Zakir Khan’s ‘Haq Se Single’ targets the hetero-Indian-male with a message
This, I find, is the simplest way to put it: Zakir Khan is Chetan Bhagat done right. Watch his new Amazon single, Haq Se Single, and you’ll perhaps feel the sold-out, in-love audience is reminiscent of how Chetan Bhagat made Indian writing in English accessible to places in India it had never reached before; except that Zakir Khan enjoys an unparalleled popularity among people who would otherwise be on either side of the Left-Right or Chetan-Bhagat divide.
Zakir Khan is taking stand-up comedy in India to a much broader audience, because till not too long ago, it was far more popular in the cosmopolitan setup. No wonder, then, that even Tanmay Bhat of AIB recently referred to Zakir as ‘India’s biggest stand-up comedy act’.
Haq Se Single displays a marked evolution in Zakir Khan’s content, even though straight off the bat, one thing is clear: Zakir talks primarily to the heterosexual Indian male. His language, lingo and demeanour are all aimed towards that (large) subset; so much so that when what he is about to say is meant for women instead, he has to specifically identify who he is talking to.
The ‘bro code’, hence, makes an appearance early in his act, when he talks about a supposed unspoken understanding between men of all ages, regarding all things female. (On the other hand, the F-word — feminism — makes an appearance much later, and even then, the comic does what he does best — make light of it, to thunderous cheers.)
No wonder, then, that Zakir Khan gets gung-ho applause when he says, ‘Bhai tumhara warrior hai’. (Your brother is a warrior.) Through the act, his jokes frequently disappoint because so many of them are still dependent on stereotyping women and men in relationships. (When a punchline begins with ‘Ladkiyon ka aisa hai na’, you know where the joke is heading). Yet, he reassures the men that he’s there for them, and that he’ll show them the way.
When he proclaims ‘ek tarfa pyaar bhi relationship hoti hai’, (unrequited, one-sided love is also a relationship), you don’t have to guess who’s cheering the loudest. Or when he declares that every man in the world who is ‘modern and understanding’ is actually only pretending to be so, you know that people actually seem to agree with him.
That, I think, is the key. In a world where the conventional discourse is being challenged, where sexism of all shapes and sizes is unabashedly called out, you can almost sense that the average Indian man is just dying to have a go and not be politically correct anymore. (All of us know at least one person who is devastated that he can’t use the word ‘rape’ in casual conversation today, don’t we?)
And it is when he speaks to this audience directly, that you actually see where Zakir Khan’s comedy has evolved. He still narrates personal stories laced with self-deprecating humour, fuelling the self-victimising nature of men who struggle with women and relationships, but in Haq Se Single, he also speaks firmly about the fact that you can’t blame the woman just because your relationship with them doesn’t work out. ‘There is no villain, but YOU are a hero,’ he asserts at one point.
Zakir Khan, with his delivery, his complete and utter ease throughout his 90-minute act, speaks to his bros in the audience like a friend who understands. The Indian man has mansplainer strands intertwined in his DNA. (What do you think this piece is?) Unsurprisingly, the Indian man revels in stories where Zakir mansplains his way through his relationships.
Even among the Indian male audience, Zakir’s core audience is the guy who will show tough love on a friend and try to pull him out of an emotional mess with the elegant, ‘K***** ki tarah rona band kar’. (‘Stop crying like a b***h’!)
His appeal is quite literally ‘desi’, but manages to connect with a Game of Thrones fan even while he disses the show in favour of Gangs of Wasseypur, perhaps because he also liberally sprinkles his act with WhatsApp pop-philosophy like, ‘We’re a generation of broken hearts and broken people’.
Through troubled phases, fights and broken relationships, he tries to make sure he doesn’t alienate any member of his audience, and you get the sense that he’s succeeding in this endeavour. So he gets probably his loudest cheer in the show when he reveals the truth to his bros: ‘Ladkiyan roti kyun rehti hain? Woh ro rahi hai kyunki TU ch****a hai’. (You ask why women are always crying? She’s crying because YOU are a jerk.)
The evolution towards a world free of misogyny is a long, slow process, so it’s heartening to see, towards the end of the act particularly, that mass popularity can also be tinged with unpopular messages; and no one does that like Zakir Khan. Perhaps there will soon come a day when he can even avoid gender stereotypes in his humour. A show named Haq Se Equal, perhaps? I’m sure his bros will understand.