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Mirth of a Nation: Political satire finds a new home on the internet

In an election year, political satire finds a new home on the internet.

(Left) The Viral Fever team in Mumbai The Viral Fever team in Mumbai

If you’re minimally connected with email, Facebook or Twitter, you couldn’t have missed the whole new laughter track to this election. A fresh generation of English-speaking storytellers and satirists is putting the internet to good use. They go where mainstream media is too timid to venture, they hold a funhouse mirror to the powerful, and when they’re good, they’re very very good.

Apart from the big two, Faking News and The Unreal Times, comic outlets of many kinds have sprouted online in the last year or so. Notable new entities are All India Bakchod (AIB), a comic collective that has moved from standup to video and Twitter, and The Viral Fever, a Mumbai-based video factory whose latest effort, Bollywood Aam Aadmi Party: Arnab’s Qtiyapa, was watched over 2 million times. There is Jai Hind!, a biweekly show that combines the professional standards of TV with an edgy, risque sensibility that can find a spiritual home only on YouTube. There is Newslaundry, run by old-media renegades, that promises “sab ki dhulaai”. And, best of all, there is a whole world of anonymous amateurs with Tumblrs and Twitter handles, political activists and freelance jokesters.

Rahul Roushan, a former journalist and IIM-Ahmedabad alum who created Faking News in 2008, marvels at the change wrought in the last five years. When he began trying out his stories on a free Blogspot account, inspired by that American institution, The Onion, he had no idea if people would get it, or care. Faking News only whetted the great appetite for political satire, as proved by the speed and relish with which new entrants have been welcomed. Roushan speculates that this comic explosion had something to do with the context — the economic slowdown, the building unhappiness with the UPA — as well as the fact that social media began to pull in millions of people, mostly young and vocal.

Now Faking News, acquired by Network 18’s Firstpost, employs its own team of writers and hosts a separate space for enthusiastic contributors. Hot on its heels is The Unreal Times, founded by fellow IIM-A grads CS Krishna and Karthik Laxman, which does all that and more, like news pictures with speech bubbles, fake Facebook news feeds and skits of cabinet meetings, and memes like “Arvind Kejriwal Doing Things”. Krishna and Laxman started this project after they were burnt out with regular work, including drafting a shadow budget for BJP MP Yashwant Sinha. Ever since it broke into public awareness with a video called Manmohan Singham in 2011, Unreal Times has become one of the biggest founts of satire, with over 2.15 lakh Facebook likes and 56.1K Twitter followers. It also has a Tamil site with local content, and a book deal with Penguin on the upcoming election.

In India, much of the comic content you encounter tends to be professional or semi-professional, rather than spontaneously generated memes or mashups. It is ruled by young men in their 20s; those on the other side of 30, like Roushan, are painfully aware of the need to keep up. It may get more diverse over time — which would make for better humour too — but right now the comedy scene still is a small bunch of people who know each other.

Online and footloose

This comic flowering would never have occurred without the internet. Nearly everyone in the business attributes their success to the ease of creating something good and spreading it for free, the amazing liberties the space lets them take. Says Chennai-based Krish Ashok, who creates witty comedy remixing music, using Photoshop and text: “Earlier, when I blogged, it was mainly about solo expression. Now, when I do things with memes that are already floating around, it feels like a more collaborative creativity.”

For others, social media has even helped vindicate and nurture their own sense of humour and find others who find the same things funny. “If it wasn’t for the internet, I think I would still be making ‘Dude, you’re a gayzz’ or ‘Girls can’t code’ jokes,” says Tushar Sharma, a 21-year-old engineering student from Jaipur who now runs a gem of a Twitter handle called Khap Panchayat that makes you both laugh and flinch. Sample these tweets: “Auto Expo for us is just Dowry Fashion Week.” Or this: “A village girl spoke for women’s rights by disrupting a Khap meeting. Man, she was on fire. The next day.” And this: “How many inter-caste couples does it take to change a light bulb? Trick question. Dead people can’t change light bulbs.”

Satire always employs the same bag of tricks — verbal or situational irony, exaggeration, the “list” that gets additively funnier, sight gags, parody. Manish Tiwari’s overblown language, Arvind Kejriwal’s self-importance, or Rahul Gandhi’s windy abstractions are classic comedy fodder. Azam Khan’s lost buffaloes, or some of Narendra Modi’s boasts are begging to be put to good use by satire-writers.

How influential is this genre? Ten years ago, a poll conducted by Pew Internet and American Life Project found that young Americans increasingly got their information from late-night comedy shows, rather than the news media. While satire is an appealing introduction to politics, and gives young people a rough civic literacy, someone educated solely through satire could also tend to cynicism and knowingness, without the ability to process political information on their own terms.

India’s comedy scene is not as pervasive yet, but it’s getting there. Biswapati Sarkar of The Viral Fever, whose show was once rejected by MTV, tells me that while mainstream media still thinks of them as kids doing quirky things online, they now have more subscribers in India than MTV does. His friend Jitender Kumar, who played Kejriwal to perfection in Bollywood Aam Aadmi Party, is a civil engineer from IIT Kharagpur, whose parents had no idea why he would choose this line of work. Now, he says, they’re coming around, after all the public validation of his performance.

With all due respect

To some extent, this success comes from the fact that internet comedy is a world away from the insipid, careful jokes on television. It is widely acknowledged that political comedy with real bite would never make it on TV. One of All India Bakchod’s writers is also the lead writer of Cyrus Broacha’s The Week That Wasn’t, a sweet-spirited show that even its targets can enjoy.

