Why Rendezvous With Simi Garewal Was A Game Changer, A Precursor To Koffee With Karan

On her birthday we look at the legacy of her game-changing talk show
Why Rendezvous With Simi Garewal Was A Game Changer, A Precursor To Koffee With Karan

That a whole generation of Indians not only learned, from Rendezvous With Simi Garewal, the word “Rendezvous”, but also how to pronounce their way through its silent syllables, its French trickery, and wield it in a sentence.

That the generation prior saw her heralding a new era of female sexuality on screen — taking the condensate of Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi’s “sex-kitten” legacy to its naked pinnacle in Mera Naam Joker (1970) and Siddhartha (1972).

That the generation post saw her grappling desperately for another stint with reality television, another stab at hosting, unable to marry her sincerity with the society’s demand for moisturized vanity and greasy gossip in India’s Most Desirable, where she spoke about desire and destiny with, mostly, green younglings.

Simi Garewal, the “lady in white”, opened the genre of talk-show television in India, which Koffee With Karan (KwK) took to its logical, sensational, cackling extreme. Beginning in 1997, Rendezvous with Simi Garewal, on Star World, was a seminal moment, pitching its tent perfectly around the time stars descended onto television to promote their films — giving interviews, making appearances, etc. The star, that unattainable slab of glory, was suddenly becoming more accessible, and with that, the mystique was draining. Actors like Shah Rukh Khan realized they had to compensate for this mystique with charm. That the masses would want you, not because of what they don’t know about you, but because of what they know about you.

A lot of the openness of the show refused to descend into gossip — the way it did with Koffee With Karan — because Garewal’s tone and pitch for the show was of kindness and transparency.

Garewal wrote, hosted, and directed the talk-show, entirely in English, showing how comfortably anglophilic the cultural industry was at that time. Running for five seasons, over 140 episodes, Garewal went beyond Bombay cinema. While there was Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha, Jaya Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Saif Ali Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Dev Anand, there was also Ratan Tata, Gayatri Devi, Rupert Murdoch, Mukesh Ambani, Jayalalithaa, and Benazir Bhutto. It was a broader snapshot of its time, lurking beyond cinema, into culture. The connecting thread through these episodes was Garewal’s probing kindness of spirit that allowed a conversation to sputter in playful, pointed, and poignant directions.

Jayalalithaa’s desire for Shammi Kapoor and the cricketer Nari Contractor sat alongside Kareena Kapoor Khan’s heart-eyed smirk for Rahul Gandhi, which was blaring next to Sushmita Sen’s affair with Vikram Bhatt, whose marriage at that time was teetering over a cliff. Kajol playfully jibes with Karan Johar, saying she would be worried if he ended up with a “guy from Ghatkopar”. Shobha De calls Aishwarya Rai “beautiful but a little bland”.

A lot of the openness of the show refused to descend into gossip — the way it did with Koffee With Karan — because Garewal’s tone and pitch for the show was of kindness and transparency. She did not react with sly shock when someone threw a barb, nor did she pull any headline-grabbing subtext from innocent statements. When Rekha said, “I have never read a book, read a newspaper, in my entire life,” she also slips in one of the most succulent moments of the episode, quietly — that despite not reading books, she knows many by-heart. How? Farzana, her secretary, her manager, and her companion in more ways than one, who reads books to her. Garewal neither stokes the moment's fire nor pretends it didn’t happen, merely facilitating it, then moving on.

This way she allowed her guests to open up, but did not incentivize them to do so. She was honest when she had to be, cutting in her opinions. When Amitabh Bachchan was being unbearably modest about his acting, Garewal, having none of the patience for this performance, calls him out for being a person who can accept neither criticism nor praise. When Bachchan says that he just wants to be treated normally, a person with a “normal and natural life”, Garewal interrupts, “No, you have had, what many would call, a privileged life.” She asks him about his affair with Rekha, his love for women, and the pit stops of his career with the same equanimity, there isn’t a change of tone, no warming them up for a sledgehammer question, the way Johar is now famous for, oiling his guests before setting them on fire. With Simi Garewal, there is no discomfort even in the uncomfortable questions.

