One of the reasons I like Ricky Gervais the writer far more than Ricky Gervais the comedian is his excellent Netflix dramedy After Life, in which he plays a recently widowed man trying to reboot his life. Here’s a paradox for you: death in the family, the one thing guaranteed to be ‘universal’ in the strictest sense of the word, is also somehow one of the toughest things to joke about as a writer or a comedian. That Gervais does so with absurd ease (he’s written and directed every episode so far) is a real credit to his distinguished career as a creator and performer.
I was reminded of After Life’s masterful tightrope walk while watching Sumaira Shaikh’s new standup special Dongri Danger, released over the weekend on Amazon Prime Video. Shaikh’s centre-piece here is an extended, multi-joke routine on the death (and subsequent funeral) of her brother. The jokes are honest, you never get that ‘trying-too-hard’ feeling, and Shaikh is just really funny—a true natural.
There’s very little warning before Shaikh launches this ‘mere bhai ki mayyat’ (my brother’s wake) routine, unlike a different, Dawood Ibrahim-related gag which is telegraphed well in advance. Up to that point, Dongri Danger is an affable, straight-shooting special about the vagaries of class dynamics among college friends (“Meri life Dongri mein thi aur mera college Churchgate mein [My life was in Dongri and my college in Churchgate]”, as Shaikh says at one point).
Why does every freewheeling bakwaas session end up with plans for a road trip? Why is that one friend always fretting about Bluetooth in the middle of said road trip? Why do ‘line hotels’ and roadside dhabas become de facto sociology lessons for a certain kind of friend? What exactly is the ‘one button’ that separates life in the big city from life literally anywhere else in India? Dongri Danger has you covered on all of these fronts and more. But while these bits are good, solid, serviceable comedy, they never quite feel like ‘breakthrough’ material.
It feels like the right amount of gallows humour in an era of unprecedented global loss.
No, that tag is reserved for the ‘mere bhai ki mayyat’ routine. Shaikh begins by noting that funerals are, among other things, a great way to figure out where you stand in the familial hierarchy. “Maa nahi roye toh buraa lagtaa hai [It’s not a good look if the mother’s not crying at a wake],” she notes. The person who’s asked to fetch water for the mourners is likely to be the odd one out, the one whose own grief is no more than a footnote. It’s how Shaikh realises that she’s “chaar logon mein eighth rank pe [ranked eighth among four people]”, as she deadpans. The routine only grows in strength from this point on, and Shaikh is even emboldened to tell us the prologue, the story of how she arrived at Mumbai from Bangalore for the funeral, accompanied by a well-meaning but socially awkward friend who really, really does not know what to say and when.
Shaikh allows a brief moment of silence after the last joke of the routine before cheekily asking, “Aap sabko mazaa aaya naa, mere bhai ki mayyat mein? (You guys had fun, right, at my brother’s wake?)” It’s a strange, audacious, unclassifiable moment and tonally, it feels like the right amount of gallows humour in an era of unprecedented global loss.
A word about the actual production: the sound mixing isn’t very good in the first 10 minutes or so. I am not sure whether this is an issue at Amazon’s end, but they might want to look into it. The venue itself is much smaller than most of the other Indian/OML standup specials one has seen on Prime, and that might be part of the puzzle. Sumukhi Suresh has directed Dongri Danger, and for the most part, Shaikh benefits from having a fellow comedian in the director’s chair. Shaikh is a more-than-decent actor (her role in Suresh’s Amazon Prime show Pushpavalli was very enjoyable) and Suresh pays close attention to those moments during the special where Shaikh’s facial expressions elevate jokes from good to great.
The Dawood gag that bookends Dongri Danger drew the most laughs in the audience, but it’s actually my least favorite part. It’s not bad; it’s just well-covered ground, heavily dependent upon the Bollywood-adjacent mythology around the gangster. Even so, I did enjoy the way Shaikh calls her Dad “Tony Stark” (he was the de facto leader in his group of friends, which, as Shaikh tells us, is the case for every single group of friends on the planet) and used the Avengers framework to flesh out the sketch.
Dongri Danger might be my favorite among the slate of specials produced by OML in recent years. It’s certainly nothing like its predecessors—which is a good thing, believe you me.