Reading Time: 11 minutesIndia’s comedians bare all ahead of their performances at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, write KIRA SPUCYS-TAHAR, GAURAV MASAND and RAJNI ANAND LUTHRA
Before starting his career as a stand-up comedian in November 2004, Papa CJ did his MBA at Oxford and worked as a management consultant in London.
Travelling in England, Papa CJ says people would say to him they knew about India because they’d seen Slumdog Millionaire.
He would reply, “And I know about England because I’ve seen Mr Bean!”
And when non-Indians talk to him today about the (freakish?) concept of arranged marriages and the big weddings, he points out to them that it is their system thatis arranged – or over-arranged – down to the last detail, with place settings and planned menus and rehearsed walks down the aisle, whereas our weddings are chaotic parties with hundreds of people coming and going, and where the dinner is more like a food fair.
“I like to mess with the stereotypes that people have about us,” Papa CJ says.
CJ stumbled into stand-up while studying in England. He loved going to the Edinburgh Festival and took a shot at the US contest Last Comic Standing where he managed to get into the finals (“There must have been a diversity clause,” he jokes).
Moving back to India, where stand-up wasn’t a thing, he claims he started it all off, with his first few shows at Delhi’s Mocha Bar. Within ten months, he’d done some 250 gigs.
“The stand-up scene in India is pretty massive at the moment. I’ve done gigs all around the country, and people pay anywhere from Rs300 to Rs3000 to come and listen. The corporate circuit is picking up too.”
This year marks Papa CJ’s Australian comedy festival debut as the first Indian comedian to be invited to perform a solo show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
Established in 1987, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) is the third-largest comedy festival of its kind in the world and one of the largest cultural events in Australia. The event takes place annually over four weeks and plays host to hundreds of local and international artists; in 2014 the festival listed 469 shows and 6,488 performances (including 159 free performances) by 2,228 artists.
This year’s edition of MICF has noteworthy representation from India. The flag bearers include Rohan Desai, Ruchir Ash besides Indian comedy circuit favourite Papa CJ, as well as international acts with links to the sub-continent including Arj Barker, Hari Kondabolu, Vivek Mahbubani, Sameena Zehra and Australia’s own Suren Jayemanne.
“We work in a bubble in India,” Papa CJ says. “It’s great to be able to come here, representing India, and to see that what we’re doing at home is relevant on a world stage.”
He has performed at the Just for Laughs festival in Canada and has become a regular on stage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He has visited Melbourne before, but these shows will be his Australian comedy festival debut.
But surely ‘Papa CJ’ is not the comedian’s real name? “Papa CJ is not the name I was born with but is the name I have taken,” he explains. “As a teenager I witnessed a brutal assassination involving an international mafia cartel. I have since been under a witness protection program by the International Court of Justice in The Hague…so I cannot reveal my true identity.” (We hope he’s joking!)
His new show, ‘Naked’ is different to the kind of work CJ usually does, in that it is a narrative, largely autobiographical. “My regular style involves plenty of crowd-work, where I chat with the audience and build from there.”
“With ‘Naked’, I talk about the human experience. And while I use my life story in the show, I talk about experiences that most people have had and emotions that most people have felt. Everybody leaves my show feeling that during a part of it, I was talking about their life and not mine!”
“‘Naked’ is a show that straddles the realms of stand-up comedy, theatre and storytelling,” Papa CJ continues. “In this journey, one brick at a time, I remove the walls that most human beings keep between themselves and others, exposing myself with all my vulnerabilities and all my pain. For me it is both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time and by the end, while I am completely naked, I am also completely free.”
Papa CJ has performed on a plane, on a train, on a bus, on a boat, in a police station, in the emergency room of a hospital while holding the head of a girl getting 32 stitches on it, and even at gunpoint! He has toured sell-out shows across the globe and last year won the ‘Asia’s Best Stand-up Comedian’ award from Top 10 Magazine.
So, how did this Indian tea-planter’s son become one of India’s most successful comedians?
“There are so many reasons why I do stand up. For one, it is the most amazing high ever. In years past, adventurers went out into the unknown in search of gold with great hope but not knowing whether or not they would find it. As a professional comedian, I go out into the unknown knowing that I have to find and deliver comedy gold every 15 seconds! But by far the best part of my job is never having to set an alarm to wake up in the morning. Ever.”
He adds, “I love the honesty that is involved in comedy. The interesting thing in comedy is the inward journey it forces me to take – what is my genuine feel about this particular issue?”
CJ likes to think of himself as an ‘Ambassador of Happiness’. “I had an 86-year-old woman come to me after a show in Kolkatta and say, ‘God bless you son, I haven’t laughed so much in 30 years.’ The other compliment I get frequently, which I really appreciate, is when people tell me that I make them proud to be Indian. I personally consider myself to be in the happiness business and not the comedy business. I get genuine joy out of seeing people laughing and happy. That is why in addition to pure stand-up, I do motivational speaking, have founded a charity for underprivileged children and do free shows in hospitals as well.”
