Eastern promise: London's Tom Allen Centre is bringing Asian comedy to a wider audience. Dolly Dhingra welcomes a new generation of stand-ups

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The Independent Culture
When it comes to comedy, Asians are accustomed to having it handed to them on a plate, or rather, thali. Most of it comes as light relief in Hindi movies where the humour relies heavily on stock characters such as the village idiot, the bungling buffoon or the obese hopeful romantic. But the Tom Allen Centre, in London's East End, which hosted an Asian Performers Comedy Cabaret in May, the second this year, is at last leaving audiences with something to think about.

The evening started off with some fairly safe jokes from fresh-faced compere Mobashir Dar, based on the corniness of Indian names and parental quirks. The first act was Jag Plah, the self-mocking disabled comic, whose finest line was that he was done for kerb-crawling when police took his crutches away.

Things picked up, though, with The Secret Asians - an immensely talented duo specialising in mime, spoofs, music and dances. Sanjeev Bhaskar, who considers the Asian community 'depressed, repressed and oppressed', gave the audience much to be cheery about with his rendition of an Italian love song and impersonation of Elvis. Bhaskar's charisma (he was once mobbed after a performance, with female students throwing their dorm keys at him) is complemented by Nitian Sawhney - a gifted all- round musician. The couple 'challenge the audience to predict what they will do next', and don't cater exclusively for an ethnic audience.

Bhaskar believes most Indian films 'go for the lowest common denominator' and would only last 10 minutes 'if it wasn't for the songs and fights'.

The only female in the line- up was the multi-faceted Persian actress, Nina Wadia, who combines the classical Indian dance style Bharat Natayam with tap-dancing. She revealed that her refreshing frankness used to cause her mother a great degree of embarrassment, 'because I wasn't hiding behind a character, it was me saying what I wanted to'. Wadia has no qualms and tells it as it is: 'I don't make my material up, if it hasn't happened to me it's happened to my friends.'

Her material is aimed mainly at the second generation Asians in Britain. 'There's a lot of screwed-up Indians out there,' she says. 'I'm here to say to them that it's OK to laugh about the problems that we are encountering - if we don't we'll go insane.' It comes as no surprise that she admires Joan Rivers.

The closing act was the dapper Dead Jelebis, who made an impressive entrance with a funereal march, striking chime bells and reciting 'roots, culture and that sort of stuff - innit'. One of the Jelebis, Ravinder Gill, describes their act as a 'pastiche' and 'an attempt to consolidate the unique perspective that Asians have'. But what initially appeared to be, presumably, a parody of Asian rock groups rapidly turned into an ear-piercing thrash session. Confusion among the audience was finally confirmed as some members walked out. The evening established that Asians need not depend on Bollywood for all their entertainment. Creative comedy is finally emerging within the community and should be thoroughly encouraged.

The Secret Asians, Nina Wadia and The Dead Jelebis appear this Sunday, and other Asian acts perform on the first Sunday of every month, Watermans Arts Centre, 40 High St, Brentford, Middx (081-847 5651)

The Secret Asians tour in the autumn: details from the Tom Allen Centre (081-555 7289)

(Photograph omitted)