This 16-year-old can read your mind
Oman-based Pranav Liju is a self-taught mentalist
One Saturday afternoon, this writer sat in front of a computer to get some answers. A few days ago, an email had claimed that a 16-year-old mentalist based in Oman could ‘hack’ minds. But can a teenager really read the mind of this 30-something journalist who is sitting miles away in another country? It was time to find out.
A few minutes later, the teenager in question, Pranav Liju, joined the Zoom interview. After exchanging pleasantries, he asked me to think of a name and he quickly guessed the name of my long-lost friend from college. Later, he also guessed the random number that I had thought of in that moment, with eerie precision — while also pointing out that the number was, in fact, not as random as I thought it was as it had two digits in common with my ATM card’s secret pin number.
The Grade 11 student and ‘self-taught mentalist’ has been holding virtual mentalism sessions titled ‘TBH with Pranav’ with celebrities and social media stars, and livestreaming them on Instagram since April last year. “When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world I was stuck at home like everyone else, and bored,” he said. “Virtual sessions have additional challenges — reading participants’ minds become all the more difficult and the tools in a mentalist’s arsenal are very limited — you can only go for mind reading, hypnosis, chance or luck and so on, so you have to be highly creative.” So far, he has held sessions with Chef Suresh Pillai, Aparna (aka Inverted Coconut), actresses Gopika Ramesh and Madhuri Braganza, VJ and actor Jeeva Joseph, and popular Dubai-based YouTuber, singer and actor Ahmad Salah, where he guessed names, passwords and even songs that played on their minds — and left them gobsmacked.
A budding mentalist
About nine years ago, Liju watched popular magician Gopinath Muthukad perform on stage in Sohar, Oman, as a part of an anti-smoking campaign. He was so mesmerised by Muthukad’s performance that when he asked the audience to raise their hands to see if they will never smoke in their lives, Liju joined them even though at seven, he didn’t exactly know what ‘smoking’ meant. “But it just shows the kind of impact that show had on me,” said Liju. He was fascinated by the world of magic and endlessly watched YouTube videos on ‘sleight of hand’ and other basic acts to build his skills. “It took me three years to just learn the basics because I wanted to have a strong foundation before I got on stage.”
At 10, Liju performed for the first time on stage in school, on Teacher’s Day. “We weren’t allowed to participate alone, so I taught four friends some magic tricks and we performed together… I picked three teachers from the audience,” he chuckled. “I did a basic mind reading act and if I remember correctly, I guessed everything right. My teachers were interested in the act for about two weeks. I think they gave me chocolates and stuff so that I would teach them what I did on stage.”
He continued to perform at informal gatherings like family get-togethers and events organised by local clubs. “I also watched performers on TV and tried to figure out their act. I adjusted it according to my resources and tried it on my own. For instance, once I watched David and Leeman’s act on America’s Got Talent where they performed the lottery illusion. I found it interesting.” In the elaborate act, which involved large cardboard cutouts, scratch cards and balloons, the magicians accurately guessed the numbers that judges had in their minds, leaving them stunned. “I roped in my brother for the act and we managed to replicate it and perform it for my parents, in my tiny room. And I was only 11 at that time.”
Around this time, he had also begun to read books on mentalism. He realised that his performances were more rooted in mentalism than magic and began to focus on the former. “You need a very strong base in magic to be a good mentalist. I practise magic about twice a month just to brush up on my skills, but I am completely focused on mentalism now.”
Dealing with trolls
At 13, he shifted to Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala and participated in the popular Malayalam channel Asianet’s reality show Wonder Kid. “My first segment on the show went viral,” he recalled. “But there was negative feedback on social media — you know, cuss words against me and my family and people were like, this act is fake and scripted and so on. It was extremely hurtful and I was traumatised. Even Aparna (Balamurali, the popular actress who had participated in the act) had to clarify that it wasn’t scripted in the comments section on Facebook... The channel changed the format of the show to a music contest at some point and didn’t call us back. And later, it got cancelled. I was very upset because I didn’t want to be seen as a one-hit wonder. The whole experience was fun, but it was too much for a 13-year-old.” Without revealing names, Liju also says he was criticised by a few members of the mentalism community in India. “A 13-year-old performing complicated acts on TV and gaining a lot of fame wasn’t well accepted by everyone. Like any other field of entertainment, it is competitive.” However, he continued to perform in corporate gigs and mingled with international mentalists. “I came to be dubbed as the youngest mentalist in Asia,” he added.
A year later, he moved back to Oman — a place he calls his ‘lucky charm’. He was hired as a consultant by participants competing in popular international reality shows (Liju declines to share names on record due to a confidentiality agreement) where he scripted entire acts. But he itched to get back in front of the camera and launched his ongoing virtual mentalism sessions on social media as the first step towards achieving his goal. “My aim is to participate in international reality shows and perform in front of a camera, and an audience,” he said.