It’s not a mean feat when a bunch of crazy-minded fellas decide to leave their lucrative jobs in IT, the medical and corporate fields and roam the city bars staging stand-up comedy nights on weekends. Comedy is a tricky business, especially in India, where our upper lips are stiffer than the British, and it takes some demented brain or real bravery to do this.
I meet up with the forerunner of this new movement, Sanjay Manaktala, the cute NRI from USA, whose looks get as much attention as his jokes do, and sometimes even more. I met him for the first time at Murphy’s Brewhouse during a stand-up comedy night of which he was the main act. He looked unassuming then, dressed in an oversized shirt and baggy trousers, fashion seemingly an alien concept to him.
When I mention this, he seems surprised. “Oh man! You noticed that? Yeah man, who cares!”
His American accent has survived his six-year stay in Bangalore.
“I grew up in California where my dad migrated to work with Air India. The job really didn’t work out for him and he went for another job. We had a one bedroom apartment in Cali”.
Growing up was pretty normal, Sanjay says. They were part of a migrant community that consisted of Mexicans, Indians, Chinese and all those people Trump wants to get out of the US.
I am curious to know what difficulties he faced growing up as an Indian kid in a foreign country, how he blended with the community and what lessons he learned from the growing up years.
“Even then, racism was there, but not a social media viral thing like now. Bullies used to taunt us, asking us to show our lunch box to see what stupid Indian food we had in it”.
The Indian community found ways to stick together, he says.
“My family used to scan the white pages to see Indian surnames and the moment they spot a Malhotra or Chowdhary, they would call them up, introduce themselves and invite the Malhotras over. They would eventually become family friends, making the social circle grow over time.”
“White kids were fine with me. I used to get bullied till I was 13 for my excess weight, but soon I found that gift of gab was my forte and I used that as my strong point. I guess I was pretty popular at school, the go-to guy for anything crazy.”
Sanjay’s parents parted ways when he was eight. He found himself stuffed in a tiny apartment with his mother and elder brother. Money was tight, since his mother’s salary as a nurse in a hospital was not enough to meet all their needs.
“These were minor glitches on the way, like I wouldn’t have money to buy an ice cream or go to a pizza joint when other kids from the school were going. I never saw these as major frustrations, more as small inconveniences.”
I ask him how he coped with something serious as his parents’ separation and he gives me a quizzical look.
“Well, what could I do? They were not getting along, so it’s better to part ways, isn’t it? It’s not like he wasn’t around. He was still around.”
The lad obviously is unshaken by this setback at an early age and talks about it as he would any normal thing in his life. I attribute this to the American way of thinking, perhaps? In India, this would have had a huge impact on a child.
“Humour helped as well.”
Everyone in the family is on the lookout for a chance to laugh, he says.
“Both my father’s and mother’s families are hilarious people. They just want to laugh at anything. Maybe it brushed off on me.”
Still, a career in comedy was nowhere on the horizon. As any other NRI kid who grew up on Karan Johar films (He says he has only seen the staple NRI movies like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, DDLJ, Kabhie Khushi Kabhi Gham etc), Sanjay went on to graduate in Computer Science and landed a job with Accenture.
“The pay was good and so was the job. But they kept shifting me around and I was tired of all the travel and the hotel rooms.”
This is when comedy came on stage.
“In America, stand-up comedy is big. In every bar, you will see a comedian performing, people laughing and having a good time.”
Bored one evening, Sanjay went to a club near his hotel and saw the comedian making people roar with laughter.
“I thought: Dude, you can do this.”
Preparations followed. Intensive viewing of Russel Peter and other famous comedians, keeping himself up to date on the comedy scene etc., and at the end of a few months, Sanjay was on the stage in the bar near his house, where he got five minutes to perform.
“My heart was on fire. Cracking jokes with friends was another matter, but here I was on a live stage with strangers judging my jokes. I got five minutes to perform. I lasted exactly three minutes, delivered a few gags and left.”
The incident strengthened his belief in himself; he could actually do comedy. Performances in small rooms (that’s what they call a stand-up comedy stage), a painfully slow-growing audience, a lot of preparation and many flat jokes later, Sanjay was convinced he could, in fact, do comedy on a stage for a live audience.
“Then my company shifted me to India and I came here in 2010. I started doing shows in Urban Solace with Sandeep Rao.”
By then Sanjay was almost done with his IT job, which was paying him a hefty salary.
“IT changes you. The incessant grind drains the shit out of you and leaves you someone else in your place. I liked my job, the colleagues and the money. But also I could see the other sides. The race for better offers, the lack of stability in sticking to one firm for any length of time, the inability to relate to society effectively – I could see all these signs around. It never affected me, but I discovered that comedy makes me happier”
“Initially, I did shows for free. The first time I made some money, the total came to 5% of my salary. But it grew slowly. So I would work till the evening and after work, I would be in a bar somewhere doing a show. I thought, hey man, this is cool. I can drink as much as I want, eat as much I want and have fun, while making a bit of money too.”
“When I started to make half of my salary through my shows, I decided it was time to quit my job. But then, the first month after I quit my job, the money I made was almost nothing. Then it was building the flow once more.”
Sanjay, along with Sandeep Rao, is one of the most sought-after Stand Up Comedians in India at present.
“It was difficult, man. Very nerve-wracking. But I took the chance and we all worked really hard. We literally had to teach people to laugh.”
With Sandeep, he shares a close bond, he says. There is no rivalry, no competition, but laughter, brotherhood and support. They toured the US a few months ago, doing shows in small towns as part of a big Indie comedy-fest happening in different cities in the USA. The reception, he says, has been warm and hilarious.
“How much money do you make now?” I taunt him.
“I make enough, man. Why should I tell you?” The man has an acid tongue, but I deserve the retort. I have seen him on the stage, literally ripping apart some members from his audience. There is always a guy or a girl who wants to prove he/she is smarter than this comedian on stage who gets all the attention and it’s a sight to watch Sanjay lead them down an illusionary path of gloating, finally to be head-smashed by his witty digs.
“No, I am not mean. I only want them to be interactive and I always end it on a positive note, even if I start making digs at them. I want them to leave happy.”
Doesn’t he feel scared to go on stage in front of a full audience without any script and face the music? What if the jokes fall apart? What if someone wants to try his mettle? What if he really met his match and the person proved wittier than him? All this happening live with no escape from the stage?
“Of course, everyone has this fear. Then you get over it by practice and experience. It’s like a pilot getting better at landing and take-off by experience.”
“But a pilot has a definite script and you don’t have.”
“We do actually have, if not very definitive. I know which jokes will work. We relate- this joke made everyone laugh in the other event, so let me work on it and make it even better. Or another joke which didn’t actually work. So at the end of the day, you have a few really good ones in your hand.”
Corporate shows, shows in pubs and different rooms around the country, periodic visits to the US – Sanjay keeps himself busy.
Does he miss his family now that he is in Bangalore?
“My mother comes and visits me every so often and stays for two or three months. My brother is settled in the US and he has a family there. So we are fine, pretty much.”
I go a bit deeper: “What about love?”
Girls seem to like him (This group of girls come and introduce themselves as his fans at the Times Nightlife Awards function, while I just look on.)
“It’s kind of quiet, man”, he says. “I am open to a relationship though. It will happen when I least expect it.”
But as of now, all his attention is on the book he is writing, Sanjay says.
“What is it about?” I ask.
“Day-to-day situations with some humour in them. Life lessons. It’s entitled: ‘My Beta does computer things.’ “
The title makes me laugh.
“But do you think you can write about life yet?”
“My publisher thinks so.”
“And your publisher is?”
I go silent.