‘Fighting up against colonialism is glorious!’ The unstoppable rise of Indian comedy in Britain

In the summer of 2010, Anuvab Pal wrote an article about the opening of the Comedy Store in Mumbai, impresario Don Ward’s attempt to introduce British-style stand-up to India. Pal, then working mainly as a screenwriter, went to interview Ward, whose legendary London venue was a cradle of alternative comedy in the 1980s. He told Pal that the press coverage was all well and good, but he really needed artists. The original plan – to fly British comics to India – would be too expensive to sustain in the long term, which meant he had to find talent quickly. Would Pal audition for him?

Pal agreed, but remained skeptical. “I remember saying to my family, ‘This is just a little hobby, I don’t think English comedy will become popular in India,’” he recalls. “Fourteen years later, here we are chatting. I still wake up every morning thinking, ‘Of course this is going to end.’”

That seems very unlikely. Not only has standup grown exponentially in India in the intervening years, but in a satisfying twist on its British export origins, it is now returning to Britain on an unprecedented scale. Last year, 28-year-old Urooj Ashfaq from Mumbai won the award for best newcomer on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Weeks later, Zakir Khan became the first Asian comic to headline London’s Royal Albert Hall, while Vir Das – a superstar in his home country – sold out the Hammersmith Apollo in December. And having become one of the founding fathers of Indian stand-up – Ashfaq calls him ‘a legend’ – Pal has also made a name for himself in Britain, thanks to appearances on The News Quiz, QI and The Bugle podcast. This month he embarks on a 16-date UK tour.

Like all of pop culture, stand-up is an increasingly global endeavor, but Indian comedy is leading the way in popularity. Why? “The whole industry has gone from non-existent to huge in 10 years,” says Kanan Gill, a star of the Indian scene who is also touring Britain this month. Live comedy existed in India before 2010, of course, but it was nothing like stand-up as the British know it today. There were no dedicated comedy venues; Pal remembers individual acts renting venues to perform in, while the content consisted of “imitations, voices, a lot of anecdotal stories”. The Anglo-American art of one man and their microphone “telling it as if it were about their everyday lives” was unheard of, Pal says. When it arrived, “it broke a lot of taboos. In the beginning we had quite a few strikes, with people shouting, ‘What is this?’ It was the strangest argument.”

People in India are more easily shocked by liberal ideas and people in Britain are more shocked by traditional ideas

Urooj Ashfaq

Initially, this new style of comedy “felt like a British export,” says Gill. “The Comedy Store had a very specific idea of ​​how stand-up shows are structured, and that stuck for a while.” It is still performed primarily, though not exclusively, in English, another reason for its international reach. (English also transcends the many languages ​​spoken in parts of India, says Ashfaq.) With television showing off the more traditional style of comedy — largely performed in Hindi — this new form found a natural home on the Internet. As it spread online, a real infrastructure sprang up around it, with comedy clubs “in every city in India,” says Pal.

When the Indian comedians who first made it came to Britain, the idea was to perform in specific areas for the South Asian diaspora audience, many of whom knew the stand-ups from social media. That is changing. Pal – who always wanted to woo the Radio 4 audience and go to cities that Indian comedians are not usually as fond of as Tunbridge Wells – has been steadily making waves for years, with Ashfaq’s win in Edinburgh and subsequent UK tour that proven. the wider British audience was very interested in Indian stand-up. Her success has yielded ‘a lot’ [Indian] comedians are now looking at this as something we can do,” says Sapan Verma, stand-up and co-founder of the East India Comedy collective. “It’s a career goal to get to the edge.” Recently, Verma was fascinated to find two Mancunians in the front row of his London performance. “I understand Indians – they follow me on Instagram or they have a bit of nostalgia – but I always ask non-Indians how they decided to come, I find it exciting.” (The pair had come across one of Verma’s YouTube videos. “They said, ‘Long story, but we really liked it.'”)

Verma performed at the Soho Theatre, the central London venue that does a huge amount to facilitate this cultural exchange: it has hosted more than twenty Indian stand-ups in recent years. Initially, these acts “connected mainly with the huge South Asian audience in Britain,” says executive director Mark Godfrey, who started the Soho Theater India project partly for personal reasons (“my father is Anglo-Indian and I wanted a making a film he is proud”). However, these comedians are increasingly helping to maintain Soho Theatre’s place at the forefront of comedy. “We want our comedy program to feel fresh and if there are new things going on in the world it’s important that Soho finds them.”

