Marathi stand-up comedy gets a shot in the arm; will growing audience ensure comedians have the last laugh?
Marathi stand-up is steadily gaining popularity because of the way comedians use the language and comment on aspects that are typical of Maharashtrian culture, like the never-ending Mumbai-Pune debate
Until 10 years ago, stand-up comedy in Mumbai was limited to being a form of entertainment to be enjoyed at select venues, and there were very few well-known comedians who would perform. Today, open mics and shows are held across Mumbai every single day, since the number of comedians is steadily growing, and so is the audience with an appetite for stand-up. These shows, which include sets in both Hindi and English, aren't just borrowed from a Western idea of humour; performers have imbued a real sense of Indian-ness to their content, taking into consideration how things are in our society.
Some of these shows in Mumbai are performed not in Hindi or English, but in Marathi. Comedy in the Marathi language is hardly new; people listened to cassettes and records of veteran comedians like Pu La Deshpande over 40 years ago. They then graduated to watching Ashok Saraf and his contemporaries in countless comedy films on the big screen, and other actors and comedians in sketch-based TV shows like Fu Bai Fu and Chala Hawa Yeu Dya. Comedy in the language has now evolved further; a community of comedians who perform stand-up in Marathi is slowly emerging in Mumbai and other cities in the state.
The reigning sentiment seems to be that the popularity of stand-up is a result of the language being used, both for the performers and audience. Pushkar Bendre has performed stand-up for three years, of which he has spent the last year performing in Marathi, and he says there is a marked difference in the experience. "It's a different feeling when you get to perform in your mother tongue, especially in front of people who remind you of your cousins and family members. The connect between the audience and performers is higher, and this makes it way more fun." Chetan Muley, who has been an active performer since 2017, concurs. "Stand-up worked out for me in Marathi because it is 'my own' language. I have a great love for it, it is the language which I understand and appreciate and express myself in the best," he says.
Though it is a new phenomenon, Marathi stand-up is steadily garnering an audience. Bharatiya Digital Party, a Marathi forum which produces videos and shows, launched its first Secret Marathi Stand-up show in 2017 because it recognised that Maharashtrians have an appetite for humour. Thus far, they have hosted shows in Mumbai, Pune, Thane, Vashi, Navi Mumbai, Nagpur and Nashik and plan to expand to cities like Kolhapur and Ahmednagar. Anusha Nandakumar, one of BhaDiPa's founders, says that one of their Pune shows had 700 attendees.
Bendre says Marathi stand-up as a form was able to build an audience very fast because it filled a gap that existed in the entertainment space. "People have always loved comedy, unfortunately, what was being served as Marathi humour was either cheap or slapstick. Also, they could not connect with humour in Hindi or English as these languages are still alien to many of them," he explains.
But the audience doesn't just consist of Marathi speakers. "There is a demand for comedy from people who speak and understand the language. Even those who have a grasp of the language but cannot speak it are keen to attend stand-up shows," says Muley.
These comedians explore a variety of themes, from everyday life, to politics, to sex, gender, marriage, and even water problems, informs Nandakumar. Muley says that what he finds most intriguing is Marathi culture. "There are certain sayings, certain aspects which are peculiar to Marathi culture, the humour inherent in them becomes apparent only when they are expressed in Marathi," he says. He adds that rather than the set-up or the story of the joke, it is the word play that causes the audience to laugh. "Jokes are based on 'shabd-khel' (word play), the story or setting of the joke isn't always the important bit. Playing with words which have two meanings, phrases which have three meanings — that is where the fun lies," he explains.
Nandakumar says that apart from the language lending itself well to dark humour and sarcasm, it is the culture itself that has embraced stand-up: "Maharashtrians have never shied away from taking a political stand or expressing themselves. Stand-up comedy allows them to do so in a more engaging manner." Trupti Khamkar, a theatre artiste who has been performing stand-up in Marathi for over half a year, says that the audience is open to different genres of humour and that they are not easy to please. "You can't fool them with easy jokes or the use of expletives," she explains.
BhaDiPa began its foray into stand-up by approaching and grooming comedians. Nandakumar says they now have 16 comics who perform regularly and another 70-80 who want to be a part of Secret Marathi Stand-up. The youngest comedian on their roster is 17-years-old, but people in their 30s are keen to perform too. The number of male performers far exceeds that of female performers, but that hasn't stopped women from making an impression. Trupti Khamkar says that the audience doesn't discriminate based on the gender of the performer. "I haven't felt that there was any gender bias. If there ever was any, I am thankful to the beginners who fought against it and made it easier for women like me," she says.
Nandakumar says that the audience too is composed of people across age groups, because Maharashtrians go for plays and performances regularly families. But despite the positive response, Marathi stand-up is a predominantly urban phenomenon as of now, owing to its novelty and nature. "I like shows such as Chala Hawa Yeu Dya, though they may be considered frivolous. The audience is different for these shows, they may not be able to relate to what stand-up comics joke about... Stand-up is carving its own niche in Marathi entertainment, and it is largely an urban phenomenon. Many of the topics we are currently talking about are millennial issues. But if stand-up delves deeper into how people outside of cities think, if it is able to understand their sentiments, it may have a wider appeal," he explains.
The number of opportunities available for Marathi performers are limited, especially in comparison to the sheer number of platforms that Hindi and English performers have in India. "There aren't too many Marathi open mics happening right now, as compared to the number of English and Hindi open mics. I think there is a need for more open mics to be held; they are a platform where new material can be tried. It can provide the support system needed to build a community," says Muley.
Where is Marathi stand-up comedy headed? "In its contemporary form, Marathi comedy is still a baby. It has a long way to go and a lot of scope to evolve in terms of content and language," says Nandakumar. Bendre is hopeful about growth not just in terms of numbers, but also the quality of the humour itself. "As audience members become more mature, we can explore slightly more complex topics and may be venture into other forms of comedy too," he says. Khamkar is hopeful about taking Marathi stand-up overseas, with a focus on targeting diaspora.
Muley is confident about the future of this form because he feels it has its roots in the more traditional forms of Marathi comedy. "Stand-up in this language draws from katha-kathan style, which was somewhat similar to stand-up comedy. Earlier comedians used to literally narrate (a form called 'abhivaachan' in Marathi), which is a technique that one can use in stand-up. This is why stand-up can potentially appeal to the older generations too, it will remind them of Pu La Deshpande. Despite being a modern form, its essence is rooted in tradition," he says.
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