Danish Sait, a voice of the lockdown: Comedian-actor on his alter egos, developing a unique style and responding to critics
For his videos which satirise the conversations people are having during the lockdown, Danish Sait employs a number of personas and draws heavily on the vocabulary and obsessions of Bengaluru's residents. He also makes ingenuous – if sometimes bizarre – use of props, from cloth bags to his pet cat
What is the measure of success for creators who rely mainly on social media to garner an audience? Is it fans waiting for the creator to post new content? Is it viewers trying to decode the creator’s style, to predict what they will say next? Is it the audience’s engagement with a language or culture that they’re unfamiliar with?
Or is it the most basic scale of measurement – numbers and reach?
Through his irreverent and deceptively simple videos released during the lockdown, which are no more than a few minutes long, Danish Sait seems to have ticked all the boxes. They’re compilations of the different kinds of conversations Bengaluru’s residents are having during the coronavirus pandemic and the national lockdown, drawing heavily on local vocabulary and obsessions.
For this purpose, Sait employs a number of personas – the privileged gated community resident and her house-help Jaya, the girlfriend and boyfriend, the Muslim uncle and aunty, among others. Most of these personas are mosaics of the people he has met over the course of his time in the city, borrowing bits and pieces from their personalities.
Though he does follow a basic script, the videos would not be possible without improv. "Sometimes, while recording, I get a line and throw that in. Other times, when I’m riffing with a friend – who is my sounding board for this project – we get lucky and find a good joke. It’s a mix of both adhering to a script and improvising," he explains.
You’d imagine that launching into Kannada dialogues and using phrases like ‘putting kerchief’ and ‘simp-simply’ may alienate viewers outside of Karnataka, but this is far from what happened: Sait’s usage of the phrase ‘bewarsi kudka’ (drunk bastard) has made it a punchline unto itself among Indian Twitter users.
He attributes this positive reception to the increasing interest in 'Indian' storytelling. “I do believe there’s a pulse to India’s stories. For a long time, pop culture in India borrowed stories from other countries. But now, stories on streaming websites are getting more ‘real’. I think we’re better appreciating what is homegrown, whether it is humour or local dialects. We need Digital India to tell India’s stories, whose beauty lives in their diversity," he explains.
It's not possible to speak of Sait's videos without commenting on his ingenuous – if sometimes bizarre – use of props, from cloth bags to his pet cat. What began as a last-minute hack is now a thought-out element that is both absurd and humorous. "When I began to record my first video and realised that I have only one phone (with which I needed to shoot), I had to use something else as a phone prop – which eventually became the vacuum cleaner nozzle lying around on my table. When I made a video about alcohol, I thought it’d be tongue-in-cheek to hold up bottles as phones while talking about how people don’t have access to alcohol. Then more props kept getting added. I used the toilet paper for the American character, as a dig at how Americans were going crazy about it," he explains, but is clear that what he is saying is always more important than the props he is using. No amount of props can save a mediocre or bad video, after all.
As the number of content creators proliferates – encompassing influencers, artists and bloggers – differentiating oneself through a distinct voice and style becomes imperative, especially to remain memorable. Sait believes he developed his creative voice long before the lockdown videos; he's been doing similar work for 10 years now. “Somewhere along the way, I found what I wanted to say. Laughter is obviously one component, and picking up on finer details and nuances is the other. I never want to be preachy, because I believe people are intelligent and capable of making their own choices. I like to keep it simple and say what I have to say," he says.
Sait’s voice includes political statements, thrown in as a passing line or joke, whether it is the punchline about how all of India has become an ‘orange zone’, or the fear that surrounds the phrase ‘Allah-hu-Akbar’. I remark that he seems unafraid to be political. “I don’t think it takes bravery to say something that’s true. I believe that one must keep politics and religion at home, but it’s not wrong to say what is taking place in society. For example, it is true that migrants are walking home. COVID-19 is a rich person’s disease, and it’s terrible that the brunt is being borne by people who probably did not see any of this coming," he says.
He claims to be immune to a number of challenges. Some of his videos respond to real-world events, like PM Narendra Modi's speech, or the loud, mysterious 'boom' sound heard in Bengaluru. Is there pressure to churn out videos quickly? "If someone else does a video before me, good for them." Does he fear he will run out of things to say? "The world presents many subjects to speak about." What if people begin predicting how he's going to respond? "That should be the spirit, and that level of camaraderie should exist!"
Over the last few years, many artists and creators on the Internet have responded to criticism in hostile ways, or with denial. This critique could take the form of layered arguments that delve into the politics of art, or even one-line takes. This is terrain that Sait says he has experience with. When he used to do prank calls and upload the audio of these calls on his SoundCloud page, he would sometimes be called out by listeners. He maintains that some criticism isn't valid, because it involves misinterpretation that twists the meaning intended by the creator, or because it was not well-intentioned to begin with.
He has now developed a sense of what can be done, and what cannot. This is shaped equally by criticism he considers fair. "While creating content I always consider, is this something my sister will be riled up about? Is it something my friends will like? I’ve learnt it the hard way – I’ve made mistakes as well. And there are people who give great, genuine criticism too... That’s the thing about social media, you can look at it and get better, or you can get bitter," he says.
Reflecting on his success, Sait says that he is neither perturbed by numbers, nor does he see them as a mark of progress. All the same, when he was curious about why the videos were working and sought answers from industry voices, it emerged that relatability was the main factor. "I was quite happy with the audience I’ve had all these years. I never imagined that the response would be this, or that Omar Abdullah would tweet about my video... I’ve asked people who are in marketing, in digital media, about what’s the ‘stickiness’ with these videos. The answer I got was that they are relatable. I reckon that this is true, because the lines in my video are things people are saying in response to the pandemic and lockdown," he says.
What seems to be a consistent motif across Sait's career is developing and playing personas and alter egos. The character he played in his first film, Humble Politician Nograj, began as a voice he embodied on the radio. His fascination with characters is not surprising when you consider who his heroes are: Sacha Baron Cohen and Seth MacFarlane. "When you have such heroes and their trajectories to look up to, you realise you too could try this out. You realise the potential in what they’re doing," he says.
Sait recently announced that he is bidding goodbye to radio as a form, and when looking at his body of work, it's interesting to note how all this began: with stories he made up as a child, spoken into a mic fashioned out of paper by his mother, stored in cassettes using a tape recorder.
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