reportage

Gag Orders

How far can Indian comedy go?

By AdhirajSingh | 1 June 2015

IN EARLY JULY 2014, the comedians Tanmay Bhat, Gursimran Khamba, Ashish Shakya and Rohan Joshi approached Only Much Louder, or OML, an artist-management agency and events organiser, with their most ambitious idea yet. The Mumbai-based quartet—collectively All India Bakchod, or AIB—already had a substantial fan following, primarily on the strength of their 40 or so YouTube videos and podcasts. They told OML that they wanted to organise a roast: a form of insult comedy, in which a celebrity is invited to an event and then subjected to all kinds of ribbing by performing comedians. “We always wanted to do a roast,” Tanmay Bhat told me over the phone last month. “The format was always appealing to us. Every comedian wants to do it.”

In the United States, an invitation to be roasted is usually regarded as a badge of honour, a sign that a celebrity has attained the highest reaches of fame. Donald Trump, Pamela Anderson, Hugh Hefner and, recently, Justin Bieber, are among those who have been deemed worthy of being thus humiliated. In India, however, apart from one show in early 2014 organised by the comedian Vir Das, in which the actors Ranvir Shorey and Vinay Pathak were roasted by a panel of comedians including some members of AIB, roasts hadn’t found any takers.

In June, AIB had asked the actor Ranveer Singh if he would act in one of their videos. With the idea of the roast taking shape, they proposed to Singh that he be their “roastee.” Singh agreed, as did his friend and fellow movie star Arjun Kapoor. “I was surprised at the comedic knowledge they had,” Bhat said. When it came to comedy, “Ranveer wanted to push the boundaries in India. That’s not the argument you would hear an actor make.”

The director and producer Karan Johar came on board as roastmaster—the ringleader of the performance. “Karan legitimises it,” Bhat said. “If you get him to be the roastmaster, it becomes a legit event that Bollywood stars won’t mind coming and watching.” Two other professional comics, Aditi Mittal and Abish Mathew, along with the television presenter Raghu Ram and the film critic Rajeev Masand, completed the roasting panel.

With an A-list cast secured, the group needed a suitably large venue. “We knew that if we get Karan Johar and Ranveer we can get a good two-three-four thousand people,” Bhat said. “And for a venue that big the rents go up to Rs 20-25 lakh a day.” They settled on the National Sports Club of India, in Worli. As the event’s profile grew, so too did the financial stakes. “The only way to make money is to sell out the venue,” Bhat said. Tickets, priced between Rs 2,000 and Rs 4,000, went on sale on 8 November. According to Ajay Nair, the director of OML, and founder Vijay Nair’s brother, “In the first two days we sold out about 75 percent of the tickets.” The show sold out completely, and the organisers later donated the profits, of Rs 40 lakh, to charity.

On the evening of 20 December, a celebrity-studded audience arrived for what was titled the AIB Knockout. From the start, it was clear the performance would be ridden with expletives and innuendo. “Ladies and gentlemen, please give it up for your roastmaster this evening,” boomed Abish Mathew’s voiceover introducing Johar. “A pilot, a sailor, an actor, a model, an architect … are all men he would happily fuck.” Johar trooped onto stage and gleefully carried forward the profanity and political incorrectness. “Roasting Arjun and Ranveer tonight, in front of the who’s-who of Mumbai,” he said, “is who-the-fuck-is-who of Mumbai. Like seriously, who are you guys? Why are you all so poor?”

Seated on sofas at stage right, awaiting their turns at the mic, the members of AIB quickly realised the show was going well. “It really hit us when Karan was introduced onstage and 4,000 people applauded,” Bhat said. “His first three-four jokes landed well and there was an applause break. I looked over to Khamba and said, ‘This is going to be massive.’” For the next two hours the performers skewered Singh and Kapoor’s appearances, personalities, love lives and careers; as is custom in a roast, they also took swipes at each other, while the two stars got a chance later in the evening to deploy their own nasty jibes.

On 28 January, an edited three-part video of the performance was uploaded onto YouTube. It became, to use Bhat’s word, “massive,” garnering a combined 11 million views in three days. All the participants, and many of the celebrity attendees, had formidable social-media followings, which certainly helped. Fans lauded the writing and the performances, the sporting spirit of the two roastees, as well as Johar’s impressive comedic instincts. “AIB Roast that everyone’s talking about, simply outstanding,” the film critic Mayank Shekhar tweeted. “Probably better than anything Bollywood we’ve seen.” Most initial reactions were in this vein. “On-ground, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive,” Bhat said.

