Watching the 57-year-old Shekhar Suman add his cringey two bits to the cacophony around actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide was tough, I have to admit. And I say this as someone who’s quite familiar with Bihari-uncles-in-bad-hairpieces embarrassing themselves publicly; where I grew up (Ranchi) this was practically white noise. You see, long before Ekta Kapoor made Sushant a household name via daytime soaps, Suman was the OG Bihari TV star—with his own primetime show, no less. Movers and Shakers began in 1997 on Sony and soon, it became one of the most-watched prime-time shows in India’s nascent television industry. Modeled on The Tonight Show (Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and in the modern era, Conan O’Brien and the incumbent Jimmy Fallon), Movers and Shakers would become Suman’s calling card for the next 15 years or so, until first Sony and then SAB TV pulled the plug. In many ways, this show represented both the best and the worst bits of turn-of-the-century television in India.
Around the time Movers and Shakers came into its own (1998), the movie Rush Hour became a global blockbuster and its posters hyped Chris Tucker as “the biggest mouth in the West” (versus Jackie Chan’s “fastest fists in the East”)—I used to think of Suman in those terms. On a good day, he could be great fun. He had made his debut in Hindi cinema over a decade ago with Girish Karnad’s Utsav (1984). As a TV host, he was a natural: he instinctively knew when to pander to his audiences and when to shock them with a racy joke or a well-timed double entendre.
At the height of his powers, the man was pure TV gold—and he knew it, too. In an early episode, Suman is playfully accused of ripping off Jay Leno by Shahryar (the leader of the in-house band, playfully named the Rubber Band). A tongue-in-cheek Suman promptly points at the anaemic, old-fashioned wooden chairs provided by the channel for his guests and says, ‘How can this be Jay Leno, I don’t even have a couch!”, following it up with, “Leno se hamaara koi leno-deno nahi hai” (we have nothing to do with Mr Leno). The insouciance with which Suman owns his ‘inspiration’ here is remarkable and it’s fair to say that at the time, there was nobody like him in Indian television.
His guests were mostly people from Bollywood and Indian TV, although there were sportspeople every now and then, too. He had a gift for making people lower their guard instantaneously. Ashutosh Rana, for example, was one of his guests in 1998, shortly after the film Dushman (where Rana was brilliant as the main antagonist, a postman who was also a serial rapist) was released. Watch the episode on YouTube: towards the beginning of the episode, Suman is speaking in the ‘Hinglish’ that cable TV had thrown its lot with, as opposed to the predominantly Hindi/Urdu dialogue of Doordarshan-era shows. But he quickly realises that Rana would, in fact, be more comfortable with classical Hindi/Urdu—the shift is effortless and by the end of the segment, they’re trading Dushyant Kumar lines. It’s sobering to see this segment in 2020 because today, some of the most famous Bollywood actors struggle to get by in either Hindi or Urdu (Bollywood’s two most important languages).
I remember another remarkable episode shortly after the first trailers of Deepa Mehta’s Fire were released—Nandita Das was Suman’s guest for the evening, and she was looking even more stunning than usual. A rapid-fire repartee ensued.
“So you kissed her? Shabana Azmi?”
“On the lips?”
“You kissed Shabana Azmi on the lips?”
“Yes. Are you jealous?” (laughter)
“I’m extremely jealous of her, yes!” (applause)
Suman was equally at home with political comedy. His impressions of Lalu Yadav soon became extremely popular via Movers and Shakers (although it must be pointed out here that when it came to Indian TV in the 90s, the butt of most politician jokes would be Dalit/Bahujan leaders like Mayawati and Yadav). A vertical air-stab to puff up his hair and two air-stabs to indicate the Bihari ex-CM’s signature earlobe-hair tufts. Just like that, he would become Yadav. His knack for creating popular, political comedy later translated into a string of political comedy spots on news channels (like the Abki Baari Shekhar Bihari mini-shows on Aaj Tak), once Movers and Shakers wrapped up.
At the height of his powers, the man was pure TV gold—and he knew it, too.
But, of course, like all 90s pop cultural artefacts, Movers and Shakers hasn’t aged well when it comes to gender. Suman was way too fond of making fun of actresses in “chhote kapde” (short clothes), a curiously puritanical stance considering the otherwise cosmopolitan persona he adopted for the show. In the Ashutosh Rana episode, there’s a blatantly homophobic joke about Indian men watching the soccer world cup (“don’t worry wives, they don’t have the ‘George Michael syndrome’”).
And worst of all, Suman is downright leery (perhaps going for ‘ironically lecherous’ or some such doublespeak) on occasion. Like when he’s talking to Nafisa Joseph, the late actor and model who killed herself in 2004. Joseph was a guest alongside Arshad Warsi in a 1998 episode. But while Warsi fields questions about his acting, his dancing and his upcoming projects, Joseph gracefully deflects 38765 questions about her body. How are you so skinny? What do you not eat? What diet do you follow? At one point, he even asks her, “Are you anorexic?” with a cheerful expression.
Movers and Shakers ended in 2012, but unfortunately this leery version of Suman made a comeback recently, as a guest on Arnab Goswami’s nightly circus at Republic TV. The topic, predictably, was a Goswami-led conspiracy theory: that the late actor Sushant Singh Rajput did not, in fact commit suicide and that his killers are being shielded by powerful people in Mumbai. Goswami and Shekhar matched each other blow for blow, levelling ridiculous accusations against actress Rhea Chakraborty, Rajput’s girlfriend. These are men so thoroughly middle-aged that their crow’s feet have orthopaedic slippers. And yet somehow, they find real purpose in subjecting a twenty-something woman to a relentless, televised witch-hunt.
It was this stubbornness, this aversion to change that hastened the demise of ‘classic TV’ (game shows, talk shows, variety shows, single-camera sitcoms) in general, and Movers and Shakers proved to be no different, ultimately. The world evolved around him, but Suman was content to do the same thing over and over again, until TV producers pulled the plug. Last heard, he was demanding that Sushant Singh Rajput’s Mumbai flat be converted into a museum in remembrance of the actor—now that sounds more like a Movers and Shakers gag than real news. Maybe there’s hope for him yet.