Aravind Subramaniam, known by his stage name Aravind SA, is an Indian stand-up comedian. He initially worked as an assistant director in the film Arrambam (2013). He was voted one of the most desirable men in Chennai by the Times of India in 2018. His most recent stand-up comedy tour, I Was Not Ready Da, was released on Amazon Prime last year. The Playknox spoke with him to know the challenges associated with being a stand-up comedian, mental health impact, freedom of speech among other things. Excerpts:
Tell us a little about your journey so far.
I come from a very conservative background in terms of my family and what they all ended up doing. Most of them engineers and accountants. I believe I’ve always had a streak in me that wanted to question things and rebel a bit. I was a bit of a spoiled kid at home. So you rebel a lot because they try to discipline you more. So that’s what I always look back and wonder, as to where did I get this drive to do something that was not really done before? Because I had no idea, and it was an accident in terms of taking up stand-up comedy. But I can understand in terms of the essence of wanting to do stand comedy, just comes from the idea of, “Hey, I don’t want to conform to what is being done by most” rather, I want to question more and then I want to find answers to my questions and if I don’t get it from the people around me, I’d go seek it out on my own. So right from not doing Engineering in college towards taking up Media as my specialization. I did Mass Communication and then I did Film Direction. And then I worked as an Assistant Director and then I went on to become a Stand-up Comedian. So it’s just been a journey that I ended up accidentally stumbling on, one step after the other. But, the core essence of it has been to explore on my own and seek answers.
Do you think more people are taking interest towards stand-up comedy?
Yeah, I mean, that’s a definite reason why it’s becoming a growing industry in our country today because of the quick access in terms of social media. Internet today has made most of us 24/7 stressed. You’re just one click away from reading or seeing something that pisses you off. So immediately, you want an antidote. You really quickly want to grab a pillow and want kind of an equivalent to what a stand-up comedian does to you. So it’s the combination of the Internet becoming a negative place and stand-up comedians having the ability to reach a wide audience with just one click of a button, is why I think it’s a great time to be a comedian, right now.
What is your opinion, that there is something that isn’t even said and there are issues raised at it. So as a comedian, do you think are you mindful of all these things and you think in your head what you need to say or do you just go say what you have to?
I think the whole concept of Freedom of Speech itself comes with an asterisk to it that every citizen is aware of. The asterisk that says “Conditions applied” is something that pretty much every Indian is aware of. Based on his social class, caste and his status the asterisks apply in different ways . So if you are a privileged person from an upper class and upper caste and all of that, then you can get away with saying a lot of stuff.
The lower you go, the asterisk gets bigger and bigger. So this whole concept of complete Freedom of Speech is just something that I think looks fancy on paper and in the speeches.
But it’s definitely not there, we all know that. We all know somebody who can get us out of bad trouble. That’s how the fundamental thing actually works in our country. So as a comedian, I am no different. Every line is scrutinized, every line I am mindful of. I second guess it, and run it through friends. I ask lawyer friends of mine.I have had so many lawyer friends in the last five years. I never knew I had so many lawyer friends before. I never had the necessity to befriend them. But suddenly they are all becoming my best friends because it’s the need of the hour.
So yeah, I think it’s a trade off. I want to do this. But at the same time, I’m doing it in a country that isn’t necessarily built for this, that is very dynamic, that doesn’t have a certain cohesive way of, say, we don’t buy into a cohesive set of values that allow everyone to live and let live. There’s just a mix of different value systems continuously going at each other. It’s going to be this way for years to come. So, yeah, therefore, I think as a comedian, you just have to take the trade off.
I mean, it’s sad and I do give my support and I let myself vote and I would try to, as much as possible in my own ways, help the voices of comedians who I feel are being unnecessarily thwarted. But at the end of the day, there’s only so much we all do. And we all have to fight within the system and we have to keep hoping that the system as such becomes big enough and influences people in a wider way.
Do you think there’s some sort of responsibility you have as well towards your fans and followers?
I think the responsibility I have as a comedian is the same as that I have as an individual. I think we all have a responsibility. I don’t view myself in a different way. So if I as an individual am posting something that I would like to believe should research, I should read up, I should like to ask differing views on it instead of conforming to what my current bias seems to be going towards. So I think that’s a practice that all of us should do. I think if we start obligating it based on what position you hold in the perception structure- like if you’re a stand-up comedian, you’re here, you’re a cinema star, you’re here, if you’re a politician you’re here.
