Zakir Khan: The Khan of Comedy

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A sitar player from Indore is India’s biggest stand-up act

ON MY WAY to meet stand- up comedian Zakir Khan, I speak to Tanmay Bhat, enfant terrible of contemporary Indian comedy and co-founder of All India Bakchod, on the phone. I ask him about Khan’s current status as a comedian (a year since his appearance at AIB Diwas, which catapulted him into the limelight). “He is the biggest stand-up comedy act in India. Period.” Bhat says it in a tone that suggests that I had inquired if Antarctica is cold. We chat for a few minutes and hang up. My taxi driver, whose name I learn is Abdul Rauf, pipes up: “Sir, aap kya Zakir Khan ke baare mein baat kar rahe thhe? Maine unka show NSCI [National Sports Club of India, Mumbai] mein dekha thha. Bahut badhiya thha. (Sir, were you talking about Zakir Khan? I saw his show at NSCI. It was very good.)”

Intrigued, I ask him if he’s a fan of stand-up comedy and attends many shows. He says no and that a customer gave him a pass, so he went. I ask him if he knows any of the following comedians: Bhat (and other members of AIB), Varun Grover, Vir Das, Kanan Gill, Biswa Kalyan Rath, Sorabh Pant, Varun Thakur, Aditi Mittal. “Nahi, sir,” he responds, after careful consideration. “Inke aur Kapil Sharma ke alaawa main kisi ko nahin jaanta. (No, other than Kapil Sharma and him, I don’t know any of them.)”

In just over a year, 29-year-old Khan, the son of a music teacher from Indore and a homemaker, has amassed a delirious, stadium-filling fan following that cuts across geographical and socio-economic barriers. Over the last 12 months, he has performed nearly 100 shows across India and has sold a mind-boggling 50,000 tickets. In mid-March, I saw him perform his stand-up show Haq Se Single (Single By Right) in Mumbai, at a packed 850-seater auditorium in Bandra. The excitement amidst the audience, comprising mostly under 30-year-olds, hung heavy in the air; many young men had come out wearing black t-shirts that read ‘Sakht Launda’ (‘Tough Dude’)—one of Khan’s many catchphrases. The two-hour-long affair is a collection of four stories that are loosely inspired by and “kaafi exaggerated” versions of Khan’s past relationships, as well as his equation with his father—bits and pieces of which he has performed over the past four years. His fans know his material by heart—when he gets to a punch line, they chime in word for word. This isn’t garden-variety fandom—this is reverence, the kind usually restricted to a rock star or spiritual guru.

It seems that Khan, for his fans, is a bit of both. “He is a cult phenomenon,” says Bhat, adding that he and other comedians aren’t jealous of him as much as they are awed by his hold over the audience. “Not only is he a pioneer of storytelling in Indian comedy, but he’s also got this ability that terrifies most comics: the ability to be comfortable with silences. His shows are almost like counseling sessions because he isn’t afraid to stop the comedy for a bit and start philosophising for long stretches.”

The oldest of three brothers, Khan grew up in the middle-class milieu of Indore, where he attended St Paul Higher Secondary School and, later, studied biotechnology at Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya for a little over a year before dropping out. His father Ustad Ismail Khan and his grandfather Ustad Moinuddin Khan were both sitar exponents and mehfils were a regular feature at home. Continuing the family’s lineage, naturally, fell upon Khan at an early age. As Indoris, they subscribe to the gharana propagated by the late Ustad Amir Khan; however, his forefathers, originally from Rajasthan, also belong to the Senia gharana, which is descended from the work of Tansen, the 16th century Vaishnava musician who graced the court of Akbar.

“My family looks at me as a complete disappointment, the same way the Indian team looks at Rohit Sharma,” he jokes. We are seated at a trendy Bandra eatery famed for its salads and sandwiches (He orders a mango smoothie. He has already had biryani for lunch—he eats biryani every day, Bhat informs me). He has only recently moved to this posh Mumbai suburb, following his recent success, and still refers to his flat-mate Vishwas, whom he has stayed with for the past nine years, as a “room-mate” because he’s still coming to terms with affording more than a single room.

The whole point of the show is that we, men, tend to be emotionally backward. I’m not here to give gyaan

Early in childhood, he trained to become a sitar player, with his riyaaz peaking around the time he was 13 or 14. During summer vacations, when children his age were lazing around and playing cricket, he would wake up at 4 am every day and practice till around 8 am. This would be followed by a short nap, then breakfast, then another hour of practice beginning noon, then lunch, then another two hours of practice, then a break to go out and play or watch TV, and finally, another two hours of practice before calling it a day at 11 pm. “I was that kid who grew up without friends, especially from first to fifth standard, and sat alone with his tiffin box during recess,” he says. “Then I remember watching Chhoti Si Baat (where Amol Palekar essays a ‘timid, mousy introvert’ role) and thinking ‘Arre yaar, kuchh karna padega kyonki yeh toh meri kahaani hai (I need to do something; this is my story)’”.

By 15, he had got his first paid gig: playing weekly at a local business hotel. However, unbeknownst to his family, he had been developing a “parallel personality” for the past few years. “Classical music is like politics—you’re a beginner at age 45,” he says. “I didn’t want my life to turn out that way. I was already earning and mixing with people older than me through this [gig]. I wanted to work, earn my own money, and rise above everything I knew.” As a young teen, a friend and he would, during recess, regale schoolmates with ‘dirty’ jokes they had curated over the years and written down in register notebooks. It dawned on Khan, eventually, that he had a way with words, which led to him dropping out of college to pursue a career in radio.

