“I don’t like performing to people’s shitty expectations,” says writer, performance-maker and comedian Vidya Rajan. “I’m the crow scavenging for shiny things … but also wondering if I should book into a 10-day silent meditation to become enlightened.”
Rajan’s work – which plays with nonlinear forms and ideas – often feels like an avant-garde product of the internet generation. She creates characters that refuse to conform to the narratives often expected of artists of colour in the white-dominated arts industry. Her alter egos, such as an “Oil CEO” giving an International Women’s Day address or “Rupi Kauronavirus” – a reference to well-known Indian–Canadian “instapoet” Rupi Kaur – come with a lot of sociopolitical subtext.
“I like playing this evil person who is narcissistic and stupid at the same time,” says Rajan. “This is not the Asian they usually want to see, though it’s changing … White critics often say that it [my work] isn’t didactic enough, because they want to learn from it.”
Though her characters often exude the confidence and brashness of an Instagram influencer or a Tom Cruise deepfake, Rajan herself – perhaps surprisingly – seems introverted and introspective. “People think you just appear. They see you in three things and then they’re like, ‘You’re taking over,’ ” she says. “It took a lot of work to get here. I’m not some untrained pony.”
Rajan honed her craft and cultivated a following for her often weird and wacky comic material by working on a proliferation of platforms. I first encountered her work on Twitter and was impressed by her ability to make sharp, hilarious quips and observations in the limited character count. In person, she astutely and comically articulates – at pace – her perspective on the arts culture, what she thinks makes great art and the nature of her practice. It makes her equal parts daunting, hilarious and warm.
Over brunch at the Tin Pot Cafe in North Fitzroy, she tells me what she’d choose for her final meal. “A Greek salad plus a masala dosa with every kind of chutney and sambar,” she says. “I’d end the meal with some soda water, have a burp and then die – my last expulsion.”
Rajan’s career embraces a wide variety of platforms. Most recently, her adaptation of Melina Marchetta’s beloved novel Looking for Alibrandi opens in preview tonight (July 9) at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre and then travels to Belvoir, Sydney, in October. Along with a number of other writers, Rajan was invited to send samples of her work that responded to both the book and director Stephen Nicolazzo’s vision to Marchetta and Nicolazzo.
While she was working on the adaptation, she actively sought input from the Italian cast and crew to ensure the play didn’t misrepresent the cross-generational Italian experience, but she also drew on her own experience as the daughter of migrant parents. “It was a weird act of cultural empathy, connecting to this Italian girl from the ’80s through my own relationship with my mother,” says Rajan. “Because I didn’t grow up here, I didn’t understand the reverence of the movie and book.”
Her work also includes collaborations with the Wheeler Centre, creating for her own social media platforms, screen and theatre writing, and stage and screen performances. She has cultivated an audience – including an avid fanbase of brown women – for her experimental work.
Rajan collaborated on videos for SBS’s The Feed with comedy writers Jenna Owen and Victoria Zerbst, who comprise the Freudian Nip. The show explores politics and internet culture, leveraging the strengths at the core of Rajan’s comedy. Enthusiastic audience responses, as well as approaches from people she respects, have finally helped her to see merit in her work. “It’s hard to have that internal self-respect as a brown girl,” she says. “Nothing tells you to have that internal compass – you’re often left seeking validation from external structures, whether it’s your parents, prize committees or artistic institutions.”
Rajan, who is Indian Tamil, grew up in Kuwait and then moved to Perth in 2004, when she was in year 10. Her mother was a history teacher and an excellent Scrabble player, and her father was an engineer with a love of painting. As an only child, Rajan was left to her own devices. “I was a daydreamy child,” she says. “I would often walk into the room thinking of a story. I was always falling off things because I was always in my head. I grew up among a lot of laughter. There was a lot of silliness in our house!”
It’s easy to see how this childhood inventiveness translated into her contemporary work. By accident or design, her parents created an environment that fostered her creativity and enabled her imagination to thrive. She started writing poems as soon as she could rhyme. “I would often yell out to my mum, ‘Amma, I got a poem!’ ” she says. “She would then take a pen and write them down. She does take credit for my artistic career sometimes, saying it wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t been a scribe.”