That’s more of a perception structure. So the easiest way to simplify it, to say your individual tax paying citizen, you have a responsibility as a citizen of this country to know certain things, to be able to understand how these things work, the way they work, and to be able to express yourself, understanding the consequences. So I think it’s a generally good habit to do nevertheless of who you are. So I definitely practice that. And I have made the odd mistake of sometimes being impulsive, sometimes just sharing something, because in that moment I just had an overload of a certain argument and I saw a counterpoint that felt funny or reactionary,so I was like, yeah, let me share this.
And then I realized we hope that’s not going to add me any value to the discussion. So maybe I should unlearn those quick impulses. But that’s a learning process. When we all make mistakes, all of our social media feeds, we go back in and we all had enough things to embarrass us so it’s normal.
What kind of content do you think works the best?
If you can talk politics and social politics or religious politics, anything around that will always work, given it’s the most sensitive. But then the potential of it becoming against you is also a lot more. But where there is high volatility, there’s also a high reward. But if you ask for what kind of content sells the best outside of that, I would say – anything on families given Indian family structure is such a unique one that not many countries can practice doing that, so I have noticed that anything about how the quirks of an Indian family, which I think a comedian can bring out very well when compared to a movie very well movie these days, because these days I don’t find many family drama movies.
We’re moving away from the whole 80’s family drama scene, so there is that void which can be filled by comedians by quickly talking about all the weird characters in a family. Even if it’s a small family, just you, your mom, your sibling and dad. There is so much to go through from being a kid, to being an adult and getting married to being a son who is taking care of his parents. There is so much drama there, so they become the kids and you become the parent. So just covering those incidents in your life as a comedian yourself gives so much relatability for the country because family is a big common feature across all of India.
We have discussed before your interest in sports. You have a huge inclination towards Sports and have a great support towards the EPL so tell me when are you moving towards more sports related content? Have you spoken to people to get more sports content to your gigs?
The last show I did, which is on Amazon Prime now was a 10 minutes story on Leeds United So, it is something I have explored already. There are some bits on CSK as well. Sports is a very big part of my life, so while it is not something that I consciously do, when there was a story with Leeds United, Which was a great incident, so I wrote a 10 minute act, performed on it and put it up online. So it’s not something I am actively looking to incorporate but it is anyway an integral part of who I am. I write something of it when something keeps coming out. And, now that the team I support is back in the English premier League, it is more likely that you will see me talking of more football. Now that I am also in the big league I will be speaking to know friends and more jokes are likely to come out of it.
With the kind of followers that you have, and like you said that you’re sometimes talk about sensitive issues so mental health is something very crucial and there are sometimes people who are thick skinned who don’t care but there are also people who are sensitive, and might give up on the social pressure of trolls and what not online. So tell me how mental health is affected for a social celebrity who often gets the backlash if there is one thing that he speaks against a certain community or a certain situation. How do you make sure that negative things do not affect you?
I don’t think you can make sure because it is what it is. If you are a sensitive person you are a sensitive person. Like I am a very sensitive person and people keep telling me to develop a thick skin, but that has never worked for me because you can’t change who you are and you can only accept yourself for the way you are. And hope that the next time it happens to you, you can recover sooner than before. Because it’s also my sensitivity that gives me my art. If I was not a sensitive person then I would not react or think the way I do. So I think sensitivity works both ways. You can’t be a thick skinned, polar bear kind of person and then create amazing art that affects people. How will it affect people if you’re not affected by it. So yes, definitely mental health is an important factor and thankfully for me, I have had an active relationship with seeking help for my mental-health, way before I became a comedian. I have had a doctor to speak to, way before I became a comedian. Little did I know back then, that I was going to take up a job that would pay this doctor a lot more. I just realized that like I need a gym for the body, I need a gym for the mind. That’s all, it’s pretty much, me putting both through the same kind of stress so you might as well attend to the needs of both and that’s helped me.
To answer your question, any kind of professional help that works for you and that you can establish and build a healthy relationship with definitely helps you handle the swings of a job that has a lot of public criticism or an exposure to all kinds of views, more than the average profession would. Like any average friend of mine in an average corporate job would not be criticized to this detail, which is why the reward is also just as much if we do well and the risk is also just as much regarding every other thing in our life getting affected. That is the nature of this job, and I would only like to say that there are professional ways of handling this, and you don’t have an invisibility cloak you can wear and suddenly disappear. You are the way you are and you react the way you do, and it annoys me when someone says “Just wear a thick skin” because “No, I can’t”. If I cannot feel the way I do, then I cannot be the artist I am.