Mumbai: In one of his acts, which have achieved near-cult status on YouTube, the cross-dressing British stand-up comic Eddie Izzard channels Darth Vader to gravely intone: “I can kill you with a single thought.”
The line, in a way, sums up the art of stand-up comedy. Increasingly, ambitious comics across India are crawling out of the woodwork in search of that thought, setting the stage for stand-up comedy to become a surprisingly big business. Big enough that Don Ward, founder and promoter of the iconic Comedy Store in London, was enticed into investing £2.5 million in a comedy club, the first of its kind in India, opening in Mumbai this March.
That kind of money is no laughing matter.
“It’s the perfect time for coming in,” says Ward. “In India, you are such an emerging market… You’re the fourth [largest GDP in terms of purchasing power parity] in the world, you’ve embraced a lot of Western things, there’s people earning quite a lot of money… There are a lot of successful young people, and those are the ones I’m looking for.”
Plying the trade: A performer at an open-mike session in New Delhi. Sudhanshu Malhotra / Mint
Just as Ward’s club opens, in pleasing synchronicity, the domestic stand-up circuit is coming alive. In New Delhi—known perhaps for a more boisterous sense of humour—there are now at least two open-mike nights for amateur stand-ups every month.
One of these is organized by Papa CJ, who has performed across the UK, including at the Comedy Store, and has been on the popular Last Comic Standing television show in the US. (He has “the energy and attitude of an Indian Chris Rock”, one review noted.) The idea, CJ says, is to establish one night every Sunday in different parts of New Delhi, so comics get opportunities to present their material, and audiences get a feel of stand-up.
LOL Nites, another set of open-mike evenings in New Delhi, is hosted by Sangeeta Angela Kumar, a newscaster on Headlines Today and an accidental comic. Vir Das, based in Mumbai and one of the younger professional comics when he started at 26 about four years ago, organizes open-mikes around India.
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Finding talent has proven less of a challenge than finding funding—an observation borne out by Kumar’s tale of how she got her comic groove going. “I had gone for one (of) these shows,” she says. “The next time, I just decided to get up on stage.” It was just that simple.
Unlike the US, India doesn’t yet have a circuit of comedy clubs where stand-up is performed on a regular basis, acting as a Petri-dish for new artists. Most live events are either ticketed or corporate shows. “India is great for performing, but not for growth,” says CJ. “That’s something we’re trying to change.”
What India does have, however, is a long history of comedians—an umbrella term that reflects a smorgasbord of comedic poets, mimics, stand-up comics and satirists who perform mostly at what Archana Puran Singh, a judge for Sony Entertainment Television’s Comedy Circus, calls “variety shows”.
Singh, who became India’s first woman stand-up when she anchored a 1990s Zee TV programme called Wah! Kya Scene Hai, points out that television, after sourcing its talent from “variety shows”, often out in the hinterland, will release comedians back into the stand-up world. “From television, the arrow will point backward to the source,” she predicts. “For example, Raju Shrivastav has been around for 20 years, but one show”—The Great Indian Laughter Challenge—“made him a star”. “All those hundreds of thousands [of comics] now have that platform to aspire to.”
Das is sure that most of the money in the comedy market is in Indian languages. “It’s a very middle-class, upper middle-class concept that the money is in English,” he says. And as live performances become financially rewarding, vernacular comedy’s return to the stage might be a blessing, given that ratings for the Hindi comedy shows— comedy contests, really—declined over the past three years.
According to data from TAM Media Research, which tracks television viewership, Comedy Circus has gone from a 2.24 average rating in its first season in 2007 to 1.30 in 2009. The Great Indian Laughter Challenge on Star One dipped from a rating of 4.02 in 2007 to 1.78 in 2008, although it picked up marginally to 1.92 in 2009.
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Despite the reservations that stand-up artists have about television —CJ dismisses the comedy shows as “rubbish”; a New Delhi-based comic named Sanjay Rajoura calls them “regressive”—Ward looks forward to partnerships with television to reach out. “The time will come when the Comedy Store, with one of your channels, will be making programmes for local television.”
Ward predicts, in particular, a great thirst for local talent, but until that time, making it on the amateur circuit remains difficult. Only a handful of amateurs, such as Rajoura, have broken through into a weak limelight. Rajoura, a computer engineer by day, started off at the LOL Nites because he thought he “could do better” than the people he watched one evening.
That was three months ago. Today, he is already performing at corporate events. “It’s fantastic to have people willing to pay me good money,” says Rajoura, who performs in both English and Hindi, and who just completed his first ticketed show. It’s the sort of example CJ and Das look to with hope. “Once comedy is financially viable, it will become professionally acceptable,” says CJ. Das puts it pithily: “The minute people start putting money behind it, you know it’s growing.”