India’s one-time VJs have moved on to even cooler jobs

Lola Kutty has folded away her Kanjeevarams, Cyrus Broacha is a master satirist and Maria Goretti is cooking up a storm. VJs, once India’s gateway to the global arena, have moved on to even cooler jobs.

brunch Updated: Feb 28, 2016 01:09 IST
Lola Kutty,Maria Goretti,Cyrus Broacha

Do you remember the 1990s? That brief, glorious phase just after liberalisation, just before the internet, when India took its first steps on the global stage? English films, Western fashion and international travel beamed into our living rooms. And music was fastest language of change. While MTV and Channel [V] didn’t just play chart-toppers, their video jockeys were the first embodiment of the new India – cool, confident, spontaneous, and a lot of fun.

“Young Indians were hungry for a soundtrack to their lives,” says Alex Kuruvilla, the managing director at MTV India at the time who is now the managing director at Condé Nast India. “And VJs were irreverent and anti-establishment, which tapped into the vein of youth rebellion.” Whether you liked comedy, fashion, travel or music, there was a VJ for everyone. Cyrus Oshidar, formerly in-charge of the creative and content department at MTV India (who now works at 101India), says the VJs’ personalities reflected in their shows. “Unlike Bollywood, they were not playing characters.”

The flame was bright, but short-lived. By the early 2000s, as the internet took over, music television changed. Both MTV and Channel [V] now focus on reality shows. The VJs, meanwhile, have reinvented themselves, using early fame as a stepping stone to become music producers, stand-up comics, authors and more. “VJing made them brands and that was their calling card,” says Kuruvilla. Oshidar adds that the platform allowed them to craft their own personas, and success bred success. “They had begun getting sponsorship deals and were being roped in as spokespersons for various causes such as animal rights.”

Here’s how the one-time VJs have channelled their passions into new avenues.

Nikhil Chinapa: Making India dance

Nikhil Chinapa says that had it not been for MTV, he would have never met his wife and fellow music junkie, Pearl Miglani. “She had called a producer on MTV Select and I liked her voice. We went on a blind date later,” he laughs. When Chinapa, an architecture graduate, participated in the network’s VJ Hunt over two decades ago, he hoped to be like Cyrus Broacha. “Cyrus was the first VJ who was not supermodel-esque. Sophia Haque and Rahul Khanna were stylish; he had a guy-next-door appeal and was hired because he was ridiculously funny,” he says.

Nikhil Chinapa is a DJ, music producer and EDM aficionado.

He won, of course. And Chinapa went on to become a music icon of sorts, introducing teens to legendary bands on MTV Select. He fielded calls and shared trivia about artists in the midst of shooting baskets on the show. (Remember the cool sets of Select? There was even a bath tub.) And viewers lapped it up. “I miss that connection in music programming, telling viewers how a band met and got together,” he says.

Today, Chinapa continues to work in music and is the considered one of the pioneers of dance music in India. He has brought renowned international acts including Armin Van Buuren, Swedish House Mafia, Steve Aoki, Tiesto and more to India to perform.

Chinapa discovered electronic music in the late 1990s, claiming he couldn’t understand the grunge sound that was popular then. “Pearl and I went on a dancing holiday in 2000, covering Ibiza, Amsterdam, Barcelona and London over a month. We missed having our friends around and that’s when we decided we had to bring dance music back to India.” He eventually started Submerge, India’s first EDM portal, in 2003.

His long stint at MTV (nearly two decades), travelling and interviewing musicians from Diana King to Pink, paved the way for future roles as a DJ, RJ, MC, music promoter and festival director.

He is currently working on a collaboration between The Exchange, an annual Indian music conference, and AVA festival from Ireland, to be held in Mumbai next month. “It’s to bridge the gap between diverse artist communities. MTV allowed me to explore the world and that’s what I continue to do,” he says.

Cyrus Broacha: The spoof king

Ask Cyrus Broacha how he stumbled into VJing and he’s quick to say, “Oh my God, wasn’t that before the American Civil War?” Arguably the most popular face of MTV India,he joined the channel over 20 years ago, when they “weren’t interested in looks or talent”.

Today Broacha may have shifted gears, but humour remains his mainstay. He was last seen on the big screen in Roy last year and anchors the satire news show, The Week that Wasn’t. Last year, he started Cyrus Says, a podcast in which he covers current affairs and other specific issues in a lighter vein. “For an episode recently, we had a sex therapist who works with kids,” he says.

