From a five-minute monologue to a headline season at Q, Boom Shankar has had a dream trajectory. Sam Brooks talks to the duo behind the show on its journey to the big time.
Shankar Shinde, the protagonist of Boom Shankar, is a fresh graduate of BDSM (Bomb Defusal School of Manukau, fictional). “His expertise and nerves are tested when he’s confronted with his first real-world challenge – will he rise to the occasion?” reads the synopsis.
The show, which is currently running at Q Theatre, might not be new to you. You might have been lucky enough to catch it at Basement Theatre in either of its runs in 2021, or as a little five-minute monologue in an anthology show at the same venue back in 2019. But for the vast majority of its audience, the first time they encounter the hapless Shankar Shinde will be at Q.
Written by actor-creators Aman Bajaj and Bala Murali Shingade, the show returns for a triumphant third season at the venue, with arts laureate Ahi Karunaharan (who has directed mainstage shows for Auckland Theatre Company, Silo Theatre and Auckland Arts Festival) at the helm. While the show itself is a joyous, rollicking time, an even more interesting story is how it went from a thought in the shower to its biggest stage yet.
The first seeds of Boom Shankar were actually planted when Shingade and Bajaj were cast in the Prayas Theatre show, Dara, way back in 2018, and realised that they got along and shared a similar sense of humour. They worked together again on A Fine Balance, a co-production between Prayas Theatre and Auckland Theatre Company, directed by Karunaharan, but it wasn’t until First World Problems 2.0, the aforementioned anthology show, that they considered actually making something together.
Karunaharan takes credit for this, like a proud aunty setting up cousins on a playdate. They went out for coffee, threw around some ideas, and Bajaj mentioned an idea that had come to him in the shower – the source of many great ideas.
“I wanted to overturn the trope of a bearded brown man who’s a terrorist putting bombs around or whatever,” Bajaj says. “We turned that on its head, and made it about a bearded brown man who defuses bombs.”
“Albeit, he’s not that great at it.”
That idea was turned into a five-minute monologue, which they wrote together. At that stage, Shingade played the officer while Bajaj took on directing duties. Reviews from that season highlight Boom Shankar specifically out of the 16 works in the anthology, and with the aid of producer Gayatri Adi (who produces the show to this day), they sent in an application to the New Zealand International Comedy Festival (NZICF) in 2021.
“We got in, so we were forced to make it an actual full length show,” Shingade jokes.
That initial season in the NZICF was a phenomenon, and it happened to come at exactly the right time. The festival had been actively working with Karunaharan on how to open up to more South Asian artists in the comedy space, so it was a no-brainer to programme Boom Shankar.
The growth of the show was dictated by a few things. They knew they wanted it to be a two-hander, with Bajaj joining Shingade onstage, although this choice was also dictated by budget constraints (read: there was no budget). They also knew that they wanted to continue on from the “explosive” ending of the first five minutes. Otherwise, they had a blank canvas to work with.
And so Boom Shankar turned from a five-minute monologue with one actor into a two-hander, where each actor plays multiple characters in a strange, surreal adventure that follows Shankar through “life, love and the importance of selecting the right type of yoghurt.”
They were lucky enough to have Karunaharan come and watch a run of the show, long before he was formally involved. “It was like turning up to your family home and seeing your baby cousins have pulled all the sheets together to put on a show in the lounge,” he says. “The show has a ‘Mum, I made a show’ vibe, and it works because there’s something incredibly endearing about Aman and Bala as performers.”
Lauren Whitney, the NZICF’s general manager, saw an excerpt of the show at the Basement Theatre preview showcase. “This show brought something completely different to Comedy Fest,” she remembers. “I remember the impact – seeing a bomb defusal onstage – the intrigue, tension build-up, the comedy release. I knew it was going to be a hit.”
The show packed out, and it brought out audiences who wouldn’t normally come to Basement Theatre, especially during the festival. Outside the venue, always filled to the brim during those three weeks, there was a different kind of buzz.
Nisha Madhan, formerly the Basement Theatre programmer, recalls how happy the show made her. “Not only because of its utterly joyous content, but for the way it subverted the hue of comedy festival audiences,” she says. “It took over a historically white space effortlessly. I also felt it was a show that would have my mother in stitches… which meant that there were probably so many other diaspora, immigrant mothers that simply deserved to revel in the laughter and joy that Bala and Aman bring.”
The show made a comeback almost immediately, this time in the Basement Studio, and packed out that season as well. That in itself is a rarity, Karunaharan points out. “We’re lucky if we ever get to do another season of a specific work,” he says. “I’ve never had the chance to go back to a work. Because this show only has two performers, the feasibility of a second season is a lot higher.”
“I think it’s such a beautiful thing.”
Twice is rare. Three times? Almost unheard of. Enter Q Theatre.
Now in its 10th year, Matchbox is, to put it simply, Q Theatre’s development programme – a creative onramp from smaller venues like Basement Theatre, literally across the carpark, to the larger Q. Boom Shankar is the third show in this year’s Matchbox season, after contemporary dance work Rituals of Similarity and queer “daddy issues” play Losing Face. While both of those shows were in their debut season, Shankar has had the benefit of having had three sets of audiences before this season, as well as development between those seasons and this one, to really hone what it is.
For the past year, Karunaharan has watched Shingade and Bajaj rewrite and test characters, jokes and moments, and throw them out if need be. “Time and resources allow for artists to dream, experiment and fail, because often we don’t have that time,” he says. “We just have to go with the first draft, the first offer.”
Despite that dreaming and experimenting, it’s important for him that the show not lose the “look, mum!” quality it had way back when it was a five-minute monologue. “It’s a zany, wacky show but beneath that is a real wholesome heart,” he says. “That’s what we’ve really been hunting for in rehearsals.”
Matchbox also provides the show a real, tangible levelling up – it’s a professional platform at one of the biggest theatres in Auckland. “It brings higher expectations to make better work, and therefore higher expectations from the audience,” Shingade says.
“There’s pressure there, but also prestige.”
It’s not just about the show, though. It’s about the audience. Bajaj points out that the previous iterations have been a gateway for a lot of new audiences into the theatre, audiences who had never seen a show like Boom Shankar before. “The feedback we got from Basement Theatre was that they’d never seen those people come there, and we’re hopeful to bring that audience to Q.”
Karunaharan is thinking about the long-game for the show, too. When he was growing up, he wasn’t able to grab a contemporary play that had two South Asians in it. That’s changing, however, and he points to Ankita Singh’s Basmati Bitch, which he directed earlier this year, and Indian Ink’s catalogue of work, but those are both a different proposition from Boom Shankar.
“There’s a very real possibility that some South Asian high school kid in drama could pick it up and do this, because the characters are right here, right now, he says. “It has a very Kiwi sense of humour and it’s contemporary as fuck.”
Unsurprisingly, both Bajaj and Shingade are very excited to open this new season. Bajaj is especially excited for people to see Karunaharan’s take on the work. Self-directing is fun and all, but having an arts laureate’s eye on you is another thing entirely. “When you have someone like Ahi in the room, he pushes you, but he enables you, encourages you and enhances your storytelling ability.”
For Shingade, it’s about the vibes. “We don’t shy away from the fact that it is such a joyous show,” he says. “With Boom Shankar, you can really come together and leave the theatre as a community with these strangers you walked in with.”
Boom Shankar plays at Q Theatre from September 6 – September 16.