June 27, 2009
When Michael moonwalked in Mumbai
Rewind to November 1, 1996: Michael Jackson burst forth from a spaceship. Swung from a crane. And used Bal Thackeray’s toilet
The man with the most expensive crotch in the world visited India only once, when he came to Mumbai for a spectacular concert, the likes of which the city had never seen before and has not seen since. That was in the year 1996, when Mumbai was still the undisputed destination for Western gigs, when the 10.00 pm loudspeaker deadline had not yet been cast in iron, when Raj Thackeray was still a Sainik, and a brand of potato chips called Ruffles was all the rage. The Andheri Sports Complex was crackling with empty packets on the morning after the November 1 concert. Chips, snorted a young reporter, after any other concert it would have been joints.
The Michael Jackson visitation is remembered as much for the electric way in which the star blew the 50,000-strong crowd away with his music and dazzling sleight of bones as for engendering what is arguably one of Bal Thackeray’s most famous quotes —“He used my toilet" — after the singer called on him at his Bandra residence on his way from the airport.
Mumbai was under the Shiv Sena-BJP's watch in that year and the MJ show soon found itself absurdly enmeshed in the local politics of the city. The saffron ranks were neatly riven into two — the Sena, with Raj Thackeray in the lead, was starry eyed about the concert, having reached an agreement that Rs 4 crore of the proceeds would go to an employment co-operative for local youth. In the words of The Economist, MJ could not have bought himself “a better insurance policy’’. But the RSS and BJP were very grumpy that tax exemption of Rs 11 crore had been bestowed on a thrusting pelvis. Quit cribbing, Bal Thackeray told the RSS, if you haven’t protested ads for bras as being un-Indian, hold your peace now. Nervous about what he would say next, the BJP quickly shut up and said it had no problem with the show.
Thackeray’s younger brother Ramesh also threatened to commit suicide because the Jackson concert had been allowed at the Sports Complex while his own plans for a dandia raas in support of an AIDS charity had not. No one paid him too much attention either, except for an anonymous caller who threatened to shoot him if he dared disrupt the show.
As November 1 approached, the anticipation reached fever pitch, with every detail of MJ’s vegetarian regimen (masala dosa and orange juice) and luggage (three Russian aircraft of hardware and flummery like a four-poster bed and lamposts) being reported. The media, which was much more cynical then than it is today, was caught between being worshipful and snide. Unsavoury child abuse allegations had already soiled those spangled gloves, and as one correspondent wrote, “We heard someone say, ‘I wonder if he’ll say— ‘I am vegetarian but can I have two young Indian boys for breakfast’."
Reporters outpunned each other. TOI said ponderously that “with joint police commissioners and deputy commissioners busy at the ‘thriller’ show, the ‘smooth criminals’ may have had a day’’. The Times-Mode poll interviewed 323 people, threefourths of whom promptly declared that they would rather listen to Lata than Michael. A senior columnist wrote that it was no wonder that Thackeray liked him because he was a ‘Jackson-of-the-soil’ and that Mumbai’s builders loved him because he had so effectively captured their unique brand of ethics with his song, “It don’t matter if it’s Black or White.’’
But all this melted away when the boneless showman appeared on stage. The cheapest ticket was Rs 1,500 and the most expensive Rs 15,000, and devotees had poured in from all over India to catch the action. For more than an hour the crowd waited, clapping patiently through the opening acts of Bally Sagoo and Sharon Prabhakar. Then, a helicopter circled overhead, twice, and shone a beam down, and girls began to scream and demand that their nervous boyfriends hoist them onto their shoulders. This was Jackson’s HIStory tour and the screen flashed images of the Buddha, Gandhi and Mandela until a voice announced ‘Touchdown’ and a spaceship burst onto the stage. It was a deus ex machina moment with a glittering figure emerging in a spacesuit and tongues of flame exploding all around. “Michael, Michael,’’ chanted the throng as he flung highpitched bon mots of ‘Love ya’ and ‘Sabse Pyara Hindustan’ towards them.
Rapidly, he burnt his way through Billy Jean, Thriller, Black or White and Dangerous. During Smooth Criminal, a massive white screen pulled down, and a silhouette of Jackson moonwalked, flipped and strutted on it. Easily the most riveting moment came in Earth Song, when a giant crane lifted Jackson into the air and rotated above the crowd. With his body arching out in a taut semi-circle, he screamed out the lyrics to a sea of uplifted faces, among them Sunil Gavaskar, Govinda, Bappi Lahiri,Prabhudeva, the Thackerays, chief minister Manohar Joshi and moral cop Pramod Navalkar.
Next day, the newspapers were awash with alliteration. It was almost as if the city’s new name was bending itself for headlines which grandly announced, ‘Mumbai Moonwalks With Michael’ and ‘Michael Mania Moves Mumbai’.