Someone who recently wrote a book on Aadhaar stayed up till midnight to watch the First Day First Show of a stand-up show that dropped on Amazon Prime on August 23. Another tweeted that he wanted to drop his wife and kids off at work and school, take a day off and watch a show that’s been making waves wherever it has been staged. Those who’ve already watched the show live are waiting to see what’s new in this version; the ones who missed out want to see why the rest raved about it.
This is the kind of reception Alex In Wonderland received when it made its debut on the OTT space after touring the world. A few hours before launch, Alexander Babu (@ILikeSlander), whose Twitter bio reads: comedian, actor, singer, yoga teacher and an ex(hausted) software engineer, belies no stress.
So, is the OTT version, made possible by Evam Standup Tamasha, Banner Films and Anba Arts, different from what he performed live? “No, about 95 per cent of it is the same. This one has a 10-minute introductory film with about three-four songs. The remaining 5 per cent they will miss is the unscripted magic that is unique to a live show. I hope that those who watched it will compare notes and see what’s different. This show is about nostalgia, and celebrating music from the 1940s to AR Rahman’s Khwaja Ji,” says Alex.
The show, like Alex’s life, has its roots in Andavoorani, a village in Ramanathapuram district. This is where Alex lived, prayed, studied and sang till Class 12. “My father played the harmonium in the church and we all sang together there. I don’t think rebelling was an option. I grew up watching therukoothu (street theatre), stage plays and Valli thirumanam (the celestial wedding of Muruga and Valli), besides attending church service and listening to the radio,” recalls Alex.
When Alex decided to perform the show for the OTT platform, director Srinivasan Venkatesh, Alex’s friend, said the camera would stay focussed on Alex and the stage for the entire duration of 2 hours and 15 minutes. “He felt it would work because this is about telling someone a story in their living room. I don’t believe in the concept of low attention spans and don’t cater to that either,” explains Alex. The show features music by Madley Blues.
When Amazon Prime gave them the funding, instead of working backwards with the budget, the team decided to detail what a world-class production would look like, and then arrange to make it possible. “Alex In Wonderland is about simplicity and being rooted, but I envisioned a certain quality,” says Alex.
Many associate Alex with music, and rightfully so, for it’s been a while since anyone was an ace at speaking, singing and getting people to laugh. In his opinion, though, what is his strength? “Each one of us is unique and interested in something exciting. We tend to build our strengths around that. The world is big enough to sustain all talent,” he says, not quite answering the question, yet answering it. He then speaks of a person he knows who washes cars so well, that everyone wants him to wash their cars. “People can read people. Within a few minutes of seeing you, they know if you’re genuine. And, in my field, if you hide, you only show more. I found my ‘Wonderland’ in this show, seeing how I enjoyed myself doing it. It is rehearsed, but getting people to listen to me, feeling what I feel… is special. Any show, in my opinion, has to be rooted in truth and where you are coming from.”
The confidence that Alex showcases, he says, comes from work that he’s put in. “Despite that, you can’t avoid fear; you can try and overcome it. Even now, when I take up corporate shows, where I am far away from the audience and there’s a dance floor in between, or when I step on stage in front of an audience that’s been in meetings all day, I fear that it’s a recipe for disaster. My show needs intimacy, and so I have to draw them in. That said, I’ve learnt it is okay to sometimes fail. Some shows don’t work, one moves on.”
All the plainspeak aside, Alex comes alive when speaking about music; he learnt from veteran singer and teacher, the late Suguna Purushothaman. “I’ve always wanted to sing and was a passionate music listener. My father used to sing TMS’ songs (the prolific TM Soundararajan whose film and devotional music resonated across Tamil Nadu for more than six decades). But, it was when I was in the US and learning from Raghavan Manian that he told me I should pursue it with seriousness. The grammar (sruti and taalam) has to be correct, yes, but when you finally learn the nuances and manage to lend a composition that rare thing called bhava (emotion), your heart knows. No one can teach you to sing with emotion; else, robots can sing beautifully. Imagine the magic at work. You feel a line, and your throat muscles move just a little to reduce the volume when you hit a syllable…”
Alex gives his audience a happy dose of musical laughter therapy. What do they do for him? “They are a part of my calling; the reason I do what I do. I’m 44 and have probably lived half my life. They make me make sense of my life. They help me be good and do good.”