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.