It was the dead of night. He slept in his house with a really odd feeling. This wasn’t a normal day for Manan. His mother was at the hospital, taking care of his father who had been admitted because of a sudden illness. Manan had his 12th board prelims two days later. This wasn’t a usual night for the Desais. This isn’t a usual Chaaipani story either.
Manan Desai, the face and the mind behind The Comedy Factory, a small group of people who have taken the urban gujarati comedy scene by a storm, starts his story somewhat like this.
[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”@chaaipani” suffix=”http://wp.me/p7eOCO-RN”]“It all begins with my father’s sperm.”[/inlinetweet]
And then goes on to tell me how his life took shape in the early years. Manan Desai, for those of you who don’t know, is a stand-up comedian. Known for his stoic expressions and amazing comic timing, Manan had been on my radar for a while now. I love comedy, particularly, stand up comedy. So when I saw a bunch of people trying to recharge the Gujarati comedy scene, I just had to go talk to them.
Manan is a fun guy to talk to but the problem is that it’s difficult to tell when he is joking and when he isn’t so this story might, despite my rigorous attempts, have it’s own faux pas, so please do pardon me.
He grew up in a not-so-well-to-do family. They lived in a house that was surrounded by chawls. This meant that their neighbours were uneducated and crass people whose way of life was something no one would want to go to. The house was small, so was his dad’s pay cheque and consequently, the things he could afford. While the father felt it was best to put Manan in a Gujarati medium school, the mother was adamant, he had to go to an English medium school. And this was a really good call. At least for the sake of pulling him out of where they lived and put him in a place where he could surround himself with better people.
This was important for more reasons than one. Manan describes his birth as follows,
“I was born to my mother when she was of the age of 40 and my dad was 45. The doctor said pregnancy at this age is really risky and that there is a chance that the child might be physically handicapped or intellectually challenged. Well obviously the latter was true. Parent teacher meetings were confusing too. People would think I have come with my grandparents which was really not the case. [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”chaaipani” suffix=”http://wp.me/p7eOCO-RN”]Children often have conflicts with their parents but mine were at a whole another level.[/inlinetweet]”
The conversation moves on. His school helped him befriend people from a more financially able background which meant an exposure to a whole new culture. Songs from the west, relatively liberal thoughts and a generally wiser world view helped him look at things differently. While a lot of his peers were into Anu Malik et. al., Manan dared to diverge into Backstreet Boys.
“The first song I ever downloaded off the internet was In the End by Linkin Park”, he recalls.
Well that was a first song for a lot of us. This takes me into the early 2000s nostalgia.
The summer break of 10th class was when Manan scored his first paying job as a cashier at the local cyber cafe. A job that allowed him to download as many songs as he could. He is crazy for music, really crazy. His playlist seems to have the most bizarre tracks of all so I am naturally driven to ask why where it all comes from.
“My father had the nation’s second largest collection of gramophone records! A whole room full of them and more tucked away in boxes that filled all the dead storage. Some of them so rare, people who made them used to come all the way from Bombay looking for a copy of their own work”
“Had?”, was my immediate response. “What happened?”
“It all got stolen” was his smirky response.
He has long seen the irony in it and the smirk is just a manifestation of the same. I don’t think it hurts anymore that it was taken away. Afterall, it wasn’t the most precious of all the things that he lost as a child.
Let me take you back to that cold January morning. The January we started this story from. Scratch back a little, the evening before. Two days to go for the prelim and Manan was spending way too long after movies, playing snake on the then-modern Nokia 1100. His father got angry at him, any father would. But 17 is an age where you begin to get confrontational with your father. He already had a huge generation valley between and the age old conflict to top it off.
One thing led to another and the argument got out of hand. Manan had a habit of leaving his house every time he had a fight with his parents. He would walk off to one of his friend’s places and sometime later his parents would try calling all of them to figure out where he was.
This time, the call wasn’t the usual. Something had happened to his father and he was rushed to the hospital. Manan followed. As the doctors kept a check at his father, he was asked to leave for home. His mother stayed back. This wasn’t a usual night.
