“Aaj main jhooth ke mood mein nahi hoon (I’m not in the mood for lies today),” says Kapil Sharma at the ten-minute mark in I’m Not Done Yet, his debut Netflix special. The show is structured explicitly like a mini-memoir, the conceit being a depressed Sharma narrating his life’s story to his therapist. It’s a recognisable template: early career comedians peppering their Netflix specials with stories about everything they did so far to ‘make it’. Hasan Minhaj’s Homecoming King (2017), for example, utilises this format perfectly.
What, then, does this underdog template mean for Sharma, who remains the most popular comedian on Indian television? It means that the same narrative technique is applied to the story of his second coming, following the comedian’s struggles with alcoholism and clinical depression (both of which receive considerable time and attention during I’m Not Done Yet). It’s fitting that alongside “Stand-Up”, Netflix has also added another tag to I’m Not Done Yet: “Personal Storytelling”. That’s the key to understanding Sharma’s style—qissebaazi, a very Indian phenomenon where people will not only tell you their entire life’s story, but also feel entitled to reciprocal narratives at a moment’s notice.
Is the show any good? Let me put it this way: if you’re a Kapil Sharma fan, you’re likely to find I’m Not Done Yet a paisa-vasool show. The greatest hits are all here, so to speak, with generous portions of self-affirmation and straight-up pathos on the side (y’know, like any self-respecting Bollywood potboiler from the 90s). Sharma seldom strays from his key themes: the divide between metropolitan Indian cities and the rest, the hypocrisies and charming eccentricities of middle-class life et cetera. And what could be more middle-class than having your partner deliver the punch line to your joke from the audience (as Sharma’s wife Ginni does here)?
I was pleasantly surprised to see several jokes involving Narendra Modi, the incumbent Prime Minister during whose tenure several Indian comedians have been persecuted for far less. During a routine where Sharma is explaining his hometown Amritsar’s love for kulcha, he says that one reason why the townspeople keep eating kulcha is that they’re afraid that the flatbreads will be banned one fine day. And then Sharma launches into a very funny impersonation of Modi’s infamous demonetisation speech from November 2016: “Mitron, aaj raat 8 baje se kulcha ban, kal se sab dhokla khaayenge (My friends, kulchas will be banned starting 8 pm tonight. From tomorrow, we will all eat dhoklas).”
The joke itself is very basic, like a lot of Kapil Sharma jokes, but the delivery is electric (though not quite as good as Shyam Rangeela’s Modi impressions). A different Modi joke is considerably snarkier, where Sharma says that unmarried men eventually tie the knot so that they have somebody to unload their “mann ki baat”; a sly dual reference to Modi’s recurring radio address of the same name as well as the fact that the Prime Minister only acknowledged the fact of his marriage in 2014 (it was a child marriage that Modi walked out of not long after it happened). And, of course, there’s a thorough deconstruction of that time he made a series of tweets critical of PM Modi’s government (this bit is executed very, very well and I suspect even Modi fans might grudgingly enjoy their demigod being skewered like so much kebab).
That’s Sharma’s greatest sleight-of-hand as an artist: both his triumphs and his failures feel intensely personal.
Does Sharma deserve brownie points for ‘courage’ here? I’m not sure, to be honest. But the mere fact of multiple Modi jokes in a single stand-up set is remarkable enough in today’s India, where censorship and artistic repression have reached all-new highs. Only somebody with Sharma’s popularity levels could have delivered these jokes with the cheeky non-disclaimer “This is about a politician, I don’t want to name him but he’s the Prime Minister.”
Of course, the familiar Kapil Sharma cringe moments are here aplenty too. He really does have a Russell Peters-grade problem when it comes to essentialist cultural caricatures. A joke about Rahul Gandhi involves, inevitably, a bowl of pasta and Italian invective. His English-speaking, posh-dressing therapist is described as a ‘Simi Garewal type’ with an accompanying imitation that can only be described as wildly offensive (ditto for his Karan Johar impression, I might add).
But there are touching moments too. Sharma speaks with great sincerity about his parents and his upbringing. And while it’s all shamelessly manipulative (the show ends with a 4-minute funny-sad song about his late father) you might find yourself smiling nevertheless. It’s like a cousin playing the harmonica after dinner during a family vacation: you feel like it’s impolite to be overly critical of such an innately goodhearted venture.
And that’s Sharma’s greatest sleight-of-hand as an artist: both his triumphs and his failures feel intensely personal, which is why his fans are inclined to celebrate the former and largely ignore the latter—like one would forgive (or faux-chastise) an errant sibling, a trouble-making but cherubic nephew. I’m Not Done Yet both contributes to and feeds off this parasocial energy with mixed results. Not a success, I would say, in the final equation, but an honourable and interesting failure.