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Kanan Gill: The good voice of Indian comedy

Poulomi Das | Updated on May 15, 2020

Masterful: Kanan Gill does not respond to the world around him, but gets the world to respond to him   -  IMAGE COURTESY: NETFLIX

Comedy has been marketed to Indian audiences as palate cleansers. Kanan Gill’s new show on Netflix, though, is the main course

*Yours Sincerely is Kanan Gill’s first Netflix comedy special

*As of now, Netflix and Amazon have over 20 Indian comedy specials

The punchline is decidedly silly, infused with a kind of unrehearsed quality that invokes friendly living- room banter. Kanan Gill is comparing the Indian concept of ‘timepass’ with the Western definition of pastime. The latter is seemingly ranked higher as denoting a hobby.

“Timepass is both an activity and a review of an activity,” Gill observes in the opening minutes of Yours Sincerely, his first Netflix comedy special, which comes three years after Keep ItReal, his debut special. The comedian believes that sticking the ‘timepass’ label on a show is the worst thing you can say about it — it’s reducing an act of creation to mere “passage of time”.

Yet, at the risk of offending Gill, there is perhaps no other word that accurately describes the language of Indian comedy specials.

In the last three years — a period when stand-up comedy emerged as both a profitable occupation and an art form — comedy specials have become a cottage industry, in part due to the entry of Netflix and Amazon Prime in the Indian market. These streaming platforms — the former selectively and the latter with needless generosity — didn’t waste time handing out special deals to Indian comedians, which soon became a marker of exclusivity and achievement, akin to losing your virginity at prom. For a while, having a comedy special was the point of being an Indian stand-up comedian, even when there may have not been any point to it.

As of now, Netflix and Amazon Prime have over 20 Indian comedy specials, headlined by popular Indian comics Biswa Kalyan Rath and Vir Das as well as moderately famous comics such as Anirban Dasgupta and Sumukhi Suresh. All these specials, often consisting of overlapping subjects such as technologically handicapped parents and relationship troubles or the lack of relationship troubles, have rarely had much purpose other than indicating the passage of time.

Comedy has always been marketed to Indian audiences as palate cleansers anyway — sort of a break from prime-time programming. It’s not entirely surprising then that Indian comedy specials are interpreted as the kind of hour you spend when you have nothing better to watch. That might explain why comedians haven’t yet felt the need to look at the language of comedy specials as anything more than fast food entertainment. Almost all of them can either be accused of being crowd-pleasing or instantly forgettable.

In that sense, the one question that begs answering is this: What exactly is the purpose of an Indian comedy special? In the past, some comedians have interpreted it as a means to pander to a global audience — a version of India in bite-sized punchlines and catchy but inexact metaphors (Vir Das’s Netflix specials, titled unsurprisingly Indians Abroad and For India, are prime examples).

Some others have perhaps treated a comedy special as a distraction of sorts, equipped not necessarily to create conversation but deviate from it. Gill’s Yours Sincerely might be one of the few Indian comedy specials with a voice, a trait that is sorely lacking in most specials designed as an assortment of themed sets. What sets it apart is that it isn’t constantly justifying its existence (a sore point in Gill’s previous special) with baits centred on relatability or universality.

Comedy specials are devoid of embellishments — it is storytelling at its most basic and intricate form. There’s little point in hankering for a voice in a special that’s unwilling to dissect its storyteller. Yours Sincerely is acutely aware of this dissonance.

Gill centres Yours Sincerely on a letter, comprising a list of goals to achieve that the 15-year-old Kanan had written to his future self. “Is there anything lamer than how you used to be,” the comedian asks while reading aloud the letter during the course of his 72-minute special. But before he gets to it, there are enjoyable detours that underline the absurdist humour that Gill is adept at delivering, armed with a fair bit of improvisations and recurring gags around drinking water. There’s a particularly rewarding bit where the comedian builds a downright hilarious revisionist take on Julius Caesar’s last words, switching immediately to a frankly ridiculous rendering involving his testicles and the palm of a doctor’s hand, that hit all the right notes even though you would be inclined to bet against it.

By the time he gets to his letter, Gill’s pace is more clinical and measured. He frequently modulates his voice to suit his adolescence angst and leads up to a meditation on depression, productivity and success, circling back to the very definition of timepass. It’s tempered with equal parts sincerity and silliness. Gill does not respond to the world around him, but instead gets the world to respond to him — his personal ideologies, anxieties, and search for the meaning of existence.

To say that the result is masterful might be an understatement for it is a deft exercise in holding audiences’ attention as opposed to letting them be in control of it. It also puts to rest all doubt about the purpose of an Indian comedy special. As Gill suggests in Yours Sincerely, it is to invent its own voice.

Poulomi Das is a film critic with Arré, an entertainment content platform. She writes at the intersection of films, gender and social commentary

Published on May 15, 2020

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