Yes, it's true. So help me God. For six whole years -- between the ages of 15 and 21 -- I spent a great many nights in make-up, grabbing my crotch at choreographed intervals in public.
There. I've got that off my chest. Yes, I shaved twice on those nights. Carefully, cleanly, in the quest for an androgynous look. Yes, I rubbed in foundation cream, shaded my eyes with mercury-tinted glasses, let my long hair flow in carefully sculpted curls, and dressed in black, ankle-length trousers and bright, white socks. I waved slowly, used the peace sign liberally, blew quick kisses to children as I made my way on to podiums across the country, some smothered with fog machines, others awash in gaudy strobe light.
It began innocently enough, in my last year at school. Break-dancing was in, and little groups everywhere were busy popping, dropping, and doing windmills after class. I happened to be part of one of them. When the chance to perform The Way You Make Me Feel on stage arose one evening, then, I took it. There was much applause. Many smiles. Some female attention. It was 1989. I decided I could live with it.
Cut to my first year at college, and the desperate need for a bigger allowance. Don't judge me. If an entertainment agency were to offer you 1,400 bucks to dance for four minutes, dear reader, would you refuse? Within two months, I was a certified white-glove-and-black-fedora clad Michael Jackson impersonator. What began was a period of activity I often think of as completely unreal.
Here's something you probably don't know. When white-collared Mumbai sleeps, the impersonators awake.
Over six years, I met them all. Men and women who survived solely on the basis of what they earned by performing on stage. There were fire-eaters, thali-dancers, ventriloquists, a teenager called Baby Tabassum who could do a mean Amitabh impression, a 40-year-old man called 'Johnny The One Man Band' who played seven instruments simultaneously and had a repertoire of 50 songs, Govinda impersonators, Dev Anand look-alikes, mimicry artistes, and even a young man who would dance with two huge candles and pour molten wax over his body during an act.
They had their own lingo, their own stagecraft, their own brands of backstage humour, their own rituals before a performance. All seasoned veterans who could gauge the pulse of an audience before stepping out, and adapt quickly to make sure the tide turned in their favour. And they would all, unequivocally, bow before a platform respectfully before stepping on.
I had my rituals too. First, that close, close shave. Then, make-up. Next, a white T-shirt, shiny black trousers, socks and silver-rimmed suede shoes. Finally, an open black shirt, before work on the hair could begin. In fifteen minutes, the transformation would be complete. Then came a half hour of getting into character. Stretching, sliding, waving, doing the Moonwalk in slow motion while wondering about the kind of stage waiting out there. Wooden floors were easy. Tiled ones called for different shoes.
Some nights were good. Others ended in catcalls. Over the years, I managed to see all kinds. There was that show in Chembur, for instance, during a seven-day Ganeshotsav function, where I was booed off stage by people waiting for a Govinda impersonator. Watching a young, effeminate man strutting about to Billie Jean was, with hindsight, not the kind of thing they could have warmed to.
And then there were the good days. Like the annual school function somewhere in Gujarat, where I was ushered in amidst clouds of smoke, in front of 6,000 screaming children. They were convinced, beyond all shadow of doubt, that Michael Jackson himself had descended amongst them. It was that kind of naivety that gave the impersonators life. After the performance, I was escorted out in a hurry, hundreds of children giving chase. Locked away in a classroom that served as a dressing room, I waited for two hours while two men stood guard outside, blocking scores of children who desperately wanted an autograph.
At times like that, it was easy to see why celebrity could become a drug of sorts.
There were a great many embarrassing moments too, of course. Like the time two nine year olds came backstage and stared at me for ten minutes. One then turned to the other and said, in anything but a whisper, "Bola na ladki hai "
Now, a decade later, it all feels like another life. One that has suddenly resurfaced in my mind with the onset of the Michael Jackson trial. Celebrities can, in obscure ways, change a great many lives without knowing it. Jackson alone, in a strange, twisted way, managed to pay for my college textbooks. Part of my education, then, was obtained thanks to what he represented at the time. It's a feeling a great many impersonators around the world will identify with. The Elvis impersonators in Vegas, Marilyn clones at conventions, Lady Di look-alikes at theme parties. They all owe select portions of their lives to the people they impersonate.
As for Jackson's acquittal, his innocence means a lot more than his personal freedom. For a great many impersonators around the world, a whole new lease of life has just arrived. For them, then, I hope the King of Pop is around for a great many years. Aaaow!
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh