December 8, 1997  
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Entertainment & The Arts

Rustic Appeal

The LLB-dropout plays the crude but funny VJ Udham Singh with uncommon flair.

By Namrata Joshi

Munish MakhijaForget twice. Munish Makhija, 29, is not the sort of man you'd look at even once. That sounds rude. Well, just look at him then. Lanky, blue-jeaned, hairline in rapid retreat, he's a sort of English talking, Everyman walking, a perfect advertisement for average. It gets worse. Everybody, he says, "declared that I was a complete loss to humanity". There's only one thing then you can do with such a man. You take off his clothes, wrap him in a blanket, refuse to shave him, hand him a lathi, present him with a bhains (buffalo), seat him on a khatiya (cot), and ask him to speak to the camera in a language that even the Constitution of India hasn't made an allowance for. And look what happens: a star is born. Udham Singh, a veejay so wacky that biscuit companies (Britannia Checkkers) use him in their advertisements and rugged Haryanvi cops, who probably think rock 'n' roll is hard labour at a stone quarry, are tuning into Channel V for their daily fix of him.

Udham Singh is successful simply because he is the most unsuitable man for the job. Veejays are sexy; he looks like an unwashed night-watchman on Valium. Veejays have charisma; his idea of suave is scratching certain body parts that civilised people don't in public. Veejays say "dude" every other word; Udham introduces Michael Bolton's new love song by saying, "Ib yo baar baar rowey Can I Touch You There, mein boloon, please specify where." Fact is, Udham Singh's a hit; but why is Munish Makhija taking a bow?

Truth is this jeans-to-pyjama, English-to-Haryanvi, weekly transformation is an eerie, almost schizophrenic existence. But Makhija makes the personality shift with aplomb. Take a peek at his CV -- the very definition of a drifter's life -- and who would have thought so. Education: political science degree from Delhi's Kirori Mal College. Job experience: worked anywhere and never for long, from an ad agency to an automobile company to a small marketing firm in Bahrain. Allergy: a 9 to 5 existence. Stock answer to friends asking when he would hold down a proper job: "When the time comes." Further education: LLB at Delhi University but got bored midway. Present occupation: VJ, self-taught choreographer. It sounds incongruous, but in the heart of the nose-picking Udham rages a passion for dance. He's been a sort of visiting dance professor at Delhi's College of Vocational Studies, choreographs fashion shows and even has a dance troupe which performed with Daler Mehndi and Sukhbir at the Channel V Awards. This is his other life.

It still does not explain his ability to make this incredible transition. One day he's the soft spoken Makhija who philosophises: "If you want to get somewhere, you've got to just go for it." Next day he's Udham with a rough-hewn village drawl, his mimicry so exceptional that he admits, "People think V picked me up from the roadside in Haryana." There is a natural rhythm to his rural-speak, a gift of voice that allows him to catch even subtle nuances. "I've picked up some from friends but I keep developing it," he explains. Language is his weapon, the bedrock of his comedy; by merely translating songs literally from English to Haryanvi -- AC/DC's Cover you in oil becomes Tharey ko tel mein lapet doon -- he earns a guffaw.

For a man untutored in the art, he displays an uncommon flair for television. His scripts (written by himself) are inventive and if his personality is fondly described as "twisted", his sense of humour is the reason why. He recently discovered that wrestlers in Haryana are great fans of A.R. Rahman. Why? Because their motto too is Bande Maarte Hum. Part of just being Udham -- preserving that flavour of a languid crudo on a khatiya -- perhaps comes naturally. As Minty Tejpal, friend and also executive producer with V, says, "Munish has been a so-called vela banda (idler) and that trait suits Udham." It is a skilful forging of a character who has diverse appeal. Regular Channel V watchers see Udham as different, a rustic comedian bemused by the oddball behaviour of rock musicians. For the uninitiated, like the villagers in Gurgaon, there is instant identification too. A sort of apna banda (our man), a Haryanvi Crocodile Dundee let loose in (and ceaselessly mocking) urban India. That Makhija has managed to bridge these two disconnected people is unique. Shrugging, he says: "Despite our western outlook, we are subconsciously very Indian."

How Makhija turned Udham is expectedly a bizarre story. It began last year with Channel V's think-tank looking for a caricature of a Jat election officer from Meham to persuade watchers to vote for the Viewers' Choice Award. So Tejpal started rounding up his friends for a screen test. He watched, while Makhija (who wasn't testing but helping out) read out the script to those who were. Except that his own accent was so vulgarly perfect that Tejpal grabbed him, arranged for an immediate telephonic voice audition with the V team in Mumbai, and weeks later Udham Singh was on television, threatening viewers to cast their ballot, "Nahin to thari khopdi Haryana Roadways ki neeli peeli bus daure (Or else a Haryana Roadways bus will run over your head)." Bad taste sells. Soon Udham had his own show.

Today he's a minor institution. Even veejays love him. "Can I bribe someone to co-host a show with him?" asks Suchitra Pillai. Makhija though isn't sure whether to be happy about Udham Singh. First, he says, "I guess I've lost my name in the firing line of fame." Then, he adds, "I wouldn't have died if Udham didn't happen." Well, no, he wouldn't have, he'd just be the dancing Mr Three Quarters-Done-LLB. Till all that gets sorted out, we'll just sit down with the buffaloes and watch. I mean Udham did say, "Ib aap se request hai aap programme dekhen. Na dekhe Choudhury to ped pe chadha doon (Now you're requested to watch the programme or else I'll send you up the tree)."


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