Interviews: Sapan Verma and Urooj Ashfaq

Meet the wildly popular Mumbai comedians as they prepare for their Edinburgh debuts

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 3 minutes
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Photo courtesy of Soho Theatre
Published 28 Jul 2023

"I got the email at 6.30 am," says Sapan Verma. "A month-long solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe. I would’ve been thrilled with one week. This was terrifying. My friends and family actually had to talk me out of saying no!"

I remind the reticent stage performer that he’s opened for Coldplay and Jay-Z to an 80,000-strong crowd, headlined the first-ever Indian comedy showcase at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and hosted two seasons of his own Amazon Prime show, One Mic Stand.

"Yeah, but this is different," he insists. "I’ve toured internationally for a while now, but I know I can count on big NRI (non resident Indian) audiences who follow me on social media and come prepared for Bollywood jokes or the occasional Hindi punchline. They’re as interchangeable as a Mumbai crowd. At the Fringe, I’m going to have to make people who’ve never heard of me laugh. It really feels like starting from scratch."

Urooj Ashfaq, a Mumbai-based comic also scouted by London’s Soho Theatre to perform in Edinburgh this August, agrees vociferously. "I’ve definitely grown comfortable  doing stand up on home turf, so I have no idea what to expect from a boutique festival audience. Will they even get me?"

With a degree in psychology and "many, many hours spent in therapy – as the patient, not the psychiatrist," Ashfaq has built a reputation for deeply personal sets where she somehow manages to narrate even painful experiences of bigotry and sexism with a good naturedness that is utterly endearing. 

Her plan is to "soft launch a new personality". 

"I’m doing my best to write a show that’s honest and understandable. That means drawing on my 'currenthood'. I’m far from done writing, but I console myself that I’m living out the end of my show in therapy right now, so there’s some good material coming!"

Part of the anxiety stems from the question of what material will sit well with a largely foreign audience. Verma has been particularly thoughtful on this score.

"I’m not trying to be universally relatable," he says. "I know I could talk about stuff everyone gets, like bad Uber drivers or global warming, but I’m not trying to figure out what a festival audience may like and write that. I’m just going to talk about being an Indian comic who lives in India, because that’s who I am and it means I have a perspective they’re unlikely to have heard before. For example, comedians in India now have to add legal disclaimers before every YouTube video we post, so our jokes literally have to be approved by lawyers. That’s a very real thing that happens, and I want to discuss it."

What, if anything, will make this comedic rite of passage easier?

"My therapist," Ashfaq says immediately. "She’s my muse. Ideally, I’d like to take her on tour with me, have her sit in the front row and then come on stage to hug me when I’m done."

Verma, for his part, is relying on a little self-reflection to soothe his nerves. "Preparing for the Fringe has me reminiscing about my early days on the comedy circuit and why I’ve stayed on stage all these years. No matter how nerve-wracking this is, I know when I get up there and people begin to laugh… it’s fucking addictive."