Laughing in your language

Laughing in your language

Hindi and English dominate the stand-up scene in India but a slow and steady shift to regional comedy is now pretty evident.

Comedy is serious business

Eeginnondu baari trend hawa yedhbidave;Yen trendu? Halli feel ellarigu…
(Today, there’s a new trend, a new wind blowing…And the trend? Experiencing all things ‘rural’ in the city.)

So says Raghavendra Acharya with Uttara Karnataka swag as he demolishes all things superficial about life in Bengaluru. Acharya, a member of the Kannada comedy group Namdu K (slang for ‘our’), excels in the group’s first Kannada stand-up video ‘Raichur Hot Huduga’. Acharya’s inimitable Uttara Karnataka dialect is winning over Kannadigas (and others) — the video has notched up over 2.35 lakh views (as on March 2) since its February 20th release.

Acharya is right. There is a fresh wind blowing through the Indian stand-up scene — content produced in the mother tongue.

Audiences/viewers are slowly but surely embracing comedy that speaks to them in Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi, Punjabi and more. And Namdu K is just one of many small groups of artistes across the country, producing such exciting fresh content.

The evolving stand-up space

The rise of regional stand-up does not mean that mainstream comedy in Hindi and English is stagnating. Rather, stand-up is in an exciting and evolving phase, notes Ravina Rawal, Founder and Editor of DeadAnt, an online publication and new media venture that tracks the Indian comedy scene. “It (Indian stand-up) is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the entertainment industry. People like Zakir Khan and Abhishek Upmanyu’s videos comfortably hit 30-50 million views each. Many comedians also tour to festivals like Just for Laughs (Montreal), Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Scotland) and Melbourne Comedy Festival (Australia). In the digital space, they’re all over OTT platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime — with comedy specials and original web series too. As an art form in general, it has huge potential for impact and that’s very exciting to me,” she says.

That potential is what matters to Amit Tandon, who happens to be one of the first three Indian comedians on Netflix. Tandon, whose brand of observational and relatable humour makes him hugely popular in India (and abroad), notes: “Stand-up comedy can take a message across and not just be limited to telling jokes; although, that by itself, also has a huge impact.” But he feels the Indian stand-up scene is still evolving at the moment.

However, Danish Sait, whose satirical character ‘Humble Politician Nograj’ has led to much laughter and even an eponymous movie (a sequel is in the works), believes the stand-up scene is evolved enough. “The comic community has moved beyond clichés, there’s a fine mix of activism, rational thought and satire, which leaves the audience laughing and thinking. I think the comedy scene and audiences have matured together,” feels Sait.

Act and activism

No discussion of comedy can ignore recent developments — be it the Kunal Kamra-Arnab Goswami encounter (and fallout) or Varun Grover’s viral recitation of his poem ‘Hum Kagaz Nahin Dikhayenge’. When comics use their art for activism, do they then become the only sane voices in a time of political, social and economic turmoil? Ravina Rawal certainly hopes so. “With the country in as much political turmoil as it is in right now, I don’t know what else they (comics) can even find to talk about. They have a young, captive audience that runs into tens of millions and the power to influence first-time voters in a country that boasts of the largest youth population in the world,” she points out. At the same time, Rawal feels many comics are also wary of turning comedy into commentary because of the fear of repercussion.

Today, this repercussion can mean physical or virtual threats. Recently, when Grover announced his upcoming US tour, he was termed a hypocrite. “He will show his papers to the US government, but not in India,” said trolls. “We cannot ignore the backlash some comics receive,” agrees Danish Sait. According to him, art and activism go hand in hand. Such backlash only proves that “some people get uncomfortable with the truth. Comedy is a serious business these days.”

Ripe for regional funnies

Comedy is not just a serious business, it is also now moving more towards regional stand-up. Industry veteran Amit Tandon says the time is right for new voices (and comedy) in local languages. Punjabi, Marathi, Tamil and Kannada — there are emerging voices in all these languages. Regional stand-up will increase the reach of comedy and make its appeal felt across age groups, he says.

In Marathi, Bharatiya Digital Party (BhaDiPa) is prominent. BhaDiPa began creating original digital content but now the group does Marathi stand-up too. “We have some 20 Marathi stand-up artistes and perform across Maharashtra and wherever there are Marathi speakers abroad,” says BhaDiPa manager Swanand T. The comics are young (aged between 25-35) and hail from varied backgrounds.

The same is true for Kannada stand-up. Lolbagh, a group of comedy enthusiasts from different professional backgrounds, began Kannada stand-up, improv and ventriloquism, some years ago.

Their stand-up videos (on everyday incidents, traffic, the IT industry, etc, all delivered with ‘adult’ humour) routinely go viral. Namdu K is also receiving a great response today. Namdu K began with digital content and then expanded to open mics and stand-up in Kannada. “As a group, we believe in clean comedy that appeals to everyone,” says Shravan N, one of the founders. Incidentally, the group produces short skits on topical subjects — one of their most popular (5-lakh plus views) is an English-Kannada video titled: ‘What if Google was Nithyananda’.

Is it a viable career?

The truth is, pursuing comedy as a career can be challenging. The big names can command lakhs per show. For most others, comedy is a passion, but there is always a back-up profession. As Ravina Rawal observes: "There’s still not enough infrastructure to support everyone across the country. So in some ways, the community has matured, in many other ways, it’s still finding its feet. You can spend a good two-three years without making any money at all; though that's true for comedy everywhere, not just in India." BhaDiPa’s Swanand T notes that performing under the umbrella of a group means artistes get that much-needed exposure and support. "Going it alone is much tougher," he adds.

However, Amit Tandon feels stand-up is definitely a viable career. "Comics can use the soft skills they develop (while honing their craft) in hosting corporate or private events. Yes, not all will make it big. For instance, there are a lot of actors in Bollywood, but not everyone becomes a hero. Don’t come with the expectation that you will become a superstar. If you go viral, consider yourself lucky. If you can make a decent living while pursuing your passion, consider yourself lucky then too," he stresses.

Namdu K’s Shravan N admits they are not making much money right now but having videos go viral is a boost. As Amazon and Netflix push for more regional content, comedy can only benefit. "We definitely believe we have a future," he smiles.

That’s why Danish Sait believes this is a beautiful phase. "We are so different in India from state to state. Every community and language express differently and laughs about different things. If a film like Parasite can win an Oscar, it is a clear indication that art transcends boundaries (and languages)."

Glass ceilings here too

Most female comics hate being described as such, but the reality is that there are more men in stand-up or comedy per se, than women. Jeeya Sethi, who does stand-up and improv, says this is because " explore more than women. Men also take rejection easier than women. There are more women in stand-up now than before because women are learning to support each other." In fact, she also produces a show featuring only women exclusively for women audiences. "Men (in this space) are forced to encourage the women," she adds.

Interestingly, regional stand-up being nascent, has the potential to become a more equal opportunity space. Young lawyer Savani Vaze, for example, is a part of BhaDiPa. She plans to continue being a lawyer and also do stand-up. "I really don’t like the term 'female stand-up'," she says categorically, adding, "I channel my passion for writing through stand-up." Doing Marathi stand-up has its challenges, she says. For one thing, it means interacting with audiences who are still not sure what stand-up really is. "Stand-up appears to be an interactive format, but, at the end of the day, it’s an act, not a conversation. Sometimes, audiences make derogatory remarks." Another challenge has been getting loved ones on her side. "My family didn’t know for the longest time what it is that I do. My dadi still doesn't!"



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