(From left) Kamal Sidhu, Purab Kohli, Dino Morea, Maria Goretti, Cyrus Sahukar, Mini Mathur, Cyrus Broacha, Luke Kenny. Location Courtesy/The Bombay Canteen; Pics/Rane Ashish
When video killed the radio star in the 1990s, we were not complaining. Our eyes were glued to the TV as cable television made its debut. We had heard our rock and pop idols on FM, and now, we had them, in our living rooms. MTV had landed, followed by Channel V. Along with them came a glam and chatty species called VJs. On them we pinned our hope for a favourite song, crushed on them, and sought fashion wisdom during our fumbling teenage years. Suddenly, we had new pin-up stars.
At a reunion of India's first set of VJs at Lower Parel's The Bombay Canteen, we saw model-VJ from MTV and Channel V Kamal Sidhu; the brain behind Channel V Luke Kenny; mad-hatter MTV VJ Cyrus Broacha; crush-worthy Channel V VJ Purab Kohli; model-actor with dear dimples Dino Morea; MTV's effervescent Mini Mathur; MTV's Mr Comical Cyrus Sahukar and MTV VJ-turned-food TV host Maria Goretti.
Madness ensued, with a whole lot of laughter and wisecracks. There were blows below the belt but not a brow was raised. For us, the '90s kids, they were the epitome of cool. It's true that we saw them in a different light — some of them are now parents — but they are just as charming.
Launching with the '90S
Kamal: I think I speak for everyone when I say, without the '90s, we wouldn't have had a career.
Mini: I was doing TV much before music television arrived. At that time, all of it was based out of Delhi, and only fiction came out of Bombay. But the music channels made it all cool.
Cyrus S: There were a handful of these networks in operation. It was a great time to be in and we got away with murder.
Luke: One of the things that happened was that the 18 to 24 demographic was created. That's the demographic for youth programming even today. Once 2000 rolled in, the concept of the TV anchor was born, but the VJ had died.
Kamal Sidhu makes a point as Purab Kohli listens in
Kamal: While the role of the VJ was fairly new to India, around the world there were VJs we were exposed to. In Canada, we had a local music channel, which didn't allow MTV to enter the country. There was Downtown Julie Brown (who hosted Club MTV from 1987 to 1992). On the show, the light switch went on, with the camera going up her legs and under her skirt, while she went, 'Waba Waba Waba Downtown Julie Brown'. She was among the real pioneers. When MTV launched in Asia, we beamed shows from Hong Kong. And, then, we launched in India with a party at the Taj Mahal Hotel [in 1992] in Mumbai. It was called The Bombay Blast Weekend. It received a lot of backlash, I remember, because the riots (Babri Masjid) had just happened.
Where i want to be: Vjing
Maria: I used to watch Kamal and Danny [McGill] VJ, and, suddenly, I was one of them. I didn't know what I was getting into until I did. The thing about VJing in the '90s was that it let you be who you wanted to be. I was lucky to be part of something I loved. Today, everyone wants to be something more, so, a lot of people get nudged out of television. MTV put Indian VJs on air and that changed something. It was now damn cool to be Indian; there was no need to have an accent. I didn't realise I was cool but apparently, I was.
Purab: I joined Channel V as a host for a travel show, and, gradually, when other slots opened, I started VJing too. There was a serious naiveté back then and VJing wasn't thought of as a stepping-stone to other things.
Cyrus Sahukar tells a story to Luke Kenny
Cyrus S: We were all there with the knowledge that this where we want to be.
Behind the scenes
Purab: There were times when we shot close to five episodes a day. It was intense. Sophiya [Haque], Laila [Rouass] and Meghna [Reddy] would do their own make up, write their own shows and select their own music. There was a transition, when I came in 1999 to Channel V. There was one show where we were asked to write and select songs. We would run it by Luke.
Cyrus B: Luke? Was everything right?
Cyrus B: Luke himself didn't know what his designation was.
Purab: He would approve songs and that was our process.
Maria: Producers hated it when VJs would get together because that meant no one would be working. Once a year, we did a show together for Christmas or New Year and that would be a blast. I miss all of us working together — miss the travelling, the early morning flights, sleeping at airports because we had missed our plane. When I look back I realise that what I did was part of history.
Music then, music now
Luke: What do I think of the indie music scene? It's very niche, and some of the musicians have a chip on their shoulder. But, that aside, what business are they doing? Few manage to get paying gigs, and whoever turns up to support, comes, has a drink, pays R300 and then doesn't buy the album. How does it help the artist? I have been consulting with Channel V recently, and we are trying to go back to the model where the music channel only plays music, and supports indie acts by giving their originals air time.
Cyrus Broacha monkeys around as Dino Morea greets Kamal Sidhu
Kamal: I remember they would send us pop music videos at the Hong Kong office. And most of them were bad. We had to consciously decide to help some artists with their videos. And then Rahman and acts like Indus Creed came in, and the videos changed.
Luke: Kids today love their pop as they did back in the '90s.
Kamal: It was more authentic back then.
Luke: That's because the labels saw a market and invested in it. No one sees a market in today's indie scene.
Cyrus S: They were competing with an international kind of space and knew that spending money on videos was requisite. Everybody was trying to match international standards.
Kamal: And then everything got homogenised into one game plan — the Bollywood game plan.
The '90S role model
Dino: I landed in Bombay in December 1997, looking for opportunities and I remember sharing a room, not even a flat, with a girl who wanted to be a model too. Back in Bangalore, I remember seeing Kamal. I was in college and had to go meet a photographer. There she was, shooting for some perfume or cosmetics ad, and I was like, "Whoa!" Models were these superstars then. I did stare at her.
Kamal: Did I stare back at you?
Dino: (Laughing) I don't think you noticed me.
Sinking into reality
Kamal: A big change from the '90s, well, is that reality television came about, for better or worse.
Luke: One of the earliest reality shows to come was Channel V's Popstars, from which [girl band] Viva emerged. History rewrote itself in that decade with reality television.
Cyrus B: There was also MTV Bakra, which started towards the end of 1999.
Kids with an edge
Kamal: I think it was the time of the Asian liberation. Everything was booming. Also, it was a time for adjustment. Parents of '90s kids looked at people like us and questioned our place as role models. They said, we need to control the remote control.
Luke: No, there was no parental control at all.
Purab: I think it was because those kids were the first movers into the globalisation space.
Cyrus S: Even I used to come home and watch TV. It was a time when I had a VCP, not even a VCR.
Luke: Do you know why those kids had an edge over today's? Because they didn't have these. (Points to a mobile phone).
Maria: I think it was because there was a more organic interaction between people. The communication was real, which I don't see today. These days, it's about the phone. My kids just asked me why they don't have the blue tick on Instagram. Everyone is looking into their phones. We have become tech-savvy but have lost a bit of the soul. (Snapping her fingers). It's now all about reaching a place and changing the game.
Your fav music video of the '90S was?
Luke: Pretty Child by Indus Creed
Cyrus Sahukar: Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice
Dino: Can't Touch This by MC Hammer
Kamal: Anything by AR Rahman
Maria: Freedom by George Michael
Mini: All Sukhbir and Lucky Ali videos