He could have been working as an animator or editing videos for a living and might yet do so but, for now, he is persisting with his childhood dream of stand-up comedy, something which began when he was 12-years-old and still in class VI. Shyam Sunder “Rangeela”, who will turn 23 in December, is in the news after a television channel allegedly dropped plans to air his mimicry of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, “fearing criticism by people,” he says.
“About 26 days after the act was shot, and a few days before it was to be telecast, I was told my part was being dropped. They asked me to prepare something else. I was told I could mimic Rahul Gandhi, but later they asked me to not mimic him either,” he says. “And so, just two days before the filming, I had to prepare my act again and this time it wasn’t as good and I dropped out,” Rangeela says. He doesn’t understand what the fuss is all about at the television channel. “I don’t think PM Modi has a problem with people making fun of him. Par inke jo followers hain na, inko badi problem hai sab cheez se,” he says. It is Modi’s mimicry which has been Rangeela’s claim to fame and brought him out of anonymity, and the reason he was invited to the show by the channel, he says.
In his childhood, he did bits of stand-up on Republic Day and Independence Day in the annual programmes in his Manaktheri village in Sri Ganganagar district, which borders Pakistan and Punjab. “Our village got a dais for the first time in 2006. I went on the stage but got a bad case of stage-fright and people made fun of me,” he says. A year later, he managed to make them laugh and, a decade later, he was on television screens.
“Till class XII, I only did those annual programmes in my village. My dream was to be a comedian but I didn’t share it with my parents because, back home, people start wondering how will he do it, or what is it,” says Rangeela. He added Rangeela to his name about four years ago “after consulting friends” because it translates as colourful, and “because Rajasthan is also often referred as Rangeelo Rajasthan”.
After Class XII, Rangeela shifted to Jaipur in 2012 to pursue an undergraduate course in animation. Around the same time, Modi was frequently on television screens, as Gujarat state elections were to be held later that year. Rangeela started observing him closely when he addressed rallies. “I used to watch his videos on my phone and laptop,” he says.
In December 2012, Modi was sworn in as Chief Minister of Gujarat for the fourth time and, soon after, he started preparing for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, and would go on to address even more rallies. All the while, Rangeela listened in closely. In March 2014, for the first time, he uploaded his imitation of the man who would be India’s Prime Minister two months later. He says it wasn’t as good as his later work, but it still went on to garner over half a million views on YouTube.
Rangeela’s popularity followed Modi’s rise to national stage. “I practised mimicking him and perfected it. Once I could mimic Modi, I tried to mimic Rahul too,” he says. Over the next couple of years, he did gigs in Jaipur and honed his mimicry.
His first video went viral in December 2015. In an uncanny resemblance to Modi’s voice, he asks people if four golgappa for Rs 5 is fair. He then exhorts them to support him, as, once in power, he will make them get eight golgappa for the same price. All this in Modi’s voice had the audience in splits. “I keep in mind his breathing, the bass and especially his style of suddenly going loud, and then going gentle.”
People cheer more when he mimics Modi, he says. One thing he noted about Gandhi is that he himself makes people laugh during his speeches. Rangeela adds that if there are curbs over using politicians and politics for comedy, then “Comedy me maza nahi ayega, phir kis baat ki comedy hogi. (Comedy won’t be as enjoyable, what will you make fun of?) Comedy is done on what’s happening in the present,” he says. He can mimic Bollywood actors, and Arvind Kejriwal and Lalu Prasad Yadav as well.
In June 2016, he went to Mumbai and stayed a friend’s place, hoping to make it as a comedian while drawing inspiration from comedians Raju Srivastava and Sunil Pal, whom he first saw on television in his school days. Soon after, his second video went viral in November 2016, where he, in PM Modi’s voice, takes on the “Sonam Gupta Bewafa Hai” meme. It would be watched over a million times.
Close to his parents who live in Sri Ganganagar, he brought them to Mumbai for a tour. His father Jawaharlal, 52, grows cotton and mustard, among other crops. As Jawaharlal’s margins kept declining due to excessive fluoride in water, the family shifted from Manaktheri to Mohkamwala in 2012. They say Rangeela was always mischievous. “He must have been in high school, when he took my phone with him to the school. The teacher caught him and told him he wants to speak with me. Shyam came home and called the teacher. Pretending to be me, he assured the teacher that ‘all’s fine and that he’ll look into it’. The teacher bought it, and we came to know much later,” Jawaharlal says.
The stand-up comic says that, in his village, “there are people who are way more funny than I am. They are equipped with such sharp repartee and wit. Their humour is very grounded and connected to our roots, but no one takes offence. We all take it in our stride”.
Rangeela says that true talent can’t be stopped “in this day”. The video of his act, which had gone viral, has now been removed from YouTube, citing a copyright claim. “I am glad that the video of my act was leaked and the truth came out. Or else people would have thought that I had failed in my dream. For now I am focusing on creating my own content and putting it up in the digital space, where there is less censorship. TV, bas bahut ho gaya,” he says, adding that his Facebook profile declares: “Pure villager talent.”