Aziz Ansari is a changed man, or so he would like us to believe. “I hope I have become a better person,” he says — with marked sincerity — at the very outset of his new stand-up special Aziz Ansari: Right Now, (currently streaming on Netflix). Ansari is referring to the sexual harassment he had been accused of during the #MeToo storm in 2018. “It is important to me that you know how I feel about the whole thing before we share this night together,” Ansari adds, almost in a whisper. He has moved on, he says, but he is not done yet. In the course of the nearly one-hour running time of the show, the elephant in the room is not dismissed after being acknowledged, rather it occupies the front seat to his special as Ansari sometimes slyly, mostly self-awarely and almost always compellingly, uses his art to apologise, and ensures his apology too is artful, that its allure lies in how unresolved it is.
Ansari returns to such a platform after four years, but this return is different. He comes back as the prodigal son, a tainted artist whose actions did not fall in line with his words, and this ‘fall’ was for the world to see. There is an unmasked agenda to willingly stand before before the faceless names who might have had called him out: the need to win over his aggrieved fans, to gain a foothold he might have had lost. Ansari does not stop at saying he hopes he has become a better person. He goes forth and illustrates it. The signs are everywhere.
For one, he is not woke anymore. In fact, he decries the woke culture. “Newly woke white people are exhausting,” he says, and this exalts into a defining and telling moment because Ansari, not till long ago, was the poster boy of wokeness, a metaphorical love child of racial diversity and political correctness as he flashed that Time’s Up badge at the Golden Globes, 2018. It was intrinsically assumed that he knew better. Till he was called out. Till it was revealed he did not know better. The ambiguity and the shock that followed the sexual harassment accusation levelled against him stemmed precisely from this: It was not expected of him. Ansari should have known. His inability to understand that his actions were not consensual (“We went out to dinner, and afterwards we ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual”) disappointed more than enraged his woke compatriots. It seems oddly fitting then that in his first appearance after the fiasco, it is the woke culture Ansari chooses to deride, and in turn, seeks to disengage from. The culture he was part of for far too long, and the culture that failed him as much he failed the culture.
Like a newly expelled member of a group, who, with his new-found vantage point can see through the flaws of it, Ansari re-identifies the woke culture as a competitive sport rather than a communitarian activity. His favourite thing, he says, is to see how people outwoke each other on social media. “You thought your eyes were open, the other dude does not even have a forehead. His eyeballs just keep going just so that he can see all the injustice.” The audience laughs with him. You laugh too till it strikes you that this is Ansari’s way, albeit veiled, of not apologising but justifying his stance. This is his way of saying to his fellow, former woke friends that he did not know better because one never really does. Because there will always be someone who will out-woke you, like he got out-woked. The observation is his borrowed linguistic set through which he pursues the gathered audience to re-identify him as a victim of the woke culture and not a defaulter.
The irresolution of the verdict in his sexual harassment narrative shrouds his special: he unspools all his jokes, introspection, even his rather tacit fragility from there. He explores, and often exploits the blurred lines that defined his case for his special, making it all the more divisive and compelling, and he begins by harping on the importance of looking at things within a context. Take, for instance, the word ‘niggardly’, an etymologically innocent word, he assures, meaning stingy or cheap that has become a signifier of racial slur in the present times. He then entreats a white man sitting in the front row to say it. The man says no, but, for a very brief moment, contemplates. Ansari calls him out. “You cannot throw around the word like that, sir.” The audience laughs, so does Ansari, and so does the man. The comedian here is making a larger point: he is not the only one who has lost the woke race, and will not be the last. In his critique of himself, he is also critiquing the time that is ready with their “programmed reaction” to everything, one that has made a career out of influencing each other’s opinion, and one where opinions resemble each other either in their assonance or in the intensity of their dissonance.
His suspicion towards woke culture threatens to confirm your own doubts towards him as RIGHT NOW, in many ways, comes close to a platform a man called out for sexual misconduct unfairly gets owing to his privilege. But you are never really certain who he is calling out, himself or the rest, all the while negotiating with his tarnished reputation. His fingers waver from pointing at himself to the audience: there is ambivalence, and herein lies the appeal of the show.
His special then, as the name suggests, is an update of how Ansari is right now, and, contrary to what he feels, he is disillusioned. There might have been an apology but the comedian seems unconvinced not only about himself but about the way things transpired. He cites the names of R Kelly and Michael Jackson (both tainted artists) and asks the audience if they are done with them. The clamour gets significantly muted by the time the second name is uttered. Ansari not only foregrounds the art versus artists debate here, but also seems to ask, in the post #MeToo world, who deserves impunity, and who does not. Where do we draw the line in a time like this, what is the most righteous way, if there is one, to re-establish ties with art whose artists’ disappointed us, and if aspersions cast on the creators spill over their creations as well. He reserves his judgement, and they seem more out of his inability of having an answer himself rather than a designed decision to not say anything politically unfavourable.
It is this befuddlement, this uncertainty, and being posited in such a transit that makes Aziz Ansari such a seemingly unlikely but a perfect Spike Jonze hero. Dressed down to a tee and a pair of jeans, he evades looking at the camera before taking the stage. In a rather affecting moment, he presses his ears to the door before his performance, to not only hear but to confirm- the name is his, the claps are for him. Jonze, who directs the special, lends crafted vulnerability to his ‘protagonist’, and as the camera focusses on him in discomfiting close-ups, it accentuates the frailty of the artist who has more questions than answers, one who might have said he is sorry but he perhaps did it because it was convenient. The special provides a glimpse of Ansari still trying to come to terms with what happened, and his apology is not incontrovertible, but rather in progress.