One interesting aspect of the Soho Theatre's typically astute selection of acts at this year's Edinburgh Fringe was a notable number of gifted comics from India. The comedy circuit in that mighty nation is still relatively youthful, but is already proving impressively fertile, and now British venues are reaping the benefits too. But how challenging is that transition, for the talent?
During the Fringe we quizzed two relative Edinburgh newcomers, whose shows transfer to the Soho Theatre over the next few weeks: Aditi Mittal was embarking on her second Fringe, with the show Mother of Invention, having made her Edinburgh debut in 2017. And Sumit Anand took his first Fringe bow with the intriguingly-titled show Nothing About Godzilla, which starts its Soho run on Monday.
It's clearly been quite a trip already.
Can you remember how you first became aware of the Edinburgh Fringe - was it covered much back home?
Also, back in 2015-16 (I was three years into comedy), after a gig in India, an audience member suggested that I visit the festival in Scotland. I thought 'Oh yes! I know about it' but never seemed to carefully think about being there; eventually I connected the two, and here I am.
Aditi Mittal: So the first and almost every single time I heard about the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, it was ALWAYS preceded by the word 'prestigious.' When I started doing stand-up comedy and YouTube was just becoming a thing, I was devastated that all the shows weren't online. I remember thinking that I would one day go there, but it seemed like such a faraway dream and I can't believe I'm living it right now.
When I was approached to do it in 2017 I really thought they were fucking with me. I was like 'surely this is a joke'. I had never read about it in Indian papers, but that year they covered my visit to the festival in the 'What's Hot' section of [India's] Mid Day newspaper and frankly I was on seventh heaven.
I consulted with everyone I know about the correct pronunciation of 'Edinburgh.' My dad said it was 'Edinbra', I was convinced it was 'Edinburg' and my mum just needed me to shut up about it for like five minutes.
So when did you first decide 'I want to perform there?'
Aditi: When I first heard of it, I think it was 2002, I had just discovered British comedy. Having said that, it was always one of those things that I never dared say out loud, even to myself. I really need to pinch myself a bit more right now.
Sumit: Creatively, I started seeing the glass ceiling of growth in India. I understood that creativity won't just grow from inside of you, no matter how much you love to believe that, it has to be around you. I have to be in the garden.
Language is another part of my act which requires work (English = second language), and what better place for that?
What's been the most interesting moment for you at this year's Fringe?
Sumit: Often, an audience member will identify a thing about my act and I will just stand there like a lightbulb gradually increasing its intensity as they are talking!
Recently, after a Late 'n' Live gig (I know, who would have thought?), an audience member - not drunk; ok maybe a little - kept reciting my opening line, which made me realise the silliness in it more deeply than what I would have perceived.
The line was/is: "Guys, people often ask me 'What's your favourite public transport?'"
That's it! I realised I liked this silliness, it resonates with the audience, hence gave me a dimension to dig deeper! Well, the Fringe is working well then.
Aditi: Doing Rob Deering's pop quiz, Beat This. I met him eight years ago, when he performed in India. I was literally one month into stand-up comedy doing open spots, and like anyone starting out I was terrified. Rob was headlining a tour of India, and I was fascinated by him while he hung around in the green room, being silly, being fun, being so absolutely chilled out, while I dry heaved and questioned my existence.
Without even realising it, he offered me a framework and a blueprint in how to think like a comedian. Cut to eight years later where I got to be a guest on his long running pop quiz on a Saturday night to a drunk Edinburgh crowd on stage with accomplished and famous comedians like Tiffany Stevenson, Jessica Fostekew, Ed Byrne. It felt like life had come into a loop.
My sentimentality knew no bounds that day. I tried to impress upon him the magnitude of what it felt like, and he brushed it off with a self-effacing joke.
Tell us about your new show this year - is there a wider goal aside from the gags, or could the world just do with a good laugh right now?
Sumit: It's simple this time - work on the craft while ensuring the audience are not doing most of the work! Also, make sure I don't add any jokes about Godzilla, whatsoever.
Aditi: They say we write about what we know best: as someone who's only written three specials right now, one of the things I know best is my mother. She adopted me when I was three, and turned me into who I am today. Having her in my life has given me the privilege to be able to ruminate about motherhood.
My show is about how in today's world I see motherhood co-opted by things like nationalism and religion and of course my personal journey of approval-seeking from my mother (one that I will never get and I will have no reason to exist after I do).
The Indian comedy circuit is producing some fantastic talent - has there been a surge in popularity there, or is the wider world just more aware now?
Aditi: The population of India is nearly 1/7th of the world - 1.3 billion people. Out of this, 130 million Indians speak and understand English. The stand-up comedy industry in itself is only seven years old. So, it's a combination of both factors.
Sumit: I think the world is on time with the awareness! The industry is only about a decade old, tonnes of talent waiting to be developed. If we make the right choices, there will be a lot more to see.
How would you assess the last few years on the Indian comedy scene, and what do you reckon might happen over the next few years?
Sumit: It's an interesting junction where we stand as a scene. As is always the case, it gets down to choices we make given our context of things, playing the new factors: YouTube popularity, amateur audience, serious comics on stage, the rooted culture of respect, industry knocking on the door for ideas everyday. I hope we play it well.
Aditi: I wouldn't be (numerically) wrong in saying that it's only going to go up! This year we have four native Indian upper-caste comedians and many Indian-American/British comedians. I hope that in the coming years we have more Indian voices from marginalised communities and lower castes. I know that there already are a bunch of more upper caste Indian comics just visiting the festival, and having conversations with producers and promoters to bring their shows in next year.
In fact it's very heartening to see that comedy is one of the first industries that responded to the calls for diversity (though it still has a long way to go), and as the market opens up, it's an incredibly exciting time to watch it grow.
I hope that the cultural context of Indian comedy becomes more mainstream, whether it's discussions on caste, colour, colonialism. I hope that we move beyond the clichés of Indian parents being demanding, wanting kids to get married, or wanting us to become doctors and engineers.
Did you have a plan for a good Fringe generally this year - and what would be your tips for Indian comics coming to perform here?
Sumit: I am loving it here, probably the best time I have had in years! I am getting close to myself, seeing new cracks in my craft, talented people seem to be talking to me, I am about to turn vegan, and from my heart, I feel like watching cartoons all day! I don't know what else are positive signs.
To Indian comics, just be here, just present, you know, just prioritise Fringe as top of their plans. The rest, I think they will figure on their own quite well!
Aditi: I'm giving out these tips like I've already mastered them, but I have not - not at all, still in the process of learning. But my tips would be: get here before the festival, do a couple of trial and preview shows, even though we are all speaking English, the context (an unfortunately integral part of jokes) is one that needs realigning. We might not be doing a language leap, but we are doing a cultural and contextual leap.
And the other is this - that it's going to be very tempting to take a cultural leap so far, that your show sounds exactly like that of English comedians. The idea is to maintain the integrity of your narrative, but jump over in terms of jokes. There's a thin line between the two, but it can be done.