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Twirling with the Moustache Brothers of Mandalay

Lu Maw holds his jaw and goes, “I have toothache, I can’t sleep for many days. So, I cross the border to Thailand to see dentist. He ask me, ‘Why you come to Thailand? You don’t have doctor in Myanmar?’ So, I say, ‘Yes, we do, but in Burma, we are not allowed to open our mouths’.”

As he says this, he opens his mouth in a wide grin, showing a set of yellowing teeth.

Unlike the time when he first came up with this joke—over a decade ago—he is allowed to open his mouth in today’s Myanmar.

Lu Maw, 64, is the younger sibling in the Moustache Brothers comedy troupe of Mandalay in central Myanmar. Along with the elder one, the late Par Par Lay, and a cousin, Lu Zaw, 62, he has been performing this show for almost 30 years, even as an oppressive junta tried to silence them in various ways.

The Moustache Brothers are third-generation performers of the traditional Burmese form of entertainment known as anyeint pwe, a kind of folk opera show with song and dance, humour and satire thrown into the mix. These were performed at weddings and social gatherings, typically in the local language, and went on all night (Lu Maw tells me, with a wink, later, “Now only one hour—quick show, quick money.”)

Only, in their generation, the satire quotient went up significantly when Par Par Lay began to lampoon the dictatorial military government.

When the husband and I reach the venue in a busy part of Mandalay at the end of January, there is still time for the show to start. The “theatre” is a tiny room at the entrance. A dimly lit sign above the main door claims that no visit to Mandalay is complete without seeing their show.

Photo: Charukesi Ramadurai

About 20 red plastic chairs are neatly laid out in three rows. At one end of the room is a low stage, with painted signboards strewn about in a corner. Blue curtains behind the dais shut this part out from the rest of the house, even as hushed voices continue to filter in through them.

A few Europeans are already waiting when we walk in and Lu Maw’s daughter Zimi is handing out laminated sheets of media reviews from international biggies like The New York Times and The Guardian. I am not sure whether it is to keep them occupied or prepared for what is to come. (I later discover how important international recognition has been to these brothers.)

I chat with the audience briefly and find out that they are here purely because of Lonely Planet’s listing as a “classic Mandalay must-see”—a solid endorsement considering that Mandalay is considered the cultural heart of the country, filled with other must-sees.

We ourselves have gone based on the glowing praise of a holidaying British stand-up comic we met at a pub the earlier night.

Almost every inch of the walls of the makeshift theatre is covered with posters and photos of their earlier performances and praise from global media. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s face also beams at me from the walls, again from calendars, posters and photos.

The pride of place goes to a photo of the brothers with this leader, obviously taken many decades ago. The other highlight is a framed photo of the comic trio, proudly holding a board that says, “Moustache Brothers are under surveillance.”

It is true that they have been under strict surveillance since 1996, when two of them first went to prison for performing a particularly provocative act at the residence of Suu Kyi (“Earlier, we used to call a thief a thief, but now we call him a government servant,” among others).

During the show, Lu Zaw shows us a video clipping of this very event, in which a younger Suu Kyi (with jasmine flowers in her hair) is laughing in delight at the jokes.

When I interview Lu Maw informally later, he tells me more about this in his own tragicomic style. “Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw went to Yangon to perform then. I stayed back here for some other work. I smart, so I escape,” he says, miming a person in handcuffs.

This sentiment may sound strange, even callous to the listener, but I don’t make much of it; I have seen from past interviews on the Internet that over the years, he has cultivated a flair for dramatic effect. 

In these interviews, it is also evident that Par Pay Lay is the respected patriarch of this family, the leader of the show, referring to himself as “Moustache No. 1” in a manner that would please the Govinda-David Dhawan team.

The two cousins were sentenced to seven years of imprisonment in a secret place. They spent the time breaking rocks for the construction of roads, shackled in iron chains.

They were released in 2001, mostly thanks to ceaseless lobbying by human rights groups in the US, spearheaded by comedian Bill Maher and filmmaker Rob Reiner. Their plight even found a passing mention in the Hugh Grant-starrer About a Boy (along the lines of, “imagine, in Burma, Par Par Lay was sent to jail for telling jokes”).

The main condition for their release was that they never perform in public again, or for locals. So, the three of them resorted to shorter and punchier shows completely in English from their house. The government turned a blind eye to this, and they continued to perform for tourists who found their way there (dropped off by cabbies at a safe distance from their home).

