A lone mic stand gleams in the spotlight in the cavernous St John’s Auditorium, waiting for the next in a line-up of 25 comics to walk up and start their set. It is the fourth year of the Bengaluru Comedy Festival and the largest one ever, with over 70 local and international artists doing their best kill it with their tightest material over 10 days.
The range of experience on display is diverse and outcomes unpredictable – six-year veterans have as much a chance of bombing as those going up for the fifth time. And while subject matters can be equally as diverse, a theme seems to emerge over the course of the first few days: Indian stand-up content is moving towards darker themes. What started off as almost entirely reliant on stereotypes (Gujjus in the house, give me a cheer), moved to being relatable (how middle class people order in a restaurant), and is now slowly making its way towards addressing edgier subjects that make audiences laugh as much as it makes them uncomfortable. This sweet spot is what most comics seem to be aiming for, with bits that centre on topics as mainstream as periods and premarital sex, to incest and paedophilia.
Perhaps this is a function of the comic’s own independent status – the line-up does not contain too many names recognisable to those who think Indian stand-up comedy starts and ends with stars originating from YouTube, like Kanan Gill, and comedy collectives like All India Bakchod. Instead, this is talent that is hitting the open mic circuit in the neighbourhood cafe. They are probably still holding down full-time jobs while clocking in minutes of solid material, week after week. They will likely be the faces you will see in the next wave of Indian stand-up.
Here’s a cheat sheet to put you ahead of the curve when it comes to recognising next year’s stars:
This Bengaluru-based stand-up comic has been setting audience’s teeth on edge for six years, thanks to his not-so-politically-correct takes on everything from passengers of the Titanic on their period, to which instrument one must learn to play to magnify romantic prospects. Playing an eccentric music producer on Amazon Prime’s Die Trying, starring fellow comic Kenny Sebastian, Peeran demonstrates an uncanny ability to tap into the zeitgeist of whatever is most likely to go viral on Twitter. It’s unlikely you’ll walk away from a show bored. Enraged, probably, but not bored.
This laconic comic thrives while walking the line between an uncomfortable silence and a steady hum of empathetic laughter. More effective in Hindi, where her bon mots find their true home, Bhardwaj is known for her deadpan delivery of crisp jokes that don’t take a lot of set up before getting to the highly satisfactory punchline.
Dudeja, who lives in Mumbai, has been making audiences laugh for around four years. Any jaded millennial will identify with the vein of ennui running through the majority of his material. He moves deftly from the character of a simple man, flummoxed by the contradictions in daily life, to a series of rapid-fire cow jokes that conclude with an apologetic nod to cow-protectors. Listening to Dudeja’s jokes make you feel like you have found company in pointing out the absurdity of modern living.
Shafi might be one of the most precise comics on the scene. Economical with his words, here is a comic who’ll get out a punchline or three in the time it takes you to rudely respond to text messages on your phone, leaving you well behind a laughing audience. His joke construction belies his writing background, with plenty of wordplay and an affinity for one liners (or close to it).
One of the finalists on the first season of Comicstaan, this Mumbai-based comic is Amethi’s true hometown hero. While her subject matters tend to stick to the tried and tested – from small town woes, to finding love in the big city – this cool didi can be counted on to deliver a highly repeatable one liner to describe a well-worn experience. Singh is also unafraid of getting political, with shots at her fellow celebrities from Amethi, promising a more layered evolution in the years to come.
This comic from Bengaluru busts the techie stereotype with his sharp observations of daily interactions. He’s unafraid to use his lanky frame to drive a point home when emphasising how out of place he looks in a classic disco auto, with booming speakers and neon lights hurtling down Bangalore’s streets, or advocating for more widespread use of goumutra. Chakrabarti is still new to the scene, but his raw talent promises to make him one of the names to be reckoned with in the next few years.
With her Amazon Prime special dropping soon, Thakker is likely to become the next comic admirers can’t stop gushing about. Highly relatable to anyone navigating big city life, Thakker comes off like the classic girl next door – until she breaks down male egos and parental interactions with equal alacrity. Unafraid to shock an audience, Thakker is in complete control of the room without having to grandstand, making for a refreshing change from a typical male comic.