This was an important year for Indian stand-up comedy in terms of numbers – 14 stand-up specials were released on Amazon Prime Video, three stand-up artists made their debuts as show writers exploring genres beyond comedy and, on Netflix, the first Indian female comedian made her debut with a stand-up special.
But even though on paper, the collective efforts of a small ecosystem paid off with lucrative deals with two of the biggest online content streaming giants, only a few of these specials were on point. A majority featured either old material from the comics (Aditi Mittal’s Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say) or were underwhelming (Anuvab Pal’s Alive At 40) or were off the mark (Aadar Malik’s Stand Up – The Musical and Sorabh Pant’s My Dad Thinks He’s Funny).
In a market that is increasingly saturated with numerous professional stand-up comedians, comedy collectives and online content creators, there were a few newcomers who hit that coveted sweet spot of viral fame this year. And elsewhere, on television, a show gave a platform to emerging female Indian stand-up comics to fight it out and land a television deal.
Here is a rundown of the funniest people on the Indian comedy scene in 2017.
Biswa Kalyan Rath
Since he started out in 2014, he has grown into one of the few Indian comics – another being Zakir Khan – who has broken into pop culture as a character with a highly memorable and recognisable backstory. His jokes and punchlines (most recently, the “Chill maar” bit) are now famous enough to become easily recognisable memes.
This year, his new special, Biswa Mast Aadmi, was released on Amazon Prime Video, and showcased Rath at his peak as a comedian who uses his physicality and voice to milk a joke to its full potential. Above all, his stand-up special was a masterclass in writing a structure-based routine.
Rath’s ability to ace in narrative storytelling on stage, with one act leading into another, without losing steam at any point, found its way into the comedian’s first web series as a creator, Laakhon Mein Ek. The six-episode series takes a look at how a teenager copes up with the pressures of the Indian education system, and often enters dark territory. Looking back, Rath hardly put a wrong foot this year – as a comedian, a performer and a writer.
That much hard work and thought went into Gill’s special, Keep It Real, was understandable. It was consistently funny and, barring the rare dull moment, it was surprising. Some topics – relationships, disconnect with the older generation, bittersweet stories of life as an engineering student, observations on middle-class households, and stereotypes about communities and cities – have become staples in the Indian stand-up scene. Gill creates fresh jokes out of such familiar situations but he takes them into unpredictable directions. Keep It Real is a winner and ends the big debate around Gill’s popularity – “Is he up there only because he is cute?”
Khan is the Nucleya of the Indian stand-up scene – no other comedian has been able to bridge the gap between the smaller urban hipster crowd of Canvas Laugh Club with the greater small-town, college-going demographic as well as Khan has. His special, Haq Se Single, is formed with a series of stories inspired by Khan’s life, whose central theme is that of living with your head held high despite not having a romantic partner.
The special is an extension of the personality that he repeatedly projects of himself in his shows: a small-town fool from Indore who encounters city life in Delhi and Mumbai and the inevitable comic situations that follow because of the clash of cultures. Much of the time, Khan has a refreshing sense of humour and, even when it may flag, his delivery does the job.
This year, he also made it to television as one of the three mentors/judges for the fifth season of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge – another sign of how effectively he has broken free of the internet star tag and is now big enough to reach out to middle India.
All India Bakchod
This was an extremely prolific year for them. The second season of their show, On Air with AIB, which made its debut on Star India network in 2015, moved to online streaming platform Hotstar this year. The show is an attempt to take a John Oliver-like look at the news through commentary.
The All India Bakchod team consists of seasoned stand-up comics and an army of writers behind the scenes. While On Air with AIB is anything but bad, it does not break new ground, though this new season is a marked improvement over the first, with much irreverence on display this time.
But it was on YouTube that All India Bakchod really pushed the envelope and created magic. Some of their best videos of 2017 include A Woman’s Besties, where a woman’s genitals and breasts – her best friends – are personified, If Apps Were People, a similar sketch where smartphone applications are played by actors, Dank Irrfan, where the group dress up actor Irrfan as characters from popular international memes, The Bollywood Diva Song, featuring Kangana Ranaut, that punctures institutionalised patriarchy on the Hindi film set, and Desi YouTube Rewind, a music video that looks back at the year that was and wasn’t.
Their most inventive sketch, however, was Lightning Fast Movies, a five-minute video that explains Hindi film plots in a matter of seconds. The fact that 10 writers are credited for a five-minute video, exemplifies the group’s investment in their team.
The highlight of the AIB videos is that they bring on a large number of Indian stand-up comics who have not managed to hit the big time beyond a certain audience – Mallika Dua, Utsav Chakraborty, Kaneez Surka – and helps them develop a steady following on the internet. It will be interesting to see how many of them debut their own work on a global streaming platform in the future.
