Kunal Kamra ruffled a few feathers but says he shouldn't be taken seriously

Kunal Kamra
In his mannerisms, Kunal Kamra affects a bit of a “slowcoach” persona. Bearded, bespectacled, balding and often smiling as he slouches in his burly frame before small audiences, the stand-up comedian looks the kind who is ready to regale friends with his wit, but lazily.

He uses his Mumbaikar Hindi, with its potentially funny drawl, to crack politically loaded jokes that are thoroughly enjoyed by a loyal, albeit niche, following. But in the process, he has also earned disapprobation. Earlier this year, he was asked by his landlady to vacate his house over “political issues”. And recently, a university in Baroda cancelled his show for being “anti-national”.

“I think I am a comedian, and you shouldn’t take me seriously. It’s just a joke. That’s what I’ve always said,” the Mumbai-based comic says.

Comedy is no laughing matter in India, where taking umbrage at the funny and not-so-funny is second nature to one and all. This has become particularly endemic under the current political dispensation as public opinion has been polarised to an extent where dissent is equated with a lack of patriotism. For Kamra, though, it has meant an irresistible goldmine in the everyday tragicomic events and incidents that lend themselves easily to political satire.

The television media and the political classes are the biggest sources from which he mines his comedy. When probed, he replies: “I can’t make sense of them, so I make fun of them.”

He explains that if a legislator is quoted as saying that all intellectuals must be shot dead it is impossible for a comedian to not joke about it. Or in the case of the media, a prime-time discussion on a mere tweet by a politician is fodder for humour. It’s similarly laughable for him to be branded a communist when his show got cancelled, since he owns EarPods and a car that Marx wouldn’t approve of.

Born and raised in Mumbai, the 30-year-old was always sure of what he didn’t want to do. His parents run a pharmacy, and he has an elder sister. After enrolling in a BCom course he dropped out of college, convinced that it was a “waste of time”. He then started working, first with an event management company doing promotional activities, then with MTV as an intern, and finally for a decade with an advertising production house called Corcoise Films. At 25, he started doing stand-up and open mic, and began to follow the news more closely.

“I still don’t know what I really want to do. But I found that telling jokes is fun,” he says, adding that after keeping track of news stories he felt, as a privileged person, the need to contribute more to a healthy discourse. When starting out, the likes of Anuvab Pal inspired him with storytelling, while Varun Grover and Sanjay Rajoura — both of whom are part of the comedy collective Aisi Taisi Democracy — gave direction to his thoughts.

Two years ago, the suicide of Dalit PhD student Rohith Vemula, which bared caste discrimination in education, made Kamra aware of his privileges.

"A student killed himself for being treated the way he was only because of his caste and his views. There was an institutionalised shutdown on any sort of dissent coming from one stratum. It felt like Rohith Vemula killed himself for this conversation to reach the unaware, privileged people in society... and of course it did reach us. All of us,” he says.

For him, the selection of material for poking fun changed. Unlike three years ago, he is no longer interested in joking about a Salman Khan or an elite class to underline what ails popular culture. It’s more challenging to have a stab at the majoritarian way of life, as it needs to cater to the most informed and intelligent heads in the room. “To make them laugh you require more knowledge and skill. It takes more time.”

Kamra is of the belief that stand-up is “alt culture” and the key to it is not a populist act in a sold-out stadium. He prefers addressing a few hundred viewers, and feels every comedian who has a voice attracts an audience, however small. “It’s just about going out and finding ‘who are my friends and who would laugh at my jokes’. All comedy starts from making your friends laugh,” he quips, adding that no one in a live audience has ever been offended by his act.

Besides performing two-three shows in a week, the comedian has also gained popularity on YouTube with his show, Shut Up Ya Kunal. In a handful of episodes he has interviewed young student leaders and politicians, mediapersons and a lawyer, making comic use of memes and news clips to convey his subversive message. This, too, may rile the establishment and right-wing supporters who routinely troll him. He dismisses them as noise.

Putting content online is also a way to sense the mood of his audience and their reactions. It helps to air something fresh whenever he notices a dip in ticket sales for his shows, he admits. “Humour is either funny or un-funny. I think no further segregation such as observational and non-observational is needed. The most fun is to go on stage, telling a joke and getting that validation from strangers.”

His close friend Ramit Verma, also his flat-mate with whom he watches prime-time news, acts as editor, creative director, content researcher and “the guy who delays every episode” of Shut Up Ya Kunal. Verma also discusses meme ideas with Kamra for the former’s Facebook page titled “Official PeeingHuman”.

Verma describes the duo’s partnership as being as successful as that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah. “I guess what drives us both creatively is the need to challenge authority and question the actions of those in power. It gives me immense satisfaction because making fun of powerful people humanises them and breaks their self-constructed godly image,” he says.

Political comedy remains a niche segment, and stand-up comedy itself is largely confined to big cities. Rajoura of Aisi Taisi Democracy says Kamra has gone the extra mile as a stand-up comic with Shut Up Ya Kunal, which he calls part-journalism, part-talk show, inviting interviewees who ask questions and are anti-establishment. “It’s not getting a lot of success, I would say, but he’s talking to the right people and making the right noises, and using humour to even tweet and call people out without being disrespectful.”

Rajoura feels the caste, gender or mainstream politics of stand-up comedians in general are suspect, as they come from an elite metropolitan background, though things may change in another 10 years. “Media comprises people from an upper caste or elite background mostly. So, media doesn’t want to change the status quo. The same applies to comedy.”

After a point, tragedy becomes funny, he says, stressing that earlier governments also suppressed people and freedom of expression. “The current government’s actions haven’t made anything worse for an upper-caste Hindu man like me. So, I will speak up only when I realise that I have undue privileges and some sections are suffering more and more.”

For Kamra, a simple wish is to carry on the good work and continue living a “chilled” life.

“What I express may or may not shape culture, but I just want to speak my mind. Individualism is something India doesn’t understand. I stand for myself, yeh public kabhi nahi samajh sakta (people won’t ever understand that),” he laughs.