‘Nobody Buys a Ticket to Put You on a Pedestal of Wokeness’: Kunal Kamra, on the Potential & Limitations of Political Comedy in India

By Bhanuj Kappal 22 May 2019


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“Bro, you’re getting funding from the Congress, na?”

Kunal Kamra and I have just sat down for a drink at Alfredo’s in Juhu, when a well-dressed man in his early 30s walks up to us and introduces himself as a former staffer for BJP supremo Amit Shah. With the easy familiarity of entitled fans everywhere, he insists that the standup comic—who has just returned from campaigning with CPI candidate Kanhaiya Kumar, and is in the middle of a social media campaign where he holds up placards asking people not to vote for Modi—must be secretly getting money from India’s grand old party. Unfazed, Kamra politely denies the accusation and chats with the man for 15 minutes about Kanhaiya Kumar’s electoral chances. Once the interlocutor walks away, he turns to me and shrugs. “Yaar, my extended family says stuff like this,” he says. “So how can I blame this guy?”

#DontVoteForModi

As one of the few prominent anti-establishment figures in the Indian standup comedy scene, the 30-year-old is used to being at the receiving end of libellous claims and hateful trolls. He received his first death threat within weeks of releasing his first standup video, an eight-minute clip titled Patriotism & the Government, which took potshots at the BJP for its cynical use of the Indian Army as a propaganda tool for deflecting criticism. That was in 2017.

Since then, he’s been evicted from his former Mahim flat after his landlord was spooked by his anti-Modi comedy, had a number of corporate gigs cancelled at the last minute because he refused to tone down his humour, and become one of the favourite targets of the online Hindutva army.

Kamra’s first YouTube video: Patriotism & the Government

On the flip side, in a country starved of mainstream cultural icons with a spine, Kamra’s political comedy has made him something of a liberal hero. His willingness to poke fun at the thin-skinned and increasingly autocratic ruling party, as well as his regular jabs at Arnab Goswami— the Indian liberal’s bête noire—has won him a lot of acclaim in the political and media ecosystem. A fellow journalist even called him an ‘accidental revolutionary’, though Kamra is quick to scoff at that label.

Mera comedy sun ke koi Ambani ke ghar ke bahar banner pakad ke to nahin khade hone wala,” he laughs. “If you ask me, I just want to be known as someone who’s entertaining, that would give me more of a free hand to experiment.”

Kamra readily admits that he’s an unlikely political figure. Growing up, his only real ambition was to find a way to make enough money so that he didn’t have to work at his parents’ pharmacy. Despite the fact that he lived in Shivaji Park, Mumbai’s political epicentre, he was blissfully unaware about local and national politics, or even the politics of class and caste that regulate the lives of so many of his fellow Indians.

…he’s been evicted from his former Mahim flat after his landlord was spooked by his anti-Modi comedy, had a number of corporate gigs cancelled at the last minute because he refused to tone down his humour, and become one of the favourite targets of the online Hindutva army.

“I only realised that class division and discrimination exists when I went to Jai Hind (college),” he remembers, sipping on a glass of whiskey and soda. “My friends would say let’s go to this place, it has a bad crowd, and that crowd would be the people from my school.”

After school and junior college, Kamra—who is dyslexic—dropped out of college and took up an internship at MTV, before joining Prasoon Pandey’s Corcoise Films as a production assistant. He quickly climbed up the ranks to become an in-demand producer for ad films. His introduction to standup comedy happened in 2013, when a friend and neighbour took him to an open-mic night.

“It was pretty pathetic,” he says. “I decided that if these guys can be standup comics, I can be one too.”

Kamra’s early comedy material was neither political nor very woke. He admits that some of his early jokes were quite sexist, though that was de rigueur for the Indian comedy scene at the time.

Kamra’s early comedy material was neither political nor very woke. He admits that some of his early jokes were quite sexist, though that was de rigueur for the Indian comedy scene at the time. “We didn’t care what we were saying,” he remembers. “We’d do anything to get a laugh.”

Nor was Kamra politically engaged in his personal life. In fact, he says he was perfectly happy being apolitical, but that changed in 2016 when University of Hyderabad PhD student Rohith Vemula committed suicide, after being roughed up by ABVP activists and suspended from the university due to his activism with the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA). Ironically, he first heard about the case through a TV news debate conducted by, wait for it, Arnab Goswami.

