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‘Paaji the comedian’: Harmeet Singh Kohli’s extraordinary journey of breaking barriers through comedy

Dr Neelam Batra-Verma

Paaji the comedian: In a world filled with uncertainty and chaos, the power of laughter stands as a beacon of hope, transcending boundaries and uniting hearts. Amidst the changing landscape of entertainment, comedians hold a unique position, weaving tales of humor that resonate with audiences worldwide. Among them, Harmeet Singh Kohli emerges as a trailblazer, defying stereotypes and carving his path to comedic success.

In this exclusive feature, we delve into the remarkable journey of Harmeet Singh Kohli, a comedian whose rise to fame mirrors a tale of resilience and determination. From his humble beginnings in New Delhi to his meteoric ascent in British Columbia, Canada, Harmeet’s story is one of overcoming obstacles and embracing one’s true calling.

Businessman’s self claim through comedy

Harmeet’s path to success, although relatively brief, has been fraught with challenges. Despite initiating his comedy shows as early as 2018, his journey was abruptly interrupted by his mother’s illness, compelling him to set aside his aspirations and devote his time to her care. After all, a mother’s illness and later her demise, is no laughing matter.

He faced opposition from his family when he declared that he wanted to pursue his dream of making people laugh, his profession. Says he, “Coming from a well to do business family from New Delhi, my family wanted me to take care of the business and join my father and brother. Which I did of course for 18 years where I was taking care of marketing. But I would still do some shows on the side and my family did not like that. Some called me a joker while others humiliated me by calling me a madari (an entertainer who roams the streets making monkeys perform funny acts for money). I was married when I started these shows and my wife too faced pressure of my decision. This was indeed a tough call and today I can say it must have been tougher for my parents and wife’s family too.”

By the time Harmeet started his comic career, he was about 35 years old, an age when most men are well settled in their careers while he was just venturing out. “I was one of the oldest and wherever I went for shows, I was with youngsters 10-15 years my junior. Since I was already married with a daughter, people would wonder if I was doing the right thing. While others, appreciated my drive and commitment to my passion.”

Journey to the title ‘Paaji the Comedian’

Harmeet’s career took off when he moved to Canada in 2021, away from his family and relatives, who were bent upon that he changed his mind and ensuring that he left the comedy business to join the family’s trucking one. “I won’t say that my struggles are over as I am still struggling but I am happy at the love my audience showers on me. They lovingly call me ‘paajithecomedian’. Most people’s journeys start when they are poor and work up the ladder. Mine was the opposite. I started as a rich businessman and now am poorer than when I had started. Our family business brings in good money and there was security and every thing but I missed my passion and my audience.

Coming to Canada, gave me that audience and staying away from family also meant less barbs in my heart. I have relatives living in Canada too and they keep complaining to my father about the jokes I make and how they feel embarrassed. They keep urging him that I should stop this nonsense and that if they need any help they will come to our aid. But I never went to anyone seeking alms. I worked on different jobs, even as a marketing manager in a local radio station, to keep my hearth and home safe. I have a daughter and wife and I have responsibilities and a steady income is great, yet does not give me job satisfaction. None of my close family member, including my brother, father or relatives, have watched my show but thankfully, now “my father, looking at  my success, does not pay heed to the ill talks.”

The comedian’s struggles did not end there as a different environment awaited Harmeet in Canada. He is the only comedian who speaks in three languages, Hindi, english and Punjabi and that perhaps gave him an instant edge  amongst the South Asian diaspora. “Since I wear turban people expected me to only  in Punjabi. Others said, that I should remove my surname from my name, so as to appeal to more Punjabi audience.  My Delhi roots too gave me some initial hiccubs in an effort to penetrate the diaspora from Punjab. I was almost hired in a trucking job but when the owner learnt that I was from Delhi and not Punjab, he decided not to. But then there are all different kinds of people and I don’t care about people who try to pull me down, as they do so because of their own insecurities. My audience is more mature, educated and would not mind buying a ticket for a fun evening. My audience is not divided on religion or caste lines. I am a comedian and would invite people to come and watch my shows, I am just doing what I think I am meant to do and I intend to earn out of it”.

A graduate from Khalsa College in Delhi, Harmeet proudly boasts of his Indian heritage and claims to be the only comedian in the world to speak three languages – Hindi, English and Punjabi and changes his language and dialect depending on his audience. “I was in Brampton last week and my show was not only in Punjabi, but the dialect spoken there. In Vancouver, I can easily change to English and while in tri-cities where more Hindi speaking audience resides, my shows are in Hindi.”

Harmeet’s trick for holding audience

So how does he hold on when other comedy shows like the Kapil Sharma audience appears to be shifting? Says Harmeet, “There’s a difference between being on camera, where your jokes are scripted and you are reading instead of improvising as you go. Kapil is a very big name has a team of 11 writers who write for him. I have my own journey.  Spontaneity, I think is the key to hold the audience. I write my own jokes; I spend 3-4 hours a day writing my own content. I also make my content looking at the audience and most of the time it is spontaneous. That is how you can hold your audience and have them come back.”

While Harmeet may have faced subtle bigotry within the community, his acceptance within the larger community is commendable. “I have been invited for elite comedy clubs like Just for Laughs and the likes. It makes me happy when they introduce me as ‘Harmeet Singh Kohli, comedian from India.’ The local community or the well-established Canadian comedians gave me opening slots a few times, due to which I am where I am today. Now I too give the new comers a spot in my shows, as that is their stepping stone in the comedy world.”

Despite the trials and tribulations he has faced, Harmeet remains undeterred in his mission to spread joy and laughter to audiences far and wide. Through his unwavering dedication and unyielding spirit, he continues to leave an indelible mark on the world of comedy, proving that laughter knows no bounds.

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