I don’t want to leave this behind,” says Kunal Kamra, as he switches on the window AC in his living room. “I’d rather donate it to a chai ki dukaan than leave it for the landlady.” The standup comic has a few more days before he shifts out of this apartment in Shivaji Park, Mumbai. In January, the owner of the flat asked him to vacate the place because of the political edge to his work. He did what comics do best: turn his rage into a scathing post on Facebook, pointing out the surprising consequences of laughing at the powerful. In the weeks since, he has found himself a new place “not too far”, but excuse him if he still wants to settle old debts.
If Kamra is angered by the lack of support from various quarters (private shows that want “clean family humour” or progressive brands that are wary of “activist types”), he has used it to churn out more biting humour. In a recent no-holds barred video, made in collaboration with the comic collective East India Comedy (EIC), Kamra takes a dig at right-wing social media trolls. Titled Kaun Banega Trollpati, it features Kamra as the beaming Bhakt Launda in the hot seat, opposite game show host The Real Amitji (who might look like BJP president Amit Shah but “any resemblance to real people is coincidental MAA KASAM”). The contestant is faced with questions like: “In which year did Maharana Pratap defeat Akbar at the Battle of Haldighati?” and the grand prize is a new Twitter follower, who is “the country’s most important person” and “India’s lion”. The video has over 4.5 lakh views.
Around the same time, he also released the latest episode of Shut Up Ya Kunal, a podcast in the talk show format, where humour is used to discuss anti-establishment political views on governance, dissent and activism. Guests include JNU student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid, and Congress national spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi, among others. The recent episode, which has over 3 lakh views, features former JNU students’ union vice-president Shehla Rashid, alongside Jignesh Mevani, the MLA from Vadgam who beat BJP on its own turf in the 2017 Gujarat assembly elections.
Not surprisingly, the last two weeks have been “highly entertaining” for Kamra, who delights in keeping right-wing trolls busy. “Smoke a jay and read their comments, and you’ll see why it’s totally worth all the trouble I face for my work. Their anger makes me feel like I have power, real power,” says the 29-year-old, laughing.
Seven months and five episodes down, Shut Up Ya Kunal has become a platform where popular “anti-nationals”, often shouted down in news television debates, are allowed a voice.
While standup comedy has provided him the soapbox for his views on the country’s current political issues, Kamra is clear that he is neither a journalist nor an activist looking to bring change. “I am just a content creator,” he says, “and this is all good content. It’s more fun than addressing other subjects because I get to air my views, which are obviously biased.”
Kamra’s first guest on the podcast was BJP youth wing’s national vice-president Madhukeshwar Desai. In the episode, a mild-mannered Kamra is seen testing waters, giving Desai a space to share his views, but makes no attempt to come across as neutral. Kamra says that the episode caught the eye of BJP leaders and supporters. “Sambit Patra and Tajinder Bagga agreed to come on the show, but stopped taking my calls after the next few episodes featured Kanhaiya and Umar. I think that’s when they made up their mind, yeh saala left-liberal hai,” says Kamra. In February last year, his act called “Patriotism and the Government” lampooned the government’s need to use nationalism to answer every criticism. The punchline — “Siachen mein humaare jawaan lad rahe hain” — went viral.
The comic wears his political views on his sleeve but his interest in current affairs is fairly recent. He says he grew up apolitical, ignoring all that was going on in the neighbourhood he spent his childhood in — Shivaji Park, the hotbed of Shiv Sena’s politics and home to its headquarters, Matoshree. He then joined Jai Hind College for a degree in commerce. “The one thing I want people to know is I did not go to JNU,” says Kamra, who dropped out of college in the second year to take up a job in Prasoon Pandey’s ad film production house, Corcoise Films. “I started my standup career in 2013, moonlighting as an open mic-er who would perform between sets by more famous comedians.” Much like the others, his early performances revolved around the quirks of Indian middle-class life, from parents to friends and weddings. “My humour took a turn after Rohith Vemula’s death,” Kamra explains. He says it’s easier to find a niche in political comedy, because only the odd artiste, like Varun Grover, is doing it.
Although Kamra rarely thinks twice before taking a dig at politicians, his collaborator on the podcast, Ramit Verma, is more cautious. Technically the episode editor, Verma brings in the laughs by splicing the conversation with intercuts and video clippings. He admits that he tries to edit the episode in a way that it appears at least partly neutral. The 27-year-old from Delhi started the popular Peeing Human page featuring parody memes and videos on current issues. He says he finds it tough to ignore the trolls or view his work as mere content. “Sometimes, the accusation that we are biased really affects me. I try to play neutral by balancing it out with Arvind Kejriwal or Rahul Gandhi tweets. But I do realise it’s a pointless exercise,” he says.
Although his podcast as well as other work has received a lot of attention, Kamra is not keen on encashing it by signing up with a platform like Amazon, as several of his colleagues have. “India is still open source, why will I limit my audience by adding a payment gateway or a platform to it? How often have you seen anyone share a clip from even free platforms like Hotstar? I’d rather increase my audience base and experiment with my craft,” he reasons. His audience on the internet, he says, every now and then translates into ticket sales of his standup shows, which are his primary source of income. “I don’t earn as much as others but I am doing fine, enough to sustain myself and fund my podcast, on which I spend around Rs 60,000 per episode,” he says. Kamra gave up his lucrative job of 11 years in Corcoise last year to turn freelancer.
His work makes him vulnerable to hate, threats and trolling but Kamra is convinced he isn’t ruffling any real feathers. “My audience is not the voter. If elections were won online, even I could be a politician. Right now, I feel edgy, funny, and safe. A YouTube channel cannot change society. Do you think AIB’s video can end sexism? No, but people can watch them, maybe form an opinion based on them, and it’s better than frivolous content,” says Kamra.
Of course, a standup comic doesn’t have to be political to be dragged to court; one merely needs to “offend”, as AIB found out in 2015. That case is still subjudice. “I have neither the money nor the legal backing for anything like that. I am doing political comedy but tomorrow, if I find myself in a legal tangle, or things get serious, I will give it up. I will go back to ‘Do you know what happens in Punjabi weddings…?’” says Kamra.