Raju Srivastava could breathe life into things. In one of his popular gags from the show The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, he personified Mumbai’s local train. It arrives at its first station in the morning, decked up. By the time it reaches midway, and thousands board it, the local train complains of never letting her children take up this profession. The fan inside the compartment counts passengers as it spins in frustration. And the overhead handle looks like a man stretched out from all corners, with his tongue out.
When I first came to Mumbai and saw a local train, I carefully observed it. Every nut and bolt spoke the language of Raju Srivastava. It was not the lifeline of Mumbai, thanks to Raju, it was life itself.
Srivastava rose to national prominence in 2005 with The Great Indian Laughter Challenge after a handful of film appearances. On the big screen, he was relegated to being a comic sidekick. At a time when comedy in films was itself used as a filler – with Johnny Lever often given the responsibility of turning middling gags to glory – – there was little Raju could do. But on TV, he came into his own.
Srivastava brought with him comedy for and of the masses. His jokes were about common people – an old stuttering grandfather, a South Indian “anna”, a Mumbai-based house help or even around his iconic Uttar Pradesh-based personality, Gajodhar bhaiya. His characters did regular things, but Raju always saw them as an observational landmine. He turned everything mundane into magic, everything bland into a punchline.
It was this wildly imaginative power of Raju that made him stand apart from his contemporaries. He could transport his audience and place them wherever he wanted. In the drawing room, as two domestic workers discuss their rich employers; a desi guy narrating to his friends the story of Titanic; or a watchman who announces at night that residents should be awake, because he can’t manage to do the same. Wherever Raju looked, life seemed funny, wherever he went, the audience followed.
But not for too long. What perhaps no one could foresee was just how rapidly the world was changing. His successful stint on TV was slowly giving way to internet penetration across the country. The explosion of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter revolutionised comedy. The good old men of TV stand-up comedy were soon replaced with young blood on the internet, who spoke the language of the new average user — the youth.
Raju’s brand of comedy was designed to cater to all, cutting across generations within a family. His jokes were consumed over the dining table. But with the internet boom, the mic of stand-up comedy was passed from TV to digital and from small towns to metros. The humour on the internet was more personalised and specific. It didn’t believe in being consumed publically – it was private entertainment. When the new age comedy began, it left the dinner table jokes behind and along with them, Raju.
The crop of comics on the internet, from writer Varun Grover, Tanmay Bhat and Vir Das to Aditi Mittal and Sanjay Rajoura, were not only sharp but also political. Their humour decoded the fabric of India: It was observational, topical, funny and almost always, an eye opener. The new age of comedy felt urgent and mostly relied on the cardinal rule of punching up and not down: A group that is already marginalised was never the punchline.
Raju’s jokes, some of which were hilarious for the time, didn’t age well in the internet era–beggars being described as the greatest actors as they fool people for mercy and money, a rape joke being mined for laughs. The internet audience was quick to call it out, being aware that Raju, though beloved for the time they grew up in, hadn’t evolved with them. In this new age, he was neither as sharp nor as informed and the apolitical nature of his humour had little relevance left for an audience, who was increasingly affected by the politics of the country. He was a funny man, who was funnier in nostalgia.
Despite this, Raju’s brand of comedy was game changing. Until Kapil Sharma made it big and took the relatable form of comedy to a wider audience base on TV, it was Raju’s punchlines which kept the ball rolling and made it possible for countless comics to tell stories of who they were, the life they lived.
In his tweet, Varun Grover best described Raju as someone who could find humour in people struggling with everyday difficulties. “He took out humour and satire from the pandal of Kavi Sammelan and mimicry and became the first stand-up comedian of Hindi.” It is a tragic punchline that death came in so early for Raju Srivastava, a man who could breathe life into things.