Experiment ‘Tuning In’ is the story of Julio and Seema and the endless possibilities of music. Julio – a retired guitarist, finds his future to be bleak and unexciting. So does Seema, a former arts student. Seema deals with her situation by trying to become an actor through her connections as the producer’s wife. But even this work leaves her feeling empty.
Then she meets Julio on a movie set. They interact and Seema feels excited about how music can help us truly understand each other. She decides to work on a social experiment called Tuning In, where people with differing views sit in a room, with music played by a live band on a TV set subtly influencing their conversation. Will this experiment change things for Julio and Seema? Come find out!
RK Kumar strained to keep smiling.
“Kumar sir, this was a great take right?” Seema Rajwal, in a chic saree asked anxiously.
It was a shit take. Maybe the shittiest of shitty takes that Kumar had ever seen.
“Wonderful madam! Really good!”
In show business, honesty is the best policy only if you happen to be the producer. For everyone else, there is a pecking order of liars.
Director RK Kumar knew where he stood with regard to the producer’s wife who was also the leading lady of ‘Kung Fu Haseena’. Wiping the sweat off his brow, Kumar thundered at his assistant directors, swore at the spot boy and glared at the cameraman. Having unleashed his pent up rage, he smiled at Seema.
“Seemaji this take was toh too good. Now can we get ready for the next scene?”
“Next scene?” The debutant inquired innocently.
With another overly sweet smile, Kumar almost wagged his non-existent tail.
“Madam let me take you through it again. So see, you will be sitting at a bar counter and when you look up, our villain Dango Raja will come sit next to you. As he reaches out for your hand, you, that is the stuntwoman, twists it and pushes him towards the band of musicians!
“Then cut to, the stuntwoman grabs the drum sticks from the drummer and uses them to break Dango’s wrists. And then you say ‘The hands that try to touch Kung Fu Haseena are the hands that will never touch anyone again.’”
A dreamy look came in the eyes of Kumar. He made mediocre films with a passion that no critic had ever really appreciated.
Looking confused, Seema nodded. Kumar continued to smile as if his cheeks were being drawn out by rubber bands.
“Arre madam don’t worry. I will guide you through everything!”
Then whirling around like an enraged bull, Kumar sprang upon a hapless assistant director.
“Aye ma*******, scene is ready?”
The AD stammered, “Y…yes sir! It is!”
Kumar looked on at the scene setup while scratching his growing bald spot.
“What ready, you f**** ch****? Where are the musicians? At your mom’s place?”
Ignoring this lack of respect for himself and his mother, the AD frantically started looking around. Then he began mumbling on his walkie-talkie. The AD looked up at Kumar and smiled. It was a shit-faced smile that Kumar knew all too well.
“Sir, they are on their way. They were finishing with their makeup…”
From the corner of the bar scene setup, the musicians and extras walked in.
Kumar grunted with some satisfaction and settled in his director’s chair. Coming from a long line of shopkeepers and traders, RK Kumar had differed with his parents and had ‘followed his passion’.
At least that’s what he told himself. On days like this, Kumar felt that perhaps he had just gone astray.
The makeup artist Dolly Didi was good at what she did. That’s why after some fifteen minutes with her, Julio D’Costa looked less like a wrinkly banana peel and more of a shiny pear. A shiny, grumbly pear who didn’t really understand how he had gotten himself into all this.
It started with a letter from the Association of Film Musicians. The letter invited Julio to a meeting of the organisation at an old Irani café in Colaba. While the retired guitarists, drummers and lyricists exchanged stories, there happened to be a few ADs at the next table.
Julio soon found himself sharing a drink with the young assistant director, Dharmesh Singh.
“By the way sir, I must say. You really have that look of a rockstar!” said Dharmesh.
The sixty-two-year-old Julio knew that with his trimmed beard and bald head he always made a bit of an impression. He chuckled.
“Arre Dharmeshji, the age of rockstars is over! Now there are just these strange things called influencers. I don’t even know what that they do…”
“But sir we still need rockstars.” Dharmesh insisted.
“I mean I have been looking everywhere to find musicians just like you for a scene in an action movie.”
