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A Brief History of Indian Standup: The Roast, Rapid Expansion, and the Culture Wars

By Aditya Mani Jha 25 May 2021

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This is Part II of our A Brief History of Indian Standup series.

As Akhil Sood so pithily put it in this article for DeadAnt, “it was the stamp of Bollywood” that really gave mass legitimacy to Indian standup, though perhaps not in the way the comics would have preferred. So it’s only appropriate that we begin part two of our history of the past decade of Indian comedy with one of the most infamous cultural events of the past decade—the AIB Knockout Roast. 

2015-2018: Aggressive expansion

Filmed in December 2014, AIB Knockout was a celebrity ‘roast’ (a format where celebrities are made fun of by a combination of their friends, colleagues and a few professional comics) of actors Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh. The event was hosted by filmmaker Karan Johar and the roasters included Aditi Mittal, Raghu ‘Roadies’ Ram, film critic  Rajeev Masand as well as the four AIB comedians (Joshi, Bhat, Shakya and Khamba). On 28 January 2015, AIB uploaded a 54-minute cut of the evening’s proceedings on YouTube.

The video was a runaway success, going viral within 48 hours. This kind of ‘insult comedy’ had immense novelty value in India back then. Comedy movies in India tend to be either genteel comedies of manners, like Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films—or over-the-top slapstick and physical comedy like the Govinda/David Dhawan collaborations of the 1990s. This is not a country attuned to the pleasures of looking your target in the eye, calling them a skid mark and getting handsomely rewarded in applause.

With great power comes great idiocy; for the troll brigade, this has been true for a long time now. Here, too, they led the campaign against AIB, demanding their arrest, claiming that the cuss words (as well as hand gestures referencing oral sex) used in the roast went against “Indian culture”, that nebulous non-phrase whipped out by our leaders whenever they feel very strongly about punishing someone. It’s a punitive phrase, deployed with the express purpose of ending conversations and beginning carceral procedures. It didn’t help that some in Bollywood were not used to having their egos pricked, even if for a lark.

Here, too, there were calls for AIB members to be arrested. There were protests outside the OML office, not to mention an FIR. On 3 February, AIB removed the video from their YouTube channel, in a step they described as “pragmatic” in a statement. Any group of young people thrust into the limelight—and then targeted with the speed and the intensity that they had to face, would probably have done the same thing. This was censorship, plain and simple. But as the AIB quartet themselves noted, long-term censorship is increasingly unviable in the Internet era.

Despite all the very real threats that they faced, the roast was also a moment of vindication for AIB. Speaking at the Huddle, here’s how Joshi recalled that phase immediately after the Roast. “There’s great security that comes in knowing that it doesn’t matter what I do from this point on, I made one moment of culture that’s indelible. Like, nobody can take this away from me! But looking back, what I will always remember about the night of the Roast was the energy. It’s rare that you get offstage, and you look at each other and go, ‘Something special happened here tonight’.” 

Joshi added that the proudest moment of his career happened when shortly after the Roast, he came across a man in Colaba selling pirated DVDs of the event. “I used to go online myself,” said Joshi. “And I would check the number of seeders and leechers the Roast video had on PirateBay.”

Sure enough, their popularity exploded all through 2015, eventually landing them a news comedy show called On Air With AIB. Created for the streaming platform Hotstar, the first season of On Air was also replayed on Star Plus and Star World over the weekend, with latter seasons being digital exclusives. The roast marked the first time that the mainstream Indian media, especially print outlets, covered stand-up comedy as a serious cultural phenomenon. For this reason alone, it could be argued, this was a watershed moment.

AIB’s meteoric rise turbo-charged a space that was already growing at unprecedented speed. In 2015, Sumukhi Suresh performed her first ever standup show in Bangalore while Kaneez Surka released the first of her ‘Mujhe Ask Karo’ routines the same year. As the name suggests, Surka’s routines made self-deprecatory fun of her less-than-adequate spoken Hindi. Kapil Sharma became the most popular man on prime-time Indian TV, his blend of folksy chauvinism and ‘naughty’ (but never explicit) jokes proving to be a big hit across the Hindi belt. He hosted the Filmfare awards ceremony that year, alongside Karan Johar and later, appeared on Johar’s asinine but super-popular talk show Koffee With Karan. These were both important markers of ‘arrival’ on the Bollywood stage.

