Papa CJ has been in the funny business for over ten years and, by all accounts, makes it his business to be funny. I'd seen Vir Das, Varun Grover, Rohan Joshi and Radhika Vaz in action, but never this guy. So I bought a ticket to his show last Sunday. It was titled "Naked" (which a certain kind of stand-up fan would be excused for expecting to be sexy-funny). All I knew about it was that it's not new - it's been touring since last year - and that it's a smash hit. I piled into Delhi's Akshara Theatre with about 90 other people, the lights went down, the lights came up, Papa CJ emerged from behind the curtain, and off we went.
It started as classic stand-up, friendly, sharp, interactive. The people in the front rows suffered a merciless drubbing. He established a personality for each in a couple of sentences, remembered their names, made them squirm without forfeiting their goodwill, drew them into his scripted material where he could. All comedians do this. It's a good index of innate talent - not only do they have to improvise on your feet, they have to get their victims to delight in being gutted and hanged publicly. It's a measure of both their wit and psychological sophistication. Papa CJ does this deftly and with infectious relish.
"Naked" is autobiographical, personal-funny. Papa CJ tells the story of his life. He tells us about growing up; about how he became a comedian; how he paid his dues; and how he decided, a decade into his career as a comedian, to go after something beyond the easy laugh. He unpacks that story along with a suitcase that is filled with mementos. He does it with plenty of laughs, from the travails of courtship to his life as a comedian. His language is fluent and relatively clean, his delivery flawless. It's very entertaining. It's good comedy.
As the show proceeds, Papa CJ gets rawer and more vulnerable, introducing a level of discomfort that goes down to the bone and then digs deeper. I found myself asking: Would I use this from my life? Is there something instrumental about parlaying this - and it doesn't get more personal than this - into commercial gain? Might it not hurt, infuriate, or betray? Does it smack of melodrama? What do we do if he loses his shit? Those questions arise out of a natural awkwardness in the face of public vulnerability - there is no adequate response, except to wrap the man in a blanket and a hug, so you just sit there holding your breath. Yet he keeps making you guffaw. It's like watching extremely amusing seppuku.
This is, of course, the very stuff of art. Art is supposed to mine life. It's supposed to make everyone uncomfortable. It's supposed to disrupt convention, supposed to provoke and move you - and Papa CJ's ability to swoop through a vast range of emotion and tone, making humour out of his own marrow, earthing pain in comedy while you hurtle alongside, is what elevates "Naked" from mainstream comedy to the bravest art I've seen in a while.
The Akshara Theatre where I saw it is an intimate little space, warm with wood; I can only imagine what it takes to perform it before huge audiences. It's an award-winning show, but you feel like giving it a gallantry award too.
Does all this sound horribly cryptic? I don't want to spoil it - because you absolutely must see it. All I'll say, meanwhile, is that it will teach you the meaning of empathy all over again. You will end up speared on the same spear as Papa CJ, like satay, and you'll be giggling helplessly.
(Mitali Saran is a freelance writer and columnist based in New Delhi.)
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