But this success soon unravelled. Even as the viewership counts on YouTube climbed by the millions, law enforcement authorities—most prominently in Maharashtra—received complaints about the video, most alleging “obscenity.” As the media glare grew more fierce, Maharashtra’s chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis, warned that the organisers would face action if the roast was found to be “vulgar and not in accordance with the law.”

On 3 February, the video was gone from the group’s official YouTube channel. An explanatory tweet on the official account read: “Have taken down AIB Knockout for now. We will speak soon.” The next day, newspapers reported that the group had met the Catholic bishop Agnelo Gracias, who accepted an apology for certain portions of the show that some perceived as offensive to the Christian community. Later, on Facebook, the comedians posted a meek note, stating, “We, Tanmay Bhat, Gursimran Khamba, Ashish Shakya, Rohan Joshi at AIB hereby offer an unconditional apology to the entire Christian community for any offence that may have been caused to its members as a result of the AIB Knockout.”

By mid February, at least two FIRs were registered against the perfomers and organisers—one in Mumbai, and another in Pune. The alleged legal violations related to obscenity, as well as provisions on information technology and the environment. Absurdly, the FIRs also named members of the audience, including the actors Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhatt. Some Bollywood celebrities, including the actors Salman Khan and Aamir Khan, also criticised AIB for the material; in the latter’s case, by his own admission, without having watched the show.

Many fans were dismayed by the group’s decision to take down the video and apologise. Some felt AIB had buckled when it had the opportunity to defend principles of free expression. Online, people exhorted the comedians to resist the pressure. “Don’t back down in the face of bullies/threats,” one Twitter user wrote. “Be India’s Charlie Hebdo. Show comics have guts and balls.” Varun Grover, another comic, was also vocal in his disappointment. “Sorry #AIB, this fight could’e been the game-changer,” he tweeted. “So much public support! This apology may give assholes of all color a precedent.” But the group chose to lay low, with its members’ normally crackling Twitter accounts falling relatively silent for a few weeks. Other participating comics faced adverse consequences too, with Mittal having several bookings cancelled in the aftermath of the roast.

The success and the aftermath of the AIB Knockout indicated how much urban Indian comedy had grown, but also how fragile an edifice it is. More than any high-profile comedy event in the country before, it showed that stand-up could cross over—albeit with Bollywood’s help, in this case—from niche to mass appeal. When the project collapsed, many comics were left wondering whether India was ready for large stand-up comedy shows, and whether the sort of comedy that tries to challenge authority, and push the boundaries of propriety, could truly thrive here. Though the number of comics and shows in India is growing, the artistic and creative limits of the form in this time and place remain largely untested.

I FIRST PERFORMED STAND-UP COMEDY IN 2010, at an open mic at Lodi, an upscale restaurant in Delhi. At the event, organised by Vir Das, each participant was given two minutes to make the audience of some 30 people laugh. We were each promised a free beer for our trouble, more than enough to persuade me.

I remember nothing of the evening—not what jokes I told, not how I told them and not how people reacted. I do remember my heart pounding, and that it took a good 20 minutes after I left the stage for my hands to stop shaking. I had long been a fan of stand-up, and been eager to try my hand at it. But that first experience left me feeling I wasn’t suited to the form. It would be a few years before I tried again.

In many ways, stand-up comedy is the most punishing of all performance styles. Other formats allow for reactions ranging from complete absorption to partial interest to boredom—none of which need disrupt the performance itself. In stand-up, however, silence in response to a joke can have catastrophic effects. Comics “want to hear a constant tittering,” the comedian Aditi Mittal told me over the phone last month. “Silence after delivering a joke is the most terrifying thing on the planet. It’s not just that no one is laughing—they’re also listening, expecting more when you just failed once.” The test begins when a comic takes the stage and faces a “cold” room, full of blank faces staring at her or him. Prolonged silence can completely throw off newcomers, and push them to leave the stage without finishing their allotted time. I myself have done this, on more than one occasion.

Unlike with drama or dance, in stand-up comedy there is no training programme that can help you master the craft. “You are never a ready product,” Mittal said. “You learn in front of an audience, and you’re learning all the time.” There are also no props or design elements to help hold the audience’s attention. “In stand-up comedy, it’s you on the spot,” Mittal told me when I met her in February. “You’ve got the words, you’ve got the writing right here,” she added, pointing at her heart.

