He has no rabbits, doesn't cut women in half, or chain them in boxes only to have them emerge free. Nicolai Friedrich is amongst the new breed that vociferously claim they are not magicians, but mentalists who work with the mind. Your mind!
Like other mentalists, he's young, chic, dresses casually in jeans and tees, holds stage performances, is funny and witty. And when you meet him, he doesn't produce a rose from thin air; instead, he presents you with your date of birth, your home address or your grandmother's name, as he did at the Nicolai Friedrich show held at Mumbai's Hotel Sofitel.
The German illusionist knows how to play with your imagination and gets you to think what he wants. He employs tools of suggestions, psychology and body language and a few props, like a huge writing pad, a briefcase from which he pulls out a glass, a microphone and a pen. Over an hour-and-a-half, he has the audience entranced and entertained with the idea of impossible possibilities. Like turning a Rs10 note into a Rs1,000. Cheap trick for him, but one the audience lapped up. Through complex math, he guesses numbers whizzing through people's heads. He tells a young woman the name and a fairly accurate description of her boyfriend.
He's even sold a trick or two to the Shakespeare of all mentalists, David Copperfield. Ashwin Gidwani who produces the show, is bullish about Friedrich. "He has the right mix of showmanship, surprise and gentleness. And I see a great future for him on the Indian subcontinent and Asia."
So how does one read minds? Friedrich laughs. It's an essential tool of his trade and he's not about to give away the secret, but gives out some sops. Check out the body language, look at reactions — the tiniest ones are the best telltales. "A mentalist," he says, "studies the conscious and the subconscious." And before we begin to believe this is esoteric, he adds that this is just what everyone does. "You," he points at me, "are constantly studying people, tackling the conscious and the subconscious. The only difference is that I practice this study constantly. Millions of people know how to play the piano, but to be a great pianist, it takes hard work and practice. And my craft is no different."
That comes as a bit of a letdown, especially when one is still in awe of a trick in his show: he offers random people in the audience a set of keys, of which only one will open a locked box. After several failed attempts, a woman in the audience has the lucky key that opens the box. And what does she find? A note telling her that this box will be opened by a woman with shoulder-length hair, in a blue dress, with silver shoes. Cynics say the woman is a plant. But the woman swears she isn't.
Or figure out this one: it's based on intuition. A jigsaw puzzle of Mona Lisa has a piece missing. A volunteer is invited to sink her hand into a huge bag containing 1,000 pieces of the jigsaw. She picks a random piece. After a series of eliminations to prove that not all the pieces are the same, the volunteer tries the piece that she picked out and it fits perfectly! Again, that person could have been an insider, only, it was me!
How? He merely smiles through happy, kind eyes. "It was your intuition that did the trick," he maintains. What if it wasn't the right piece? Has he encountered cynics who are bent on proving him wrong? Yes, often, he says. "I myself am a cynic. Every mentalist is. What exactly is magic? Our ancestors didn't believe airplanes could exist. They would have called it magic.
The only real magic is something we haven't found as yet. I don't know if it exists. I hope it does."
So what does a mentalist thrive on? "I entertain people about the power of the mind. The difference between me and you, is that I am not restraining my imagination. I use it limitlessly on my audience. And that is the ultimate gratification. I want my audience to say, 'wow that was amazing and fun', not, 'gosh, my world is shaken'."
Judging by audience reactions, he's got them thinking that, alright!