Deepa Nainani | December 01, 2017
Editor’s Note: As always, this interview has been edited for grammatical accuracy and clarity. We promise we didn’t edit any of his jokes!
See the moniker “The Horny Sindhi” and you are forgiven if former CEO Atul Khatri’s face is not what comes to your mind (unless of course, you are talking about money….boom, Sindhi joke!). Typically, CEOs who face a mid-life crisis are known to trade their cars for newer models or splurge an extravagant amount of money on hair plugs but not this CEO. Instead, he sells his Ferrari, joins “CEO’s got talent” and wins it, embarking on a stand-up comedy journey.
Now, that is a mid-life crisis we wanted to hear about so we stole a few minutes with Atul, when he was in Hong Kong for his solo stand up and of course, we knew better than to ask about Justin Bieber!
Sindhis are a very humorous lot. You can find Sindhis everywhere in the world. Go anywhere, even the Bahamas and you will find some Sindhi doing a very successful business over there. We have an excellent command over language. My grandfather used to speak four languages. My relatives in India who speak Gujarati, Marathi and Hindi so fluently because their jobs demand them to do it. The Hinduja brothers* in London speak six languages. Because of work reasons, we are fluent in a lot of languages and we are well travelled. Just like the Parsi community in Bombay, we don’t mind laughing at ourselves. When making jokes on Sindhis, we don’t get offended. So the key reasons are because we’ve been a trading community, we are global citizens and we are a fun lot.
And, also there is money in it. So when there is money, we will play the game! *laughs*
*The Hinduja Brothers are Sindhis and number 1 on Britain’s billionaire list.
I was a CEO of an IT company for many years. At the age of 44, I sort of dabbled into comedy as a passion, just to fulfil a mid-life crisis! It was to release frustration at work that I really went into comedy…my wife pushed me into it. It worked well for me and the comedians saw me and said,”Hey you’re really funny, don’t leave it, go and do more comedy!” So that’s what I did! I started doing more comedy and for 4 years I was doing both comedy and running my business. But like riding two horses, it was getting very difficult! Comedy was also picking up quickly in India so just last year in 2016, I made the decision to move into comedy.
I know what you’re saying. I was 44. Things are getting stable, your kids are getting old and you’re thinking of retirement and then, to shift to a completely different line! It has worked well for me because here I am sitting in Hong Kong discussing my life with two pretty ladies, which would have never happened if I stayed in IT! I would have been talking about motherboards and hard disks with engineers!
Sindhis don’t get too emotional about what we were doing. There are some people who don’t leave a job because they feel, “How can I leave this job after 20 years, I will die with this job.” Sindhis are practical people. That’s why you see Sindhis in Hong Kong: they were first movers in tailoring, then they moved into electronics as the electronics business was booming, then they moved onto e-commerce. We are continuously reinventing. We don’t mind looking at a new opportunity that comes in. So, I’m very happy to be doing this.
Firstly, it’s very hard work. It’s a lot of hard work making people laugh. It’s very easy to make them cry. Making them laugh is extremely difficult. That’s number one.
Number two: come here only if you’re ready for the long haul. A lot of young kids come thinking that it is really cool to go on stage because you’ll get laid. (By the way, nothing of that sort happens. Its all a myth.) You want to go on stage and make people laugh, you need write jokes and go test them out consistently.
Be very humble and don’t let the success get into your head.
Keep on watching as much LIVE stand-up comedy as you can. A lot of comedians do this mistake of sitting at home watching YouTube. When you watch a live comedy, it’s a very different experience. You learn a lot of the way the comedians are interacting with the audience. You discover what are the jokes that audience is laughing at. All of that it is very important.
That’s a question I get very often and it is a very relevant question. Content is everywhere but it is for you to find the content, either through observation or research. You open the newspaper anywhere in the world and you have four hours of material staring at you. Every day someone is making some stupid statement and feeding you with jokes. Jokes are everywhere; it’s just about finding them and picking them up. Make sure you’re in tune with everything. The beauty after that is that the audience should also relate to that observation. One of the biggest compliment that you can get is “hey, this also happens to me!”
Surprisingly, the stage itself when you’re on stage. It gives you a ålot of energy. When you’re on stage, whether you do a good show or a bad show, the stage gives you something that I cannot explain. Sometimes, you have a show where the crowd enjoys so much that the laughter reverberates in your ears for nights…the show is so good that you don’t get sleep at night because the laughter just keeps running through your head continuously. You remember each and every moment of that show.
Rock stars, who perform to forty thousand or sixty thousand people, that’s a very different thing. Some do drugs to kill that high [you get from the stage] or to go to a greater high because it’s so hard to go home to an empty room. Or they have groups of people surrounding them because letting go of people till they fall asleep.
Honestly, this stage can also give you that. I love to exercise, love to walk. I get a lot of energy from exercising.
Standup comedy such as this is very hard work. You can be funny at home, you can be funny at with your friends but finally, when you go up on stage and make people laugh, it’s hard work writing jokes. Thanks to Whatsapp, when any topic comes in, you get a hundred jokes on it. When you go on stage, your jokes have to rise above that. You don’t want to hear “I’ve heard this jokes on the Internet or these are Whatsapp jokes.” Today, the level of comedic knowledge, even the audiences, thanks to these technologies and social media has gone up. You’re not willing to laugh at silly jokes, you want intelligent jokes. You want layered jokes too.It’s hard work. Also, you have to be humble. Today, this is a place where you had a good show, a great run. Tomorrow you may not have it. Continuously just thank the people who have helped you. You are as good as your last show.
Third, is to learn continuously. I’ve been in this line for like five years now and it is nothing. We have been very pampered in India. With a five year career, I am now sitting with two of you in Hong Kong and you’re taking my interview.
Honestly, if you do comedy in London or in the US, people don’t get this opportunity for like 20 years because the competition is so brutal or things are so difficult. We have been very lucky in India that audiences are so generous to us in terms of coming out for a show or supporting us and things like that. It’s very brutal in other cities. UK is such a small country in terms of size as compared to India but someone told me there are some 45,000 comics in UK.
India has currently, not more than 100 professional comics with 1.3 billion people. That way, we have been extremely lucky that we have this kind of audience which is ready and also listening to us.
In short, the three things are hard work, humility and to continuously learn. Every time I get time, I go and watch a comedy show. Paul Ogata was on after me and I would have loved to have been there, if not for commitments. Honestly, I would have loved to have had a beer and watch Ogata. I would have learnt much more than dinner!
Whenever I go to Bombay, I make it a point to watch shows, thanks to the support of my friends and family. I’m down for two days in Bombay and I’m like I’m going to watch these shows and they don’t say anything.
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