Open mics for amateurs, like the one at Lodi in 2010, were organised beginning in the late 2000s by relatively established comedians such as Vir Das and Papa CJ, forerunners who helped nurture the first crop of stand-up stars. Das moved to Mumbai in the mid 2000s to make a name for himself in the entertainment industry, as well as to promote comedy. He began to hold open mics and amateur nights, at newer lounge-style venues in Mumbai and Delhi, as a way to discover and encourage aspiring comics. Many well-known names today, who were among the earliest to take to stand-up—including Tanmay Bhat, Varun Grover and Aditi Mittal in Mumbai, and Rajneesh Kapoor, Sanjay Rajoura and Neeti Palta in Delhi—first performed at these events.

Other enthusiasts organised open mics as well, among them the Mumbai-based entrepreneur Sudeip Nair. Since 2009, Nair has run an event now known as the Big Mic, and formerly as the Bombay Elektrik Project. I caught up with him in early February before an open mic at the Hive, a co-working space and performance venue he opened in the Mumbai neighbourhood of Bandra. The early days, he recounted, saw a lot of imitation of American comics. “We would constantly stress on original content, but would still pick up an Eddie Murphy reference, a George Carlin or Russell Peters bit here and there,” he said. “Some people would even start speaking with an accent.”

International acts also made occasional stops in India. Among them, in 2007, was Russell Peters, a Canadian comic of Indian origin. Nevil Timbadia, the founder of the booking agency Homegrown India, attended Peters’s first, sold-out, show in Mumbai. Realising stand-up’s growing popularity, he organised a show later that same year with one of his own favourite performers, the Indian-origin Scottish comic Danny Bhoy, at the St Andrew’s Auditorium in Bandra. “We got him down for three shows, and we managed to fill about 60-70 percent of the auditorium,” Timbadia told me. “There was no BookMyShow, there was no social media. We promoted the show with traditional advertising—newspaper ads, fliers, things like that.”

Timbadia also went on to organise, in 2011, the Naked Comedy Festival, at Bonobo, a bar he owns in Bandra. A number of comedians from Delhi and Mumbai performed, including Papa CJ, Sorabh Pant and Neeti Palta. The following year, a fresh installation of the festival was headlined by Vir Das. In 2013, Das held his own comedy festival in the city, called the Pajama Festival.

As the scene grew, corporate groups also took note of comedy as a viable—and affordable—form of entertainment for their events. Corporate shows almost always come with caveats. “Every brief is the same,” Gursimran Khamba, the AIB member, says in I Am Offended, a documentary about Indian comedy that came out in February this year. “Don’t talk about politics, don’t talk about sex, don’t talk about religion.” Nevertheless, these shows remain a lucrative source of revenue for comics, and top names such as Vir Das and Papa CJ can today earn as much as Rs 5 lakh for a set.

The comedy scene received a significant boost when, in 2010, the Comedy Store, an international chain of comedy clubs, opened shop in Lower Parel, in south Mumbai. This was India’s first venue designed specifically for stand-up, with acoustics that delivered audience feedback up to the stage, to allow comics to modulate their performances accordingly. The lights weren’t dimmed completely during sets here, as they are in theatres, because comedians need to see the audience to time their delivery perfectly. The venue has given comics from across India a place to gather, while keeping up a steady stream of performances by both amateurs and professionals, Indian and international. (It has since had a change in management and been renamed the Canvas Laugh Club, though the Comedy Store still functions as an organiser of comedy shows.)

By a generous estimate, currently, around 200 stand-up comics perform regularly around the country, particularly in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi. If you live in any of these cities, you will typically have multiple shows to choose from every week. The top comics are making good money—one solo comic mentioned earning Rs 94 lakh from comedy over the past two years. Apart from presenting solo material, comics also do multi-city tours of group shows. The 2014 tour of AIB’s annual spoof Bollywood awards show, The Royal Turds, first produced in 2013, earned the group around Rs1.5 crore. An industry professional who works with the group estimated that AIB currently stands to make around Rs 2.4 crore a year through its various activities.