In the beginning we had strikes, people shouting: what is this?! It was the strangest argument

Anuvab Pal

Comedy usually operates on two paradoxical axes: it is based on recognisability, but is fueled by new perspectives. It is these two dueling elements that have helped Indian stand-ups connect with the British audience. Ashfaq says she feels “more unique” performing in Britain than in India, and is able to bridge gaps in vision that make audiences think, “Wow, we’ve never thought of this before!” Jokes sometimes need to be adapted to reflect different cultural sensitivities – initially a joke about divorce was hamstrung by talking about it “as if it were as frowned upon as a taboo in Britain as it is in India” – but the essential humor rarely needs to be translated to become. In her final show, Ashfaq read from her childhood diaries and was surprised by the universality of the joke: “I thought I was cringing in a very Indian way – but being a real child is the same everywhere.” Godfrey says they encourage actions not to change the material too much to suit British audiences, to “maintain the authenticity”. As Pooja Sivaraman, creative associate at the theater, puts it, “specificity leads to universality.”

That said, there are specific overlaps between British and Indian cultures. This is partly due to the structural impact of colonialism, but also to a shared sensibility: Ashfaq points to the “cynicism” prevalent in both countries, while Pal points to the “pessimism” – the “Oh, let’s not worry, it’s just going to rain.” attitude (both stand-ups are also adept at self-mockery). It will come as no surprise that there are also differences. Ashfaq thinks that “people in India are much more easily shocked by liberal ideas and people in Britain are much more shocked by traditional ideas.” She has noticed that London audiences are less willing to laugh at “marginalized people and minorities” than Indian audiences, which makes sense because “many people [Indian audiences] are also marginalized and minorities, so you are making a joke among peers”.

Clearly part of the reason Indian comedy is so popular with British audiences is that it takes inspiration from our own. Pal has decidedly Anglophile tastes (“self-effacing” fare like The Office and Alan Partridge plus Eddie Izzard and Dylan Moran), while Ashfaq got into “dry and sarcastic” British comedy as a student, watching James Acaster, Stewart Lee, Bridget . Christie and Josie Long on YouTube, as well as panel shows such as Hypothetical and 8 Out of 10 Cats. As a relatively young version of the medium, Indian standup is very much about observation and autobiographical storytelling, meaning it continues to take notes from Britain’s wider, more experimental offering: Ashfaq was “mesmerized” by the clowning on the fringes last year, while Verma’s visit inspired him to use props, something he “would never have thought of in India even if I did the show for the next ten years”. Yet the prop in question – a haze machine – underlines a joke that would never have been written by a British comic character. “I had tweeted something at home against a political party and they started spreading fake news [story] saying that Sapan Verma uses laughing gas in his comedy shows,” he explains. Initially he ended with “standard punchlines, but now I say, ‘Guys, I would never do that to you.’” Cue the blur machine.

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It is impossible to talk about comedy in India without mentioning the state’s control of the art form. In 2021, Munawar Faruqui was given a 35-day prison sentence for insulting Hindu gods during a comedy evening with jokes he never performed. The same year, Vir Das performed his Two Indias monologue – a catalog of his homeland’s hypocrisies and contradictions (“I come from an India that has the largest working population under 30 in the world, but still listens to 75-year-old leaders with 150-year-old ideas”) – in Washington DC, prompting several legal challenges from politicians.

The reality on the ground is difficult: Ashfaq says she “avoids criticism of the government”. Friend, meanwhile, ‘just kidding[s] often about politics. Although I am careful about what material I release on social media. I spoke in the presence of the Prime Minister of India and several other ministers about the growing political wariness among artists, through a joke, and there was a lot of laughter.”

That said, jokes about the Indian government are not a priority for Indian comedians performing in Britain. Instead, another political dynamic inevitably rears its head: colonialism. Pal’s British act revolves around this subject: in his 2018 show The Empire, he takes the ironic form of a British-obsessed Indian; this is a fascinating look at British-Indian dynamics, something that Pal has long been fascinated by, from the ‘terrible things’ Britain did to the popularity of Dishoom, the British chain of Mumbai cafes in the 1950s- style in ‘hipster form’. His new show, The Department of Britishness, makes a tongue-in-cheek argument for re-exporting British culture to India.

For Sivaraman, engaging in conversation about colonial history is not limited to literally talking about empire; it can be initiated merely by comic success. She describes the “glorious, titillating feeling of the struggle against colonialism in Britain” that accompanies the laughter of Indian comics in Britain. “When Zakir Khan performed at the Royal Albert Hall, he had a moment where it was like, look what we did, we hit the stages! It means a lot to anyone who identifies as South Asian and is here – it’s this brilliant reclamation.”

Anuvab Pal is on tour May 17 to June 8; Kanan Gill is on tour May 15 to 26. Urooj Ashfaq is at the Soho Theatre, London from 5 to 14 August.

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