‘I hope our jokes become an outlet for people to forget their worries and laugh,’ says the thirty-two year old comedian.
Rahul Subramanian was midway through his five-minute spot when I saw him perform for the first time, four years ago. He was tanking. This was at The Hive in Mumbai, which was where every up-and-coming comic tested their material. It was one of those Monday nights when the room was dead and a hostile silence had taken over. I distinctly remember watching him perform and thinking, there’s no way he’s going to make it.
Now, Rahul has no recollection of that night and his special Kal Main Udega is streaming on Amazon Prime – the crowning jewel in a series of achievements. In 2015, he and comedian Kumar Varun beat 40 other participants to win the YouTube Comedy Hunt with their channel ‘Random Chikibum’. Then, with his presence in All India Bakchod’s internet sketches, he established himself as a comic actor.
His portrayal of an overachiever in their ‘Honest Placement’ series is particularly memorable. The three bits he uploaded in 2016 were crucial in establishing India’s second wave of stand up comedy (others include Abhishek Upmanyu, Kunal Kamra and Sumukhi Suresh). The first was about his interaction with a Pakistani restaurant owner and another about his break-up. Each have an average of over 2 million YouTube hits. When I list these achievements back to him, he cheekily says, “Film Companion hasn’t given me a good review though!”
Rahul had a well settled job at Mahindra as a brand manager before he made the transition to stand up comedy. He did his first 30-minute set at the Canvas Laugh Club within eight months of starting out. “I didn’t even think that there was anything possible beyond the limited space of corporate life. There was gratitude in that. I never considered it work. I was very happy to just go out and perform.”
The three bits Rahul uploaded in 2016 were crucial in establishing India’s second wave of stand up comedy
In 2014, Rahul looked online for open mics in the city and gave stand up a shot. He had no prior experience in writing comedy. “I was always the funny guy. I used to write plays, host, perform in school. My dad was a funny guy. So is my brother. Being funny was always an inherent need. Even during conversations my brain would go – What can I say that’s really funny here before everyone else. It always has to be before everyone else.”
Rahul’s Amazon special has been promoted as a ‘special without a message’. He insists that comedians don’t need to be social justice warriors. In the past he gave into the compulsion of offering an opinion on every bit of trending news online, but stopped because it didn’t feel genuine. “I’m not someone with very strong opinions. I want to keep making jokes on whatever I find funny. I don’t mind doing a domestic violence joke, or a BJP/Congress joke, or whatever it is. Where I come from isn’t an opinion I want to convey, it’s just a funny observation. I understand when people look at me and think this has no substance. I became a comedian because I want people to laugh,” he says.
For Random Chikibum, he and ex-Mahindra colleague Kumar Varun wrote and directed a number of sketches. They’re currently working on developing a web series. “We’ve been lucky to be financially secure. It’s one of the reasons I can handpick what I make or say exactly what I want to on stage. I don’t need to pander.”
It’s hard to categorize what Rahul does on stage in a genre. He does storytelling, quick bits, one liners and observational comedy on a variety of topics, presenting them like a play in a very visual format of storytelling. In a couple of places in his special, he actually prods the audience by letting them know his callbacks are a tool in comedy to incite laughter, effectively getting a laugh out of calling himself out.
He insists that comedians don’t need to be social justice warriors
“There shouldn’t be a constraint to the writing process. With punching up or punching down, it needs to represent who you are as a person. My sense of humour automatically has a filter. If I say something that’s stupid because I’m not well informed enough, I don’t mind learning it the hard way. I don’t want to write keeping guidelines or rules in mind.”
So far, this approach has served him well. “I think I deserve it,” says. I can’t disagree.