This tone was set from the beginning. The show’s genesis came from an observation she made — that when she met people alone, they were defensive, but with their family “they felt safe and secure”. So, she brought in partners and parents, and the grammar of the show was set. (Trying to resuscitate the show in 2019, there were reports that Garewal was trying to get Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone.)

Rendezvous was not her first stint with hosting. In 1983 she hosted, produced, and directed a TV series for Doordarshan called It's A Woman's World which dealt with grooming, fashion, relationships, and astrology. When the press lashed out for it being “too glamorous”, slaughtering its prospects, the show ended. Garewal still insists that her show was “murdered”. She later made two documentaries — Living Legend Raj Kapoor (1984), and a three-part series on former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, India’s Rajiv (1991). She was supposed to make a documentary on Lata Mangeshkar, too, but the stories she heard from the industry insiders horrified her so much, she lost any sense of admiration for Mangeshkar, and decided to can the idea. She must be besotted by the ideas she pursues.

After 100 episodes, in 2004, Garewal threw a party for all her guests. Amitabh Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan rushed in from another magazine’s launch party. Rekha, Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Sushmita Sen, even the usually reclusive Sanjay Leela Bhansali popped in for a bit. Rishi Kapoor danced to ‘Om Shanti Om’. Dev Anand had a root canal surgery and Waheeda Rehman was stuck in Bangalore — both sent their regards and apologies. Here was a woman whose goodwill stretched across generations of artists.

There is no doubt that Rendezvous, which ended in 2004-05, was a precursor to KwK, which began around the same time. In the first season of KwK, you can even see Karan Johar as a host trying to slip into that soft tone Garewal was so famous for, lulling her guests into intimacy. Over the years, he would embrace his gossipy personality, his maximalist everything-goes attitude, giving voice to his — and our — voyeuristic instincts. There was also something edgier, younger about Kw. The opening was swankier, with a camera gliding across the set with techno music, a swerve from Garewal’s gospel music, ‘Speak, so I can see your soul’. The set was darker, more intimate, compared to the white-washed setting Garewal insisted on. For example, there was a couch, not a chair, that you lounge into and not perch upon. There was coffee. Capitalizing on the imagery of youth, it felt like you had taken a date home.

Something sour was in the air, with KwK taking over the mantle of Rendezvous. For one, it premiered on the same channel, STAR World. Johar and Garewal were, thus, often pitted against each other, with anonymous sources giving quotes about how Johar is obsessed with Garewal, casting himself in her mold.

Six years ago she uploaded all the episodes to her personal YouTube channel. In the description of the episode with Shobha De, she writes, “You’ll notice we innovated a Quick Fire round wayyyy back then! It was a trademark end to our shows in the seasons that followed. Many hosts picked up this idea - primarily Karan.” In 2017, Garewal Tweeted, “After I finished hosting IFFM Awards @karanjohar told Festival Director 'Next year I want to host the awards'! Another takeover?!” The sourness bore fruit.

Even as the grip slackened, Garewal still had a hold over the imagination. In 2016, in Melbourne she did an impromptu live Rendezvous with Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Kapoor. Regularly, there seems to be some bubbling attention directed towards the show. The video of Rekha professing her love for Bachchan keeps resurfacing like old waves crashing on Twitter. When Jayalalithaa passed away, most obituaries were quoting relentlessly, haphazardly from her episode with Simi Garewal, one of the only living documents of how alone Jayalalithaa was, despite and perhaps because of her power.

Whether the show gets a new lease of life or not is irrelevant. That it exists as a time capsule is enough — most of the couples who came on it have separated, many others have reincarnated their careers like cats, nine times over, and many others made unrecognizable by either age or silicon or both. But that does not, and cannot, take away from the fact that between 1997 and 2005, this show, with its kind, discerning gaze, captured what could only now be described as the riotous plunge of Bombay cinema into the new millennium.

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