Who starts a comedy club in the middle of a global pandemic, with the threat of lockdowns still hanging in the air? A Kolkata native, of course. Top Cat Retired Comedy Club is India’s newest comedy club, born out of a characteristic Kolkata sensibility to do go against the grain, and do the counter-intuitive thing.
In this exclusive interview, DeadAnt talks to Sourav Ghosh—writer, retired comedian, and the executive producer of TCRCC. Read on for a comprehensive lowdown on the Kolkata comedy scene, what it takes to be an entrepreneur in this space, and Ghosh’s vision for the rejunevation of Kolkata comedy.
1. You’re from Kolkata, but like many other young creatives from the city, you left the city early, only returning during the pandemic. What made you leave? And what made you decide to invest in the city’s comedy scene now?
Kolkata used to be the cultural capital of India. We were proud of it. Stadiums would even sell out just to see someone recite someone else’s poetry, like with Bratati Bandyopadhyay’s recitals. There was a thriving theatre scene; an influential film amd music industry. But at some point people stopped checking out what was happening artistically in the city. People of influence moved away.
Fortunately or unfortunately, all the aspirations had turned towards Mumbai. The conversation turned to ‘let’s go to Mumbai. That’s where you make it as a comedian.’ Somewhere down the line, a standup career and living in Kolkata became mutually exclusive. So, we [Kolkata’s comedians] moved there as well.
I did not realise how much I loved Kolkata until I came back because the pandemic. Going on long, solitary walks, taking in the streets, connecting with old friends, and having four, five hours of long conversations made me look at things with fresh eyes. Now I’ve come to realise that whatever you think are the challenges of a city, those are also its opportunities.
2. Could you elaborate on those opportunities?
Now, I’ve been told that launching a comedy club in Kolkata is suicide—you know, where’s the audience? Everyone is like, ‘nothing happens here, who will bother attending?’
Now, all of that is true, but if nothing truly happens here, and you are doing something, then you are the only one doing something… right? Then, there’s no competition to care for; you can do your own thing!
3. So cultural starvation leads to cultural hunger?
Right. People in this city are hungrier than you can imagine. Trust me, this comedy club was born over one weekend. It has been a whirlwind of meeting right people at the right time. They want to do something for the city.
The scene here has always been interesting, but now you can’t escape it, it is that apparent. We have four, five comics here who are on par with national standards if not higher, for the amount of stage time they’ve had. All they have lacked was a platform.
Now, I’ve been to every city in the country that has standup, but these are the hungriest of the lot. There are good comics in every city. It’s not like—‘this city makes the best artists’—it’s not that. But I’ve realised that the hunger of the comics here is way more, speaking from my experience.
Before the pandemic, these guys used to go to Mumbai every second month, just to have a stage and perform to a live audience. Before that, Anirban [Dasgupta], Vaibhav [Sethia] and I would travel every month just to get one slot at Canvas Laugh Club. That for us was the dream, to be a regular at Canvas Laugh Club. We are talking pre-YouTube.
Fast-forward to now and Top Cat Retired Comedy Club had four shows in two days and everything was sold out! And it wasn’t even in an established place like Kala Kunj or Kala Mandir, your usual Kolkata auditorium setting, but a brand new club. I guess the message is that you can build whatever you think is missing in your city. So that is what I mean when I say limitations present opportunities.
4. The timing of a new comedy club at a time when such establishments are going belly up, seems like an absurd move from the outside.
It is definitely a little ironic. But if you can’t have a successful comedy club in India right now, when can you? Comedians are becoming stars overnight, with millions of subscribers with just one video. I believe that the market doesn’t create man, the man creates the market.
If you have an idea and are committed to it, with the right kind of people with you, I’m sure you can create your own space.
5. So who are the right kind of people here?
We have a bunch of young comics, who are not just being comics but being entrepreneurs. As we speak, they are helping me run this club full-time, from making posters to editing videos, ideating, you name it. Then there is the older lot of comics, people like Anirban [Dasgupta] who did our debut show.
One of our comics is very good with numbers so we’ve asked him to keep a check on the economics of things, the ticket sales, logistics. There is another comic who is in need of an internship, so he’d be allowed to have his internship at Top Cat Retired Comedy Club itself. And with readily available rooms at the venue, he can stay 24/7 at the club, comfortably. He can practice on the stage in his free time, and help us build the comedy club, and fulfill his college internship all at one go.
Even the retired comics of Kolkata, those who have left standup due to lack of opportunities, even they are helping us run this club.
Apart from them, the big partner is the venue. The owner, Meghdut Roy Chowdhury, who too lived away from the city like you and I, has come back with the same intention that I have, to build something new. He deals with multidisciplinary arts—music, cuisine, mixed martial arts, etc, and all of that happens under one roof—Offbeat CCU.
We have the opportunity to draw the from the big brains of arts and culture in the city, and use each other’s skill sets and share our audiences.
6. So essentially, Kolkata now has a club by and for comedy insiders?
Yes. I am bringing the best acts in the country—and they don’t have to come here, otherwise. Comics like Samay Raina, Zakir Khan, Anirban Dasgupta, Manik Mahna, Kanan Gill, Abhishek Upamanyu, the biggest names in Indian comedy are going to come here because it’s my club.
This is the first time an insider has become a curator. It has always been that an outsider has been in a position of power in comedy clubs in the country. I’m looking at standup from a different angle now. Previously, it was inside-looking-out. But now that I’m not, I get to look at an entirely new, unfamiliar side of standup. Which is very interesting, because as comics we don’t count what the producers go through. And the producers don’t understand what the artists go through. And that’s where often the disconnect happens and the club stops working. Now, I see both sides of it, and I understand that there doesn’t need to be a conflict. That’s where I come in.
7. This sounds like a blueprint that the rest of the country can look to replicate.
There is always scope for mixing art and business in the right amounts. And they don’t need to be seen through a different lens. Because in business and in art you are looking for solutions to problems.
Suppose there is a business problem, where I am going to lose an amount of money, or that room is not ready to be prepped for standup. Those are problems where I have to look for solutions as a business person. Similarly, say, as an artist, I have written something and that one word is not working; and I’m not stopping until it does.
In essence, business can be seen as an art-form. My challenge creatively and business-wise to make this a unique comedy club.
8. Before we let you go, can you give us at DeadAnt the inside track on Kolkata’s finest young comics?
Abhinav Tewary, Amrita Chanda, Rivu Ganguly and Ritabrata Dass. These guys according to me are the most committed comedians in the city.
Delhi and Mumbai have great comics, but one thing I’ve noticed is that, after a while there is this strange homogenous style about them. Starting from four, to seven then a whole city having the same style of comedy. I’m not saying that it is a bad thing—the makeup of the city, the ready availability of local comedy idols, doing shows with them—the comedy scene gets influenced by a common standard. But these four [Kolkata comics] are completely different from each other.
With Rivu, he’d always come in with a long set, a long story. Generally what happens in standup, you have one thought, one joke, and over the months you keep adding to that and it becomes a bigger set. He starts long and then trims it down to a five minute open mic slot.
Ritabrata doesn’t write all that much. He has a set but he goes by feel. He’ll just come in and very casually become your best friend, and you can do nothing about it.
Abhinav is the only Hindi comic of the lot, and he has extremely good act-outs. Even the best comedians find act-outs really difficult.
Then there is Amrita. There is no fluff in what she does. She is precise and absurd; very unlike the other three.