Azeem Banatwalla won his first open mic in Mumbai back in September 2011. “It was at a tiny pub called Zenzi, which doesn’t exist any more. That’s where I got noticed, and people started allowing me to perform for a few minutes at other venues,” says the comedian, who was in Chennai over the weekend with his latest comedy special, Cometh The Hour.
Since then, he has managed to create opportunities for himself, and as part of East India Comedy — a collective that features the country’s top stand-up comics like Sorabh Pant, Sapan Verma, Kunal Rao, Sahil Shah, Atul Khatri and Angad Singh Ranyal. “I think I had it easy, because I came through what is probably the first golden generation of stand-up comics. All of us from EIC, SnG Comedy, Daniel Fernandes, Zakir Khan, all the big names, we started out together. The best way to get ahead as a comic, oddly enough, was to help others along the way as well.”
Ask him if he has had a spectacularly bad show and how he got over it, and the reply comes quick: “Oh, too many to count! It still happens, even now. I don’t want to describe it, but let’s just say that I was depressed for a week, and considered getting my day job back.” But, he adds, the beauty of stand-up comedy is that there’s always another show to make up for the pain.
“I think my greatest personal moment was when I performed for an hour outside of India for the first time, and played to completely non-Indian audiences. That was the moment I realised my career’s finally getting somewhere,” he says.
Banatwalla’s comedy stems from daily life and his own experiences. That’s probably why his notes app is filled with “half-baked premises like ‘Crows are really evil’”. “I get random thoughts and observations at odd times in the day, and make hasty notes on my phone. And each writing session begins with putting all of these thoughts on paper and then stretching them in every direction possible.”
When he’s not touring, he’s usually writing sketches and Outrage videos for EIC, doing shows in colleges, or hitting open mics and workshopping new material. “People think being a comic is an easy life, but it’s way harder than it seems.” He’s also the entire HR department of EIC. “Who would have thought?” he laughs.
“The next thing on my schedule is probably the biggest day of my career. I record Cometh The Hour at NCPA Mumbai for my first-ever Amazon Prime stand-up special. I can’t even begin to describe how excited I am to have my own special! It’s a full circle moment: from starting my journey watching illegally-torrented specials, to having one that (hopefully) people will want to torrent someday too.”