Dharmesh had laid the bait. Gulping down his beer, Julio took it.
“Oh, what’s it about?”
By the end of two pitchers of beer, Julio had agreed to play the role of a band-waalah for some movie he only vaguely understood.
A few days later, the old guitarist took a rickshaw to the studio in Goregaon and now had years of frustration covering up my many layers of makeup.
“Sir, your shot is ready.” Said AD Dharmesh as he burst into Julio’s makeup section.
Nodding with annoyance, Julio followed him out.
Looking around as if he was missing a vital organ, an anxious Julio exclaimed “Where is my guitar for the scene? You do have the right type of guitar for me right?”
After a long garbled exchange on a walkie-talkie, Julio was handed an electric guitar. Strapping himself in, Julio walked more confidently to the scene setup.
In due time, the director yelled “Silence now…And ACTION!”
A bulky Dango Raja sat at the bar counter next to the demure Seema. He placed his hand on hers and the director yelled, “Cut!”
A stuntwoman now came in place of Seema. The scene continued with the stuntwoman twisting Dango’s wrists and pushing him towards the musicians.
They then shot the scene of the stuntwoman attacking Dango with the drum sticks.
Finally Seema faced the camera again and struggled with her lines.
“Umm…The hands that try to touch Kung Fu Haseena are…err…the hands that will never touch anyone again.”
Knowing that this was the best she would ever do, the director didn’t ask for another retake. He knew that he would be dubbing her voice in any way.
“Okay we’re done. Clear this scene and start with the next setup!”
Seema felt relieved. As she quickly made her way to her vanity van, she heard someone strumming a guitar. It had such a seventies sound to it.
She looked at the bald old man playing the electric guitar. No, it wasn’t really a seventies sound. There was just something about the way the guitarist hit each note. With each carefree riff, he seemed to be saying to the world: To hell with all this. I’m just going to be who I am.
It was something that Seema desperately wanted to say.
A hopelessly bad actor, Seema Rajwal had been a good arts student. She had done her bachelor’s in psychology, masters in literature and then had begun her PHD thesis on the varied origins of revolutions.
At that point her father – a rich textile merchant from Surat, had felt that his daughter was getting too serious about her studies. So he soon found Seema a ‘good’ husband.
Seema had tried her best to wriggle her way out of all the family pressure. She quickly found out how alone she really was. Her closest friends offered their sympathy but none of them were too supportive of Seema’s desire to stay single. While her elder sisters, who were either married or on the point of pushing out more babies, started treating Seema as if she was showing signs of an evil possession. After a few months of this, Seema Dhumaklal found herself exorcising her own ambitions.
She agreed to become Mrs. Seema Rajmani Rajwal and found herself in a world quite different from her college campus. A plush bungalow in Mumbai became her abode (and her prison). Trips to cheap cafes were replaced with extravagant parties where Seema knew no one and didn’t particularly like talking to anyone.
Desperately wanting to escape this monotony, Seema had then managed to convince her husband that she’d like to work in his new film. She even knew the right time to broach the subject.
With her wet hair and glowing skin wrapped in a towel, Seema had stepped out of the shower.
“Raju, so what are your plans for the weekend?”
Rajmani gaped at his almost effortlessly sensuous wife. With all the blood from his brain shifting towards another organ, his mind refused to function and his eyes refused to budge.
“Uh…I umm, I’m not sure baby…”
In that state of mind Rajamani found himself quickly agreeing to everything that Seema asked for. Later that night it seemed to him like it had all been worth it.
Seema who had also enjoyed herself did feel some guilt. Was she emotionally manipulating her loving husband? Why had she convinced him to let her be an actor when she didn’t even like acting that much?
Deep in her heart, Seema did know why. On any day, she felt like it would be better to be a mediocre actor than to be a good wife.
Yet as Seema heard the guitar strumming away, she wondered whether there was something more to life besides being a bad actor. She called out to her spot boy.
“Irfanji, please get that person playing the guitar to my vanity van.”
Irfanji duly nodded.
With that done, the main lead of Kung Fu Haseena walked off the set.
Meanwhile on a megaphone RK yelled out “Arre who the hell is playing that guitar? Stop it!”