Par Par Lay passed away in 2013 of a kidney disease—said to have contracted from drinking water poisoned with lead, during his multiple stints in prison. Four days after his funeral, the group (one brother and one cousin) was back with a performance.

As I watch the show, it is apparent that English is not their language of choice at all. Only Lu Maw, wearing a blue Moustache Brothers T-shirt and Burmese longyi, speaks through the performance. Even his accent is thick enough to be inscrutable at times, right from the term Moosta Bruh-duh.

So, he repeats phrases, and holds out placards each time he makes an important point. Lu Zaw mimes along or helps him with the signs.

Despite that, I am impressed by the kind of slang words and elegant phrases that Lu Maw casually scatters through his routine: penny pincher, riding on a high horse, on the house, same wine but new bottle. “I catch from tourists like you,” says Lu Maw, when asked about it.

The cousins clearly have a knack for “catching” things from everyone who visits. There are topical (and sometime inappropriate) jokes targeted at every nationality present in the audience. Lu Maw is particularly obsessed with the intelligence agencies of various countries, making repeated references to the KGB, FBI, CIA and MI5.

Photo: Charukesi Ramadurai

What about India, he points to us and asks. Before we can respond (CBI? RAW?), he says, “When I was young, diligumba very famous, but now he is old man, like me. Now sarook famous, yes?” 

The husband and I stare blankly. Diligumba? Actor, drinks, lover, he says rapid-fire, as if in a guessing game with three clues. Ah yes, of course, the old Devdas and the new.

The comic turns are punctuated with traditional song-and-dance routines performed by Lu Maw’s wife Ni Ni Lin and sister Ma Taik Kyi, occasionally joined by his five-year-old granddaughter. Ni Ni Lin was once on the cover of Lonely Planet’s guidebook to Myanmar; Lu Maw shows off the copy with a happy smile.

Other than that, the routine seems to have a fairly standard set of jokes (many stand-up comics indeed tend to stick to tried-and-tested tropes), including the one about the dentist.

When Lu Maw makes a particularly incendiary joke, he leans forward, closer to the audience, as if telling them a personal secret. This is our cue to laugh, and laugh we do, most of the time. This comedy routine does not need an annoying audience laugh track; the twinkle in his eyes works just as well.

Although the husband and I enjoy the show overall, what we are left with is mainly a deep sense of respect for these subversive jesters. That seemed true for the rest of the audience too, for whom some of the nudge-nudge wink-wink jokes about his dominating wife just do not seem funny.

It also seems like humour does not travel well, not just across cultures but across time too. While some jokes do not amuse any longer, some are just not relevant.

At the time of my visit, the general elections are just over and there is great optimism in the air. There has been a jerky transition to civil rule in the past few years anyway (which the brothers were always wary of, saying that a snake shedding skin is still a snake).

How relevant are they now, I wonder, as the bulk of the gags are still about the old regime: “In Burma, nobody steals, nobody cheats—because the government doesn’t like competition.”

I ask Lu Maw that too: How do you see your role in the future, now that Suu Kyi is practically at the helm? (And in their eyes, Suu Kyi can do no wrong.)

“Now is beginning,” he shrugs. “Nothing changed for the people in a long time—water, education, electricity...”

What if nothing changes, even under the new government?

He looks unsure for a moment, before replying, “Things will get better. My job is to keep telling the world what happened in Burma.”

For now, the show goes on as usual, even with only one moustached brother and a clean-shaven cousin. The entire family makes a living from it, but nothing is what it was.

Lu Maw is proud of the fact that his daughter Zimi runs a travel service and is Mandalay’s only female motorbike taxi driver. He hopes his granddaughter will grow up in a Myanmar much better than the one the Moustache Brothers did. But there seems to be no interest from the younger generation to keep the troupe going.

The family’s doubts about the future are evident from the fact that they switch from performers to salespeople at the blink of an eye. Showtime over, the entire family begins to pass around Moustache Brothers T-shirts for sale.

Lu Maw himself is in a rush to finish our interview and join them.

As he signs off, he says with that infectious grin, “Suu Kyi...? Maybe we think of new jokes.”

When: Every night at 8.30pm, one hour.

Where: 39th street, between 80 and 81st, Mandalay.

How much: 10,000 kyat/Rs560, no reservations required.

Charukesi Ramadurai's life mantra goes 'travel, write, drink filter kapi, rinse, repeat'.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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