Another audience member once called him a ‘blessing collector’.
“She said, ‘You just go around the world bringing happiness into people’s lives and collecting blessings.’ That really is what I do it for. The laughter on the faces of people and the blessings I receive are my return on investment.”
And what would he advise people who want to get in on the act?
“What are you waiting for? Get out there and do it. Drop me a line if you want, I’ll get you some stage time!”
Comedy Zone Asia: Rohan Desai
Although the Melbourne International Comedy Festival is mainly a vehicle for headline stand-up and cabaret acts, the event is also an opportunity for up-and-coming local and international acts.
Fellow Indian comedian Rohan Desai has already made his mark at the 2014 edition of MICF. The 25-year-old won a guest spot after winning the RAW Comedy India event in New Delhi in 2013.
“Going to Melbourne was my first international trip,” Desai says. “It was amazing to go to the RAW Comedy Final. To perform in a stadium of 2,000 people was just great!”
Desai grew up in Surat, Gujarat, four hours away from the nearest comedy club. He tried his luck around different open mic nights before hitting the stand-up scene with a bang. He says he’s “still figuring out the whole comedy thing”, but takes his inspiration from comedians he looks up to. “Stewart Lee. Obviously, like many Indians, Louis CK, and Jerry Seinfeld,” Desai says. “I also take inspiration from movies. Don Hertzfeldt, from the US, makes these short films and he has a really odd sensibility which I enjoy.”
After appearing in Melbourne, Desai earned a place on the Comedy Festival Roadshow Indian tour. “You’re performing in all these different places and I got to travel with the Australian comedians, to gain experience and learned from them on the road,” Desai says.
Desai believes there is great enthusiasm for comedy among Indians and that the scene in India is slowly expanding. “It’s a very exciting time for comedy in India,” he says. “There are people who talk more about the culture the urban youth can relate to – Facebook, Breaking Bad; then there are people who perform Hindi comedy; then there are people who have a more traditional stage style; then you have people who are experimental all the time. It’s growing so fast. The best thing is – you can do whatever you like! There’s an audience for everything, as long as you do it well.”
At MICF, Desai will be performing as part of the ‘ComedyZone Asia’ program, featuring top up-and-coming comedians from across Asia and their different comedy styles.
“If you’re expecting just a lot of Indian references…it’s not that,” Desai says of his performance. “It’s very universal. It’s very accessible, and hopefully funny. It’s just me being a nervous guy.”
Desai says he would describe himself as “an odd guy” with “a very strange way of enjoying comedy”. He recently performed at India’s largest comedy event – the Weirdass Pajama Festival. “The best part is not only performing, but seeing a lot of other comedy which opens your mind to different possibilities,” Desai says.
On the recent All India Bakchod controversy, Desai is frank. “It’s not the comedians’ fault,” he says. “People don’t understand the style of comedy. It was expected people would get offended, but not that they would take legal action! The problem is India has outdated laws. It’s just an easy way for these people to get publicity and attention by taking (the AIB group) to court. When you introduce new ideas to a traditional culture, you’re bound to have such issues.”
RAW Comedy National Grand Final: Ruchir Ash
Desai tells Indian Link his RAW Comedy successor, Kolkata’s Ruchir Ash is “really good” and he looks forward to seeing him perform in Melbourne.
When the 18-year-old arrives next week, it will be his first time in Australia. Ash, who is travelling with his dad, says he’s “really excited” about coming Down Under.
When he entered the RAW Comedy India event he was still experimenting with his comedy as a university student. “The Kolkata final was an unreal experience,” Ash says. “The response I got from the audience was beyond anything I had expected. The thrill of performing is unreal!”
Ash says his parents are supportive, but “My mum doesn’t know what comedy is; she hasn’t seen me perform. She doesn’t really understand or know about stand up.”
He reveals his biggest influences including Louis CK and India’s Rajneesh Kapoor. “I loveBill Burr and John Oliver because they use comedy to tackle serious issues rather than just punch-line humour. All forms of comedy are okay, but I personally would not want to go into ‘roast’ comedy,” Ash says, alluding to the AIB controversy.
Ash reveals he has already started working on material for the RAW Comedy Final. “I’ve tried to evolve. I don’t think I’m going to repeat much material from the heats. You get too accustomed to it, stop believing in your own jokes,” he says. “I’m just going to try to be myself and hope it works.”
“I’ve seen the audience on YouTube videos, and it’s a comedian’s dream – just thinking about performing is exciting!”
Homicidal Pacifist: Sameena Zehra
Someone who knows a lot about performing is Sameena Zehra. After working as a professional actor for almost 20 years, Zehra made the switch to comedy. “All of my life influences my comedy,” Zehra says, “No topic is off the table.”