The guitar was duly silenced.
A star’s vanity van is like another dimension in itself.
While the set of ‘Kung Fu Haseena’ had been a hot and humid hellscape, Seema’s vanity van might as well have been at the North Pole.
That’s what it seemed like to Julio as he sipped his orange juice. As yet he had no idea how he had earned this luxury but he was quite content to enjoy it.
“Nice to meet you Seemaji.” Julio said politely.
Seema nodded graciously.
As Seema and Julio sat facing each other, each formed an immediate opinion about the other. Julio thought that a pale, pretty and slightly frail Seema was in over her head in an industry that she really didn’t understand. While Seema felt that Julio was always just a few moments away from politely handing in his resignation and walking towards the horizon.
Seema decided to try and get the conversation started.
“Julioji, the way you played the guitar, I found that to be so beautiful.”
The old guitarist grinned.
“Oh it’s something that just comes naturally to me. Now I don’t play professionally anymore Seemaji…”
“Oh please just call me Seema!”
“Uh yes, Seema. So yes, it comes naturally to me. Morning, afternoon, day, night, I have these notes floating in my head. So what to do? I’ll play it for myself!”
“That’s such an artist-like thing to say Julioji.”
“Oh, call me Julio please” Julio smiled back.
“Okay, Julio! But as I heard you play, I couldn’t help thinking that it sounded really familiar and personal to me. Even though I knew that I’d never heard the tune before.”
Julio chuckled and took another sip of his orange juice and replied, “You see the mind is a strange thing Seema. Or the heart maybe. What music does to us, I don’t understand. I just know that it takes us somewhere else.”
A faraway look came in Julio’s eyes. Seema nodded thoughtfully. As she did so, something shifted for Seema.
“You know, I have always wondered about this Julioji, I mean Julio. What does music do to us? Can it really change us on a deeper level?”
“Deeper level? It changes us on every level.”
Seema gestured excitedly, “Yes but can it help us be more open to the world around us? To each other?”
“Yes but in terms of our political values or our religious beliefs, does music change those things?”
With a confused expression, Julio scratched his beard.
“Err, I think I would need something stronger than orange juice to answer that.”
Seema pulled up a chair and leaned in towards Julio who wondered how the seemingly fragile girl had suddenly become so spirited.
“No no Julio! I don’t want your answer to that!
“Wouldn’t it be more interesting to see how people practically respond to music when it comes to these things? Wouldn’t that be fun for you?”
Julio gulped down the last bits of his orange juice. At this point he really did need something a lot stronger.
Does a child ever forget how to ride a bicycle? Perhaps.
Does a girl who aspired to be a leading intellectual ever forget how to develop a coherent strategy for a rather intriguing social experiment? Not in a million years.
‘Project Tuning In’ as Seema called it, already had a 20-page vision document, a 13-page action plan and a budget that already seemed to have too many zeros in it. This did not scare Seema. Being Mrs. Rajwal meant that she had access to the kind of money and connections for which other academics would quite willingly sell their souls (except for the atheists).
Over the last 6 weeks, Seema had finished with the shoot of Kung Fu Haseena. During all that time, she had single-mindedly worked out every detail of her project.
Now pacing in her bedroom, she calmly reviewed her plans. Not that there was much room to pace. Over the weeks, it seemed as if books were slowly leaking into the bedroom. They overflowed from beneath the bed. They appeared in stacks in front of the little shelf area. And on certain nights of love-making, Raju would heave himself exhaustedly on a pillow to find out that it was a copy of War and Peace. But he had made his peace with this new situation.
Yes, it could all work out, Seema thought.
It could be meaningful. It could be beautiful!
But Seema knew that she needed the right team. So something needed to be done about a certain old guitarist who kept avoiding her calls.
The ancient little building where Julio lived wasn’t exactly decrepit. But you could see that it had seen better years. Seema made her way to the fourth floor and rang the bell of apartment 404. In response, she only heard the rather painful howling sounds of a guitar. Seema rang the bell more urgently.
An annoyed looking Julio opened the door.
“Arre I don’t want to buy anything. Who is it now?”
