58-year-old comedian Raju Srivastava passed away Wednesday morning at AIIMS, New Delhi after 41 days in the ICU. Srivastava had been admitted to the hospital on 10 August after complaining of chest pain while running on the treadmill.
Srivastava was a household name with Hindi-speaking audiences—especially across north India—thanks to his well-received appearances on Star One’s The Great Indian Laughter Challenge (2005) and its numerous spinoffs through the late 2000s. Srivastava would later perform his standup routines—and a treasure trove of mimicry acts—at several other comedy-related TV shows like Comedy Circus, Comedy Nights with Kapil and Laugh India Laugh. He also did intermittent comedic bit roles in mainstream Bollywood films throughout his four-decade career, including Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989,) Baazigar (1993), Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon (2003), and more recently in the Akshay Kumar film Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017).
Born Satya Prakash Srivastava in 1963, the comedian grew up in Naya Purwa, a residential district in Kanpur. His father Ramesh Chandra Srivastava was employed in the District Collectorate of Unnao, Uttar Pradesh. But Ramesh Chandra also had a second life: that of a locally well-known haasya kavi (comedic poet) called ‘Balai Kaka’. Because of this, young Raju was fond of making up jokes and songs about celebrities, unaware that this could be developed into a monetisable talent. As a teenager he would see local orchestra singers giving their musicians a break in the middle of wedding functions—by telling jokes and mimicking movie stars for 15-20 minutes while the musicians would have a breather and re-tune their instruments.
On one such occasion (and the story itself feels straight out of one of the comedian’s future standup routines) Raju requested some time onstage after the designated orchestra singer/mimicry artist turned up at the venue falling-down drunk, unable even to direct the rickshaw-puller beyond “take me to the tent thingy with the lights”. Raju filled in and mimicked his favourite actor, Amitabh Bachchan. When this was received with great enthusiasm, he branched out into creating jokes about Sholay (these would later turn up in some of his most well-know televised routines) and the rest of the story wrote itself.
[Srivastava’s] most famous routines reveal this tension between newfound wealth and old-world values like temperance and modesty.
In 1985, Srivastava released an audio cassette of mimicry and original jokes called Hansna Mana Hai on T-Series. This cassette would become wildly popular and caught the attention of Asha Bhosle (who saw her driver listening to it in her car) who introduced Srivastava to the Bollywood music directors Kalyanji-Anandji. In the 80s, the duo’s live shows would include filler comedic material presented by Johnny Lever; Srivastava became Lever’s understudy for these shows, filling in when the older comedian had other commercial engagements. Lever and other veterans like Asrani encouraged Srivastava to develop more original jokes and not limit himself to mimicry.
In this way, Srivastava started performing his comedy at awards shows and other Bollywood gatherings, eventually gaining his first ‘comic relief’ bit roles in the late 1980s, like in the Anil Kapoor-starrer Tezaab and the Rajshri Productions blockbuster Maine Pyaar Kiya, which was also Salman Khan’s film debut. Through the 90s and early 2000s, this would be the extent of Srivastava’s influence—although well-known in industry circles, it took the breakout appeal of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge (2005) to catapult him into the national consciousness.
Srivastava’s act was an elaborate variant of the straight man routine, wherein his simpleton characters (like ‘Gajodhar’, a frequently invoked U.P. every-man inspired by memories of a chatty barber of that name from Srivastava’s village) would react to the razzle-dazzle introduced in Indian pop culture through the 90s, as TV sets became the dominant medium of transmitting ‘family entertainment’.
His most famous routines reveal this tension between newfound wealth and old-world values like temperance and modesty—in his ‘shaadi routine’, for example, a mischievous uncle criticises every single consumerist aspect of the wedding preparations, leading up to the ‘suitability’ of the match itself (“phool murjhaaye hain, khaane mein namak kam hai, generator gaayab hai…. Jodi bhi theek nahi hai”). His Sholay routine would imagine a Gabbar Singh grown old and infirm, his feebleness resulting in a lack of respect from his fellow dacoits who crave the opportunities and infamy suddenly available to them thanks to the free market.
In latter years, Srivastava tried to leverage his popularity into a political career, a decision marked by increasingly diminishing returns. It was first reported in 2014 that the comedian would contest the Lok Sabha elections on a Samajwadi Party ticket but later that year, Srivastava would join the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). Subsequently, once the BJP stormed to power nationally, Srivastava’s comedy as well his social media clips started to feature extended volleys of misogynistic, Islamophobic material, especially on Facebook. These diatribes marred his legacy as one of India’s comedic pioneers.
Indian comedy may have progressed towards the digital-age model of standup specials and scripted streaming shows, but at least for Hindi speakers, it has its origins in the world of haasya kavi sammelans and orchestra singers filling time-wedges. Srivastava’s life and career are a powerful reminder of this fact; may he rest in peace.