In the summer of 2010, Anuvab Pal was writing an article about the opening of the Comedy Store in Mumbai, impresario Don Ward’s attempt to introduce British-style standup to India. Pal, then working primarily as a screenwriter, went to interview Ward, whose storied London venue was a cradle of alternative comedy in the 1980s. He told Pal that press coverage was all well and good, but what he really needed was performers. The initial plan – flying British comics out to India – would be too costly to maintain long-term, which meant he had to find talent, fast. Would Pal audition for him?

Pal agreed but remained sceptical. “I remember telling my family: ‘This is just a little hobby, I don’t think English comedy’s going to pick up in India,’” he recalls. “Fourteen years later here we are chatting. I still wake up every morning thinking: ‘This is going to end, obviously.’”

That seems highly unlikely. Not only has standup grown exponentially in India during the intervening years, but in a satisfying twist on its British-export origins, it’s now boomeranging back to the UK on an unprecedented scale. Last year, Mumbai-based 28-year-old Urooj Ashfaq won the best newcomer award at the Edinburgh fringe. Weeks later, Zakir Khan became the first Asian comic to headline the Royal Albert Hall in London, while in December, Vir Das – a superstar in his home country – sold out the Hammersmith Apollo. And having become one of the founding fathers of Indian standup – Ashfaq calls him “a legend” – Pal has made a name for himself in the UK too, thanks to appearances on The News Quiz, QI and The Bugle podcast. This month, he embarks on a 16-date UK tour.

Like all pop culture, standup is an increasingly global enterprise, yet Indian comedy is streaking ahead in terms of popularity. Why? “The whole industry has gone from absent to gigantic in a decade,” says Kanan Gill, a star of the Indian scene who also tours the UK this month. Live comedy did, of course, exist in India before 2010, but it didn’t resemble standup as Brits know it today. There were no dedicated comedy venues; Pal recalls individual acts renting halls to perform in, while the content was “impersonations, voices, a lot of anecdotal storytelling”. The Anglo-American art of one-(wo)man-and-their-mic “telling it like it is about their everyday lives” was unheard of, says Pal. When it arrived, it “broke a lot of taboos. In the early days, we’d have quite a few walkouts, people shouting: ‘What is this?’ It was the oddest heckle.”

Initially, this new style of comedy did feel “like a British export”, says Gill. “The Comedy Store had this very particular idea of how standup shows are structured, which stuck around for a bit.” It is still primarily, although not exclusively, performed in English, another reason for its cross-continental reach. (English also transcends the multiple tongues spoken in parts of India, says Ashfaq.) With TV showcasing the more traditional style of comedy – largely performed in Hindi – this new form found a natural home on the internet. As it proliferated online, a real-life infrastructure sprang up around it, with comedy clubs “in every city in India”, says Pal.

When those Indian comedians who had made it first began coming to the UK, it was to perform to south Asian diaspora audiences in specific areas, many of whom knew the standups from social media. That’s changing. Pal – who has always wanted to court the “Radio 4 audience and go to towns Indian comedians don’t usually do like Tunbridge Wells” – has been steadily making inroads for years, while Ashfaq’s Edinburgh fringe win, and subsequent UK tour, proved that wider British audiences were very much in the market for Indian standup. Her success has meant “a lot of [Indian] comedians are now looking at this as something we can do”, says Sapan Verma, standup and co-founder of the East India Comedy collective. “It’s a career goal to make it to the fringe.” Recently, Verma was fascinated to find two Mancunians in the front row of his London gig. “Indians I understand – they follow me on Instagram or they have a bit of a nostalgia – but I always ask non-Indians how they decided to come, I find it exciting.” (The pair had stumbled upon one of Verma’s YouTube videos. “They said: ‘Long story, but we really liked it.’”)

Verma was performing at Soho Theatre, the central London venue that is doing a huge amount to facilitate this cultural exchange: it has hosted more than 20 Indian standups in recent years. Initially, these acts were “connecting principally with the huge south Asian audiences in the UK”, says executive director Mark Godfrey, who began the Soho Theatre India project in part for personal reasons (“my dad is Anglo-Indian and I wanted to make him proud”). Increasingly, though, these comedians help maintain Soho Theatre’s place at the vanguard of comedy. “We want our comedy programme to feel fresh and if there are new things going on in the world it’s important for Soho to be finding them.”

