Monday, November 25, 2013

The Funny Side Of faith

Stand-up comedian Azeem Banatwalla cracks jokes about his community that is appreciated by Muslims also

Photo by Vinod Kumar T 

By Shevlin Sebastian

We Muslims eat biriyani,” says stand-up comedian Azeem Bantwalla. “Then because we feel bad that we have killed a goat, we don't eat for one month. Then again we eat biriyani.”

Azeem is performing at the 'Pant on Fire' stand-up comedy show at the JT Performing Arts Centre in Kochi. Earlier, comedian Sourabh Pant introduces Azeem, who is off-stage, by saying, “Azeem is a Muslim with a sense of humour. That's an oxymoron. It's like a Congress politician who says, 'Cheque payments.'”

And in walks a tall (6'3”) and gangly person, wearing spectacles and looking more like an eager college student rather than a comedian. And he swings the bat straightaway: “When Iran sent a rocket into space, they also sent a monkey along with it. We Indians would never do that. We know that a flying monkey is useful only if your wife is stuck in Sri Lanka,” says the 24-year-old.

As the crowd laughs, Azeem gets into the groove easily. But there is a small gasp when Azeem ventures into territory, which would have been considered forbidden because of its sensitivity. “As a Muslim, all you do on Eid is to eat biryani,” he says. “Honestly, I don’t even know why we call it Eid. We should just call it ‘lunch’!”

Azeem makes jokes about praying five times a day, on how an Eid festival means a Salman Khan film, and the pleasures that await a terrorist in Paradise. 

Away from the stage, a relaxed Azeem says, “In India, talking about Muslims and Islam are sensitive topics. But being a Muslim, I feel that I have a license to do so. If not me then who else?”

Of course, Azeem is careful about the way he tells his jokes. “I don't want to offend anybody,” says Azeem. “Basically, I am analysing the idiosyncrasies of the religion. Poking fun is one thing, and being insulting is another. And that is not my aim.”

He remembers how, during a show in Mumbai, he noticed a bearded Muslim, wearing a skull cap, and his burqa-clad wife, sitting on the front row. “They laughed the most at the Muslim jokes,” says Azeem. “In fact, they were enjoying the show as much as the rest of the audience.”

Interestingly, Azeem, a Gujarati, who was born and brought up in Mumbai, stumbled onto his passion in a convoluted way. He graduated, in engineering, from the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Technology in 2010. At that time, because of recession, he did not get a job. “I sat at home and did nothing for six months,” he says. 

It was during this period that Azeem got an opportunity to write humour for a show on UTV Bindaas. Soon, he began interning with them. After a few months, Azeem secured an opening as a writer for a Delhi-based magazine. In September, 2011, he did an interview with comedian Vir Das, one of India’s top comedians. “It was while talking to him that I got interested in stand-up comedy,” says Azeem.

In that same month, at the Comedy Store in Mumbai he got his first opportunity. And the joke which got an enthusiastic response went like this: “Facebook is a lot like Delhi. You can poke all the women you want, and get away with it.”

And when the crowd laughed and applauded, it was a giddy experience for Azeem. “There is no preparing you for the rush of energy that comes from the audience,” he says. “Your adrenalin starts pumping. It is like doing bungee jumping.”

A hooked Azeem has performed at places like Pune, Bangalore, Kochi, and Baroda, apart from several shows in Mumbai. And, recently, he quit his job as a features writer for the National Geographic Traveller India magazine to become a full-time stand-up comedian.

But it has been hard work being a comedian because audiences are unpredictable. “If you have a younger crowd, they will be more responsive to jokes about mobile phones and social networks,” says Azeem. “An older group will prefer current affairs and politics and all that kind of stuff. So, you have to find a balance in your material.”

Finding the right balance has been Azeem's forte. He is a rising star in an art form which is rapidly gaining in popularity all over India. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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