Kunal Kamra: The accidental revolutionary
Kunal Kamra has amassed a loyal following as well as many detractors for his edgy political comedy and podcast 'Shut Up Ya Kunal'
Kunal Kamra’s first-ever stand-up clip landed on YouTube a year ago. He started receiving death threats within 10 days. The 8-minute clip, Patriotism & the Government, revolved around the now-viral punchline, “Siachen mein hamaare jawaan lad rahe hain," a zinger that pokes fun at the hyper-nationalist Indian who invokes the army as a defence for the government’s shortcomings.
The video took three months to gain serious traction; it now has more than three million views on YouTube. Abuse and death threats have become a regular feature for Kamra, and he doesn’t take them too seriously. “I’ve realized these f****** are all talk online—they’re too lazy to follow up on them," he says.
It’s 10 on a weeknight at Kamra’s dimly lit, one-bedroom apartment on the first floor of a building in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park area. The 29-year-old stand-up comedian is on a lounge chair, smartphone in hand, looking at the television. There is a noisy debate on the Ayodhya Ram temple issue with the hashtag #FightForMandir.
Kamra, who has had a couple of drinks, grins. He asks Ramit Verma, a friend and the editor of his YouTube podcast Shut Up Ya Kunal, for his views on a tweet. Verma, 27, laughs appreciatively.
These could be a couple of ordinary young men in their 20s just hanging out and passing smart-aleck comments at what passes for television news these days. But Kamra, who first broke out as a “sure thing" opening act in the Mumbai stand-up scene a couple of years ago, is now a controversial figure whose cocky, anti-establishment brand of political humour has won him loyal fans as well as dedicated haters.
At any given moment, Kamra’s mentions on Twitter are filled with hate, often for his left-liberal political views (although he isn’t averse to ridiculing leaders across the spectrum). His usual reaction is a mix of amusement and indifference. In two weeks, he will have to vacate the apartment we’re in because his landlady expressed discomfort at a tenant this controversial. In late January, he wrote a lengthy Facebook post that went viral, addressing the pitfalls of being political and outspoken: eviction, rejection, last-minute cancellations.
Seven months and five episodes in, his podcast appears to fill in a lacuna created by Indian television news by way of one-on-one interviews with important figures in the media and politics. The guests so far have included Bharatiya Janata Party youth wing national vice-president Madhukeshwar Desai; student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid; and elected MLA and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani. Over the next three months, he plans to upload five more episodes, but is unwilling to divulge the names of the guests; all he’s willing to say is that they’re “big", and the idea is to end this “season" with a bang before resuming some time next year, perhaps during the forthcoming Lok Sabha election. “I think if I keep doing this the way I am now, pacing myself, with the right guests at the right time, you’ll eventually see that future cabinet ministers, or at least leading activists, would have been guests on the podcast," he says.
One would think that people of this stature would only agree to be interviewed by a comedian with years of experience, whereas Kamra, incredibly, graduated to doing stand-up full-time only a year ago. He is dyslexic, which makes it difficult for him to read even long emails or status messages. Books are out of the question; by his own admission, he has never read a book, and he identified as apolitical until a few years ago. This anti-intellectual image hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of the most recognizable political comedians in the country, alongside the likes of Varun Grover and Sanjay Rajoura (whose satirical live show, Aisi Taisi Democracy, has been touring successfully since 2014). But it’s safe to say that Kamra is a good deal more abrasive. At last count, the five episodes of Shut Up Ya Kunal had cumulatively been watched over two million times (the JNU Students episode alone had around 1.1 million views).
Kamra scraped through school and junior college, and, without informing his parents, dropped out of college. At 17, he was interning at MTV with their in-house production team. A year later, he joined Prasoon Pandey’s Corcoise Films as a production assistant, where he worked for six years. By the time he was in his mid-20s, he had done it all: international shoots; producing ads for well-known brands; conducting high-powered meetings with representatives of big media organizations. He had earned enough to buy a home in Thane and a Skoda Fabia.
