“Is this Bandra or is this Khar? No, it’s a state of mind.”
Host and comedian Bhavish Ailani’s efforts to ‘warm up’ the audience at comedy open mics almost always began with him commenting on the location of the venue. I don’t blame him. Because the Hive, a quaint Portuguese-style bungalow located deep inside Chuim Village, seemed to exist inside a parallel dimension. Getting there was akin to crossing Platform Nine and Three Quarters. Knowing the way to the Hive felt like being part of a secret circle. Muggles couldn’t find it.
Long before we found another Habitat (my lawyer has asked me to resist from saying more), the Hive was our go-to spot for testing new material. To outsiders, it was just an ancient door, marked only by an obscure, barely visible signboard. It was only after you climbed up the rickety ladder (I will not call it a staircase) that you were rewarded with the space opening up into a terrace, complete with a garden, and not one, not two, but three adjoining rooms where different open-mic events occurred at the same time. I know this because I arrived there for a poetry open mic and was accidentally guided to the comedy room instead. It was only after the first five acts did not bother rhyming that I realised this was not just a free-verse night.
My friend (who was performing there that night) nudged me to request Bhavish, the host that day, to give me a spot. I remember getting two minutes, which I happily accepted–my confidence bolstered after watching nearly every act on the line-up bomb. I was especially intrigued by the very strange set by a man almost confessing to murder on stage with a straight face and everyone in the back row exploding into fits of laughter, much to the stupefaction of the ticket-buyers. The man was Ashish Dash. The back row, all comics. I waited for my turn, studiously, seated in the front row, a small “set” about Ed Sheeran concerts scribbled on my palm. I was the last spot before the closing act, usually a seasoned comedian meant to end the night on a “high note”, so the audience wouldn’t be left feeling sour about the show.
I wasn’t expecting to dazzle them, but I remember tanking. The walk of shame from the tiny stage to the front row could only be made worse by the sound of applause I hadn’t earned. But a good host always gets them to clap after every act. It wasn’t an encouraging foray into comedy as a “hobby”, much less a “career”. I wonder if I’d have ever hit that stage again if it wasn’t for Sudeip [Nair], the grave and usually silent man who ran The Hive. If he told you to “do this again”, you’d take him seriously, even if you had reasonable doubts that the comics were only saying it sarcastically.
From March 2015 to February 2016, nearly every Monday night, I was present at The Hive–even after they moved the registrations online. I’d set an alarm at my office to remind myself to log in to bigmics.in to book my spot, because they’d all be exhausted in less than a minute of them going live. I don’t think I wrote a joke that entire year. All I did was fail. I failed in front of Biswa Kalyan Rath, Kanan Gill, Abish Mathew, Tanmay Bhat, Rohan Joshi, Kaneez Surka and almost every revered name in comedy at that time. Sometimes, they failed too. Because the Hive was a safe space for failing. Unlike comedy shows at bars and clubs—where open micers had to claim the attention of a distracted audience—the Hive’s Xircus “auditorium” commanded a smaller clientele that was gathered there to listen. If you failed in front of an attentive group, that meant you needed to rewrite, polish and restructure—or scrap the premise entirely. But the audience would forgive you.
Comedy at the Hive was more than just vanilla open mics. We had a Stress Mic, where you were rudely heckled by the audience and, sometimes, Sudeip. There was also a ‘Stand and Deliver’ format—you got on stage with no material and just picked chits out of a hat with topics you then ran with. I remember getting my first fist bump from a comic I admired. After months of shamelessly tanking, getting an audience to laugh for five minutes straight was rewarding. It was also at this show where I learnt that the standard rules of control and command when presenting did not apply to comedy. You had to let go.
My journey comedy isn’t the inspiring ‘rags to riches’ journey of an India’s Got Talent contestant. I am yet to see the riches and I won’t call my entry “rags”. Because it wasn’t the terrifying, arduous ordeal of trying to tame a drunk bar audience with the skills of a newbie. I had the privilege, alongside many other Mumbai comics, of getting to cut my teeth in a warmer, welcoming environment. It wasn’t just because the Hive was simply nurturing comedians. It was also because it was cultivating an audience. It was a group of people who didn’t expect to see professional Carlin magic in a grand auditorium. Instead, they were a curious lot expecting an experience—a weird man speaking of bloodlust with a straight face (Ashish Dash), a live demonstration of memory loss caused by alcohol (teetotaller Rohan Desai), or just a woman performing the entire set as Sumukhi Suresh, while Suresh sat in the audience (Aayushi Jagad).
During my short stint in comedy, the reign of the Hive has been incredibly impactful. I wish it was still alive so I could go back there and “kill hard” to compensate for the many nights it allowed me to bomb. It’s why I loved it. I wasn’t compelled to win—I was simply encouraged to try. And thank god, I did.