Time:10:45 am, Location: The MTV office in Parel, Mumbai, Subject: Cyrus Sahukar.
We enter through the back entrance, to where the channel hides this half-Punjabi, half-Parsi, six foot three giant, who has made a career out of being what he is not. But he is not there.
We meet Thakur of Sholay instead. The shock of white hair, the drawl and shawl are all in place. Cyrus’s hands peeping out from under the get-up are a bit of a give away though. Before evening rolls in, he slips effortlessly into three other characters, changing his voice and mannerisms for each, before we beg the real Cyrus Sahukar to please stand up.
By his own account, he was a “quiet, sweet, relatively normal boy, who came from Delhi.” But that was before he was plunged into the humour laboratory called MTV and, more importantly, Mumbai. "I was a little kinky perhaps, but not like this," he says. "Like this" means he does not stop talking, except perhaps for a breath or two. Flirts shamelessly with anything that moves – women and men, with one classic line – "Hello, beauty." He also chases children in his Thakur getup and gets random strangers on the street to adjust his moustache.
But when he was picked up at the MTV VJ hunt, seven years ago, his comic persona was hidden under layers of middle-class normalcy. "It was a scary time. Channel V had just been launched as well and there were 15 new VJs every week. And to top that off, my name was Cyrus."
It made comparisons to TV’s ultimate funny man, Cyrus Broacha, de rigeur. "He had just hit Bakra pay dirt and here I was, 10 years younger, trying to live up to a name." Cyrus mumbles about the unfairness of Parsis having just seven to eight names to choose from in the first place.
The out-of-his-depth-boy routine, however, was quickly thumped out of him. One of the first things he learnt? To look at the camera. I had never faced one before so I would look in all directions, waving to the light boys, looking left, looking right, my eyeballs swinging around.
I looked like I was off my rocker on-tape.” The schedule didn’t help. Shooting six episodes a day, setting up a home from scratch, worrying about how he looked on camera, finishing college by correspondence...
“I had never been alone and on my own in my life. And I had to get used to Mumbai and MTV.” Growing mentally, Cyrus also grew physically. He was skinny when he became a VJ, before he went off to exotic locations on shoots, staying at five-star hotels with whole menus at his fingertips.
“They’d bring me the menu and ask what I wanted and I was like, ‘Dude, everything’.” But despite the high life, Cyrus has never been tempted by the usual excesses of showbiz. “I get physically sick around alcohol and I have never done drugs. Nope, the only thing I let myself go on is food.
I can have lengthy conversations on the texture of kebabs and the succulent aroma of tandoori chicken.”
Though he knows what he likes, Cyrus has never figured out exactly what people like about him. He is ashamed of 99 per cent of what he churns out, apologising profusely for it. “Maybe it is my face, the strange eyes, or my sarcasm. I haven’t really figured it out.”
What he did figure out very early in his career, was that he could never be the conventional VJ, all yo and cool. For one, he had a short attention span. So hosting shows left him bored witless.
Thankfully it wasn’t long till MTV homed in on his talent for playing dress up.
Cyrus has a slightly different take on it though.
“It wasn’t like I was special, a genius in hiding. All the other VJs were doing cool stuff and I was the only one who would wear the frocks.” So he played the ABBA girls, Shania Twain and other relatively easier roles like Jim Morrison and Eric Clapton. A star, as they say, was born.
Cyrus presents quite a pretty picture as he emerges in his Semi Girebaal costume. But the process of transforming into a woman takes a lot out of him. “It is the wig. It keeps tickling me. I have no idea how women manage their hair, seriously.”
But despite complaining of how raw his face is because of the makeup, Cyrus knows Semi Girebaal is his golden goose and also the character he seems to play most easily.
Does it bother him that all he ever does is spoof characters, from Navjot Singh Siddhu to Simi Grewal, instead of original humour in the style of stalwarts like Rowan Atkinson, Jerry Seinfield and the Monty Python gang?
“That is the problem with comedy in India. Spoofing sells. Come up with original comedy about the hilarious nation we are, with funny accents and odd rituals and we get into trouble.” An indication of this is the hate mail the MTV website received on its Piddhu section.
However, Cyrus still has hope for the nation’s funny bone. “Well, look at it – it’s hot, the population is huge, there is poverty and yet we are quite a giggly bunch.” He predicts that it is just a matter of time before we learn to laugh at ourselves. “Good humour is always based on insults, isn’t it?” he asks.
