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Review: Azeem Banatwalla’s ‘Problems’ Is India’s Best One-Hour Standup Comedy Special Yet

By Ajay Krishnan 23 February 2019

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Amazon Prime Video | 1 hr 7 min | Released: January 2019

In his new Amazon Prime Video special, Problems, Azeem Banatwalla does something few comedians have ever pulled off: he stands still. That is, for most of the length of the 67-minute special, Banatwalla keeps his feet firmly planted in one spot, so that he is framed neatly between his stool and his mic stand.

Anyone who follows standup comedy will know just how impressive a feat of performance this is. Comedians generally pace the stage to make sure that they keep the energy of the performance up, and that they engage different sections of the audience. It takes immense confidence to do what Banatwalla does here—stay more or less in one spot for an entire hour on stage, sure that he will hold the audience’s attention.

Watch Problems on Amazon Prime Video.

You can usually sense in the first minute whether or not you’re going to like a special. With Problems, you sense something has shifted for Banatwalla as soon as he steps on stage. Even before, actually. The special opens with a jagged intro riff from Chennai punk trio Skrat’s brilliant song ‘Fireworks’. It sets a distinctly different mood from Banatwalla’s first special for the platform, Cometh The Hour, which opens with a cheerful, bouncy bassline from Mumbai band BLAKC’s song ‘Newspaper Boy’.

Banatwalla began his previous special genially, with the words, “So, what’s happening, Mumbai? How’re you guys doing? Are you guys feeling okay?” In Problems, in response to an extended round of welcome applause, he rolls his eyes and says, “Okay, okay, shut up. Show karne ka hai.

It takes immense confidence to do what Banatwalla does here—stay more or less in one spot for an entire hour on stage, sure that he will hold the audience’s attention.

Comedians being curt to audiences isn’t an unfamiliar shtick—among others, Sundeep Sharma regularly cuts off his welcomes with a grunted “Bas”. But the shift in Banatwalla’s tone is particularly striking because for so long, his affability and his sheepish grin have been key to his onstage comedic persona.

Indeed, Banatwalla is a changed comedian. His writing is tighter and his voice is angrier (though Problems never collapses into an irritating rant), and where he once delivered his material in a gentle, meandering style, he now releases it in swift, compressed punches. The result is, in our view, India’s funniest and best-crafted hour of comedy that has released online yet. (Sixty-seven minutes, to be precise, and a judgment that holds as of 24 February.)

Banatwalla traverses a range of subjects in the special, from Café Coffee Days to the powers that come with adulthood to religion to politics. Knitting it all together is the idea of “problems”—what seems like an unimaginative name for a special turns out, instead, to be just broad enough to allow him to traverse a wide variety of topics while still giving the show a cohesive structure. He makes it clear early on that he’s in great writing form with a blisteringly funny bit on how Eminem makes everyone memorise his life’s problems, before wondering what must happen to problems that don’t make the lyrical cut. It’s the sort of trivial speculative territory that Indian comics don’t often stray into but that, in strong hands, like Banatwalla’s, makes for crackling comedy.

He then goes into an extended segment about how Indians, when they turn 18, gain the right to drink, vote, drive and fuck. This segues into a bit about teenagers making out in cars. The main line of this segment is strong, but Banatwalla also delivers some ripping throwaway lines, like one about adding “one-rupee shagun” to a cop’s bribe.

Banatwalla’s observational work is so strong that it doesn’t even take a punchline to get a laugh.

In parts, Banatwalla’s observational work is so strong that it doesn’t even take a punchline to get a laugh. Consider, for instance, his bit on having to do Captcha tests that involve picking out squares with specific objects in them. Or how construction sites with “Men At Work” signs usually have no sign of men working at them. The special is peppered with gems like this that elicit laughter purely on the strength of Banatwalla’s observational powers.

The second half of Problems doesn’t quite pack as much punch as the first, a problem that’s dogged nearly every special out of India. There’s a section on birds which would have been at home in an earlier Banatwalla show, but feels weaker than his other material in Problems. There’s also significant chunks of political comedy, which gets its share of laughs, but isn’t quite as surprising as the rest of the special.

But these weaknesses don’t drag the show down—it remains engaging and holds together structurally. Unlike with most other specials, it doesn’t feel like the second half is merely patched on. And that gives Problems a cohesion that most other specials lack. That, combined with just how funny the best bits of Problems are, marks Banatwalla out as a formidable writer and performer, one who has now comfortably staked his claim as one of the country’s finest comedians.

Dead Ant review policy: 1) We pay for shows that we review. 2) When we review live shows of any kind, we might mention subjects that are dealt with, but will avoid more detailed discussion of premises or jokes. 3) When we review or discuss YouTube videos and OTT specials, since they are already accessible across locations, we may get into more details discussions of the material. These reviews aim to foster closer conversations about comedy, and hence are for people who have already watched the videos, or don’t mind knowing details of it beforehand.

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