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The lungi talks back in Aravind SA style

Shriya Mohan | Updated on July 12, 2019 Published on July 12, 2019

Sketch podu: SA Aravind is pushing the boundaries of Tamil comedy from local to pan-Indian and beyond   -  JOSHUA

Meet the ‘Madrasi’ comedian who jokes about his Tamil milieu even as he packs a sucker punch for the North Indian caricatures of all things South

Aravind Subramanian wants an answer to a question that’s been nagging him. If North Indian stand-up comics performing in Chennai and Bengaluru can pepper their show with the choicest of Hindi abuses and quotes from Bollywood or drop geographic subculture references to Colaba or Gurugram, without translating any of them for the non-Hindi speaker, and still be called “Indian” comics, why could he not talk about Chennai’s Alwarpet and Velachery localities, Tamil actors Kamal Hassan and Ajith and people’s mannangatti (nonsensical) behaviour? Why, machan, is he slotted as a “Tamil comic” when his counterparts are not called “Hindi comics”?

Why, indeed? A conversation with Subramanian reveals that he is doing something almost no Tamil comic has done — pushing the boundaries of Tamil comedy from local to pan-Indian and beyond.

In his early 30s, Subramanian — who goes by the stage name Aravind SA, or simply SA — is charting new ground in India’s competitive comedy scene. Online booking portal Book My Show’s servers are known to crash when SA’s shows open for ticket sale in Chennai, Bengaluru, Coimbatore, Madurai, Hyderabad and Kochi, among other places. The 1,200 tickets are gone in two hours. The success of his first solo show, Madrasi da — performed first in Chennai in 2015 before travelling to other cities — convinced Amazon Prime to air it in 2017. Thereafter, SA became one of the few stand-ups from the South to earn a name in the pan-Indian scene, making inroads into cities such as Mumbai and Delhi where comedy is big business. Today, he performs in big and small centres alike, such as Pune and Kolkata, besides touring in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, UAE, Singapore and Malaysia, among other countries.

Clad in denims and a white t-shirt, dark shades propped on his head, he speaks almost at the same dramatic speed with which our hot filter coffee is prepared at the RA Puram Sangeetha’s pure veg restaurant in Chennai, where we meet on a sultry afternoon.

“There’s a misconception that comedy that comes from the South is only meant for the South,” he says.

In Madrasi da, his jokes, told in his Tamil-accented English, dismantles stereotypes about Chennai people, only to replace them with newer ones. Early in the show, he recounts how on one of his first trips to the US, the American immigration officer asked him to tell a joke before stamping his visa. “Donald Trump,” he replied. His hosts in San Jose, California, proudly took him on an excursion to Tirupati Bheemas, as if he had travelled all this way to eat a vada. A fellow diner approached him and asked in a hushed tone, “Sir, neenga avaala?”. SA pauses to explain the joke to the non-Tamils in the audience. The fellow was trying to find out if SA was one of “them”, in other words a brahmin. Halfway around the world, caste comes neatly plated with vadas at the Tirupati Bheemas in San Jose. The joke hits home.

His other gags revolve around the traditional state board versus Central board one-upmanship, TamBrahm arranged marriages, sex education in Chennai schools (on the day the biology teacher begins the chapter on human reproduction, the entire alumni shows up for class in orgasmic excitement), and more generally the misadventures of his life.

Road to fame

All his life, whether he was trying to be a cricketer or propose to his girlfriend or appear for a job interview, people would always brush him off with “Dei, comedy pannade da (Hey, don’t be funny)”. Not being taken seriously made him so mad that, after studying filmmaking and bagging a short stint as assistant director in the Tamil film industry, he decided to exact revenge by taking up comedy. His flair for attracting mishaps gave him content and narrating the stories with dramatic exaggerations helped build an audience.

Mind it: “At the end of the day, you’re only as funny as the audience you have”   -  IMAGE COURTESY: SA ARAVIND

 

But the sketch that really made SA a name to reckon with was his parody of Lungi dance — the hit Hindi song from the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Chennai Express — which he calls a “F*** all tribute to South Indians”. “They don’t care about research, that’s our job, no, as South Indians?” he says in a clip from Madrasi da that’s available on YouTube.

The Hindi song is purportedly a tribute to Tamil superstar Rajinikanth, whom fans fondly address as Thalaivar or chief. In no movie has Rajinikanth ever “round ghumaoed (twirled) his muchho”, SA fumes, taking a swipe at the lyrics. They are confusing Rajinikanth with Raj Kiran (a much-moustachioed Bollywood actor), he challenges. What the f*** does ‘Coconut mein lassi milake’ have to do with coconut, which is from Kerala, and lassi, which is from Punjab? he gripes.

