Indian comedy trailblazer Karthik Kumar on breaking down cultural barriers and what Hong Kong can expect
Kumar has spent the last decade turning stand-up into a mainstream art form in his mother country; now the former actor is coming to Hong Kong to show audiences how to laugh at themselves
Comedian Karthik Kumar, who is bringing his latest tour to Hong Kong this weekend, challenged social norms when he helped introduce stand-up comedy to India less than a decade ago.
The 40-year-old from Chennai in southern India was well-known as an actor, scriptwriter, director and entrepreneur when his writing organically took a turn towards the first person.
“We invented stand-up comedy for ourselves – we didn’t realise it was stand up comedy,” Kumar says, speaking from India.
The genre was not a mainstream art form in India, and Kumar was one of the first in a wave of comedians who broke through in 2009, coming up against many cultural barriers in the process.
“We were trying to get Indian people to be sensitive to the fact that we can be critical about social, political, sexual and personal issues without offending anybody. People were shocked that we were young people talking about issues we technically shouldn’t have,” he laughs.
Without regular comedy venues to turn to, Kumar was forced to look for cafes and restaurants where he could perform. In one instance, he was asked to stop his act at an elite gentleman’s club. “It became a negotiation between the members about whether we should leave. We were left standing awkwardly on stage, not sure if we were going to do the rest of the show,” he recalls.
Now, young people in India look up to comedians. “We say the uncomfortable truths even the mass media won’t touch”, he explains, such as discussing public opinion and politics.
However, Kumar jokes modestly that perhaps Indian comedians have been elevated too high. “At the end of the day we are just clowns and jesters, but in a world where nobody is allowed to say that the emperor has no clothes, the person who does suddenly becomes important.”
Pushing social boundaries and making people laugh about subjects they hadn’t dared to before is what Kumar loves about the art form. The way it challenges society in India is why the country’s stand-up scene has grown so much, he says.
It’s changed so much that the same gentleman’s club that once stopped Kumar’s live act, now brings him in for its annual fundraising show. “It has come full circle,” he says.
But stand-up comedy didn’t come naturally to Kumar, who considers himself “the least funny person” in everyday life. After studying chemical engineering at university, he co-founded a theatre and entertainment group with a friend before becoming a well-known actor. In 2016, Kumar announced his retirement from films in a Facebook post entitled, “Confessions of a failed actor”.
A period of personal difficulties and depression which followed has now formed the basis of his third comedy special titled “Blood Chutney”. Of the title, Kumar says “blood” represents tragedy and “chutney” is the comedy that can come of it. “Because no one likes blood, and everyone likes chutney,” he says.
Having toured India, Australia, Singapore, the UK and the US, Blood Chutney will come to the TakeOut Comedy Club in Central on March 10; markingKumar’s second performance in the city.
Last year, Kumar’s Hong Kong debut, “Second Decoction”, featured some material written for Hong Kong, but this time he plans to stick to jokes about his home for his predominantly Indian audience who are “eager to know what is happening in India, to feel a connection”.
Kumar jokes that being on stage is not only “the best therapy I’ll ever have”, but it is also his way of helping to tackle stigmas surrounding the discussion of life’s hardships.
He believes that more comedians are increasingly using their platform to address serious issues. “I’m using that stage to make people laugh and also to make them think that if I am open about it, it is OK to go through difficult times and not have to sweep it under the carpet,” Kumar explains.
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“It is OK to laugh in the face of tragedy. I used to take life so seriously, and now I laugh at myself so much more. I take nothing seriously, or too seriously. Comedy has changed me more than I have changed it. I owe it one.”
Karthik Kumar’s Blood Chutney, Mar 10, 6.30pm, 8pm, TakeOut Comedy Club, 34 Elgin St, Central, sold out