My jokes define who I am, says king of stand-up comedy Zakir Khan
Laughter, says Zakir Khan, is an emotion. Like any emotion, laughter is passed from one person to another. So, when I crack a joke that makes you laugh, we share an emotion - and that makes you a participant in the joke. In other words, if my joke is offensive, everyone who finds it funny is also a culprit. Why blame the comedian? Anyway, whos to decide what is offensive? Zakir declares at the onset, when you ask him if the pervading atmosphere of political correctness and moral policing makes life a tad difficult for comedians.
Indias numero uno stand-up comic should know. Over the past five years, Zakirs rise to stand-up superstardom has been in sync with the growth of the entertainment genre itself. He is desi comic scenes sakht launda - a sobriquet he earned thanks to one of his most hilarious jokes where Zakir, quite hopelessly, tries to take a strict stance against falling for the charms of a pretty girl.
It is an image that gives the Indore-born comic an earthy edge, which the pan-India youth cannot get enough of. His jokes are GenNow in spirit, although Zakir deliberately avoids political digs or jokes banking on current affairs. My jokes define who I am, he says. In any case, I am a lazy writer and material based on politics needs a lot of homework, he explains.
His latest job, though, comes naturally - an acting debut in the comic web series Chacha Vidhayak Hain Humare, which he has also co-scripted. The show, primarily his brainchild, sees him play smalltown guy Ronnie, a good-natured youngster who cons his way out of problems by passing himself off as the local MLAs nephew. In reality, Ronnie has never met the politician although they share a surname.
My dream is to be a writer, and creating this show is a first move. Acting does not excite me, but after we had written the character of Ronnie, I realised he could be me. So, although I am far from what passes off traditionally as good-looking, I reckoned I could end up an unconventional hero on screen, he explains his decision to act, and adds with a laugh: You could say it is my audacity to try out acting. With this face, I never thought I would face the camera one day!
Zakirs decision to launch his series online rather than air on television seems logical. His rise - indeed, the rise in popularity of stand-up comedy in India - is thanks to the internet. The online boom in India has helped popularise new-generation comedy. Growing up, I always felt there was a gap between what young India wanted as entertainment and what they were getting. YouTube has blurred that gap, he says.
While the larger audience still flips for the Bollywood brand of loud slapstick, Zakir thinks the growing reception to stand-up in small town India proves the divide in taste is blurring. Although filmi slapstick rules, small town youths are reacting positively to stand-up now.
This is obvious from the reception of live shows get. No genre of entertainment can prevent another from growing. Stand-up comedy in India is here to thrive, no matter how popular cinema continues to be, he says.
Zakirs USP has been his ability to carry his Indore-bred disarming persona into the professional domain. It helps him reach out to his audience despite not catering slapstick be it with the gentle jibes he takes on urban vanity in stand-up gigs or the antics of Ronnie in Chacha Vidhayak Hain Humare.
I feel at home in small towns but at the same time the pressure of performing in these places is more. To small town audiences, I am not just telling jokes about them and their lifestyle. I also stand in front of them as their representative. I feel I am one of them, he says.
His humble roots apart, a major influence on his outlook towards life is his father Ismail Khan, who taught classical music in Indore. Many of his jokes are about his father admonishing him over adolescent gaffes. Now that he is famous, has the equation at home changed?
Over the past few years, sirf kaam kar raha hoon (Ive just been working). I havent had time to look back and take stock and I really dont know what fame is all about. My father would tell me, life mein bada aadmi bano (be successful in life). I am waiting for the day he tells me, ab tu bada aadmi ban gaya (you have become successful now).
More than handling fame, he taught me it is important to know how to deal with failure when it comes my way, he says. His father also initiated the love for music in him. I have been attached to music from childhood. I learnt to play the sitar when I was 17 and have this urge to do something in music someday. But now is not the time for that, Zakir avers.
Finally, who or what inspires Zakirs incessant flow of funnies? Stand-up as an art is basically a western form of comedy, so I always have to ensure the flavour of my jokes stays Indian. Among Indian comedians, Johnny Lever inspires me. The way he has balanced his film and stage careers is amazing. I am yet to meet him but the day I do will be a fanboy moment for me, he signs off.