Back to basics. After the failed experiments trying to see if stand-up comics can crack under Big Boss-like pressure in the embarrassingly unfunny LOL – Hasse Toh Phasse on Amazon Prime Video, which I reckon pushed back the PR-cred of the comedians involved by a good few years, or the attempt to refashion comedy as competition in the banal Comedy Premium League on Netflix, we are back to stand-up comedians doing what stand-up comedians do best — stand-up comedy. I have to note here that this also makes it easier to write about because, you finally get to think of comedy as structure — a set up, a distraction, a pay-off — without the glitz and glamour that streaming platforms think every art form needs. Sure, a good production design hurt no one, but there is something called excessive indulgence, but no one seems to be listening, throwing money instead at deadweight ideas.
Stand-up Shorts has four 20-minute stand-up sets performed by Shreeja Chaturvedi, Shankar Chugani, Ramya Ramapriya, and Aadar Malik. Except Malik, the other comedians established themselves during Amazon Prime Video's Comicstaan, neither of whom won, but made their mark, of sorts. Malik, the most established of the lot, is understandably given the last slot.
We begin with the deadpan humour of Shreeja Chaturvedi — whose steady diet of Mills & Boons, Jane Austen, and Grihshobha has wrecked her love life — which has a nice, nervous quality. It's not novel, and I wish women on stage didn't have to only talk about love and failure in love as comedy, but she brings freshness through her vocabulary. Her use of staunch Hindi and Urdu words in the middle of her set elevates the humour. Listening to her suddenly, in the midst of her porn invective, thunder, "Apne mehbooba ko koi 'bitch' bulata hai kya?" completely knocks you off. Because you don't expect it, and also because you don't expect it in that linguistic register. Mehbooba.
Shankar Chugani follows up with a weak, distracted set. It begins with a tame, unfunny bit on names, goes onto the ritualized joy of football celebrations — where his set up isn't strong enough for the punchlines to land — and some self-deprecation. I sense he is leaning towards dark humour, and there are some witty ideas — like explaining Sati to a foreigner in the 1800s, "If you lose your sindoor, you become tandoor in this country… sir" — but it needs a thorough reworking, because nothing lands or stings. Sometimes you are not even sure the joke is over, before he has moved on to the next. There is a very dark bit about skin donation, and I was waiting for it to poke, jostle, or shock the sensibility into laughs, but nothing struck, except his poor nerves which were on glaring display. (Also, I will definitely recommend a less distracting sweater that you don't have to keep pulling up.)
This is followed by a rather odd set by Ramya Ramapriya, who opens and closes her sentences with "dude" (She's from Bangalore). There is also an entire uncomfortable stretch on Tam-Brahms — nothing original, the same stereotype bashing of MS Subalakshmi, 2 States hatin', Idli-Sambar referencing joviality. Uncomfortable because it always is, when a historically discriminating caste is referenced as an identity marker without reflection. Ramapriya's energy goes with the vibe she puts out, of being fun agnostic, and it serves some of her humour well, but soon it grates, like the person in the room saying she prefers to be home reading, when you know, everyone knows, she just wants friends to hang out with. She does have a lovely joke towards the end of her uneven set about the Naagin dance as a test for identifying the alpha, but there is little salvaging.
Aadar Malik closes this rather uneven collection with both charm and ease. He walks around the stage, improvises without stuttering, and has a lovely exaggerated quality to his body language that aligns with some of his jokes. Even when they don't work, or don't have the necessary zing, he has an unfazed quality to not recognize it, and thus not wallow in real-time about it. It's a swift manoeuvre. It is also a lovely ode to his grandmother — the central rallying theme. To see Malik perform after the other three is to see perhaps what time does to a constantly practicing comic — it sharpens the sense of timing, slackens the stiffness, hones the economy of the joke, and suffuses the body language with both comfort in moving around, and limb litheness to exaggerate, if the comedian is so inclined. Maybe that's what the first three skittish comedians need — time.