A childhood spent in Uttar Pradesh taught writer Varun Grover how to fight, quite literally, for basic amenities that big city dwellers take for granted. One of his most vivid memories is of surviving entire days without power, and then marching to the electricity office late at night with the elders in the area to get it back up. This process usually involved angry protests, threats and roughing up of officials – a way of life in UP. Grover, now 35 and a successful writer in film and television in Mumbai, narrates these anecdotes with grave intensity, almost like they took place just the other day. One of his many talents is performing stand-up comedy, a medium that allows him to give vent to these early frustrations by dressing it up with humour and sarcasm. “The younger crowd that is 30 and below wants something with some sort of shock value, something that is slightly more intelligent or something that makes them work a little on the joke,” says Grover.
In his initial experiments with stand-up, Grover would deliberately perform more in English and use less Hindi. That choice too was an extension of his early conditioning. “Coming from Lucknow, you always have that complex of not being very good with English. You’re also always under-confident about your mother tongue. I felt Hindi mein bolunga toh log reject kar denge,” he says. Most of the venues he was performing at were in upscale areas of Mumbai, like Bandra and Lower Parel, which attract a predominantly urban, English-speaking crowd. “It’s not like they wouldn’t understand Hindi, but it was my own complex that was stopping me. Today, I use 70 per cent Hindi and 30 per cent English.”
On television, there have been plenty of stand-up or sketch comedy shows in Hindi. Grover himself began his career by writing satirical shows like The Great Indian Comedy Show and Jay Hind!, which had something of a cult following. “I was greatly influenced by Jaspal Bhatti, who was one of the first to do satire on TV with Flop Show and Ulta Pulta. That worked for me, because I was living the same life he was talking about. Another huge inspiration was Shekhar Suman’s Movers and Shakers. I still remember the day it started, I was in class 11 at the time. Bhatti was doing sketches, but this was the first time I saw stand-up,” he recalls.
Stand-up comedy wasn’t considered an actual profession until a few years ago. The launch of The Comedy Store in Mumbai’s luxury shopping mall, Palladium, in 2009, opened the doors for closeted comics to come out and perform for a live audience. The leading acts were British comics imported from the store’s UK venue, and around them flourished local talent, all whom performed primarily in English. “For some reason, organizers feel that comedy can only be done in English. That’s a little elitist. Somewhere, language is representative of a class. Some stories are better told in Hindi, and some in English. Stories are independent of language,” says Sanjay Rajoura, one of the first humourists to perform solely in Hindi. It is a language that comes naturally to him, and jokes with Western references, he says, are usually lost on him because he’s never been exposed to them.
Rajoura was born in Bulandshahr in UP and schooled in Delhi. He later worked as a software engineer in San Francisco and Singapore, and the thrust of his material is the widening urban-rural gap in India that he has witnessed first-hand. Those who have followed Rajoura’s work or his Twitter handle will know of the term ‘urban tucchha’, which comes up often in his work. “These are people who are well educated, go to good schools and colleges, par soch wahi hai, tucchhe (cheapskates) jaisi,” he says. A grouse that the 45-year-old has is being pegged as a comedian; he prefers being looked upon as a storyteller who talks about the social realities around him. “I once spoke about the 2001 Parliament attack, and there was stunned silence in the room. Maybe they were too shocked that I brought it up. I’ve noticed this in many venues,” he says. In filmmaker Jaideep Varma’s documentary ‘I Am Offended’, Rajoura passionately explains what led him to this life. “Mujhe aas paas ki bewakoofiya or nainsafiyan bardaasht nahi hoti. Mujhe lagta hai mujhe kuchh karna chahiye iske bare mein,” he says. (I can’t stand stupidity and injustice around me. I feel like doing something about it.)
Rajoura performs very few shows a year, and most of them are at college and literature festivals. The material he is currently working on deals with caste inequalities and gender issues. “The caste system is so deep rooted and hard wired in our minds that we flaunt it, use it, and are prejudiced sometimes without even knowing it,” he says. One of Rajoura’s signature shows is Aisi Taisi Democracy, which he performs along with Grover and Indian Ocean frontman Rahul Ram. The idea behind the show is to question the concept of democracy in India, moral policing, censorship and other present-day issues by drawing heavily from their small-town upbringing. “It comes from growing up in Lucknow and Banaras. I’ve seen lives being fucked because of politics,” says Grover. “In Mumbai, people are on auto-pilot, they don’t care about what’s happening around them. If you’re above a certain strata, you will get those facilities. You don’t have to care about what people living in the slums are getting or not getting. In Lucknow, no matter who you are, if there are power cuts for 12 hours, it will affect you,” he says.