As the business of stand-up has evolved, so too have the subjects that comics take on. From jokes about ethnic and gender stereotypes, many have moved on to more subtle observational material, often autobiographical, and commentary on culture and society. This is an entirely different scene to that of the acting-heavy Hindi comedy—often slapstick, supported onscreen by twanging sound effects—that emerged out of Bollywood, with performers such as Johnny Lever and Raju Shrivastava at the helm. That tradition has been carried forward by the wildly popular Kapil Sharma, who now hosts a show, Comedy Nights With Kapil, on the channel Colors.

Mittal believes that English-language urban comedy’s limited reach gave it the freedom to develop a much sharper voice than its Hindi counterpart. “The difference,” she said, “is that it offers an opinion. This is something popular Hindi comedy as a whole has not been able to deliver, simply because it is so much more mass and the stakes are higher.” But, she pointed out, many urban comics carefully exploit this divide to marry the observational English voice with a more rooted, regional lexicon that allows them to appeal to local viewers more viscerally. Comics such as Jeeveshu Ahluwalia or Vipul Goyal, she pointed out, might “set up a joke in English,” but then “use a Hindi punchline to punch a hole through that and connect with the audience through it.”

Indeed, a seamless bilingual delivery is central to the style of many Indian comics, including AIB’s members, as well as Varun Grover, Nitin Gupta and others. To take just one example, in a clip featured in I Am Offended Gursimran Khamba sets up in English a story about his grandfather’s death on the young Khamba’s sixth birthday. With a few perfectly timed pauses, he then punctures the sombre mood, saying this was “so pissing off” because he “had to return all the gifts to the kids and shit.” He then breaks into Hindi: “Cake sadh raha thha vahaan akela kone main.” That line—“The cake was rotting alone in a corner”—might have worked in English too, but the familiarity of Hindi somehow makes the image, of a grandfather preserved in a refrigerator while a cake rots outside, sound even more macabre.

I remained a regular watcher as this scene took shape, but only gathered the courage to get back onstage last October at the Hive. The venue is quite conducive to stand-up comedy. For one thing, the room is small, so performers’ energy is more easily contained. Food is not served in the performance area, and the establishment doesn’t have a liquor license. So, while comedians don’t have the advantage of an audience that is already pleasantly buzzed, many people come here only for the comedy, and don’t see it as a distraction between sips or bites.

Several comics had already performed when my turn came that evening, so the room was already “warm,” giving me some confidence. I opened with a self-deprecatory joke about my stutter, saying I didn’t have enough material for four minutes and so might stutter on stage to fill the time. It elicited a good laugh, which should have carried me through my set—except I promptly forgot my segues into the rest of my material.

I attempted to conceal this by picking on a couple in the third row, hoping to crack a few dating jokes at their expense. They shot me down, saying they were just friends. Some memory of my planned set returned—about my girlfriend’s parents disapproving of me—so I attempted to continue with it, but my panicked digressions had cost me. My four minutes ran out before I could get to what I had hoped would be my big finish: a countdown of the five stages of in-law rejection. Still, I walked off the stage to what seemed like genuine, if not thundering, applause.

It wasn’t a great set, by any measure. But I had managed to keep my wits about me, scanning the audience’s eyes to gauge response and so decide what jokes to milk and which ones to move on from. My delivery, timing, cadence, even my material itself, all needed work. But I felt comfortable onstage, and I certainly hadn’t bombed.

I RECENTLY WENT BACK TO A MEDIUM OF COMEDY I had started with when I was fresh out of college in 2008: the  online video. These videos, often designed and titled specifically to grab attention and go viral on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, are the comedian’s most potent tool to win fans today, with a viewership that far exceeds that of stand-up.

Many of the most popular online comedy videos were created by comics who had already gained popularity doing stand-up, but some comics have first found success on the web, and then gone on to create lucrative live spin-offs. Among the latter breed are the Bengaluru-based duo Kanan Gill and Biswa Kalyan Rath. They shot to popularity, in 2014, with a YouTube series titled ‘Pretentious Movie Reviews,’ where they mine Bollywood films for their wealth of absurd dialogue and preposterous plots and characters. They then began to tour a live version of the series, and with hundreds of thousands of online viewers already fans of their work they packed venues across the country. An industry professional who is working with the duo estimated that if everything goes well, they could earn up to Rs 60 lakh each over the coming year.

