On Don Ward’s first day in Mumbai, he turned to his taxi driver and wondered aloud whether the man had any ill will towards the British for storming in and staying in India for 250 years. The cabbie just grinned and said: “You should have stayed another 25 years. You could have finished the roads before leaving, at the very least.”
Listen to stand-up comedian Rohan Joshi about the dynamic comedy industry in India and why ‘I Hate Luv Storys’ is a well-titled movie.
“So, to answer your original question,” says Ward, “yes, I think Indians have a pretty good sense of humour.” As CEO of The Comedy Store, which opened its doors in Mumbai last month, it’s something Ward is counting on. With an auditorium that seats 300, a bar and a fine-dining restaurant in a plush 24,000 sq. ft space, Ward’s betting hard.
Spreading cheer: (left) A performance at The Comedy Store in Mumbai; and Cheese Monkey Mafia during a recent open-mic event in New Delhi. Priyanka Parashar / Mint
Ward isn’t the only one placing his bets on our sense of humour. The Indian comedy scene has been active for a while, and now it’s having a bit of a coming-out party. Urban India is testing its funny bone with an explosion of comedic activity, both live and on television. So are we finally learning to laugh at ourselves?
That’s not a yes/no question. At least not according to Johnny Lever. “Ab zyaada has rahe hain,” he concedes. “We’re at least laughing at ourselves more than we used to,” says the legendary comedian. He would know. He might be Bollywood’s go-to comedian now, but he’s been doing live shows and stand-up in India and abroad since 1982, back when it was just called mimicry.
Lever argues that there’s a perfectly good reason for this. “Earlier, we could only imitate celebrities, it was too risky to do anything else,” he says, referring to the Indian penchant for moral outrage at, well, anything.
It’s this exact sense of conservatism that stopped us from laughing at ourselves for the longest time. When you consider that “ourselves” is made up of seven union territories, 28 states, more than 100 languages, 552 Lok Sabha members, a billion people and pretty much every major religion in the world, it’s not hard to see why you couldn’t tell a joke without upsetting someone. You could argue that humour has been a part of our cultural fibre. Hasya kavi sammelans (think centuries-old poetry slams) were around centuries ago, but then again, we also wrote the Kama Sutra, and look how we deal with sex.
Funny men: (left) Comedian Vir Das performs to packed houses. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint; and (right) The Comedy Store CEO Don Ward is betting on Indians’ sense of humour.
But if we are laughing at ourselves more than we did 20 years ago, clearly something is changing. Maybe it’s the people doing the laughing? Has our sense of humour matured? Slowly, but it’s happening, says Lever, referring to recent audiences. Strangely enough, the maturity Lever speaks of might just be coming from younger, fresher audiences. Over the last two years, there’s been a huge spurt in English stand-up comedy in our cities. And it isn’t fuelled by a stream of foreign comedians. Professional comedians such as Vir Das and Cyrus Broacha play to packed houses across the country. Open-mic nights at bars see full registration, with amateurs and newbies taking a shot under the spotlight. They’ve been drip-fed on an endless stream of YouTube videos of the world’s best comedians, capped off with much-pirated Russell Peters videos that blew the doors off our poker faces. In fact, Peters wryly acknowledged his online fame during his shows on his first tour of India in 2007. “I’m surprised you showed up and didn’t just stay home and download it,” he grinned. For a lot of youngsters, the Russell Peters videos were a revelation. “Suddenly, you could be Indian and you could be funny,” says Tanmay Bhat, an amateur stand-up comedian.
With the Internet awash in quality comedy from around the globe (not just stand-up, you can get it all, from Monty Python to Reduced Shakespeare), urban audiences are demanding more from their comedians than just a set of tired old jokes. “Younger people have a different outlook on stuff,” argues Broacha, comedian, and motormouth extraordinaire, who has his own live act, The One and a Half Man Show. “They don’t want to see some guy get on stage and go ‘Do bandar ped pe baithe the aur ek ne kaha...’ any more.” And he’s right. Stand-up comedy has never been about telling a joke. It’s always been about your take on the world around you. “Audiences want to hear someone say ‘My job sucks’ or ‘My parents are such a pain’. They want to hear stuff that they can relate to.”
Broacha makes an interesting point. Are we finally laughing at ourselves? Yes, and then some. In fact, young audiences seem more willing to laugh at themselves and the Indian condition than at things that are irrelevant to them. Evidence of this theory was found at the launch of The Comedy Store, which threw its doors open in June with a preview gig featuring three international comedians. All three were at the top of their game and yet crowd energy levels dipped noticeably when one of the comedians riffed on the intricacies of growing up in one of London’s rougher parts.
“Indians are a tough crowd,” admits Das, stand-up comedian and founder of Weirdass Comedy, a comedy consultancy. “But you’ve got to make that connection with the crowd, talk about stuff they relate to. Do that, and suddenly they’re the greatest crowd in the world.” That’s not just lip service, it’s something Das takes seriously.
As a comic, Das is observational, chipping away at commonly observed peccadilloes. At a performance in Bangalore, he is a livewire from the second he hits the stage, prowling from end to end, working the crowd, searching for common ground. “Anyone watching the IPL?” he offers. The crowd cheers. Das grins. “You know what I don’t get about the IPL?” he begins. While there are no absolutes, and certainly no definitive list, it’s things like the IPL that make us finally laugh; things that move from charade to farce to three-ring circus in typically Indian fashion. “Look at our societal and political norms. I cannot think of a people more ripe for the picking, in terms of comedic gold, than us Indians,” says Sailesh Dave, producer of hit comedy programming such as Movers and Shakers (M&S), and India’s only mainstream sketch-comedy show, The Great Indian Comedy Show. When it first launched in 1997, M&S was “a risky proposition,” says Dave. “The talk show has been a staple of the American TV landscape forever, but we were trying it here, and in our opening episode we decided to go for jugular.” Anchor Shekhar Suman’s Leno-esque opening monologue was clean enough for Indian TV, but took a gentle swipe at the week’s biggest political, sporting and film news items.
