While watching James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special the other day, I was struck by how—just a few years ago—Marvel fired Gunn from the franchise after his homophobic jokes from over a decade ago had resurfaced online. After the cast and crew threw their weight behind the director, Gunn was re-hired and today, he occupies key positions in both DC and Marvel. If you look at the offending jokes and you look at Gunn’s recent body of work, you realise the evolution that this man has undergone as a writer/filmmaker. College fraternity humour gave way to a wiser, more sophisticated, yet still-irreverent signature; this is what finding your voice looks like. A similar sense of coming-of-age was on my mind when I was watching the final few minutes of Zakir Khan’s latest standup special, Tathastu (now streaming on Amazon Prime Video).
Across these 90-odd minutes, Khan blends comedy and pathos with a coherence unmatched by any of his previous work. The narrative focuses on the comedian’s formative years and his changing relationship with his family, especially his paternal grandfather Moinuddin Khan, a renowned sarangi player from the Jaipur gharana of Hindustani classical music. Ambition, tradition, and the frequently stifling embrace of the middle-class Indian joint family—this is the trifecta that Tathastu keeps returning to. If your only exposure to Khan has been through his early, lad-humour-adjacent routines, you will be surprised by how well he does with this admittedly sombre material. But if you have followed Khan’s career more closely than that (especially Chacha Vidhayak Hain Humare, his Amazon Prime web-series), you’ll see this special as the culmination of a process—the taming of the sakht launda so to speak.
On more than one occasion, comedy fans will be reminded of Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix special Homecoming King. Both shows are about ‘making it’ (at one point, Khan even drops the refrain from the Drake song Started from the Bottom) and then returning home with a newfound sense of identity and purpose. While Minhaj talks about the giddy experience of working for Jon Stewart for the first time, Khan delivers a charming mini-routine about writing for On Air With AIB. Like Minhaj’s family is fleshed out with detailed characterisations for his father, his mother and so on, Khan introduces his grandfather (“Abbaji” to the kids) both lovingly and with increasingly exasperated tones—the distinction ceases to matter anyway when we speak of those we love.
This show has the silliness of his best jokes and the intimacy of a fireside conversation; this is Zakir 2.0.
We are told about the old man’s love for ‘tall tales’, his cultivated gruffness, his famously bad math skills and his reputation as a hard taskmaster. By the end of the show, you will feel like you know this man quite well and that’s down to Khan’s storytelling and his gift for turning a seemingly off-the-cuff remark into a revelatory anecdote. This section has all the kinetic humour that we’ve come to associate with Khan—the story of Abbaji feeding a young and impoverished Khan at a restaurant had me howling. But—and here’s where Tathastu marks fresh ground for Khan—it’s also married with dollops of unironic sincerity, a shayar mode that the comedian is finally unafraid to express.
For example, around the halfway mark of the special, Khan describes leaving home for the first time in this way: “Chahe marzi se ho yaa nahi, jab bhi aap ghar chhorte ho, kabhi bhi toot ke alag nahi hote. Jaise kapdaa khinchtaa hai, waise hi cheer ke alag hote ho. Uske dhaage kabhi bante nahi hain, hameshaa waise hi rehte hain. Uske zakhm tumhaari peeth par ta-umr rahenge, ki yeh kahin se ukhad ke aaya hai, visthaapit hoke aaya hai” (Whether you do it willingly or not, you never part ways easily from home. Like an over-stretched fabric, you get torn away from it. Those broken threads never mend. The wounds are imprinted upon your back till your dying day, to remind you and the world that this is a man uprooted).”
This is not a passage that the artist previously known as sakht launda could have written. Hell, this is not something a million sakht laundas with a million typewriters could come up with, through luck or cosmic accident. To write this, the sakht carapace of wannabe-nihilism has to be softened by thine own hand. And that’s precisely what Khan has achieved with Tathastu. This show has the silliness of his best jokes and the intimacy of a fireside conversation; this is Zakir 2.0 and to my mind, a vastly superior artist than even the 2018 version.
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