So worth sitting down for stand-ups
No Indian reality show I know has managed to capture the young zeitgeist as Comicstaan does, for sure!
What, according to you, was a turning point for India's reality television (if not the starting point, as it were)? No, Arnab doesn't count. Neither does Rakhi Sawant. Well, since you can't update this page, here's my two-cents' worth.
Think it was the singing-contest Antakshari, which first aired on Zee TV in 1994, with Annu Kapoor, a passable vocalist, plus verbally diarrheic, long-time host, reviving a traditional, desi parlour game, which had already been introduced into cinema halls with Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) half a decade before.
What did that show teach us? That in a Bollywood-obsessed country, where popular playback singing had been nearly monopolised between all of four to five voices over generations — Lata, Asha, Kishore, Mukesh, Rafi — there resided a decent singer in every home. If only you split these families to compete against each other, between monikers Deewane, Parwane, Mastane! Also for a TV industry with over 900 channels, with combined worth running into several billions of dollars, reaching out to hundreds of millions of viewers, there is absolutely no reality show I can instantly think of that is originally Indian, with a potential of being adapted abroad. Antakshari is a worthy exception. Of course, no one holds a copyright to Antakshari. But it's so homegrown that we could collectively take pride in its crossover appeal, if that ever happened. Of course it hasn't.
Indian reality TV on the other hand is essentially an aalsi/lazy collection of intellectual properties (IPs) inevitably borrowed from the West — from Netherland (Bigg Boss), Canada (Sach Ka Saamna), Britain (Kun Banega Crorepati, India's Got Talent, Jhalak Dikhla Jaa), US (Indian Idol, Khatron Ke Khiladi, Kamzor Kadi Kaun)...
In that sense, Antakshari was fine precursor to the desi Sa Re Ga Ma Pa (1995), by the same producer-director (Gajendra Singh), spawning a series of similar shows, continuing to stun us with the depth of singing talent in the country — from boondocks to the metros.
In 2018-19, one could legitimately argue that the millennial stand-up comic is the new bathroom/wannabe-professional singer. How do you gauge that? Just look at the number of random videos thrown at you on Facebook on an infinite scroll, with short sets, from unknown comics, cracking you up with uniquely subversive and self-deprecating humour. You can spend weeks just watching that, with a new face by the minute.
This phenomenon is quite well-summarised in Jaideep Verma's documentary I Am Offended (available on YouTube). Is there a show that's managed to zanily capture this zeitgeist? Comicstaan on Amazon Prime, without doubt; the second season of which took off last week. Is it the best Indian reality TV that I've ever seen? Does look like it. For one, to the best of my knowledge, it's an original IP/format (produced by the event/comedy conglomerate Only Much Louder). The future of comedy is certainly here. And if the future of the world was somehow interlinked, imagine people globally competing to be funnier (rather than deadlier) than each other. Sounds like the opposite of war to me.
With each episode, that's as educative as it's entertaining, and dedicated to a new form/genre of comedy — anecdotal, observational, alternate, improv, sketch — the contestants broaden the traditional definition of an Indian/Hindi stand-up, which essentially comprised hasya kavita, mimicry, and deeply rehearsed, sequential chutkula/joke-telling ("Aur agla item pesh kar raha hoon…"). Shows like Laughter Challenge were more in line with the latter.
One could sense the beginnings of a western-style Indian stand-up scene in 2009 — in Mumbai's case, from open mic nights at Café Goa in the armpit of Bandra, which found theatrical space in Don Ward's Comedy Store in Lower Parel, where comedians flew down from abroad, rubbing shoulders with local acts on occasion.
In the interim, the mentor-judges you watch on Comicstaan — Biswa Kalyan Rath, Kanan Gill, Kenny Sebastien, Zakir Khan, Tanmay Bhat, and others — became cellphone/household names. The credit for that, of course, goes solely to YouTube. You can see even non-finalist participants from Comicstaan Season One booking solo/group shows on any given night in Mumbai. As do several other hugely popular YouTube sensations — Kunal Kamra, Varun Grover et al.
Stand-up comedy is a proper day/night job. Why is this more significant than say the rise of the singing star from reality TV? Because singers rely on songs composed by others.
Stand-up comedians perform their own written material, with the potential to widen that audience with more and more fresh masala/gigs that entirely belong to them, rather than a version of an RD Burman song that eventually does very little for the Indian Idol winner/performer.
You know what that stardom can do? Just consider the newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who's a frickin' full-time comedian (and I don't mean that in the way that politicians unwittingly are).
Also, comedians worldwide appear to be doing a better job than journalists in speaking truth to power. I've just watched the first four episodes (that's dropped) of Comicstaan sequel. What I find missing so far is an episode that deals with topical (which covers political) humour. It was there in the third episode of Season One. Hope it shows up in one of the subsequent episodes of Season Two. Really, seriously, genuinely, don't blunt the edge, Amazon. Just saying.
Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
Sign up for all the latest news, top galleries and trending videos from Mid-day.comSubscribe
Raj Thackeray calls for peace, gets support from cousin Uddhav Thackeray