“I came back home to sleep. My mother was at the hospital. I got a call in the middle of the night that my dad had gotten a massive heart attack and because the hospital we were keeping him at did not have an ICU, we were transferring him to another hospital. But when they pulled him out of the ambulance on a stretcher, I could see that the pulse monitor wasn’t reading anything”
I could feel his voice slow down a bit. This was a practiced narrative. He must have said this a thousand times now, to everyone who must’ve asked what happened that night. This was the moment his worst fears gave a hint of being true. You tend to remember these things, life plays itself back in quanta of highs and lows.
“They tried giving him electric shocks to revive him but they couldn’t. I lost my father that night.”
The music at the cafe we’re sitting at starts making less sense to me now. It was summer in Ahmedabad but I can feel my back dry up, spine, take a dip, and freeze.
He has his Prelims begin two days later and his mother had an eye surgery planned three days later. None of these things happened. Manan couldn’t give his exams right, failed all five, his mother couldn’t get her surgery done and lost one eye.
“I usually do this joke on my mother in a lot of shows. I say, ‘my mother is partially blind, she cannot see me happy’. Now you know that it’s not a joke.”
I give him a soft smile. I am not sure what the most appropriate response is in such situations. I have never seen a comic sad while he/she is not in character, but I somehow manage to meander my way out of it or maybe he just ignored my social inability to react to what he said, maybe he has ignored too many till now for this to be an exception. In either case, I retreat to my shameful safety and life, as it must, moves on.
“I started hating myself for everything that had happened”, he continues, “I kept telling myself Manan! The only thing that you were supposed to do was to set things right for your family. Do right by them. And you totally messed it up! And there was an overflow of regret, sorrow and detachment. [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”chaaipani” suffix=”http://wp.me/p7eOCO-RN”]There were times when my mother and I would just look at each other and start crying. [/inlinetweet]It was the worst phase of my life.”
But comedy conceives itself in the realm where tragedy decides to flourish. He decided that if this is what his father him to do, to study, he would do it. A relentless study schedule followed in the next two months and he scored a healthy 72.5% in his boards.
“This was the first time after second standard that I scored 72.5% at a place. Even I don’t know how I did it, but yeah, I guess grief can push us that far”
After 12th was when he entered college and all the swag started taking form. Manan was always very active in his extra curriculars and college made sure he did it every bit. This is when Radio Mirchi called for auditions and his friends, who saw the talent in him, made sure that he gave one.
Jumpcut to January, 2007. This January isn’t as sad as the last one. At least eventually so. On the 3rd of January 2007, he broke up with his first love. In retrospect it doesn’t even seem relevant but the chain of events is pretty funny so I will keep it in. The 4th of January, he got a call from Radio Mirchi that he was selected for an RJ and that he would be trained for a month to become one.
The very next month, he met Vidya at the training for Radio Mirchi. Now is when the happy music starts to play. Now is when the spring winds start to blow the autumn leaves away and about now would be the time when this story turns around.
“A lot of people who I keep close to myself, are people who I see my father in”, says Manan as we talk more about how he befriended Vidya over a span of one month.
“She was selected for Radio Mirchi Surat and I was selected for Baroda, and the day we were leaving was the day that for the first time in my life, I saw a girl cry for me. That was the first time in my life that I got a warm hug. And I knew something was up.”
This was never a love at first sight. The first thought that both of them probably had when they saw each other for the first time was, “who the hell is the that?”
But things changed, for the better of course. After over 2 years of sadness, dejection, aimlessness and handling a rattled suicidal brain, Manan’s life was finally falling into place. Things that happened after his father passed away weren’t so nice, the devil is in the detail and I wouldn’t confront that devil but I can tell you that it was these 2 years where he decided to distance himself from everything negative in his entire life.
“I was extremely fragile and vulnerable at the time. If there was anything right that I wanted to do, I just had to make sure that I get rid of everything wrong around me, be it friends, family or, habits.”
“I stopped lying, I stopped pretending, I became the most honest, brutal and, on-the-face person I had ever had the chance of knowing and I think that played a huge role in making me what I am today.”
And I think that makes perfect sense. A comedian laughs first on himself and then on the rest of the world. Tragedy is the playground where comedy is born, where it learns to walk, a society however, is where it learns to run, jump and then, fly.
However sad the events in his life might be, they shook him to the core and forced him to rethink the way he wanted to live his life, the way he wanted to look at the world. It made him realize that we have only so much time and that if there is anything that we must do to live a good life, it has to happen now.
