to explain their points better. It didn’t do a jot of good for me.

And the teachers were more pally with students after class in PU. I wasn’t used to that. I somehow can never get used to that. Especially when teachers tease you about being romantically involved with your classmates when you’re not. And they often said a lot of insensitive things in the guise of ‘teasing’. It wasn’t out of place for them to comment on your clothes or hair or manner of speaking. They tried so hard to be ‘cool’ and ‘with it’ and ‘understanding’, thinking back now, it feels kind of pathetic.

In school however, there was that respectable distance between the teacher and you. My teachers in school told us about safe sex, counseled us when they felt we were going astray, were often the first responders when any of us had lady issues. And they regularly teased us, played favorites, said insensitive things….. but there was always that healthy distance. Like if someone was facing issues, like being bullied, or in a seemingly inappropriate relationship, they wouldn’t make it apparent to the whole class they were talking to you about your issues. They had a nice subtle way of helping you, such that no one else would be aware what was going on. So, no, it’s not like your teachers being pally was better for you or anything.

And this distance mattered. We respected the teachers. We weren’t openly disruptive in class. In PU, being openly disruptive seemed like the norm. No one listened to the teacher, because everyone was going to tuitions anyway. And the teachers themselves weren’t paragons of diligence. Some were. But the majority just read out from the textbook. You can’t do that in CBSE schools. Literally no one would understand the subject if you did that. There was no dearth of trouble makers in school. I too was rude, arrogant, and all that for a period, but there were lines you didn’t cross.

And in PU you were still subject to being treated like you didn’t know anything and were disruptive, but no one cared about your well-being. I think the only ones who did care were the librarian (because I spent a lot of time reading fiction) and my English teacher. And my Hindi teacher as well, but she lived near my house and we were more informal with each other.

What cements this for me is an External examiner in the lab exams of PU openly extorted bribes from my classmates (some of whom were freaked out enough to pay it), before a teacher was informed and she called the cops on him. That was a fun day, except I was stuck in a different lab with a different examiner and missed out on the fun.

Overall, it seems like my days there were inconsequential in terms of career choices. My teachers from back then write blogs with spelling mistakes now, and send me Candy Crush invites. That makes them all so much more human, I guess. Feels like they were learning to deal with people and life as much as we were. And it feels like they don’t realize just how much influence they wield on impressionable children.

I mean, if I went to a different school, I might not even be writing this blog for nearly ten years now.

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KB, TV, women and character-driven screenplay.

I know K Balachander more by his TV series than his movies. That’s mainly because when I was in my preteens and teens, KB sir had all but stopped making movies, and instead concentrated on the small screen. K Balachandar-in Chinna thirai as it was called.

To appreciate the full impact of his making TV series, you need to understand the context where they came about. Cable TV wasn’t really a thing until the ’90s, I suppose. Heck, TV wasn’t quite a thing until the late ’80s either.

Tamil television was very sparse. I only got cable in 1995 or thereabouts. There were a lot of western channels, including Cartoon Network which ran only until 5pm after which it switched to another channel called TCM or something. Zee TV was a thing. And I think once or twice a week, they would show Tamil programs.

And then there was Sun TV. I watched a lot of TV back then. The shows on Sun TV were, as I recall, mostly cringeworthy. They weren’t yet in saas-bahu zone, at least not the prime time shows, but the sort of drama they portrayed were unrealistic, moralistic, and mostly bad quality.

I think KB got in the game early on. He started with Raghuvamsam, which I don’t remember watching all that much. It was a family drama if I remember right.

What got me hooked was his Kai-alavu Manassu. It was a very poignant story of a young widow (Geetha) with three children, who faces a heart condition, and ends up giving her children up for adoption. And years later, she’s become reasonably successful and all, and tries to hunt down her children, but they don’t remember her. This series was notable for introducing Prakash Raj to us. He played a businessman from Bangalore, and his catchphrase was ‘chindi chitranna’ (said while rubbing his hands). He would go on to be the villain in KB sir’s Duet, which was also, I suppose, another Kannada star Ramesh Arvind’s big Tamil hit. Ramesh Arvind later played a guest role in Kai-alavu Manassu as Geetha’s son who’s become a successful actor.

The difference between this soap and all the others on TV at that particular time, was this had story, this had direction. It had engaging characters. It had strong actors giving performances of a lifetime. And since it was a mega-serial, it could go in any direction, and you were treated to a lot of interesting sub-plots even if they didn’t really have anything much with the main plot.

One scene that sticks in the mind is with Kavignar Vaali. Vaali has a wife who suffers from a delicate heart condition. They have a very loving relationship, and she makes a sweet, and he composes a very funny poem about it. Then he gets the news that their son has just died. He can’t tell her that. And people keep dropping by to offer their condolences. And she keeps laughing and asking him to repeat his funny poem, and offering everyone sweets. He complies, with pain in his eyes, and pain in his heart. I haven’t quite seen anything like that in a long time.

