Tag Archives: comedy

The Venus Flytrap: To Create Rather Than Produce

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It takes a long time for Shashi Tharoor to get onstage, even in the recorded and edited version of events. First, there’s another comedian’s set. Before and after, there are glimpses of him getting advice from the more experienced, references to how there are just 24 hours in which to rehearse, time spent within a vehicle in traffic, him looking at his notes backstage. By the time the politician, novelist and now stand-up comic’s turn arrives in the Amazon Prime special he features in, there’s the sneaking suspicion that the producers added as many buffers as possible around his gig itself.

They didn’t need to. Onstage, Tharoor is unexpectedly genial. He consults notes (“Panama Papers”, he quips) unselfconsciously. He grins when he thinks he’s done well. He mostly does, because whether or not the punchlines come as a surprise, there’s something strangely sincere about his whole attempt. It doesn’t come off as something quirky to do on the campaign trail, and neither does he seem out of place. No, he seems like he really wants to be there, at a comedy club in Noida, trying to make an audience of mostly millennials laugh. It’s all quite unlike what we are used to politicians doing, and yet exactly what they should be doing: hoping to please us, versus the other way around.

What I admired about Tharoor’s foray, at the age of 63 and while still at the height of a public (and controversial) career, is that he made that foray at all. In an era in which anyone can become a meme, when cruelty masquerades as incisiveness, it takes courage to try anything new.

One of the many, many chain reactions of our productivity-based, capitalism-driven world is that it’s much harder for us now to just attempt something. Instead, we must monetise our efforts. We must create an illusion of having mastered new learnings and skills while we were also accomplishing other things. Failure both isn’t permitted, and is permanent. “Failure” is also defined by people who hold their opinions on another’s work to be more valuable than the risk, time and energy put into creating that work itself. It doesn’t take even a second to hit the thumbs-down button.

Nowhere is this more evident than in careers in the public eye, particularly in the arts. Tharoor’s stand-up comedy set was mostly well-received. What happens next? If he doesn’t pursue a full-length show, he’ll be called a one-hit wonder who didn’t dare go further. If he does, and it flops, he’ll be castigated. This is partly where the pressure comes from. Success is expected to be repeated, formulaically. If one withdraws for a while to immerse in intensive knowledge-gathering, skill-honing or art-making, they do so at the risk of courting obscurity.

All this has a detrimental effect on culture itself – on what becomes culture. Perhaps if the consuming public wasn’t so intent on dismissing everything out there as mediocre, while simultaneously demanding more and more, it would be possible for those who create culture to actually to do so. To create rather than to produce, that is. For its own sake: applause or no applause.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 21st 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Funny, That’s Sexist

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In a clip that went viral earlier this week, entertainment journalist Anupama Chopra presented this question to a panel of professional comedians: “Is the comedy space more sexist than other fields in this country?” The context was Amazon India’s recent announcement of 14 specials, not one of which will star a female comic.

The question was addressed specifically to the only other woman at the table – Aditi Mittal. But the rest of the panel immediately began to rumble with responses – notably, with dismissals like how women comedians don’t have enough material for full shows, and the euphemism “situational outcome” (sure, if the situation we’re talking about is structural oppression). Much has been made about the mansplaining in that clip, but what stood out for me was how when Mittal finally got a word in, there was the palpable sense that the anger held in check in her voice and even on her face had silenced the rest of the table.

It wasn’t necessarily anger toward the panel in attendance – to them, she breezily threw shade by taking large, leisurely gulps from her mug as they proffered their opinions, making clear to the camera that she knew talking wasn’t expected of her. It was anger accumulated over working her way up through her industry, and how she ultimately found that her best strategy was in doing things solo (“I wouldn’t be [here] if I hadn’t distanced myself”), because solidarity was absent. These are things Mittal articulated without mincing words, sitting alongside her colleagues. She had never been a part of the brotherhood, no matter what they claim. In fact, as an industry insider pointed out to me, much of this boys’ club is even represented by the same management. And at that table, it was Mittal who had to represent. Sometimes a token becomes an envoy.

And that anger – deeply familiar. Because, really, Chopra’s opening question was inane. Any woman with a career, even in a field that is regarded as “acceptably” female (like nursing or teaching), knows: no, the comedy space isn’t more sexist than other fields in this country. It’s probably just as sexist as other fields in this country, but certainly not more.

For Indian comedy’s sexism problem to be largely a numbers game right now indicates that all of it (field and fault both) are in a fledgling state. It is only when more women are in the industry that we’ll begin to see more deeply-entrenched forms: from sexual harassment to the glass ceiling and more. In short, the everyday sexism that all working women encounter. As for sexist “jokes” – well, ironically, the comedy business doesn’t have a monopoly on that. Every corporate office in this country is full of those.

