Zakir Khan is probably the only Indian comedian working right now who can get his live audience to join him in relentless self-mythologising.
Here’s how it works. The set-up is different each time. The players stay the same: Khan and a woman he is wooing. The circumstances change but they all lead to Khan and the woman getting close enough to spend hours on the phone. But the audience can see the punchline coming the moment Khan smirks and takes a pause. They have seen this before.
In his stand-up comedy special Haq Se Single (Single By Right), which is streaming on Amazon Prime Video, when Khan says, “Chat-ey ho rahi hai,” the audience erupts. They remember its origin. He famously used it at his breakthrough performance at AIB Diwas, an open-air comedy show organised by All India Bakchod (AIB) in Mumbai last year. The woman and Khan have moved forward from chatting once in a blue moon to talking regularly so, “Ab to chat nahi, chat-ey ho rahi hai.”
Likewise, there’s another Khan set-up with which his audience is now familiar. Khan has to begrudgingly converse on the phone with a talkative woman on the other end. The woman just doesn’t stop talking, while Khan has a ready response for everything she says. He goes, “Hmm, achcha, theek hai” with pauses between each word. (Khan made this famous at AIB Diwas too). He again uses this punchline for a different set-up in Haq Se Single, and the audience says it with him in a sing-song voice.
Over the last year-and-a-half, Khan has devised certain similar phrases (the most famous being “Sakht launda”, or a tough guy who doesn’t get swayed by pedestrian female charms) that have tremendous recall value. Khan’s comedy routines show how powerful repetition can be. He has successfully elevated his punchlines to become marketable pop-culture phenomena. Some would say that the simple reason Khan has been able to do so seemingly overnight is because he is massy when compared to his counterparts and colleagues, who largely perform in English.
Here, “massy” translates into performing in Hindi. But there’s a more specific reason than that.
On the surface, Khan’s jokes may revolve around the simple set-up of a rustic male trying to navigate the world of romantic relationships with urban, English-speaking women. Scratch the surface and you will see that his jokes are the stories of migrants; small-town men like him who are now in the big city where they earn enough to attend stand-ups over the weekend.
The constant themes in his humour – the arrogance, parochial insecurity and befuddled wonderment of a bumpkin in the metropolis – are highly appealing to his core fandom. When Khan creates a premise where a woman’s behaviour seems apparently erratic to men, he address himself as the audience’s “bhai” and assures them that their brother will explain what just happened, not to worry. There might be women in the audience too, but Khan knows who he is speaking to.
In Haq Se Single, Khan doesn’t deviate from his patent topics. There are three big set-ups involving Khan and a woman in his past. There are moments involving his father. The jokes about his father poke fun at the feudal understanding of fatherhood. His poor knowledge of English (his girlfriend chides him for not putting a glass of water on a coaster and he asks, “What is a coaster?”) and obliviousness to urban manners (he spreads green chilli sauce all over his food thinking it is mint chutney) are, once again, the butt of jokes.
A major issue that some may have with Khan’s humour is that, sometimes, his jokes can be considered sexist. This is merely a perspective, since he caricatures men as well as women. If he exaggerates female behaviour (a high-pitched scream from a woman on seeing Khan during a date; a girlfriend who cannot seem to stop buying books), he also does not spare men who resort to acts of desperation in order to woo women. The bias is, however, very clear; women are joked at or about more often than the men (mostly Khan himself).
To expect a comedian to tailor his material to reach the adequate level of political correctness is anyway foolish. If there is a joke, someone is always the victim. And Khan is free to crack his own brand of jokes, haq se.