Bengaluru is ROFL!

Sibi Arasu | Updated on August 31, 2019

Stand-up comedy is big business in India, mostly centred in the entertainment capital Mumbai. It is Bengaluru, however, that is sending out many of these popular performers, thanks to its vibrant open mic scene. Talent big and small alike can find a mike, and an audience rooting for it, at the many cafés and pubs dotting the city

It’s a rainy Tuesday night in July and there are 13 people in a nondescript café in the hip Indira Nagar neighbourhood in Bengaluru. Nine are stand-up comedians, or, at least, they want to be. The four remaining are the audience for the evening’s open mic — a session where anyone is welcome to perform stand-up comedy to a live audience. An audience that’s outnumbered by the show’s lineup can prove quite the dampener for any aspiring performer, but the stand-ups this evening seem thoroughly enthralled with their stage time. They constantly look for affirmation from their (however minuscule) audience — were their bits funny, were they being sexist in some places, and so on.

The comedy meter swings from the ‘extremely funny’ to ‘zero laughs’, with the highlight being featured stand-up Gaurav Purohit’s take on senior citizens and their disregard for social etiquette — surely there are worse ways to spend a rainy weekday evening. Boasting at least six such events through the week, the city is a hotbed for open mics.

“Bengaluru open mics have always had a sort of inclusivity. There’s always someone giving you feedback and helping you out,” says one of the city’s brightest stand-up stars, Sumukhi Suresh. While she has since moved to Mumbai, as anyone who wants to make it big in entertainment still does in India, it is Bengaluru she credits for growing her funny bones. “Bengaluru still has people coming in and saying I want to do comedy for passion. I think this is why so many of India’s biggest stand-ups have emerged from the city.”

Impressive roster

Household names such as Sanjay Manaktala, Biswa Kalyan Rath, Sundeep Rao, Kanan Gill, Kenny Sebastian, Naveen Richard and, of course, Suresh trace their stand-up career to India’s Silicon city.

Like and unlike: The identity crises and conflicts spawned by the multicultural IT hub provide ample stand-up material for city-based comics such as Punya Arora   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

They started out at open mics and improvisation aka improv sessions in the many cafés and pubs around the city, before garnering a large fan-following on the internet and becoming the celebrities they are today. And most of them started out in 2009 or 2010 — a time when comedians such as the Canadian Russell Peters were becoming popular in India. Bengaluru’s pubs, which were saturated with electronic dance music or EDM and karaoke nights, were looking for something new to keep the crowds coming. Stand-up comedy fit the bill perfectly.

“Bengaluru had a head start in terms of its comedy culture; there is an ecosystem within which comedians can make it. When I moved to the city and started performing in 2010, a bunch of us reached out to restaurants, bars and organised open mics. None of the other cities were doing this then,” says Manaktala. Growing up in various cities in the US, as his father worked with Air India, Manaktala was an IT consultant who pursued stand-up as a hobby in that country. He relocated to India to try his luck in the comedy business as well as work as a part-time consultant based in Bengaluru. He has since become one of the country’s most popular stand-up acts.

Space issue: Together with Sundeep Rao, Tamil stand-up comedian Praveen Kumar (in the photo) launched the Bangalore Comedy Club   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Together with Sundeep Rao and Tamil stand-up comedian Praveen Kumar, he launched the Bangalore Comedy Club, a collective that organises open mics for amateurs and professionals alike.

“Some of my favourite stand-ups are people who are not that big yet,” says Suman Kumar, a Bengaluru-based stand-up comedian, novelist and screenwriter. He credits the city for its dedicated support to local talent. “Those who are big names now were not crowd-pullers in the beginning, but the scene was supportive,” he says.

Papa, please: Suman Kumar’s hit solo show Mr Mommy chronicles his life as a stay-at-home dad   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Kumar — known for his Mr Mommy solo show, where he chronicles his life as a stay-at-home dad — is all praise for the variety of comedy on offer in Bengaluru. “If there is a three-people lineup, all three are bound to bring you fresh styles, different genres. I’ve never seen this in Mumbai, where everyone seems to be very similar in style. In that sense, Bengaluru is like the Boston of India,” he says, drawing comparison with the American city known for its quality stand-up circuit.

