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Tanmay Bhat, Kaneez Surka to Vir Das: How stand-up comics are helping fund Covid-19 fight

India's stand-up comedians are using humour and tech to help healthcare workers and marginalised communities during lockdown.

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Coronavirus cases are on the rise in India, the nationwide lockdown has been extended to 3 May for now, and people are struggling to get back home as well as get necessary household supplies. Amid this grim situation, there is one group of people who is not only contributing to India’s fight against the pandemic, but is doing it with a healthy dose of laughs.

India’s comedy scenesters have decided to use the lockdown period, which has impacted their own incomes given that no live shows are possible, to help raise funds for those in need.

Last weekend, comic Tanmay Bhat hosted Stay Home for India, a two-day live marathon event on his YouTube channel, which featured over 80 artistes. This was the second edition of the series that began with Stand Up for India, which took place early this year in solidarity with the protests against the amended citizenship laws. Organised by fellow comic Kaneez Surka, entertainment lawyer Amshula Prakash and hosted by Bhat, Stay Home for India raised over Rs 17 lakh.

Nothing like a typical comedy show, it featured a range of games such as dumb charades, roasts, PUBG, Skribble, general knowledge quizzes and more such interactive games. Watching the live stream, which is now available on Tanmay Bhat’s YouTube channel as two roughly seven-hour long videos, it feels no different than when one does video calls with their friends and plays games — something that is bringing many people cheer in these lonely times.

While the guest list included many of the big names in comedy, such as Biswa Kalyan Rath, Kanan Gill, Kenny Sebastian, Varun Grover, Zakir Khan, Sumukhi Suresh and Mallika Dua, people from other parts of the entertainment industry were also involved, such as actor and television presenter Gaurav Kapoor, influencers Kusha Kapila and Dolly Singh, and film critic Rajeev Masand.

The aim of the show revolved around raising as much money as possible. “Whenever someone donates a large amount, spam their name in the YouTube chat as a way to make them feel special,” joked Tanmay Bhat in his opening monologue, making sure to mention how the team behind this has been working sleepless nights to put this together.

Surka tells ThePrint the event was “a property where the comedy community comes together to help aid those who need it. It’s not supposed to be a political statement”.

Their donation approach was two-pronged as it focused on providing for frontline healthcare workers as well as marginalised communities.

Lawyer Prakash tells ThePrint that on reading multiple reports on shortage of medical equipment, “to us it seems like getting safety equipment to healthcare workers is of utmost importance”. The proceeds will be donated to and Kashtakari Panchayat Trust in Pune, which provides support to waste pickers and their families who do not have the option to work from home.

“We were hell bent on finding very obscure, small organisations that are doing work that nobody has heard of,” Surka explains.

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With a little help from friends and jugaad

Only Much Louder, the well-known Indian artist and event management company, which also manages Kaneez Surka, helped out with Stay Home for India. “It took us four-five days to organise. I contacted 88 comedians in a single day out of whom around 85 agreed to be part of the line-up. It was quite easy because no one is really doing anything,” Surka recalls.

On the format of the marathon event, she says, “We were already playing games online among us that no one was watching, so why not just do that online so people can come donate as well.” This also came about since some of the comics were not comfortable with doing stand-up online due to technical issues.

But that did not stop Sahil Shah and Rahul Subramaniam. The two were already part of Stay Home For India, but they also hosted an experimental stand-up show, Be Curfewl, on 12 April. They raised Rs 4,000, which was donated to Khaana Chahiye — an organisation that’s feeding the underprivileged affected by the lockdown.

“I was doing live stand up shows on Zoom anyway, so I thought why not raise funds also,” Shah says. The first show, which was an hour long with 20-25 minutes of stand-up by Shah and the remaining 30-odd minutes by Subramaniam, had 20 people and the tickets cost Rs 200 each. “The idea is to eventually increase the number of people who come to the show. If I do three shows a week, then that’s roughly Rs 12,000 a week.”

Shah shot his portion on a laptop placed on a stepping stool, which was then placed on a ladder. “I went from performing in an auditorium to this.”

Vir Das, who entered the Indian comedy circle as long ago as the early 2000s, has been hosting a series called Vir Das At Home on Zoom, with brand-new content. Proceeds will be divided between six charities: Uday Foundation, GiveIndia, Animals Matter To Me, Feeding India, HelpAge India and Rapid Response India.

The Rs 499 tickets to the six show-series that started on 14 April sold out within the first two days of him posting about it. He has now added six more shows, proceeds of which will go to six more charities: Goonj Foundation, People for Animals, Can Kids Kids Can, Doctors for You, One Billion Literates Foundation and The Voice of Stray Dogs.

The six new shows begin on 21 April and last till 26 April.

Unlike the previous set of shows, these will be accepting international cards. “I’m trying to focus on fundraising. I’m doing a show every night on Zoom call where the proceeds are going to different charities,” he said.

Also read: Verses in the time of virus: Poetry Live unites 71 quarantined poets on Instagram

How will the comedy scene survive in a post-virus world?

While Das’ plans of a world tour covering 29 countries has naturally been shelved as a result of the pandemic, he has made his home the stage.

India’s lockdown has been extended till the 3 May, but there is no certainty whether that will be the end of it. Even after the restrictions are raised, there is a worry that people will hesitate to use public places and comedy shows are bound to be hit in a post-lockdown world.

But Das is optimistic. “From court jesters, impressionists, Jaspal Bhatti, Johnny Lever to us and the people who come after us, the urge to sit in a room and laugh with each other together, will always find a way back. That I’m not so worried about,” Das said.

He also believes that comics have a duty right now, as anxiety levels continue to rise across the country with the future seemingly increasingly uncertain. “We are going to need to smile now more than ever and for a while. If you’re a funny person, this is the time to do your job. The best you’ve ever done it.”

Surka agrees, adding that they aren’t looking at a one-time event. “It also depends on how long the lockdown lasts. Tomorrow we’ll regroup and see what else we can do.”

Also read: How AIB went from a rising star to having no money, no CEO and no office

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