Varun Grover performed his show Nothing Makes Sense at New Delhi’s Kedarnath Sahni Auditorium on a cold Friday evening, with the temperature at 12 degrees (though it felt more like six to be honest). The comedian acknowledged the challenging weather conditions by thanking those of us who were punctual—and taking a swing at the Prime Minister’s recent Lakshadweep trip at the same time. “Prajaa yahaan thand mein, Connaught Place ka traffic jhel ke, khud par joke sunne aayi hai. Aur Rajaji gaye hain Lakshadweep, life-jacket pehen kar snorkeling karne… (The people have braved the cold and Connaught Place’s traffic to come here and listen to me make fun of them. And the king has gone to Lakshadweep to snorkel with a life-jacket on).”
If you’ve watched Grover’s solo work in the past, or seen Aisi Taisi Democracy (a much-loved three-man act, alongside comedian Sanjay Rajoura and musician Rahul Ram), you’ve come to expect punchy jokes in this vein. But where Aisi Taisi Democracy’s musical hijinks brought it closer to high satire, Nothing Makes Sense is more of a conventionally written-and-structured work of standup comedy, grounded in social realism and responding to the zeitgeist.
In fact, as Grover mentions towards the beginning, the show was a byproduct of the frustration he feels as a writer and a comedian in India today—how do creators keep up with our tragicomic reality? Facts are not facts anymore; history is being re-written in schools and the TV media’s liberties with the truth have rendered the term ‘propaganda’ meaningless. And, of course, there’s the fact that you can earn a jail sentence if you’re a bit too loud while talking about these things. Grover mentions how somebody wished him best of the luck for the show and said, “Boring comedy karnaa lekin jail mat chale jaana (Do a boring show but don’t land yourself in prison).”
Grover’s skills as a multi-format writer are on display here as he explains the show’s three-act structure: how nothing makes sense, why they make no sense and what we (the audience) can do to make things slightly better. Understandably, the first section is the one with the highest joke density, Grover raising the audience’s energy levels with a series of quick ‘snowballing’ observations—how one thing leads to another and another ad infinitum. And there are so many viable targets in this context: politicians ‘inaugurating’ stuff, airlines with more apathy than revenue streams, Arnab Goswami being himself. History textbooks being rewritten with a Hindutva revisionist bent is addressed in this way: “I had written half a dozen jokes on the Mughals, but they don’t appear to exist anymore.”
These subjects and more are dispatched with Grover’s usual elan. I always appreciate Grover’s efforts to bring slivers of classical or Sanskritised Hindi to proceedings—Friday night was no different. A pimply teenager’s desire to know more about sex is dubbed “utkanthaa” (“restless anticipation”) while a teenage boy having undergone puberty is hilariously called “nav-pallavit” (“newly blossomed”, pallav literally means leaf while the prefix nav means new).
He is never preachy. He knows how to deliver uncomfortable truths. He doesn’t sound old enough to lose the youngsters among his audience and he isn’t young enough to lose their parents
My favourite part of this entire section, however, was Grover’s attempt at untangling the knotted politics of social media-driven movie boycotts. Marx would be rolling in his grave, he said, to see self-describing “left-wing” people supporting Amazon (“the most exploitative mega-corporation in the world”) just because Indian right-wingers were boycotting Amazon Prime Video due to its show Tandav. The brouhaha around Deepika Padukone’s orange-coloured beach dress in Pathaan is also skewered expertly; the film used VFX in post-production to make the dress less revealing. “Hollywood uses million-dollar special effects to make people fly and talk to animals,” the comedian said. “We use them to do alterations that a roadside tailor could do for a couple of hundred bucks.”
However, it is the show’s midsection (“why nothing makes sense”) that ends up being its greatest achievement. Here, through a series of carefully constructed routines and segues, Grover summarises how patriarchy at the familial level breeds bigotry and a supremacy-complex at the societal level—an atom/electron kind of analogy. I especially liked how Grover wove in stories about his Punjabi refugee ancestry into this section. Trauma is the true “viraasat” (heritage) of Punjabi families like his own, he says. It’s what is nourished and nurtured carefully (undisturbed by modern oddities like therapy) and passed down from generation to generation, with strict instructions pertaining to its future spread.
The idea of Punjabi food, music et al being elaborate trauma responses is an interesting one and Grover pushes it to its limits, pointing out that Sukhbir’s ubiquitous 90s Punjabi dance hit Ishq Tera Tadpave is, in fact, a lament if we go by the lyrics alone. All of us are dancing our asses off, Grover is saying, at one Punjabi man’s profound and bottomless grief. Using this example about Punjabi families as proof-of-concept, he demonstrates how, say, intolerance and Islamophobia are passed on from generation to generation.
Without giving away too many punchlines, I’ll say that Grover’s tonality is crucial to this section’s success. He is never preachy. He knows how to deliver uncomfortable truths. He doesn’t sound old enough to lose the youngsters among his audience and he isn’t young enough to lose their parents. And best of all, he doesn’t treat his audience like they are stupid and/or gullible. He’s pushing us to be better, smarter, snarkier if the occasion calls for it. He’s asking us, in turn, to push back against the small and big tyrannies of life in India circa 2024.
Nothing Makes Sense is one of the best standup acts I have seen in recent years. Elegantly constructed and well-performed, it delivers an array of enjoyable, tragicomic riffs on the ‘post-truth’ realities of contemporary India.
Catch Nothing Makes Sense now! Tickets available here.