In ‘The Azadi Tour 2019’, the latest edition of the political satire show Aisi Taisi Democracy that’s currently travelling to various Indian cities, the three performers get introduced to the audience as “Rahul, Varun and Sanjay with none of them sporting that significant surname — Gandhi.” The joke sets the tone for an irreverent political evening where the artistes — Indian Ocean musician Rahul Ram, and comics Varun Grover and Sanjay Rajoura — spare no politician or party. The subversive spirit of the show peaks with a song set to the tune of a popular Hindi film song, Saawan ka mahina, from Milan (1967): “Chunaav ka mahina, hai mach gaya shor; phir aaya hai time to choose, who will screw us more”.
At a time when large sections of the mainstream media, film personalities, and entertainers are seen as being co-opted by a majoritarian political establishment, a handful of comics are bucking the trend. What’s more, it seems to be working for them, especially in gaining viewership among the youth. So you have Kunal Kamra logging more than 5.9 million views on YouTube for his latest act, Wah Modiji Wah, which he kicks off by wondering, “Why can’t I directly vote for Ambani? What is Modiji doing between me and Ambaniji?”
Akash Banerjee, who last year quit his job as vice-president, Radio Mirchi, to pursue political satire full time, finds that his The Deshbhakt is about to touch half-a-million subscribers within a year of its existence. The Indian Election episode of Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act (that, among other things, talked hilariously about a “hand tugger/hugger” parallel between Donald Trump and Narendra Modi) got 2,140,008 views on YouTube at the last count. Meanwhile, ‘The Azadi Tour 2019’ is logging sold-out shows in city after city.
It was in the run-up to the 2014 election that political satire first came into its own as a counter-narrative.
“The anti-UPA sentiment, the caricaturing of RaGa as Pappu, and Manmohan Singh as Maun Mohan, came from stand-up comics,” says Grover. “We were all abusing the Congress in chorus. We all wanted Congress out,” recollects Kamra.
According to Santosh Desai, a brand specialist and social commentator, not only are there more comics this election season, they have also become compelling voices. With sharp political polarisation and ideological and identitarian differences, you have the ingredients for great satire. “So, the enabling circumstances are way more significant than in the past,” says Desai.
Kamra is finding it more fun and challenging this year, especially the way “one man” is being aggressively defended. “Even my jokes are being fact-checked. This is a strange time, when the defending forces have become bigger than the dissenting ones,” he says.
No wonder the Aisi Taisi… trio wanted ‘The Azadi Tour 2019’ to take place before the elections. “We felt it was important to make a comment at the end of the Modi 1.0 era,” says Grover. Though the itinerary had been finalised much before the election dates were announced, in a coincidence, their tour runs parallel to the polls.
What makes the elections so special for the comics? “Elections are like the IPL final — max potential, max information, max interest,” says comic Sorabh Pant. “You can put your edgiest content out there and no one will officially object. No one wants to engage with the artistes at this time,” says Kamra. The erosion of faith in mainstream news channels is another reason being cited for the popularity of comics on alternate platforms.
Kamra says, like other artistes, some comics too are getting more cautious. “Every opinion comes with a cost. It depends on how much you want to bear,” he says. “You have to be smart or subtle,” says Pant. “You have to prepare yourself for an army of people who would lose their sense of humour when it comes to jokes about their side.”