I watched Kunal Kamra’s 80-minute standup special Be Like (released on YouTube) yesterday, right after I watched Rishabh Pant, India’s incumbent wicket-keeper and swashbuckler-for-all-seasons, score a typically belligerent 96 against Sri Lanka in a Test match. As is Pant’s wont, he scored 40-odd runs off the last 12 balls he faced, hitting biomechanically improbable one-handed sixes for fun before swiping across the line to a straight-ish ball, getting bowled—and fighting back tears in the pavilion as though this were a school game or something out of Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander.
Watching Kamra do his thing is a bit like watching a typical Pant innings—the sense of frustration at its conclusion is as much a defining feature as the adrenaline rush that precedes it. Both men are adept at showmanship and like to talk a big game. It’s easy to forget, sometimes, that Pant’s only been playing for India for five-and-a-bit years. It’s easy to forget, sometimes, that Kamra has only been releasing standup clips for five-and-a-bit-years.
So much so that Be Like happens to be Kamra’s debut standup special, would you believe it? Like a lot of debuts, it’s messy and a little basic in places and the shifts in tonality are not always convincing. But when Kamra does get it right and feels comfortable with a joke’s emotional core (and for me, that’s the slacker, blunt-smoking-on-Instagram version of him) he can be a lot of fun. Kamra is funny in the mohalla-jester way, not the six-longhand-drafts way (he’s dyslexic and by his own admission it’s difficult for him to finish books). He will never use a ten-dollar word when a simple lavdyaa (dick) will suffice. That’s the good, uncomplicated bit.
The not-so-good, complicated bit is that Kamra, despite whatever you might have read or heard, is a surprisingly middle-of-the-road comedian. I say this with due deference to the very real problems he’s faced (including eviction) due to his political jokes, especially those directed at the Prime Minister and the BJP. And the reason I say this is Kamra’s layered but extremely well-defined relationship with his ‘urban liberal’ audience—they’re like experienced fencers putting on a Sunday show for kids. The blades are blunted and the forward charges telegraphed well in advance. Even the grunts of aggression have an air of gentility and the
jesters jousters bow to each other at the end of it all.
To watch Be Like is to be reminded, yet again, of this reality. The eponymous routine at the heart of the show, along with its many digressions, interjections and side-plots, is actually quite well-thought-out. Kamra begins by lampooning a social acquaintance, an engineer (inevitable, really) advising him to be “like Trevor Noah” after, presumably, watching a grand total of seven standup clips by the South African-born American comic. This triggers an avalanche of associative riffs — Indian parents and their keeping-up-with-the-Joneses instincts, the middle-class impulse to tread safe ground at all times (“advice part one: be like somebody who has made it, advice part two: do something that’s already been done”), the very Indian presumptuousness that leads to unsolicited ‘funda sessions’ at the drop of a hat.
Kamra, despite whatever you might have read or heard, is a surprisingly middle-of-the-road comedian.
All of this is good fun, if a little commonplace. He’s even better when he’s talking about his brush with the law, in a self-deprecating routine that has an almost rhythmic feel to it, punctuated by the refrain “Everybody ignores me”. Kamra says, “I once met a guy on a plane and he ignored me on a national scale”, referring to the Arnab Goswami plane-heckling fracas. “The Narcotics Bureau is ignoring me even though I smoke a joint on Instagram Live, the Supreme Court is now refusing to give me the next date… even they’re ignoring me.”
But—and this is especially true for Be Like’s second half—there are a lot of routines where you feel like Kamra is deliberately holding himself back, not going after targets crying out to be skewered. In a routine about a rich friend, for example, Kamra tells us that this largely clueless scion-of-industry had a generous allowance courtesy his Dad. When things break bad between father and son, the old man blocks his son’s credit cards. It’s telling that all the jokes Kamra cracks about the son are essentially good-natured; the boy is just a harmless, tone-deaf pot-smoking ne’er do well who studied Philosophy at college and is kind enough to foot Kamra’s bills every now and then. Equally, all the jokes about the dad are classic emasculation humour; a Napoleon complex is invoked and at one low point, Kamra flirts dangerously close to demonising upward mobility as a concept (necessarily a rich man’s sport, of course).
A smarter comic—or one with more years under their belt—would absolutely have massacred both father and son here. The latter’s reckoning could have been a springboard for so many things. The insufferable bits of millennial culture, our generation’s profoundly FUBAR relationship with responsibility, our propensity to become our parents three seconds after howling at their latest betrayals—this really was a great setup that Kamra just… flushed down the toilet like a dime-bag.
And there are many, many others moments like this one sprinkled throughout Be Like, beginning with the weak-AF half-joke Kamra makes towards the beginning, when a latecomer in the audience is told that there’s a seat for him still because he’s upper-caste, that “this is the real reservation”. Kamra even says this at half his usual decibel level, like he’s not sure he’ll get away with it, like he’s aware, at some level, that this is neither funny nor particularly abrasive, as jokes go. Again, it’s important to remember that during interviews, Kamra has been loud and emphatic about Indian comedians needing to educate themselves about caste— I feel that his reticence to translate this into punchy, confrontational humour is partially an approach problem (doesn’t want to piss off his audience) and partially a craft problem (he’s just not experienced enough to handle that particular tinderbox).
Oh, and he really should know better than to make fratboyish guy-on-guy-fellatio jokes, like he does here, even miming himself giving a blowjob to a fan at a party, a 50-something gent who appears to have a sense of humour (before he falls into the same ‘why don’t you be like XYZ’ trap, like literally every person of our parents’ generation that Kamra writes for this show).
Here’s the thing: I really want Kunal Kamra to do well. He’s clearly an earnest, disarmingly honest comedian with his heart in the right place, mostly. But he needs to work hard on the two aforementioned fronts—the approach as well as his control over the craft. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, losing at one is bad luck but losing both makes you a careless lavdyaa.