Betting that the growth story would continue unabated for the foreseeable future, OML launched a talent hunt for the next batch of Indian comedians—in July 2015, Rahul Subramanian and Kumar Varun were two fresh names that emerged out of this exercise. By the time the 2016-17 season came along, Vir Das had been signed by CAA (Creative Artists Agency), Los Angeles, becoming only the second Indian after Priyanka Chopra on the CAA roster. In April 2017, the veteran’s first Netflix special, Abroad Understanding was released (he has since produced three more). July 2017 also saw Aditi Mittal’s show ‘Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say’ drop on Netflix.

All of these developments also meant that more comedians across the country were commanding better wages and selling out venues, which in turn meant more bargaining power for newcomers (although already, there were concerns raised about OML’s dominance and what that meant for comedians outside of the OML roster). But as their popularity rose, comedians knew they had to up their game. Even if you had a decent online presence, you had to bring that extra something to your live act. This meant finding consistent, replicable writing methods that worked for you: trial shows, field-testing material, the processes of refining and revision.

Another important aspect of this phase of aggressive expansion was web series helmed by comedians. Amazon Prime Video, via OML, hired several Indian comedians with a view towards producing both standup specials and scripted television, not to mention the comedy talent show Comicstaan, which featured a number of well-known comedians as judges. Biswa Kalyan Rath’s Laakhon Mein Ek (2017), Sumukhi Suresh’s Pushpavalli (2017) and Varun Thakur’s Shaitaan Haveli (2018) were some notable examples.

What started as a bit of a cottage industry had now become a crucial part of the zeitgeist. There were stumbling blocks along the way, and calls for introspection. The 14 stand-up comedians Amazon Prime Video hired via OML to produce hour-long stand-up specials were all men (Rahul Subramanian, Biswa Kalyan Rath, Zakir Khan et al). This led to widespread criticism of both Amazon and OML (since the comedians picked were off the OML roster).

For OML, it was a matter of finding comedians who had an hour of material (“a tight 60”) ready to go—this was a bigger entry barrier than you might think because one of the points of the Amazon/OML deal was to raise production standards to a level that resembled international comedy specials. Ajay Nair, a founding member of OML, explained this over a phone conversation. 

“There was no complicated selection process at play; the comedians on our roster who had an hour or two of material ready to go (meaning, they had toured it for a year or two) received specials, I think Sapan’s (Verma) was the first and it did really well. At the time, Amazon was exploring how it could enter this stand-up comedy space in India, and we were looking for a way to raise production standards for our comedians. What existed up until then were fairly low production values, low budgets. The idea was, at least initially, not to make money at all.”  

Verma, like the other comedians who were part of this deal, quickly realised that their standup specials had to be a notch above their YouTube videos; how else would they attract the Amazon Prime audience—who were also, ultimately, ticket-buying audiences? The special, then, became the new currency of progress in the Indian stand-up scene.

“Eventually, of course, the special began making money for comedians,” Nair said. “This was new because in YouTube, of course, the ad share is trivial. The thumb rule was that the money that you’d make from a year of touring, the ticket prices plus your fees—that is the kind of money you would make from one special. In fact, that is the benchmark we used in the future to price our specials.”

Compared to the hour-long special, creating an original series wasn’t nearly as lucrative, as Nair also pointed out. “During the making of an original show, let’s say Laakhon Mein Ek, Biswa was on set throughout, for four, five months on end. What that means is he’s not touring for those days, there’s no money coming in that way. For someone like Biswa, the money they end up making on an original show is equivalent to maybe four live shows, that’s about it.”

All of this corporate influx brought structure and a settled workflow to proceedings. Brand work, brought to the table by OML, became many comedians’ bread and butter. It was a source of steady work that became ‘recession-proof’, since it did not depend upon the comedian’s ability to fill 500 seats in an auditorium.

