A man in his late 20s walks into a swanky Mumbai bar, rants non-stop for about half an hour, most of the time taking potshots at the government machinery, and takes home a cheque of R1 lakh. No, this is not part of a deliberate ploy to fool somebody, but something that happens on a weekly basis in most metros in the country.
Like the man in the bar, several professionals are shunning a life of nine hours in the office-sitting in front of the computer each day and swiping access cards-and are finding their feet in stand-up comedy. So what these "artistes" do is let their humour do the talking, mostly in front of a live audience and usually speaking directly to them, and reciting a fast-paced grouping of humorous stories, short jokes and one-liners. And they seem to have done pretty well for themselves too.
An established pub culture, the online revolution that brought comedic geniuses like Russell Peters to our computer screens and the burgeoning Indian middle-class have fuelled the stand-up movement in the country over the past few years.
On an average, an established stand-up comic would be performing nearly 100 shows a year. Depending on the scale and location of the event they are performing at, stand-up comics of varying popularity can be paid anything between R10,000 and R5,00,000 a show. These include a varied mix of shows sponsored by corporates, private concerts and college festivals, among other events.
As compared to a saturated market like that in the US, the Indian stand-up comedy market, however, is very small and still has a long way to go. Stand-up artistes agree that since the Indian market is still deregulated, there are no benchmarks for the pay or the kind of facilities that event managers provide at a show.
Most popular venues such as the Canvas Laugh Factory and Blue Frog, which are "comic-friendly", exist only in major cities, while good producers are fewer still. This, coupled with the fact that the market is still young, has ensured that stand-up comedy is still a very metro-only phenomenon. On an average, a ticket to a comedy show may cost R500 to R1,000 at an upmarket venue.
"The comedy movement started off primarily in metros like Mumbai and Delhi, but it is now slowly spreading to smaller cities. Pune, for instance, has one of the best comedy audiences in the country. This is a very niche art form, but when you consider the sheer number of people that form the demographic, you are still playing to a massive market," says 29-year-old Daniel Fernandes, a Mumbai-based stand-up comic and founder and head of Microphone Entertainment, which produces comedy shows across India.
Fernandes, a former advertising professional, took up stand-up comedy in 2011. When he resigned from his job in November that year, he was still doing "open mic" sessions where comedy wasn't even paying him. But he was sure about the career path he had chosen and continued to pursue it further.
The one thing that encourages them, stand-up comics say, is that the audience has accepted live comedy as an alternative form of entertainment.
As 26-year-old Aditi Mittal, a Mumbai-based stand-up comic known for her politically incorrect humour, puts it, "When the scene became popular a few years back, corporates, pubs and restaurants were all interested in knowing what Indian stand-up comedy was all about. I think that initial curiosity is still steaming off."
Mittal had lost her job as a television producer in the US during the 2008 recession. She moved back to Mumbai, within weeks of which she began taking part in open mics and garnering attention. "In about six-and-a-half months, I started performing open spots at popular venues here," she says.
Mittal has since moved on to perform at a number of locations across India and at a show in New York. She is also a teacher at an undergraduate college, though she sees herself performing stand-up comedy for the rest of her life.
Event managers can often be difficult to deal with, comics say. Often due to miscommunication between the sponsor and the event management teams, the performers end up getting a raw deal. However, since the Indian stand-up circuit consists of a handful of comics, it is difficult for such event managers to pull off the same trick twice.
In a society where the young are sorted as doctors, engineers, lawyers, management graduates and the rest, how do friends and family accept a stand-up comic amongst them? "My parents had given up on what I'd do with my life. But I think when I sat down with them and their friends and contributed to an intelligent discussion, that is when they realised that their child is smarter than an average youngster," said Tanmay Bhat, 26, another popular comic.
Bhat, who started off as a writer for television and a freelancer in newspapers and magazines, took up stand-up comedy sometime in 2011. For the first year at least, it was an exercise to enjoy the creative release that stand-up comedy provided, he says. "Though, soon, I figured that stand-up was paying me a lot more than what writing for television did, so I decided to take it up as a full-time occupation," he adds.
All India Bakchod (AIB), a comedy group recently set up by Bhat and three other stand-up comics, has seen immense success. A recent video produced by the group, which discusses sexual harassment in a witty manner, was received widely and was discussed in the international press.
Sahil Shah, 23, a fresh media graduate, who has doctors for parents and is a stand-up comic, says he has had relatives and family friends ask him what exactly he did to earn money. But during such times, the support he received from his parents has been significant, he says. Shah has performed at shows in Guwahati and Shillong as part of the comedy group, Travelling Pants.
Another avenue where comics can leverage their popularity to earn some money is through social media, comics say. Brands that are active on Twitter would spend a large amount of money to see stand-up comics tweet about their products in pre-decided time slots.
But the young aren't the only ones sharing the comedy pie here. For 45-year-old Atul Khatri, the journey to become a stand-up comic began with some encouragement from friends. "My friends and family attend almost all my shows. Though my parents don't know much about it, my daughters are very proud," he says.
Having started performing only in 2012, Khatri is often termed as the "youngest" comic on the block. But with a successful computer business based in Mumbai and a bar-tending course to boot, which, he says, he didn't like much, and a passion for humour, his stint with stand-up comedy is only going to get wiser and more profitable in the years to come.
Copyright 2013 The Indian Express Online Media Pvt. Ltd., distributed by Contify.com
Credit: Vishwanath Nair
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