Mayank Shekhar: What's Hasan got that Minhaj didn't?

Jun 20, 2017, 06:57 IST | Mayank Shekhar

How the unpretentious, emotional Netflix stand-up special 'Homecoming King' is the inflection point for Indian-Americans

Hasan Minhaj in his Netflix special, Homecoming King
Hasan Minhaj in his Netflix special, Homecoming King

There's a beautiful Jeffrey Archer short story about the top chef of Paris, who finally opens his own restaurant. A reporter goes to cover its high-profile launch. It's a major social event, with the city's who's who in attendance. Surveying the room, the reporter spots this quiet, simple yet proud old couple sitting in a corner, looking very different from the rest of the party.

He goes up to them for a chat, and realises they are the chef's parents, who'd come down for the big day from the village nearby. While interviewing the celebrity chef later, the reporter asks how come his father is so different from him. The chef replies, "Because my father didn't have a father like me!"

Nothing to me has signified the migrant experience better than that one line. In a modern world, who's not a migrant anyway? Everyone at some point has been. The only ones who can call themselves natives of Mumbai, for instance, are Kolis. Met them?

At what point do migrants of a city, or country, begin to feel they've been localised enough to seamlessly belong, without having to ceaselessly swim in the schizophrenia of being a certain way at home, and quite another outside? That they don't need to feel inferior or embarrassed about their food, relatives, or parents, because they seem so different from the others? When do they stop looking for acceptance? I'm sure there are several indicators for this moment - perhaps second-generation has it easier; maybe income and upward mobility of communities matter.

But I think the most naturalising aspect for a migrant is when their patois, concerns, customs and jokes find expression in mainstream creativity, beyond the casual stereotype. Self deprecation is indisputably the highest form of humour. It exudes a level of unpretentious confidence in oneself or identity that makes being comical about it so cool, that you can softly kill all prejudice with it, let alone low-blows and bigotry.

For Indians in America - an anomalous lot, who've always felt not non-white enough to be black, nor non-black enough to be white, in a country that can't tell a Sikh from an Arab - stand-up comedian Hasan Minhaj's phenomenal Netflix special Homecoming King, hot on the heels of his ballsy White House correspondents' dinner gig, is just that inflection point that splendidly encourages the desi to finally feel like being himself, on his own terms, because it's really not so bad.

Here I'm not referring to an Indian-American Hasan making it to the top shelf of American pop-culture. There are far too many. The book I'm currently reading is the bestseller Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari, whose second season of Master Of None I started last night. Mindy Kaling's killing it too. Never mind that some of us aren't millennial enough to be fans of Lily Singh (Superwoman), but she's the world's third highest paid YouTuber (making $7.5 mn a year), and so what if many skipped Priyanka Chopra in Baywatch, there's Kumail Nanjiani coming in as the hero of Judd Apatow's romcom The Big Sick next month.

This is already a far fry from merely few years ago, when the only desi entertainers the Americans probably knew was Kumar (Kal Penn) from Harold And Kumar, or Apu from The Simpsons, voiced by a white American, who in turn was admittedly inspired by Peter Sellers' fake accent playing a desi in The Party (1968).

Some of this integration is organic, given it's been a some decades since Indians, engineers and doctors in particular, began moving to the US in big numbers, thanks to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, and so their well-to-do kids would eventually take up professions separate from the parents'.

But what warms you instantly about Hasan's act (and I've seen it twice already) is the ease with which he embraces his bi-cultural identity, channeling his parental roots in Aligarh, to tell a story so stirringly emotional that it's almost comical that you find yourself choking in parts in what's supposed to be a stand-up act.

He represents, as he says, the "new brown America", with the "audacity of equality" that is talking to the world, which is different from the old ABCD flicks, with a boy called Krish (short for Krishna) ranting to other desis about generational gap with migrant parents, weddings, sangeets, Bollywood music, before a hot Indian girl shows him the way.

Hasan isn't the same as Russel Peters either. He's far more profound, almost literary. The perspective he brings about how you could smile at someone, and still be bigoted, is true for all polite societies. His commentary on culture, simultaneously putting himself down, and pulling others up, bears universal resonance. Most comedies come from a sense of hurt. They redeem themselves with laughs. Because if you can laugh about it, you've dealt with it in some form already.

For once, on an international scale, an Indian-origin gent is not merely laughing at the slap-happy desi baap bobbing his head, going, "Somebaady's gotta be hurtting."

This is Hasan exposing the prime malady that afflicts Indian families across the world, "Log kya kehenge!" It's in Hindi. It's a meme. And it's so frickin' us.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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