Satire is an endangered species. It is quite clear that as a country we take our cinema like we take our politics—humourless. The act of satirising cinestars and politicians becomes one of self-sabotage for the comedian, a cultural suicide. Actors with rabid fan bases, and politicians with rabid-er fan bases are quick to trend their petty, under-employed outrage on Twitter, using institutions that they have control over to silence the humour, and thus the opinion.
When Manoj Prabakar, one of the comedians of the Chennai-based comedy collective Evam Standup Tamasha, made fun of Telugu actor Mahesh Babu’s performance in the Tamil film Spyder during the first ever ‘Acadummy Awards’ in 2018, he stirred up a storm in a teacup. (He called Mahesh Babu expressionless, stoic, the “male version of Katrina Kaif”.)
The video went viral, Mahesh Babu’s fans were angered, and the Movie Artistes Association (MAA) in Hyderabad sent a strongly worded letter to the South Indian Artistes Association in Chennai requesting them to take action against Prabakar. The letter states that his satirical take on an actor’s bad performance “created furore in the Southern states and also bad vibrations between the friendly Telugu and Tamil film industries.” (It’s irrelevant, I suppose, that Prabakar is a comedian, not an actor, and thus not bound by the association’s diktats.) The video was taken down from YouTube after the tireless threats to the Tamil comic didn’t stop.
So the fact that Evam Standup Tamasha is still here, doing another Acadummy Awards two years later in 2020 is a middle-finger to the distracting noise, wrapped around a cloth of fortitude. Clocking in at almost two hours, the awards show—the Tamil equivalent of the Razzies—premiered on YouTube on 10 July and has since raked up more than 1.7 million views. It begins with a disclaimer, “No artist was harmed during the making of this show”. The four comedians—Praveen Kumar, Jagan Krishnan, Manoj Prabakar, Mervyn Rozario—fortify themselves before they begin (It’s an all-male show. Only 1 of the six performers listed on the Evam Standup Tamasha website is female.). They make it clear that any statement against a performance is not one against the performer.
But really they didn’t have to say this because the entire show is quite vanilla in its invective. All criticism is restricted to the ridiculous writing, the ridiculous staging, the ridiculous names of films. But that doesn’t mean that in its caution, it’s less funny or irreverent. Some of the comments on the YouTube video speak to having lost fathers and jobs, and this humour lifting them regardless. When heckled you can sense some discomfort in the eyes of the comedians, but they cruise through, attempting to fold it back into their rehearsed routine. Jagan Krishnan’s part had me in splits!
It’s the kind of award show where you have to feel embarrassed for having watched the films that actually win.
What must be noted here is the Tamil film world this comedy sketch is entrenched in. So much so that they didn’t bother with English subtitles on the video because it is clear that if you need subtitles to follow what is being said, you won’t understand it anyway. It requires prior knowledge. Even the Award titles are steeped in context. It’s not just ‘Worst Dance Award’ but ‘Bhagyaraj Award for Best Dance’. Similarly knowing Hari as the director who made Singam, Singam II, Singam III, Saamy, Saamy Squared helps one chuckle at, ‘Director Hari Award For Best Sequel’. Those who haven’t experienced the joy of Vadivelu’s comedy-gimidy won’t really get much from the ‘Murugesa Award For Best Pei’, awarding the most bizarre horror film “ghost” of 2019.
Each award is announced after discussing two runner-ups. The award itself is little more than just a jab. Sometimes it isn’t even film-related. The ‘Idhar Aao Award For Best Bollywood Actor In Tamil’ went to Narendra Modi for his performance in Mamallapuram. (Rozario joked, “Idhu nee panra show odu kadaisi joke illai, life ode kadaisi joke dhan, paa. This isn’t just the last joke of the show, but also perhaps your life.” I laughed, but then thought of Agrima Joshua.)
The Tamil comics themselves have shown that a sizable audience for this kind of contextually entrenched humour exists. They don’t need to speak in English. Over the years, Rozario and Krishnan, in fact, shifted from English to Tamil in their stand-up routine. The international tours they do, by-passing the Mumbai circuit, is testament to the demand. I remember watching Alexander Babu perform his Alex In Wonderland musical-comedy special in Mumbai—it was in Matunga, the Tamil enclave with shop boards in Tamil instead of Hindi or even English. He apologised for his second act that was steeped in Tamil and required knowing Ilayaraja and Rahman’s music. He didn’t have to apologise though, it was a riot, and a success.
What also must be noted is that these comedians sat through some of the worst films of 2019, often one of a handful of people in the theater. It’s the kind of award show where you have to feel embarrassed for having watched the films that actually win. In a warped sense, satire here is a love letter to the movies—an art from that entertains as much as it exasperates, one that gives as much fodder for humour, as it produces fans to destroy you for expressing it.
List of winners:
Director Hari Award For Best Sequel: Kanchana 3
Murugesa Award For Best Pei: Iruttu
Oh Maha Seeya Award For Best Lyrics: All songs from Natpe Thunai
Sakkarai Pongal and Vada Curry Award for Best Combo: Yogi Babu and 2019 (He acted in 31 films last year)
Mike Tyson Award for Best Punch Dialogue: Atlee, Bigil’s director saying, “En annanukku naan dhan pannuven.”
Shroov Award For Best Villain: Blue Sattai Maran
Vera Vaai Nara Vaai Award For Best Parents: Cherappa
Adengappa Award For Best Strategy: Nithyananda’s escape from India
Singapenne Award for Best Heroine: The Biryani in Kaithi (Like the traditional actress, the role of the Biryani here was to energise the hero when he has given up)
Bhagyaraj Award for Best Dance: Anbe Peranbe from NGK
Yaruma Nee Award For Best Supporting Actress: Banita Sandhu from Aditya Varma
Idhar Aao Award For Best Bollywood Actor In Tamil: Modi in Mamallapuram