Indian stand-up comedian Varun Thakur, who’s counted among those who can tickle your funny bone effortlessly, has one regret, if you can call it that. “Well, I’ve performed in pretty much every continent apart from Antarctica and I really hope they call me there soon.”
When it comes to Dubai, though, Thakur is a regular. He’s performed three live shows and multiple corporate gatherings here, with his fourth, titled ‘Space Cadet’, slated for March 11 at the Emirates Theatre in Jumeirah. “I think Dubai is one place that’s always got a great crowd and get all the jokes,” he tells Gulf News in an email interview.
Thakur’s expertise is in giving a humorous spin to day-to-day lives that can get mundane and current issues. Best known for his alter ego on stage — the struggling actor Vicky Malhotra — Thakur was initially associated with the comedy collective SnG Comedy which he quit in 2019. He has a show on Amazon Prime Video and regularly posts clips on his YouTube channel as well. He is also counted among other famous Indian comics like Tanmay Bhatt, Kanan Gill and Sorabh Pant.
His popularity aside, Thakur, who intends to appear on the large screen “very soon”, credits the Indian diaspora for getting many overseas gigs. “With Indians being all over the globe it’s always great and a lot fun to go out of India and perform as well because it still feels like home with all the Indians that show up.”
In a free-wheeling interview, Thakur talks about the maturing stand-up comedy scene in India, his inspirations, women peers and being mistaken for other comics.
On his early days…
I was always the funny guy in the group. You keep making a lot of situation jokes, mimicry and stuff like that, but it was different story making your friends laugh. I never thought I would pursue stand-up comedy as a career because back in 2009-10, it wasn’t viable. It so happened that a bunch of friends were working with Vir Das and Tanmay Bhat and they asked me to perform in this open mic night that Das used to organise. I went and I ended up winning, on September 31, 2010. That kickstarted my comedy career and gave me the belief that if I can win this, that means there is some bone of comedy. From that day on, there was no looking back.
On the Eureka moments in his life...
I think my biggest Eureka moment was my first night as comedian because up until then I knew I’d always make my friends laugh and then suddenly I get thrown on stage in front of almost 300,00 people who I do not know, and they laugh at what I say. That was one massive Eureka moment that gave me confidence to be a stand-up comic. Later on, when I introduced my alter ego, the struggling actor Vicky Malhotra, on stage, that gave another massive boost to my career.
What are your biggest sources of motivation and idols? And who’s your favourite stand-up comedian—Indian or otherwise?
I always love watching comedy. Closer home I’ve always been a huge fan of Johnny Lever, Raju Srivastav, Sunil Pal and others who were part of the (TV Show) 'The Great Indian Laughter Challenge' and others shows. Once I expanded my knowledge, I started watching a bunch of non-Indian comics: George Carlin's shows, to me, were like being in a beautiful lecture where you don’t get bored and get entertained at the same time. Mitch Hedberg, Bill Bur, Chris Rock up and of late, Andrew Schulz is fantastic. If I have to select from newer crop of Indian comics, it would definitely be Kanan Gill and Abhishek Upmanyu. I really love their sketches because they’re completely in control of the craft.
Did you find comedy to be natural? How did you develop your own style/voice? And what are your preferred topics of choice?
I think it was a more natural experience because my parents are funny people. Comedy was a very essential part of my growing up. They were a lot of jokes that would happen in the family, and my parents would pull each other’s legs or we would do it to them. Whether it’s within my family, friends it’s something that very natural. In fact, when I started doing comedy, I was like, ‘man, why didn’t I start doing this earlier’. For me, being on stage is essentially an extension of who I am as a person. I always had a knack of recounting and telling stories to a group of people in an entertaining way. That, I think, is my voice because you may not find a set or punchlines but a lot of stories and personal anecdotes that I love enacting. I will become multiple characters when I’m doing it with voice modulation. That's my style.
On the comedy scene in India…
It’s going fantastic… Every second day you see a whole bunch of new amazing comics showing up. Back when we started in 2009, you could almost count on your fingers the number of comics. Now even in the smallest towns, not just the metros, many open mics are happening. People from the interiors of the country are going to Delhi, Mumbai or Bengaluru to open mics. It’s amazing to see how many people have joined this stand-up community and how well it’s grown. I think India is the perfect country because we’re so varied in our culture, region, languages and that also leads to a lot of variation in the kind of oeuvre. I think it’s only going to get bigger and better from here.
