Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 November 2019

Rohan Joshi and Abish Mathew on why it's a 'great time to be a comedian'

The two stand-up comedians perform in Dubai this Thursday

Rohan Joshi was a journalist before turning to comedy.
Rohan Joshi was a journalist before turning to comedy.

Followers of Indian stand-up comedy are likely to be familiar with the names Rohan Joshi, or MojoRojo, as his fans like to call him, and Abish Mathew, of Son of Abish fame. Both are credited with being among the early champions of an industry that is still in its infancy in India. Joshi, from Mumbai, and Mathew, who started out in Delhi, embarked on their comedy careers about a decade ago, when it was not an option available to many.

Even more difficult was breaking into stand-up comedy at the time, given that opportunities were few and far between – the best an aspiring comic could hope for was to attend sporadic open-mic nights to indulge in their “hobby”, while keeping their day jobs. Mathew, 32, was a radio jockey before turning comedian, while Joshi, 36, was a journalist. They made the leap to full-time comedy only when they realised they could earn at least as much as their salaries. Cut to 10 years later, and they’re not only famous in their home country, but everywhere with a robust Indian diaspora.

Tonight, Mathew and Joshi will perform at Bollywood Parks Dubai. “This is my fourth performance in the UAE, and it’s always been a fantastic experience,” Joshi tells The National. “The UAE has always had a receptive, generous audience. I’ve always had a great time performing, and enjoying great food after the show. So it’s a win-win for me,” he says. Mathew’s ties with the Emirates are even stronger. “I think I’ve performed more in the UAE than Delhi in the last couple of years,” he says. “The great thing about being here right now is that the UAE comedy scene has expanded and it has its own comedy circuit now. It is a self-sufficient ecosystem now and it will keep churning new fans for performers like me to entertain at special events like this one. It’s a great time to be a comedian.”

That much is true. And it’s a good time to be Mathew and Joshi in particular. Even a cursory Google search about Joshi will reveal a celebrity-style public interest in his life outside of his career as a comedian, writer and TV presenter – a website devoted to tracking “stars” meticulously records his height, weight, shoe size, religion, romantic inclinations … the list is long and mostly inane. You know you’ve made it as a public personality when someone can make money by telling people your chest-to-waist-to-bicep ratio. He has almost four million followers on Twitter, and more than 300,000 on Instagram. Only a few weeks ago, Joshi filmed his stand-up special for Amazon Prime Video.

Mathew’s popularity rivals Joshi’s. His self-named YouTube channel has more than 900,000 subscribers, and he has almost 1.5 million and 400,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram respectively. His online talk show, Son of Abish, is in its sixth season, with each episode routinely racking up anywhere between half a million to upwards of four million views. Mathew, too, has a special on Prime Video. As old-timers of the Indian comedy circuit, Mathew and Joshi have seen both the best and the worst of the industry, with all its highs and lows.

Given that comedy culture is still new to India, both comedians and audiences are still figuring out what constitutes humour, what speech is offensive and what topics are off limits. In such an environment, comics can, on occasion, find themselves in the midst of controversies, facing a severe backlash. Mathew has had women protest and leave his audience for making what were considered sexist jokes about domestic violence and a female politician’s skin colour. Joshi and All India Bakchod (AIB), the comedy collective he co-founded, ran into legal trouble in 2015, when cases were filed against 14 people (including several Bollywood bigwigs) for using obscene and abusive language in a now infamous comedy roast, in which jokes were made at the expense of actors Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor, among other celebrities. The YouTube video was taken down from the AIB channel, but it remained business as usual for the company.

I wouldn’t make some jokes I made in the past – some might have been off-colour, some were just bad. I like to think I’m responsible for the person I am now.

Abish Mathew

“We just need to learn how to have a conversation with each other, and we need to be willing to learn and grow,” says Mathew. “I’m not the same person I was even one year ago. My opinions have evolved. And I know better now than I did when I started 10 years ago. I wouldn’t make some jokes I made in the past – some might have been off-colour, some were just bad. I like to think I’m responsible for the person I am now. And with age, maturity and experience, I’ve learnt that I need to think of the Abish I will be 10 years from now.”

Joshi acknowledges that while any creative industry that seeks to challenge the status quo must take growing pains in its stride, it does make the job harder and perhaps even dangerous, at times. “The legal system of some countries protects free speech and in others it ends up helping those who want to shut it down. I feel that at this point, our legal system errs on the side of the latter. People can sue you for anything – from ‘you offended my religious sentiments’ to the nebulously worded ‘outraging the modesty of a woman’ and defamation,” says Joshi. “That makes things difficult. Because when someone threatens to ­destroy your career, you know that the system that is supposed to protect you may fail you. But I guess I think of it as a challenge as a comedian: how can I say what I want to say in such an insidiously clever way that it passes through all these filters and still lands and makes my audience laugh?

Even so, both Mathew and Joshi emphasise the need for free speech and say every topic should be fair game. “Freedom of speech needs to be absolute. People should 100 per cent have the right to offend,” says Joshi. “As a comic, I might think of certain perspectives as not great, and I might choose not to say something because I don’t want to be shocking or provocative for the sake of it, but no topic should be off limits.” Mathew concurs. “Our job is not to say what the audience wants to hear, it is to say what we believe in. Comedy – and conversation – can evolve only if we open up the space for all kinds of perspectives and narratives. Left-leaning, right-leaning, inclusive of all genders …”

It’s been a tumultuous year for Indian comics, and Mathew and Joshi are not exempt. The #MeToo movement in India was kick-started in October 2018 with an outpouring of accusations against several prominent male comics. Mathew had worked closely with one, Joshi with two. The accusations against Gursimranjeet Khamba and Tanmay Bhat, Joshi’s AIB co-founders, blew up to such an extent that the company was dissolved in May this year – the former was accused of sexual misconduct, while the latter, of ignoring allegations of sexual harassment against a colleague.

“I’d just like to move on with my life,” Joshi says. “I think I’ve done everything that was required of me by law. Whatever lessons I have to learn and reassessment I need to do, I choose to do them in private. I have nothing more to say.”

Mathew, while not exactly forthcoming, offers some perspective. “It’s been an important lesson and a shock. As seniors in the industry, perhaps it is time to admit that it’s our responsibility to be aware of what’s going on around us. Maybe we messed up by not paying attention.

“What I can say now, though, is that we’re doing better. We’re listening. We’re bringing more voices, more diversity in our green rooms and writing rooms. We’re taking accountability. That’s a good start, no?”

Rohan Joshi and Abish Mathew will perform Thursday, November 7, at 7.30pm at Rajmahal Theatre, Bollywood Parks Dubai; tickets from Dh75 at dubai.platinumlist.net

Updated: November 6, 2019 06:50 PM

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