Self-confessed ‘coconut’ Romesh Ranganathan has recently embarked on a traditional tour of the country of his heritage, Sri Lanka. Spending each episode with a different distant relative, Romesh has been introduced to various elements of the culture he feels he has been ignoring up until now, and the time has come to share those experiences with the public.
The Ranganathans may have Sri Lankan heritage but Romesh himself is from Crawley in Sussex and openly admits that he knows next to nothing about the culture of his parents. The extent of Romesh’s ignorance is surprising at first but also understandable, with much of the show’s humour deriving from such obvious naivety. But there is also a willingness to sample all aspects of the traditional culture that ensures Asian Provocateur is not just about messing around in an unusual environment, which allows the programme to be genuinely moving at times. A key thing to be noted about this programme is that the places Romesh visits are not being mocked. He may find humour in the ways they communicate or the things they do, but the cast and crew have certainly not embarked on this journey merely to poke fun at the people they visit. There is a genuine love and interest behind Romesh’s exploration of Sri Lanka, perhaps as a result of the comic wishing to learn more about the life his late father lived in the country, before Romesh was born.
The addition of Romesh’s mother, Shanthi Ranganathan, is a brilliant new perspective for the show to take. If we were to compare Asian Provocateur to An Idiot Abroad, and let’s face it there are many comparisons to be made, it would appear that Shanthi has taken on the role that was once occupied by the likes of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. The interesting thing about the scenes with Romesh’s mother, as opposed to with Karl Pilkington’s bullying friends, is obviously the presence of a genuine, unbreakable blood connection between them. It shines through in their conversations regarding Romesh’s trip to Sri Lanka, with chat that is clearly unscripted and made all the more unpredictable by Shanthi’s motherly instincts clashing with Romesh’s comedian persona (which will undoubtedly be slightly shifted from his usual son role): “Your mother would be sad if you died, but part of me would be thinking, what a stupid son I had”. Romesh has also recently stated: “I think for her, in an ideal world, series two would not involve me. It would be a spin-off show where mum’s like: ‘So we got rid of Romesh and now we can really get into the show.’”
Asian Provocateur is starchy and awkward in places and these are the moments that allow Ranganathan’s brilliant comic timing to come through. The cultural and language barrier, despite Romesh himself being Sri Lankan, provides many of the laughs per episode, with the comedian being made to spend time doing some very unconventional activities, to say the least. Despite what Romesh has spent his entire career as a comedian trying to get us to believe, he is clearly a person who finds it easy to get on well with others. The relationships he is able to build with various uncles, cousins and tour guides are surprisingly strong, and these bonds enable the show to feel all the more homely and substantial.
Perhaps it is not the most original of television formats, but Asian Provocateur certainly feels like it has more of a point to it than other similar programmes, due to the cultural family connection as well as Romesh’s booming comedy profile.