Good comedy is a topic that galvanises him. “Look at the scripts. I get them 10 seconds before a show starts. Most of what I do is ad libbed in front of the camera. Seinfield on the other hand does three months of research for 25 minutes of stand up comedy. But this is India. So we shoot six to seven episodes a week. Of course we won’t be that good.”
Breaking the tradition of other comedians, Cyrus reveals that he has no angst that he needs to purge through humour. “Yes, my parents did separate when I was four but I was not deeply disturbed by it.
I was brought up by three strong women, my mother, my grandmother and my sister.” So besides the routine abuses hurled at men in general by the three, Cyrus grew up unscarred. His humour has nothing to do with being Parsi either.
“I grew up in Delhi, where there are no Parsis. But once I came to Mumbai, I realised how quirky Parsis are. Do you know Broacha’s eyes twitch and he doesn’t realise it? I just watch and learn.”
So what is it that drives him to put on a woman’s costume for the second season of Semi Girebaal? Ultimately, it is about the need to make people laugh. “That and the fact that comedy is the only way you can say what you want and get away with it.”
The comedian does take a break some times. Mostly, with work, like hosting Business Bazigaar for Zee, which he claims he did because he got to wear suits instead of costumes. Or star in “dead body” roles like the struggling RJ of Rang De Basanti.
But sometimes, just sometimes, he shuts up and lets his friends take over. “I like being around funny people because then I can stop being funny for some time. I can just sit back and enjoy the show they put up for me.”
Life in control, having matured from the “seriously uncool boy” who came to Mumbai, Cyrus is at peace. That is, until someone tells him that his chest hair is peeking out from beneath the net tulle of his dress. His eyes bulge and his veins pop. We leave before the carnage begins.
CYRUS AS PIDDHU:
Which Bollywood heroine would you like to marry?
Aishwarya Rai, because a girl born beautiful is half married. So I’ll save half my marriage expenses.
You are known for the witty remarks you make which are called Piddhuisms. Give us what you consider your five best.
1. It’s very difficult to kill a man who is hell bent on committing suicide.
2. Experience is like a comb life gives you when you are bald.
3. Age is a perfect fire extinguisher to flaming youth.
4. The only thing you get in life without trying is dandruff.
5. Agar meri chachi ki moonchein hoti to main use chacha na kehta?
Have you received any Bollywood offers?
Oye badshaho, Bollywood has nothing to offer me. Isiliye kehta hoon, beware of the naked man, who offers you his shirt.
How did you get a name like Piddhu?
Huzoor-e-wala, kyunki ‘Piddhu’ is the only name that rhymes nicely with ‘Siddhu’!
What do you think of the sartorial sense of today’s heroines? Do you object to the brevity of their clothes?
I don’t find anything wrong in the clothes, I find everything right. But tell me, why do today’s heroines cut their clothes short? Kyunki, it’s a short-cut to fame!!!
Does Piddhu ever stop talking?
Oye, stupid fool, have you seen my show, Piddhu the Great? I never talk on the show.
Your single most embarrassing moment?
Main paagal hoon jo aapko bataunga. But itna sun lo. When I get embarrassed, I behave like a one-legged man in a bum-kicking competition.
Have you ever been stoned for your sense of humour?
No, and how dare you ask. I speak the truth in a hidden language.
What do you like most about the show?
The fact that I am in every single song, with no director, no cameraman and no editor to cut me out.
Where did you learn to dance?
I don’t learn, I only teach because dance is in my body, my mind, my soul.
Were you dropped on your head as a baby?
No, I was dropped on my feet.
What came first? Piddhu or piddhuisms?
Piddhuisms! I am only an empty vessel, an aerial, an antenna that catches them.
What is your biggest passion in life?
Your greatest fear?
That Bollywood will stop making movies and I will have no films to talk about.
The latest movie you saw and liked?
Lage Raho Munnabhai... I really liked the sound effects.
One thing you would change about yourself?
I don’t like my left profile in the morning.
CYRUS AS SEMI GIREBAAL:
How do you keep your clothes so ghostly white?
I keep them away from all the other evil colours.
You are quite possibly the ugliest woman on TV. Who would you consider your top competitors?
The only competition to my show is a show on plants that I watch early in the morning. It is far more entertaining.
We heard on the grapevine that you are having an affair with Cyrus Broacha. Is this true?
Certainly not. I would never date a VJ. They are much too downmarket.
Which products are you endorsing?
Oh, many, many products. Semi Tears, designer toothbrushes for people with dentures.
Describe your life in one sentence.
I came, I saw and I had to leave because I couldn’t bear the ugliness.
Have you ever faced the casting couch?
Yes, once. But it was much too ugly to look at, so I had it re-upholstered in white and then had it framed.
