Review: Abhishek Upmanyu’s ‘Jealous Of Sabziwaala’ Is A Stellar Debut That Explores Anxieties About Personal Health

By Aditya Mani Jha 28 February 2023 3 mins read

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There’s an intriguing new theme in standup specials around the world at the moment—the comedian talking about their own health troubles, with the tonality being standup’s equivalent of confessional poetry. Taylor Tomlinson spoke about the long-term effects of antidepressant usage in last year’s Look At You. Bo Burnham’s Inside featured footage of the comedian breaking down into tears at a couple of places. Burnham’s nosediving mental health during periods of extended lockdown is a recurring topic. It’s undoubtedly tricky terrain to negotiate. Even if your material works on the page, the nature of the conversation means that laughs are by no means guaranteed.

Abhishek Upmanyu’s latest special Jealous of Sabziwaala (now available on his YouTube channel for Rs 299) is a fine addition to this fast-growing subgenre. The Hindi-language special (with only occasional bits of English) sees Upmanyu in fine form. He is the perfect example of the ‘straight man’, a comedic tradition as old as the form itself. His Everyman jokes and poker-faced delivery style help him become almost a stand-in for the audience. When he tells us he fell in love with his own legs after shaving them for the first time, we believe him. It’s because we recognise the purity of his narcissism; it’s what looks back at us every morning in the mirror.

Zakir Khan deploys the same, pokerfaced, faux-incredulous ‘it’s a mad world, innit?’ method to talk about the hypocrisies of the rich and the well-heeled. Upmanyu uses this technique to turn the gaze inwards, to come to terms with his own emotional blind spots.

Jealous of Sabziwaala is about the sociological implications of being less-than-healthy, broadly speaking. What if you were to discover, suddenly, that you have been dangerously unhealthy for the last several years? How would your doctor break this news to you? Would your friends fall by the wayside (on purpose or otherwise) or would they rise to the occasion? Upmanyu’s special is about health as an abstraction but also about personal-health-as-public-domain; what we choose to share about our minds and bodies (and how, and how much).     

Like this routine, at the 14-minute mark, where Upmanyu talks about the boredom of going to the gym all alone. The joke soon segues into truly dark territory, with Upmanyu inviting the audience to imagine a future where they’re supremely fit—but all alone, since their less-than-fit friends have been dead for years.

[Upmanyu] is the perfect example of the ‘straight man’, a comedic tradition as old as the form itself.

Akele fit rehke kya faayda hai? Pata chalaa tumhaare dost saare party kar-karke mar gaye aur tum dalia hi khaate reh gaye. Koi faayda nahi aisi zindagi ka…. 70 saal ki umar mein akele baithe hue ho, lekin fit.” (What’s the point of being physically fit all by yourself? Next thing you know, all your friends keep partying and keep dying and you’re just eating porridge by yourself. No point leading that life…. you’re 70 and you’re sitting all alone. Fit, but alone.)

In the second half of the show, Upmanyu also finds increasingly artful ways to incorporate ‘popular mythologies’ into the narrative—the inevitable morbidity of health-related Google searches (“sir mein dard hai? Koi baat nahi, last time hai”), the doctor who knows every other doctor in the city, even Aesop’s fable about the rabbit and the tortoise. That last bit (available as a standalone video on YouTube) is very, very funny and underlines an important quality in standup comedians: It’s not enough to have book-smarts and know big words. Sometimes, you also need to be able to generate laughs via entirely silly and juvenile words and images. In this case, I laughed out loud when Upmanyu described a tortoise as a really slow motorist with a comically large helmet.

Kachchue ka naam ho gaya? Kachchue ka? Helmet lagaa ke rakhaa hai…Do ki speed pe helmet kaun lagaata hai behen****? Kachchue ki life span kitni hai pataa hai? 100 saal. Aur kharghosh ki hai 9 saal. Faaltu racein lagaane ka time nahi hai uske paas!” (Y’all made the tortoise famous? The tortoise? He goes at 2 kilometres an hour and still has a bloody helmet on. Who does that? The tortoise lives for 100 years while the rabbit lives for just 9… he doesn’t have the time for these silly races!)

Towards the end of the show, there’s a touching 15-odd-minute segment about Upmanyu’s lisp that ties up everything together, culminating in a therapy session where the comedian calls his father on the phone from the therapist’s couch. I won’t spoil it for you, but trust me it is worth the build-up.

Jealous of Sabziwaala is the first half of a show performed at Mumbai’s NCPA (the other half will apparently be released as a different, unrelated special later this year). Upmanyu must have had his vitamins nice and early that day, because this is a robust special from a comedian in the pink of health, craft-wise. 


Aditya Mani Jha

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based independent writer and journalist. He’s currently working on his first book of non-fiction, a collection of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.


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