The Bachelors – Season Two
The Viral Fever’s videos are still getting the numbers thanks to the huge following they have cultivated with the success of Permanent Roommates (2014-’16) and TVF Pitchers (2015). But something was missing in their work in 2017. The popularity has, perhaps, suffered a setback following the allegations of sexual harassment against the company’s erstwhile CEO Arunabh Kumar. Their show, Bisht Please, revolving entirely around the group’s standout female star, Nidhi Bisht, was disappointing.
And while its competitor, All India Bakchod, is continuously using fresh talent for its videos, with old-timers like Tanmay Bhat making the occasional cameo, The Viral Fever still relies on its marquee talent from a couple of years back (like Gopal Dutt and Jeetendra Kumar) for its sketches.
Nonetheless, the second season of their show, The Bachelors, consisting of three episodes, was a laugh-out-loud affair, for the most part. The series pokes fun at the lazy lifestyle of male Indian bachelors. Each episode features the titular bachelors fighting a unique “bachelor” issue like securing a job, learning how to cook, and accumulating debts till the end of the month, but with a twist. That said, one expects more from this group, whose earlier shows had much more to offer.
The Young Guns
He became a sensation overnight in March when he began to receive death threats for criticising the Indian government’s majoritarian ways and politics centred on belligerent nationalism in the video, Patriotism and Government. Since then, Kamra’s popularity has increased significantly. He is not the funniest comedian by any margin but he does not shy away from tackling political issues seriously.
He debuted his three-episode talk show, Shut Up Ya Kunal, on YouTube this year in which he interviewed three faces from three different sides of the political spectrum – Bharatiya Janata Party Youth Wing Vice President Madhukeshwar Desai; Indian National Congress’ national spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi; and Jawaharlal Nehru University students and activists Umar Khalid and Kanhaiya Kumar. The series featured relaxed, no-holds-barred conversations with the subjects where no issue was taboo. Can Kamra translate his online fame into a quality stand-up special in the near future?
Like Rath, Abhishek Upmanyu carries a slacker-like personality on stage given to occasional over-the-top outbursts. Like Rath, Upmanyu speaks well in both English and Hindi, which will help him cross over to a wider audience in the future. Upmanyu, a relatively new comedian on the circuit, released just four videos on his YouTube channel in 2017 and they all went viral quickly, and for good reason. While he is not breaking new ground, Upmanyu is able to find new angles in everyday themes. He has terrific delivery skills, and his recent stand-up special, Thoda Saaf Bol, which is yet to make its way to the internet, received strong reviews.
She won the first season of Queens of Comedy, a reality show on TLC India Channel in which eight female comedians compete against each other for the cash prize plus a show on the channel. Prakasam is young and is yet to hone her material but she does show promise. Like Khan, Prakasam does not always spin a joke with a definitive punchline, but it is her ability to riff on a topic for a while with wit that makes her stand out.
The runner-up in the Queens of Comedy, Urooj Ashfaq, is a promising talent whose entry video for the show was somehow funnier than her material on the show itself. She is a comedian to watch out.
A substantial section of his special, What Are You Laughing At?, stood out because of his choice to talk about personal tragedy and rage while exorcising his demons through comedy on stage. Can death of a parent be funny? Of course, not. But can it be looked at in retrospect with humour? Yes, and Neville Shah shows us how. The entire special is peppered with raw confessions, but unfortunately is a bit too uneven to be considered fantastic as a body of work.
Chennai-based Aravind SA brought a lot of local humour to his special, Madrasi Da, which works as a positive or a negative, depending on how receptive the audience is to learning about cultures other than their own. In a tonally inconsistent special, some of Aravind’s bits are truly hilarious and, most importantly, fresh because of how different his background is from that of his contemporaries.
Casting Couch with Imtiaz Ali
One of the funniest web series on YouTube has been Casting Couch with Amey and Nipun, which premiered last year. The Marathi talk show sees two wannabe filmmakers, played by Amey Wagh and Nipun Dharmadhikari, invite top names in the entertainment industry for an interview but with the agenda of convincing them to work in their new project. The new season, with five episodes, was not an improvement over the really promising first season, but it had its moments.
The best episode in season two is a Women’s Day special where filmmaker Imtiaz Ali is brought in to be scammed by the duo. Ali shows his comic chops in a show that is mostly deadpan and improvised.
The Screen Patti’s Bade and Chote are, as the name suggests, a big man and a small man. They have featured in a series of sketches for The Screen Patti featuring a certain brand of sophomoric humour that may not appeal to anyone older than, say, undergraduates. They are immensely popular on YouTube and from their 2017 material, their sketch involving an audition for a reality singing competition by cringe-pop singer Dhinchak Pooja is the funniest.
Modi Ji is Big Boss
Since the bar is set so low for politically incorrect comedy in India, it is a breath of fresh air when a comedian dares to do two things at once: push one’s buttons by talking about seemingly taboo political topics and be funny at the same time. Abijit Ganguly does both by taking on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his supporters. At one point, Ganguly says that he lives in constant anxiety that Modi would drop a new demonetisation-like announcement (“Mitron, you have to clean drains today.”) and no one would be able to say or do anything in return.