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Aye Gajodhar will live forever

How I learnt to speak Hindi like a north Indian from Raju Srivastava.

Raju Srivastava, Raju Srivastava death, Raju Srivastava against animal cruelty, Raju Srivastava PETA India campaign, Raju Srivastava against horse cruelty at weddings, indian express newsThe actor-comedian passed away earlier today in Delhi. (Photo: Instagram/@rajusrivastavaofficial)

At 9 pm, my family would drop their work and gather in front of the TV, as was perhaps a common practice in most middle-class Indian households in the early 2000s. It was an hour of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge (TGILC), a perfect distraction for me, as my parents even overlooked my homework. While the whole family tuned in, including my three-year-old diaper-clad brother, I, as a starstruck nine-year-old, would closely study the chops of Sunil Pal, Navin Prabhakar, Ahsaan Qureshi and my favourite, Raju Srivastava.

Growing up in suburban Mumbai, we spoke Hindi at home, or a bombaiyya cousin of the language. My father’s mother tongue is Telugu while my mother’s is Marathi and both of them grew up in Mumbai. Watching Srivastava on TGILC was my first brush with North Indian dialects. I picked up the nuances (as much as a kid could) and perfected the aye Gajodhar, arey sankhata or the eeya aao along the way. Here was a child, thousands of miles away from Uttar Pradesh, trying to speak like someone from the state. When I finally did meet people from North India, I would amuse them by speaking in those dialects. It was safe to say, Srivastava was in my bones.

Back in 2005, Srivastava rose to prominence as a standup comic in the first season of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. Following his film debut in the 1988 Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit-starrer Tezaab, he provided comic relief in hits like Maine Pyar Kiya, Baazigar and Aamdani Atthani Kharcha Rupaiyaa. Though these were small roles, Srivastava’s dedication to a character was what made him memorable.

Mimicry was a great part of Srivastava’s standup acts, but it was a peculiar idiosyncrasy — the way he would cross his hand behind his head and stand in the laidback posture — that left an indelible signature on his performances. If social media trends are any markers of popularity, a sound clip from Srivastava’s act is going viral on social media, where the comedian is heard saying the quintessential line: “Yadav! A Sankatha! Gajodhar! Birju!” As a Class 4 student, I was bitter when Srivastava didn’t win the Laughter Challenge and came in third.

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Then life happened and as any angsty teen with Internet access, I gobbled up the world of western standup comedians. Arguably, it was Russell Peters that first caught my eye. Soon, it was time for ‘edgy’ comics like George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Dave Chappelle, Louis CK and Mitch Hedberg. I pulled myself out of this hippy gaze where comedy was supposed to be ‘clean’ and suddenly found myself empowered by the anti-establishment commentary that ran parallel to these comedians’ acts.

Simultaneously, I was enjoying the sketches of, the now dormant, All India Backchod (AIB). It was heartwarming to discover that they tipped their hat to Srivastava, by speaking to him on one of their podcasts, in 2013. Coincidentally, after the controversial AIB Roast in 2015, Srivastava condemned the show and I found myself at odds with my childhood hero and my recently-found gusto for freedom of speech and expression. Srivastava, with fellow comedian Pal, also went out on a tirade against the new-age comics on several news channels.

Srivastava went on to do other things and I fell out of admiration for the comedian. He was also fielded by the Samajwadi Party in 2014 but the comedian later shifted loyalties to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In March 2019, he was appointed chairman of the Film Development Council in the Uttar Pradesh government. He was also the brand ambassador of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in 2014.

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On Wednesday, Srivastava passed away at the age of 58 after fighting for 41 days. As condolences started pouring in, former AIB co-founder Rohan Joshi displayed his displeasure towards Srivastava on Instagram. Srivastava, along with fellow comedian Pal, did criticise the comedy that I enjoyed as an adult but I could not accept the stifling of expression. Srivastava had opened the world of standup comedy to kids of my age. His performance made me believe in the magic of standup comedy as a performance art form and how a person can make people laugh with their honest dedication to the craft. Thanks to Srivastava, I can have a friendly banter with people from the Hindi-speaking belt. I have never met Srivastava in real life and as the jury is still out on whether one needs to criticise Srivastava for not understanding today’s comedy and putting down new comics, I will take comfort in the old adage: never meet your heroes.

First published on: 21-09-2022 at 09:10:16 pm
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