On a sweltering April afternoon in Mumbai, I flagged down an autorickshaw for an embarrassingly short distance, roughly 200 metres, to my university. I was running late. As I sat distracted, smoking a cigarette, a polite voice snapped me out of my thoughts.
“Madam, do you like comedy?” the auto driver asked me, in Hindi.
“Huh? Comedy? Yes, I do. Why?”
“Then let me tell you a joke,” he said. “What happens when a foreigner comes to India for the first time, and tries to get an auto?”
Before I could respond, my khaki-clad companion launched into mimicry of a high-pitched English-speaking foreign woman caught in a power struggle with an overenthusiastic auto-wallah, who struggled to justify in English the fare he’d quoted.
Before I stepped out, he told me he was also a stand-up comedian, and was participating in the reality television show India’s Got Talent. He asked me to vote for him and gave me a colourful visiting card, which said “Haasya Samrat”—king of comedy—next to “K Chandu.” Below was a picture of him in a hat, holding a microphone. It had two mobile numbers but no address.
I met Chandu a couple of times over the next few weeks, and learnt that “K Chandu” was a stage name. His real name was Chandrakant Kapse. For the past 21 years, the 36-year-old has driven an autorickshaw in Mumbai for a living. And over the past 12 years, he has performed at more than 700 stage shows as a stand-up comedian. His two professions complement each other. He uses the rickshaw to market himself and get gigs, while also testing material on unsuspecting passengers—from whom he often scores tips.
Chandu wanted to be a full-time actor and comedian. There is a tiny chance you might have seen him in a bit role on television or in a B-movie, but his showbiz career is mostly limited to doing local stage shows. Chandu is far from dispirited about it. “Malls, five-star hotels, small residential colonies, I have performed everywhere,” he said. “From Ambedkar Jayanti to Independence Day to Satyanarayan Puja, I’m called for all kinds of events. I have even performed before the additional commissioner of Mumbai. He liked me a lot.”
Growing up in a village called Sausuddhi, on the Maharashtra-Karnataka border, Chandu always loved to dance, mimic and act. His family ran a teashop. Chandu would perform at public gatherings and community celebrations in the village. He dropped out of school in Class 7, and when he was 15, in 1995, Chandu came to Mumbai, moving in with an acquaintance. He soon started driving a rented autorickshaw. He got married in 1998, and rented a one-room house in a chawl in Mankhurd, a poor suburb in eastern Mumbai. He still lives there with his wife and a 14-year-old son. Ten years ago, he bought his own autorickshaw.
It was thanks to his rickshaw that Chandu got his first acting gig, in 2000. “I used to hover around sets and shoots in Goregaon film city till the watchmen shooed me away,” he said. One day, when he was parked outside the gates of Balaji Telefilms in Andheri, two casting directors sat in his auto. “It was a long ride and I began entertaining them with my mimicry,” he said. “They were so impressed they offered me a chance to appear on Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi”—a wildly popular Hindi soap opera at the time. In an episode of the show, he appeared as one of the villain’s henchmen.
After Kyunki, he played small parts in a couple of other television serials. His filmography includes a 2006 Marathi film Aata Mee Kashi Diste (how do I look?) and a Hindi B-movie titled Mohabbat Teri Maa Ki Aankh, which roughly translates to “to hell with love,” which he shot for in 2012. For a month in 2013, Chandu even anchored a Marathi news show. He kept going for auditions, but the acting gigs petered out.
Chandu did not give up performing, though. “This auto is my livelihood, but my purpose is to make people laugh,” he said. “I’m an entertainer. This is what I do, and I will do it till I die.”
A month after I first met him, I accompanied Chandu to one of his live shows. He picked me up in his auto from the Mankhurd local station, where he showed up dressed in mostly white—boots, pants, a cowboy hat, a blazer that was hung on his seat—and a dapper red shirt. In peak evening traffic, we made the nearly hour-long ride to the suburb of Bhandup, where a residential society had organised a puja. Chandu was booked to perform after the puja. “Tonight will be a big night,” he said. “We should have been arriving in a big car, instead of an auto. But never mind. This is my BMW.”
On the way, he told me he would be paid R5,000 for the show. “The most popular acts are my female impressions,” he said. “And unless there is a family crowd, there is always demand for non-veg jokes.” He cracked one for me about a horny girlfriend-boyfriend duo travelling in the auto. The punchline was missing, but I could see why it was popular.
We reached the venue. Chandu parked the auto some distance from where we could see a crowd. The stage was smaller than I’d expected, set up near the parking lot inside the housing society. There were roughly 150 red plastic chairs that started filling up gradually. It looked like a sedate middle-class family affair. No non-veg jokes tonight, I presumed.
At about 8.15 pm, Chandu took the stage. He bobbed with energy, having wound up his usual ten-hour workday early for the performance. The show started. The audience—mostly middle-aged—was dull. It had some elderly folk, who looked cheerful. There were almost no teenagers or young adults in sight. A handful of young girls sat beside their women chaperones.
Chandu tried to engage the children sitting in the first two rows. He called them onstage, taught them dance moves and played a couple of “magic” tricks, all the while cracking jokes at their expense—partly in Hindi, partly in Marathi. The parents seemed pleased to see their kids on stage. Nearly an hour went by.
In the last half hour, he mimicked celebrities such as the actor Amitabh Bachchan and the activist Anna Hazare. He elicited a few laughs from the women, but most of the men had left by then. The elderly were still cheerful. Chandu’s stand-up was more mimicry than comedy.
He closed with animal sounds, exploring the family dynamics of goats, dogs, cats and donkeys. At one point, he demonstrated how a baby goat would respond to an injunction from its daddy goat. His day job was never mentioned in the set. Only about half the audience was there for the closing bit, and they applauded as Chandu signed off.
On our way back in the autorickshaw, I asked him if he had heard back from India’s Got Talent. “Maybe the video sample I sent them was not what they wanted,” he said. “But that’s okay, there’s always next time.”