YESTERDAY, on June 25, it was five years since Michael Jackson left us. While fans worldwide would have remembered his hit songs and dance steps, many in Mumbai might have flashed back to the night of November 1, 1996, when the King of Pop gave his maiden concert in India. Clearly, it was one of the best shows India has ever witnessed, and it was discussed by those who attended it for weeks to come.
As the music journalist of Mid Day, Mumbai, I was assigned not only to cover the show at Andheri Sports Complex, but also the preparations and the aftermath. In other words, I was on the ‘Michael Jackson beat’. Here, I shall jot down a few memories of that experience.
A FORTNIGHT before the King of Pop had arrived in Mumbai, at a time when hundreds of fans were eagerly looking forward to his visit, I was already getting tired of the words ‘Michael’ and ‘Jackson’. It had been a few weeks since I had been put on the MJ beat, with a clear brief that I had to file some exclusive story every day. My boss insisted that we just could not lag behind the competition, which comprised Bombay Times and Indian Express.
I liked Michael Jackson, but I wasn’t a diehard fan. There was a time, yes, in 1983 and 1984, when I would regularly listen to ‘Thriller’, but with my tastes inclining towards rock music, I began to hear less of his music. In 1995, I reviewed his two-part ‘HIStory’ album, where the first album contained his older hits and the second was filled with newer material. I had quite liked it, specially the songs ‘They don’t care about us’, ‘Scream’ and ‘You are not alone’. Thus, there was a brief MJ phase.
Yet, the thought of doing a daily story on him certainly didn’t seem thrilling. The Internet wave was yet to begin, and there was very limited reading material on the man. I naturally began by doing a few write-ups on his music, his hits songs, his dancing, his controversies and how his earlier tour had been cancelled. I tried a few trivia pieces too, but I couldn’t stretch the write-ups beyond a week. Moreover, the articles were general in nature, and lacked any local element.
Slowly, I had to build some ‘sources’ who would regularly feed me with info. I had my contacts at Wizcraft, which was organising the tour, and Clea PR, which was handling the publicity. Most of the time, I either got no information or irrelevant information, and I’m sure they were as sick of hearing my voice as I was of calling them.
The original plan was that MJ was to do two shows in India – one in Mumbai, and the other in either Delhi or Bangalore. It would be part of the HIStory World tour and India was sandwiched between Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok in his schedule, with an entire week’s time.
One afternoon, Sabbas Joseph of Wizcraft called me to give me the exclusive news that MJ would be doing only one show, and that too in Mumbai. We carried it under the headline ‘Just One Big Blast’, leaving a lot of readers confused about the word ‘blast’. Anyway, the competition didn’t have the story, and my job was safe.
By this time, Raj Thackeray and his Shiv Udyog Sena had become increasingly involved in the show. As the political reporters had better access to him, and could also speak Marathi fluently, they began chipping in with some stories, much to my relief. But closer to the event, the onus came back to me.
How many musicians would accompany MJ? How many bodyguards? Which room of the Oberoi would he stay in and what arrangements were being made? What kind of plane would he arrive in? Who all would be present at the airport? What kind of equipment was being flown in? What kind of food was being prepared? Were any parties being hosted for him? The works!
No wonder I kept waiting for the D-Day to come fast. Mercifully, it came.
ON October 30, 1996, I reached the Sahar International Airport around noon. Though MJ’s private jet was expected only around 2 pm, one couldn’t take a risk, just in case he landed earlier. For a long time, one could barely see anyone, barring a few people who liked like they were from the Shiv Udyog Sena.
The moment word got around that MJ’s flight had landed, people came out of nowhere. Apparently, they were waiting in buses parked a little away from the airport, and they came with banners saying ‘Welcome Michael Jackson’ and ‘Mumbai Loves You Michael Jackson’. They definitely didn’t look like MJ fans.
A lot has been written about the airport reception, right from Raj Thackeray’s welcome and actress Sonali Bendre’s nine-yard saree and ‘nathni’ (nose ornament). There was also a lot of coverage of his visit to the residence of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, where another colleague Clara Sequeira had been stationed.
