We meet TV producer and actor Raghu Ram (41) at his Andheri office. He’s running half an hour late because, he says, it’s a day full of meetings. Raghu and his identical twin brother Rajiv Laxman set up Monozygotic Solutions, a content creation firm, in 2014. “It’s was Rajiv’s idea. He just said, ‘Let’s work together again.’”
Raghu became a household name in the early 2000s for being a judge on MTV’s reality adventure show, Roadies. The show garnered a massive fan following, while Raghu earned hate and fear for tearing contestants apart. He remained unapologetic, even as the Roadies brand rode on his infamy (at one point in the interview, he says people’s hands still shake while clicking a selfie with him). In 2008, Rajiv joined him as a judge.
Raghu Ram was perhaps the first Indian TV personality to make loud, abusive speech the new normal. Today, news anchors yell at their panellists, while everyone screams at each other on Twitter for having an opinion. Raghu is taken aback at the parallels. “It was just me expressing my frustration at the top of my lungs. For what it’s worth, I don’t think I’m responsible. News anchors would have screamed anyway. [But] if that has been in any way responsible for the rise of scream TV, I apologise. I didn’t intend to do that,” he says. After a pause, he adds, “You’ve depressed me.”
Currently, Raghu is working on what he knows best: TV shows. In particular, reality TV. His only fiction offering is a web series, A.I.SHA – My Virtual Girlfriend, about a geek, Sam, who creates an artificial intelligence app, which then goes rogue. The trailer of its second season launched this week, while its first episode will launch later this month. Raghu plays a mean boss, Sid, in the show. He admits Arré (the online platform that hosts A.I.SHA) was adamant that he play the role because of his image.
During our photoshoot, our photographer requests Raghu to smile. “I don’t generally smile,” comes the response, before obliging with a grin. Despite the aversion to smiling, he thinks of himself as “Mr Nice Guy”. “I’m nothing like my character Sid. He’s conniving, selfish and ruthless,” he says.
In the past, Raghu has done small roles in movies such as Tees Maar Khan (2010) and Jhootha Hi Sahi (2010). “Usually, I cringe when I watch myself on screen. A.I.SHA is the only time I didn’t cringe as much,” he says.
Although he is credited as the co-writer of the show with Harman Singha (who plays the protagonist), he says it’s more Singha’s work. “Season two is darker than the first. A.I.SHA is my take on humanity. Each character, except Kriti (Sam and Sid’s colleague), has an ulterior motive,” he says. And things don’t end well for Kriti in season one. Cynicism aside, he’s a bit of a sceptic as well: when we tell him we’ve seen the first four episodes (out of seven) of A.I.SHA, he is convinced we’ve only seen the trailer.
Turn to politics
The decision to quit Roadies in 2014 after a strong, 11-year-run was driven by various reasons. Partly, he admits he was sick of being the Roadies version of himself. “That was me, but a certain part of me that was amplified.”
It was also the time activist Anna Hazare’s political movement gathered momentum, and Raghu took to political activism. “I’ve always had strong opinions. I consider myself a liberal, rationalist and an atheist. I was disgusted by the communal politics and corruption. Once a band of civilians got together and launched a political party to fight the system from the inside, I thought the time had come to walk the talk,” he says.
From having never voted in his life, he has today campaigned all over the country for Aam Aadmi Party (though he is not a card-carrying member). He sings patriotic songs at public places and invites people for a conversation. “I’m a shy person, and have bodyguards to keep people away from me. I didn’t go anywhere for a decade for the fear of being mobbed. But campaigning is the opposite of life as a celebrity. I was attacked twice with a lathi during the national elections, and some people threw stones at me in Goa recently,” he says.
A good number of tweets by Raghu (@tweetfromraghu; 246K followers) are political in nature. He’s outspoken in his criticism of the right wing. “Now more than ever, it is important to stand up and be heard because that’s exactly what people are not allowing you to do,” he says. His voice rises significantly when he rages about 20-year-old student Gurmeher Kaur, daughter of a martyr, being trolled after she expressed her opinion through a video.
From our president to parents of martyrs, everyone opposing ABVP lies and violence. What's your stand? Don't need to tell me. Think. pic.twitter.com/6uU3a3BEvb— Raghu Ram (@tweetfromRaghu) March 3, 2017
When it comes to being trolled himself, Raghu says he loves it. “If they don’t react, I don’t think I’ve made an impact. The more they squirm, I know I’ve hit home. Secondly, because of the social media following, sometimes brands pay me. I managed to go two years without working because of these brainless idiots,” he says.