After being born in Kashmir, Zehra moved to London as a baby. After her parents divorced when she was about seven, she moved back to Kashmir with her mother.
Zehra’s comedic influences range across different genres of comedy from Lenny Bruce to Jo Brand and Josie Long. And though she may be perceived as more of a rarity – a successful female in a male-dominated industry – Zehra doesn’t engage with the idea women are, or should be, treated differently in comedy.
“Through comedy I have met interesting, generous people,” she says. “I’m very confident and outgoing, so nothing has ever been said to my face, but I don’t know if I’ve missed out on shows because I’m a woman.”
“Women still get lesser wages, women are still fighting to be taken seriously across all fields. I think it distracts from the comedy itself to focus on that,” she continues. “I don’t think of myself as a ‘female, Asian comedian’, I want to be thought of with no qualification, just as a ‘comedian’.
Zehra is conscious of participating in ‘Asian-only’ gigs in the UK, saying she prefers to take part in interviews, shows and gigs that are about “crossing the divide”.
“I often won’t do ‘Asian-only’ gigs,” she says. “But I did one show for Women Against Fundamentalism, which is a cause close to my heart, and the women in the audience said to me, ‘We need to hear people like you; yours is a voice we want to hear.’ And that hit home to me how it can be important for younger women and men to see someone like me.”
“I grew up in India, but I’m very British and western in my thinking. I’m proud to consider myself a feminist. I don’t belong to any stereotype, I want to talk about human beings; it’s about engaging and having a conversation.”
Zehra’s show at MICF, ‘Homicidal Pacifist’, is a political and satirical performance about her “culling list”. “I’m a pacifist,” Zehra says, “But I’m also very angry. The show is my attempt to put those two conflicting elements together. It’s tongue-in-cheek, dark humour.”
In the show, Zehra outlines the individuals who should be ‘culled’ from the human race. “It’s not groups of people, just the individual ones. Like people who put spoons in the fork section of a cutlery drawer – I hate that!”
She talks about sex, the burqa, Charlie Hebdo. “It’s very personal, from my point of view. And everything I say has to be the truth. If it’s not the truth, it doesn’t work. My aim is to make people uncomfortable with the world and affect change.”
Eat Praline, Die: Suren Jayemanne
Closer to home, Australian-born Suren Jaymanne says his Sri Lankan and Malaysian background has slowly begun to influence his comedy and change the way he looks at the world.
“Growing up I never really saw myself as South Asian, I was just another kid,” Jayemanne says. “It didn’t really stand out to me that I was different. More recently I’ve noticed a change in society, a shift to an ‘us and them’ mentality. Slowly I’ve started to incorporate that into my comedy. Originally my comedy was shorter jokes not based on personal experiences, things observed or interpreting things differently. As I’ve progressed, I’m talking more personally, it’s more about the way I see the world.”
“If you kind of come from a different background to the standard white Anglo Saxon, you don’t want to rely on stereotypes for comedy,” Jayemanne says. “But now I have more experience, I feel like I can do it with meaning.”
Jayemanne admits he still works part time as an accountant though his passion is comedy. “I think of my accounting career kind of like the Carwash or Los Pollos in Breaking Bad,” he says. “It’s like the front or legit part of my business.”
Originally influenced by American comedians like Mitch Hedberg, Steven Wright and Demetri Martin, Jayemanne says after performing in Australia and watching and learning from others, “My influences have become those on the local scene. I’m a real fan of the Fear of a Brown Planet guys (Aamer Rahman and Nazeem Hussain) and I’m starting to incorporate more of that into my comedy.”
In 2014, Jayemanne was handpicked for MICF’s prestigious ‘Comedy Zone’, a showcase of Australia’s best emerging comedians. This year he’s making his Festival debut, fresh from a sold-out run at the Sydney Fringe.
“‘Eat Praline, Die’ is a reference to the fact I’ve grown up with food allergies,” Jayemanne says. (As a child he was allergic to eggs, sesame, nuts and shellfish.) “The show is a collection of stories about the two things I feel have influenced and shaped who I am today – growing up with food allergies and growing up with an ethnic background. The catalyst was going to the big 10 year high school reunion. It prompted me to reflect on where I’m at in life, what it is that’s led me to this point.”
“Over past few years I’ve outgrown a few of the allergies,” Jaymanne says. “I had prawns for the first time in December. My mum’s signature dish is sambal prawns so that was exciting.”
Jaymanne says as a child he used to joke around as a kind of defence mechanism to being ‘different’. “Thinking back, food allergies made me more unique than my cultural background,” Jaymanne says. “Now it seems society notices that more.”
The Melbourne International Comedy Festival and its Roadshow regularly tours South East Asia and India, and searches for local comics in Australia. Here’s hoping they continue to uncover new comedy talent so the Indians can take on Melbourne more often – not just on the cricket pitch!