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Seriously funny

Published : Mar 15, 2017, 5:02 am IST
Updated : Mar 15, 2017, 5:46 am IST

To call Aisi Taisi Democracy a ‘stand up show’ does it a disservice.

Aisi Taisi Democracy was staged at Ranga Sharda auditorium in Mumbai.
 Aisi Taisi Democracy was staged at Ranga Sharda auditorium in Mumbai.

Theatre has always been caught between two stools: is it a comment on society or is it entertainment? If the play is more of the former, then it is considered ‘art’ and if it is more of the latter then it is ‘commercial’. In recent times you throw in elements like aesthetic and form, and the mixture gets even more complicated.

There are many plays that have been entertaining and passed comment on the times that they’ve been staged in. In the early 1980s, the musical Evita was incredibly popular but also drew a strong parallel between the Argentine First Lady and Indira Gandhi. An adaptation in 2002 of Dario Fo’s An Accidental Death of an Anarchist replaced the play in the environment of the pogrom in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat. Butter and Mashed Banana in 2005 showed us the absurdity on the clamp down on freedom of speech. However each of these were carefully crafted pieces of theatre, that were entertaining, funny, and presented their allegory as simply as possible.

Since then live performance has had a paradigm shift with the advent of Stand Up Comedy. Comedians are stars in their own right, and have enormous fan followings. There are now dedicated venues for Stand Up Comedy, so a weekend evening in Bombay, has quite a few options to choose from. However, most comedians seem to be far more concerned with being entertaining (and populist) rather than relevant. Sometimes in between the slew of sex jokes about sex and regional stereotypes, there are a few scathing comments on the India we live in; but by and large the material is ‘safe’. This is where a show like Aisi Taisi Democracy is such a breath of fresh air.

To call it simply a ‘stand up show’ does it a disservice. Similarly it is not really a play, though the content is scripted. It is more like a ‘town hall’ experience where audiences gather to hear three commentators talk about the times we live in. The fact that the telling is entertaining is almost a by-product. The presentation is so simple, it could almost be termed boring. Three bar stools for the three tellers: Musician Rahul Ram of Indian Ocean, Screenplay writer Varun Grover and Comedian Sanjay Rajoura. The lighting was unremarkable, a flat wash across stage. In fact the most striking set element were the mineral water bottles lined up on each of the tables next to the bar stools. There was no grand entrance, no dramatic exit. The three performers came on, took turns to speak and then left. Yet the show had us mesmerised. There was satire, insight, biting comment, and humour. They tackled demonetisation, the politico-business nexus, communal politics and of course anti-nationalism. In fact the stripping of the ‘stage’ artifice makes what is being said even more relevant and truthful.

The particular performance I saw was even more significant because it was staged at the Ranga Sharda auditorium, Bandra (west); long associated as a right wing meeting hangout. In fact a few weeks ago, the venue management tried to make a theatre company play the National Anthem before their performance. The group refused, and the incident did create quite a furore among the fraternity.

Therefore it was apt that much of Aisi Taisi was dedicated to the changed relationship we now have with Jana Gana Mana. As the show observed, earlier we stood out of a sense of pride, and now we stand because of fear. Our focus is now on not doing wrong, rather than doing right. This atmosphere has permeated almost all aspects of our life. Be it our Facebook posts, artistic choices or even what we say in public.

While books like Teesta Setalvad’s Soldier of the Constitution are vital, and must be written and read, so must shows like Aisi Taisi be created, because in a country of sycophants they are the people that point out that the emperor is actually not wearing any clothes.

Quasar Thakore Padamsee Is a Bombay based theatre-holic. He works primarily as a theatre-director for arts management company QTP.

Tags: theatre, narendra modi, stand up comedy