“My journey is from being a clown to being a comic”, says Manan as we talk about about how his career in entertainment took shape.
There was always a creative side to him. He was always that one guy you look forward to for cracking up the most hilarious gag. The creativity was always inherent in him. The shock of his father’s death completely changed the organisational or the industrial side of him. His creativity now had a more robust and sorted personality to channel itself through.
His tragedy sure wasn’t his comedy but it turned him into a person who could go on stage and say things with the kind of honesty that would roll you off your chairs. And Vidya continued to be an indispensable part of this journey.
All along after the first time they met, Vidya was the one person who always encouraged him to try new things in life, to push his boundaries and to give him confidence that he could be a better version of himself every next morning.
Manan married her a few years later and then started the chapter of what we all today know of as The Comedy Factory. And here is how it happened, the last leg of the story, at least for now.
“Vidya and I made a to-do list after we got married”, he says while munching on a french fry, “we all make to-do lists after marriage right?”
He looks at me as if asking for an approval. I just shrug my shoulders. I haven’t really been good at making to-do lists. Had I made one, this article would’ve come out earlier.
So, the to-do list, and somewhere on its 7th spot was stand up comedy. After the death of his father, Manan and his mother used to religiously watch The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. It used to be their getaway, their little happy place where all they knew was a man talking into a mic, all they heard was a joke, all they felt was happy. This somehow gave him a really close affinity to stand up comedy.
Of course he was well aware and allured by the likes of Russell Peters, George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld but this was comedy which had a very personal context. This is where he understood that most of the funny in a joke comes from how relatable it is. Understanding comedy made him like it, drew him towards it.
To top this off, Gujarat lacked a good entertainment scene to begin with. A dry state with the same kind of theatre playing since the last two decades and comedy being treated only as a whimsical outburst of stupidity, it was clear that we needed a revamp. The cities of Gujarat were craving for something that was relevant to the modern day and at the same time relatable. There was a vacuum and they had decided to fill it.
In 2011, they finally decided to do their first show, “I did a one hour set the first time I got up on stage” he explains how it went,
“I sucked. Really, really bad, probably the worst. Out of the 60 minutes that I did, at most, 5 were good.” I was happy he got this hiccup in his first show, many don’t realise it till their last.
“I cried like a kid for 4 days and Vidya kept consoling me that I was good”, he understood that he couldn’t go on stage alone and that he couldn’t be there for too long if he wanted people to find him funny.
What happened later is a story of The Comedy Factory, a team of funny people, who, like any other company, had their own amazing ups, disastrous downs, their fair share of politics, arguments, conflicts and resolutions. But the more important thing is that he found the comedian in him. That he understood exactly what he had to do provided he wanted to even marginally succeed as a comedian. And that’s what matters more than anything else.
The man was made. The structure was in place. What earlier looked like toothpicks was now all iron, the house just needed some paint, some work, some heart and soul put into it and then some age. While wines are the poster boys of all things that get better with age, I will take this man, and present him to you. Not as the funny guy you’ve known him to be, but as a man who decided to get his life back in order. The man who funnelled his frustrations into creativity and that someone you could always count on to bounce back.
They are, as of now, Gujarat’s most subscribed original content creators have an amazing lineup of comics and guest comedians who drop by for an amazing show quite often. It wasn’t easy to get to where they are and it isn’t going to be easy here on. But hey! That’s where the best stories are made right?
Even as we draw to a close, he makes it a point to tell me that whatever he is, he owes it a lot to the people around him. Mostly to the people to are with him, his team at TCF, his wife, his daughter (oh yes they have one and her name is Dhyana), and a little bit to the ones who left, some in good spirit, some not so much, but all of them gave him lessons to keep for a lifetime.
It was getting late. We wrapped the interview in a haste. A lot of stories half finished, a lot of secrets untold, a lot yet to be explained. This story has it’s own small voids, voids of facts and voids of emotions. But we will leave it to that. I will let you fill these voids the way you would want to. Go on, make this story your own. There is a creator in you no matter what you do. Bring that creator out, your life is littered with voids and they voids have an air of inspirations.
In the words of Aldrich Killian’s father,
“Failure is the fog from which we all glimpse triumph.”
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