The Versatile Mr Grover
An accomplished stand-up comedian, Varun Grover is an adept screenwriter, lyricist, and now author, as well
You were studying civil engineering in Benares. What led you to take up writing?
I was always interested in writing. Even through my years at IIT-BHU (1999–2003), I wrote lots of skits and some plays for various youth festivals and college competitions. My first short story was published at the age of 10—in the children’s monthly magazine Baal Hans (Rajasthan Patrika). I had my sights set on becoming a full-time writer. It’s just that it took me my graduation years to gain some clarity on how to achieve that.
Emotionally, what inspired me to become a writer was the impact of stories I read as a kid and as a young adult—Premchand, Satyajit Ray, Daniel Defoe, Jack London, [Miguel de] Cervantes.
The palpable worlds created simply by [putting] black text on white paper felt magical and unreal back then.
You have written a film screenplay (for Masaan) and, more recently, a graphic novel (Karejwa), both set in Varanasi. What draws you to the city?
Varanasi was the first city I got to explore on my own, without the supervision of my family. Probably, that’s also why almost every person feels a special connection to their college days—especially in India—because we understand the meaning of being independent, make connections with people of our choice, and go through heartbreaks, all on our own. Varanasi is that city for me.
If I had gone to college in any other city, my stories would probably have been set in them. But now, having explored many Indian cities, I can say that Varanasi has a culture and ethos so unique that it’s impossible not to get drenched in it. One of the oldest cities of our civilization, a city deeply invested in food, architecture, music, and existentialism—Varanasi is an enchanting mystery of a city.
You have collaborated with your wife, Raj Kumari, a writer and illustrator, on another graphic novel, Biksu. What was it like?
We wanted to adapt a beautiful letter by Raj's cousin Vikas Kumar Vidyarthi. The letter described his adolescent years in a missionary-run boarding school in a small place in Jharkhand and had all the elements of a unique coming-of-age story.
We started serializing it for the children’s magazine, Chakmak, and it took nearly two-and-a-half years to create 24 episodes of four pages each. Once the graphic serial was over (2012-2015), we started getting lots of requests to turn it into a book. We even found out about a reader who had cut out these pages and bound them together to make their own graphic novel!.
To convert it into a novel, Raj Kumari added another 30-40 pages and redesigned the whole thing. It took us another four years to find the right publisher to bring it out the way we wanted.
Recently, many stand-up artists were rebuked online and had to apologize for statements they had made in the past. Do you think it will lead to self-censorship?
Self-censorship is not the right word, I’d say. Censorship is always forced—and, of course, this [attitude] will lead to more of that. An artist is the most powerless creature in a society. They just have their words or music or camera—none of these stand any chance in front of violence or even repeated rape threats.
A society where absolutely powerless artists get so much hate and have to face so much trauma—sometimes, even after apologizing to the offended parties—creates censorship as an automatic, even instinctive, response in the minds of artists. Even while typing out this reply, I am constantly thinking if anything can be taken out of context to instigate somebody to put a bullet in my head. I hope not.
"I’d probably choose stand-up comedy, because that is the most satisfying for me. It has storytelling, comedy, commentary and it involves a lot of reading and observing the world with all its nuances," says Varun Grover. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Have you been told to stay away from commenting on politics?
The good thing about India is that everyone has an opinion and we have the freedom of speech to express it. So yes, people from all kinds of political leanings keep telling us about what to say or what not to talk about—and we respect their opinions by disagreeing with them.
You don so many hats—lyricist, screenwriter, stand-up comedian and author. If you had to pick your favourite, which one would it be and why?
I’d probably choose stand-up comedy, because that is the most satisfying for me. It has storytelling, comedy, commentary and it involves a lot of reading and observing the world with all its nuances.
Did you get any writing done during the pandemic?
Not much actually. I don’t think there should be any emphasis on productivity in these times. The world seems to be collapsing around us—our focus should be on keeping ourselves mentally and physically healthy. Nobody has experience dealing with a threat of this nature, and all ‘non-essential’ workers should take it easy.
If you could adapt a story into a film, which one would it be?
I would love to adapt Uday Prakash’s short stories for the screen some day.
What about your upcoming projects?
Raj Kumari and I are working on bringing out the English version of Biksu. I have written songs for Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s film Prithviraj and am currently working on a new film script.