Five years ago, at a bar in Mumbai’s Bandra, I nervously walked up to a small ‘stage’ – a miniscule clearing at the far end of a room populated by mostly drunk college students. It was my first stand-up comedy open mic night – I’d written a 3 minute script, put on a T-shirt with a funny quote and showed up. I wish I could say that the experience was unforgettable and exhilarating, but I don’t quite remember it.
I do remember the host, however, and the winner of that night’s first prize (a 500-rupee food coupon). The host was a little-known comic named Daniel Fernandes who had earned a 5 minute slot by virtue of winning a previous open mic at the same venue. The winner was a middle-aged man named Atul Khatri, and his set remains one of the freshest pieces of material I’ve seen. That bar in Bandra shut down 2 years ago. Last year, Daniel Fernandes performed at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Atul Khatri, meanwhile, is part of India’s (arguably) second biggest comedy collective, East India Comedy.
With stand-up comedy’s rise to prominence in urban Indian culture comes responsibility as well – if there are reviews for movies, albums and even plays, why should comedy be left out? Is ‘On Air With AIB’ as good as ‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’? Are EIC’s music videos funny or lame?
To say that the Indian stand-up comedy scene has seen a boom would be an understatement. Apart from Khatri and Fernandes, Wikipedia features 46 other profiles on its ‘Indian stand-up comedians’ category, but you can be sure that there are more names than these. Whether you talk about the boys at All India Bakchod, Aditi Mittal or now-heartthrobs Kanan Gill and Kenny Sebastian, most of these comedians spent years performing for free at college fests, open mics or competitions organised by Vir Das and Papa CJ, the pioneers of English stand-up comedy in India. You could catch a bunch of these comedians at the same venue for as low as Rs 200, and more often than not, these venues weren’t close to packed to capacity.
Today, most of these names can command ticket prices of up to a thousand bucks individually. Some of them have teams writing for them, and Amazon Prime or Netflix videos coming out. Most of them are backed by talent-management companies. Almost all of them have YouTube channels and fans all over the country. The last 5 years have been revolutionary for these stand-up comedians. But what about the fans?
For starters, you can find a live stand-up comedy show in Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru 3 times a week, if you’re looking. Chances are you’ll find a new YouTube video by a popular comedy group at around the same frequency. These videos are almost never stand-up comedy (and rightfully so because the medium is best experienced live) but instead consist of sketches or funny songs or sketches with funny songs. This is where every comedy group wants to be – because YouTube videos mean a larger reach, millions of potential fans and even a little money. Perhaps nobody knows this better than AIB.
AIB’s YouTube page has 2 million subscribers. Their latest sketch, titled ‘A Woman’s Besties’ hit a million views in less than 3 days. It’s a charming video personifying a woman’s body parts, and although that’s literally the definition of objectification of women, the boys pull it off with the help of a solid female cast and writer. When they’re not making funny videos about serious issues, AIB also does podcasts, videos of these podcasts, a TV series, a writing programme for wannabe filmmakers, comedy festivals and is currently rumoured to be writing a film.
More importantly, though, AIB has established itself as a watchdog – barking and biting where the mainstream media is too scared to tread. Most of their videos have social messages – against racism, casual sexism and stereotypes. The ones that don’t have these messages poke fun at things Indians tend to take too seriously – festivals, politics, cricket and Bollywood. It wouldn’t be unfair to call them the guardians of a young, urban India, even though they’d probably cringe at the title. They’re not alone, though.
Comedians are constantly judging – whether it be celebrities, places, movies, politics or habits. Through observation, satire, sketches or songs, this ever-growing motley crew of people gets to throw punches with punchlines, all the while basking in our applause, laughter and money. That last one is particularly important because watching a stand-up comedy show is now more expensive than watching a movie in a multiplex. Amazon Prime’s eagerness to launch video specials with comedians means that we’ll be shelling out money for recorded content as well, and while laughter is the best medicine, it’s about time we asked ourselves if the banging jokes are worth the buck.
With stand-up comedy’s rise to prominence in urban Indian culture comes responsibility as well – if there are reviews for movies, albums and even plays, why should comedy be left out? Is ‘On Air With AIB’ as good as ‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’? Are EIC’s music videos funny or lame? Is Mallika Dua the next Tina Fey? And is Kanan Gill hilarious or just good-looking? These are questions we’ve been actively trying not to ask ourselves, but that time is over now. We’re shaking up the comedy scene, and trying to get serious about this funny business. These comedians have gone from making jokes about Gujaratis and Borivali at venues as big as BEST buses to watching and judging all that young India finds cool. Who watches the watchmen? Well, we at Film Companion do now. And we might do a little bit of judging as well.