I’ve been watching live stand-up comedy for close to a decade now. It’s a performing art form that’s particularly close to me, and has helped me get through some of my darkest times in the past few years. I make it a point to attend at least one show a week, whether that’s an open mic, a curated show or a special. Earlier this week, I went to watch Zakir Khan trying out an hour of new material at the Cuckoo Club in Bandra. It was the first time I saw him perform, save the bits he’s uploaded on youtube. I have to admit, I have never experienced anything like it. The way he packages nostalgia into elaborately detailed hyper-visual stories is miles above anything else in the scene right now. As a storyteller, he is unparalleled in India.
There’s no better way of discovering a stand up comedian than on stage. No online clip, no Netflix special can cut it. I felt this way the first time I went for a first stand up gig (Pre AIB Tanmay Bhat and a guitar playing very politically incorrect Daniel Fernandes in Pune) and I continue to feel this way even today. The feeling of being a personal subject of the flow of comedy at that moment, whether that’s for five minutes or an hour is an experience in itself. That’s the part you miss online. The bits you experience on youtube are a comedian’s best bits, honed and perfected over years of doing them. By the time he or she puts these up, they’re kinda ready to trash them from their set. There’s a lot of nuance in selecting the right shot for the right punchline, closing up when there’s a need for intimacy and cutting to a wide when the viewer needs to sit back and enjoy the set up to a joke. You don’t realise it, but you’re being manipulated without even realising it. If you’ve been watching live comedy since 2012, you’ve had a chance to see every single comedian who has hit a certain amount of online fame today absolutely unaccountable to the public at some point, very unabashed and with no fear of public backlash – which is where you realistically come to know what they’re all about, whom they punch and what they truly find funny.
For most of the bits online at the moment, I’ve had a chance to see them live in the entirety of the set in which they feature . For a few, I even helped record them. That gives me a very different understanding as a member of a live audience about the context and background the comedian comes from. It also makes me very aware about the larger point they are trying to make. By rule, I stay away from an online clip if I haven’t seen the comedian perform live before. Since the circuit is so small (fewer than a hundred actually making decent money off it), the odds that I can catch any comedian I want perform at a venue within a radius of ten kilometers from my house in Mumbai are insurmountably high. You could walk in the Cuckoo Club in on a random Monday open mic and see Biswa Kalyan Rath, Kanan Gill, Kaneez Surka, Kenny Sebastian and Rahul Subramaniam all try material on the same lineup without much ado about it. The point I’m making is that as of November 2017, access to live stand up comedy as an audience member is super easy, if you know where to go. It’s the only reason why I refused to watch ‘Haq se Single’ when it released on Amazon. I wanted to see Zakir perform first.
I had observed Zakir’s mushroom cloudesque rise the moment his bits in the middle of an AIB show went viral online. I had regularly seen other comedians tweet or mention him in a very different light, stressing particularly about the power of his storytelling. I had seen a number of women online call him out for thriving on sexist material, as well as reducing women to stereotypes at his level of fame. Zakir, as I observed seemed to be the only comedian I could think of who had cut through every class barrier online. As far as say an AIB goes – and I feel they’re a household name now, I’ve routinely heard the older generation tear them apart with the same eagerness brazen millennials will go out to defend them. I’ve had conversations about Zakir Khan with relatives whom I know can’t type on a computer for crying out loud to auto rickshaw drivers who get a familiar glint in their eye when you mention a punchline of his. They all adore him. He’s Zakir Bhai.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting much out of a trial show. I’ve seen seasoned comedians tank the shit out of the room while trying out new material and it’s fair – jokes need time to perfect, they need timing to land right and no matter how famous you are, the first enthusiastic five minutes of applause when someone familiar lands up on stage is the only leeway you get even if you have a few millions hits to your credit on youtube. After that, you’re out on your own. In fact, with fame rises expectation. Your familiarity can help you to a point where you don’t have to waste time to give the audience an essence of who you are. Which is why I wasn’t particularly surprised when Zakir walked on stage to thunderous applause – it’s expected. The audience, predominantly male, desperately trying to snapchat his arrival on stage wasn’t shy in revealing how star struck they were. His first sound – ‘Accha’ got a huge laugh. Make no mistake, he knows how famous he is. His crowd work was minimal, besides giving the entire lot a minute’s time to finish snapchatting him.
To me, the utter familiarity with which Zakir opens is a huge part of his act, because unlike so many performers he doesn’t bother trying to let the audience know how pleased he is to perform for them. It’s almost like meeting an old best friend after half a decade, because he leaves no room for formality. You could make eye contact with him for a split second and as a member of the audience feel like you’ve known him for years. Because you have. Because you’ve had a friend exactly like Zakir at some point in your life. A friend who you chill with for the sheer joy of spending time with him and listening to his stories. A friend whose stories you never know whether to believe but lord, are they entertaining as well.
In 2016, I had made a video during my stint at BuzzFeed India called ‘Your childhood in 100 seconds’ We used a top down camera set up to play out a day in school, hoping a collection of memorabilia unique to Indian millennials would trigger enough relatability for a string of shares. The video had gone bombastically viral. It was shared over a hundred-thousand times and got us an aggregate viewing of over eight million views on Facebook in a day. Other BuzzFeed offices copied the format to similar success, with French, German, Australian versions of the same video clocking millions of hits. Nostalgia on the internet is one of the strongest ways of getting people together. An overdose of it can work terribly, but limit the frequency and you’re guaranteed a level of relatability unlike anything else. It’s a way of filtering out only the happiest memories people associate with their childhoods and coming of age years and presenting it to them in a format that compels them to think about simpler times.
