The contentious comedian who has made a career out of bonding with average men over their singlehood status starts this set no differently. Khan enjoys a dedicated following; standing in front of the audience, he just has to start talking to evince his popularity. He says a word, the rest finish it. He utters a sentence, the rest echo it. His caricaturish impression of women, his catchphrases like “sakht launda” — a colloquial implication of acting indifferent opposite the other sex when, in fact, he wants to be needy — have accrued pop culture currency, endearing Khan as a social media ventriloquist, but more crucially it has canonised him as an accessible man.
The comic has done nothing if not harness this reputation. Look him up on YouTube and the evidence is for all to see. Even his otherwise sentimental performance poetry outlines him as the male lover afflicted with the memories of the woman who got away. You can agree with him or not, but fundamentally he has not done anything an artist wouldn’t do — which is, use the veil of artistry to absolve themselves. Even confessional art makes a hero out of the creator.
On the surface Tathastu appears to have stemmed from a similar desire of self vindication. Khan designs the set as a personal essay, tracing his birth in a joint family, growing up in Indore, living under the shadow of his auteur grandfather Maestro Ustad Moinuddin Khan, leaving home and eventually making a name for himself in Mumbai. His relatives, grandfather included, were prone to undermining him. Khan was the black sheep of the house, one no one had any expectations from. That he has carved a place for himself today serves as the perfect conclusion to an overwrought filial introduction.
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But the set is not about him even when it is about him. Tathastu is about his grandfather, the relationship they shared, the lessons he learnt from him. It is about a boy growing up to be the man he always wanted to be and then feeling humbled by a man he did not want to become. It is an apology as much as it is an introspection. It is a narrative with an arc of its own.
Throughout the set, Khan talks about his childhood but like an expert storyteller, plays with our perception. When little, he was not overtly fond of his grandfather. The world saw an artist and he saw an egotistical man. Like most adolescents, Khan was certain he knew better, he would grow up to be bigger. The comedian had left home to prove himself but he really had left to prove himself to that man. That he can, that he is not just someone’s grandson and someone’s disciple. And yet, by the time he arrives at the ending, the characters remain the same, the tonality shifts. Just when he had accumulated enough fame to avenge his adolescent humiliation, his grandfather passed away (2017). The punchline gets delayed and the story reveals itself. In a rare maudlin swerve, Khan admits his grandfather’s supremacy. The last act of the set becomes a reconciliation of sorts between two artists, with one acknowledging the greatness of the other. It also provides a snapshot of the return of the prodigal grandson.
On paper, this is an overused culmination. Hindi films have existed to reinforce the rightness of elders while dismissing the acumen of those who are young. Age is conventionally portrayed as a linear representation of wisdom. Think of Baghban (2003), or Goodbye (2022). Think also of the Amitabh Bachchan character marinating his children in guilt.
Yet, watching Tathastu, I choked up. Khan was not saying something different but he was saying things differently. For once it was the child saying, ‘I see it now’ without the adult cornering them to see. In a strange, unforeseen way the medium complements the message. Standing up on stage and speaking to an unsuspecting audience, he was essentially acknowledging that the absence of certain people physically does dent your heart, without admitting that he was wrong to not anticipate so in the first place. He is recognising the worth of filial relationships without regretting that he should have known about it all along. Tathastu, at its core, is about realisation and not confession.
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This change in slant reveals the adult and the child intently. Listening to him I could understand why he left home with the urgency that he did. Not because he was spurred by the intent to prove himself to the world. That came later. He left home because he did not want to be among his family members, his old grandfather. It is not resentment, neither is it amateur animosity. If anything, it is natural. When you are young, you don’t look at old age as a gradual progression of time, you perceive it as a nemesis, capable of shackling you forever. Khan had left home to redeem his youth. Similarly, the unreliability of his grandfather, who kept exaggerating his grandson’s escapades, is not difficult to empathise with. Neglected by the young, the old was seeking ways to claim attention. Ignored by the audience he most wanted to impress, the artist was trying other ways to garner recognition. That Khan dedicates his special to his grandfather only goes on to show the latter succeeded.
I found it baffling that Tathastu moved me as much as it did. But I could also see the reason: for once the grievances of age and misgivings of time were given centrestage. For once the grown -up and the grown were given their own truths without one competing against the other.
Storytelling is no joke. But sometimes you can tell a joke in the form of a story. Sometimes you can use comedy as an excuse to revisit a tragedy. It doesn't really matter. The best stories are about life and the best storytellers are those who reckon with the primal truth of living: you don’t have to like the people you love. The dichotomy is hilariously tragic and tragically hilarious.
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