Comics who, in their own unique ways, have woven the city and its nuances into their craft.
The city has greeted the recent influx of standup shows with encouraging attendance and loud guffaws. From Aditi Mittal’s Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say to Sorabh Pant’s My Baby Thinks I Am Funny, we have seen a barrage of comics staging their new solo shows here. We catch up with our own home-grown performers who have made their mark outside the state, while conveying what the city means to them through their art.
In this digital era, standup comics have taken to various online platforms to keep viewers engaged. AIB to East India Comedy, these comic collectives have a cult online following. Put Chutney is one brand that has successfully brought the funny side of Chennai to a much wider audience via the web, and one of the people behind this is comedian Rajiv Rajaram—the current creative director of Culture Machine of which the channel is a part. While their latest video, poking fun at the mystery surrounding chief minister Jayalalithaa’s health, has already garnered more than a lakh and seventy thousand views, Madurai-born Rajaram tells us why the city, which has been his base for the past 11 years, never ceases to be a boiling pot of inspiration for him. Starting with the oft-quoted joke ‘Chennai is a city, Madras is an emotion, Anna Nagar is a different country’, the 31-year-old says that it’s the little ’somethings’ of the city that are inspiring. He gives us an example.
If you go to watch a Hindi movie in the city and there is a joke in the film, everybody will laugh. Then, three minutes later, a few others will laugh. Those late to the joke will be the ones accompanied by a Hindi speaking friend who would have translated for them. That’s how you know you are watching a movie in Chennai. Rajaram, whose channel released the video, What if Batman was from Chennai, which got it the country’s attention, says that a similar video might be in the offing.
The 90’s kids will remember VJ Lola Kutty—with her spectacles, gajra and kanjeevaram sari—popping up on their television screens, complete with an over-the-top Malayali accent. Now Anuradha Menon, a Chennai-born Malayali, is focussing on theatre and standup comedy. Laughing about the fact that her Mumbai-bred son’s Hindi sounds like a typical South Indian’s, Menon tells me that her material is adjusted to suit the city in which she performs. From being married to a Gujarati to her mother’s incredibly
terrible Tamil, her life experiences form a major part of this ‘observational’ comic’s routines. While some may call the ‘Chennai is not the capital of Madras’ jokes a stereotype or a cliché, the 35-year-old tells us that these still rile the audiences as “stereotypes are stereotypes because they are true”. The Mumbai-based artiste feels that when it comes to discerning audiences, Chennai tops the list of any standup comic and admits that she has been asked a lot on which city (Mumbai or Chennai) she would call her own. “Definitely for work Mumbai has been there for me, because I have been living here for nearly 12 years now, but Chennai is always home,” she says.
As I speak with Karthik Kumar on the phone, he is on his way to watch comedian Sapan Verma perform his solo, Obsessive Comedic Disorder, at the Egmore Museum Theatre. The director and co-founder of city-based theatre and comedy company Evam—who has performed his solo in Singapore and the US—has local flavour in his material. His first special, #PokeMe, is infused with elements like the North-South divide (“North Indians believe that all Southies are Madrasis who speak Malayali”) and the Maggi/curd rice discussion. “It took us time to understand how to relate to audiences in a way that is Indian English at the same time not completely regional, in order to be able to perform it across the country,” he says. Currently touring with his latest, Second Decoction, which he will be taking to the UK next month, the 38-year-old says that playing with stereotypes and clichés is what all beginners find recourse in, but they eventually figure out their niche. His latest offering, the name of which is derived from the quintessential filter coffee, deals with the typical Chennai middle class mentality—all taken from his own experiences. Talking about how the city has influenced him as an artiste, Kumar says, “Chennai always has multiple identities—trying to be as urban as possible while the heart of the city is always mildly conservative and a little shy. It is that dichotomy that makes for very powerful material.” While he hasn’t yet started work on his next special, which will be out next year, he states with certainty that the city will be a part of it. “Whatever I write will have its soul in Chennai,” he concludes.
DWith an appearance in the recently-released sex comedy, Brahman Naman, Kartik Iyer is an established name in the country-wide standup comedy circuit. The 40-year-old, who says that he has been following standup as an art form for almost 25 years and plans on writing a new show this year, was inspired by comedian Russell Peters to make his foray. His routines and performances, like the Higher Iyer Show, have had an unmistakably strong Southern character. “Since I am from Chennai, there is the perspective of a South Indian in whatever topic I speak about,” admits the Bengaluru-based CEO of ad firm Happy mcgarrybowen, better known as his ‘day job’. A trained theatre actor, Iyer feels that comedy is an ever evolving art form. Joking about how the city and his life here has inspired his material, he says, “The heat has really melted my brain allowing it to flow freely in all directions,” but adds on a more serious note that, “To have all (my experiences) in the cultural mish-mash that Chennai is, has
truly added to my voice as a comedian.”
Text: Simar Bhasin