In a conversation with Baradwaj Rangan, stand up comic Aravind SA speaks about how OTT increased the audience diversity of his first show Madrasi Da, and why he cannot crack a joke about something he does not understand. Excerpts.
With material, people will have opinions but ultimately it’s your call. Having exercised that final judgment, what kind of feedback is difficult to take?
I haven’t exercised final judgment yet, because I’m expecting that to happen over the weekend. But, to be honest, nothing about the weekend will tell you about the last 100 shows. When you’ve done 100 shows, you’re performing to the people who’ve paid to come and align with you. You’re putting it out on the public market, which means anything can go anywhere, which is why you should be more focussed on what feedback you take. Based on initial impressions, all the joy and effort you put is evident, and there’s no hiding needed.
What is your persona?
I wouldn’t know, because what I think I am is not how I’m perceived. So, it’s a tricky question to answer.
Do you try to put a persona on stage?
No, It’s an extension of my personality. That’s pretty much how I operate; otherwise, it’s very uncomfortable. As it is, extending my personality to thousands of people is uncomfortable. Imagine extending it to someone you aspire to be. I don’t have a specific vision of my persona, but you keep getting perceptions or reinforcements from people. If you broadly have to give it a category, I would say relativity is a big deal, I can’t talk about something I don’t understand. You would never see me getting into politics even though there are superb jokes. You can take current affairs and combine it with another situation and make an analogy out of it. There’s a Rahul Gandhi joke waiting to happen if you want to. If it doesn’t give it any kicks, I wouldn’t do it even if I’m vulnerable. So, I try to stick to anecdotal things, which is easy as it comes from a real place.
As a reviewer, I find myself unable to watch a film without a certain amount of X-ray vision. I enjoy it, but there’s also parallel processing going on. I’m wondering, if it’s possible to go through life without processing it through the filter of it possibly turning into a joke?
I don’t necessarily look out for material that way. But it’s very hard for me to sit through other people’s works without doing the same kind of due diligence. Not just comedy but stories, because you’re sitting and saying, “Why are you not doing this?”; “How would you do this?”; or “How can we apply it in a different way?” I would rather obsess about things that are finished.
So your friends take you to a strip club in Seattle which is part of the set here, are you in the moment there —
No chance! (laughs) Something must be wrong with me if I’m there and say, “Excuse me I’m writing for my next special.” (laughs)
I’m not saying that, but are you applying some kind of filter saying, “Wow this is actually a fantastic moment, I should do something about this.”
No, because I’m not comfortable taking notes in real life, because most of the time I’m writing from a place of strong emotional pain that I have the ability to convert into an angst-ridden story. Which is why I wrote that quote ‘When life throws shit at you, take the hit’ at the end of the show, which is honestly how the material came. Some of these stories are very old, so when I sit to write I just go back into the story banks in my head and put them together. It is painful then, but today the only way I can tell people that is by ranting about it and, therefore, the humour. Honestly, if something bad happens now, there’s a small voice inside saying this can be material in the future, but I don’t want to entertain that because I might keep attracting more of that.
When you weave a narrative for comedy, is it fictional or is it personal?
So the core is yours and you’re writing a screenplay?
Literally. I don’t consider myself a natural performer or actor because what I do is try a fictionalised version of the story and if it doesn’t work, I’ll try a different route.
Do you get bored of your material?
The first 20-30 shows, there’s no fatigue because it takes that many shows to get comfortable with it, to know what are my best and weak bits, finding a universal way of everyone relating to it. After 40-50 shows, you’re on autopilot and don’t want to tweak it any further. From there, you’re a professional. The story is old to you but new to people coming there, and if they are excited about it, you bloody well damn be. I consider it a privilege that somebody is paying to watch you talk. It’s tough love to say you wanna go back to where it was, I don’t want to go back.
What changes would you make while narrating a story in let’s say, Delhi?
I’d make small changes, but the majority of the changes are made in the script itself. I’d create a script that doesn’t require much tweaking from city to city, as long as I know Indians are my target audience. When I know that, my uncertain element is, say North Indians, because South Indians, even though we have different languages, bajji is bajji in most places. For North Indians, I try references from pop culture, the Mahabharata and Doordarshan, Valmiki and Ramayana. I wouldn’t do Kamban.
So you wouldn’t do Vadivelu?
No. But he would inspire me to perform modulations in English. Whenever people say that my comic timing is good, I feel like an imposter. I know where it’s coming from. If you do a ‘Ahaa’ (like Vadivelu) and do it in some other English word, you automatically give it a new look. Very few connect it to Vadivelu or Goundamani, who says, “Shut up your mouths”. Nobody will connect it to Tamil comedians, given my whole show is in English. But I get inspired by them.
One thing that definitely comes out is that you’re a South Indian Tamil comic. One of the things that you’ve been saying for the longest time is that North Indian comics get away with saying local words that South Indian comics, sometimes, haven’t been able to get away with. Do you think the playing field has been levelled?
It’s getting better. For me, it’s not that they get away with it, but we get brandished in a certain way because of it. I understand why they do that, because when he swears in his local lingo, that’s when he gets his emotion out to be himself. Likewise, when I say things in my language, I get, “Arre yaar, ye Tamil jokes aagaya.” That disappoints me, because I’d like to take this to as many people. It’s not like I don’t like Tamil, I can’t be more Tamil than this. When I talk in English, they’re like why are you talking in Tamil? That hurts me more, and I say, “This is English da, my accent is Tamil.”
When you go beyond the boundaries in stand up comedy, it’s very motivating. I can be myself and yet connect with you with my South Indian stories, like how Malayalam films today are getting on the map because of their connectivity. Why can’t we do that to comedy? OTT made it different, because the diversity of my first show Madrasi Da started increasing. It’s never happened before, and that’s when you know it’s because of OTT. You see non-Tamilians who appreciate the fact you kept it in English. A North Indian comic comes to Chennai and comfortably breaks into Hindi lines. You can’t be like “I’ll also do Tamil because they did.” I’m saying, “You guys do this, but you know what we should do.”