Zakir’s entire act is an surge of nostalgia. Through the hour and fifteen minutes he performed, I don’t recollect a single bit/story which was about the incredulity of his life today. Even the few sentences he happened to chance about the present was a detailed description of his inability to fit in the social class his comedy has elevated him into. Tearing into the obsession of non-muslims frequenting Mohammad Ali road during Id, he mentioned ‘I’m done with it. I hate that area. What you find exotic, is my childhood!’
Zakir painted an incredibly visual picture of how small his town was, and how retrospectively large his house was. Every description of his father revolved around him being engrossed in the act of newspaper reading somewhere in the background, his face covered, his words few. His hierarchical breakdown of his family, which puts his father beyond the realm of friendship and his mother as an absolute equal is incredibly endearing. His eight years in Delhi, he insisted were like what Yashoda was to Krishna, instrumental in shaping him into who he is today almost like a foster parent who honed him. He moved on to testing whether he considers himself an equal to his father today, a stream of thought I felt was very poignant, testing the actual fabric of household relationships in India.
It’s the sheer visual picture Zakir builds when he narrates a story that gets the audience so involved with what he’s saying. Every line is like a cinematic breakdown. He changes the point of view you’re seeing things from in your own head without realising it. There isn’t a single line in the middle of one of his bits that doesn’t involve a visual cue, that doesn’t allow you to stray away from the picture he wants you to build. Which is extremely important, because the stories are stories that have happened to all of us so it’s not they’re new or haven’t been talked about. He changes his tone for every single character he talks about, gives them props to say something more about them. The antagonist of one of the stories in which he gets into a physical fight is a boy from his class who chews tobacco. His voice never changes through his set. Zakir voices him with his mouth full of red liquid, always making sure he spits on stage before his character takes a clean, articulate tone.
Zakir’s narration – I guarantee you if he told you the same story sitting in a car during a roadtrip or over drinks in a bar or in a flight as a stranger he wouldn’t have to change or edit a single word. That I feel is the utter genius of his storytelling. Which is that it doesn’t matter how many people are in front of him. The version of the story he tells wouldn’t have to change. He can narrate the exact same incident in the exact same way to a friend in the morning and a stadium and the evening to the exact same reaction of helpless laughter. His storytelling will disarm you no matter who you are and will generate a physical reaction of laughter if you’ve lived in India for a considerable amount of time (I’m making the generalisation here that you speak Hindi)
Is he sexist? Yes. There’s no doubt about it. There’s a liberty he takes with reducing women to stereotypes that I personally feel shouldn’t be done in 2017. It’s a very thin, grey line, but it could be argued that Zakir making fun of women is more a joke on the differences of class between him and the women he routinely makes fun of, or a joke on never finding oneself worthy enough to be loved. To a large part, I think he gets away with it because he also calls men out for their naivety and general lack of intelligence in speaking to/about women as fellow human beings. It’s easy for me as a male writer to say that -’It’s fine if he does it. He doesn’t mean it’ but I hope that with time, we get to see a more layered version of the mimicry or jest he subjects his female characters to if he continues doing it. I watched his online special ‘Haq Se Single’ after watching him live and I feel like there’s a huge change in the thought behind his storytelling in what I chanced to see in person. The jokes are more subtle, the complexity of ideas he spoke about (Family hierarchy, casual racism, fitting in a new city, male rivalry in schools) befits his rise to superstardom in the past two years. Not once did he use his ‘Sakth Launda’ tag to evoke laughter. It’ll be insane to see him dissect his present, away from happy place his nostalgic past seems to come across as as he moves on to newer realms in comedy.
The depth of emotion I felt when his set was over is what compels me to write this. I have never been made to feel euphoria, sadness, anger, jealousy and nostalgia; all packaged in a blanket of helpless laughter the way I did immediately post his set. The reaction from the entire audience to what I could clearly tell was a very average show by his standards was nuts. There were people in tears, people who were still repeating punchlines and people who were still mouthing songs Zakir referenced and called back to through his set as they were walking out of the Cuckoo Club where he performed. At times he abandoned comedy altogether, turning into a motivational speaker for minutes at a time all to rapt attention from everyone listening.
There will be a time when Zakir Khan (and I’m willing to bet a large amount of money on this even if you tell me all the odds are against me) will achieve the same level of jewelled stardom someone like a Shahrukh Khan or a Sachin Tendulkar do/did in India. It may take time, it may take a decade but it will happen. There will be a day where he may have to bend, like several artists have in the past to accommodate the tastes of the common man of India; where his material will no longer be what he wants to perform but the common man wants to hear. Till then, if he’s performing around you and you want to experience what it’s like to be in the audience of the first rock star of modern Indian stand up comedy, catch him whenever you get a chance, while you still can. You should, at least once – experience what it’s like to just be there…amazed.
PS: Sorry for the headline, Srishti. But yours was too good not to use.