A few weeks ago, a clip from The Kapil Sharma Show caused quite the online stir. Kapil’s show on Sony Entertainment Television routinely features actors plugging their new releases, and that week it was Akshay Kumar’s turn to promote Atrangi Re, along with director Aanand L Rai and co-star Sara Ali Khan. Sharma, a comedian great at on-the-cuff heckling, teases Kumar about interviewing a prominent politician — “a politician I will not name” — and then asking whether he liked mangoes. Kumar, visibly wrong-footed, asks Sharma to name the politician. “Le le,” he repeatedly insists, “Asli banda hai to naam le le.”
This is wild. The clip, unsurprisingly, was scrubbed from the Sony Liv app and isn’t easily found on YouTube (but can be hunted down on Twitter). That Sharma, the most mainstream of Indian comedians, would needle Kumar (and his interview subject) is surprising, and it’s nuttier that Kumar’s riposte to being ribbed over his famously fruity questions — questions he had asked the Prime Minister during one of the PM’s rare interviews — is to childishly dare Sharma. He asks him to “be a man” by naming a man, thus implicitly agreeing that both he and Sharma are, and are expected to be, afraid of the man.
In his new Netflix special I’m Not Done Yet, Kapil Sharma still doesn’t name the man — but makes sure we know who he’s talking about.
This special is disarmingly sincere and candid, but also uneven and rough around the edges, with Sharma rarely bringing down the house — but does he even want to? He starts by asking his backing band to cut out the sound effects. “This is not for TV, bro,” he says, assuring them they’ll be paid even without instructing the audience when to laugh. This is also an instruction for audiences used to his TV show featuring crossdressing men and body-shaming jokes: this is not that show.
Freed of the desperation to tickle his audience, Sharma is looser, more relaxed. I’m Not Done Yet is a sort of ‘unplugged’ session, where he discusses the struggles of his youth, the loss of his father, his issues with drinking and his battle with depression. This is a step. Kapil Sharma talking about going to a therapist reaches beyond those influenced by Deepika Padukone and Tony Soprano, and could affect the way a huge audience perceives mental health.
Every few minutes, Sharma nonchalantly lobs in a jibe about the politician he refuses to name. Sharma says he used to wonder, as an unmarried man, who he could do his “mann ki baat” with. Later he speaks about tweeting at a politician, refusing to take his name “because he’s the Prime Minister,” and, a little later, he talks about how people in Amritsar eat kulchas with the frantic desperation of those who believe they may one day be banned. “Mitron,” Sharma mimics, “From 8 pm tonight, kulche will be banned. Tomorrow onwards everyone will eat dhokla.”
There is little savagery here. This is not the blistering provocation or political subversion of a comic firing against the authorities. Sharma says nothing particularly harsh, but even these gentle potshots — by a massively popular entertainer with a lot on the line — add up to a worthy political statement. Particularly because the man he doesn’t name (at one point he says I will not name him “because he is still the Prime Minister”) is the only politician he targets. In contrast, he pointedly goes out of his way to applaud former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, a fellow Amritsar-native.
“What a man,” he says, asking his audience to applaud Dr Singh. “He accomplished a lot but didn’t say much, because the responsibility for saying a lot has now been taken by somebody else.” After a beat, Sharma claims he means himself. “Don’t react wrong and get me in trouble,” he laughs, but the telltale pause has done its job.
The special has been written by Sharma and Anukalp Goswami, with Gursimran Khamba as Creative Director. In a 2014 video by Khamba’s AIB troupe, the comedians pretended to cry after Dr Singh’s Congress party was voted out of power. “Thank you for being so easy to make fun of,” they had said to the Congress. “We’ll miss you.” That turned out prophetic in the most unexpected way, for while the Congress and its numerous own-goals were amusing, the government that followed has proven literally impossible to mock, with threats of litigation, arrest, outrage, trolls and violence.
The verb comedians use for a great show is ‘to kill.’ After bringing down the house, a comedian is said to have killed it. It has become increasingly important, however, for comedians to avoid punching down: to mock those lesser privileged, less powerful, less affluent than themselves. Mileage may vary in terms of laughs in I’m Not Done Yet, but Sharma is undoubtedly punching up.
With politics now focussing heavily on the frontman and becoming so reliant on the cult of personality, it is important for comedians to dismantle the ones who build myths around themselves. Laughing at authoritarians chips away at their authority. Some nights it matters less whether a comedian kills, and more that he’s pointing to those who know where — and how many — bodies are buried.
Streaming tip of the week:
Aziz Ansari surprises a comedy club audience in the half-hour long Nightclub Comedian (Netflix), where he casually tests out new material. It takes a while to get used to the tone, but Ansari offers intriguing insights on vaccination, misinformation and the way ‘news’ has been replaced by ‘content.’