Indulge Chennai turns 15: From Aravind SA to Alexander Babu, here are stand-up comedians from this city who are making a mark globally
We’ve had a variety of Chennai-based comics who started from humble beginnings and are now making a mark across the world, thereby putting Chennai on the global comedy map
Picture this: Artistes from a small blip on the map venture forth and have their roots and culture celebrated by thousands of people in several parts of the world. All due to comedy. Sounds impressive? Well then, here’s a proud moment for all the artistes who set out to pursue the art of stand-up comedy in Chennai and have now succeeded in making a mark for themselves across the planet, not to mention putting this diverse city in the global spotlight.
From Aravind SA to Alexander Babu, we’ve had a series of comics from humble beginnings, who started out to explore this art form years ago as a side hustle, as a hobby, or simply to seek a change from the monotony of their daily routines. However, what followed was a journey none of them anticipated, resulting in far-reaching connections between audiences that transcend geographical boundaries and language even. Everyone got the jokes, from Chennai to California!
“It all started in Chennai for me,” says comedian Jagan Krishnan, who recently performed in Malaysia alongside comic Mervyn Rozz. “I started performing Tamil stand-up comedy back in 2016, when such a thing as Tamil stand-up did not exist. Everyone was performing in English back then, so maybe Chennai was a good starting point for me (because of the language edge),” he muses.
The idea of having cafés, resto-bars, and other establishments in the city provide a platform for comics at their venues and perform also seems to have given a leg up for those who started out small. “It was kind of necessary, I think. It was a nice gesture on their part to provide a platform for us to perform, since we didn’t have a prominent comedy culture back then,” Jagan says, to which stand-up comedian Karthi Durai adds, “It was a good, win-win situation that enabled crowds to flock even to events like open mics.”
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“Digital media helped too. A lot of us were performing shows online, which led to viewers wanting to witness our live shows, eventually,” explains comic Mervyn Rozz.
Though Chennai appears to be expanding in the cultural scene now, was it always like this back then, for new artistes? “The audience in Chennai was not as accustomed as the crowd in Bengaluru to stand-up comedy,” Jagan agrees. Popular comic Aravind SA gives us an insight into how people’s minds work and says, “We are asking them to spend money on tickets and physically show up somewhere. That’s a cultural reinvention. People used to do that for plays in the past, and only for concerts until now. You had a big gap. Nobody used to go for anything other than concerts.” Jagan adds, “Now, more and more people are actively following and attending stand-up comedy shows. We could also attribute this to people’s enthusiasm towards savouring life after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns.”
Mervyn also brings to attention the audience’s ever-growing gusto towards trying new forms of recreation. “Chennai is a mixed bag in terms of audience, and has people from several other cities who are open to experimenting and trying new things out,” he says.
Adding to the comparison of the kind of platform this city provided earlier versus now, stand-up comedian Karthi Durai points out, “A few years ago, we used to have very few open mic events. Now, and even before, the pandemic began, we have at least one open mic per week, which helps fine-tune your content every time you perform. A lot is happening in the stand-up comedy scene now in Chennai, which has opened up opportunities for other emerging artistes as well.”
What’s more, it also appears to have now become more about the art than the artiste. Mervyn says, “The crowd is more open towards focusing on ‘Let’s go watch a stand-up comedy show this weekend,’ as opposed to ‘I will watch only this comedian’s performances’.”
Curious to find out more about how our Chennai-based comedians established a loving audience not just in the city or state, but in several parts of the world, we deep dive into the possible reasons with Aravind. Known for one of his most successful shows (that was later released on Amazon Prime Video), I Was Not Ready Da, the comedian reveals that a sense of nostalgia and connection to people with Tamil roots is the underlying cause for their demand among the population abroad. Aravind says, “I don’t think I would have had any impact if not for the connection to the city. It’s very obvious and very evident. And till date, it’s what’s kept me going — this relatability, which comes from some type of a culture connect.”
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Who knew nostalgia could play such a big role in the success of an art form abroad? “I feel there is a strong appreciation of the artiste outside the country, when they come from your land, simply because in those few hours you spend with them, you seem to be able to connect with a piece of your homeland that you miss a lot. I definitely sense that appreciation and need a lot more outside India. I feel people outside Chennai appreciate that feeling a lot more, because only you know what you’re missing,” Aravind says. “I think the primary reason is the relatability that people feel when they have grown up in Chennai or a city similar to it. Growing up, I think that has been the biggest advantage in being able to do this for a living,” Aravind feels.
This might come as a surprise, but guess what else has helped these comedians go global? Embracing Tamil as a medium for comedy, keeping in mind the fact that a majority of the world’s population does not speak Tamil! With English generally being associated to be a more common and unifying medium on a large scale, we were intrigued upon hearing that Tamil comedy helped these artistes create a niche for themselves in this popular art form and that language could have such an extensive impact in comedy.
Karthi elaborates on this and says, “Back then, comics around here used to perform only in English, even if they were well-versed with Tamil too. And this was the case because that was the only known medium in this art form at that time. Later in 2017, Tanglish Comedy — a Chennai-based stand-up comedy collective — conducted a workshop and Jagan Krishnan encouraged me to perform in Tamil, saying I had a strong, good base in that language. I was slightly reluctant upon hearing this suggestion, since, I had dreams of a California tour one day and my previous perceptions made me wonder how I was going to achieve that with Tamil shows. I then dabbled in Tanglish performances, which received mixed, but better reactions than my earlier shows. I later got into full-blown Tamil-language jokes!”
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Now that we see several factors helping with the progress of this art form, what can we look forward to next? One could be quality content, according to Jagan, who says, “People are more aware now. We cannot take people for granted these days. Earlier, you could get away with any kind of joke, but now you can’t. The audience is well-aware of what you are insinuating and what intention you have with the anecdote.”
Comedian Sumukhi Suresh hopes we would get to see more female comedians in the picture. She says, “(I wish to have) more open mics in Tier-II cities, and more girls coming out to do it. We have the advantage of doing things in metros. I don’t live with my parents; I can do whatever I want. There are girls who live with their parents who might want to do open mics but might not be allowed. So, I hope that opens up.”
Mervyn concludes by highlighting that stand-up comedy will continue to head towards a space that is no longer limited by rules or set boundaries. “When you look at the phenomenal growth of people like Nirmal Pillai or Vikram Arul Vidyapathi (aka Vikkals Vikram) over the last two years, you will see that you don’t even require a city to be a platform for launching yourself anymore. Social media has done wonders with its options for videos and reels, and provides a platform to gain a follower base, for whom you can later perform live shows.”