We had barely walked into Jamjar Diner in Andheri (W) on a sunny afternoon, when we saw Ashish Shakya and Gursimran Khamba get accosted by a young fan for a picture. This wasn’t a selfie. It was a real photograph; one that involves inconveniencing another human being to stand up, hold the phone with both hands, click a picture, and not feature disproportionately in it. All that trouble, only for AIB (Shakya and Khamba, along with Tanmay Bhat and Rohan Joshi comprise the famous comedy collective, All India Back**d or AIB).
Yet, all of them were unbelieving when we told them we wanted to put them on the cover of HT Café. They admit they “haven’t understood this ascendancy” of theirs.
The fact is that it is impossible to survive this metropolis without a sense of humour. The rate at which the city’s stand-up comedy scene has flourished since 2005 is proof of that. It is possibly one of the most powerful forms of expression to have emerged in the last decade of Mumbai’s popular culture.
So, for this special anniversary edition, we caught up with these four satirists over lunch to learn what they felt the city got right in the last decade.
Mumbai’s events scene? Terrible, terrible, terrible
Tanmay Bhat: That’s why nobody holds big concerts here.
Rohan Joshi: Terrible, terrible, terrible. The taxation is ridiculous. I think it is very shortsighted of the government. If you cut the entertainment tax, logically, and you had 10 big acts coming in, you would make the same amount of money than if you keep the entertainment tax high, and one act comes every two years.
Tanmay: It is really a pity because if you want to be the cultural hub, you should logically be open. Look at New York, USA, everything debuts there because it is so much easier to do that, and you have such a diverse audience. Here, it is just not possible.
Gursimran Khamba: It’s prohibitive.
Need of the hour: More performance spaces
Tanmay: We practically have five decent auditoriums, all of which have been taken over by the theatre mafia. So, a few big theatre companies, who say saal mein 20 Saturday mereko chahiye, mera play nikalne wala hai, kya play hai, pata nahi, toh main book karke rakhega (companies say they want 20 Saturdays in a year because their play is about to come out. What play? They don’t know.) So, if a stand-up comedian wants to do a show, you go to St Andrew’s (auditorium in Bandra), every Saturday is taken for the next 15 or 20 weeks, so how the hell are we supposed to perform?
Rohan: Then you have 800-seater auditoriums from which you go straight to the NSCI (National Sports Club of India), which is a 5,000-seater. There is nothing in the middle.
Tanmay: Then the prices are the next level. Licensing is something else.
Rohan: Doesn’t feel like a cultural capital, bureaucratically at all. It is a cultural capital in spite of the government, and not because of it.
When Mumbai became an international joke
Tanmay: Jerry Seinfeld was an example. How do you have the world’s biggest comedian almost come to your city? [His gig was cancelled] that too because of parking!
Rohan: If Jerry Seinfeld comes to India, and has a good show, he is going to get into a room with 10 other really famous comics one day, and say, "Guys, you’ve got to come to India. It’s amazing."
Tanmay: How do you think we have had all these people [coming down]? When a Bill Burr says yes to India, it’s because a Russell Peters has said, "Go, it is fun." And when the biggest comedian in the world says no… in my head, now Chris Rock, Louis CK, all of them are never going to come.
Rohan: And why, because the police commissioner and the chief minister got into a fight? Go to hell guys.
Tanmay: It’s an international joke that he couldn’t come because of parking.
Rohan: Every single international artiste who has come down since the Roast has made a joke about censorship as their first joke. Russell Brand too. And it’s not like anybody wants America’s approval or anything, but you want a cultural scene where artistes are coming from all over the world, and not petrified of coming, because of parking.
‘Mumbai Film Festival has not scaled up in a significant way’
Gursimran: We need to improve the Mumbai Film Festival.
Rohan: The festival has not scaled up in a significant way. You should be the premier film festival of the country, and of the subcontinent because you are the biggest film industry, outside of China. You are the centre of that film industry in the city, so why is the biggest film festival happening in Goa? Logically, when it happens, this city should go to town about it.
Gursimran: But the thing is, from an outsider’s perspective, it (news about MAMI) again seems prohibitive because you had to wait in line for this film because ticketing was all over the place, this was a mess, etc. Zoning is the need of the hour for a 24x7 nightlife in Mumbai.
Rohan: We need better zoning. We need three zones, like Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC), town and Lower Parel. BKC is empty at night. You’re not disturbing residents. Imagine if you could just patrol those streets, you wouldn’t have to patrol the entire city. You have to just make sure those streets are safe. Then in that radius, you manage everything from taxi stands, to drunken driving, to nakabandi at every single end. You will be able to do it. You can do it.
Gursimran: It might have to do with police shortfall, and work hours.
Rohan: In 2003 – 2004, 4am and 5am was…
Ashish Shakya: Dhoble (Vasant Dhoble; former assistant commissioner of police in Mumbai) got a lot of hate. But one of the things he said was that I’m going after places that don’t have licenses, for example a tonne of places in Bandra are fire hazards. Like, I would never set foot into The Big Nasty, because f**k that place.
Rohan: I went to that place once, and I will never go again.|
Ashish: They shouldn’t have a license to operate. Where is the fire exit?
Tanmay: And the staircase is also the smoking zone.