The other notable thing was how KB portrayed women in his serials. Serials with a female protagonist didn’t start with him, of course. TV’s main demographic is women and they always cater to women by having women-centric serials. While others liked to go the woman-against-the-rest-of-the-world trope, KB introduced some depth into this.

This was seen very prominently in his serial Premi, with Renuka in the lead. Renuka always played the comic relief in anything before that, as the talkative, nosy neighbor. But in this, she came alive as a serious woman who was taking charge of her family which was pretty much out of control, and how she navigated across the many men who desired her (rewatching this a year ago made me wonder how and why every single man in the show wanted to marry her).

You’d see this in his movies as well. You don’t need to go as far as AvargaL. Even in Azhagan, the three leading women are all so different, have different motivations for fancying Mammooty, and each is so well-defined that you would understand them and identify with them. Or Parthale Paravasam, which was really cheesy in its execution, but it was actually trying to make a movie with Simran and Madhavan as complex characters.

One tool I notice KB sir reuses over and over again is to put his lead characters in a scene where they are expected to speak impromptu on stage. He’s done this in Azhagan, Premi, Parthale Paravasam, and so many others. Usually this is how a love interest gets introduced to the lead character, so when they meet later, it isn’t quite love-at-first-sight.

I can’t help but marvel at how KB sir deals with conjugal relationships in his movies and serials. He’d made two series, Ramany vs Ramany parts and 2. The first one dealt with a modern (for the ’90s) newlywed couple, and the second one with a couple who’ve been married awhile and have a young child. When  I watched it as a child, it was because it was slapstick. I took to watching this series again a few months ago, and I was struck by how on the mark it is.

Most dramas about newlyweds all deal with the big stuff, case in point, Alaipayuthey. This one was about the mundane, the everyday stuff. The easily mollified insecurities. The annoyance at your spouse’s flirty colleague. Discovering your spouse’s fanmail to Juhi Chawla. How annoying your husband gets when he’s sick. Pointless arguments about whose turn it is to make dinner. Or, in the case of the second series, the little reminders that your marriage has lost its sense of romance. Maintaining your me-time. Getting annoyed with how your mother messes your kitchen up when she comes by to help. Learning your spouse is actually cooler than you thought.

And then there was Jannal, with two parts again, where he explored the dynamics of an older couple’s friendship, and in the second part, how a boy tries to reconcile his parents’ divorce.

It’s amazing how he brings out these little nuances in a family, the small things that make you identify with the characters that much more. A serious drama, or a film doesn’t really give you much time to explore these things. I think it would be fascinating if you had a long running serial where you got top directors to work on six or seven episodes at a time.

What makes KB sir’s work be so memorable is that his screenplays are character-driven. Not necessarily plot driven. He gives you fascinating true-to-life characters. You don’t remember what the ending of Azhagan is, you remember Madhoo’s antics and dialogues. The ending of Duet doesn’t give you sleepless nights, you only remember how Prabhu’s character is for the most part selfless, and how Meenakshi Seshadri disdainfully makes jokes about Prakash Raj’s moves on her.

It doesn’t matter if Kamal Haasan and Revathi die at the end of Punnagai Mannan. What matters is Chaplin Chellappa, how Srividya stays the voice of reason, and how intense Kamal Haasan gets. And I only vaguely remember how AvargaL ends, but the sadism of Rajinikanth in that one movie is enough to shock the living daylights out of you. KB Sir pretty much takes a bunch of interesting, well-etched-out characters and puts them in fascinating situations, and watches them react.

When I contrast this with Mani Ratnam’s style of making a movie, he starts off with an idea for a plot, say, ‘three men get into an accident, it changes all their lives’. and in the process ends up creating fascinating characters, but then he’s thinking about advancing the plot, so he ignores exploring them fully, and then realizes it’s time to end the movie, but he can’t resolve the interestingness of the characters with the interestingness of the plot, so he ends things abruptly. That is also why in movies like Raavan or Kadal, his characters are walking metaphors or otherwise one-dimensional characters.

As someone fresh on ideas of how women aren’t represented accurately in TV and film, it has been refreshing to go back to Balachandar-in Chinnathirai as an adult, and pleasantly discover my formative years were all full of well-etched characters in the media and it is a lack of imagination and freedom, more than any sinister plot, that there aren’t that many fascinating women in TV and film today.

Everyone knows without KB sir we wouldn’t have Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan or Prakash Raj, apart from innumerable others now-famous actors and writers, but it also bears mention that so many stars of TV, like Renuka, Devadarshini, Chetan, Deepa Venkat, Mohan Ram, Ramji, Venu Arvind, owe their fame to Balachander.

And you totally wouldn’t have this gem from Revathi Sankaran either 🙂

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Feeling is Easy

I have said it over and over. And I’ll say it again. Properly this time. I love the music of Norah Jones.

I don’t know what about it appeals to me (and a few million others worldwide). It’s the sheer quality, for sure. And the quantity – she is pretty prolific.

Maybe it is how she really works on channeling her feelings into writing her songs.

Maybe it’s how simple she keeps the tune and the lyrics. Just easy enough to think I can sing it, or write similar lyrics, but actually not that easy, because if it were, everyone would be doing it.

Maybe it’s how she channels all the jazz she’s learnt and country she’s grown up hearing into simple, accessible music.

Maybe she’s just a nice sweet fun person and that shows in her music.

All I can say is what Wordsworth said

Whate’er the theme the maiden sang

As if her song could have no ending

I saw her singing at her work

And o’er the sickle bending

I listened motionless and still.

And, as I mounted up the hill,

The music in my heart I bore

Long after it was heard no more.

Sigh. She’s brilliant.

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Talent and Bad Behaviour

Growing up, I was subjected to Carnatic music classes, like most children in my neighborhood. I grew up resenting it all.

I don’t as such hate the music part of it. I love what I’ve got from Carnatic music… the ability to keep a tune, to not be tone-deaf and to be able to understand and appreciate all genres of music. But when it came to the teachers, most if not all of them weren’t very nice people. And I noticed that the more qualified they were, the more crazy they got.

After years with this neighbor of mine, who was just a nice lady who taught music for extra income, and didn’t push us much, the time came to shop for a new teacher when this nice lady found love and happiness and moved to the other end of town. The proper music school in my neighborhood had an intimidating man who took my interview, made me sing and said to my doting grandmother ‘She is very weak, but I’ll see what I can do’. In hindsight, I likely was, but that’s kind of not what you say to an eleven-year-old. And I was a sensitive child. A few years ago, my nice-neighbor’s music teacher sat in on the class. He was this sixty year old man. And he lectured me on how terrible I was or something, and I left in tears. No one understood why a crotchety old man got to me so much. I don’t know, you tell me why an obedient eight year old might react adversely to a sharp rebuke by a sixty year old.

Anyway, so we found another lady, who sang in Kannada films. She cheerfully accepted me as a student. She never made it on time to teach us. I found myself running away because I was getting late for maths tuitions or swimming. She wasn’t very nice either. She would get irritated to no end if her students made mistakes. Besides, the teacher’s pets were all crotchety little girls who wore flowers in their hair and considered Bollywood music with the regard and coolness I reserved for hard rock. I didn’t stand a chance. Besides, being a Tamilian who went to a CBSE school, my Kannada wasn’t that great and for some reason, that irritated her a lot more.

I had enough. I began playing hooky. It’s another fun story when my mother ran into the teacher and they talked.

So… what am I saying… these people were mentally ill? No, not exactly. It’s just that this eccentric behaviour that would be shut down in no time in other circumstances was considered okay because they were ‘artists’. And ‘teachers’. You could literally throw dark looks at a student because she didn’t speak your language, and no one would bat an eyelid. Your meekness was directly proportional to how much your snotty behaviour was indulged. Being any kind of ‘different’ was license enough to be given step-motherly treatment. And oh, it was totally fine to hit a student for making mistakes in singing.

Also, you didn’t have to have any level of competence to exhibit such behaviour. In fact, if you threw your weight around, people would assume somehow that you must be talented.

This is more South Bangalore ’90s things than Music Teacher things, but the point is, none of them made their art any more appealing or fun to me. And I guarantee it, 90% of the responses I get will be of the nature of ‘Oh, you’re too sensitive’, or ‘They didn’t mean it like that’, or ‘You generalize, and incorrectly’, or ‘My teacher slapped me and I am the better for it’. My problem is, such behaviour is considered acceptable.

When I began considering comedy for a hobby, I faced similar issues. Standup was such a hostile, painful environment of one-upmanship and shockjockery. It especially isn’t easy on women and non-whites. Most standup comedians seemed like people with serious issues. Which would be fine, but it showed a lot in their social interactions and general lack of regard.

Thankfully, I found improv.

What I like about improv is, it is an ideal hobby. No one is giving you a hard time for not practicing. No one is telling you you’re wrong. You just watch and learn and get better. The whole teaching culture seems to be geared towards making people comfortable on stage and offering a lot of positive reinforcement. If you mess up, which is hard in improv because ‘there are no mistakes in improv’, people usually show you a better, easier, more comfortable choice instead of telling you you’re wrong. Besides, you never know who you’ll be improvising with next, so you’d better be nice to everyone you play with.