Moved by Vemula’s death, and inspired by the student protests that followed, Kamra started to follow Indian politics more closely. The controversy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, in which student activists were arrested and accused of sedition, followed soon after. And at the end of the year, demonetisation pulled the rug out from under a large percentage of India’s population that worked in the cash based informal economy.

As Kamra followed the news, he became increasingly outraged at what was happening in the country. And with friends like Sanjay Rajoura, Varun Grover and Anuvab Pal pushing him to venture into political comedy, he started incorporating jokes about current affairs into his set.

As Kamra followed the news, he became increasingly outraged at what was happening in the country. And with friends like Sanjay Rajoura, Varun Grover and Anuvab Pal pushing him to venture into political comedy, he started incorporating jokes about current affairs into his set.

Even then, Kamra didn’t really set out to be a ‘political comic’, with all that entails. After Patriotism & the Government went viral, racking up millions of views, he followed it up with two videos that focused on the difficulties of finding a taxi in Mumbai, and the city’s property prices, respectively. But the success of his first video meant the ‘political’ tag was hard to shake.

“If I didn’t put that out as my first video, maybe I wouldn’t be as political,” he says. “Then I would have been a comedian who also talks about politics.”

After putting up his first three videos, Kamra continued to perform his material at live shows. But he soon realised that he needed to continue putting out content online, and as a self-described ‘slow writer’, he didn’t want to be forced to put out his standup material before he was ready to.

“I was mostly thinking of ‘what has the comedy scene not done?’,” he says. “And what the comedy scene wasn’t doing was engaging with politics or activism.“

Instead, he teamed up with his friend and PeeingHuman (a satirical Facebook page) admin Ramit Verma to create Shut Up Ya Kunal, a video podcast series that features Kamra engage in long, informal conversations with politicians, activists and political journalists.

“I was mostly thinking of ‘what has the comedy scene not done?’,” he says. “And what the comedy scene wasn’t doing was engaging with politics or activism.“

In Shut Up Ya Kunal, he draws from a long-standing journalistic tradition of hard-hitting one-on-one interviews with political leaders, one that fell into disfavour after the success of Goswami’s 12-commentators-shouting-simultaneously debate format.

Despite the claims by many that Shut Up Ya Kunal is a journalistic endeavour, Kamra is clear that he sees the podcast as entertainment first and foremost. The conversations are usually intercut with hilarious news clips, and the tone remains light and affable.

Shut Up Ya Kunal with Arvind Kejriwal

“Our main aim is to paint our guests in a light they’ve not been seen in, make them say things that they don’t want to say on 10 other news channels,” he says. “We want to get them comfortable, and get them to cross that party line and open up about what they actually think. In some episodes we manage it, in some we don’t.”

Kamra also credits Verma—the podcast’s creative director and editor—with being the brains behind the operation, along with a secret researcher who must not be named. In fact the comedian, who has previously said that he’s never finished a book and got most of his political education from watching videos, claims that he likes to go into episodes “consciously under-informed”.

“It just leads to a more organic conversation if you go in with the same level of information that the people you are talking to have,” he says. “The moment you know more than them, and they feel threatened by your intelligence, they will pull back. And they do pull back.”

“It just leads to a more organic conversation if you go in with the same level of information that the people you are talking to have,” he says. “The moment you know more than them, and they feel threatened by your intelligence, they will pull back. And they do pull back.”

Over the past two years, Shut Up Ya Kunal has featured the likes of Kanhaiya Kumar, Arvind Kejriwal, Ravish Kumar, Jignesh Mevani, Shehla Rashid and BJP spokesperson Shweta Shalini, giving viewers an up close look at these political figures that is almost impossible to get from contemporary TV news. But Kamra is wary of overstating its impact, a pattern that is repeated throughout our conversation. I can’t decide if he is refreshingly pragmatic, or maddeningly defeatist. Or both.

Shut Up Ya Kunal with Ravish Kumar

“It’s just interesting content that allows you to take more time to put up a standup clip,” he says. “I don’t think it changes anything in the political sphere.”

A few hours earlier, I sit in a room with about 25 appreciative fans as Kamra makes his way through a set of new material for a trial show. At one point, he touches upon demonetisation, talking about how excited his building watchman—belonging to a class that suffered disproportionately from that exercise in political vanity—was to see rich people get fucked over. “Saheb, sab ki laga di,” Kamra quotes him as saying, before following it up with a joke about how Indians just love to see someone suffer.

