Trying to Improve Mumbai, One Joke at a Time

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If humans were able to laugh at everything, wars would probably be a myth. On that note, the element of laughter seems to have become as rare as an honest politician; but imagine if there was a joke sneaking around in every situation that we faced! Oh no, I’m not bonkers; if you don’t believe me, then think again. Improv Comedy Mumbai, a comedy collective in Mumbai, specialises in creating ridiculously funny moments out of situational experiences. Elaborating further, Naveen Kaushik, one of Improv’s jewels in the crown says, “It is a style of theatre where there is no script and everything done on stage is unrehearsed and played out using audience suggestions as inspiration. Those suggestions are used by the improvisers to create scenes and stories that are seen or heard once and then never seen or heard again.”

It is only recently that comedy and comedians are being received by the audience as celebrities and the trend is only creating new and improved talent with each passing day. For I.C.M. (abbreviation for Improv Comedy Mumbai), the journey has been quite a long one considering they started out in 2009, a time where independent art was not as acclaimed as it is today. Refuting any such hardships Naveen goes on to explain, “In our own ways we were able to help the arts & entertainment movement grow when it started taking shape in the venues and places around Bandra and the suburbs. Bringing improvised comedy to the thirsty audience was a thrill and the thrill hasn’t fizzled out. We still work with the people we made friends with then and we still love to mesmerize the audience.”

Considering the fact that comedy in its stand-up format is more popular among the people, improvisation is a technique which is only still gaining momentum. “The format stands on its own feet. One of the challenges we face is that it is very difficult to explain Improv to people who haven’t seen it before. Even our friends and family think it is like stand-up comedy till they come for one performance. This means that it is very difficult to get an audience member the first time to a show”, quips Naveen. As challenging as the style may be, the group has gone ahead and performed at shows internationally too. “When we went for our first international festival in Amsterdam we were not sure how the audiences there would respond to our style of performance (which is heavily influenced by our robust culture). The warmth and acceptance by audiences across the world has been just as good as back here in India, however, they are a little more educated with the idea of Improv and so are able to understand what we do better but don’t worry, the Indian audience is getting there”, jokes Naveen.

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Just like stand-up, I.C.M. has been encouraging a bunch of newbies to join the bandwagon and the gang only keeps getting bigger. Explaining the importance of fresh talent, Naveen quotes, “Our group is made up of actors, IT professionals, writers, corporate managers, professors and teachers. There is no one particular profession that is well versed in Improv. Anybody can do it. Diversity helps because Improv is a group mind thing. If you can accept that you have no control and love to swim with the unpredictability of life then Improv is for you. But, you need training. Like any art form, Improv needs training and regular practice.”

The comedy collective boasts of acclaimed artists like Mukul Chadda, Naveen Kaushik himself, Nigel Rajaratnam and creative director Adam Dow, who has been doing improvisational theatre since the age of 18. “He is probably one of the most powerful performers ICM has on its roster and his years of experience help us during shows and in the development of new formats. By just seeing his commitment to improv and to his work on stage we are able to better ourselves”, gushes Naveen who thinks the late Zohra Sehgal, Amitabh Bachchan, the historical character Birbal and Asha Bhosle would make good improvisers simply because of their control on the moment and their ability to make things look effortless.

Needless to say, I.C.M. has delivered some memorable performances throughout their journey since 2009 and are only getting better with each passing day. “Life never follows a script. Neither should you. You should improvise. Except with birth control”, Naveen signs off with a straight face.