15 May 2017

Relative Value: Irreverently Speaking

Humour and ‘uncensoredness’ are traits journalist Vinod Dua shares with his daughter, internet star Mallika.

Vinod Dua has the proverbial elephant’s memory. Asked about his Delhi childhood, the veteran Hindi journalist begins with the address of his Jangpura home (R-10, Shiv Market), informs me that his first and sixth birthdays were celebrated there (1955 and 1961 respectively), and ends with the perfect historical anecdote. After a fire at the local Eros Cinema, Dua’s elder brother, then about 12, salvaged some burnt Mughal-e-Azam ticket books. “Unko ghar laake bahut khush ho rahe thhe bhaisaab (Bhaisaab was pleased to have brought them home),” Dua says. Then he turns to his daughter Mallika and says: “Yaad hai? (Remember?)”

Mallika groans on cue. Vinod’s deadpan humour — casually asking his 1989-born daughter if she remembers an incident from 1960 — is clearly integral to their equation. And though Mallika might find herself on the receiving end here, in her public comedienne avatar she gives as good as she gets. After all, calling people out, puncturing pomposity, and generally being irreverent is a Dua family tradition. “We make fun of everything at home. Hum toh god ko bhi nahi chhodte (Even god is not spared),” says Mallika.

“This uncensored way of addressing people” is something she’s got from her father. The Instagram/Snapchat generation may be more familiar with Mallika’s madly popular dubsmashes, populated by an ever-growing tribe of hilarious characters with pitch-perfect accents — the always-wounded Make-Up Didi; the insufferably sunny Shagun (who calls her fans ‘Shaggers’); the aggressive Komal didi egging on the mournful Khushboo. But those who’ve grown up on Vinod’s astute political analysis are familiar with his trademark dry humour. From Aap ke Liye and Janvani in the 1980s, through Parakh, Pratidin and Vinod Dua Live in the 1990s, right down to the superb Jan Gan Man ki Baat internet videos he currently does for the Hindi edition of a news website, he has always taken on the issues of the day with acerbic wit and a file of facts by his side. If he refers to the PM — with gleeful accuracy — as our ‘Pradhaan Sevak’ (Chief Service Provider), he does not shy away from mocking Congress leaders by name for the cushioned comfort in which they live, or attacking the ineffectualness of the Left. One imagines this is the same tenor in which Vinod told Mallika and her sister stories of “bhagwaan ji” when they were kids: “basically cutting him down to human level.”

A self-declared proud and secular liberal, Vinod may now inhabit a stereotypical Lutyens’ Delhi universe, with an office on Prithviraj Road, membership of the India International Centre, and a predilection for Khan Market. But he grew up as the son of a bank clerk and a homemaker, living in post-Partition refugee colonies in North Delhi such as Hakikat Nagar, Derawal Nagar and Ashok Vihar before moving to Delhi University hostels. His transition from a Hindi-medium education gained in government schools (and a private DAV-affiliated school in Roop Nagar) to a BA in English makes for a great story. As Vinod tells it, “I scored 48.7 per cent marks in Higher Secondary and got admission in BA Pass Course Hindi Medium in Hansraj College, where, according to Mani Shankar Aiyar, they don’t teach you how to pronounce the word dichotomous correctly.” He then managed to top an intra-class English test, defeating what he calls “the pehelwans of Sports Quota” who dominated his class. “Immediately I wrote an application to transfer to BA Hons English Medium. The moment [it was accepted], I knew that I had crossed the class barrier: I will make something of my life now.”

But while determined to improve his spoken English (by reading the classics on his syllabus, watching Doordarshan News and practicing on his supportive English-speaking friends) Vinod remained aware that it was spoken Hindi that was his metier. Actively involved in street theatre and in Delhi University student politics, he applied to anchor a youth programme for Doordarshan while still in college in 1974. “When they asked me why I thought I could anchor, I said, your anchors look like jilted lovers,” he guffaws. “They were not used to this sort of speech. Because they were used to Hindiwallahs — ki “Didi main idhar se nikal raha thha, socha aap se milta chaloon” (Didi, I was passing by and thought I’d pay my respects).

Vinod has made a career of defying that culture of obsequiousness. Whether on-screen or off it, he is that rare public figure who still calls a spade a spade: “In the initial phase of news channels, we really experienced freedom. Until three years ago, most channels were editor-driven. Now they are owner-driven. Because we are living in an era of undeclared emergency, most channels have become sarkaari. Now that media freedom is being attacked, there is a larger role for political satire. Earlier we didn’t need it.”

In her ‘uncensoredness’, as well as in the comfortable bilinguality that makes her mimicry so acute, Mallika is a chip off the old block. Unlike the comedy collective AIB, her humour is more zany than political (“The news depresses me, that’s my excuse for ignorance”). But her instincts are sharp, and her bullshit radar sound, especially when it comes to the nuances of relationships, gender and social stereotypes. A Delhi girl used to her car and driver, she is unapologetic about wanting to live the good life — but be unsparingly funny while at it. After majoring in theatre at Franklin and Marshall College in the USA, she took an advertising job in Delhi for three years “because I didn’t want to sit around waiting for roles and anyway theatre doesn’t make money”. 

After her dubsmashes started to go viral, she ditched the job for influencer marketing gigs, and Delhi for Bombay last August. She’s signed up to act in three web series to be made this year. She may be producing content for our most impatient generation yet, but Mallika Dua wants to be the proverbial tortoise who wins the race. “I want to do films also. But the calls I get are ‘Alia Bhatt ki friend hai, thodi chubby si’ and I’m like ‘Don’t even bother’. If Tina Fey can have shows made around her, why can’t we? I’m not in a hurry. I’ll wait.”

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 14 May 2017.

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