As has happened across the world, the proliferation of internet connections and smartphones has allowed fresh talent to rise quickly, bypassing the cumbersome machinery of the film and television studios that long held the keys to popularity. It was fitting, then, that in March this year Rath and Gill were chosen to host the 2015 edition of the YouTube FanFest, which gathered some of the internet’s biggest celebrities in Mumbai to perform for a screaming audience. Most younger viewers today go “straight to online,” said Kaneez Surka, an actor and comic based in the city, adding that “the next generation might not watch TV at all.”

In March, I performed in a video responding to the next comedy-related event to make national news after the AIB Knockout—the cancellation of the comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s show in Mumbai this March, owing to trouble over official permissions. My friend Rohan Desai, a comic, wrote a sketch titled ‘The Seinfeld Situation,’ whose dialogue mimicked the distinctive rhythms of Seinfeld, the television show that had made the American comedian famous.

The video was considerably less slick than the professional clips produced by the likes of AIB. Nevertheless, perhaps buoyed by the interest around Seinfeld’s cancellation, it garnered more than 400,000 YouTube views—not massive by the standards of viral videos, but far greater than the number of people who have seen me perform live, or are likely to even if I gig furiously for the next several years. Sure enough, it was valuable publicity. After the video was up, I began to get calls for assignments, mostly writing and acting for online channels.

The biggest Indian group to take root online, in comedy as well as general entertainment, is the Mumbai-based Viral Fever Media Labs, also known as TVF, for their YouTube channel The Viral Fever. TVF, which is famed for, among other videos, its parodies of media celebrities and politicians, was founded in 2009 by the IIT Kharagpur alumnus Arunabh Kumar, who decided to start his own venture after a show he pitched to MTV was rejected. The group’s imitation Bollywood song, titled ‘Gana wala song’ and released in October 2012, was, according to Kumar, the first Indian video to hit 1 million views online without paid promotion or advertising. The group also saw considerable success with Permanent Roommates, a romantic comedy mini-series whose five episodes have, in total, been watched just under 7 million times.

Some of TVF’s most popular videos feature the actor Jitendra Kumar performing pitch-perfect impersonations of the Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal, complete with a muffler wrapped around his head, a hacking cough, a nasal, hectoring tone and a raised, denunciatory index finger. Earlier this year, the group pulled off something of a coup when it convinced the real Kejriwal to shoot an interview with them. Biswapati Sarkar, TVF’s creative director, reprised his role from earlier videos as Arnub, a parody version of Arnab Goswami, the noisy editor-in-chief and main anchor of the news channel Times Now.

“There was no brief from the AAP, that ‘you can ask this, not this,’” Amit Golani, executive creative director of TVF, told me. “They had seen ‘Barely Speaking with Arnub’”—an imitation of Goswami’s talk programme—“and knew the format of the show, and were prepared for it.”

On the day of the interview, in the AAP’s unassuming Delhi headquarters, Sarkar good-humouredly launched into Kejriwal. The party leader was in a sort of limbo, waiting for the results of a vote that would make him Delhi’s chief minister. Normally a combative subject, Kejriwal smiled sheepishly and said, “I think I made a mistake by coming here.” Sarkar poured out questions: for instance, why, if Kejriwal was “against garbage,” was the controversial leader Somnath Bharti still in the party? Kejriwal chuckled and deflected the question, as he did Sarkar’s other volleys.

After a while, the host invited Kumar, in character as the fake Kejriwal, to join in. The actor sat beside the politician, a doppelgänger—dressed in the same colours and clothes, and exuding the original’s trademark righteous indignation. For the rest of the interview, while the host parried with the second guest, the future chief minister sat in silence, letting the comedians hog the spotlight. The video marked Kejriwal out as that rare thing: an Indian politician who could comfortably take a joke. It was released in early February, and attracted 3.3 million views, even overtaking Arnub’s earlier interview with the (real) Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan.

AIB, too, has seen success with viral videos. Among these are the ‘Honest’ videos, in each of which characters in typical Indian settings speak uncensored meta-truths about the situation—a common comic device. In one, an electronic goods salesman enthusiastically takes a couple looking to buy a fridge through “Ratta hua faltu feature number one,” two, three and four. The trope is repeated across the ‘Honest’ series, including the latest, two-part video, ‘Honest Indian Weddings,’ which garnered more than 5 million views in little over a week after its release.

