What Will Come Of Bollywood's Affair With Stand-Up Comedy?

The nature of ‘celebrity’ is changing and as the balance shifts toward digital mediums, the value of ‘Snapchat stars’ and ‘YouTube sensations’ could well command as much clout
What Will Come Of Bollywood's Affair With Stand-Up Comedy?
What Will Come Of Bollywood's Affair With Stand-Up Comedy?

‘Yeah, he’s in a new movie, Noor. I want to watch it just for him!’

The above was overheard at a popular suburban Mumbai café in reference to the upcoming Sonakshi Sinha-starrer entitled Noor and more specifically, the film’s casting of prominent stand-up comic Kanan Gill. This would mark Gill’s big screen debut in what looks to be a fairly sizeable role.

This is but the next domino to fall in a string of events of late, which indicate an increasing convergence between the film and stand-up comedy industries. The two seem to be interacting in increasingly interesting ways as Bollywood seems to finally be sitting up and taking real notice of the growing stand-up comedy industry and more so, the popularity and fan-base of leading comics.

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Gill’s casting is the latest and most prominent instance of comics being cast in Hindi films. Other recent instances include AIB’s Rohan Joshi who played a supporting role in last year’s Baar Baar Dekho which was incidentally also co-written by leading comic Anuvab Pal. Previous to this, comics have had minor roles in films in the recent past, examples of which include Tanmay Bhat (Mr X), Aadar Malik (Katti Batti), Biswa Kalyan Rath(Brahman Naman)and Varun Thakur (Jab Tak Hai Jaan) to name a few. Of these, Gill’s role in Noor certainly appears to be the most substantive to date, as his active role in the film’s promotion seems to suggest, which does beg the question of whether this is the start of more to come.

What’s more, top comic Vir Das - a trained dramatic actor before he forayed into stand-up - is already recognised for his pursuit of trying to become a leading man in Bollywood with credits like Badmaash Company, Go Goa Gone, Delhi Belly and most recently Mastizaade to his name. Das, however, is arguably a different case given he has actively tried to pursue both a film and comedy career simultaneously, whilst the others have focused on stand-up as their primary profession.

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The Indian stand-up comedy fraternity has grown exponentially since its nascent stages seven or so years ago. Many would say the industry is now booming, as it increasingly establishes itself as a mainstream entertainment form across the nation with new comedy clubs, festivals and tours increasingly popping up all over the country. The popularity of stand-up in India catapulted to new heights altogether as a result of events like the 2014 AIB Roast, which was in every way a landmark event in bringing stand-up into mainstream consciousness.

New Age Stars

As the comedy landscape thrives, a natural by-product of this is the growing crop of ‘comedy stars’ being born, with the likes of Kanan Gill, Aditi Mittal, Zakir Khan, Mallika Dua, Kenny Sebastian, Abish Mathew, Daniel Fernandes and Biswa Kalyan Rath among others, becoming nothing short of household names, particularly among the youth. Not to mention the big comedy collectives such as the pioneering AIB as well as EIC and SNG comedy, each with their own dedicated following. The fact of the matter is the nature of ‘celebrity’ is changing and as the balance of power of entertainment gradually shifts toward digital mediums, ‘Snapchat stars’ and ‘YouTube sensations’ could well command as much clout and  influence as film stars - a fact that Bollywood decision makers are themselves starting to gradually realise.

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It only stands to reason, therefore, that after reaching a certain level of success top comics would look toward the film industry which grants a far greater reach. This is especially true in India where arguably the only way to reach out to the lion’s share of audiences is through the medium of the movies. But this requires a film ecosystem and decision makers who are open to new ideas and perspectives of this kind.  

Having said that, the increasing casting of comedians in films would indicate that stand-up is finally getting the recognition and respect it deserves from the likes of the film industry, with producers and head honchos starting to realise the value and fan following of top comics.

What’s more, aside from the growing trend of casting comedians in films, there are other hopeful signs of comics getting their moment in the spotlight. Recently AIB’s Rohan Joshi was also seen in the finale episode of the latest season of Koffee With Karan, as part of the panel of judges, which is pretty much as mainstream as it can get. Whether you’re a fan of the show or not, this was in every way a significant moment for any comic and certainly a step in the right direction for the industry. And yet, this may just be the tip of the iceberg for AIB’s cinematic aspirations as they have frequently talked about the fact that they are in the process of writing multiple films, something we certainly hope comes to fruition soon.

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Tales From The West

Movies are in many ways a path of natural progression for comedians, provided they are given the freedom and the right opportunities courtesy the industry. In Hollywood, comedians have successfully managed to carve out a dedicated space for themselves within the film industry; not only as actors, writers and filmmakers - of which the likes of Judd Apatow and Woody Allen are shining examples - but in many cases have also gone onto to becoming leading movie stars. Actors like Adam Sandler and Kevin Hart are among the most prominent examples of this. The undeniable contribution of comics is no less when considering serious dramatic actors, of which those such as the late Robin Williams and Jim Carrey are revered as fine performers. These are but a few notable examples which demonstrate just how integrated the two industries are with one another.

Conversely Hindi cinema has traditionally been well renowned for producing its own set of widely celebrated comedians such as Mehmood, Kishore Kumar and Johnny Lever, however, with the exception of Lever they are all more accurately classified as comedy actors rather than stand-up comics as such, given stand-up is still a relatively new art form to India.

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The Digital Equaliser

Coming back to the present, one area the two industries do seem to be on a more equal footing is that of digital mediums, namely on Amazon Prime as well as within the web-series space. Web-series appear to be the medium of the moment and both fraternities have made their mark with a fair slew of shows and no doubt many more to come.

The same is true on Amazon Prime which is aggressively reaching out to both groups in its efforts to build a bank of original content. Aside from the range of stand-up specials to be released, Amazon has also made deals with AIB for a political satire show, as well as with filmmakers such as Anurag Kashyap, Farhan Akhtar and Kabir Khan for new shows.

The bottom line is Indian stand-up comics are a vast talent pool of writers, directors and actors just waiting to be tapped by the film fraternity. It is high time they are seen for what they can do aside from being made to write lackluster and painfully dull award-show scripts, as has been done time and again in the past.

For now, you cannot help but wonder what more may come from an alliance which looks really good in print. How this relationship develops remains to be seen, but what is certain is the two industries can complement one another. And who’s to say that we couldn’t one day have our own version of a Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen-esque sub-genre of film. 

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