By Priya Bhattacharji
Nostalgia is hard to escape these days.
It bumps into you at random – in the weathered interiors of dive bars and their 90s playlists, in generous sprinkles of Indi-pop lyrics in current Bollywood blockbusters, in ceaseless old post reminders on social media, in the indefatigable presence of acid-washed denim.
Be through popular culture or politics, the past finds novel ways to tint our present and embalm us with a feel-good staidness as we grapple with the acceleration of the technological age.
Sadly, an iconic dose of nostalgia that is hard to trace (I’m talking ‘internet search’) is the late-night music show of the 2000s – Luke’s After Hours on Channel V. Those were the days when TV was the primary screen for the young,music festivals were unheard of, content was sparse and curating unknown. With an eclectic choice in music and signature languid vibe, the show garnered a loyal fanbase and made its host, Luke Kenny, the OG influencer of the early 2000s.
Recently spotted in Netflix’s raging series, Sacred Games, Luke Kenny has ebbed and flowed gracefully with time to be part of some groundbreaking projects. Known for his avant-garde choices and diverse pursuits, we speak with Luke about his long-standing mosaic career and its journey from analog to digital era.
You’ve been part of the Indian entertainment scene for over two decades. How do you think it has progressed?
LK: My career and the internet arrived almost simultaneously, and since then the generation that it grew with and the subsequent one are what have made the changes prevalent in the way entertainment is being consumed today. The funny part is that the mechanics and the creatives have relatively struggled to keep up. So content creators like television channels and film producers & directors have been innocently and deliberately sketchy about updating themselves for the sake of the audiences. But that’s a falling kingdom now.
How do you recall the 90s when you started off with Channel V? You were a youth icon, a key influence on music preferences.
Back then, the concept of ‘influencers’ did not really exist. And it was a time of discovering the world outside of India via satellite television. I happened to be there right in the middle of everything. And as I was learning, I was also disseminating information via the channel. I thus became a reflection of the generation that was swiftly becoming hungry for information via technology.
Who has influenced you to be the artist you are today?
My three parents – my grandfather, grandmother and my father – were the key people in shaping my evolving passion for the arts. From music to films to books to pop culture, it was them that sowed the seeds. And after that, I became like the Beanstalk of the fairy tale, and remain so.
What kind of entertainment and content stimulates you?
I am a voracious consumer of content, be it visual, aural, legible or verbal. And I am always searching and researching the past decades and centuries of whoever has been a creator. Yes, while one tends to relate to the contemporaries, one is also drawn to the past and the vintage solely because of the creations that they produced in the times they lived in. So if I marvel at the magnificence of Mozart, I also tumble under the genius of Tagore. And if I dance to the magic of Michael Jackson I also rage to the madness of Manto.
How did you move from music to films?
Being an entertainer has always been a passion, whether it’s music performance, theatre productions or cinematic endeavours. More often than not, these three have been a simultaneous presence throughout my journey. It was one such theatrical production that the director of my first film had come to see. The next day I got a call from his company asking for a meeting. At the meeting he offered me a role in his upcoming film. It was another opportunity to extend myself as a performer via the greatest artistic medium ever: Cinema.
You’ve been associated with some avant-garde names – Luke’s After Hours on Channel V, Bombay boys, Rock On and now Sacred Games. How do you perceive your flow of work?
In between, there was also ‘Rise of the Zombie (2013), Banjo (2016) and Qarib Qarib Single (2017). Regarding the flow of work, I am always raring to do something that allows me to be creatively contributive in whatever capacity that the project may present itself. So be it music curation, acting, directing, music performance, channel launches etc, these are all exciting creative invigorations that keep me on the edge of my seat, so to speak.
You do have quite the ‘openness to experience’.
I am lucky to have evolved enough to hold the Folk and the Fancy in equal esteem. From Van Gogh to Graffiti, from sculpture to architecture, from Baroque chamber music to Drake, from silent films to superheroes, each piece of creativity has its own place and time in the universe. They boost and batter me into being a better artist everyday.
Are you still associated with music?
Always, I do have a pool of merry musicians that I draw upon from time to time. We go and play a bunch of songs across genres and have a fun dancing time. I play as myself (‘Luke Kenny LIVE’) and I recently did a three-hour gig which had a mix of genres from Rock n’ roll classics to my originals to Hindi film songs. I also travel to music festivals, local and international, writing features for music and travel magazines from time to time. And once in a while, someone will ask me to do a guest DJ set playing my selection of music a la ‘after hours’.
