Monday, August 20, 2012

A load of laughs!

With potent one-liners and personal anecdotes, four stand-up comedians – Praveen Kumar, Kunal Rao, Brij Bhakta and Aditi Mittal – allow a Kochi audience to enjoy non-stop fun

Photos: Praveen Kumar; Aditi Mittal

By Shevlin Sebastian  

How many of you think life sucks?” asks Praveen Kumar at the start of 'Laff Lines', a two-hour stand-up comedy show at the JT Performing Arts Centre, Kochi. The crowd is silent. Then Praveen says, “Let me rephrase the question: how many of you are married?”

As the crowd erupts in laughter, Praveen gives a shy smile. “I am so happy to be in the second city where you find the most Malayalis,” he says. “The first, of course, is Dubai.”

The jokes continue: Rajnikant is Tamil Nadu's top superstar. And a superstar can do anything. One day, a girl rushes up to him and says, “Sir, I have lost my virginity.” Rajnikant immediately replies, “Don't worry, I will find and return it to you.”

The audience is in splits, but Praveen is getting warmed up. “I went to Thailand for a honeymoon,” he says. “Only a fool will do that. And I saw such inviting posters: 'Take two girls and get one HIV free!'”

All this is a far cry from the day Praveen performed for the first time in front of a young corporate crowd in Bengaluru on November 26, 2009. “I did five minutes of material and the people started booing me,” he says. “They burst balloons and interrupted me in the middle of my jokes. They wanted me to get down from the stage.” Finally the Master of Ceremonies intervened.

Praveen ran out of the hall. “I went home and cried my heart out,” he says. “It was one of the worst days of my life.” But he learnt a few lessons. “There is a difference between spoken and written humour,” he says. “Most of the time what is written might not work on stage. You have to perform in front of a live audience to know what will work.”

And he kept performing till he became better. “In 2009, I did five shows a year,” he says. “Now I do five shows a week.” But it is still not a full-time job. During the week, he works as a senior marketing specialist for a US-based financial solutions company.

But the Mumbai-based Kunal Rao, at 32, has already retired as a chartered accountant. “I was looking for something creative to do,” he says. And he stumbled upon stand-up comedy when his college friend, Sorabh Pant, was performing comedy shows. “I became his opening act for the one-hour show,” he says. So far, Kunal has done 150 shows in places like Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Alibagh, Nasik, and Kochi.

A lot of the material is personal,” he says. “So I talk about being single and vegetarian, and of my life as a former chartered accountant. I have a standard routine, but I do a couple of lines about the city I am performing in.”

Like all the other stand-up comedians, he has performed in pubs, restaurants, auditoriums, hotels, and numerous corporate functions all over the country.

But unlike Kunal, Brij Bhakta has performed, not only in India, but in the United States of America. “I grew up in America,” he says. “Two of the greatest stand-up comics – Bill Cosby and George Carlin – served as an inspiration for me.” Brij did a five-year course at the ImprovOlympic at Chicago. “I studied acting, directing, writing scripts and stand-up comedy,” he says.

And his sets, obviously, has an American angle. When Brij was 14 years old, he was waiting outside his school in St. Louis, Missouri, for his father, Madhukar Bhakta. Suddenly a classmate, Rebecca, came and hugged him. “I hugged her tightly back,” says Brij. “When I turned around I saw that my father had come.”

He got in and Madhukar sported a long face. “Throughout the car ride, my father remained silent,” says Brij. “He did turns of the steering wheel, without shifting his body. Like as if he was driving straight ahead all the time.”

They reached home and Madhukar parked the car in the garage. “See this,” he told Brij, as he took out the latch of the seat-belt and put it back in the socket. “Do this only after your marriage,” he said.

Asked about the qualities needed to be a good stand-up, Brij says, “You have to believe in what you say. You should not tell jokes for the sake of telling them. You have to put yourself in the joke. Honesty is also important. The stuff that I say really happened to me. Yes, I may be bending the truth little, but it is still true. Lastly, your material should be funny.”

Aditi Mittal looks funny. She makes all sorts of body movements: bulging out eyes, legs locked together, pushing her bum out, and expressive hand gestures. And, not surprisingly, her jokes are from a woman’s viewpoint. “I talk about my interactions with sanitary napkins, ghosts, animals,  eve-teasers and Bollywood,” she says. “Everybody loves to hate Bollywood.” 

In 2004, Aditi had gone to New Jersey to do a bachelor’s degree in mass communication and theatre at the Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey . On weekends, she would go to New York and watch a lot of stand-up comedy. When she returned to Mumbai in 2009, she took part in ‘Open Mic Nights’ for aspiring stand-up comedians. On January 16, 2010, she did her first show and has now done several performances in Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Hyderabad , Chennai, and Kochi.

Indians are maturing as a people,” says Aditi. “Earlier, when you made fun of somebody, people took it as a slight. Now, they are ready to laugh at themselves.” And stand-up comedy is rapidly becoming a popular form of entertainment. “Everybody likes the fact that under the jokes there is an underlying truth,” she says. “As the saying goes, ‘Truth is comedy; comedy is truth.’”

Aditi’s happiest moment occurred during a performance in Bengaluru, when a woman shouted, “Oh my God my mascara is coming off!” The reason: she was laughing so much the tears caused her make-up to flow.

In Kochi, Aditi also reduces the audience to tears with her routine. Once she makes a clever allusion to the American invasion of Iraq in 1991. “They will make deodorants out of anything,” she says. “However they will not make anything out of the two smells that we like: wet mud and petrol. If you use petrol deodorant, then America will invade your armpits. And that would be reason enough for Bush to be in there also.” 

And last, but not the least, Aditi takes a potshot at the Mallus: "Dude, with that moustache, every coffee you drink will be a filtered one."

(A shorter version appeared in The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

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