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Journalism of Courage

Raju Srivastava used wit and satire to critique the human condition

Where Raju Srivastava excelled was in probing the depths of the human condition with an ease of a psychiatrist. He seemed to be hearing you from the television without sitting next to you.

raju srivatsava deathRaju Srivastava was 58. (Photo: Raju Srivastava/Instagram)

In many ways, it would be wrong to confine Raju Srivastava to just being a comedian. As a son of Ramesh Chandra Srivastava, the common man’s poet known as Balai Kaka, he learnt to read the pulse of the heartland and course through its veins himself. And though born on Christmas Day in a middle-class family in Kanpur, he challenged his origins in two ways. First, he didn’t let the Western and aspirational worldview to define Everyman from the condescending prism of pity. “Why should a common man be always seen in the context of struggles?” he had asked once. He questioned that presumptuous hypocrisy. Second, he broke down middle-class inhibitions and showed that life could be lived in a far simpler and happier manner if you only learnt to laugh at it a little.

That’s why he began as a mimic of Bollywood stars, the equivalent of royalty among the masses. He began as an Amitabh Bachchan look-alike for many stage acts, his rib-tickling gags enough to land him small roles in Bollywood films. In the process, he also legitimised the colour and spirit of midland India in the mainstream space. He provided comic relief in blockbusters like Maine Pyar Kiya and Baazigar. But he wanted to be heard instead of mouthing cheesy lines. So he participated in a stand-up comedy and talent show, The Great Indian Laughter Challenge and finished as second runner-up, subsequently taking part in the spin-off, The Great Indian Laughter Challenge – Champions, where he was titled “The King of Comedy.”

Raju Srivastava was undergoing treatment at AIIMS. (Photo: Express Archive)

He was full-blown from the word go. Sample one of his earliest acts where a teacher asks a student why he had missed a class. The precocious kid counter-questions, “I missed only a class, what of the others who regularly attended so far, could you make collectors out of all of them?” There couldn’t be a more loaded and trenchant criticism of the education system. He used all the tools of trade —wit, irony, ridicule, drama and satire — to critique the human condition. He even used his experience as an actor to inject a dose of physical humour to his acts. Sometimes he posed as an object, say a train. At other times he was a drunkard. But mostly he preferred to be self-deprecatory, becoming the “UP Bhaiyya,” “Shuklaji” or “Guptaji” and questioning their stereotypes.

The best part about Srivastava’s humour is that it was never about insulting, shaming or hurting anybody. It was good-humoured, nudging you to push the perimeters of your thinking and biases. Best of all, it was informed. Srivastava may have failed to market himself intelligently, losing to the likes of the younger Kapil Sharma, but he was intelligent, observant and a social commentator of a rapidly urbanising rural India. Be it marking guests at a wedding hall, watching fellow travellers on a train or noting down details of everyday conversation in his own family, nothing would get past his five senses. Srivastava boldly took a stand when he wanted to with sharp one-liners like, “Draupadi ka cheer Dushassan ki jagah Kumbhkaran khichenga to tere baap ka kya jayenga?!? (How does it matter to you if Kumbhkaran had insulted Draupadi instead of Dushassan?). No brand guru could summarise the predatory male gaze and make us feel deeply uncomfortable about our latent patriarchy as Srivastava did.

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Where Srivastava excelled was in probing the depths of the human condition with an ease of a psychiatrist. He seemed to be hearing you from the television without sitting next to you. It was this immediacy that political parties tapped into from time to time. And diagnosing people’s problems, Srivastava realised that he should actually put his mind to solving them. That’s why he agreed to contest the Lok Sabha election from Kanpur in 2014. He was approached by the Samajwadi Party (SP) first but he soon returned the ticket, saying he was not getting enough support from the local units of the party. Soon after he joined the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP). Prime Minister Narendra Modi nominated him as the ambassador of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. He had been living up to his responsibilities at events, videos and his own platforms. Perhaps he was more at ease with social work. But he remained restless and curious till the end, ever learning, ever seeking. His real name was Satyaprakash, meaning the seeker of truth. But we will always want our own Gajodhar bhaiya to tell our deepest secrets.

First published on: 21-09-2022 at 11:52 IST
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