This kicked off a period of great struggle, which Khan likes to remember as “the most beautiful time in my life,” where he left home and moved to Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village to pursue a course at the now shuttered Academy of Radio Management. An internship with a radio station at Jaipur was followed by a long period of unemployment where he returned home, applied to jobs and waited for offer letters that never came. On the advice of a friend who told him that struggling in Delhi was better than struggling at home, where he’d be forever reminded of his failings, he returned and found himself getting low-paying freelance offers. This included working with theatre groups and writing material for mobile value-added services (VAS): SMS jokes, shayari (“both funny and sad”), edgy stories, and life advice. He worked all the time but was constantly in debt.

He tells me a story about spending the evening of April 2, 2011 (the day India defeated Sri Lanka to win the cricket World Cup) roaming the streets of Delhi, starved, broke and scrounging for food amidst traffic jams caused by ecstatic revellers. I can’t stop laughing. Bhat tells me he routinely experiences the same on an almost daily basis, when they meet in the office of Only Much Louder, the new media enterprise that has been managing Khan since last year. “He’ll be telling you the most mundane, everyday story and you’ll be laughing all the way through,” he says. “He’s just naturally gifted at finding observations and bits within any kind of situation.”

I was that kid who grew up without friends, especially from first to fifth, and sat alone with his tiffin

Much of Khan’s material is essentially about relationships and the differences between the way men and women approach them. He tends to be a bit of an equal-opportunity offender in this regard: making broad and often self-deprecatory jokes about men being clueless and women vain. For instance, one popular bit is about how women are naturals at posing for pictures, while men have two practiced, awkward poses: ‘Passport’ and ‘Candid’.

This strain of gendered dichotomy in his act has led to a small but growing wave of criticism. In early April, Mitali Agrawal, a researcher for a Delhi-based organisation working in the field of education, says that a friend, also a woman, and she walked out halfway through a performance of Haq Se Single in Delhi that was being taped for an upcoming Amazon Prime special. ‘Guys it’s 2017. If your punchlines are YOUR loud & high pitched idea of a woman’s laugh, voice, anything she says, you need to work harder,’ she tweeted, as the first of many posts critiquing his performance. Indeed, in several routines, Khan’s perspective is unabashedly male and occasionally peppered with generalisations.

“It was traumatising — I’m not exaggerating,” she says, in a phone conversation nearly six weeks after the show. “He was doing these jokes where he was imitating a girl, flailing his limbs and putting his hands in front of his body. Then he started making jokes about how girls like to read, and for some reason, everybody found that hilarious.”

When they decided, an hour in, that they’d had enough, it took courage to get up, as the show was being recorded. “He spotted us trying to leave and said stuff like ‘Hey ladkiyaan, kahaan jaa rahi ho? Behen, baith jao. Bahut sundar lag rahi ho.’ (Hey girls, where are you off to? Sit down, sister. You’re looking very pretty),” she recounts. “I felt like ripping his head off, honestly, but it was very intimidating — the crowd was clearly on his side and we were in the minority.”

“There is a certain dude-bro-ness to some of his jokes,” admits a Mumbai- based stand-up comedian who wished to remain unnamed. “But honestly, I don’t think it comes from a bad place. ”

I bring up this critique and Khan’s jovial expression, for the first time, clouds over. He looks genuinely upset. “Honestly, I don’t know how to respond to this,” he says, finally. “Look, most of these are things that have actually happened to me. I mean, I can’t and won’t change my stories, and as a performer, I’m still learning. If I really understand what I’m doing wrong, I’ll change. But I don’t think I am.”

He feels that the criticism about his impersonations of women is a case of people missing the forest for the trees. “Yaar, the impersonation isn’t the point—if anything, there are probably more jokes at the expense of guys in my set, over girls,” he says. “I get hundreds of messages from fans every day and at no point do they ever say, ‘Bhai, you really killed with the imitation of that girl’. In fact, they usually say something like, ‘Please don’t reveal all our secrets and weaknesses to women’. Look, at the end of the day, it’s a comedy show. I’m not there just to give gyaan. I want my audience to share my thoughts so I don’t mind coming down to their level in order to bring them up. The whole point of the show is that we—men—tend to be emotionally backward. The stories are about the mistakes I have made and the ones you shouldn’t make.”

Nevertheless, since this interview was conducted, changes have been made to Khan’s routine. For instance, his impressions of women have been either toned down drastically or, in certain portions, done away with. Fellow comedians say this is normal for Khan — as one of the hardest-working people in the business, he is constantly writing, rewriting, and chiseling away at his material, so no two shows are the same.

As far as he’s concerned, his stories aren’t really about relationships but about migration and the inferiority complex born from being a small-town guy in a metropolis. “I’m from a stereotypical middle-class family whose father’s dream was to have a home one lane away from the main road and to own one car and one motorbike—and he achieved that dream,” he says. “Now, I have a friend who studied in Mayo [Mayo College], where the president of Switzerland comes as a chief guest for a school function, and whose holiday homework is [Paulo Coelho’s novel] The Alchemist. I want to compete with this guy. Why can’t I? It’s like I’m in 2002 when the rest of the world is in 2017.

That, he believes, is what makes him connect with his fans. He quotes a sher by the Urdu poet Farhad Shahzad and explains, “What it means is that my stories are all your stories. I come naked on stage and talk about things that happened in my life. What people take away is what they see as their own truth.”