Amazon Prime Video | 1 hr 15 min | Released: May 2017
Until 2015, Biswa Kalyan Rath was most famous as one half of the Pretentious Movie Reviews duo. And judging by the crowd’s behaviour at one live show I caught in Gurgaon, he was decidedly less popular than his partner, Kanan Gill. As that show came to an end, the front rows began chanting “Selfie! Selfie!” and the instant Gill assented, some 50 young people leapt out of their seats and swarmed the stage, sweeping Gill into the wings. Not one of them approached Rath, who was left alone on stage and sauntered off quietly.
Things changed in 2015. Beginning in April that year, Rath uploaded a series of eight videos on his YouTube channel, all of it new solo stand-up work.
The videos were breakout material. They showcased a young comic with a talent for turning seemingly mundane subjects into comedic gold. The videos quickly went viral, allowed Rath to carve out his own space in the comedy industry and earned him a dedicated following. Of all the free material by Indian comics available online, Rath’s videos still comprise one of the strongest bodies of work.
Perhaps the best known of those videos was ‘Banana & Pomegranate’ in which Rath explained why bachelors love bananas and hate pomegranates. (“To eat banana, you need banana!”) But there were other gems too, including a meditation on how Indian nailcutters try too hard to be Swiss army knives, and a particularly memorable—even touching—segment on how Rath thinks largely in English, but his mind automatically switches into Oriya in situations of emotional stress. It was truly delightful to hear a comic break into Oriya on stage, wailing “Jibone ata dukho! Sonsar ata mohamaya!” (How sad is life! How illusory the world!)
Of all the free material by Indian comics available online, Rath’s videos still comprise one of the strongest bodies of work.
This was great material, delivered in a largely measured, casual style, with occasional spikes in volume. Given the quality of this work, and Rath’s spiralling popularity, it was no surprise that he was one of the 14 comics commissioned by Amazon to shoot specials, in 2017.
But several million YouTube view later, the wry observational comic from two years ago is almost entirely absent from Rath’s Amazon special, Mast Aadmi. Instead, there is a loud, shouty performer who seems too busy ranting to reflect on life’s easily missed peculiarities. Rath’s voice here has literally shifted to a register that is more aggressive and hoarse.
It isn’t just Rath’s delivery that is less enjoyable—his material too is nowhere near as surprising. For one, his set is almost entirely made up of stories—mostly anecdotes about his family and friends. Of course, anecdotes have their place in stand-up—many comics devote long segments of their shows to storytelling. But so far, Rath’s powers of observation far exceed his storytelling skills. We’ve all known that Indian nailcutters have useless bottle openers, and weird knives—but it took Rath to dissect the subject for several minutes and make it utterly riveting and hilarious.
Rath’s stories, on the other hand, are considerably less interesting. Among other subjects, he talks about his father, his mother, disagreements they have and about Rath getting into trouble. And while they’re occasionally amusing, they’re nowhere near as thrilling as his observational work. It doesn’t help that Rath literally announces the beginning and end of story segments, rather than craft smooth segues and transitions. Though Rath seems to do this intentionally, it leaves the show awkwardly segmented, and with what feels like a forced structure.
Rath does include a segment of more observational material, including a bit on giving Uber drivers directions, another on the absurdity of “fashion statements” and another very funny bit on “general knowledge.” There are also occasional reminders of how some of the funniest moments of Pretentious Movie Reviews came when the comics lapsed into faux scientific and engineering language—here, Rath comes up with “quantum baap,” and the idea of failed students precipitating to lower classes over the years.
There are flashes here of the observational comic of earlier, but he’s largely shouted down by his newer, cantankerous avatar. What was most delightful about the 2015 Rath was that he had the air of an underdog—a scrappy but determined philosopher trying to persuade you of his unexpected view of the world. His Amazon persona is of an alpha male shoving his point of view down your throat. There is some consolation though: when we’ve caught Rath performing at open mics recently, there’s been no sign of the angry ranter of Mast Aadmi. We won’t gave away any of his new premises of punchlines, but suffice to say they assured us that the peculiar mind was still at work, growing frustrated over trivial things such as fruits and household fixtures.
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.