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Vol. XXVII No. 14, November 1-15, 2017

Stand-up comedy in Chennai

by Lavanya Narayanan

Karthik Kumar

Aswin Rao, Karthik Kumar, S. Aravind of Evam Standup Tamasha.

“Macha, why would youdo that, da?” The audience is already in splits and S.A. Aravind has hardly begun. The auditorium in the Museum Theater, Egmore, is full to the brim with the sound of thigh-slapping guffaws as he calls out stereotype after stereotype. The Tamilians smile in appreciation: finally, someone who’s telling it like it is. But more amazing still are the smiles painted across the faces of the Mumbaiites and Delhiites as Aravind tears into them. “Since when has Rajnikanth worn chashma, da?! You are confusing Rajnikanth with Raj Kiran, ok?” The cheers are continuous and unstoppable. In the corner, Evam Entertainment’s founder Karthik Kumar smiles. He’s seen this phenomenon before. In fact, he had birthed it.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say I thought Chennai was the next big thing for stand-up comedy,” he confesses. “At least, not at first.” His initial innings as what trade pundits now refer to as the ‘failed Madhavan paradox’ saw Kumar trying his hand at almost anything that got him on stage. Remember his strong start with Mani Ratnam’s Alaipayuthey and Yuva? And yet, as the industry morphed, so did Karthik, finding space first on the theatre stage and, then, at an open mic. “We’re able to use humour to break language barriers and spread social messages. What’s more amazing is that people are willing to pay us to see that!” It might be bewildering, but that hasn’t stopped Karthik from turning it into a full-fledged enterprise.

Over the last few years, Evam has led the pack, paving the way for comedy collectives to make inroads in the city. They’ve given Chennai a new splash of colour among the deep hues of the Margazhi season and the flashy exteriors of the independent-cum-film music scene. “It’s an art that allows me to connect with so many people of different backgrounds here in the city, no matter how many TamBrahm jokes fill my half-hour set,” Aravind says. The development is heartening but unbelievably recent.

Three years ago, comedy was nestled in the classics: Nagesh on the big screen with his antics, the staple serving of film comedians such as Vadivel, Santhanam, Parotta Soori, and the youngest of them all, Satish, and the tasteful acts of a Y Gee Mahendra show, served in small portions to the viewers. Now, it’s permeated the city’s culture in a way that was unprecedented. Of course, not that the comedians are complaining.

“Chennai has five open mic nights, happening every week,” says stand-up comic Sudarsan Ramanurthy, better-known as Soda. A healthy number, given that it’s more than what’s offered even in cities like Mumbai and Bangalore. And yet, even while playing host to a plethora of talent, Chennai still has a long way to go. “The Chennai audience is fun and intelligent – they pick up on the nuance that we deliver. But, the scene is still in its nascent stages,” says Bangalore comedian Sundeep Rao, who’s performed in Chennai’s hotspots before. “The city needs to evolve more and give people comedy of all shades so that local and national comedians can co-exist.”

Evam’s third man, Aswin Rao, couldn’t agree more. “We don’t make bones about where we come from. In stand-up comedy, it’s your own experience that counts.” And while he’s both heartened and amused by the number of macha-s that are called out in appreciation at the end of each show, he says, eventually, it’s all about the connect. “You have to find your own voice. Then everything falls into place.”- (Courtesy: Matrix, the house journal of the Sanmar group).

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