Abhinandan Sekhri, a satire veteran who created NDTV’s long-running marionette show, The Great Indian Tamasha (Gustakhi Maaf in Hindi), and now runs Newslaundry, says he hates the tyranny of “good taste”: “We’re just so status-obsessed and hierarchical and attached to our images, we can’t stand any attack on it.” Humour, he says, is “an acknowledgement of equality”, and that the powerless are more likely to value a subversive joke.

But doesn’t this tendency to frown at no-holds-barred comedy also stem from a sensitivity to inequality, a well-meaning desire to assure everyone of dignity and inclusion? After all, jokes just as often tend to be casteist, sexist, and class-biased as anything else. Sekhri disagrees, pointing to the emergent genre of “chamaar rap”, tongue-in-cheek music videos where nerdy Dalit Sikhs give it back to the Jats in Hummers who dominate Punjabi music. Those videos are possible , he says, only because there are no professional gatekeepers on YouTube — mainstream media would immediately bleep out the word chamaar. “We need to toughen up, take a joke and make one to counter it.”

That sentiment has been made into a thriving business by Abhigyan Jha, one of India’s news satire pioneers. He has spent over two decades in the business, including Shekhar Suman’s Movers and Shakers, a popular Hinglish satire show on Sony in the late ’90s. After recurring tensions with various TV bosses, Jha and his anchor Sumeet Raghavan decided to bypass the medium altogether, and do their own thing on the internet with their show, Jay Hind! It was a “gut-feel decision”, says Jha, but one that proved greatly prescient, given Jay Hind!’s viewership online. They now use the services of 15 writers, and produce a biweekly satire show that is made for the Web, but has also been beamed by TV networks like Colors.

Jha says his first rule is that it should not sound like a dull editorial or “what one could pick up at a paan shop”, by which he means “a chatpata version of conventional thinking, the same galis about netas, the same easy stereotypes”.

Jay Hind! cusses freely, and constantly tests limits in terms of material and treatment. It has a segment called “Savita Bhabhi ke Sexy Solutions”, a lot of bottom-feeding comedy on politicians, including Bollywood duets between them, and the occasional inspired joke. Like many comedy shows, it depends on the same underlying repeated jokes about public figures. Recently, a Jay Hind! video that made fun of Mukesh Ambani went viral. Says Jha: “I misread something about 60 years of Lata Mangeshkar’s Ae mere watan ke logon as Ae mere vetan ke logon (all of you on my payroll)”. Obviously, “I thought immediately of Mukesh Ambani!” The piece was quickly written and shot, with a strutting Ambani throwing money at cricketers, kicking crowds, politicians and journalists grovelling at his feet. Arvind Kejriwal’s allegations about Ambani broke as they were editing the material, so they incorporated that too.

While many comedians speak of Jon Stewart, Andy Borowitz and others as inspirations, their political satire doesn’t have the forensic quality of The Daily Show. When Stewart deconstructs the administration’s arguments or shows a reel of contradictory statements, he exposes power, at least momentarily. Here, comedy is largely content to lampoon or mimic. As political cartoonist EP Unny says: “You can have a great spoof that mimics Arnab Goswami and Arvind Kejriwal, but it stops at the level of artful mimicry. You don’t get a sense of the politics of the piece”. But maybe “that’s because this new kind of comedy has only just begun. Give it a chance,” counters Krish Ashok. He compares it to Bollywood, which has a lot of formulaic stuff, and also the occasional witty, sociologically astute offering.

Gursimran Khamba from the Mumbai-based All India Bakchod says, “You can’t do high-concept or subtle stuff very successfully— that’s only for other comedy geeks. I understand why Bollywood sticks with the safe and lowbrow.” That said, AIB is relatively sophisticated, whether it was their video on rape (It’s Your Fault) or their take on the emptiness of political choice, the “ghisa-pita” sparring between Congress and BJP supporters. Their easiest hit, though, was the Dharna Dance feat Yo Yo Kejru Singh, a Kejriwal spoof that elicited a gracious nod from the man himself.

Target practice

Is there a discernible bias in this new wave of political satire? Yes, in a broad sense, and no in a narrow sense. If you’re a middle-class professional, you’ll inevitably find stuff that confirms your assumptions and flatters your prejudices. As politics becomes the central topic for many, ahead of a divisive Lok Sabha election, there have inevitably been questions on the issues that make for mockery and the ones that are passed over.

Faking News and Unreal Times are often perceived to be “right-wing”, a view they both deny. The Unreal Times has even spoofed the allegation in a piece about suing the BJP and the RSS for non-payment.  “If I had a buck for every time these websites posted a ‘Rahul Gandhi is dumb’ article in the last 12 months, I could buy Whatsapp,” says Sharma of Khap Panchayat. But he also clarifies that most young satirists aren’t necessarily right-wing as much as they are anti-Congress, having spent most of their adult lives in a Congress-run India, and believing that this government has let them down. There is also some comedy at the expense of internet Hindus, including insult generators that spit out lines like “You sickular, petition-signing anti-development AAPtard”, and “You Paki-loving, Naxalite anti-progress Arundhati apologist”.

Of course, giving offence goes with the territory. Krishna and Laxman point out that even when they wrote a piece called “Why Narendra Modi is not fit to be PM”, sending up the “arbit objections that people come up with”, they got hate mail from across the board, including BJP supporters who missed the point. Faking News has been harassed by Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, but they have “religiously ignored it”, says Roushan.

Most of these online comic acts report having been trolled by individuals or groups, but not intimidation from any official quarters. Says Jha: “It’s such a myth to say India is an intolerant country. We’ve made vicious fun of everybody but nothing’s ever happened. India is utterly free, the real problem is that people censor themselves.” Who knows, maybe this is the playful vanguard of a more confident public discourse, stepping across the line for the rest of us.

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