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A young man takes the stage. Dark brown hands smooth the sides of his crisp white kurta leaving behind streaks betraying hands damp from nerves. He is very tall and struggles to adjust the mic stand to his height. Amplified fumbling fills the room for a moment, before he gives up and stoops down to speak.
“My father has finally convinced me to go abroad to join ISIS,” he tells the crowd, then waits deadpan for a beat while the audience gasps. “The International School for Indian Subordinates,” he continues. “It’s very prestigious.” Relieved laughter floods the room, then polite applause. In a sticky post-monsoon Bangalore, India, in a pan-Western restaurant, modelled halfway between a New York pizzeria and a German beer hall, an open-mic comedy night is under way.
The crowd is perhaps 20 per cent spectators; the rest are all aspiring comedians waiting for their turn. Each mills somewhere in the crowd, either slamming down fortifying drinks or watching the competition from inside a circle of friends, who later cheer and laugh and applaud when their champion does their few minutes on stage. Most are nervous beginners who spit out their routines in the rapid-fire delivery of a high-school student giving a speech, running roughshod over the punchlines. There are a few slightly better contenders and one or two cool, polished comics who work the crowd when their jokes fall flat.
“You,” says a handsome young Hindu comic, pointing to a Caucasian girl at one of the front tables as she scrolls through her phone. “Am I boring you? What are you doing? Are you on Facebook? Are you on Tinder? You know, I hate the way you white people think it’s so cool to go through a bunch of photos to select a mate on utterly superficial terms, like we haven’t been doing that for hundreds of years.” This gets a laugh, and the comic glances side of stage to see how the judges took it.
The winner of this heat will go on to a national final to decide a champion, who will win a trip to Melbourne to compete in the RAW Comedy finals at the 2015 Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF). In Melbourne they will perform alongside Australia’s best amateur comics to a crowd of 2000 to compete for the grand prize, a trip to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the world’s largest comedy festival. But while the Edinburgh trip is the big carrot, just making the RAW finals is a huge achievement.
This is the third year of the RAW Comedy India competition. In the end, Bangalore’s heat winner is knocked out in the national finals by Kolkata’s Ruchir Ash, 18, a soft-spoken, slightly nebbish lad in his first year at a Jesuit college. Ash entered on a whim to experience high-stakes stand-up, never expected to win, and seems a little bewildered by the opportunity. “I think the reason I did well is because I had no pressure on me,” he says. “Everyone is very excited for me, though, and encouraging me to do more open mics here, so I don’t freak out on the night.”
The MICF RAW Comedy competition is a huge opportunity for aspiring comics. A spot in the finals brings prestige, press, television exposure and a springboard to other ventures. RAW has helped launch the careers of luminaries including Josh Thomas and Hannah Gadsby. For Ash, who has been doing amateur stand-up for less than a year, it represents a rapid change of gear.
Last year’s Indian champion, Rohan Desai, 26, says that being picked to fly from his Delhi home to perform in Melbourne changed his life. “The experience was just amazing. I never expected much to happen from stand-up, but winning the Indian heats really validated what I was doing. I thought I should probably take it more seriously.”
Desai was also relatively new to stand-up when he arrived in Melbourne, and he’d never really considered comedy as a career. “The five-minute set I did was the only five minutes I had. Maybe it would have been a better opportunity if I’d been doing it for longer, but stand-up in India is still a very new thing.”
English language stand-up came to India in 2008, when Papa CJ, now 38, an Oxford scholar turned comic, left his expat life in Britain to return to India. He brought with him four years of stand-up experience, including a 10-month stint when he did 250 gigs at a financial loss for the chance to practise and hit up more experienced comedians for advice. “At the end of it I had no money, no friends, no relationships and no life, but every single comedy promoter in the country knew my name,” he says. After four years in Britain, a homesick CJ returned to Delhi and founded an open-mic night, and a local English stand-up comedy circuit was born.
These days, most big cities across the subcontinent have an open-mic night or two, but they retain a punkish, DIY vibe. Stand-up comedy, a mainstay of Western entertainment, is still an edgy, niche pursuit in India, especially compared with an extant family-friendly Hindi language comedy tradition that enjoys immense popularity. “I remember this American comedian being really excited because 10 million people watched this program we were on,” recalls Papa CJ. “I was like, ‘Dude, I’m from India. I open my bathroom window and 10 million people will watch.’ ”
Papa CJ, who is billed as “the global face of Indian stand-up”, is one of the very few Indian national comics who make a living from comedy. There are still only a handful of full-time comedians in India – most comics are professionals who work in other fields, who learn their craft mainly from studying international comics on YouTube. The advent of videostreaming means that stand-up is having a bit of a moment. In recent years, it’s become the refuge of disaffected young men and women who a generation ago might have wanted to be rock stars or novelists. Comedy remains the art where you can get away with making your tortured angst part of your personality. On the Indian stand-up circuit, angry political and social commentary is just as common as jokes about arranged marriage and mothers-in-law.
Falah Faisal, 22, a Muslim comic from Bangalore, learnt his craft from watching clips of Bill Hicks and George Carlin, and his schtick has a dark streak of critique for modern India.