It should also be pointed out that OML and Amazon were emboldened to go ahead with these bold moves because Indian audiences had proved they had an appetite for high-quality standup. They had shown the corporate honchos that they wanted—and were willing to pay for—better things. Big-ticket international comedians like Bill Burr (2015), Eddie Izzard (2017) and Russell Peters sold out large venues in India, and this gave the likes of OML and Amazon confidence that their investments would not go in vain. In 2019, DeadAnt was launched as an online publication and media and entertainment company focused on comedy. NH7 Weekender, the annual music festival organised by OML, eventually gave slots to a few Indian comedians. By 2019, comedy had its own stage (in partnership with DeadAnt) and in 2020, they got their own festival (with DeadAnt as media partner).

Two parallel, migratory movements started in real earnest. One, comedy began to travel from the metros to smaller cities. Comedians who were once selling out shows in Mumbai were now doing the same thing in Nagpur or Lucknow or Vijaywada. Two, stand-up comedians who had built up local followings in Kolkata or Chennai began to flock to Mumbai—this was now well and truly a career path, a proof of concept if you will.

 2018-2020: The undoing, baby steps back to normalcy

The year that broke the camel’s back was 2018 and the time was October, when the Indian MeToo movement’s online popularity rose exponentially in a matter of weeks. Raya Sarkar had previously published a list of Indian academics accused of a spectrum of misbehaviour ranging from harassment to improper/unsolicited text messages to outright assault. This was important, pioneering work.

And in October 2018, copywriter Mahima Kukreja alleged that comedian and frequent AIB collaborator Utsav Chakraborty had sent her unsolicited dick pics, that he had behaved improperly with other young women, too (Chakraborty issued an apology at the time, but has since claimed that her and other accounts were fabricated or exaggerated). Moreover, Kukreja claimed that Tanmay Bhat ignored complaints against Chakraborty and continued to hire him for sketches and other collaborations. Gursimran Khamba was accused of emotional and verbal abuse by an anonymous woman, a friend he had had casual sex with on a few occasions. It was also alleged that Khamba had forced himself upon her on one occasion (Khamba denied this bit vociferously). 

In a rapidly escalating sequence of events, Bhat and Khamba were both fired from Comicstaan within weeks. Bhat also stepped aside from overlooking day-to-day operations at AIB while Khamba was put on indefinite leave. Hotstar cancelled On Air With AIB mid-season. The Better Life Foundation, a series where Chakraborty had a supporting role, was removed from its platform by Hotstar. An AIB-produced Bollywood film called Chintu Ka Birthday was dropped from the 2018 lineup for the MAMI film festival, and its Netflix release was cancelled. In May 2019, AIB’s entire staff was let go and the company dissolved, although Joshi and Shakya maintained control over their social media channels. 

The November 2018 issue of The Caravan (disclaimer: this writer also contributed to the issue in question) contained longform reportage about how three OML executives including co-founder Vijay Nair were accused of sexual assault as well as repeated sexual harassment. Account after account alleged that OML was an unsafe place for young female employees, that senior management turned a blind eye to repeated complaints and allowed the abuse to go on.

In response, OML said that Vijay Nair had left his position as CEO six months before the article was published, and that the other two accused executives, Girish Raj and Gaurav Dewani, had similarly moved out of OML to other workplaces.

These were by no means the only upheavals taking place in Indian stand-up.

SnG also dissolved in 2019 after co-founder Karan Talwar developed major differences with the rest of the group (Varun Thakur, Kautuk Srivastava, Aadar Malik and Neville Shah). Talwar (who was the only one in the group with a non-comedy day job) wanted SnG to be run more like a full-time business, a point of view that wasn’t shared by the rest. Thakur, Srivastava and co. wanted to hang out once a week, record a fun, light-hearted podcast and leverage their collective identity to improve their individual careers.

Ultimately, Talwar changed the social media passwords for SnG’s YouTube and other social media pages until the others gave in. Instead, Thakur and the others chose to exit SnG, leaving Talwar alone at the helm. 

EIC had, by then, already been weakened by Sorabh Pant and Atul Khatri’s exits; they wanted to focus on their solo careers. In 2019, Kunal Rao also left, signaling the end of the road for one of the oldest comedy collectives in India.