Nitin Gupta is an IIT Bombay graduate who opted for a career in stand-up comedy instead. He predicts that Hindi or Hinglish comedy “is the next big thing”. Gupta, who also hails from UP, has performed shows across north India, Mumbai, Pune, the Silchar region and the south as well. According to him, he rarely identifies with humour which makes western pop culture references. A 2013 YouTube video of Gupta performing for college students in Lucknow shows his set on the frequent rapes in the NCR being received with thunderous applause. “NCR stands for ‘no country for rape victims’. This region – Noida, Gurgaon, Delhi – is like the Bermuda triangle for justice. If you’re a rape victim, justice for you is almost impossible to find,” he ranted. “Earlier, my content was in the macro world — scams, rapes and so on. Now it is micro — small things like how Jats behave, what happens at a toll plaza, how people talk in restaurants, or how Indians behave when they visit Vaishnodevi,” he says, adding that Hindi or Hinglish comedy is the way forward.
It’s a sentiment shared by Sundeep Sharma, a stand-up artist since 2000. “When English comedy came, it was the new cool thing, but now we are becoming more accepting of the fact that we are Indians, and it is okay to speak Hindi,” says Sharma, who performs mostly in Hindi with some English thrown in. “Beech beech main English bol deta hoon taaki pata chale ki hum bhi padhe likhe hain,” he jokes. (I use a few English words here and there so that I sound educated.)
Sharma has worked as a voice over artiste for the popular show Gustakhi Maaf on NDTV for 10 years. The show took sarcastic jibes at political figures, who were represented as puppets. Sharma’s mimicry of LK Advani, Manmohan Singh and Mulayam Singh Yadav on the show was spot on, and it’s something he uses a lot in his stand-up acts as well. “I’m a Hindi medium kid from Bareilly. We had to speak the same script in Hindi and English. So if I wanted to earn double the money, I had to say the same script in both languages. Whatever English I speak today is because of that show,” he says.
Until recently, there was an unwritten policy at the Canvas Laugh Club, one of the biggest mainstream platforms for stand-up comics, which allowed only artistes who performed in English. This was possibly an outcome of being run by British management. In the last couple of months, that has changed. Now, there’s a concerted effort to include Hindi performers as well. Gupta says that within the NCR region, there have been a handful of new talents that have been performing in Hindi for a while, which worked fine in that area. They now get invitations from the Canvas Laugh Club as well. “They’ve got a flavour of Delhi comedy and realised it was hilarious,” he says.
“Even the comics who are performing in English use punch lines that are in Hindi. That’s the language of the masses,” points out Sharma. “I have some sets in English too. There are certain things that might sound vulgar when I say them in Hindi. Like a sex joke is more effective in English, people understand it better,” he adds. Grover, on the other hand, believes that there are some strong terminologies in Hindi that would lose their bite if he were to translate them. “If you say the same joke in English about Manmohan Singh, it may not get through with the same intensity because of the idiom which Hindi provides me. For example, the phrase ‘zeher ki anguthi chaatke mar jaaye’. I would say Manmohan Singh would be one minute away from doing that, because he was so frustrated. These kinds of things are hard to translate,” he says.
Twenty-five-old Appurv Gupta is an upcoming talent from New Delhi who has recently been asked to perform at the Canvas Laugh Club in Mumbai. So far, his calendar is quite packed. The youngster has taken his comic acts beyond urban metros, into the deeper pockets of India – Kaishipur in Uttarakhand, Baroda, Surat, Bhopal and Ludhiana, to name a few. Naturally, in these regions, a performer in Hindi can draw more laughs. “I have performed both in Hindi and English, and I see Hindi is appreciated as much if not more that English. When I tried Hinglish, I got the best response,” he says.
Ultimately, all artistes agree that is the content that is king. If a joke has merit, it will leave an impact, irrespective of the language of communication. However, if the art of stand-up comedy is to grow, its reach must stretch beyond the confines of Mumbai and New Delhi. “Their (English comics) idea of doing stand-up in Hindi is Comedy Nights With Kapil, which they don’t want to become,” notes Appurv. Grover adds that despite a failed performance in Bengaluru, where all his jokes were met with a stony silence, he persists with Hindi because it takes him to smaller cities like Indore, Bhopal and Kanpur, where the audience connects with his thoughts instantly. “Hindi or Hinglish comedy is the next big thing,” says Gupta. “You have to do shows which capture a small-city mindset. That will be the next big wave.”