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Dropping the mic

Stand-up comedy is proving to be a lucrative stomping ground, as a number of the best comedians find that their unique worldview hits home not just on stage but in various other avenues. Nidhi Gupta talks to the brightest talents in Indian art’s most exciting growth industry.

NIDHI GUPTA  22nd Feb 2014

illustration: rashmi gupta | dev kabir malik design

ey, porn guy!" yells Vir Das at the guy in the green sweatshirt sitting in the front row of the audience at Siri Fort auditorium, for the umpteenth time. "Who's your best friend in the whole wide world?" The guy points, yet again, to his wife sitting a few seats away (he'd done this earlier when Das asked, "Hey, guy in the green shirt sitting alone in the front row — who've you come with tonight?"). "Are you serious?" guffaws Das, "You can't be pointing her out for everything. Although, on second thought, I do see the wisdom of that!"

Das is making a point about how men and women define best friends. In his latest show, a "scientific comedy" called Battle of Da Sexes (which premiered in Delhi recently), Das shreds the tired adage: Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. He goes about it academically, dividing his two-hour set into categories — psychology, business, leadership, history, biology and sex.

Incidentally, for this show, his audience is also divided. The men sit on the left, the women on the right. It is a production quirk that works well because it allows people to laugh at themselves and each other, without worrying about getting into trouble with their "better halves" for having the wrong reaction to a potentially offensive jibe that Das makes.

Das pokes fun at everything and everyone from Hitler to Modi, Manmohan Singh to Aamir Khan, Poonam Pandey to Michelle Obama, himself and the people in the audience. The guy in the green sweatshirt is designated, for the rest of the evening, as "porn guy" because he makes the mistake of announcing his favourite genre of cinema to the world early in the show. It is to porn guy's credit that he doesn't take offence at being the butt of Das' jokes for an entire evening; and to our comic's, that he can pull this off.

Earlier this year, Das was also at the forefront of India's first-ever nation-wide stand-up comedy festival, Weirdass Pajama, in Mumbai. The three-day festival saw over 70 Indian and international comics, performing in English for a particularly metropolitan audience, on stages all over Mumbai. Among the performers were his crew at Weirdass Comedy, as well as the funnymen of All India Bakchod and East India Co.medy — arguably the three largest "camps" in the scene right now. The most outrageous of the many events that made up the festival was Pajama Roast, a sort of "battle of the puns", where comics and celebrities took potshots at each other.

The festival was a huge success. "We were really worried initially — it was almost like a coming-out party for us comics," quips Rohan Joshi, one of four founders of All India Bakchod, along with Tanmay Bhat, Gursimran Khamba and Ashish Shakya. "But we had the 1300-seater Jamshed Baba theatre running at full capacity every day. The festival became a measure of not just how good we were as comics but also the appetite for comedy in our country. At the end of it all, we figured that maybe we had become an industry after all," he says.

That stand-up comedy is a flourishing entertainment industry in its own right today is no longer a contentious claim. Check any listings or bookings website, such as TimesCity or BookMyShow, and you'll find a plethora of standup events vying for space and audiences. Most dining venues now welcome the idea of hosting comedy nights (regardless of the dangers that laughing with your mouth full might pose). And there are a slew of production houses and entertainment companies willing to put the effort — and their money — behind these young, cheeky talents. Prominent among these are Ashwin Gidwani Productions, that now backs most of Das' solo shows; and Vijay Nair's Only Much Louder, production partner for Weirdass Pajama, and the force that is helping commercialise AIB.

It is remarkable that this "scene" has come together in the space of roughly five years. India has, of course, had a long relationship with humour — hasya kavi sammelans and chaat melas have been around for decades. Bollywood has its own stalwarts — from Mehmood to Johnny Lever — who turned mimicry and slapstick into pedestrian forms of comedy.

On TV, through the '90s, Cyrus Broacha, Cyrus Sahukar, Gaurav Kapur and Shekhar Suman played sassy, smart and sarcastic to our collective joy. But it is American comic Russell Peters (of the "Somebody gonna get-a hurt real bad" fame) and the Internet that lay the seeds for standup comedy in English to grow popular in the country. "Two things happened in 2003 — Peters broke out on Youtube and the Great Indian Laughter Challenge arrived on our TV sets. This helped cultivate two parallel audiences," observes Khamba "but the current generation, and the currently popular format, both started in 2008-09."

This generation, including the likes of Sorabh Pant, Varun Grover, Kunal Rao, Sapan Verma, Sahil Shah, Ashish Shakya, Aditi Mittal, Anuvab Pal and Neeti Palta, among many others, found its feet at the open mic nights that became a sub-trend in Mumbai around that time, of which Vir Das was a key proponent.

"In 2009, I'd come back to Mumbai after having lost my job in New York. I went to one of these amateur nights at Cafe Goa, a small, probably illegal, place in Bandra and saw these guys on stage and thought to myself: 'I can totally do this!' At the time, I was on some random diet and my mouth smelled like a national park because of all the haldi and tulsi I was consuming. So I built a routine out of it and I got two laughs! That's cool, I thought. I can do this again," reminisces Aditi Mittal, one of the few female standup comics in the country whose sketches Dolly Khurana, the Bollywood diva, and Mrs. Lutchuke, the 65-year-old sex therapist, are immensely popular.

