WHEN Urooj Ashfaq delivered shows in London followed by a month-long run at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, she didn’t expect to create history. The young stand-up talent became the first Indian to win a prestigious best comedy newcomer award at the world famous festival. Her ac – claimed show Oh No!, about being in therapy, childhood diaries and family, showed that she is a comedy force to be reckoned with.
The rising star brings the show back to Soho Theatre in London from next Monday (30) till next Saturday (4), along with an extended run from January 8-20 and was happy to discuss her impactful Edinburgh adventure with Eastern Eye .
She also spoke about her prestigious award, meeting Phoebe Waller-Bridge, finding laughter in therapy, parks obsession, revealing too much on stage, future hopes and being part of an exciting new wave of Indian comedians. She peppered a lot of answers with an infectious laughter.
Did you expect to make such an impact in the UK this year?
Oh no, not at all. I didn’t expect to be nominated or win any – thing. I just thought I would learn a lot and leave, which I did. But it was very nice of them to make me feel validated.
How would you describe the whole Edinburgh journey?
It’s surreal because so much happens in one day. Then in the span of a month, you feel like you’ve made so much progress with your show. You also see other people’s shows and it really opens up your mind. It’s like a boot camp, I would say. It’s cool because you feel like I’ve done learning for a year, in a month. So, it was overwhelming and very nice.
I predicted that yours was going to be the standout show in Edinburgh. Did you have any inkling that it would make such a big impact?
Oh, first of all, that is so sweet of you. No, I didn’t because I’ve been to the Fringe a year before and was really blown away by a lot of the acts that I saw. There’s a lot of sub-genres and comedy that we don’t have yet in India, because our scene is very new. (Laughs) So, I frankly went with a very low self-esteem as an artist. So no, I didn’t.
Did you ever expect to find comedy in therapy?
I mean, I think I did. I didn’t think it would be so great. But of course, because I studied psychology, I could always see the humour in it.
But does your therapist know that you found so much humour and an award winning show from your sessions?
Yes, she does. Actually, I have two therapists. They read the papers and one in India covered it. They both messaged me and I was like, oh, please don’t come to watch it. But thank you so much.
A stand-out moment in your show is when you read from childhood diaries. How did you discover comedy in them?
That was like six months ago. I was packing up because I was finally moving out all of my stuff from my house where I lived with my parents. I started reading my diaries and realised I was so much funnier and more uninhibited. Then I thought of the idea of reading them at the Fringe and thought even if it doesn’t work, they’re very open to failure over there.
Being named best newcomer at the Edinburgh Fringe was history-making because you were the first Indian to get an award there. How did it make you feel?
Ahir Shah (best show winner) made a joke about this, which is very funny. He was like, you beat me by three minutes. That’s true. It was just a three-minute difference between the two of us getting our awards. But I was really surprised. Honestly, I was so happy just getting nominated and thought I can take this back, show off and feel validated. So, when they said my name, I was really surprised and overwhelmed. I don’t think I processed my emotions until after I left. Five hours later I was like, yeah, now it feels good. Now I get it.
What was the meeting with Phoebe Waller-Bridge like?
Oh, it was so good. You know, sometimes you want to meet someone you really look up to, but don’t know if they will live up to your expectations. She surpassed whatever I could have thought. Not that she was trying to. But she is just such a great person. She’s an incredible artist, but also a good human being. I was taking notes from how she behaves with people around her. Sometimes I can be a lot moodier for having done a lot less. What a wonderful person. She was so encouraging and nice. Other comics from India also came and met her. We all just left feeling so optimistic after hanging out with her.
There were a lot of Indian comedians at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. What was the camaraderie between you guys like?
We met all the time and were each other’s emotional support. I think we were adjusting to everything together, like a global audience, or lack of context about what we’re talking about. We all had each other, so we were hanging out 24/7.
What’s the secret of this amazing new wave of comedians coming out of India?
I think we’ve always had really good comedy here. The comedy scene is around 15 years old. So, I think some people take time to just ripen as comics. Think of us as this fruit ready for the plucking. It has been a learning curve and practising. Comics that have been going to the Fringe before us, much earlier, like Sumit Anand, Karunesh Talwar, Aditi Mittal and Anuvab Pal, have laid the groundwork for others. Now, so many of us can come. There are so many more comics here in India who have not been to the Fringe yet. I can’t wait for them to go because while I was there, I could see spaces they would do so well in. So yeah, it’s sheer enthusiasm.
How much are you looking forward to coming back to Soho Theatre in London for your shows?
Very much. I love Soho Theatre and everyone who works there. It’s like being a newborn baby and they are like a mother. That’s how I feel. I’ve not worked with anyone else before the Fringe, so I think I’m like imprinted on them. And they’re so lovely. I think about them at least twice a week. Like, what’s up, guys? They are like see you when you come back.
What do you like the most about London?
Oh, I love London. I went to a lot of parks. I’m from Mumbai. A lot of other cities in India have parks, but Mumbai has none. We have pollution and the ocean. So, my favourite thing about London and every other city apart from Mumbai is to lay down in a park. I did so much of that. I had so many picnics and refused to eat indoors. I just packed my food all the time. That was my favourite thing.
All eyes are now on you. What’s the plan going forward now?
I’ll just keep doing stand-up comedy. I hope that brings up more opportunities. I’d like to go to all the festivals and perform as much as I can. That’s the plan. When sometimes you get things without having planned for them, you really don’t have the next plan either. You just hope something happens again, like last time.
How do you feel about the higher expectations around you?
It does put pressure on me. I remember after being nominated; I was making jokes on stage. I was like ‘I’m really sorry, but I’m as good as I am and it won’t change with the nomination’. But it’s my job not to take that pressure and just do comedy. I do feel like there is some pressure to capitalise on this moment, but that’s not really how I work in general.
It is relatable and brilliant, but do you sometimes feel that you’re revealing too much on stage? You know, I did not feel that until the show started getting attention because I was very safe in being on stage. Live audiences come to watch, but no one really covers it in papers or anything, right? But now I’ve started feeling that way because now people want to know what the show is about. Sometimes they write about it. I still get to decide what goes out. But I have to kind of make my peace with the fact that I did this when there was a lot more obscurity around me. But now this is the show, so I have to stick with it.
Finally, is comedy like therapy for you as well?
Yes, it is. Actually, the unhealthy way to describe it is that unfortunately, it’s like a drug addiction. Because getting on stage is a rush of hormones that are mostly happy and it really makes you feel fulfilled. But I don’t think that can be healthy. So, I’m not sure if I would call it therapy.
Urooj Ashfaq: Oh No! at Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, London W1D 3NE from October 30 – November 4 and January 8-20, 2024. www.sohotheatre.com