A comedic melting pot

NRI comes to Bangalore, a satire skit on YouTube that has more than 1.3 lakh views, captures the quintessential Bengaluru brand of humour. Uploaded three years ago, it features Manaktala as the NRI, or non-resident Indian, relocating to Bengaluru from the US. The various characters he runs into are caricatures of the city’s people and their eccentricities. For example, his Tamil cousin instructs the Kannada-speaking auto driver, “Dead-end left maadi” — meaning, turn left at the dead end. It’s as Bengalurean a driving instruction as any. Later in the skit, yet another character spouting the local Daccani lingo in a rapid-fire, tries to smooth-talk him into buying from him all the things he might need to start life in the city. Manaktala also visits an ‘authentic’ Arabian restaurant run by a ‘Gulf-returned’ Malayalee, where the only dish available is shawarma. Throughout the skit, just like in everyday Bengaluru, various characters speak in different languages, and all of them somehow manage to converse intelligibly with each other.

The city’s unique ability to speak in multiple languages — Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi, Telugu and English, among others — sometimes in the same sentence, makes for great stand-up material.

“Bengaluru will understand everyone, Punjabi, Tamil, Mumbaikar, and Delhiite. The city is well-read and it’s the most open place to perform,” says Manaktala, adding that it also helps that Bollywood does not dominate here, like in Mumbai. “A Bangalorean might enjoy a beer at Toit [a local pub] on Friday, theatre on a Saturday, and a movie on a Sunday. People here are open to various kinds of entertainment.”

A story often retold is that of Bengaluru’s whirlwind transformation from a sleepy, science- and research-focused city to an information technology hub. The population nearly doubled from about 48 lakh in 1995 to 85 lakh in 2011, making it the third populous city in India. While the city has long been multicultural in its ethos, the surge in migrants in the last 20 years from every part of India has made it even more of a melting pot.

Rao, who has performed over 1,000 shows across the world and is famous for his tongue-in-cheek humour, however points out that the process of melting — of various kinds of people, mindsets and thought processes — typically takes time. “While the world’s great cities like London and New York are constantly in transition as well, they have had a lot more years of melting. Bengaluru was definitely more homogeneous when I was growing up than it is today,” he says.

“All this melting is good for comedy because things are still very raw, there is a lot of self-doubt when it comes to identity here. The North Indians want to maintain their identity, the local people want to defend theirs, the conflicts between various socio-economic groups are increasing, and there is, of course, the pressure due to increasing population... Comedy comes out of conflict. If everything was kosher, our material would be homogeneous too.”

Standalone: Danish Sait is also famous for his 2018 Kannada-English film Humble Politician Nograj, a ribtickling comedy about a street-smart Bengaluru politician   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Danish Sait, famous for his 2018 Kannada-English film Humble Politician Nograj, a ribtickling comedy about a street-smart Bengaluru politician, concurs. “I think the diversity here is great for comedy. Within Bengaluru you have different sets of people who enjoy different comedy. In Whitefield you have the newer crowd; you have the old pensioners in the HAL colonies; if you go to Sadashiv Nagar or Banashankari, there is the old Kannadiga crowd; if you come towards Ejipura and Austin Town, you have Tamil Christians; and in Fraser Town you have the Muslim community. The influx of people when the IT boom happened made for the perfect mix for comedy as well, because you now have more to observe, to learn, and more to speak and make jokes about.”

Finding an original voice

Despite performing mostly in Hindi, Bengaluru is the place to be for stand-up professionals such as Gaurav Purohit.

“I am from Jodhpur and have been doing stand-up seriously for three years now. In Bengaluru you get a lot of stage time, and the crowd while being civilised is also a tough crowd, they won’t just laugh at anything you say. This helps me find my own voice. I’m constantly pushing myself to produce original material,” says Purohit.

Tickle-o-meter: The city’s crowd is perceived to be supportive and civilised but less-than-forgiving of content that is unoriginal - SUDHAKARA JAIN

“Even in shows like Comicstaan, a stand-up competition available on online streaming platform Amazon Prime, a lot of the good stand-ups were from here. I really feel that there is still a lot more talent that is yet to emerge from the city.”

While the spurt in popularity is pushing more and more people in the city to try their hand at stand-up, the audience tends to be less-than-kindly towards content that is not original.

