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The regional rib
A maha-lingam joke for a Tamil audience, and an SUV crack for saddi Dilli... English stand-up comics go local as desi gags get the loudest laughs.
India, said Mark Twain, is a "country of a thousand nations and a hundred tongues". So how do you make such a diverse bunch laugh? As stand-up comedians are finding out, in India, it's the local touch that usually gets the loudest guffaws.
Rewind to an open mic night at a south Delhi bar. The first two acts that evening have fallen flat. The first, a girl from Mumbai, talks of life in Mumbai. The second is a Malayali man with convent-school English and a brand of humour to match. The audience appears more interested in the bar.
The mood changes with the next two acts. Standup No. 3 is a Jat who talks of the woes of dealing with a girlfriend who turns out to be lesbian. "As a Jat, I am programmed to beat up men who so much as look at my girlfriend. But I have no idea what to do with women who look at my girlfriend. "
No. 4 introduces himself as being from west Delhi and, in west Delhi English, talks of Delhi's fondness for large SUVs and sport. "Every car here will also contain a hockey stick or a baseball bat. " (The dig is at the Delhi driver's road-raging ways and his penchant for driving equipped for the occasion. ) The Delhi audience gets it in a trice. They crack up. Call us parochial, stereotypical or simply victims of our own culture. We've been like this only: regional to our last funny rib. Stand-up comedians, brave practitioners of a phoren import, are valiantly trying to crack the culture code. And "desifying" their acts as they go along. Does it help to be a local boy? To an extent, says stand-up comic Maheep Singh. "In Delhi, as a sardar, I only have to walk on to stage and people will start giggling. For some reason, it's funny. But the same stereotype can work against me in Chennai. " Does that then mean we can only be regaled by a comedian from our backyard? Not necessarily, says Maheep, adding that he has performed in Mumbai and that went off okay. "But if I'm doing a show in Chennai, I'll have to talk about the Indian family or middle class rather than joke about Tamils. I'm sure there are a thousand jokes one can do on the Maha-lingams but I have no idea whether I'll offend somebody because I don't understand their culture. "
The fact that the crowd at these performances is English-speaking doesn't help much. "Language minus culture equals ineffective communication, " says Prof Vaishna Narang of the Centre for Linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University's School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies. What she means is that a sardar and a Tamil might use the same language - English for example - to speak to each other but if they do not understand each other's cultures, then they will not communicate very effectively.
But comedian Rajneesh Kapoor says the problem is more about differences in class, not region or language. "People in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore who come to watch stand-up comedy are all pretty much the same, " he adds. In other words, what works in cosmopolitan Delhi should also get laughs in cosmopolitan Mumbai with a bit of tweaking.
Narang says urbanisation has made people's lives more similar. "So if Kapoor limits his jokes to urban culture, he should be alright in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. "
But apparently not in Bhatinda. Kapoor recently turned down a gig there because he knew he wouldn't do well. "If I crack a joke about Keanu Reeves and Speed, they won't get it. I could do jokes about Dhoom 2 but then I haven't watched it, " he says.
Stand-up comedy is still a relatively new concept in India. The first open mic nights were held in Delhi by Papa CJ, and in Mumbai by Vir Das in 2009. "It has been less than four years since, but even in that little time, both the stand-ups and their audiences have matured, " says Kapoor. "Non-veg" jokes and toilet humour aren't all there is to it now and many comedians pride themselves on doing "observational" comedy - playing pop sociologists with humour thrown in.
Maheep says the audience has also changed. When he started out, he was told not to crack jokes in Hindi, because "the crowd would be English-speaking types. " Today, he says, "many Hindispeaking types" are coming to see live acts following the popularity of comedy shows on television.
Recently, Maheep did a show in Rajouri Garden in west Delhi. The show was called 'A Sardar', during which he found himself talking to a roomful of sardars. "How, " he asks, "could I have not told sardar jokes in Punjabi?" Clearly, the "desification" of English stand-up comedy is here to stay. And the better comedians seem to be those who understand local culture and social norms. But don't expect this bunch to respect them.
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