Noticing Seema, the old man blushed.
“Oh…umm, it’s you! Err, come in, come in.”
Julio’s student Sohit who had been responsible for all the mangled guitar sounds, gazed eagerly at Seema as she stepped in. The teenager began thinking about how this music class was finally getting interesting. But the gods of love if any, had decided to treat Sohit just the way he treated his guitar.
Absent-mindedly, Julio said to him, “Beta practice some more at home for today. I’ll see you later now!”
The mildly heartbroken teenager left the building at the speed of a depressed turtle. With no more howling guitar strings to interrupt them, Seema and Julio awkwardly looked at each other and settled on either ends of the couch.
“Julio, won’t you consider changing your mind?”
The old man grimaced.
“See Seema, I am too old to be getting into any new work. And this thing you want to do, this isn’t even a concert or a studio recording. I really don’t understand what it is!”
Looking dissatisfied, Seema finally nodded. That’s when she noticed the photo besides the row of guitars. The lady in the photo was dressed in a red saree and held a saxophone. While the man in a long-sleeved and polka-dotted shirt flamboyantly held a ukulele. Seema realised that she recognised both young Julio and the lady standing next to him.
“Hey wait, is that, is that Shreya Samirkar? My mum used to always take me to her concerts!”
Julio also turned towards the photograph and smiled.
“Yes, that was my Shreya. She understood music and people in a way I never have.”
Julio then looked at the energetic man in the photograph who had loved to travel and never said no to any adventure. The man seemed to be begging for another chance at life.
“So umm, if we did do this. How would it work?”
Seema jumped with joy and gratefully shook Julio’s hands.
“We should be ready by next week. Your work will mostly be done in just 3-4 days every month for the next 5-6 months!”
Saying so, Seema rushed off.
“Wait! I haven’t said yes yet.” Julio spluttered. But in his heart the guitarist knew that he had.
Amey Borte nervously tapped his foot. The fifty-five-year-old bank officer couldn’t understand why he had come with his daughter Regha to this particular place for a career counselling session. Anyway, why did the place call itself Tuning In? He was quite pessimistic about Regha getting any good career advice here. But she had already chosen a post-graduation in arts. What career really lay ahead after that? Amey’s bitter thoughts radiated through his incessantly tapping foot.
Seated across him, Regha grimaced with annoyance. Even she regretted come here. What was taking so long? They had already been seated in the waiting room for some 10 minutes.
What neither of them knew was that in this waiting room, the child and parent would unknowingly be participating in an experiment. Seema hated doing it this way. But like a good TV prank show, this experiment required the participants to be unaware of what lay ahead. At least for now. Later if the participants so chose, they could have all their conversations withdrawn from the research. While the identities of the people who gave their consent would be kept completely anonymous.
The whole setup for Seema’s Project Tuning In was in an empty corner of Lower Parel’s Unicorn Mall. The idea for the social experiment was that two people who struggled to understand each other would be invited for what they thought was a career counselling session or some other meeting. The two individuals would then be led to a waiting room, with access to drinks (non-alcoholic ones) and snacks, with a band on TV playing some music.
Here the band, led by Julio, located in another part of the building, would try to subtly change the mood of the two people. Distracting them when they got too argumentative, mellowing them down with music that the individuals were known to like, and even creating silences to allow important breakthroughs to take place.
Later on, Seema would be going through all the video data to understand what influence music had on the people and their politics.
To make things easier, Seema had thought of starting with people who could tolerate (to some extent) being around each other, even when they didn’t agree on certain core beliefs.
But Amey and Regha were showing no signs of breaking the ice. Growing impatient, Seema spoke on the microphone, “Julio, maybe try playing something.”
Julio nodded. Then he remembered that he was actually on TV and stopped nodding. He looked around at the band and his eyes seemed to say – Okay now, follow my lead.
The band of veterans duly nodded. In a deep yet melodious voice, Julio began to sing while lightly strumming his guitar.
“Mera jeevan kora kaagaz kora hi reh gaya…”
Amey hummed along and sighed softly. The nervously tapping foot now moved to the beats of the song. He turned to Regha and said, “See this is the kind of songs we had in my day. I don’t know if your generation can even relate to it.”