Meanwhile, the ugly divorce between Amar Agrawal and The Comedy Store people came to a head in 2019: not only were the Agrawals ordered to pay Rs 74 crore in an arbitration judgment, Amar Agrawal himself was arrested and sent to jail for alleged financial fraud. It was a deflating end to the first-ever major Indian comedy venue.

These developments led to a broadside targeting of Indian stand-up comedy on social media—and who could say this was unjustified? The sheer number of incidents and accusations added up to an ugly picture, it has to be said. The ‘scene’ had let itself down, such was the feeling amongst comedians disappointed by their peers and worried about their own futures.

Since the events of two years ago, baby steps back to normalcy were taken up until the end of 2019. And with the Covid-19 pandemic, comedians have had to adapt their practices to the realities of a world under lockdown (or semi-permanent Covid restrictions). Some comedians have also diversified their practice: Aditi Mittal’s admirable work on the Women in Labour podcast is a case in point. Tanmay Bhat has started a second YouTube channel and become a very popular live-streamer, a huge hit among teenagers and people in their early 20s, especially gamers. Others took to hosting quizzes, vlogging, or even streaming chess games. 

Meanwhile, Indian comics continued to garner more domestic and international attention and continued to innovate. Amit Tandon, Aditi Mittal and Atul Khatri were featured on Netflix’s Comedians of the World. Daniel Fernandes tried a pay-as-you-like model for his comedy special Shadows, and his crowd-work special Talk to Me (Iron Man) set the record for the longest-ever crowd interaction show in India. Last year in the midst of the pandemic, Vir Das did a series of 30 charitable crowd-work shows, excerpts of which were assembled to form his latest Netflix special Inside Out.

Basically, Indian standup comedy took a few serious punches after coasting through its initial boom years, resulting in a significant loss of face, not to mention loss of credibility. And now, the rebuilding project which has been on in real earnest for the last two years appears to be bearing fruit at last. It remains a brave new world; a decade is like a minute when we’re talking about entire movements, after all.

However, even the most valiant of recovery efforts will amount to nothing if Indian politicians (and their Twitter troll squads) are allowed to intimidate and punish comedians. This disturbing pattern might have flared up for the first time with the Roast, but it has since grown worse, arguably.

Last year, Kunal Kamra became the first Indian comic (and only the third Indian) on a no-fly list, after he was banned by five Indian carriers for a video of him heckling the Heckler-in-Chief Arnab Goswami (who happened to be on the same flight as him). In November, Attorney General of India KK Venugopal approved the initiation of contempt charges against Kamra, after the comedian criticised the Supreme Court in a tweet. Also in 2020, comedian Agrima Joshua was targeted by online mobs and right-wing commentators because of an old video clip where she’s talking about the Shiv Smarak, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Shivaji memorial-under-construction (or rather, talking about Quora dudes who were talking about it).    

And earlier this year, on the first day of the new decade, comedian Munawar Faruqui was arrested during an Indore show. It was alleged that he had deliberately insulted Hindu deities as well as Home Minister Amit Shah (in case you’re wondering; only one of those things is an actionable offence according to the Constitution). The Indore East Superintendent of Police Vijay Khatri admitted that the event’s video proves Faruqui had made no such jokes. According to Khatri, the police had “oral evidence” that Faruqui was going to insult Hindu deities and Amit Shah, and that this advance information was enough to arrest the comedian. Faruqui ended up spending over a month in custody.  

Such harassment and bullying of comedians has become common-place in India over the last two years, usually with little or scattered pushback. It’s tough enough making people laugh—asking comedians to do so while also worrying about being arrested for ‘thought-crimes’ might be a bridge too far. But India’s comedians continue to persevere. They may be a little more wary of taking names, a little more circumspect in their punchlines, but they continue to find ways to express how they feel about the country around them. As Punit Pania told us in his DA Chat Room interview, “freedom of speech has to be fought [for] and won every single day […] there’s just no point living in that much fear or you’ll be down to doing Santa-Banta jokes in a couple of years.”

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