BWW Interviews: Aatif Nawaz on his one-man show, TALK ROTI TO ME
Aatif Nawaz has toured The Netherlands, Ghana and Pakistan whilst performing alongside the likes of Shazia Mirza, Omid Djalili and several other comedy veterans and in 2012, he won an Honourable Mention Laural at the Los Angeles Movie Awards for his documentary Postcards from Lahore. He debuts his one man show, Talk Roti To Me, at the Leicester Square Theatre on 28 January. He spoke to BWW's Gary Naylor.
Tell me about "Talk Roti To Me"?
Talk Roti To Me is what I like to think of as the culmination of 7 years of the most varied comedy performances one can imagine. I've performed everywhere, from at the tiniest dingiest clubs to the fanciest, most elaborate venue one can imagine, all the while preparing myself and my material for the ultimate test - my very first solo 60-minute show. The title itself is a reflection on the expectations on a Pakistani comic - with 'roti' symbolising all things generalised about the British-Pakistani experience. I was once performing at a club in Northampton, where I launched into serious socio-political material. An inebriated heckler in the front row shouted 'never mind all that, talk that roti s**t to me'. And so, the title of my show was born.
You have, like so many people these days, at least two cultures you can claim as yours - how does this help your comedy?
I think there's entertainment, or at least entertaining observations to be made about everything. When you look at things from a dual-cultural perspective, you instantly form two very different views. It can fun to contrast the two - which is a very straightforward way to construct a joke. It's also fun to explain the perspective of one group to the other. There's a sequence in my routine where I translate popular Hindi (Bollywood) lyrics to English audiences - all the while basking in the absurdity of it all. Language is a beautiful thing.
You work in three languages (English, Punjabi and Urdu) - are the mechanics of stand-up the same in each language?
Doing a performance entirely in Urdu/Punjabi isn't that different from a performance entirely in English. Sometimes, South Asian audiences are a little more conservative, though I do think this is changing with time. Crowds can also be different in ways they want to be entertained and how they want to interact with the comic. But the concept of comedy is something that's not always understood by, let's say, Pakistani crowds. What I'd rather do is use my secondary languages to highlight absurdities in the way we behave culturally and socially. After all, it's a truer representation of who I am and what I represent.
Do different audiences around Britain, indeed, around the world, react differently to your act?
By and large, people around the world respond similarly to my material. There are jokes I tell about dating and single life that elicited identical responses from both a crowd in New York and a crowd in Lahore. Having said that, different crowds do need different levels of energy. In my experience, American crowds are there just to observe, in the way they do a play. Flip that with a West London crowd who are desperate to get involved with the performer. You can tell a lot about how to shape your performance from the response you get to requests for audience participation.
Aside from the stadium gigs, stand-up shows are still largely the preserve of pubs and other venues where drink is a big part of the night out. Do you think that inhibits young comedians from backgrounds that do not have "pub life" as part of their culture?
The stereotypical 'open-mic' night in a pub is more a barrier for audiences than performers. It's hard as a young Muslim comic to get your friends out to watch you perform is they're uncomfortable with the environment. I was fortunate in this regard as I had, and still have, a very supportive network of friends and family. I would also say that the emergence of 'Muslim-comedy nights' have made things a lot easier for people from stricter faiths to enjoy stand-up. But even there, it's very rare to see new comics come through. People like Salman Malik, Tez Illyas, Mani Liaqat...they've all been around for a long long time - for the new comic, it's tough to get noticed. But even then, we all live in the bubble of 'British-Pakistani comic'. I'm hoping Talk Roti To Me will help me break through that.
It would be nice to think that humour is universal, but one look at French or German TV shows that you don't have to go far before people laugh at very different things. You work a lot online - what impact will the globalisation of media have on comedy?
The advent of social media is helping people find others who share their taste. I think it's unfair to establish German comedy and French comedy as being entirely different. There may well be French audiences who enjoy what we consider a German sense of humour. It's like anything else, there are pockets of people in every country that have a similar sense of humour. The internet helps them all find each other and locate the style of comedy they enjoy. Mind you, as a comic who caters to different audiences, it's always tough to work out which videos will get the best response. My Bollywood parody music videos on YouTube get a better response from British people than South Asians. Maybe it's exotic to one and passé to the other, but either way, I find the audience I'm looking for.
What's next for Aatif Nawaz?
I'm really hoping people will enjoy Talk Roti To Me. I'm spending a lot of time developing concepts and jokes that I hope will satisfy those who enjoy my humour. If it's a successful show and people enjoy it, I'd love to perform more dates at a theatre in London before the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe festivals kick around again. Maybe I get signed to a big agent, start doing the panel shows, get my own sitcom and become a huge star. Maybe I get a pat on the back from my friends who'll compliment the lighting of the Leicester Square Theatre. Either way, I'm just hoping people enjoy the show as much as Ill enjoy performing it.