Deepa Gahlot: When life gives you lemons, make jokes
In the last few weeks, three of India’s top stand-up comedians, presented shows about their lives. After all, when so much is forbidden — both directly and insidiously — and the jokes about traffic, quirks of various communities and Bollywood are done, what does a comedian do but turn to his (or her) own life. The talent, and ability to draw an audience in, depends on the ability to make their experiences resonate with an entertainment-seeking audience, and make the mundane sound funny.
Papa CJ, Sorabh Pant and Vir Das are a few Indian stand-up comedians who have taken inspiration from their lives for their new shows, reducing their audience from chuckles to sniffles and back
In his show, Naked or A Comedian’s Tale, Papa CJ bares a part of his soul, and though he doesn’t quite do the Full Monty, with every painful reminiscence, he takes off a layer of clothing, till he is left standing in his boxers, having reduced his audience from chuckles (a quick lap dance for a lady in the front row) to sniffles, and then quickly lightens mood again. The audience takes back a bit of joy and a bit of sadness, which is what life is about, and a good comedian knows how to juggle those emotions. It is done in cinema all the time, but it’s far tougher to pull off on stage.
He warms up by talking to his audience about his middle-class upbringing without inhibition —growing up in Calcutta (as it was then), “a city where ambition goes to die” — which is a good way of describing Kolkata. Anyone who grew up in pre-liberalisation India would feel nostalgic about the time when fancy shampoo and conditioner were not that easily available — the joke he made about conditioner had the audience guffawing, and no, it can’t be repeated here. The time when people took pictures with cameras with film rolls in them, and when the roll was over, clicked once more to “take a chance” — that Indian tendency to get a little bit more value for money. How many would even remember the cassette tape and that test of puppy love — making a mixed tape of popular songs for the college girlfriend?
He gets a scholarship and goes to the UK to study and gets a job simply because the boss is afraid of being accused of racism if he rejects an Asian candidate. He discovers the stand-up comedy scene in the UK, and travels all over performing — that anecdote about shocking a Muslim audience and thinking the cops will arrest him and ending up getting invited to do a bawdy show for policemen is priceless.
Papa CJ the comedian is born, but the man has a broken relationship, a bitter divorce and the most painful of all — not being able to see his son. The little blue romper the child wore when his father saw him for the last time is spotlighted on stage. He may use his show to “process his pain” and hope to be reunited with his son, but the audience that expected a typical Papa CJ show — the usual picking on people in the audience, the mix of coarse and smart humour — certainly got more than they bargained for.
Sorabh Pant’s My Baby Thinks I’m Funny is a very different take on fatherhood, not the wrench of separation, but the fun of becoming a father for the first time (“My wife did most of the hard work. I was merely the neta who showed up once the project was completed and claimed success.”) Because it’s a stand-up comedy show, Pant cannot help being bawdy — like the time he has to go get tested. What that entails cannot be repeated here either, except that he was handed a Tinkle comic instead of something more suitable for the task at hand. But the audience — many of whom may have gone through the same experience — found it hilarious.
After the success of his shows, History of India: VIRitten and Battle of Da Sexes, Das goes back to the raunchy style with which he had started his ascent to comedy stardom, but the new show, Walking On broken Das, is about himself. Jokes on the first kiss, heartbreak marriage and an unexpected one about performing in front of APJ Abdul Kalam. The funniest and most relatable part was about him getting into Bollywood — how the hierarchy works and how the stars get umbrellas over their heads and the bit players ignored. He doesn’t really expose Bollywood for what it is —and that would get really easy laughs — but shares a nice story about the kindness of Rishi Kapoor. And he gets his laughs without insulting any film personality.
All three of them are excellent performers, even if their gags are sometimes lame. They have a way of immediately sizing up their audience and playing to the gallery, of picking ‘bakras’ from the auditorium and actually making them feel like celebrities for a few minutes, even as they are being ridiculed. Reportedly, people buy expensive front-row tickets just to be picked on by these star comedians. If that is not a sign of fandom, what is?
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. She tweets at @deepagahlot