In 2015, something unique happened in Basement Café, located opposite Guwahati Commerce College, which had become a hot-spot for millennials in the city. Word had spread that two guys will be performing a stand-up comedy gig. Entry was free. Organizers were sceptical that more than fifty people will turn up. The seating capacity inside the venue was around 100. However, by the second half of the show, organizers had to bring in more chairs. And that was the start of stand-up comedy in Guwahati.
Despite having a good start, the road so far has been bumpy for stand-up comedy in the city. Apathy of organizers, nonchalance of audience and absence of big money made the stand-up comedy scene stagnant. However, thanks to the industriousness of few talented individuals, the scenario is changing for the better.
Somdeb Roy, who was one of the performers in the first ever stand-up gig, can be credited for the inception of open mic stand-up comedy in the city. Narrating how it all started, he says, ‘In 2014, I was sitting idle in Guwahati. At that time, I used to comment a lot in the posts of the popular Facebook page Guwahati Metro Community (GMC). By doing so, I gradually became friends with Anurag Saikia, the admin of the page. At that time, I was quite fascinated by a show called ‘Shit Indians Say’. We were inspired by it and thought of doing something on similar lines. We did a spoof called ‘Shit Guwahatians Say’ which was technically Assam’s first spoof. We did a few more spoofs that got good responses. We also did one spoof on discrimination faced by Northeasterners. It got close to 15,000 views.’ On GMC, he also acquainted Amlan Haloi who became his partner for stand-up comedy gigs.
The initial challenge was to get a venue. After facing a lot of rejection, they finally approached Basement Café, which had just launched back then. Anurag Saikia, who was the social media manager of Basement Café pushed the idea to Arnab Bharadwaj, the owner of Basement Cafe. And so, the first stand-up gig was held. ‘We did 10-12 shows after that. We became quite popular. Within the next 2 years, we did shows at cafes like Basement, By the Way, Fast Food Court in Panbazar. Whenever, we performed, it increased the sales in the venues. We did one India-Pakistan special comedy show in Fast Food Court, which was very well received.’
Once people started turning up for stand-up comedy gigs in huge numbers, event organizers started organizing gigs with well-known names. Lakshey Anand, event manager and owner of Fukra Factory managed to bring ace comedian Sorabh Pant to Guwahati and other big names like Abish Mathew, Azeem Banatwalla and Parvinder Singh. Fukra Factory has hosted shows in BTW Café, Basement Café, Hotel Palacio, The Socialite, NYX, Novotel and G Adda. ‘We had a full house for almost all our shows. Thanks to the internet, people here have developed a taste for comedy. The local scene is yet to flourish but a start has been made. We have got quite a few local talented youngsters as well, like Darshan and Kunal, who do the opening act for our shows.’
Pant, regarded as one of the top comedians of the country also enjoyed performing in Guwahati. In a message, he shared, ‘It was great fun performing here. I enjoyed myself. Much luck to Fukra for their next shows. Guwahati should keep coming out and supporting Indian comedy. I look forward to coming back.’
Three to Tango
Micdrop factory was started by three friends Abhishek Purkayastha, Subhadeep Sengupta and Markand Vyas in Guwahati. They have carved a niche for themselves and audiences come to watch them perform, but still, they feel that Guwahati is not a place where stand-up comedy can be pursued as a career.
Abhishek, who is an engineer hailing from Dimapur shares, ‘Comedy in Guwahati is at a nascent stage. We can tell the cafes to give us free beer or food, but we can’t charge money for our performance. All of us at Micdrop ended up doing stand-up comedy through different routes. My foray in comedy was triggered when my ex dumped me. I had earlier done open mic in CLC Gurgaon, Mumbai and Bangalore. I mainly perform in Urban Mantra. Gautam, the owner, is very supportive. In 2017 February, I had my first solo show in Urban Mantra. Then I met Markand and Subhadeep and we started Micdrop. We have performed at Topaz, Mocha, Basement Cafe, and Urban Mantra. Recently, we also did a show in Retro Town.’