Watching Faisal and his peers perform in the Bangalore heat, it’s easy to see the appeal of stand-up comedy to them. While India is a babel of languages and dialects, with Hindi the language of the dominant political parties, English is the common language of the rising generation of middle-class artists and radicals. Anything said on an open mic in English has little chance of travelling beyond the room, and it shows. There’s a lot of stolen jokes, a cardinal sin in comedy. In one comic’s set I recognise several stolen bits, ranging from Eddie Murphy to a classic Bette Davis line, except where Davis used the word “vagina” this mild-mannered kid uses “flower”.
There are also a lot of angry young people on stage venting about social problems – in an India increasingly divided along cultural and religious lines under the far-right Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi – in a manner they could never do at home. Faisal hopes to push the boundaries of what can be spoken about in public through comedy, and is unafraid of backlash. “Although, I have a weird feeling Modi might actually enjoy my stand-up act because it is quite anti-Islamic.”
While India ostensibly enjoys freedom of speech, a gridlock of laws against sedition, blasphemy and offence ensures that nearly any artform that causes a moral panic can be banned in the public interest. In the past six months, novels have been burnt, India’s Daughter, the BBC documentary on the infamous Delhi bus rape, was banned, and a televised roast of Bollywood celebrities by comedy group All India Bakchod (Senseless Fuckers) was pulled from YouTube and the responsible comedians forced to apologise. It was a breakthrough moment for Indian comedy and a call to arms for many comedians to fight censorship. For others it was a reminder that anger rarely gets you paid.
“Comedy is in a bubble right now,” Desai says. “It’s in a sweet spot where it’s possible to say anything [in English], and the wider Indian society won’t hear about it. There’s a wall between English and Hindi humour, and soon we’ll break through it. The first one to do so will get hurt, but hopefully that won’t be me.” He laughs.
“India is an extremely sensitive country,” says Ruchir Ash. “It’s very easy to offend everyone. It’s harder to use humour to make them think about why they take offence.” Ash doesn’t swear and tries to avoid causing offence with his material. He admires John Oliver and emulates the way he uses comedy as a medium to bring serious issues to life. “I’d like to show people that you can use humour to achieve an end, rather than just make fun of someone. I think comedy is much more than that.”
“When you do a festival, you have to know exactly why you are going,” says Papa CJ. Some comics go for reviews, some go just to try out new material, or to see other comedians and be seen by them, to help push the craft of comedy forward. This year, CJ is booked into MICF to debut Naked, his soulful but hilarious hour of narrative comedy. He doesn’t expect to make a big profit, but is here to establish his name in Melbourne. “I think you have to keep in mind, if you are a professional comedian, it is not a cost, it is an investment,” he says.
MICF is the third-biggest comedy festival in the world. This year 559 registered shows are competing for their share of about $13 million in box office. Most of that will go to hometown heroes and big international acts that the festival heavily promotes, while smaller acts must provide their own promotion, as well as producers, tech support, venue hire and a registration fee of $500 ($675 for internationals).
For the emerging Indian comedians, the financial and cultural barriers are daunting, but not insurmountable. Desai also returns to MICF this year, as part of the Comedy Zone Asia line-up, and is much inspired by his last trip. When he stepped onstage in 2014, he was well aware that it wouldn’t supercharge his career, but relished the exposure to styles of comedy that he doesn’t get to see back home. “It helps your confidence, but more than that it opens your mind up to what is possible as a comic.”
Ruchir Ash, who’s only done around 20 gigs in his life, is just grateful to be visiting Melbourne and to be given the chance to try out the material he’s written for a general audience. “A third of my material is very reliant on references to living in Kolkata, so I know those jokes won’t work, but I’m really looking forward to it and I’ll try my best. I can’t promise I’ll be funny, unless a lot of people familiar with Kolkata come,” he says with a laugh. “That would be nice.”
The nascent nature of the comedy scene in India means that the career paths open to Australian comedians don’t yet exist. Ash would like to pursue comedy professionally, but he’s well aware that it’s next to impossible. After he’s taken the Melbourne stage in the RAW Comedy finals, he plans to finish school in Kolkata and study law, and see what opportunities arise on the way. “Simply, if it’s possible to have a viable career, doing only comedy, I would… But we’ll see.”
You can see but a few seconds of Ash’s RAW Comedy India winning set on YouTube, where the visibly nervous young comic stampedes through an almost-blue joke about the expectations heaped on young Indians. “In India beating a billion sperms isn’t enough – you have to beat a billion people after that.”
Watching him, with his sweater over a button-down shirt and over-eager stagecraft, at first I can’t see him beating anybody, let alone a billion people. But then he hits the punchline and smiles, and it suddenly occurs that I am watching a Bengali Rove McManus. He’s clean-cut and maybe a little green (he counts Pokémon among his hobbies, and the Comedy Festival promo material describes him as “adorable”), but underneath the all-Indian schoolboy routine he knows exactly what he’s doing. If anyone is going to break down the walls between Hindi and English comedy in India, chances are it’s going to be someone just like him.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 11, 2015 as "Standing up".
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