The Knockout video, however, remains unavailable on the group’s YouTube channel. AIB has managed to avoid controversy after that debacle, despite having recently made its most pointedly political video yet, exhorting viewers to write to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India in support of net neutrality. The video attracted almost 3 million views, and helped propel a social media campaign that saw over a million emails sent to TRAI.

Meanwhile, the FIRs filed against AIB and others involved in the roast are grinding through the judicial system, with little news emerging for the moment. To an extent, the group’s members had in the past expected a serious controversy at some point. “Yeah, it’s only a matter of time,” Bhat says in I Am Offended about the likelihood of facing problems. Khamba, in his interview for the film, echoes this thought. “I do think one of us will get into trouble for sure,” he says. “And it will be interesting to see the impact of that and how it affects other stand-up comics.”

For now, what effect the Knockout controversy has had on the Indian comedy scene remains unclear. In most of my conversations with them, the AIB comedians, as well as OML, downplayed the pressure they had faced, saying they chose to take the video down of their own volition. “What pisses me off is that five years of good work has been reduced to this one thing,” Bhat told me. “That humnein ek show mein chaar gaali boli”—we said four curse words in one show. “I still think this is our biggest show, and I don’t regret it, but it’s something that will stay with us.”

OML’s Vijay Nair believes that despite the legal trouble it has caused him, Knockout is among the most important shows his company has ever produced. “Knockout is the first genuine piece of pop culture that we have created,” he said. “Ten years from now people will look at it and say ‘yeh hua tha’”—this once happened. “Every time there’s a documentary on comedy, they’ll mention it, every time there will be a discussion of comedy, this will be there.”

IN EARLY JULY 2014, the comedians Tanmay Bhat, Gursimran Khamba, Ashish Shakya and Rohan Joshi approached Only Much Louder, or OML, an artist-management agency and events organiser, with their most ambitious idea yet. The Mumbai-based quartet—collectively All India Bakchod, or AIB—already had a substantial fan following, primarily on the strength of their 40 or so YouTube videos and podcasts. They told OML that they wanted to organise a roast: a form of insult comedy, in which a celebrity is invited to an event and then subjected to all kinds of ribbing by performing comedians. “We always wanted to do a roast,” Tanmay Bhat told me over the phone last month. “The format was always appealing to us. Every comedian wants to do it.”

In the United States, an invitation to be roasted is usually regarded as a badge of honour, a sign that a celebrity has attained the highest reaches of fame. Donald Trump, Pamela Anderson, Hugh Hefner and, recently, Justin Bieber, are among those who have been deemed worthy of being thus humiliated. In India, however, apart from one show in early 2014 organised by the comedian Vir Das, in which the actors Ranvir Shorey and Vinay Pathak were roasted by a panel of comedians including some members of AIB, roasts hadn’t found any takers.

In June, AIB had asked the actor Ranveer Singh if he would act in one of their videos. With the idea of the roast taking shape, they proposed to Singh that he be their “roastee.” Singh agreed, as did his friend and fellow movie star Arjun Kapoor. “I was surprised at the comedic knowledge they had,” Bhat said. When it came to comedy, “Ranveer wanted to push the boundaries in India. That’s not the argument you would hear an actor make.”

The director and producer Karan Johar came on board as roastmaster—the ringleader of the performance. “Karan legitimises it,” Bhat said. “If you get him to be the roastmaster, it becomes a legit event that Bollywood stars won’t mind coming and watching.” Two other professional comics, Aditi Mittal and Abish Mathew, along with the television presenter Raghu Ram and the film critic Rajeev Masand, completed the roasting panel.

With an A-list cast secured, the group needed a suitably large venue. “We knew that if we get Karan Johar and Ranveer we can get a good two-three-four thousand people,” Bhat said. “And for a venue that big the rents go up to Rs 20-25 lakh a day.” They settled on the National Sports Club of India, in Worli. As the event’s profile grew, so too did the financial stakes. “The only way to make money is to sell out the venue,” Bhat said. Tickets, priced between Rs 2,000 and Rs 4,000, went on sale on 8 November. According to Ajay Nair, the director of OML, and founder Vijay Nair’s brother, “In the first two days we sold out about 75 percent of the tickets.” The show sold out completely, and the organisers later donated the profits, of Rs 40 lakh, to charity.

