Free Press Journal

And the language debate goes on…


Fellow comics Alex (left) Aravind SA and Bargav (right) help Aravind close out a show

A clip from stand-up comic Aravind SA has left a section of YouTube polarised. Marilyn Gore attempts to find out why

It’s crazy how so many people are getting riled up… I’ve done this so many times before,” stand-up comic Aravind SA says. He’s talking about the outraged responses to his clip, ‘Why Tamils don’t speak Hindi’, which has had about seven lakh views on YouTube in less than a week.

The comments feature a lot of the usual “anti-national” rhetoric, some digs at his accent — which seems to get stronger when he’s on stage — and a few commenters find him unfunny. However, many comments are hateful, abusive, and accuse him of propagating “racism” between the “North” and the “South”.

“I’ve done this many times before, and found it resonates with the audience. It’s the classic South Indians vs North Indians argument. They (non-south Indians) are always tarring us all with the same brush. Right now, I’m just the messenger, and they’re all shooting the messenger,” Aravind says.

Why don’t Chennaiites speak Hindi?

According to Aravind’s piece, it’s not that Chennaiites don’t know Hindi, they just choose not to speak it. And if you’ve ever wondered why, you need look no further than the Chennai Express track, Lungi Dance. The four-minute clip that’s gone viral is part of Aravind’s Madrasi Da show, and sees the comic rip apart the Honey Singh hit.

“That song’s lyrics don’t do justice to anything concerned to do with Rajnikanth, Chennai or South India,” he explains, before beginning a “line-by-line” breakdown of the lyrics.

Mucho ko thoda round ghumake,” says the song, “They are confusing Rajnikanth with Raj Kiran,” says the comic. He also points out the problem with “Coconut me lassi milaake”: If Kerala is associated with coconuts, and Punjab, with lassi, “What does that have to do with Tamil Nadu?”

Only one agenda

Aravind says his only agenda “is to try and be funny”. “Any other expectation associated with stand-up comedy is unreasonable.” He says there’s no point in overanalysing a comedy act to look for balance. “There is always going to be a level of hyperbole,” he says.

Given that he names Louis CK among his favourite comedians, it’s only natural to expect a certain amount of irreverence. “There’s a fine line to tread, and people will keep guessing which side of the line you’re on.”

In Aravind’s case, that line is clear. He comes from a conservative Tamil background, and “constantly swings between the conservative and the liberal”.

Aravind SA

Jerry Seinfeld is another comic who has made a mark on the Chennaiite. “He has unbelievable observation. So I try to use that. You take the smallest detail, and crack it in a way that the crowd goes mental about the fact that they didn’t notice it.”

Local comedy, global context

International influences aside, Aravind’s act focuses on his Tamil identity. Even his international shows are attended largely by the Tamil diaspora. “They (Tamil members of the audience) would probably bring one or two non-Tamil south Indians, who would enjoy this as much as Tamils. Occasionally there’ll be a few North Indians (anyone not from the southern states).”

However, he insists, “It’s about the context.”

“If I’m talking to a non-Tamil room, I might refer to Mylapore as the RSS headquarters of Chennai. That’s not necessarily true, but it’s a reference point. You have to find the universality. On the other hand, what’s true of say, Chennai airport, is usually true of other airports as well.”

Madrasi, Da

The title of his current show, Madrasi, Da, is itself a commentary on how “North Indians” see their southern counterparts — a fact that seems to have been lost on YouTube haters.

Aravind also points out in his show that — as a proud Madrasi — he didn’t know the term was perceived as an insult in the rest of the country.

In the lead in to the Lungi Dance breakdown, he explains why being Madrasi is amazing. “Even though I’m a proper Chennaiite, there are parts in Chennai that don’t accept me as a proper Chennaiite because I’m fairer than the average Chennaiite… which is why I feel at home in Bombay; because the minute I go to Bombay and I speak in my broken Hindi, the first word out of the Mumbaikar’s mouth is, ‘Saale Madrasi’. I’m like, ‘Thank you so much’.”

What’s the big deal?

Aravind has previously said, “Stand-up comedy is about wanting to know different perspectives, colourful stories and having to share all that.”

Comedy in Tamil cinema, Aravind’s introduction to the art form, has always been anti-establishment and fairly regional. “A stand-up comedian’s job is to hold a mirror to society… So, when you do that, you start seeing different kinds of reactions: those who come to our show and like it, are reflecting the views of people who think alike or have a similar outlook towards life. And those in the ones in the YouTube section are also a part of society who have a different take and who, probably, who don’t see jokes in the same spirit as we do,” he says.

However, stand-up comedy, with its scrutiny on society and politics, is relatively new to India. So, it is perhaps understandable that — as a country where the only people to traditionally talk on a stage were politically correct figures of authority — we take stand-up comedy too seriously.

Perhaps, this is why, this particular clip has picked up so much steam on social media. Perhaps, the time was just right, given that language politics has been part of the national discourse in the recent past. Or, perhaps, Aravind — one of 14 Indian stand-up comedy acts to have been picked up by Amazon Prime Video — just got extra lucky.