How Bengaluru comedian Danish Sait became the voice of the lockdown5 min read . Updated: 19 May 2020, 09:23 AM IST
Most of Sait's videos have close to 100,000 views on Twitter alone, and are shared across platforms like WhatsApp, YouTube and TikTok
In his viral ‘lockdown conversations’ videos, in which he seems to effortlessly channel all our lockdown obsessions and frustrations, comedian Danish Sait uses wildly inappropriate household objects as stand-ins for a mobile phone. These could be anything from a tissue box to a bottle of rum, a room freshener aerosol can or a paintbrush, and they have now become iconic.
But while these props make the videos “next level" funny (to borrow one of Sait’s favourite phrases) they are also a symbol of lockdown jugaad: they were pushed into service because when Sait started making the videos, soon after the first lockdown was announced by the prime minister on 24 March, he had only the one phone at home, which he needed to do the actual shoot. “Now that my family can visit me, I’ve told my mom not to move anything from my desk—it may look like useless stuff, but absolutely critical to the videos," says Sait.
Absurdity is the life-blood of comedy, and Sait’s 1-minute videos, shared mostly on Twitter and Instagram, capture the absurdity of our lives during the pandemic with surgical precision. They bring our new universal reality to life through a cast of recurring characters who mostly remain unnamed. They are all played by Sait and they all conform to Bengaluru stereotypes, but their voices are unique: the upper-class woman lamenting salons being closed, her maid, who is welcomed like a queen when restrictions are finally lifted but shunned when she sneezes while doing jhadu, the spoilt ‘Bangalore boys’ who pepper their dialogue with ‘macha’, ‘bro’, and ‘dude’ and cannot understand the prime minister’s chaste Hindi speeches, the know-it-all religious Muslim man who gravely counsels a young female relative but is clearly clueless himself—they all come alive in Sait’s quick and clever sketches that have become a byword in lockdown comedy over the past few weeks.
Most of the videos—and Sait is nothing but prolific, cranking them out, on average, at the rate of one a day—have close to 100,000 views on Twitter alone, and are shared across all platforms, from WhatsApp to YouTube and TikTok. He released his 12 May video an incredible half-hour after the Prime Minister finished his speech.
“I usually call my friend Vamsi, (comedian Vamsidhar Bhogaraju), who is a great sounding board, to discuss the content. That day, it just flowed," says Sait of the video which has over 495,000 views, although he is more chuffed about the fact that former J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah shared it, calling it “the only thing that has me looking forward to the next time I'll hear those words ‘PM to address the nation at 8 PM tomorrow’." “You are the original lockdown star," replied Sait.
The voices and characters are not exactly new—they are variations of a rotating cast that Sait has kept fresh through his long-running radio show Supari on Fever 104 FM, which first made him popular in Bengaluru (the show now also runs in Chennai and Hyderabad). They are all Bengaluru types—their accents and speech patterns as familiar to anyone living in the city as Iyengar bakeries and Uber drivers named Manjunath. One of his most famous characters, the ‘humble politician Nograj’, even has his own, eponymously named, full-length film, written and directed by Sait’s long-time friend and creative partner, Saad Khan.
These “world famous in Bangalore" characters are now becoming familiar to a national audience, and Sait thinks this is because of the universality of the lockdown experience. “See, whether you are in Bangalore or Delhi or Bombay, for people of a certain class the experience has been similar. You are missing your maid, you are missing booze, you want to go to the beauty parlour—it’s the exact same thing. It’s observation 101," says Sait.
His improvisational comedy roots keep him on his toes. “One of the key rules of improv theatre is to say ‘yes’. This lesson has always stuck with me. It teaches me a very important thing—whatever the situation, we must adapt and overcome and keep moving on," he says. Even though he admits to being “anxious and paranoid" in the early days of the pandemic in India—he was supposed to travel to Australia and New Zealand for a show, which obviously got cancelled—he was soon shooting for his first post-lockdown video, riffing with friends over the phone and writing down jokes as they spontaneously took shape.
Without being overtly political or critical of the central government, his jokes land because they are not just a guy doing funny accents. There is a sly streak of social and political commentary that Sait sneaks in.
In one of his videos, while talking about the red, orange and green zones designated by the government to mark the severity of the crisis in different cities, he says ‘anyway now the whole country is orange only’ referring to the saffronisation of Indian politics. In his latest video, a Muslim character says ‘Pehle Allahhu Akbar cheekhe toh darte thay, ab khali chheenke toh’ (‘first they used to be scared if we yelled ‘Allahu Akbar’ but now they are scared even if we sneeze’), probably referring to the Islamophobic messages that did the rounds of social media when a large number of new covid-19 infections in India were linked to an Islamic religious congregation.
Currently, Sait is excited about his new Kannada-English-Urdu film French Biryani, which is among a handful of movies going straight-to-digital on Amazon Prime Video in July. He stars as an autorickshaw driver (“I am never going to get any glamorous roles, right?" he says) driving a French tourist around Bengaluru, especially the city’s oldest commercial hub, Shivajinagar. He calls it “an area with an insane amount of character."
“If you walk through Bangalore, you will hear hundreds of different dialects and accents, and it’s just about keeping your eyes and ears open. When I was a kid I was once taken to a doctor’s clinic that had a framed poster saying ‘a good speaker is a good listener’. I’ve always kept that in mind," says the man who has become the voice of the lockdown because he listened well.