His Chapathi song, penned soon after his Lungi dance rant, is dedicated to “all the people who dedicated Lungi dance to us”. The song, available on YouTube, ticks all the stereotypes the South holds about the North: Chapati, Amitabh Bachchan, kurta pyjama, dandiya, bhangra, butter naan, all in an intentionally muddled pile. The lyrics ask Shah Rukh Khan to shut up (for Lungi dance) and vows to lock up playback singer Udit Narayan (for his Tamil mispronunciations).

“If you are Rabdi, Papdi, Khichdi, Ajwain/ Don’t take Thalaivar’s name in vain...”

SA’s Lungi dance parody has 6.6 million views on YouTube, his Chapathi song3.3 million. And SA has nearly 5,00,000 subscribers on YouTube. For comparison, comedian Vir Das, who has been around for much longer, has 172,000 subscribers.

Evolution

South Indians have long been the butt of jokes for their accented English, cultural mores and food habits, such as a love for gloopy thayir sadam or curd rice. So when a largely South Indian audience watches him challenging North Indians to eat rasam and rice with their hand, off a banana leaf, “without one drop of rasam falling on them”, the audience bursts into wild cheers. Newfound pride kicks in. When he quips that most North Indians think the South Indian meal on a banana leaf is a giant meetha paan (betel leaf preparation) that is to be folded up and chomped whole, they whistle, making a bookmark of this for future use as a comeback line.

It was after his Lungi dance parody and Chapathisong became viral that SA realised something he had never foreseen — the North Indians were chuckling too (“They otherwise never acknowledge we even exist”). This gave him new purpose.

“With a name like Aravind Subramanian and being known as someone who took down Lungi dance, I felt I had pretty much dug myself into a hole. Now I needed to climb out,” he says.

In 2017, even as Amazon Prime was editing Madrasi da, SA decided to check out the Mumbai scene. What would it take to break into it? He booked himself into the city’s comedy clubs, where he was given 20-minute slots. Nobody knew who he was.

That proved a handy space to experiment outside his comfort zone — joking to an all-North audience, complete with his Tamil pop culture references.

“I was convinced that if your storytelling skills and flair for drama are strong enough, you can convince a new audience to take a leap of faith and come watch. They would overlook the hurdles of Tamil,” he says. “I knew that the easiest thing would be to write another show for a Tamil audience. But I took it upon myself to present a drama that was as relatable to any urban Indian.”

He decided to make his imperfect, slang-filled English into a house style. “I took confidence from the fact that nobody is confident about their English in India and it’s a foreign language,” he says. To be funny and authentic, SA insists, his English needs to be uncensored, full of a nervous rambling energy. He says that till date, people come up to him to say that they love how authentic he sounds.

And that became the basis for SA’s new sketch, I was not ready da, which he wrote in November 2017 and is still touring with around the world this year.

He starts the show with a call-out to the non-Tamils in the house to make some noise. “Post Amazon Prime, it is 30-40 per cent; it used to be hardly 5 per cent before. I say this show is entirely for you. And you can hear the majority groan,” he says, smiling. The show is fully in English. “I tell them that I’m trying to take the comedy of Chennai beyond the boundaries that are set for us.” And that’s serious business.

“Growth is inevitable. It’s part of the evolution,” he says.

Pushing the boundaries: SA has nearly 500,000 followers on YouTube   -  VELU VISWANATH

 

I was not ready da hasn’t been recorded yet. SA is hopeful of clinching an agreement with a digital streaming platform soon. The jokes here are more “global” and the North-South divide more subtle. He jokes about turning 30, about Tinder, Facebook and the media, about Google honcho Sundar Pichai being every Chennaiite’s distant cousin, and about, among other cultural conundrums, visiting a Vegas strip club for the first time in his life, only to find it was more like an Indian IT company’s cafeteria filled with desi corporate men. (“They had bleddy gobi 65, paneer tikka and egg puff on their menu!”)

However, it hasn’t always been a jolly ride for him. He has often enough been called divisive and anti-national. “It’s not true that Chennaiites are people who don’t know Hindi. Chennaiites are people who know Hindi and still refuse to speak Hindi,” he had said in one show, after a recent controversy over the Centre’s purported attempt to “impose Hindi” across the country. Quite predictably, his gag provoked the ire of the right-wing brigade.

In I was not ready da, he has a hilarious sketch about being invited to a newsroom prime-time debate that centred on him, because he had “pissed off all the North Indians”. His mom, whom he claims to have inherited his sense of humour from, packs him murukkuto share with the other panellists to stave off potential attacks .

“At the end of the day, you’re only as funny as the audience you have,” says SA. “Good comedy comes from a place of truth.”

 

Published on July 12, 2019
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