As with many other South Asian parents, initially Rajan’s mother and father didn’t approve when she chose to work in the arts. However, she says they are now proud of her accomplishments in the field. “It was a long journey to get here,” she says. “It’s huge progress in our relationship, even if they don’t quite understand [my comedy]. They have been forced to acknowledge I’m funny due to other people’s responses to my material.”
Living between India, Kuwait, Perth and now Melbourne has given Rajan a broad frame of cultural reference. “Growing up in the Middle East you get weird [television] channels,” she says. “I would come home from school and watch M*A*S*H reruns. I am still very attracted to Alan Alda in his old age.”
It took her a long time to give herself permission to be an artist. She initially studied law before switching to the arts, completing a master’s of writing at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and doing clown training in experimental comedian Deanna Fleysher’s workshops.
It was hard to find work after she graduated, so she began to work in the legal sector. She later took on editing jobs to pay the bills, and wrote creatively on the side. She cut her teeth in improv and sketch and performed in alternative venues. “Little freaks in the inner north and brown people attended my alternative nights,” she says. “Scouts weren’t necessarily coming to that but it was a really great place for developing my voice.”
Her ageing parents still live in Perth, and sometimes she feels guilty about her choice to stay in Melbourne. She travels between the west and east coasts as her mother is unwell.
“I realised that my brain couldn’t handle being the perfect daughter, doing law, having an unwell mum and not chasing my creative dreams,” she says. “Ultimately, your parents want you to build your life and there was nothing for me careerwise in Perth.”
British culture colonised her taste early on. She watched Eddie Izzard on YouTube, and devoured Monty Python, Peep Show and period dramas, especially adaptations of Jane Austen, although she is aware of the implications for a South Asian. “Jane Austen speaks of ‘a single man in possession of a large fortune’,” she jokes. “But where did he get his fortune? Is it from tea plantations?”
She also enjoys many American comedians, citing John Early (Search Party), Tim & Eric (a comedy duo frequently featured on Adult Swim) and Patti Harrison (Shrill) as among of her favourites. She says Tina Fey’s 30 Rock is one of the best comedies of the past 20 years. “It [30 Rock] came out when I was in high school. It’s the perfect mix of tight sitcom writing seamlessly blended with satire and absurdity.” When you see Rajan’s comedy, it’s easy to see why she likes Fey’s acerbic wit.
The absurdist comedy scene – like comedy more broadly – is dominated by white men. While many comedians of colour often draw on their lived experience, Rajan’s surreal performance style allows her to transform into whatever characters she wants. This can leave a traditional comedy audience bewildered.
“Having done a lot of improv and stuff in pubs – you have to dispel audience resistance to having you in that space,” she says. “I often have to make a true-blue joke at the start to ease the tension and assure audiences I like the ‘Australian culture’.”
Her solo show at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Respawn, integrated traditional stand-up components, animal impressions, sketch and social commentary, and ultimately became an exploration of reincarnation.
“The show is about death, in a silly way,” she says. “Reincarnation means you die. There is a darker version of the show about my mum being ill … but I decided I wanted to leave it in a sillier place.”
Respawn showcased Rajan’s ability to leave the audience guessing about the show’s trajectory. Audience participation never felt confronting or daunting, as comedy-goers were made to feel safe and part of the joke – the antithesis of the fear traditionally instilled in audiences seated in the front row. The writing and performance are multilayered: Rajan doesn’t underestimate the intelligence of her audience or their ability to understand nuance, but there’s enough endearing awkwardness for a nervous laugh. It traverses the liminal line between accessible comedy and absurdism with ease.
Live comedy is a risky artform compared with theatre and, despite the rewards, the stand-up circuit can often take its toll. “In theatre – you’re there to watch it and it is what it is, for the most part. Comedians rely on audience reaction moment to moment – it is exhausting and exciting to be reliant on something like that.”
If she were free to do whatever she liked, Rajan would one day like to write a postcolonial heist story or perhaps a speculative fiction that explores a slice of life within the South Asian community. Something for her admirers to look forward to down the track.
And what would she tell her teenage self? “I spent so many years thinking I wasn’t good enough,” she says. “Maybe I’d tell myself to get a therapist in high school, because it’ll save a lot of time, and to not doubt myself so much.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 9, 2022 as "Surreal fictions".
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