It might also have to do with the fact that I learnt improv at Magnet. It is such a friendly, welcoming, accepting environment with so little room for negativity, that I fell in love with it the first time I watched a show there. It isn’t full of snooty competitive people, but with regular folk who like doing comedy. The ‘great’ people immediately distinguished themselves from the ‘good’ people with the sort of comedic choices they made while performing. Not by being smartass in class.

It was a huge thing for me to accept as well. Often I found people making such terrible comedic choices. Like subverting the point of a scene for momentary giggles (Like you point your finger and say ‘stop or I’ll shoot’, and your scene partner responds with ‘that’s not a gun, that’s your finger’. It throws you off your game, and after that little laugh, you have to start fresh again). Or when they got too serious. Or said something abnormal and dark. Or stuck to the same, comfortable choices over and over….. there was one guy who would keep lapsing into a faux posh old lady accent; I found it unfunny after the second or third time.

My improv teachers didn’t question or correct those choices. They stuck to their plan and kept it going, while making sure everyone got a fair chance to try. And by the fourth week of classes, people began falling in line no matter how they were before. They felt empowered enough to try new things and challenge themselves.

So why does this come up?

I’ve been trying to teach improv in Seattle. I found very few avenues for long form improv in this city, and instead of cursing the darkness, I decided to light a candle. I haven’t been doing most of the teaching until now. And I notice how different teaching styles can get.

I’m a leader-by-consensus. I don’t believe I know everything, so I leave wiggle room for feedback and others stepping in to share what they know. I can’t stand cutting someone’s creativity off. I can never think of admonishing someone’s comedic choices. I won’t ever tell someone how exactly to do a scene. At best, I’ll establish the rules of an activity before I start, and then stick to those rules, not micromanage the scene. I like to be sensitive to my students and don’t mind flexing the class around to benefit everyone, because everyone must and should feel comfortable enough to contribute and never once think their idea is nonsense. And anytime I’m in doubt, I hark back to all the people who taught me at Magnet, and do as they would have done. Not once do I remember anyone outright dissing someone’s choices on stage.

Turns out, there are other styles. There exist people who take improv so seriously that they actually believe there are wrong choices and go out of their way to point that out. People actually say ‘should’ and ‘should not’ instead of ‘try to’ and ‘try not to’. There are others who are so very dogmatic about the Harold as a form that they forget about what makes it fun, and will go to any extent to cut any deviations off.

And that just because they are fastidious about these self-made rules, people will think they know more, and are better.

Seriously, improv is an art form and all that, but I don’t find that much of a difference between someone who’s finished Improv 201 and someone who’s finished Improv 401. You can see vast levels of skill differences between someone who does improv more regularly and someone who doesn’t, but that doesn’t give anyone the license to shoot someone else down. This is true for all forms of art and science, but it is quite stark in improv because here, you explicitly state that there are ‘no mistakes’.

I understand a lot of people develop terrible improv routines and crutches, but when you’re in a position to do something about it, approach with love and understanding and work with them, not tearing down everything they stand for.

I find a lot of people revelling in abuse they get from those they consider pros and maestros. A senior programmer roasting your design on a public forum is met with admiration, never mind that under different circumstances, they might have praised the same design. An experienced standup taking nasty digs at a younger standup and it gets brushed off as ‘ribbing’ and ‘more publicity’. A famous guitar teacher hitting the knuckles of his students when they make mistakes is something they talk about proudly in interviews. Why, there was this famous ICSE tuition teacher in Basavanagudi who was famous for his abuse and thrashing, and someone everyone just went with it as a feature and not a bug. There are famous quizzers on the Indian quizzing circuits who are more famous and admired for their insults than for their breadth and depth of knowledge.

It somehow feels okay to give talented people leeway to be nasty, because they are talented.

That’s how you get a Roman Polanski and a Woody Allen.

The point is, talent doesn’t usually make you any nastier, unless you have others enabling that behaviour. Talent doesn’t suddenly give you a license for eccentric behaviour either. Eccentric behaviour usually doesn’t help with talent. I watched Michale Fassbender’s Frank recently, and there’s a line where the lead character’s parents say ‘He was always musical, the mental illness didn’t make it any better… if anything, it’s slowed him down’. That’s how it usually is. You can’t and shouldn’t conclude from Robin Williams’ suicide that all comedy comes from a sad, dark place.

Perpetuating those stereotypes usually just serves to keep people out. It also reinforces and enables bad behaviour and a cycle of abuse. And the thing is, you don’t have to tolerate that.

Everyone has the right to be respected and treated like a human being. If someone is being nasty to you, it’s just that, they are being nasty to you. Their talent has little to do with it. If anything, the most talented people are also the nicest and more humble, because they recognize that they got to where they are not just by ability and effort, but also with a lot of luck and mentoring.

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