“We’re all shitty people,” Aziz Ansari semi screamed into the mic at the Tata Theatre, the 1000-seat performance venue at NCPA, which was sold out on Saturday, May 25 at 3 PM. It was Ansari’s second of three scheduled shows in Mumbai, on his Road to Nowhere tour, and his first time performing in India, in 18 years of stand-up.
The accusation, which came towards the end of a well-rehearsed 90-minute set, was quickly mitigated as Ansari said that no matter how shitty we’ve been, we all get better. At this point the set up felt complete. Through new material hinged on the state of culture in 2019, moral censure and celebrity bashing, Ansari was cleverly making a point about his own life.
At the end of a successful second season of Master of None, the popular Netflix drama that Ansari co-directed and acted in, the American comic was accused of alleged inappropriate behaviour during the peak of the #MeToo movement. And while he waited the length of the show to address his feelings on the issue, which prompted him to take a year-long hiatus, Ansari had already made us question our moral judgements.
Before concluding the self-reflective performance, he confessed that he felt terrible, humiliated, and embarrassed, but mostly grateful. The incident in the news last January had altered him and made him think about every date he had been on and every date that he was yet to go on.
How? Through the examples of R Kelly and Michael Jackson, pop culture icons who suffered a similar fate. When accused of alleged sexual misconduct, the two were spurned by the very people who worshipped their music. Ansari admitted that he too was confused about how to respond to these revelations about the musicians he grew up listening to. However, it was the crowd’s harshness that was under scrutiny at Ansari’s show.
Ansari was comically tetchy when he tackled racism and the “exhausting wokeness of white people”. “This is an interesting time, as never before have white people been so nice to minorities,” said Ansari. He was funniest, however, while spoofing his “Caucasian girlfriend” as a Mary Poppins-esque figure, who didn’t understand racism because in Denmark, where she’s from, “they have no other races”.
Dressed in a T-shirt and Vans, the diminutive man with roots in Tamil Nadu, dominated the large stage with his voice, which rose to a shrill, hypernasal pitch and fell to barely audible mumbling and practised giggles as he deftly dialled the cynicism up and down. Ansari elicited a lukewarm response when he attacked the wokeness of the white, but the crowd loved his India bits centred on arranged marriages and the absurdity of “love” marriage, the toxic air quality in Delhi and the parallels between America’s right wing, nationalistic president, who is intolerant of Muslims, and ours.
In the run up to the scheduled shows, Ansari performed three surprise sets at much smaller venues, where both the crowd and the content overlapped. At the 100-seat The Cuckoo Club in Bandra, which hosted three secret performances over three consecutive nights before the big shows, Ansari was far more relaxed, conversational and convincing. We were privy to what felt like a high definition version of the performance with Ansari’s eyes interlocking with ours, his goofy facial expressions magnified.
Before concluding the self-reflective performance, he confessed that he felt terrible, humiliated, and embarrassed, but mostly grateful. The incident in the news last January had altered him and made him think about every date he had been on and every date that he was yet to go on. It was not so much a plea for forgiveness but a sombre acknowledgement of his mistake.
Ansari said that for the first time in his stand-up career he actually felt grateful that he could still do what he loves the most, to perform. “I would say thank you very much, you’ve been great to the audience at the end of each show, but I never really meant it,” he said. But the new Aziz did. His greatest takeaway over the last year, when he practically disappeared and cut off from everything (including the Internet, by switching to a flip phone), was learning to live in the present. Appreciating the present moment whether with his Alzheimer’s-inflicted grandma in Tamil Nadu, who was an endearing part of his set; with his parents, who he took for granted most times; or with us, his rapt audience, “because everything is ephemeral and the present is all we have”, he signed off.