India's new prosperity offers vast potential for foreign investors: Italians sell shoes, Australians sell prime beef, and now, British entrepreneurs are trying to flog one of their nation's most prized assets: comedy. The subcontinent is home to the world's second-largest English-speaking population after the United States, but has never featured on the international stand-up comedy circuit, which traces an arc from the UK and North America all the way through to Australia and New Zealand.
For decades, promoters dismissed India as unprofitable. But over the past few years, a handful of comedians has headed eastward to test unchartered waters - with pleasing results. International comedy promoters are now looking to the subcontinent as a place of opportunity. Later this year, The Comedy Store, a chain of British venues, will open a club in Mumbai. It will be the brand's first overseas venture. The chief executive Don Ward says the company is investing $1.6 million (Dh5.8m) in the upmarket club, which is due to open in November (his Indian business partner, Amar Agrawal, will contribute another $1.6m).
When complete, the venue will host a regular stream of foreign and local comedians. For Ward, who has clubs in Manchester, Leeds and Bournemouth, India seemed an obvious place to set up shop. "The number one language taught in India is English ? and India is the last frontier for comedy. There are comedy clubs in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Canada, and America is where it all began. I'm amazed that no one thought of India before," Ward says, adding that Indian audiences have no trouble relating to British humour.
Ward is one of the biggest comedy promoters to make inroads into the subcontinent, but he's not the first. Late last year, the Briton Quill Potter settled in Mumbai to start up a company that brings foreign comedians to India. So far he's hosted only one gig, a sell-put performance by the Australian comedian Jonathan Atherton. Later this year he plans to bring out Gordon Southern and Alan Bates from the UK.
Potter says there's a thirst for live comedy in India. "Indians are educated people who watch comedy on the TV and internet and want to see that sort of thing on their doorstep," Potter says. "Mumbai is a big, vibrant, international city, and if there's comedy in most other Asian cities, it should be in Mumbai too." India has its own rich comic tradition. Political satire pre-dates the 14th-century Mogul invasion. And vintage Bollywood abounds with slapstick humour and social parody. But the stand-up comedian alone on a stage or in front of a camera reeling off gags is a fairly recent phenomenon that Indian audiences are only just beginning to digest.
Over the past decade, India has produced a handful of celebrity stand-up comics who tour the subcontinent and Indian diaspora. Some of them even host satirical news shows inspired by Jay Leno, David Letterman and Conan O'Brien. There's also growing opportunity for amateur comedians to develop their craft, thanks to a string of venues that host open-mike nights in the major metropolitan areas. The veteran comedian Vir Das says that India's home-grown comedy scene is vibrant and diverse.
"What I grew up with was joke humour - 'there were two guys walking into a bar', that kind of thing. But now everything is opening up. Comedians are using anger, irony, satire, sarcasm and social methods," he says. But the comedian Shekhar Suman believes that stand-up comedy has a limited appeal in India. In 1998, Suman began hosting India's first satirical news show. The Hindi-language programme, titled Movers and Shakers, was ground-breaking in its approach. Traditionally, satirists would steer clear of personal attacks against their leaders, and lambast the country's dysfunction with generic caricatures of crooked, power-hungry politicians. But Suman defied the age-old prohibition and laid into people like the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with abandon.
"The Indian audience was taken aback that I was fearless enough to name the politicians," Suman recalls. But he says that mainstream audiences are still uncomfortable with irreverence. And many Indians can't relate to the way in which stand-up comedians deliver their repertoire. "There is no tradition here of stand-up comedy. There's a show here and a show there, but people don't relate to it. For most people it would be very odd to enter a restaurant and see a man standing there trying to make you laugh," Suman says.
But this is unlikely to dampen business prospects. The foreign comedy promoters making inroads into India are targeting a young anglophone minority raised on cable TV and Hollywood movies. Today, stand-up is one of the most elite forms of entertainment around. In the UK, The Comedy Store has a grungy feel, but its Indian incarnation will be housed in an upmarket mall composed of department stores, boutiques, fast-food chains and cinemas. Ward says that the entry price is yet to be determined, but it will be less than 1,000 rupees (Dh77) a sum that many agricultural labourers earn in a month.
Ward says that he initially considered building a club in New Delhi, but decided instead to focus on Mumbai. "I thought to myself: 'This is like London and Manchester rolled into one.' It felt right, like an old coat. It's the home of Bollywood and there's a real excitement there," he says. For some comedy promoters, the Canadian-born comedian Russell Peters provided the litmus test on the Indian market. Late last year, the performer, whom Potter describes as the "superstar of Indian comedy", packed a 2,000-seat hall in Mumbai. Punters paid 1,500 rupees (Dh115) per ticket, about what it cost to see the Rolling Stones in India several years ago.
Peters draws comic inspiration from his Indo-Canadian upbringing. "Every group is racist," he told audiences at last year's Mumbai show. "White folks will see a group of Indian people and they're like: 'Look at all those brown people, they're probably all very happy together.' Then you get in that group and it's like: 'Hey, you from India? I'm from India. What part? No, not that part. Go to hell.' "
Potter says that one of the biggest concerns of comedians performing in India is to avoid obscure cultural references to which audiences can't relate. But he says that blank stares are easy enough to avoid. Some of the best comedy emanates from the observation of human traits that are universal. "We are 90 per cent the same as each other, and about 10 per cent culturally different. Really good comedians focus on the universal; they'll find funny and unique ways to talk about things that everyone experiences," Potter says.
Das agrees. "With good comedy, funny is funny in every territory."