On the evening of 20 December, a celebrity-studded audience arrived for what was titled the AIB Knockout. From the start, it was clear the performance would be ridden with expletives and innuendo. “Ladies and gentlemen, please give it up for your roastmaster this evening,” boomed Abish Mathew’s voiceover introducing Johar. “A pilot, a sailor, an actor, a model, an architect … are all men he would happily fuck.” Johar trooped onto stage and gleefully carried forward the profanity and political incorrectness. “Roasting Arjun and Ranveer tonight, in front of the who’s-who of Mumbai,” he said, “is who-the-fuck-is-who of Mumbai. Like seriously, who are you guys? Why are you all so poor?”

Seated on sofas at stage right, awaiting their turns at the mic, the members of AIB quickly realised the show was going well. “It really hit us when Karan was introduced onstage and 4,000 people applauded,” Bhat said. “His first three-four jokes landed well and there was an applause break. I looked over to Khamba and said, ‘This is going to be massive.’” For the next two hours the performers skewered Singh and Kapoor’s appearances, personalities, love lives and careers; as is custom in a roast, they also took swipes at each other, while the two stars got a chance later in the evening to deploy their own nasty jibes.

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READER'S COMMENTS

7 thoughts on “Gag Orders”

“Slapstick, supported onscreen by twanging sound effects” –
Far better than the unfunny rubbish from the likes of AIB and other ‘english’ clowns.

A large majority of ‘English’ jesters in India are grossly incompetent in both writing and performance; and nobody wants to talk about it. Why should we? We are suckers and we’ll eat anything that comes on a fancy dish? Well, not all of us.

Add to that, they interpret Mumbai’s scene (and other metros) to that of Manhattan which has been a Mecca for such artists in the New World. Stringent training in performance studies, embrace for capitalism, transparent political intents and zero tolerance for double standards has what made the comic scene so brilliant in the West. Unlike in India, where humor ignores the world around them, is low on observation, more contrived on the lines of ‘creative writing’, and employs what is meekly termed as’Indian English’ it’s a sure-shot recipe of failure.

I have witnessed stellar comics in Hindi, Harayanavi and Punjabi with an enviable improvisation on stage and writing that’s laced heavily with deeper stuff about Indian society.

As for the story, it is largely pointless. Right from the title (which is misleading), all this article does is provide an exhaustible and an incompetent record of the limping comic scene in the country. The much larger concern is why these ‘artists’ will have a life of a mayfly, is what the author totally ignores. Forget the urban English speaking crowd, which is a terrible culture of mimicry, of practically everything imported. The so called ‘culture’ of comedy is created is when you stay grounded in the ‘street reality’ of your place. And are fearless in talking about it. Thankfully, nobody has objected truth in this world with much success.

On that note I wonder, why the hell is Vir Das even operating in India ? Assuming he spent some helluva time there, did his humor fall flat in downtown New York ?

I truly agree with Mayank above! It should be embarrassing that this article’s understanding of what Comedy is and its growth in India as a novel phenomena, as if the only comedy that exists is upper middle-class, urban, English. The phrase “urban comedy” as used by the writer here is also useless considering the existence of non-English speaking stand up comedy shows and events in cities. Besides the growth of televised, reality tv style comedy shows such as the Great Indian Laughter Challenge or Comedy Circus and stand-up shows in other languages and even Hasya Kavi Samelan’s continue to attract audiences within and outside the country.

I think it would have been far more interesting if this article took that kind of comedy seriously and considered the larger history of comic expression and its relationship with censorship laws. Interestingly, for all its bad taste and innuendo laden jokes, Comedy Circus (to my knowledge) has not faced any charges. What is it about comic style, language and audience which brought charges against AIB?

Its so sad that when freedom of expression is under threat, any actual discussion of content goes out the window. AIB Roast was really stupid but now, like a good liberal, I must emphasize their right to saying whatever the want *sigh*

Great article, Adhiraj !

To be honest, I am very much interested in Indian Web-comedy Scene, but also too lazy to do anything to contribute towards it. Really liked how you chronicled from your beginning with Random’s Monty Pythonosque videos (I love those). I remember watching you and Sumit in those videos and getting inspired to leave my job and do something similar. However, I believe that most of the Indian comics dont know how to write, which became even more obvious after seeing them in their online sketches. You on the other hand were brilliant in that Seinfeld Situation video. Your video is one exception that didnt suck at all (and no it wasnt below any AIB or TVF video in quality). I am expecting you to produce more such videos if you get time from your job and stand up scene. All the best, buddy 🙂

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