How much of an influence have OTT platforms been?
OTT platforms give you a platform to reach out to so many people across the globe. Any comedian who has any special on Netflix or Amazon Prime Video instantly has access to the whole world. You never know about the opportunities that could arise: somebody sitting in Norway could be watching my special, so I think it’s definitely a big boom in terms of exposure. It also gives you a financial boost, especially if you have special shows lined up on OTT platforms. There are also a lot of other comics who have produced their shows and released them on YouTube, which again is fantastic because there you have control. So these are the two sides to the argument.
How would you describe the transition of comic talents in India?
From talents like Cyrus Broacha, Nikhil Chinapa (former MTV India hosts) to the current crop of comics, we’ve had a fantastic transition. We grew up watching VJs like Nikhil and the Cyruses (Broacha and Sahukar), who exposed us to pop culture. A lot of us modelled our early behaviour around them; they’re the trendsetters. Today, if you’re a comedian it doesn’t mean you only do stand-up comedy. You also look at acting in a TV show or web series, films or show hosts. So, I think the transition is great and you’re just getting everyday like more and more amazing people and it can only be good for the same.
Do you believe in what’s called “clean humour” or saying things as they are?
To each his own, I never would like to intellectualise or compartmentalise my comedy. I go by the merit of the joke if I have a thought and if I feel that the thought is best expressed in a certain way, whether you find it clean whether you, find it “non-vegetarian” as they say, that’s up to you. I will make sure I deliver the joke in terms of what fits best. As a comedian, you’re the best judge of your joke and if you feel comfortable doing it… that’s the best version of it. That’s exactly what I do
Have you been confused for the other “Varun” in Indian stand-up comedy, Varun Grover? If so, how did you learn to deal with this mistaken identity?
Yeah, it has happened many times. I met somebody on a flight who said to me, “Hi, I’m a big fan of you Kanan Gill", so I take it in in good spirit. It’s not like the people are trying to be mean, I laugh and correct them, tell them my actual name and then ask them to follow my YouTube channel. It’s all fun.
If a member in the audience takes offence to anything that you say, how do you deal with the situation?
Well, the term offence is subjective. What maybe offensive to me might not be offensive to someone else and vice-versa. If ever the member of an audience feels offended at my show, I’d request them to express their offence maybe after the show, because you know maybe I don’t want to have a conversation about whether a joke is offensive or not in the middle of my set. Touchwood, this hasn’t happened at my shows.
India has talents like Sumukhi Suresh, Kaneez Surka and Aditi Mittal, but it seems like there aren’t too many women comedians. Do you believe so? If so, why?
Well, maybe yes at the start, there were fewer female comics. Firstly, I don’t think we should be divided into male and female comics; we’re just comics. But I feel there has been a massive uptrend in the number of female comics and they’re absolutely killing it. You had the Aditis, the Kaneezs and Sumukhi who set the foundation and now every second day you see a whole lot more women. I mean Gurleen Pannu is a classic example. So are Shreeja Chaturvedi, Urooj Ashfaque, Sumaira Shaik and Prashasthi Singh. I see this number going up every year.
Do you think India now has the ecosystem to produce talented comedians?
Yes absolutely and we already have. Even though the English comedy scene in India is quite nascent, from 2008-09 onwards we’ve gotten a whole bunch of comics. You have people like Zakir Khan, Anubhav Singh Bassi, who’ve completely changed the spectrum. We have a whole number of different places that are now becoming these incubators for comedy. I think there’s a different flavour that comes from every corner of India and I think that’s probably the best way in which any ecosystem should thrive and comedy is no different.
Do you believe that a career in the comedy circuit smoothens one’s entry into the film industry?
My comedy and acting careers started at the same time I did my first open mic. I left to shoot my first film. I always wanted to be an actor. I always love being a performer love being on stage so it was quite natural that I would want to pursue acting but in India, every second person wants to be a cricketer or an actor so it’s not always easy. I must have given about 2,000 auditions... That’s why comedy comes of great use to me because every time I do a great set I follow it up with a fantastic audition and vice versa. It’s sort of an interconnected career and yes, I’m hoping to land something good soon. The good part is that being a comedian, being a creator and writer myself, I’m also of the opinion that sometimes you make things happen for yourself. So, that’s the plan right now… to write good stories, good films or series, but you will see me on the big screen very very soon.
Tickets for the event, organised by Colors Laughter Night, are available on www.dubai.platinumlist.net