By: SARWAR ALAM
ASIAN comedian Eshaan Akbar said he was keen to showcase the different facets of his personality and comedy skills as he embarked on his first nationwide tour this month.
Having previously supported Mickey Flanagan on tour and following appearances on TV shows including Frankie Boyle’s New World Order, Mock the Week, QI, and The Stand Up Sketch Show, Akbar is branching out on his own with The Pretender tour.
He told Eastern Eye he felt the pressure of going out on his own as he explained what his new show was about.
“The Pretender looks at how we are all pretending. Who I am – Eshaan as a son, a brother, a friend, a comedian – they’re all different people.
“I’ve got friends who say to me, ‘I love you, but if I knew you just from social media, I would hate you with all my guts’.
“That’s the point of the show. We’re all different. Each one of us is not the same person all of the time and we can’t judge people. There are so many things we as a society get angry with each other about on these huge debates about big issues. If someone doesn’t agree with your opinion, you automatically think they are a bad person.
“The show is just about how we’re all just trying to survive and live a good life, and hope that when our time comes, people have a smile on their face when they remember us.”
However, comedy was not Akbar’s preferred career option. After graduating with a degree in economics from Queen Mary University, he had various roles in six years in banking. He worked as a trader, managed the accounts of celebrities, and was also a speech writer for the CEO of HSBC bank as well as being a government advisor.
The 38-year-old continued to dabble in the arts, while doing comedy shows and performing in plays with Spread Eagle Theatre, the country’s oldest amateur dramatics society that was established in 1889.
He told Eastern Eye comedy was something he enjoyed doing in the evenings to get away from the “hustle and bustle of the City”, but he did not consider it a career option. However, one weekend in 2015 proved to be a turning point in Akbar’s life.
“My mum fell ill with a kidney infection, and then she suffered a heart attack while in hospital. She passed away very suddenly, in the space of a week. One Sunday we were having lunch and the next Sunday it was her funeral,” Akbar said.
“It highlighted how quickly things can change in life. The suddenness of her passing made me think, ‘if you’re not happy with something, you have got to change it.’”
He realised he didn’t want to sit behind a desk for the rest of his life.
“My mum was always keen for me to perform – dance, sing and play instruments. It was something all my family members did, but never as a career. It was on the side of their active professions,” Akbar admitted.
“Whatever ‘normal’ job I had, I had something on the side just to keep me entertained. Things like Bollywood dancing and amateur dramatics. Comedy was another one of those things, but I had no real ambition to become a comedian.”
Soon after his mother’s death, however, Akbar decided to put all his energy into comedy, but even he was shocked at how quickly his career took off.
“Two weeks after I signed with my agent, I was opening for Mickey Flanagan (they had the same agent) – one of the biggest comics in the country. It was at that point I thought, ‘maybe I’ll just take this more seriously’.”
Akbar added: “Growing up, I hadn’t watched stand-up. You will know this, as a fellow Asian person, that comedies and the arts are not something our parents necessarily pushed us towards.”
He also cited the success of fellow Asian comedians such as Paul Choudhury and Romesh Ranganathan as giving him the confidence to follow in their footsteps.
“People like Paul Choudhury paved the way. They came up at a time where there weren’t very many Asian comedians.”
He joked, “If I’m honest, I think there are too many now. I think Guz (Khan), Tez (Ilyas), they should stop. Let me just get on, do my thing.
“But in all seriousness, no, it’s great that there are more Asian comedians and seeing more of us do it hopefully inspires younger people.”
Akbar also paid tribute to Ranganathan, who stars in shows including Avoidance, Romantic Getaway, and A League Of Their Own.
“Romesh has been really kind with his advice to me over the years. He’s at the top of his game, he’s pretty much on every bloody TV show you can think of. For an Asian guy to be able to do that, I think it’s an amazing thing, and long may it continue.”
He added, “The creative arts are our way of expressing our truth and our experiences. And the more of us there are doing it, the greater diversity of voice we will have. Being seen and being heard, I think makes a huge difference for society at large.”
Akbar also credited his parents for his foray into comedy.
“I was lucky that my mum and dad are both funny people. My mum, especially, God rest her soul, was an incredibly funny,” he recalled.
“Whenever we would have people come round, my mum and dad would often hold court. My mum would tell stories and jokes about things she had heard and seen. My dad always had a microphone in his hand whenever we went to big daawats (parties), making announcements and making gags.
“They influenced me without them really realising they were doing it. I always loved it when I was in the middle of my aunties and uncles and I was able to make them laugh the way my mum did.”
Akbar said he draws from his background for his sketches.
“I love being Asian. And because I am part Pakistani and part Bangladeshi, there’s all these experiences I can talk about with Asian audiences. All the hilarious things we do as Asians; for example, we have all the jalebis and rasmalais and then when we get diabetes, we’re like, ‘how did this happen?’
“But I also try and highlight how we’re no different from anyone else. A lot of the white people I perform to, it’s the same thing – a lot of them also don’t think that soup is lunch.
“I like being able to highlight how we’re more similar than we are different.”
Akbar kicked off his The Pretender tour at the 2Northdown in Kings Cross, London, last Thursday (19). His father was in the audience and there was an unoccupied seat next to him for his late mother.
“The biggest gigs I’ve ever done, there’s always been a spare seat next to my dad, even if it’s a sold-out show. We sort of give ourselves some solace that maybe, somehow, she’s watching and shaking her head, saying, ‘I can’t believe this is what my son’s doing now’.”
The Pretender tour runs until April 30.