By this time, Kamra had begun to feel that stand-up comedy might be a good way to express himself.
In November 2013, he tried stand-up for the first time at Lower Parel’s Canvas Laugh Club and claims he brought the house down, but “only because everyone else was really bad". “My material was quite sexist…it was quite sad. What can I say—I’m quite ashamed of it now because I really should’ve been better informed." This past occasionally catches up with him. In January, an emotional outburst against a Republic TV report resulted in a wave of trolling that included screenshots of tone-deaf older tweets and his phone number being shared on public platforms; the latter forced him to deactivate his account for a month.
A fortnight before this interview, I watched Kamra perform to a packed audience at the 800-seater Rangsharda Auditorium in Mumbai’s Bandra Reclamation area. His 50-minute set was tight, the atmosphere electric, with fans hooting and cheering at profanity-laced punchlines that gleefully lampoon the current state of politics and TV news reporting. “Here’s the thing: I have this selfish need to look good while performing," he tells me. “That can only happen if I give it time—and by time I don’t mean sitting on the laptop and writing, but performing regularly and making it tighter and tighter until it is YouTube-ready."
Last year, after putting out three clips on his YouTube channel and continuing to fine-tune his live act, he felt the need to produce original content that stood out amid the glut of comedy specials and fiction web series being churned out by his peers. “I would never do the whole ‘sit down with another three-four comedians and have a chat’ sorta thing," he says. “I wanted it to have an opinion, have a voice… thhoda kuchh culture-shaping karna thha."
When contrasted with his live material, Shut Up Ya Kunal appears almost a journalistic exercise, in which an amiable Kamra has largely friendly and open conversations with guests on matters of governance and political discourse. While he makes the occasional wisecrack or pithy counter-observation, the humorous component involves the facetious insertion of news clips at appropriate moments.
The task of selecting these clips, as well as editing the episode, falls upon Verma, who also runs the popular satirical Facebook page Official PeeingHuman and works at film-maker Anand Gandhi’s Memesys Culture Lab. While Kamra conducts the interviews and gives suggestions on ensuring certain jokes land harder, it is Verma who shapes the episodes. “If he quits, the podcast is done—I can’t do it without him," says Kamra.
“It’s journalism-meets-comedy-meets-memes," says All India Bakchod co-founder Tanmay Bhat. AIB, the de facto trend-setters in contemporary Indian comedy, who dove into political satire in 2015 with their Hotstar show On Air With AIB, and Bhat praises Shut Up Ya Kunal for injecting some freshness into the genre. “The way it’s edited is so meme-like, with the cross-cutting, the crash-zooms. Not even (John Oliver’s) Last Week Tonight can do what he’s doing." He believes that Shut Up Ya Kunal is solid news programming. “News media in general has lost so much integrity," he says. “What Kunal is doing is calling them out, which is extremely important."
Kamra doesn’t think of himself as a journalist, as he has an “obvious bias", and isn’t sure he agrees what he’s doing has meaningful impact. “Let me be very clear—for me, Shut Up Ya Kunal is primarily interesting content that can help fill seats at shows," he says. “Yes, you can bring about awareness, you can help change minds, but it can’t be at the expense of not having good jokes."
It’s a peculiar contradiction: The same guy who insists he isn’t a “social warrior" also admits to sometimes bullying fellow comedians for not being political enough. When I probe further, he just shrugs and says: “Theek hai yaar, I get it. Everything is a choice. People tell me to do a lot of things, and I don’t do them either." But a lot has changed in the past year, and the people he has gotten to know have been reshaping his view of life. “See, for me to be even slightly woke, I am very handsomely paid," he says. “But guys like Umar Khalid give me perspective. Every time I think of backing off and just doing a podcast with a Bollywood star or something, I think, ‘Man, this guy is doing so much, aur main itna bhi nahin kar sakta?’ I should be ashamed."