Monday, May 16, 2016

Standing Up and Delivering

Stand-up comedian Kunal Rao entertained a crowd at a performance in Kochi

Photos by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Moments before he stepped on stage at the JT Pac, Kochi, on April 24, stand-up comedian Kunal Rao, 36, could feel a hollowness in the pit of his stomach. “This happens to me all the time,” he says. “I have met comedians abroad, with more than 25 years of experience, who have the same feeling.”

The stage, after all, is intimidating. There is only a mike and, on a low box, a few 500ml plastic bottles of water. In front are several hundred people staring at you. And you have to keep them entertained with your jokes, energy and stage presence. The chance to get booed, if you fail, is high.

Nevertheless, Kunal bounds in, dressed casually, in a white shirt and black jeans, and says, “Hi, how are you guys doing? How many of you have travelled all the way from Kochi?” This is in reference to the location of JT Pac, which is in the suburb of Tripunithara. Many hands go up. “You are such a posh crowd,” he says. “Give me a cheer if you have seen a stand-up comedy show earlier.”

Obligingly, the audience claps and lets out a shout. And then Kunal sets out on a one-hour rollicking ride, through a variety of topics: the behavior of rich people at a stand-up show, food habits, the experience of call-centre executives, watching 3D digital films, the right way to smoke a cigar (“Don't inhale”) and the difficulty of being a Brahmin.

We Brahmins have so many rules, traditions and rituals,” he says. “On Maha Shivaratri, most people enjoy a long weekend. But we have to wake up at 5 a.m., have a cold-water bath and do an eight-hour long puja. Eight hours long! That's longer than two IPL matches and half an Ashutosh Gowarikar film.”

It was a performance that evoked regular exclamations of delight. On his third visit, to Kochi, Kunal has a keen idea of the Kerala audience. “You have to approach taboo topics in a delicate way,” he says. “I am not saying people in the south are prudes, but they enjoy a certain subtlety.”

They are also a keen audience. “Because they have not seen too much comedy I can see that they are hungry for it,” he says. “The laughter is so happy and joyous. On stage, we get such an amazing pleasure to listen to it.”

Kunal has heard this laughter all over India – Delhi, Kolkata, Guwahati, Shillong, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Chennai and Nagpur. He has also performed in Dubai, Holland, Paris, Barcelona, Boston, Washington DC, and Atlanta.

“People react differently from place to place,” he says. “In the north they may not enjoy a particular joke as much as the people in the south or abroad. Many people have felt offended by the four-letter words I use. Sometimes, when I pick on members of the audience, and make fun, they get angry. But I don't get upset. I have learnt to be thick-skinned and move on.”

Kunal is an unlikely person to be a stand-up comedian. Brought up in a traditional Andhra family in Mumbai, Kunal began with a risk-proof career of a Chartered Accountant (CA). “It took me a long time to understand that I am not cut out for something like CA,” he says. “The moment I realised that I am a creative person, I moved forward in a cautious way. In the sense I would do stand-up on the weekends. But once I got a sufficient income, I started doing stand-up full time [since 2011].”

Asked to describe a day in a full-time stand-up comedian’s life, Kunal says, with a straight face, “Definitely, during the first half of the day I am cleaning my house. Thereafter, I read the newspaper.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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