A ‘Then and Now’ conversation is always interesting. If nothing else, just to relive old memories, talk about the past, compare it to the present and philosophise! That’s pretty much what we did with Cyrus Sahukar, former VJ, actor, theatre-person, emcee and TV anchor (remember his Simi Girebal spoof on the famous Rendezvous with Simi Garewal show of the 90s and early 2000s? If you don’t YouTube them now!).
Cyrus had had a busy month, shooting for Colors TV ME’s family quiz show Brain Wagon. “Three episodes in three days, it’s pretty full on man,” he laughs when we catch him in between breaks during the shoot at a studio in Al Quoz. Not that he is complaining. Meeting people from all walks of life, observing reactions of the contestants and quizzing people on various topics, excites him to no end.
Cyrus is your quintessential ‘90s man. He burst on the television scene at a time when we weren’t inundated with channels, blogs, videos and the like. There was an audience that had an attention span of over 10 seconds and TV hosts, especially the VJs on music channels like MTV and Channel V, were role models for a generation that was aspiring to go global.
Things have changed and how! With Netflix, Amazon et al. and other streaming giants, along with a hundred YouTube channels and random influencers popping up every other day, it’s a challenge to reinvent every single time to grab the attention of the social media savvy generation. But Cyrus, seen in movies like Rang De Basanti, Aisha, Khoobsurat among others, isn’t unduly worried. He is happy to go with the flow and keep his fingers occupied in many different pies as we find out in this long and free-flowing conversation…
What are your memories of quiz shows? The serious one that has made a mark recently is Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC)…
I loved the shows of the 90s and 80s, Quiz Time, Derek O’Brien’s show and others. Yes, KBC is the only one we which is in the game format while others are specialised quiz formats. This (Brain Wagon) is more in the KBC realm. But it’s more specialised, more fun and don’t get specifically into everything. I think that’s the way the world is now. People like a mixed bag. Having said that, I loved those shows back in the day. I didn’t know answers to half the questions but I was totally into them. At the end of the day, we had limited channels to actually watch, so everything was a big deal. There are times when I revisit some shows that were iconic for me and I go ‘Uh! What the hell was that?” For instance, I used to love Vikram Aur Betaal. I saw some episodes again and I realised it’s got the worst special effects in the history of the world! And to think I used to be obsessed about it as a kid!
How do you see television today? You burst on the scene at a time when satellite television had taken off. But now there is a plethora of content with everything going digital in a big way.
I don’t think anybody knew what was working in the 90s or 80s either! I don’t want too much television these days because a lot of stuff that’s on air, is not for me. Besides, there is such a big choice available to watch – from documentaries to comedies to suspense and drama series! There is clutter right now because so much is happening in India and India is a huge market. Hopefully it will start narrowing down slowly. I think lots of things will emerge, some will be terrible and there will be some things that are brilliant, like Sacred Games.
But how do you decide what works and what doesn’t?
I don’t know! As a viewer, I’m just going by what I like but I’m sure it must be working for some people otherwise they wouldn’t be making it in the first place! But here’s the good thing – we are so many people on this planet and we can’t even agree on what to order for breakfast so how could we possibly choose or decide on one particular genre? Most couples these days binge-watch two separate shows. In the 80’s and 90’s, there were one-TV households and families would huddle together to watch that one big show. But now you can watch everything on your phone! It’s about individual programming, about wanting to curate your own world!
In such a scenario, do you think there would be another Cyrus Broacha or Cyrus Sahukar or other VJs who were hugely popular and commanded a fan following?
No. I don’t think so. A lot of that is not because of the lack of people but the lack of podium. Today, to stand out and have a long career is a real challenge. Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Akshay Kumar had had careers for over 30 years! Who has a 30 year old career today? I think it’s no one’s fault, the world is changing at such a rapid pace. The one question that lot of people ask is “What are you doing NOW?’ ‘What are your plans six months from NOW?’ I don’t think you can ever have a five year plan of anything! The only thing you do is grow yourself and work on yourself and be creative enough for change so yeah have fun with that!
What are the shows you are busy with?
I travel a lot of live events. I also do a multi-city tour with Black Dog which a mix of easy evening to a collection of improv activities. I may be starting another show for MTV after a while. I had a great time writing and then acting in a film with Rajat Kapoor, called Kadak. It also stars Ranvir Shorey, Mansi Multani, Tara Sharma, Shruti Seth, Rajat Kapoor, Manoj Pahwa.
I am also busy with theatre; I was part of the Shakespeare Theatre Festival in Dubai last year. Then there is stand-up comedy. I’m hoping to do other interesting things while simultaneously also trying to slow down, have fun, travel, see the world, eat good Thai food in Dubai… (laughs).
For an artiste, what is the biggest challenge in a place like Mumbai because there is so much happening?
You mean, how do you stay relevant?
Well, yeah… With these YouTube influencers coming up, everyone is a celebrity. But when we mention your name, for instance, immediately people associate those shows you did in the past….
But they ask me “What do you do now?” (laughs).
Yes. But the point is, it’s not possible to have such shows that people will talk about 10 years later, is there? Right now, everyone is talking about Sacred Games, who knows what’s going to happen next…
The truth is, people want the clutter. As an artiste therefore, you have to really involve yourself and be part of a lot or find your niche.
How do you appeal to an attention-deficit youth audience?
For me I’m finding very different things! For example, I feel like the youth are the ones filling up sold-out shows for Black Dog; similarly with the Shakespeare fest, 55% of the time it’s a house full show. They are moving and venturing out and they want to see new things and want to know what’s happening. I find it strange when people talk about just the millennials but at the end of the day, I don’t have a single friend who doesn’t scroll down their phone every few minutes. The world is in that space and it is a good and mad space to be in!
While avenues are expanding, especially in India, there is also a lot of self-censorship. Comedians are being targeted for their posts and acts. Do you think twice before saying anything? What’s your take?
It is terrible what is happening in the country. But what I love about the comedy or comic fraternity is that they do support each other through it and it is a handful of these people who are on social media who have an opinion on everything and anything. It’s tragic and it’s happening globally.
Have you ever been trolled?
I have had a lot of drama with people. I don’t interact much on twitter because I find it exhausting. However, there has been more than enough drama with people though I don’t think it should affect you as a comedian. Easier said than done though! Imagine someone getting beaten up on stage, that’s the worst that could happen in our culture! Comedians represent what is culturally happening in our society. According to me, the most important kind of people in our society right now may be comedians. They have the guts to stand up to anything that they do.
Brain Wagon is aired on Colors TV ME, Sundays, 7:30 pm UAE Time.