Cyrus Broacha continues to humour people with his TV show and podcast.

When it came to Broacha’s shows, nothing was out of bounds. He remembers waking up at 5am to get his body waxed for a Women’s Day episode, to empathise with girls. “I was wearing a short skirt, a tank top and heels. I fell about five times while on air,” he says. He vividly remembers the day he interviewed Amitabh Bachchan, shortly after Eer Bir Phatte (remember Bachchan walking a school’s corridors singing a story of friendship?) was released. A producer had asked everyone to switch off their phones, when the interview was suddenly interrupted by a loud ringtone. “The producer was furious and kept asking whose phone it was. Then, India’s most famous baritone said, “Woh main hoon”.”

Having been a part of MTV’s evolution through the decades, Broacha says that they would often joke that MTV had become a channel of ads with music in between. “The last song I actually heard was an Altaf Raja qawwali,” he laughs.

Luke Kenny: Making music matter

For the millennial generation, Luke Kenny was the long-haired, firang-looking VJ introducing viewers to fantastic English music (think Pink Floyd, The Doors, REM, Grateful Dead) on Luke’s After Hours, that aired every weekend on Channel [V.] Today, Kenny has his own band, plays tribute gigs, has done theatre, and also extended his musical repertoire to Bollywood. He reprises his role as a musician in the upcoming Rock On!! 2.

Luke Kenny is a music composer. (Yogen Shah)

Coming from a musically inclined family, Kenny’s early days included “vociferously chasing knowledge” ­– a mix of Hindi films and international pop and rock sounds. “There was no internet, so I had to rely on second-hand foreign magazines or local ones that got their news from foreign sources,” he recalls. “Later, when I was a VJ, it was this accumulated knowledge that served me well, as I was able to throw in little-known facts about the music in my scripts.”

Of Irish-Italian descent, Kenny was the first male VJ in India, and had joined Channel [V] just a few months after its inception, becoming young India gateway to understanding international music. “VJs did not need to look like a Bollywood actor to be cool. We spoke their language, talked about their music and became aspirational as a medium of personal expression, be it style or poise or even attitude,” he says.

After heading Channel [V]’s programming division for twelve years, Kenny is now involved in other music projects. Last year he made an inventive video set to John Lennon’s Imagine, campaigning for net neutrality. More recently, he composed a multi-lingual song for a news network to aid Chennai’s rehabilitation. His next projects include an Indo-Swedish road film, and a music film chronicling the journey of four talented young girls thrown together by fate.

Lola Kutty: Standing up for stand-up

In bright Kanjeevaram saris, curly hair, a gajra and a geeky, bespectacled face, she cut a stark contrast to the VJs of her era. But when Lola Kutty, in her Malayali accent, interviewed guests and pulled them up for their ignorance on her show Lola TV, viewers were in splits. Channel [V]’s resident Beauty on Duty, Kutty, aka Anu Menon, was “the antithesis of cool. And helped dispel stereotypes about ‘south Indians’. Somewhere I was channelling their angst. Here was a Malayali from Madras who wasn’t dark-skinned.”

Anu Menon does stand-up comedy.

Before she was hired by Channel [V], Menon, a Chennai native, was a theatre aspirant. “I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a ‘cool’ VJ. I always loved accents, and that’s how we sketched Lola,” she recalls. The interviews were infused with spontaneity. “I’ve been chased around the sets by Boman Irani and physically picked up by Shaggy, the musician. I got a lot of action in my professional life.”

While her identity was under wraps for a long time, Menon adds that she was often restricted by Lola Kutty. “I remember the Shaggy episode. I had to be Lola while interviewing him and the result was a Malayali-meets-Caribbean accent,” she says.

Today, Menon has extended her wit to the stage and is a familiar face on. Her sets borrow heavily from her own life – she’s married to a Gujarati marine engineer and has a preschool-going son – and often bring out gender stereotypes.

“With the way TV shows cater to smaller cities now, I don’t think Lola’s character would be as popular today. Unless it’s a platform like YouTube,” Menon says. Theatre continues to be her pet project and she was last seen in an adaptation of The God of Carnage. “Lola helped pay the bills so I could do theatre,” says Menon, who is currently touring with Vir Das’s Pajama Fest.

