Stand-up artist Zakir Khan is working his way up the funny ladder, says Neha Mathews
Zakir Khan works his audience with ease, grinning and cooing as if he’s letting you in on a big secret. As a Hindi stand-up comic at comedy collective All India Bakchod’s one-day festival, AIB Diwas, Khan held his own among the more established comedians, making the audience of 3,500 laugh uninhibitedly at his self-deprecating humour.
Khan’s style seems miles apart from how he was four years ago, stumbling over his jokes in Comedy Central’s India's Best Stand Up Comedian competition. Although, according to him, there are some things that never change. “Being on stage always makes me nervous. As people laugh, I get more confident, get more edgy. I feel like the show has only begun now because now they have faith in me.”
Khan leapfrogged into the comedy scene pretty much unannounced: when he won Comedy Central’s competition in 2012, he had only been in the game for six months, participating in open mic events once in a while. But, back then, India’s stand-up comedy scene was in its nascent stages; we didn’t have swooning teenage fans expressing their graphic love on Twitter or worried parents scouring Internet browser histories for AIB.
While Hindi stand-up has been around for decades, the culture of watching stand-up and the massive popularity of the top comedians is relatively new.
To be that new at something and to already have been identified as being good at it comes with its own limitations. “I got very popular after winning but my jokes got less funny. I had very little material, most people had already heard those jokes, the venues were limited: it was all too much pressure.” But that didn’t stop him.
Concentrating all his energy into writing more material, Khan learned what worked and didn’t with different audiences. He kept making changes, adapting and eventually found his own, unique style. Since Open Mics don’t pay the bills, he also worked as a ghostwriter and radio station producer. His comedic style grew sharper over the years, with the sort of incisive character comedy and slang that works across audiences.
Did he ever feel the pressure to base his sets around his religion, especially given the current social scenario? “At times I can’t help but bring it up. I may ignore it for two months because the issues Muslims face are so huge that it eats me up inside and sometimes I feel like no amount of jokes will make a difference. Then I’ll do those jokes for another two months because, at least the audience gets some information out of those jokes.”
In the spotlight
In 2015, All India Bakchod were about to start work on their news comedy show On Air with AIB and needed to hire a writer for the Hindi version of the show. By this point, Khan had become well-known in the Delhi comedy circuit and was looking to shift base to Mumbai. After a referral by fellow comedian Raghav Mandava and two months of back-and-forth, Khan found himself in a legitimate writer’s room, filled with comedians as excited as him at the prospect of doing a one-of-a-kind show in India. With 10 episodes aired over two months, On Air with AIB packed loads of information into each episode with constant jokes. While it didn’t do too well in terms of ratings, it put Khan in the spotlight once again, as both a writer and performer.
Now based in Mumbai, Khan is currently performing at the Canvas Laugh Club for the Best in Stand Up shows with fellow comics Vipul Goyal and Sumit Anand. He’s also slated to travel with shows lined up in Singapore, Philippines and Malaysia. He has a show in the works called Handle with Care in which he compares India’s current socio-political state to that of a teenager. “Everybody feels ignored, we just need to start being nice to each other,” he says signing off.
Visit canvaslaughclub.com for show timings and ticket details for Best in Stand Up
The writer is a freelance journalist