In Kolkata, talking heads and funny bones

While people naturally associate Kolkata with art and music, it has a thriving stand-up comic culture that largely remains unknown

In Kolkata, talking heads and funny bones

Tunir Biswas

I had been a fan of stand-up comedy for quite a while and like many, I thought that stand-up comedy scene in India was only to be found in Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi.

But following a chance encounter with a group at a café in Tollygunge, Kolkata, ironically sporting the name The Chaiwala, I wondered if the comedy scene in Kolkata is underrated or if I was ignorant of the youth culture in Kolkata.

I decided to visit The Chaiwala again, hoping to get some of those comics to chat. They turned out to be good sports and readily answered my questions.

“Well everyone around the country talks about the Kolkata scene being underrated, so it’s not really underrated, is it,” chuckled Ritabrata Das. He was searching for funny videos on YouTube when he was 14 years old and stumbled upon Russell Peters, he recalled.

“I have been hooked since then on comedy. My first time was actually in Mumbai funnily enough, at the Canvas Laugh Club. I did not know open mics happened in Kolkata too; So, I flew to Mumbai to try out and the comics there told me about the open mic scene in Kolkata,” he says, chuckling again. He is now a strapping lad of 24.

Amrita Chanda performs her stand-up act in English. I asked if the language restricted her audience and the response she received. “You see I’m a bad joke writer. Language isn’t the problem” said Amrita, giggling.

Jerry Seinfeld, she pointed out, said Stand-Up Comedy was about failing 97% of the times. He had added, “most people only get to see the other 3%”. Amrita agrees.

“My first time went horribly wrong, not because people didn’t understand what I was saying but because they couldn’t understand why I was saying what I was saying that and what I found so funny in it,” she deadpanned.

“Many comics in India do their stuff in English so I do not think people have an issue with it. Also, it is about what one is comfortable with. I am more at ease when performing in English than in Hindi and my jokes go well with English, so there…,”

“I mostly perform in Hindi”, said Sujit Pandey. “I discovered the stand-up scene in 2013 when I was doing my MBA. Most of the comics then were doing their stuff in English. Then guys like Zakir Khan blew up and my doubts were laid to rest.”

Nishat Iqbal was 14 years old when he started losing faith in God. He came of age with atheism when he stumbled onto a video of the celebrated stand-up comic, George Carlin.

“There is a difference between deciding to do stand-up and doing it. I had a bad case of stage fright. I used to spy on the open mic sessions from the outside before I found the guts to actually do it,” he recalls.

Watching them perform was an experience. All of them made the audience laugh; yet none of them had the same or similar sense of humour. Someone had a very clean, innocent, even joyous style while another would be dark and sarcastic.

Riju Chatterjee quipped, “No two people have the same sense of humour; so there are some people who draw from their personal experiences which makes their joke more authentic and diminishes chances of repeating jokes which have already been written; while there are others who joke about topical issues or darker, political issues.”

“People respond to funny things; if what the comedian is saying is funny, they will laugh. Naturally, if you’re joking about something controversial, you need to make sure the joke itself is not controversial. An offensive joke should be funnier rather than offensive, only then will it go well. If you’re joking about risky topics just to appear edgy or solely for the shock factor, then nobody will respond to it nicely,” he elaborates.

“No one really goes to an open mic to make everyone laugh. We go there to test jokes and hopefully find certain people who like our particular sense of humour, comedy after all is highly subjective,” he added.

Apart from Fridays at The Chaiwala, there are other places in the city where people enjoy stand-up. There are two other branches of The Chaiwala, one on Southern Avenue and the other in Hatibagan. Open mics are held there every week on Tuesdays and Wednesdays respectively.

Then there is Café HQ in Mudiali, Kalighat, and they hold open mics on Saturdays and Sundays. But to attend shows by local comics, I would suggest following ‘Mad Bee Comedy Club Kolkata’ and ‘TitleOpenMic’.

One can contact their social media handles to get more information. Follow Mad Bee on their Facebook page @ Mad Bee Comedy Club Kolkata, for the gigs at Café HQ follow them on Instagram @titleopenmic and @chaiwala_mic for The Chaiwala.

The open mics at Café HQ done by TitleOpenMic are relatively new but have taken the local scene by storm. I would strongly suggest checking them out aside from The Chaiwala and Mad Bee is probably the biggest here when it comes to shows.

It, however, seemed like there is a lack of a regular audience at these open mic venues, an audience that actively seeks local comedy.

People in India have a star-studded mentality. They only attend events when someone famous is involved. But then again, you can’t really complain. Most people are caught up in their struggles and can’t find the time for anything else. So, it’s cool,” says comedian Brijesh Jha philosophically.

To many youngsters, Kolkata does resemble an old man. Things happen at a leisurely pace and people are high on nostalgia. But there are youth who are passionate about changing things; artists who paint on a universal scale or those who write songs and the ones who sing them.

Among them are some who look for giggles in the dark. They hustle for chuckles on unknown faces. In underground gigs they are hunting for laughter, surprising people with hilarity when they least expect it.

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