My face and my name are completely different. You imagine a 6ft-tall, handsome Afghani-looking guy from the name, and then I pop up,” Zakir Khan said during his performance at Comedy Central’s India’s Best Stand-Up Comedian competition, which he went on to win, in 2012. Khan’s words on the stage aren’t as spontaneous as they may seem. Each joke in casual Hindi is carefully constructed.For instance, when he picks on his awkward relationship with “Delhi girls”, Khan, 29, says it is intended to work at multiple levels. He is tapping into the insecurities of the heart, particularly appealing to those who, like Khan, hail from small towns. “At the same time, I’m talking about migration and coping with a new culture,” he tells me at the fourth edition of YouTube FanFest, which took place last week in Mumbai.
Khan was one of the new online stars who performed at the event. His was a 7-minute act. Whether he is telling stories about meeting girls at parties and pretending he is not interested in them, whether he is commenting on the randomness of a 1990s Bollywood song or whether he is talking of how class X Board exams become an event not just in a student’s life but even in the neighbourhood uncle’s, Khan has something for everyone.
Khan says he has been a writer for nine years, and a comedian for five. “I say what I have to in a layered way and I know that whoever has to understand will understand.”
For someone who has only been active on YouTube for around two years, he has 471,175 subscribers.
It is tempting to think that he has a wider reach because his work is in Hindi. But Tanmay Bhat, co-founder of comedy collective All India Bakchod, says Indian stand-up has gone beyond the Hindi-English divide. “The language barrier doesn’t matter any more. Seventy-five per cent of AIB’s content is in Hindi,” he says. “Zakir is just a hilarious guy who connects with the audience. People repeat his lines; it is unlike what usually happens in comedy shows. He is also political, a thinker.”
Khan wrote the Hindi script of their news satire show, On Air With AIB, in 2015. He has a “bigger role” in AIB’s Web series with Amazon Prime, a political comedy called The Ministry that will come out later this year.
Most of Khan’s jokes are built around stories in which he presents himself as a self-deprecating character—regaling audiences with how women mistake him for a waiter or a daily-wage labourer, or how he once suddenly gained respect after he stepped out of an iPhone store. He is inspired by the “story-format” followed by American comedian and actor Louis C.K. “I like long stories. My new show, Haq Se Single, has one theme, three stories, and is 1 hour, 15 minutes long,” he says.
Among Indian comedians, he mentions Anuvab Pal and Varun Grover as his favourites. While observing these comedians has helped him hone his craft, what makes him original is the fact that he stays close to his middle-class roots in Indore—he still uses the idiomatic “apan” when referring to himself.
Khan says that when he was starting out, every Indian stand-up would begin the show with a “Hey, what’s up?” That didn’t work for him. “I wanted to change it to Ab sunn, main batata hoon, talk in an inherently Indian way,” he says. For him, his shows are like those conversations that he used to have with friends, “in the gap between a game of cricket and going home for the evening”.