I left the airport with photographer Suresh KK, thinking I just had to file a short report on the airport arrival. So we took our own time, first having a bite and then going for some other assignment. When I reached office around 6 pm, it seems my boss had been frantically trying to get in touch with me. I didn’t have a mobile phone yet, and he had tried contacting my house.
We had suddenly received an invitation to attend MJ’s party at the Oberoi. The hitch was that guests were required to dress up in formals, and I was wearing blue jeans and some colourful pink and blue printed tee. Of course, my boss had sent an office boy all the way to my residence to get some of my formal clothes but when I reached office, there was no sign of him either.
So I borrowed the shirt of my colleague Anthony D’Costa aka Danto. To hide the jeans, I didn’t tuck in the shirt. And I made my way to the Oberoi, only to discover that nobody was really checking the dress code.
Mumbai’s entire hoity-toity crowd was present there, from film stars to industrialists to party regulars to models. All of them must have thought of spending a few minutes with the pop star, and getting their photos clicked. Alas, what MJ did was simple: he arrived around two hours late, surrounded by bodyguards. His manager announced that he wasn’t well, but he was really keen on meeting Mumbai’s people. So he stayed for exactly 90 seconds, said “I Love You Mumbai” twice and disappeared.
The next day’s papers were filled with stories on how people had shook hands with him or hugged him at the bash. They quoted him saying beautiful things to them, when the truth was that he hadn’t spoken to a soul. That much for the show-offs!
The concert was to take place on November 1, and we were informed that since MJ preferred to take complete rest a day before the show, nothing had been scheduled for October 31. Of course, the star did hang out in the Oberoi lobby to meet some fans, before attending a children’s event in the hotel. It would be, of course, only a few hours before Mumbai would witness the extravaganza.
THOUGH the show would start only after 6.30 pm, first with performances by Sharon Prabhakar and Bally Sagoo, people started walking in after 4 pm. It started as a trickle, but around 6 pm the crowds started swelling.
The costliest tickets, which had a seating arrangement, were for Rs 10,000, and those standing in the front had to shell out Rs 5,000. The side of the stadium and the standing portion at the back fetched lower ticket rates, with the lowest being Rs 1,500.
For Mid-Day, I was to write the main report on the concert, and Ruchi Sharma was to cover the glam element – the celebrities attending, what they said, what they wore etc. Uday Benegal, frontman of the rock band Indus Creed, was to write another piece, covering the show from a musician’s perspective.
Michael came in around 8 pm, and the image of the makeshift spaceship and his coming out of the door is etched in our memories. His show lasted two hours and 40 minutes without a break, and there were so many other memorable moments – the artificial tank, children waving flags, his famous moondance, the lead guitar on ‘Beat it’ and his act of pulling out a girl from the audience being some.
The set list consisted of all his greatest hits and newer songs. Prominent numbers were ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Beat it’, ‘Thriller’, ‘The way you make me feel’, ‘Wanna be starting something’, ‘Rock with you’, ‘Wanna be starting something’, ‘Off the wall’, ‘Dangerous’, ‘Stranger in Moscow’, ‘Scream’, ‘They don’t care about us’, ‘You are not alone’, ‘Earth song’ and ‘Black or white’.
The best things about the show were the scale and sheer entertainment value. There wasn’t a minute when one got bored, and there was a surprise every few minutes. India has witnessed a lot of great shows – Roger Waters, Rolling Stones, Yanni, Joe Zawinul and Angelique Kidjo being some of them – but this was something else.
WE waited for the crowd to ease before leaving the venue. By the time we reached the office it was almost 1 am. No worries. The space was reserved for the articles and we had ample time to file.
Nobody knew when Michael was leaving, but early next morning, we suddenly received the news that he had already left, leaving behind at the hotel a signed pillow on which he had written a message to India. Thankfully, I was asleep at that time.
The show was over. But it wasn’t the end of my plight. I had to keep up the momentum of the coverage for a few more days, till everyone else stopped talking about it. That took a couple of weeks. Then came some stories on the financing of the show and how the proceeds were being distributed, but that was done by the political reporters.
Soon, it was time for another big event – the first Channel [V] Music Awards on November 30. That’s another story.