You have become a role model for many people. What is your message to them?
It is only when we truly know ourselves that we know others. Therefore, feel and touch yourself everyday.
What do you do to keep your figure so fabulous? Give us all your fitness secrets.
It is all great genetics, my dear.
Who do you hold responsible for your success?
It is the love of the common people, really. It is their emotions that really count.
What is the private Semi Girebaal like?
I am quite a tomboy and do what normal boys do.
What is your stand on botox and plastic surgery?
There is so much ugliness in life. It is so vulgar. So objects placed to enhance certain strategic areas of the body save many personalities. Notice some of our male VJs for example.
Does your feather boa have a life of its own?
Yes, it does or maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know, it doesn’t move very much. Maybe because it has feathers from an aging crow.
What did you do before your talk show launched? Did you have a life before Rendezvous with Semi Girebaal?
I did the same things really, but no one was shooting then.
CYRUS AS THAKUR:
Which book would you prefer to keep in your library? A
Farewell to Arms or Arms and the Man?
With a very heavy heart (haath), A Farewell to Arms.
What do you think of Jai becoming the new Gabbar?
Gabbar koi bhi ho, he shouldn’t forget, “yeh haath nahin, phansi ka phanda… thhe.”
Have you experienced hair loss lately? Have you taken to wearing a wig?
Yes, but wearing a wig today is no wig deal!
You have gorgeous legs. Do you cycle?
Don’t try to pull my leg. But then, you can’t pull my hands either!
What do you think of the new metrosexual Gabbar with green contact lenses?
I am not interested in his contact lenses. I want his contact number!
Who do you secretly lust after in Sholay and why?
Veeru, because he’s got very strong arms!
Has Ram Gopal Varma been bothering you lately?
Mujhe Ram Gopal Varma zinda chahiye. Zinda.
Your fellow characters, Gabbar and Kaalia, have both endorsed products.
What would you like to endorse?
Arms and Ammunition.
What footwear would you use as a weapon?
Name two people you would hire as your mercenary avenging angels today?
Krrish and Mr India
How do you change channels?
When I feel like changing the channel, I change my mind.
Have you ever wanted to turn to dacoity yourself? What is the money like these days?
I never ran after money, kyunki, paisa to haath ka mail hai!
Pick one of these modes of transport – Basanti’s tanga or Basanti’s autorickshaw. And tell us why you picked it.
I would take Basanti’s tanga, because I have a huge crush on Dhanno.
How do you groom your moustache?
I don’t like moustaches; I think God wanted to join our eyebrows, so he made moustaches.
CYRUS AS RIMESH HESHAMMIYA:
How does it feel to be the icon of all auto rickshawallas?
It feels good. In fact, if not a music director, I would have been a rickshawalla. But then music’s gain (ahem) is public transport’s loss. Many people say listening to my music reminds them of a rickshaw ride – erratic, bumpy and one always ends up paying more.
What do you think is the hallmark of your music?
Huh? What music?
Err... okay. Why in heaven’s name did you decide to start singing?
Because gardening is not as lucrative as I had thought.
Why do you always hold your mike upwards like that?
When I started singing, people always assumed that I was taller than I am. And they kept adjusting the mike to a height I couldn’t reach. After that, my neck just got caught in that position.
What is the secret of your success?
Liscosercumia of the nose.
Things you love about being Gujarati?
I like dhokla. I like playing garba. And I like being nosey. Sorry, pun intended nahi tha!
Why has Kumar Sanu never achieved the heights you have?
Because he doesn’t have a cap. And he sings through his mouth.
Could it be that he is not a music composer, unlike you?
Oh, and that too! Yes, yes!
What do you do with all your money?
I buy caps. Not many people know this, but I never wear the same cap twice. Nowadays you can’t rely on these cap manufacturers – just one wear and the cap is infested with lice. Tch tch!
Why do you always look so sad?
I am scared of the income-tax people. Since my first performance, I have been getting calls from them. Though I earn a lot, I always have a forlorn look to avoid showing any sign of happiness. As the saying goes, money can’t buy happiness.
Have you thought of acting in films?
Yes, but sadly so far I’ve only been getting offers from Ramsay brothers to play a ghost in their movie. This prompted me to launch a movie with me in the lead. I hope the film works, my nose is too tired to sing now.
What is your daily riyaaz session like?
I pick my nose clean. Then, I use the nasal inhaler to clear my nose of bad aura. If I have a cold, then I don’t do riyaaz.
Do you take off your baseball cap when you sleep or shower?
Only when I sleep. What’s a shower?