There’s something very charming about Aravind SA when he’s on stage—he’s always on the brink of bursting with nervous energy. He’s uneasy and fumbles his words, he goes over them again, and he repeats his lines. It’s the sort of exaggerated energy that I would have preferred watching live, because on a screen, watching it as a ‘finished product’, it feels like rough edges. His first special Madrasi Da (2017) and his new special I Was Not Ready Da, available on Amazon Prime Video, are both delivered in this agitated but endearing style.
Aravind’s rising popularity and success in the intervening years is reflected in the upgrades to wardrobe and production. The hall in Madrasi Da becomes the stadium in I Was Not Ready Da. An LED screen on stage-left flashes the show’s name, while a drapery with his name forms the stage backdrop. The audience is bathed in blue light. The staging is minimal—a stool, two water bottles, and a mic stand as support. Aravind’s comedy isn’t about making use of space—he barely does a foxtrot around the mic.
The hour-and-15-minute long show sprouts from his brush with fame and infamy following his comments on the song Lungi Dance in the first special. He uploaded the clip on YouTube and watched it take its own viral course, landing him in the hot-seat in the North-South culture wars. Unfazed, he turned that experience into more comic fodder for the new special.
He gives context to the controversy here, what happened before and after. There’s a particularly entertaining bit about a Times Now journalist who asked him deliberately clickbait questions designed to produce controversial answers, which again, he didn’t indulge—flipping it over like a dosa (which he has curiously not mentioned at all in the show, though idlis and biryani get a mention) and serving it up as humour instead.
SA is usually the smartest guy in the room, that is until he introduces us to his relationship with Sanskrit and sex. There’s even a didactic moment in between where he feels grateful to be able to talk about his first sexual encounter, but it’s all for shits-and-giggles, that no situation feels real enough, and there’s really nothing to take away from it.
There’s a curious, but not entirely comical ethnography of a Seattle strip club. Not entirely comical because I get the sense that the reality he has mined humour from becomes this exaggerated caricature in his articulation. It’s funny, but it isn’t human. A curious case of condoms, the pharmacist’s dilly-dallying, and the young girl helping him to pick out the flavour, texture, size, and number is a bit much. It’s a bit much also because he stretches the joke beyond the punch-line. The young girl who picks the condoms is too short to reach the shelf so she has to pull out a stool. It’s a funny image. But then he builds it into a caricature by insisting she places stool on stool on stool. The humour is lost.
Another impediment is his need to explain the joke, to make sure it is understood by everyone. The North Indians must know that the word ‘matter’ is used interchangeably for ‘sex’. My gripe is: what’s wrong if they don’t know what it means? There is an incredibly suggestive context to make the implication known. But this isn’t even a North-South thing. When he becomes the butt of a visa-based joke, and a man tells him, “You can’t be a threat to any country”, the implication that he was too stupid to be a terrorist was understood given the setup. The audience even laughed, and the point seemed to have been made. But he persisted, explaining in clear crystal words that he was too stupid to be a threat to any country. A trim is pivotal for his next special.
But what undergirds this over-explanation is the desire to be understood, which also made Aravind axe the Tamil lines, only keeping the da-s and the dei-s. He makes this very clear at the outset, rationalizing his decision to deliver this show purely in English in order to be considered an “Indian” comic, and not a “Chennai” comic. Fair enough. (Alex Babu, another Tamil comic gave a similar disclaimer before he began his show Alex In Wonderland which was delivered in a mix of Tamil and English.) I have often rationalized the fraying, yet somehow intact relationship between Delhi and Tamil Nadu as something that will frame the relationship of every Tamilian with Hindi. Aravind wants to step away from this framing. But of course given that this, his 100th show, was shot at the Chennai Trade Center, he whisks in a line or two of Tamil, and I can’t help but smile because the timing, the texture is so palpable and joyful. Humour in the mother tongue sounds like a kiss even if it’s a slap.