I’m sitting outside the Blue Posts on Eastcastle Street with Nikesh Shukla, Costa-shortlisted novelist, BBC Asian Network poet and, now, fully-fledged writer of a Channel 4 sitcom.
We’re reminiscing about, to my mind, the only place growing up where you could keep track of the latest goings on in the wacky world of kabaddi – a team contact sport involving homoerotic grappling, and holding your breath.
The sitcom, the first Comedy Lab of the year and broadcast initially as a one-off this autumn, is called Kabadasses. Helluva title, I think you’ll agree.
‘I was really embarrassed by kabaddi,’ he continues, in between sips of Alpine. ‘Because ultimately it’s loads of fat Indian men wrestling each other to the ground while holding their breath, and going kabaddi-kabaddi-kabaddi-kabaddi-kabaddi-kabaddi – and I remember thinking, “England’s got football...America’s got basketball...and what have we got?” Kabaddi-kabaddi-kabaddi-kabaddi-kabaddi-kabaddi…’
The plot’s pretty simple, if by ‘simple’ you mean ‘mental’. Kabadasses is Dodgeball meets Cool Runnings – or Scott Pilgrim meets Cool Runnings, as Nikesh later corrects – and follows a bunch of losers who decide to put together the first all-white English kabaddi team.
‘Except one of them’s Asian, one of them’s a violent hooligan, one of them’s been kicked out of Weight Watchers, one of them’s asthmatic and the other’s a girl. And their trainer is a defrocked former kabaddi genius.’
Still, the Scott Pilgrim comparison throws me, mainly because the star of the movie – Michael Cera of Juno fame – has recently got himself a full neck tattoo and ear plugs. I bring it up. Nikesh just blanks me.
‘Moving on, Scott Pilgrim is ostensibly a slacker comedy – like American Pie, or Superbad – except at some point you just need to accept they have these amazing martial arts abilities. There’s that suspension of disbelief, and that’s what we’ve tried to do. We’ve given these guys all these special powers…’
‘Special powers?’ I interrupt.
‘Special kabaddi powers.’
‘One can hold his breath for a really long time,’ he explains. ‘One’s kind of like E. Honda, where he can just bump you in the stomach and you’re knocked out cold. One can see a kabaddi move and memorise it – but he’s fat. Will he be able to memorise the muscle memory of someone who’s really thin and muscular? There’s comedy in that.’
I met Nikesh about eighteen months ago, when his soon-to-be-acclaimed debut novel, Coconut Unlimited, was still on submission – and before I then ended up editing it for Quartet Books.
Kabadasses was already well in the works, though. Inspired by an idea from a filmmaker friend – who wanted to do a mockumentary about kabaddi – Nikesh fleshed out ‘a really bonkers arc’ with his mate Riz Ahmed, aka Riz MC and star of Four Lions.
‘I chatted to my friend Nick Hearne about character ideas,’ he elaborates – alluding, incidentally, to the eventual designer of the Coconut Unlimited jacket. ‘Then I locked myself away for five days and wrote a script. I sent it to a bunch of people, they liked it, so one night I drunkenly emailed it to the head of comedy at Channel 4. I forgot I’d done it and three months later he emailed me back and called me in for a meeting. That’s a true story…’
For the pilot Nikesh has been paired with a proper heavyweight of British comedy, Anil Gupta, producer of The Office and writer of Goodness Gracious Me.
I state the obvious, then set up the punch-line. ‘That must’ve been cool...but why should we watch it?’
‘If you’ve ever seen a sports comedy, you’ll love it. If you’ve ever laughed at a YouTube video of someone hurting themselves while trying to do something cool, you’ll love it. And if you like the idea of a closet racist and an Asian dreamer trying to put together the world’s first non-Asian kabaddi team – where ultimately they have to wrestle each other...while holding their breath...to the ground...wearing hot pants – you will love it.’
Kabadasses is broadcast this autumn on Channel 4.
Click here for more stories about TV & Film
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook