Theatre has long been used as a means of communicating protest against the establishment and for creating new perceptions of social reality (1). Theatre, with its live contact with the audience, is more potent than books or films. Satire and political cartoons had inspired people during the Indian independence movement. They continue to challenge the establishment and the powers that be.
Film industry found that humour has a potential to attract crowds. The early comedy shows on stage were inspired by cinematic comedy. Johnny Lever’s one-hour show ‘Kabbadi’ in the 1980s made stage comedy in Hindi an accepted form of entertainment. TV broadcasting became an enabler for large scale dispersal of content. The strongest push to the popularisation of comedy shows came with the launch of YouTube in 2005, when a virtual world became available to the promoters of standup comedy.
A solitary comedian trying to make people laugh is a recent form of entertainment. Indian-origin stand-up comedians such as Russell Peters attracted further attention to this mode of entertainment. Vir Das’s performance in Delhi in 2003 is often cited as the beginning of the genre of stand-up comedy in India. He had started his career at the open-mic nights of live shows in Chicago. The very welcoming audience response to his show created considerable following for this novel genre of comedy. Inspired by this enthusiasm, a new generation of Indian stand up comedians came on the scene.
Stand-up comedy is a conversation between the artist and his viewers. The comedian primarily controls the conversation. The audience in India is likely to be heterogeneous. The comedian’s primary challenge is to understand the nature of his audience and to create a mutual empathy while setting a shared space.
The soul of the art of stand-up is humour. Humour emerges through the comedian “grounding [the stories] in an experiential, proto-ethnographic act; reflective, by endeavouring to interpret that experience; perspectival, by taking a particular position for interpretation; critical, by privileging that position; and, above all, vernacular, by locating it in the local rather than the universal” (2).
Humour in dissent comes disguised as banter. Humorous resistance in stand-up comedy is often not a call for rebellion, but merely to sow its seed. Humour thus has the nature of a conspiracy. It also reduces the risk of consequences for the instigator by using humour in an indirect way and its utterances ambiguous.
The comedian starts the conversation inviting the audience to reflect on the state of the society, to examine its ills, to question conventional beliefs and to critique the prevailing ideologies. The comic content derives from such self-examination and critique. The purpose of humour is to mediate this process. In the context of politically inspired stand-up comedy, humour has many functions. It seeds ideas of resistance, while making the innuendos ambiguous enough for the observations not to make the comedian potentially culpable. Being of a recent vintage, stand-up comedy in India is exciting. To a substantial extent, it is radicalising the Indian entertainment space as it offers a mode of release to the youth that is frustrated about the current socio-political ambience. The genre offers them a platform to make their voices heard and to create a collective of like minded people. The dysfunctional Indian republic appears to be the primary object of concern for the stand-up comedians. The apparent arbitrariness of the decision making of the government and the othering of the minorities especially Muslims are all fodder for them.
Kunal Kamra is an Indian standup who has recently acquired a cult status through expressing radical opinions about the current realities. His first appearance was at the “Canvas Laugh Club” in Mumbai in 2013.
His video titled “Patriotism and the Government” released in March 2017 on YouTube made fun of currency de-monetisation, the governance and the hyper nationalism of Indians when it comes to our views about the Indian Army. The video created the now-viral punchline, “Siachen mein hamaare jawaan lad rahe hain (our soldiers are fighting in Sichen, a reference to the Indo-China skirmish in the Siachen Galcier),” a zinger that pokes fun at the hyper-nationalist Indian who invokes the army as a defence for the government’s shortcomings (3)”. The video, while scoring over a million views, is reported to have resulted in his receiving death threats.
There are other ‘Kamraisms’. “Simon, come back” is a desperate call for the British to save the country. The reference is to the Simon Commission, sent to India to study administrative reform in Britain’s largest colonial possession. “Mandir yeh hi banayega” (we shall build the temple here) is taunting those for whom the be all and the end all is building the Ram temple to exclusion of building rail roads and airports. Kamra speaks in a free wheeling mix of Hindi, English and swear words and phrases. Most of the urban Indians educated in English language schools chat among themselves in this manner.
His web-series Shut Up Ya Kunal appeared in July 2017, where he collaborated with Ramit Verma. These episodes are primarily focused on a conversation with well known personalities mixed with news clips and debates. The episode which featured JNU students Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid blazed like a wild fire reaching a million views as soon as it was aired. Shut UP Ya Kunal attracted well known personalities like Javed Akhtar, the lyricist, Priyanka Chaturvedi, then Congress spokesperson, Karuna Nandy, Supreme Court Lawyer. Kavita Krishnan who supported Kamra’s views in the NYTimes was also one of the guests on the talk show.
After creating an incendiary presence, Kamra was relatively silent for two years until 2020. Then he erupted with another controversy, when he confronted news anchor Arnab Goswami during an Indigo flight and pressed him for a debate. This in-flight entertainment was taken as an intrusion on privacy and the Indian airlines banned him from flying with them (2).
In the Opinion video on New York Times in June 2021, Kunal Kamra took a critical look at his government’s management of the control of the pandemic. He accused the government lead by PM Modi, of political vanity and poor governance which allowed a devastation of the country through the surge of COVID infections. The daily counts of infections and deaths have dropped since then . But Kamra says that “had Modi and other political leaders responded more quickly and more effectively, we could have saved lot of lives and avoided heartache” (4).
His journey in comedy after his initiation in 2017, have had its ups and downs in tune with the crests and troughs of the democratic process in India. He may have scored major points in politics, but he considers himself as an observational comedian and social commentator.
His fellow comedians believe that Kamra’s style of dissent has inspired other artists. He is a member of an artistic vanguard of protesters who are seen as shaking the foundations of the pillars of governance. This is something that the onerous commentary of the political parties in the opposition and the fourth estate have failed to achieve. Kamra has, by choice and conviction, crafted a career path where he has little to lose. He doesn’t promote brands or seek corporate sponsorship’ nor does he have an agent. He is not chummy with superstars. He prefers to collaborate with younger, relatively less known talent.
Despite the incessant accusations against him for being anti-India, he claims that he loves India, because “where else will you get all this content!”
1. http://theatrestreetjournal.in/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/C-6_Shawni-Bhattacharjee.pdf 2. Lea Sophie Nüske: Master’s Thesis, Comedy as Resistance: Indian Stand-Up Comedians and Their Fight Against India’s Anti-Democratic Tendencies 3. International Business Times, 26 March, 2022, https://www.ibtimes.co.in/kunal-kamra-comedy-controversy-his-not-so-funny-journey-so-far-837991 4. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/23/opinion/modi-covid-kunal-kamra-india.html