Comedy usually operates on two paradoxical axes: it relies on relatability, but is fuelled by novel perspectives. It’s these two duelling elements that have helped Indian standups connect with UK audiences. Ashfaq says she feels more “unique” when performing in the UK than in India, able to bridge gaps in outlook that make audiences think: “Wow, we’ve never thought of this before!” Jokes sometimes need to be tweaked to reflect different cultural sensibilities – early on, a gag about divorce was hamstrung by her speaking about it “as if it’s an equally frowned-upon taboo in the UK as it is in India” – yet the essential humour rarely needs translating. In her last show, Ashfaq read from her childhood diaries and was surprised by the universality of the joke: “I thought I was cringe in a very Indian way – but really being a child is the same everywhere.” Godfrey says they encourage acts not to alter material too much to suit British audiences in order to “retain authenticity”. As the theatre’s creative associate Pooja Sivaraman puts it, “specificity breeds universality”.

That said, there are specific overlaps between British and Indian culture. This is partly due to the structural impact of colonialism, but also a shared sensibility: Ashfaq notes the “cynicism” prevalent in both countries, while Pal points to the “pessimism” – the “Oh, let’s not bother, it’s just going to rain” attitude (both standups are also proficient in self-deprecation). Unsurprisingly, there are differences too. Ashfaq thinks “people in India are a lot more easily shocked by liberal ideas and people in the UK are a lot more shocked by traditional ideas”. She has noticed London crowds are less willing to laugh at “marginalised people and minorities” than Indian crowds, which makes sense because “a lot of [Indian audiences] are also marginalised and minorities, so you’re joking among peers”.

Clearly, part of the reason Indian comedy is chiming with UK audiences is that it takes inspiration from our own. Pal has decidedly Anglophilic tastes (“self-effacing” fare such as The Office and Alan Partridge plus Eddie Izzard and Dylan Moran), while Ashfaq got into “dry and sarcastic” British comedy as a student, watching James Acaster, Stewart Lee, Bridget Christie and Josie Long on YouTube, as well as panel shows such as Hypothetical and 8 Out of 10 Cats. As a relatively young iteration of the medium, Indian standup mainly revolves round observation and autobiographical storytelling, which means it’s still taking notes from the UK’s broader, more experimental offerings: Ashfaq was “mesmerised” by the clowning at last year’s fringe, while Verma’s visit inspired him to use props, something he “would have never thought of in India even if I did the show for the next 10 years”. Yet the prop in question – a haze machine – punctuates a joke that would never have been written by a British comic. “I had tweeted something against a political party back home and they started circulating a fake news [story] saying Sapan Verma uses laughing gas in his comedy shows,” he explains. Initially, he ended with “standard punchlines, but now I say: ‘Guys, I would never do that to you.’” Cue the haze machine.

It is impossible to talk about comedy in India without mentioning the state’s policing of the art form. In 2021, Munawar Faruqui was jailed for 35 days for allegedly insulting Hindu gods at a comedy night in jokes he never performed. The same year, Vir Das performed his Two Indias monologue – a catalogue of his homeland’s hypocrisies and contradictions (“I come from an India that has the largest working population under 30 on the planet but still listens to 75-year-old leaders with 150-year-old ideas”) – in Washington DC, prompting several legal challenges from politicians.

The reality on the ground is knotty: Ashfaq says she “avoids criticising the government”. Pal, meanwhile, “joke[s] about politics quite often. Although I am careful about what material I release on social media. I have talked about the growing political wariness among artists, through the medium of a joke, in front of the prime minister of India and various other ministers, and there was quite a bit of laughter.”

That said, jokes about the Indian government aren’t a priority for Indian comedians performing in the UK. Instead, another political dynamic inevitably rears its head: colonialism. Pal’s UK act revolves round the topic – in his 2018 show The Empire, he takes the ironic form of a Brit-obsessed Indian; this is a fascinating take on the British-Indian dynamic, something Pal has long been enthralled by, from the “terrible things” Britain wreaked to the popularity of Dishoom, the UK chain of 1950s-style Mumbai cafes in “hipster form”. His new show, The Department of Britishness, makes a tongue-in-cheek argument for exporting British culture to India again.

For Sivaraman, opening up a conversation about colonial history isn’t limited to literal talk of the empire – it can be kickstarted purely by comedic success. She describes the “glorious tickling feeling of punching up against colonialism in Britain” that comes with Indian comics getting laughs in the UK. “When Zakir Khan performed at the Royal Albert Hall, he had this moment which was just like: look at what we did, we’ve taken the stages! It means a lot for any person who identifies as south Asian and is here – it’s this brilliant reclamation.”

Anuvab Pal is on tour 17 May to 8 June; Kanan Gill is on tour 15 to 26 May.