Over the past three years, Amazon Prime Video has safely established itself as the digital home of stand-up in India. Since it first announced it would be getting into the stand-up comedy game back in 2017, the platform has built a steady bank of almost 40 comedy specials, with new additions dropping practically every month. However, only 3 are by women comics, with the first special from a female comedian having released in mid-2019 – after multiple male comics had already released their second. Netflix, by comparison, has only 5 standalone Indian comedy specials thus far, three of them from the same comic, Vir Das.
At a time where comedy specials are at the risk of becoming commodified, now feels like a good time to look through the clutter and highlight the stand-up standouts. Most of them were part of the initial wave of specials which released in 2017 and 2018. Few from the last year made much of a mark, which makes you wonder whether the importance attached to the quality of a special is no longer what it once was.
From the big-name-no-brainers to the gems that deserve more love and laughs, here are the sets that stayed with us long after. The stand-up shows that were the most…special.
So in no particular order, here's my list of the 6 best comedy specials currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video:
Inspired by the hilarious observation that Eminem became rich by making people memorise his life's problems, Azeem Banatwala's marvellously self-assured second special screams of a well-crafted set that's been painstakingly developed and honed. With his eloquent, witty style he indiscriminately goes through topics such as religion and democracy to the pointlessness of birdwatching and a Salman Khan joke you won't see coming.
Problems is genuinely funny and thought-provoking and it doesn't sacrifice one to make room for the other. It's personal without being pretentious (something many comics seem to struggle with these days) and firmly establishes the lanky and likeable comic as one of the strongest comedians in the country.
Anirban Dasgupta's special is among the best on the platform, not only because it's the most visually distinctive (shot in crisp black and white) but also because it manages to be consistently funny and meaningful without trying too hard. Dasgupta's seemingly laid-back delivery and jovial style ensure it doesn't feel overly structured or even remotely rehearsed. From the absurdity of the Indian Constitution to the nation's love of outrage to Netaji conspiracy theories, he makes sharp cultural observations with such nonchalance, you don't immediately register the full weight of what's being conveyed. Which, many would argue, is the very purpose of comedy.
Kanan Gill's Keep It Real has a sophistication and maturity that's on par with any international comedy special. The comic gives you well-developed and layered material that's miles beyond the surface-level humour we're all too used to seeing. His 'There is a cow' bit remains one of the best from any Indian stand-up special thus far.
From relationships to siblings, he hardly breaks new ground with the topics he discusses, but it's his unique perspective and approach that allow him to find new angles of absurdity in situations like no one else. Keep It Real is laugh-out-loud funny, sharply-written, unexpectedly profound and a firm reminder that Kanan is operating on an entirely different level to most Indian comics.
'I know it looks like a big deal – it's fucking not. Nothing is going to happen…this exercise is pointless'. Biswa's opening line of his first Amazon special sets up his balls-to-the-wall irreverent style and refusal to take any of it seriously. And that's why it works.
The inspiration behind many a meme, Biswa's now-iconic style of delivery leans more towards the 'saying things funny' as against 'saying funny things' side of the stand-up spectrum. From stories of his childhood to random observations, he delivers bits with such assurance and an almost aggressive confidence, that they have you laughing even if you don't quite understand why. Biswa Mast Aadmi is a smart, wonderfully meta and hilariously exaggerated hour of comedy.
Angad Singh Ranyal's special is a wonderful reminder that comedy doesn't have to be deeply personal, political or profound to be memorable. It can just as easily be comfortably funny and relatable. Ranyal is a joy to watch, armed with a lovable presence and an almost animated style of delivery, playing the character of a helpless oaf trying to make sense of the world. From Uber rides to MBAs to the struggles of the corporate world – he manages to find freshness in the familiar, done-to-death themes in comedy.
In a pointed, hour-long show, Karunesh Talwar dishes out a fierce and hilarious takedown of masculinity and patriarchy. He uses his theatrical angry-young-man style to touch on everything from the common man-child species to the Indian uncle epidemic. To Talwar's credit, it never feels like a hollow rant as he's careful to ensure everything is mined for humour. Despite a somewhat out of place, crass ending to the show, Pata Nahi Par Bolna Hai is the rare socially driven special that strikes the balance of being genuinely funny without ever feeling preachy.
Special Mentions: Zakir Khan: Haq Se Single (2017), Azeem Banatwala: Cometh The Hour (2017), Rohan Joshi: Wake N'Bake 2020