I groan inwardly at this lost opportunity to dig into the reasons behind this class antagonism, to offer a real critique of the Indian political system and make his upper caste, upper class audience laugh in discomfort for once. But Kamra lets his audience off the hook, never challenging them to think critically about their own privilege. He squanders a potentially effective ‘teachable moment’, instead letting the audience walk away patting themselves on their backs for having superior taste and ‘liberal’ politics.

The best political comedy is a potent delivery system for inconvenient truths. It uses comedy’s familiar tension-release mechanic to put forward uncomfortable ideas, to make the audience confront the reality of an unjust social and political order that they are a part of, before the punchline offers much needed comic relief.

But Kamra—along with the vast majority of Indian standup comedy—fails to take advantage of this opportunity. Kamra is often hilarious when lampooning the over-the-top propaganda of the BJP or the looniness of the average bhakt. But his comedy lacks the substance and edge that would push his material from partisan one-upmanship into actual political critique.

“It’s entertainment for a frustrated person who thinks like you, but isn’t able to formulate it as articulately as you can. It doesn’t have a bigger purpose, and people who look for that bigger purpose are just being delusional.

I mention that perhaps his comedy doesn’t offer as much critique as he is often credited with, and ask if he believes in the current perception— dominant at least since the rise of Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl in the late 1950s—of comics as rebels using their art to speak truth to power.

“If people think like that they’re delusional,” he says. “It’s entertainment for a frustrated person who thinks like you, but isn’t able to formulate it as articulately as you can. It doesn’t have a bigger purpose, and people who look for that bigger purpose are just being delusional. The comedy audience doesn’t have any ideology. If I go on stage and crack a pro-reservation joke, and the next guy cracks an anti-reservation joke, it will get the same laugh. So what are we talking about here?”

This is, of course, a variation on an argument that has been raging in creative spaces all over the world ever since we’ve had a modern culture industry. Do you give the audience what they want, or what you think they need? Do you conceive of art as an entertainment product or a higher calling? Is the avant garde a bunch of cultural trailblazers, or just elitist pricks completely out of touch with their potential audience?

Kamra is often hilarious when lampooning the over-the-top propaganda of the BJP or the looniness of the average bhakt. But his comedy lacks the substance and edge that would push his material from partisan one-upmanship into actual political critique.

As the conversation continues, Kamra relents a little. He acknowledges that comedy, like all art, can be socially and politically transformative, though he insists that the Indian comedy audience today is not ready for comedy that is politically heavy or radical. “I know that you laughing about Modi right now is like going and pulling Hitler’s cheeks,” he says. “It’s very endearing, you do it and you move on. But the thing is that for a person who thinks of Modi as ‘his highness’, it just helps to humanise that personality, that equation. After that, the next step is to critique it further.”

Kamra’s honesty is invigorating. He’s a man trying to make a career in political comedy in a country where even non-political jokes can get you facing criminal charges, and making fun of a political regime that isn’t afraid of using intimidation and violence to silence critics. That involves compromises and a certain amount of self-censorship, and Kamra makes no bones about the fact that he’s often reining himself in.

“A lot of people hate me for saying this, but nobody buys a ticket to put you on a pedestal of wokeness.”

“A lot of people hate me for saying this, but nobody buys a ticket to put you on a pedestal of wokeness,” he says. “They buy a ticket because they want a stellar show, a great laugh. And you have to figure out how good or moral you can be while giving them what they want.”

As we call for the bill—only to realise that our friendly former Amit Shah staffer has covered it on our behalf—the conversation returns to the potential for political comedy in India to be more hard-hitting than it is now. The Indian audience may only be interested in “basic shit” now, but Kamra is optimistic that will change as both artists and audience grows. He styles himself as the first runner in a relay race, ready to pass on the baton to someone more radical from the next generation.

“Our scene desperately needs a Naezy and a Divine. People who have lived that life and are voicing their stories. Till they come around, we’re just placeholders.”

“Our scene desperately needs a Naezy and a Divine. People who have lived that life and are voicing their stories. Till they come around, we’re just placeholders,” he says. “I met a 15-year-old in Begusarai who is the funniest motherfucker I’ve ever met. And if he ever hits an open mic, he’ll destroy everyone. But the point is that we need to make sure that comedy is so mainstream that he thinks hitting that open mic is an option for him.”

BJP Congress Kunal Kamra Modi