As the seasoned artist Rao puts it, “As a stand-up one has to push their game, see what you are good at... and then continue with your style, hoping for a successful long-term career.” Unoriginal content will also lower the standard of comedy, he points out. “If the crowd only likes Santa-Banta [caricatures of Sikhs] jokes and you perform only that, it will create a vicious cycle. Unfortunately, I’m seeing a lot of people running behind formulas that work already, the kind of humour, treatment, everything sounds the same. I think this is because people don’t want to wait it out, they want to go viral immediately.”

The economy of comedy

For a relatively new entrant in India, stand-up comedy has witnessed a formidable growth in popularity in recent times. Online streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime and Netflix have commissioned more than 20 Indian stand-ups for exclusive shows, and cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and, to a lesser extent, Kolkata, Chennai and Hyderabad host stand-up shows every week.

And comedy is big business too. Depending on one’s popularity, a stand-up artist can earn anywhere from ₹50,000 to ₹10 lakh for a one-hour gig. Another source of revenue, sometimes running into thousands of dollars, involves creating content for online platforms, stand-up specials on online streaming platforms and, of course, brand integration — where comedians weave in a sponsor’s brand during their act.

Tanmay Bhat of Mumbai-based comedy and creative agency All India Bakchod (AIB) had said last year that they received one dollar for every 1,000 views for their YouTube videos. With more than 35 lakh subscribers and nearly 10 lakh views for its popular videos, AIB was among the highest-paid content producers for the video sharing website in India. In May this year, the company wound up after its co-founders were mired in the #MeToo controversy and their funding froze.

As with many other entertainment industries in India, the business is mostly centred in Mumbai. Only Much Louder or OML, one of India’s biggest talent management firms that represents more than 25 leading stand-up professionals, is based in Mumbai. Many of the comedy series and stand-up specials showcased on online streaming platforms are produced in the city too. “Simply put, Mumbai is where the money is,” says Khyati Raja, who has been performing at open mics and stand-up comedy shows in Bengaluru for nearly three years.

She however adds, “Many of the best comedians come from Bengaluru, though. It seems like once you have made it to a certain level of popularity, you move to Mumbai.”

Suresh, who created and starred in the Amazon Prime series Pushpavalli and appears in The Better Life Foundation, credits Mumbai for the exposure she got for her work. “As much as I love Bengaluru, if I didn’t move to Mumbai, I wouldn’t have gotten the work I have right now,” she says while, at the same time, remaining thankful to Bengaluru for honing her skills and craft. “Bengaluru has a unique voice that has now come forward onto the national stage with people like Kanan, Biswa, Kenneth, Naveen and me. All of us have distinct voices and stories to tell.”

ROFL continues

As the rainy Tuesday night’s open mic concludes, the stand-ups exchange notes on each other’s material and on upcoming shows. As Khyati Raja says, “Nowadays you have to register as soon as an open mic is announced; they seem to get booked within minutes of the announcement. At times, I’m like, what the hell, you have to fight for a spot, but I guess overall the competition is good.”

Serious biz: Bengaluru-based comic Khyati Raja performs at an open mic in a city café. She finds the local competition intense, often forcing her to fight for a spot - SIBI ARASU

So while local stars keep moving to Mumbai once they hit a certain barometer of success, Bengaluru keeps giving. As Rao says, “Bangalore is a place that was essentially a laidback, accepting city. There is this new aggressive drive that has come in. This juxtaposition is creating a lot of interesting encounters that is making for great stand-up material.”

Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru

Popular stand-up venues in Bengaluru
  • That Comedy Club, Koramangala
  • Bistro Claytopia, Koramangala
  • The Bangalore Comedy Club (different venues for each open mic; check their facebook page)
  • Oo Heaven, Kalyan Nagar
  • York St. Café, Koramangala
  • The Local, Kalyan Nagar
  • The Humming Tree, Indira Nagar
  • Pepperfry Studio, Indira Nagar
  • Vapour Pub and Brewery, Indira Nagar

Popular names

  • Lahe Lage, Kodihalli
  • Sundeep Rao
  • Sanjay Manaktala
  • Punya Arora
  • Suman Kumar
  • Praveen Kumar
  • Kjeld Sreshth
  • Ramya Ramapriya

Published on August 30, 2019

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