This brings back to mind something I’ve done often in professional contexts: drinking water so as to rein in emotional tension. Maybe that was what Mittal was doing too. Not throwing shade so much as telling her body to remain calm, to hold it together so she could say what she had to as clearly as possible. Because for once in her line of work, laughter would not be a compliment.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 1st 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Vidur Kapur: Closets and Comedy

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When Vidur Kapur emerges from behind the curtain at Museum Theatre in his silver-studded Louboutin sneakers, the audience’s unruffled response seems to unnerve him. He attempts a second entrance, and this one goes a little better – still, the New York-based, Delhi-raised openly gay comedian doesn’t disguise his apprehension. He tests the waters with a couple of tepidly polite Tambrahm jokes, and gingerly eases his way into an oeuvre of material revolving mostly around his sexuality, family and ethnicity… and warms up when he realises that contrary to what he had been led to expect, in Chennai, the audience was already on his side.

In conversation the day after the show, he admits that Chennai surprised him: “I was actually quite impressed with the openness here because everybody was like ‘Chennai’s so conservative, Chennai’s so conservative’. I realized the moment I got on stage that this audience was cold, I wouldn’t hit the ground running with them. They were reserved – ‘let’s see how you’re going to win us over’. But even the really edgy jokes got an enormous response. They were willing to go with it if it was funny.” Furthermore – in the audience were numerous members of the LGBT community, and the evening concluded with a special fashion show by transgendered models. This was also the only Indian city (Kapur has toured Delhi, Hyderabad and Kolkata in the past few weeks as part of The Park’s New Festival) in which members of the audience responded in the affirmative when he asked if anyone gay was present.

His amazement is understandable, given his difficult history with this country.  Kapur’s honours now include a nomination for a “NewNowNext” award from MTV networks, being named one of India Tribune’s “Top 31 Personalities of Indian Americans”, and appearances in a variety of major American TV networks, including NBC, FOX, MTV and VH1. But when he first left India to pursue tertiary studies, he did so having been deeply traumatised by his experience of being a gay teenager in India. “When I began to comprehend my sexuality, it had a horribly depressing effect on me. I communicated it to my parents and they were very disapproving. I was extremely flamboyant in school and it created a lot of hostility and hatred toward me. So when I got a scholarship to go to Wales, I left very battered, and at that young age, I made the decision to never never return to India.”

He survived at least two suicide attempts during this time.

Still, moving to the West did not solve all his problems. “Because of my experience in India, I decided to go back into the closet, and buried myself in academia so as to get all the approval that I had been denied while growing up,” he continues. He went to LSE and the University of Chicago, then threw himself into the corporate world for many years, again suffering a series of emotional breakdowns. “You have people who are closeted artists and photographers and so on,” he says. For this reason, he sees “coming-out” not as a one-time thing, but as a process by which one emerges as an individual, regardless of sexual orientation. In his case, this meant acceptance of himself first as a gay man, and then as a performer.

The turning point came for Kapur when he saw famed comedian Margaret Cho’s show, I’m The One That I Want. Cho, like him, struggled with various issues, including her sexuality, body dysmorphia and being from a racial minority in America. “It was really about her owning who she is and reclaiming herself as a person,” says Kapur of his inspiration. “It moved me. It was what made me want to do stand-up comedy. It was funny but it was also more.”

Almost in pattern with the pain out of which his individuality emerged, his career also began on a double-edged note. The first comedy class he took was on the day before 9/11 – “and there was this strange experience of New York being in shambles and nobody being able to laugh the next day”.

But this surreal scenario dovetails quite perfectly into Kapur’s life story, for this a comedian who isn’t afraid to be very serious in person, who doesn’t mind letting an audience see his trepidation, and whose own path has been marked with severe depression, about which he is unblinkingly open. Regardless of how one takes his comedy routine – which has its highs and lows, and a fluctuating energy – it’s difficult not to admire his courage.

Kapur’s experiences of alienation, struggle and eventual success seemed tailor-made for sex columnist Dan Savage’s new “It Gets Better” campaign, which endeavours to reach despairing gay teens lacking support within their own communities via the wonders of Youtube. Young people are also one of his primary audience demographics – he is one of the most popular comedians on the American college circuit, and has performed at over 150 campuses around the USA. Asked what he would say if he was a contributor to Savage’s campaign, he acknowledged, “It definitely is true that it gets better. As you get older, you realize that nothing is permanent. Rejection from family and from friends is not permanent. You can get past it. You have the power to create your own life.”

“I was born in India as one of the ‘haves’,” admits Kapur. “So I had the luxury to go abroad. Those who don’t have the wherewithal to do that will have a much harder struggle. But if you hang in there and have hope and faith you can get through it. Pain and joy are a part of life. But there is also joy, and great things to be attained.”

Now happily settled in New York City with his longtime partner, fully ensconced in an entertainment career that takes him all over the world, Vidur Kapur is not just one face of a changing diaspora – a diaspora that has permeated the American media in such a way as to also give us the likes of Russell Peters, Mindy Kaling, Vijai Nathan and Kal Penn – but also a reflection of a changing India. The teenaged Kapur might never have been able to imagine the laughs and warm reception that his performance in Chennai received last week, but the fact that it did is both evidence of our increasingly more open hearts and minds, and a portent of hope for all the closeted people out there – gay or otherwise.

An edited version appeared in today’s Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express.