Cut to 2010 and Broacha presents The Week that Wasn’t (TWTW), a weekly news-comedy show. The show isn’t exactly a scathing indictment of our system, but it’s a cult hit that bristles with cheeky comedic energy, and isn’t afraid of training its guns on everyone from Marathi manoos Raj Thackeray to former minister Shashi Tharoor. Das, on the other hand, riffs on Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati’s multi-crore garland of notes, and even finds time to sing about her to a packed house. Dave is off skewering the Hindi film industry with The Bollywood Nonsensex, a mock celebrity stock index he produces for Channel V every week. Simply put, if it’s in the news, it’s fair game. And if there’s one thing that’s always in the news, it’s Pakistan.
“Pakistan’s an easy sell,” says Bhat. “There is no faster way of getting the audience on your side,” he grins. It’s easy to see where he’s coming from; Pakistan’s always been the easiest way for India to drum up populist support, so as an outlet for comedy it makes sense. “The Indo-Pak relationship is genuinely strange,” reasons Bhat. “There are times when you don’t even need a punch line.” Dossiers of evidence of terrorism come back marked “non-substantial”, a giant cyber-crackdown sees every single major social network banned, and Sania Mirza smashes one across the net by marrying a Pakistani cricketer. And that’s just this year’s list. To not joke about Pakistan would be to ignore the elephant in the room. Comedy gives you the licence to say the politically incorrect things, and besides, “everyone’s thinking it”, says Bhat. Also, let’s not forget, we’re Indian. Gossiping about our neighbours is practically a sport.
Having said that, this is still India, and we’ve still got some unassailable sacred cows. “Religion is sort of a no-no. Caste is definitely a no-no,” warns Broacha. “Don’t even bother with a historical figure.” Touche. There are still some things we won’t laugh at or, to put it more accurately, some things we’re not allowed to laugh at. An amateur comedian found himself at the business end of some political goons at a wine festival in the Marathi heartland of Nashik. His crime? A joke about a much revered historical figure in those parts (on a completely unrelated note, I’d like to remind everyone that both Raj Thackeray and Bal Thackeray are cartoonists).
It’s the sort of intolerance that makes Lever furious. “Fine, we’re an emotional people,” he allows. “But it’s as if we can’t just like or respect someone. Unhe seedha bhagwan bana dete hai, and then God forbid you say anything about them.” Lever admits he often self-censors his work in film because he knows exactly what the censors won’t allow. “You can’t make one innocent joke about a community’s quirks because you know it’ll get into trouble.”
Moral brigades aside, there is also the fact that three of India’s biggest obsessions, Bollywood, politics and cricket, are fuelled by egos so inflated and fragile that a single joke could puncture them. Lever talks about a famous star who cuts people out of future projects just because they make jokes at his expense.
Dave sees it differently. “There’s smart satire, and then there’s insulting someone for the sake of insulting them. Do it the smart way, and nobody can touch you. I’m not in jail, am I? Well, not yet,” he reasons optimistically. Das also believes there’s a loophole in every single sacred cow. “Sometimes, I think the idea that people will take offence is a lazy comedian’s defence,” he says. Instead, he argues, why not get the audience on your side with a few gentle jokes first, and then launch into more controversial material. “Earn your profanity,” he shrugs, “if you want your audience to take a leap of faith with you, earn their trust first.”
Speaking of profanity, there is one other thing India loves to laugh at, even though it doesn’t do a particularly good job of it. If you’ve ever been woken up at 3am by an SMS forward, or found your inbox choked full of spam, or even just signed up on Orkut, then you know what it is: sex. One open-mic session left an organizer aghast as a host of young amateur comedians went up one after another and talked about the same things— sex and pornography. Aside from the theme, these jokes had something else in common; they were all stale, and they all rang hollow. Comedy is good for a lot of things, but lying isn’t one of them.
If you’re telling a joke, no matter how explicit, it’s got to do one of two things—it needs to ring true, or at the very least it needs to make an honest argument, a valid point. The juvenile awkwardness of the moment drove home just how uncomfortably and awkwardly we deal with sex as a culture.
And yet, on the bright side, at least we’re talking about sex, attempting to address its existence instead of pretending two sunflowers created us. So in the end, what is India laughing at?
We’re laughing at the things that worry us (my kidney for an LPG cylinder!), we’re laughing at the things that anger us (I’d like to walk around in a necklace made of money, but I’m afraid people will keep trying to stick their debit cards in me), and we’re laughing at things that make us sad (remember when Yuvraj Singh was AWESOME? Yeah, me neither).
It’s early days yet for the urban Indian sense of humour, and we haven’t given ourselves over to laughter just as yet. Forget laughing at ourselves, sometimes, we’re outraged that others would dare laugh at us (Time magazine’s Joel Stein found out the hard way last week, when people took a flame-thrower to his tongue-in-cheek piece about Indian immigrants in New Jersey). And yes, we can get juvenile (look! Another SMS with dirty shaayri!), but at least we’ve found our funny bone. With any luck we’ll hone it enough to keep The Comedy Store here for another 25 years.
I mean, we really could use better roads.
Rohan Joshi is a 27-year-old stand-up comedian. He likes dogs, reading and long walks on the beach. He also has an irrational hatred of contributor bios that sound suspiciously like matrimonial ads.
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