The Small Town South Indian Boys Of New York
Through their guerrilla-esque caustically funny act, the Kondabolu brothers are adding layers of complexity to the image of the South Asian in the American consciousness
Hari, 29, and Ashok, 26, are New Yorkers; their parents moved to New York from Tenali, a village in Andhra Pradesh, in the late Seventies. Their parents, explain the brothers, still don’t quite get what they do for a living.
“They are just happy that I don’t ask for money and I’m not a bum anymore,” says Ashok. Their mother believes that her “kids are doing incredibly unorthodox things and she has to adjust to the reality that she’ll never really understand exactly what they are doing or proffer any sort of advice to them.” His father tries to understand “in the ways that he can understand.” They understand that Ashok “sings and dances” but “don’t understand the lyrics or rap music or the context that it’s made in or the politics.”
Hari’s appearance evinces a caricaturist definition – a slightly tousled mop of wavy hair weighs on one side of his face, which is accentuated by heavy sideburns and a thick moustache and a sizeable woollen plaid scarf cloaks his neck. He looks like an Indian Groucho Marx; Wilbur Sargunaraj sans the oil-flattened tresses; an old-school math teacher in rural India.
Today, Hari is a familiar face on the New York comedy club circuit. Having pursued a bachelors in Comparative Politics from Bowdoin College, Hari only started to treat comedy seriously after he got picked up for the 2007 edition of the HBO Comedy Arts Festival, which led to his featuring on Jimmy Kimmel Live. He was noticed doing a casual set while working as an immigrant rights organiser in Seattle. But Hari’s commitment to academia and issues that he was passionate about stuck; he went on to pursue a masters in human rights from the London School of Economics in 2008. With time, as his credibility as a comedian gained girth, he started to pay more attention to what was previously an avocation. He has also been featured on Live at Gotham, a stand up comedy show on Comedy Central, and the first season of John Oliver’s New York Stand Up Show, a stand up showcase hosted by John Oliver, who is also a correspondent on The Daily Show. Hari’s half-hour television special debuted on Comedy Central Presents in February 2011.
When Hari returned from studying at LSE, he and Ashok spent an aimless summer together, spending time “like 10-year- olds,” watching television and talking over late nights slurring into day. The Untitled Kondabolu Brothers Project (2009) was perhaps what came of this time the brothers spent together. The two started by performing at the Peoples Improv theatre in New York. They would riff on just about anything from popular and unpopular culture, anything that would pique their interest or was worth talking about. The brothers poke fun with their dialogue but the idea is also to sensitise, inform and critique. They started renting out a low-budget theatre in Hell’s Kitchen, the gritty Manhattan area which turned into an actors’ hub over the years, and would perform monthly. Today, as both brothers have their plates full and since Ashok got busy with Das Racist, the show is not as much of a regular affair.
In December last year, Hari performed in India for the very first time as part of the Make Chai Not War tour that also featured Indian-American comedians Rajiv Satyal and Azhar Usman. He says “Patna broke his heart” during the India tour; he felt ignored by the audience and the press. When he did finally confront a reporter about her focusing more on Satyal and Usman, whilst barely acknowledging Hari’s presence, she gave him a callous albeit honest answer. Satyal and Usman “looked and sounded like Americans,” when she looked at Hari she just saw an Indian and “why would she want to talk to an Indian?” “I don’t know what they read as American. The interview was frustrating, but the honesty was appreciated,” he adds.
Currently, he is also writing and filming his segments for an upcoming BBC 3 comedy series Live at the Electric. The SNL- styled variety show hosted by Russell Kane will feature a bunch of young, talented comedians. Hari will feature as part of a two- minute segment every week, wherein he will analyse British culture as an American. “The complexity is – one, I am an American; two, I am not seen as an American all the time; three, the Indian relationship with the British is there and four, Indians in the UK are very different from the Indians in America; and I am going as an American, which is for me, mind-blowing,” he says.
Neo-colonialism, race issues and the immigrant experience lie at the heart of Hari’s material. When Hari sees an African-American woman pushing a stroller with a white baby in it, it is not a nanny he sees but an affluent African-American who bought herself a white baby as a luxury item. Hari’s sardonic wit and oblique perceptions underscore his humour, which contemporises the cultural conversation on race and takes subtle jabs at notions of white guilt. He imbibes the ethics of Ansari’s stand up by not falling into facile stereotypes, and the values of stand-up comics Lenny Bruce and George Carlin as his material tends toward some form of socio-political commentary. Hari describes himself as a “political being,” and has been actively involved in activism, immigrant issues and refugee aid work.