The biggest emergence of the past decade: stand-up comedy!
Rohan: It was very limited back then. We had a few people like Vir (Das; comedian) and some others. But there wasn’t a scene.
Tanmay: There was also Culture Shoq, which was, then, Bombay Elektrik Projekt.
Ashish: Ham Night (Ham-ateur night organised by Das).
Tanmay: Ham Night was the Yash Raj version of what Bombay Elektrik Projekt was running.
Rohan: We had no clue that it (stand-up) could be a career. It was something we did on weekends.
Ashish: This came after Russell Peters.
Rohan: It all began with that special of his going on Torrents. For the first time everyone saw a brown guy do stand-up.
Gursimran: Great Indian Laughter Challenge (it first went on air around 2005) was also on TV…
Tanmay: Also, by then there was a slight culture of going out to do something in the evening, as opposed to either sitting at home, drinking or watching movies. With places like Café Goa and Blue Frog, that culture started to come into the city, to go out to watch performance art of any kind… Now there is an open-mic night every day.
Ashish: You can attend a comedy show every single day of the week in this city.
Rohan: There isn’t even that much theatre sometimes.
Gursimran: There definitely isn’t.
Rohan: And that’s nuts; the theatre scene has been around for so long.
A school for aspiring stand-up comics? Might be a reality soon!
Gursimran: We want to start our own school... just about teaching comedy and stuff like that. The idea is to teach different forms of comedy, from improv to stand-up to making videos, to people who just want to do sound and podcast. Like in the US and Canada, they have three-year programmes, where you learn in the morning, and every night, you go to a different stand-up comedy club to try out what you’ve done all day. Technically, if you have to be a comedian, you don’t have to join a programme, but I can see how it can be valuable for a lot of people.
Tanmay: Ideally, we’ll also have our dedicated comedy club by then, which runs and functions like Comedy Club in America… The idea is to legitimise comedy in some sense… there is no academia about comedy in India. The idea is, in 10 years, to start that culture where comedy is taken seriously.
10 things Mumbai is yet to achieve
Rohan: Less traffic. More Metro lines.
Ashish: Better property prices.
Rohan: That’s not going to happen.
Ashish: Flooding to be eliminated or reduced massively. Upgrade drainage.
Tanmay: More performance spaces.
Rohan: Rail roads that don’t just run north-south would be nice.
Ashish: More performers for sure. To the point
Amitabh Bachchan meeting his fans outside his home in Mumbai.
Amitabh Bachchan has often said that meeting his fans, who gather outside his Juhu residence every Sunday, gives him a feeling of fulfilment. The crazy traffic, however, as a result, is a commuter’s nightmare. Mumbai special
10 things the city has got right in the last 10 years.
Rohan: Being next to the sea was great.
Ashish: I loved how we added zeroes to property prices. We’re very good at that.
Tanmay: The Metro, and the Sea Link.
Rohan: We got the Eastern Freeway right… The lady who went on the wrong side of the road got the Eastern Freeway wrong.
Ashish: We cracked down on drunken driving! That we totally got right.
Gursimran: Nobody gets caught after we say this.
Tanmay: I think they have figured Juhu Beach out better than what it was.
Rohan: Visarjan traffic! It is much better than it used to be. What else…
Gursimran: Two IMAX theatres. Pehle Wadala jaana padta tha, woh bahut door tha (we had to go to Wadala initially, which was too far).
Rohan: Moving offices north, from Nariman Point to Bandra Kurla Complex… in terms of the city demographically, moving north.
Gursimran: Public transport is much better compared to a lot of other places.
The Eastern Freeway has been one of the things well done.
Rohan: But let’s not include that in the past 10 years. It has always been good.
Ashish: Like our autos are better than the Metros in most parts.
Gursimran: Amitabh Bachchan ke ghar ke saamne traffic kam hua kya? (Has the traffic outside Amitabh Bachchan’s house reduced?)
Tanmay: Has the monsoon gotten better?
Ashish: Significantly worse. Our response to it, that is.
Rohan: There was a story in the news the other day about how there are 10 new spots in the city that never flooded before, but they do now.
Tanmay: I think we should give Metro half a point for existing, and the other half for looking like it does.
Ashish: Terminal 2!
Five famous people in this city you would like to Roast?
Rohan: Aamir Khan, with or without his consent. Who else…
Gursimran: This is so easy.
Tanmay: There are so many. Mukesh Ambani. We would love to Roast him.
Gursimran: Then next day, do a much smaller version for Anil Ambani.
Rohan: With cheaper tickets...
Gursimran: Just to keep the family thing intact.
Rohan: Sachin Tendulkar. That would be amazing content.
Gursimran: It will be tough to Roast him. What will you say?
Tanmay: We should do the Roast, and then just take really long to end it. And get Vinod Kambli to be the Roastmaster. That’ll be hilarious.
Tanmay: I think Rakesh Maria (Mumbai police commissioner) would be fun.
Everyone: No, no, no…
Tanmay: I think Aditya Thackeray is cool as of now.
Rohan: Raj Thackeray?
Tanmay: We’re not saying it. Lata Mangeshkar?
Gursimran: No, please don’t say that either.
Tanmay: Amitabh Bachchan.
Everyone: Yes, yes.