Dressed like Alizeh from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil — the red kameez with a dangerously high side-slit, frayed jeans, boots, and leather jacket from 'Break Up Song' — comedian Sumaira Shaikh takes to the stage with a shrill enthusiasm, thanking Amazon, the audience, and her aligned stars. The stage is littered with references — paper lanterns, juttis, a fridge of lemonade, a cafe's facade, red plastic chairs closing in on high tables — that never get referenced through the show. Merely aesthetic, their purpose is. A rainbow-riot departure from the dull, indistractable blackness or blueness or digital dullness we have come to recognize as backdrops of comedy specials. Is this luxuriant production design supposed to signify Dongri? The place she describes as poor, rag-tag, and crowded through the hour-long special? (All in good humour, of course, she is a comedian, not an ethnographer.)
While the eyes get used to the newness, the possibility of detailing on a comedian's stage, the ears, too, must get used to Sumaira's unique style of speech. She "whoo"s — a sound of cheer, encouragement — to get a "whoo" back. What is that about? Is it enthusiasm or charm or a performance tic or a performance hack to forcefully elicit response or guilt? Or is it a confidence that the audience will reflect her "whoo"s back? Or merely an insecurity to confect reactions?
She also has a strangely emphatic and charming cadence, like a sports commentator — rushing through sentences, sometimes fumbling, but always emphasizing her 'hai's and 'tha's at the end of a sentence or breaking down the last word, pronouncing each syllable as its own word, slowly, strongly – 'aayenge' becomes 'aa-yen-GAY', 'Guardians Of Galaxy' becomes 'Guradiansof Ga-lex-SEE'. She has baked humour into her very speech, never mind the script.
But Sumaira, even with sparks of humour, like calling the retreating Tsunami a "walk of shame… but of ocean", is not able to dig into the darkness with which she sets up her stories.
Sumaira, who participated in the forgettable but frothy Comedy Premium League on Netflix has also worked behind the scenes with AIB, Abish Mathew's Son of Abish, and Sumukhi Suresh's Behti Naak and Pushpavalli (Sumukhi Suresh directed this comedy special). This is her first solo comedy special.
There is a charming confidence, but more importantly, there is a distinctiveness — more in her speech than her storytelling — that sets her apart from a sea of irony. She never tells a story straight, looping around, taking a strand of it, stretching it into a theory, throwing comedic dumps on it, thematizing humour, breaking up the world into neat categories: Man VS Woman, Rich VS Poor, Rohit VS Everyone Else, Dongri VS Churchgate. This is all the standard comedian fare, elevated by the looming ghost of a Dawood Ibrahim anecdote, which comes, surely and swiftly, in the guise of introducing her father's antics.
She rushes through sentences, the subtitles play catch-up, porn hub becomes pawan hub, and in the midst of this fast-local, Amazon Prime Video decides to subtitle "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!" as "Shit! Shit! Shit!". Sometimes the subtitles decide to pull a fast one, poking at our meta-bank of memes. When Sumaira is describing Palladium Mall, I was not sure if she said, "Mast ka mall" or "Masska mall". Rewinding, I referred to the subtitles, which read, "Anil Kapoor mall" — referencing the "Maska" dialogue from Yudh (1985). Suddenly, I found myself in the audience of this comedy special, the jokes were interacting with me. There is certainly a humanizing tendency here. As the final credits roll, we see Sumaira walking away, wearing her mask, becoming one with her audience now leaving along with her — backpacks, handbags, masks.
It is poor Rohit who keeps appearing through her special, the guy who becomes the figurehead of everything annoying about masculinity — asking for real estate prices in barren lands, not getting invited to Whatsapp Groups named "Not Rohit Here", the guy who is at the bottom of the friendship hierarchy, for which, again Sumaira has a theory. I hope this is personal vendetta against some Rohit in her life leaking through art. We love a good gossip.
But Sumaira, even with sparks of humour, like calling the retreating Tsunami a "walk of shame… but of ocean", is not able to dig into the darkness with which she sets up her stories. She is talking about the mayyat of her brother, and later, the moment she found out about her brother's passing. But she doesn't even set it up as a moment of sadness, to then subvert it, finding humour in it, turning the jokes dark and devilish. The jokes here begin with the set-up itself. Even the audience is initially silent, confused, unable to make that leap from sadness to guilt at laughing at sadness to a fuck-all irreverence. Sumaira herself is unable to address these leaps, pretending they don't exist. It is radical but artless. In a pause, when she spoke of her brother, I recognized sadness. I wanted that spun into something dirty, evoking guilt and nuisance and the human tendency to be impolite, unruly, provocative just for the heck of it. That was sadness I saw, right? Or was it nerves?