EVENT From Sean Connery to “Star Wars”, stand-up comedian Anil Desai spares none
“I'm just going to clear the stage. I'll ask Victoria Beckham to stand aside,” says Anil Desai, deadpan as he moves his mike stand out of the way.
In Chennai at Vivanta by Taj Connemara for the ‘LOL! Comedy Night' tour (presented by Daniel Hechter, the French clothing brand), London-based Desai's act was advertised as a ‘European twist to desi comedy'. In the end, however, it turned into an evening built on a shared popular culture, both contemporary and nostalgic, from the skinny Spice girl to Spielberg's “ET”. From Scientology-obsessed Tom Cruise to the original James Bond, Sean Connery. From “Austin Powers” to “Star Wars”.
The success of Desai's act is a measure of how much the world has changed. While a lot of Indian comedy might still be limited by geography, because so much of it is based on inside jokes, today there are international-Indian comedians, such as Desai, who manage to connect across cultures. Instead of specifically working the Indian angle, they spin their material from topics the world is familiar with. In Desai's case, this meant largely Hollywood. After all, the movies have always been a bridge among people of every culture.
Juxtapose Hollywood with everyday life, and you get a piece such as ET phones home. “ET is lucky he came to earth in 1982. Kids were nice then. If he came now, and said ‘ET phone home', they would just take his phone and stab him.” Not funny? Actually it is, because despite being dark, it's true.
Desai's got a talent for mimicry, honed on the playground to distract the bigger kids intent on beating him up. Now that he's made comedy a career, his focus on imitations has garnered him the title ‘ Stand Up Chameleon'. BBC Comedy Extra, impressed by his ability to play over 50 famous people from Mandela to Homer Simpson in five minutes, commissioned him to do a mini series, ‘How To Impersonate'. In Chennai, Desai proved himself an able teacher when he hauled a member of the audience up on stage, and taught him how to do a very credible Clint Eastwood.
Since Desai is back in India after 25 years, he doesn't have much of a grasp of Indian pop culture, which meant his act did feel a bit like a cut-and-paste job, similar in every venue. Some tailoring for Chennai would have been appreciated. Nevertheless, the audience loved his deliciously unsteady Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean” imitation, and roared with laughter at his instruction on pulling off a pompous Danny DeVito. “Eyebrows up, chew gum (even if you don't really have any in your mouth), elbows out like a chicken…”
Most comedians revel in picking on people — which is why it's always judicious to sit in inconspicuous corners during these shows. Desai has a novel way of dealing with hecklers — he goes to a corner of the stage, and calls his mom. “Mama. It's not going very well. You were right. I should have become an engineer.”
As it turns out, his parents were at the Chennai show. And fortunately, the audience roared appreciatively at every point, so his mom didn't have to stand up and sort us out.