Their collaboration works because all of them came up with different styles of humour. While Abhishek is more into self deprecation and observational comedy, Subhadeep is a deadpan and Markand is good with slapstick. All three of them still have regular jobs but haven’t given up on their passion for comedy. Subhadeep, who is now working in Bhubaneshwar tries to participate whenever he is in town. Otherwise, Abhishek and Markand do sporadic gigs.
To Laugh or Not To
Most stand-up comics who have performed in the city agree that the tolerance level of the audience to jokes is pretty good, though there have been times when people have taken offense. Somdeb says, ‘Actually Guwahati is very receptive, maybe more than many bigger cities. We have made jokes about caste, community, religion, politics and many other things. Nobody ever got offended. There was an untoward incident once. In Basement Café, I made a joke about Don Bosco School and some hoodlum, who was an ex Bosconian, attacked me. But that was a one-off incident.’
Abhishek, however shares that he is more comfortable while performing in pubs because people are more receptive. ‘I feel better performing in pubs. People tend to connect more with jokes when they are a bit tipsy. In cafes, the content is also censored. In pubs, people are okay with slangs, and political jokes. In cafes, people walk in with kids. So, you have to be careful while performing.’ Regarding the kind of jokes that work well with the locals, he reveals, ‘Slapstick is cool. Self deprecation works. But it has a flip side. It builds a perception of you. Jokes with a sexual undercurrent also get big laughs. People don’t really understand deadpan.’
Also, being a stand-up comic is not all about the laughs, they get criticized quite often. ‘People have heckled me a lot. They have called me sexist, misogynist, bhakt, libtard, anti-Hindu…everything. Once, I was cracking a joke on mechanical engineering in Urban Mantra and a guy who was sitting with his girlfriend took offence. I told him that I have a mechanical engineering background myself and that is okay to laugh at ourselves sometimes. Sometimes when I go home after a show, I get messages on Facebook from people who call me names. I am open to feedback but I feel that people shouldn’t invade your private space.’
The Future of Stand-up
Gautam Choudhury, partner at Urban Mantra, which regularly hosts stand-up comedy gigs remarks that the local flavour is missing from the performances. ‘If the local flavour is not there, the comedy will remain confined to a niche crowd. Till now, our audience is very limited. We need to give space to talented youngsters from this region to share original content that resonates with people here.’
Stand-up comic Markand Vyas, who is also the Area Manager of Swiggy shares that the concept of ‘Rooms’ need to start in Guwahati. ‘Rooms are places where people are invited specifically to come and enjoy open mics. In pubs, there are many people in the audience who are not exactly interested in stand-up comedy and are only there to grab a drink. Rooms are also the best places to groom upcoming stand-up comedians. It has already started in bigger cities like Bangalore, Delhi and Kolkata.’
Another reason why stand-up comedy in Guwahati is still confined to a certain section is because of lack of content on the internet. A stand-up comic generally becomes popular when he/she goes viral online. However, in Guwahati, organizers refrain from recording performances on video and uploading it on You Tube. But there are valid reasons behind that. Abhishek explains, ‘If we upload our videos on You Tube, chances are that someone might plagiarize our content and we won’t be able to do anything. Also, sometimes we use the same jokes over and over again. If our performances are uploaded, then we won’t be able to do that. But we are planning a podcast in Guwahati.’
The Last Joke
Though stand-up comedy has a long way to go, it can be said that a good start has been made in Guwahati. Many youngsters in the city are well versed with the works of AIB, Sorabh Pant, Vir Das, Jiveshu, Varun Thakur and Rahul Subhramaniam and want to inculcate that culture here as well. And there are others who don’t care about the big names, but simply wants to use comedy to forget the woes of life. After all, laughter is said to be the best medicine. As Abhishek sums up, ‘Scope of comedy is very vast. In proper doses, it works like a miracle. In fact, I was being treated for depression in Downtown Hospital. I have to say that comedy helped to a great length to cure me. I can say from experience that humour really helps us overcome difficult situations. So, I guess, it will always be in demand.’