Anusha Dandekar: Keeping it stylish

Growing up in Sydney, Anusha Dandekar was obsessed with fashion. She worked at a clothing store as a student, learned to do her hair and make-up when she was a teen and often raided her older sister Shibani’s wardrobe. “It was better to wear them new than when as hand-me-downs and were out of style,” she says. So when she joined MTV in 2002, it was only natural that she channelled this obssession in Style Check.

Anusha Dandekar’s YouTube channel offers style tips. (Viral Bhayani)

At a time when India had only a handful of fashion magazines, Dandekar, with her Westernised accent and upbeat look, became a style influencer. She would visit colleges to see what students wore, scoured the runway and tweaked trends to suit their budgets. “I remember interviewing Amitabh Bachchan and I asked him what briefs he wore. His response was cooler. He said “commando”,” she recalls. ‘Keep it stylish’, the tagline she coined, continues to be associated with her.

Dandekar has explored Bollywood, singing, and has a YouTube channel on which she blogs about her shopping hauls, gives make-up tips and even shares her workout routine with over 40,000 subscribers. MTV, she says, taught her the importance of spontaneity. “My best memory will always be the VJ Hunt. I was fearless, excited and just having fun. I tap into that girl when things get too hectic.”

Juhi Pande: From songs to stories

With a pixie crop, baggy jeans and an energy that bounced off the walls of the studio, Juhi Pande fit right in with the VJs when she joined Channel [V] in 2004. So it’s surprising when she confesses she was shy and only got into hosting by accident. She was roped in when she was working as a model co-ordinator and was handed four shows at one go, including Launch Pad, for up-and-coming musicians.

Juhi Pande’s online publication includes unusual stories from London and Mumbai.

Three years after she left, Pande’s best memories are of travelling to far-flung places in India for Freedom Express. From Leh to hamlets in Himachal Pradesh, Pande explored it all, dining at roadside dhabas and sleeping in strangers’ homes. “We would buy basic train tickets and be cramped in an Innova, travelling for days on end,” recalls Pande.

She turned to writing in 2010, penning guest columns on travel and growing up in various cities as her father was with the Indian Air Force. She even authored a book, Things Your Mother Never Told You About Love, in 2014.

Her newest project, The City Story, is an online publication that chronicles little-known stories from Mumbai and London, where she currently resides. “We have a network of writers and photographers and plan to integrate videos, podcasts and maps,” she says. “The idea is to unravel a city through personal narratives.”

Maria Goretti: Cooking her way forward

When Maria Goretti was roped in as a VJ for MTV over 15 years ago, her favourite part of the job was the travel, closely followed by the food. “Oh, the number of places we ate at! I was a big foodie and my marketing team knew that as long as they fed me, I was happy,” she recalls with a laugh. Today, Goretti is a published chef. Her cookbook, From My Kitchen to Yours, hit the shelves in December, she has a YouTube channel, and a cookery show, I Love Cooking, which went on air recently. Clearly, food is serious business.

Maria Goretti cooks, shoots and writes. (Viral Bhayani)

“Being with MTV left me very satiated and spoilt. It set a benchmark for the people I wanted to work with,” says Goretti, who took to cooking when her son was a toddler, and realised that she loved baking. “It’s easy and quick, I can just put stuff together and put it in the oven for 35 minutes,” she says. After beginning with a food blog in 2010, she did a Cordon Bleu certificate course in cooking and baking in the UK.

She calls her VJ stint the most fun five-and-a-half years of her life, travelling, meeting musicians and being introduced to so much music. “We did such crazy things,” she recalls. “The other day, I found a dance spoof that Mini [Mathur], Cyrus [Broacha] and I were in. It was Kuch Kuch Hota Hota; I played Kajol, Mini did Rani Mukherjee and Cyrus was Shah Rukh Khan!” she cracks up.

It was with Broacha that she had her first live show, an incident she can never forget. Goretti was bantering with Broacha when he suddenly decided to throw an empty bottle into the audience. “In the next 30 seconds, everyone started chucking bottles on the stage, while one of the marketing guys in the wings was saying “Run, Maria, run!” she recalls. “Being with young, enthusiastic people who shared your craziness and sensibility at MTV has spoiled me for life.”

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From HT Brunch, February 28, 2016

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First Published: Feb 28, 2016 00:20 IST