Regha rolled her eyes. “That’s not fair Baba! I mean I understand it, it’s a song about loss.”
Amey shrugged and replied, “Okay maybe you do understand it. But do you feel it?”
The song slowly grew softer. The father gestured eloquently.
“Do you understand what it means to have a ‘kora kaagaz’, to have nothing? No options? That’s what it was like for my generation beta.
“No time for doubts, following a ‘passion’, or changing the world. We lived to survive. And I think we did it well.”
Regha frowned. With a glass of water, she swallowed the fifty three retorts that came to her mind. The song ended and the waiting room was filled with a silence in which Regha’s anger slowly dissipated.
She turned to her father and asked gently, “But then, are you happy?”
Amey was taken aback. “Of…of course I am happy! What a thing to ask!”
The daughter suddenly grew curious.
“Okay, maybe you are happy. But looking back, is there anything you feel you would have liked to do differently?”
Amey snapped with annoyance, “Oh I don’t know…”
In the background a guitar gently strummed a tune. Amey settled into its rhythm, and suddenly he did know.
The father smiled and leaned in towards his daughter, “Maybe one thing.” “If I could do it all again, I would spend more time playing cricket with Yusuf.”
Regha appeared completely taken aback.
Amey stared into the distance.
“Oh did I never tell you? We grew up in a Dalit chawl area. Yusuf lived there too. We grew up together. Well, we did, until the riots.”
For the first time, Regha could sense a sadness in her father that she had never noticed before.
She gently held his hand. “Baba, what happened?”
Six months can pass in the blink of an eye. Or a few strums of the guitar.
In a little café in Andheri, Seema and Julio were doing a review of their work on Tuning In.
“Now be honest with me here Julio. Did you enjoy what we have been doing?”
Julio shrugged, trying to be nonchalant. But from the way he was trying not to smile, Seema could see that he indeed had enjoyed it.
Over these six months, Seema carried out her experiment with politicians, journalists, engineers and a broad mix of different identity groups. Even the preliminary evidence was quite interesting.
It seemed that on creating a positive environment, even the most diametrically opposed individuals could find ways to at least talk to each other. It was surprising how much these people could actually agree on. For younger age groups, the results were even more promising.
For the first time in a long time, Seema felt like everything wasn’t fucked up. That maybe things could change. But then she had to remind herself that spaces like Tuning In didn’t exist – In universities, offices or public spaces. So where would these discussions ever take place?
How would people learn to look under the masks that everyone wore? Or the masks that they weren’t even aware that they were wearing?
Sure, the Tuning In experiment was being adapted in different metros around India. Maybe that meant something. But Seema was enough of a realist to know that it was nowhere near enough.
“You know, this happened all because of you.” Julio spoke softly while nibbling on his pizza.
The gently-worded compliment brought Seema out of her reverie. She smiled.
“Yeah sure. Though you have to give some credit to an old guitarist and his random philosophy about music.”
Both of them chuckled but Julio noticed Seema’s restlessness.
God she wants to change the world, he thought. Then he wondered when he had stopped thinking in that way.
Coughing embarrassedly, Julio spoke, “Seema, you do also know that we can only play our part. And hope that others will play theirs.”
Grimacing thoughtfully, Seema nodded.
“Play our part…yes that makes sense.”
The silence stretched comfortably until Julio finally sighed. After many years, he finally knew what he wanted.
“Seema, I’d like to work on this sort of thing again. And err, I’d also like to train other musicians. Serious ones. You’d let me know if you find out about anything?”
The young academic smiled.
“Finally! The artist learns the value of networking. Of course I’ll help Julio. But for now let’s start planning out our rural outreach for Tuning In.”
“This is going to a completely different ballgame!”
In an animated discussion, the musician and the academic made their plans. Looking for new connections, new strategies and most importantly, new conversations.
An engineering graduate, Rahul is a writer/cartoonist who hopes that stories will help us discover and transform the world someday. Currently, he is based in Mumbai and works as a copywriter. He believes it takes a certain intellectual and moral courage to see the truth and he’s trying to do that for himself.