They all have similar stories to tell about how they started — former journalists, engineers, fresh college graduates who went up on stage to crack a few jokes and were instantly mesmerised by the applause and laughter they caused. Now, four years down the line, a lot of them run successful businesses, both as individuals and collaborations.

"In the past six years, I've done about 570 shows in seven countries," says Sorabh Pant, co-founder of East India Co.medy. "At EIC — of which comedians Sapan, Kunal, Sahil, Atul (Khatri) and Azeem (Banatwalla) are also a part — our plan for last year was to do as many shows as possible. This year, our plan is to churn out more content than anyone else in the business, which means six-12 hours of content per show for each one of us. Right now, we're busy planning our next edition of the Ghanta awards, so it's like an office environment. We all sit, pens in hand, waiting for inspiration to strike," says Pant over a brief telephone conversation, running between meetings.

At the AIB headquarters, the atmosphere is equally intense. "We sit in a huddle, staring into space, thinking up jokes. Of course, getting high always helps," laughs Joshi. Last week, their own worst-of-Bollywood awards show, The Royal Turds, returned to Mumbai. For the rest, they are busy leveraging the power of social media to spoof everything under sun, most recently Arvind Kejriwal and Alok Nath. Apart from a hugely successful podcast, conceptualised as an "online archive of conversations between comics", as Khamba calls it, they also have a video channel on Youtube that has almost 3 lakh subscribers.

"We can't afford to spend on advertising. Which is why Facebook and Twitter are a huge boon — we sell 95% of our shows online. On Twitter, where I have a few thousand followers, I know it is a well-targeted demography in whose minds we as a name will stick," says Joshi.

Since this is now a matter of generating livelihood, they all do several things on the side — from corporate shows to performing at private parties to even writing award show scripts for star hosts. And with different kinds of shows come different kinds of audiences. In the realm of stand-up, where audience inputs are crucial, it is inevitable that reactions will be as diverse as the settings in which they perform.

"Yes, altercations happen. Recently, when we were performing at the Sulafest in Nasik, Shakya made a really stupid — it wasn't even funny — joke about how even Shivaji knew Victoria's secret. Some locals came in and started yelling from the back. It was funny to see these right-wing types at a wine and music event, but our organisers told us to run for our life," recounts Mittal. "Somehow, a girl saying b******d on stage is still the funniest thing. I get the most laughs, but then I'm also seen as a loose sort of woman. The after-show period is often quite horrible."

Last year, Tanmay Bhat got into hot water for making a statement about Ganpati; while Mumbai-based comic Varun Grover made his battle with a corporate event planner very public after they pulled him off the stage for making inappropriate jokes and then refusing to pay him.

Joshi talks of shows in tier-II cities like Indore and Bilaspur where he had his listeners eating out of hands. "There was an old couple — and I mean old, not like 60 years or something — who laughed so hard at my jokes that I thought the wife was going to die of a heart attack! I guess it all boils down to how open-minded your audience is. Not all kinds of jokes will fly in all kinds of contexts, but overall, a non-conservative audience, one that isn't looking to be offended, always helps," he says.

ittal agrees: "I guess people have to understand that there's a difference between comedy as we see it in the urban landscape, synthesised for television audiences; and standup, which is live and our livelihood, where we will be more outrageous, more opinionated, and therefore more real." But perhaps even this is already happening; with comedian Kapil Sharma practically revolutionising Hindi comedy with his show on Colours — he is sarcastic, irreverent and downright hilarious — the capacity of people to laugh at themselves seems to be growing.Image 2nd

Khamba feels that the demand for comedy is far outstripping supply in the country. "Look at Weirdass Pajama, for instance. It was such a feel-good thing, a sign of a scene maturing. It was amazing that 70 comics from across the country came together for the show. But also, if you think about it, there are only 70 comics in a country with over a billion people. These days, people have begun making comparisons between AIB and The Viral Fever (another comedy website run by Arunabh Kumar). That is such a myopic view: the question shouldn't be which is better, it should be: why are there only two to choose from?" he says.

It is perhaps this dearth of talent that ensures there's more collaboration than competition among the different camps. "The Indian stand-up scene is like the West Indies right now. We're a bunch of islands coming together to form a nation," quips Pant. "Because we're at such a nascent stage, and because everyone involved is too intelligent, we know that collaboration is more viable for all involved at the moment," he elaborates.

In an effort to grow the community, AIB now conducts workshops for comedians, while EIC organises their own open mic nights in different cities, through which they have found seven new faces to be introduced this year.

It took quite a few decades for standup, considered to be quite the cruellest form of comedy, to evolve to its present state in US, the land of its origin. In comparison, the scene in India is coming together much faster — perhaps due to globalisation. Here, we're talking about everything from big social issues to the small facts of life, "punching higher" all the time, as Khamba calls it. Even as they gain celebrity and cash in on your mirth, they yearn for more people to come and join their ranks — and here, truly, the more might be the merrier.

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