Worth balancing it with a career in film?
It is two sides of the same coin, one serves (and saves) the other.
Your name and appearance are fairly…”international”. How has that fared on the work scene?
That is part of the world we live in. To judge by appearances and to place in a box and a shelf for logical convenience. But I for one am constantly and very unconventionally trying to chase that pest out of the window. By not playing the obvious foreigner doomed to typecasting hell, I have in maybe a small way, gently slithered out of that hole that the Indian entertainment industry seems to wallow in.
We last interacted at a screening of ‘Rise of the Zombies’ – a film you have directed and produced. This was in 2013. How difficult was it then to direct and produce an independent feature?
Throughout history, creation has always relied on commission for it to flourish. Had Mozart not had the favour of the king he would not have had the money to produce his masterpieces. And even more so in today’s business-drenched times, the effort to convince a patron of the arts to invest finances into one’s flights of creative fancy is a humungous task.
Do you think things have changed for independent film in the country?
Technology is constantly changing the game for all creativity. India has always been an independent creative force. The so-called studios are, as we know, all family-run businesses with some amount of outside investment. So whether it’s a 100-crore film or a 1-crore film, the struggle for it to ‘independently’ succeed is still the same.
Any independently produced content in both music and film have you liked in recent times?
The past five years alone has seen such an explosion in international content that it’s impossible to name just a few without leaving out the many others. From the big budget fantasy extravaganzas to the small dark dramas to the quirky character studies, almost all of it is such compelling storytelling that it has become an annoying struggle to keep up.
What’s your take on streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime?
Streaming has become the revolution that technology was waiting for. And now that it’s here the floodgates have opened to creatively stupendous results. Every genre, every milieu, every kind of story is living and breathing and thriving on its own merit and its audience acceptance. This is the future and it’s already here. Vive la revolution!!
What promise do they hold for the independent film circuit? How do you think they’ve helped the viewer evolve?
While the struggle will always continue, the promise of one’s independent creative thought reaching from script to screen is more achievable. Because now it’s the time for merit, and names and pedigrees will no longer be bullies. There has been a constant evolution of how content has been disseminated to the public. And one tends to enjoy most of it in the times and contexts that they were made in. So while I am glad that a sense of realism is returning to Indian storytelling (not that it ever went away), there is also the insecurity of the masses still choosing regressive entertainment over it.
Are we arriving at a phase where Indian films are no longer synonymous with Bollywood?
The Indian media has oversold Bollywood to foreign shores, and everyone locally involved has hopped on for the ride because it has generated a tremendous amount of parasitic business. But now, that ride is on its way to stopping very soon. And gradually you will see all the parasites falling by the wayside. It’s not that India has never been taken seriously globally. A lot of Indian films (regardless of language) are constantly winning awards and gaining accolades internationally. And that has been happening for the past 60 plus years!
You were part of Sacred Games, something the media has called a “watershed moment,” a game-changer in Indian film and television. What was it like to be part of such a project?
There are a very few film companies you can count on the finger of one hand (especially the left) that are committed to creating compelling stories with a side glance on commerce. Phantom is one of them. And its flag bearers, Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane, are those two compelling storytellers. They have never backed down in the face of adversity (censorship/ commercialization) and are willing to let nothing come in between their creativity and their audiences, whatever the cost. To know that as an actor one is going to be an instrument of their imagination, is immensely invigorating.
What was it like shooting for Sacred Games?
As we know, one rarely shoots a story in sequence. So for all my scenes, I did not really know what order they would flow out in the sequence of events, so Vikram would give me a vague ‘before and after’ so I could search for the moment and play out the temperament of Malcolm for that scene. And when one sees the finished product, I’m glad I made those choices. The appreciation has been overwhelmingly positive. For those who are familiar with me as a person have enjoyed the departure as an actor. And of course, everyone is waiting for Season 2.
What is the significance and relevance of Sacred Games – a book published in 2006, a series launched in 2018?
From the gangster films of the 40s and 50s, to the Godfathers/Goodfellas to Satya to Sacred Games, the society we live in will continue to spawn characters in real life that will then be composited into fiction, just so that audiences can look in the mirror and somehow glean some semblance of wisdom and thereby rise above it all. In my opinion, the genre and by extension, the story that it generates, will always have its reverberations in the times that they come from.
To infinity and beyond!