Where do comedians go to have a good laugh? It is an oft heard opinion that some of the greatest comedians in the world have a serious and grave disposition in real life. Charlie Chaplin, Robin Williams and Rowan Atkinson have all been rumoured to be sober beings that made the world go ROFL. But since there have been no studies on comedians which would vouch for this supposition, scrutinising their works might be the only distinctive path to unravel the common factor in their lives.
Biswa Kalyan Rath, a 29-year-old stand-up comedian is a well-known face especially for his YouTube show called Pretentious Movie Reviews, which he hosted with fellow comedian Kanan Gill since April 2014. The now-defunct show was a major hit as the duo took sarcastic digs at Bollywood films, mixing it up with some good humour and scenes from the films.
Rath is an IITian with a surreal sense of humour and adept story-telling skills, which is sure to crack you up at any given time; even if you might be going through the saddest phase in your life. In October, 2017, he and Abhishekh Sengupta came out with a web-series on Amazon Prime called Laakhon Mein Ek [one in a million]. The second season of the series was released in April this year and the audience could not seem to have asked for more from comedian Rath. Such has been the brilliance with which the characters and plot were designed and the remarkable absence of humour in the plot is a surprising first from him. Laakhon Mein Ek essentially exposes the plight of Indians who are often tormented by the faulty or broken systems in the country. The stories are told through ordinary characters who transform into extra-ordinary heroes because of their convictions and decisions.
Another over-the-board comedian-turned script-writer cum director is Hollywood’s Jordan Peele who has conquered the minds of people with his comic strips on the show Key and Peele and also his most recent blockbuster hit horror films, Us (2019) and the Oscar winning Get Out (2017). In the films, the audience is introduced to the latent but unheard fears and insecurities of African-Americans through the life-like characterisation and a dark and nuanced plot of the movie. On The Tonight Show, hosted by Jimmy Fallon, Peele talked about finding inspiration for his horror films and recollected a memory from his school days.
“There was one trip I took with my school in ninth grade, and I told a scary story and it just got them. You know, the best laugh you have ever gotten in your life is nothing; when you get an audience to shudder and give you that feedback, it is so powerful. I felt like, 'Man, I am Freddy Krueger'," he said.
An instance that inspired him to create Get Out was Barack Obama being elected president of the United States. He has been seen as one who still believes in the entrenched racism which will not disappear anywhere near this era, also called ‘post-racial’ since Obama’s rule. Peele has publicly admitted that he often felt like an outsider being a biracial and that in his school days, some of his classmates would not believe that his mother was white. He also added how he used to feel about sounding too “white” rather than black.
A look at the lives and works of Peele and Raths show a common thread—an uncanny presence of the morbid trills evoked by displaced identities of the characters carefully portrayed by the observant.
The stories of displaced identities in both Rath’s and Peele’s works, a deliberate reflection of certain experiences and from the creators’ own lives, convey to the audience a message of how being unique and one in a million is seen by a “free” and “progressive” society. Aakash Gupta, the 16-year-old who forcefully joins an IIT coaching institute, Dr Shreya Pathare who battles corruption in the Indian medical world and Chris Washington who has to put up with maladies of a white supremacist family and the horrors that follow it are all projections of the “other” portrayed by the creators. And in a world where conformism is the key to survival, these characters stand out alone in their unflinching adamance as well as struggles.
Both Rath and Peele may seem to have gate-crashed into new realms and genres by exploring inspirations from real life and childhood experiences. But a more factual conclusion would be that their observational skills as comedians have elegantly matured to be transposed to other modes of story-telling.