LOLing on the web

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Funny men’s Inc. Packed house at an All India Bakchod performance
Funny men’s Inc. Packed house at an All India Bakchod performance

Arvind Kejriwal, the Delhi chief minister for 49 days, tweeted that it was “an interesting song” and senior Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Yogendra Yadav said he “loved this take-off on Arvind bhai!” Kejriwal was referring to a video doing the rounds on YouTube, called Dharna Dance, feat. YoYo Kejru Singh. The video, a spoof made by comedy collective All India Bakchod (AIB) on Kejriwal and his brand of dharna politics, had gone viral. But, there was a difference.

Despite the seriousness of the subject, the video was funny and enjoyable. Yadav’s tweet was on Nayak 2, The Common Man Rises, another AIB parody on Kejriwal’s now-slightly-dimmed but then bright-as-a-640-watt-bulb political trajectory. Both videos went viral and has since taken social media by storm. Just like the time Gangs of Social Media, an exquisite parody of the film Gangs of Wasseypur by TVF Qtiyapa, part of the online entertainment company TVF Group, suddenly became the rage on YouTube.

And it’s not all about funny videos. Sahil Rizwan, 26, is the founder of thevigilidiot.com, a website that enjoys cult status among those looking for Bollywood reviews with a slight twist. Rizwan gives his reviews in the form of stick-figure comics that are as witty as they are irreverent.

The one thread that runs through all these individuals and groups is the way they have tapped the online medium to showcase content that may otherwise have been shut down by authorities in the print or television industry. The other common thread, of course, is their ability to see the funny in the mundane and the serious.

For 30-year-old Arunabh Kumar — “late 20s, yaar,” as he says — it is this love for the funny that made him found the TVF Group. Intriguingly, he has given himself the designation of Creative Entertainment Officer (CEO). A BTech from IIT Kharagpur, Kumar worked briefly as a research consultant on a US Air Force project, before realising that media was where he really wanted to be. He became, he says, a “media vagabond,” with an insatiable hunger for producing fresh content. A string of assignments followed, including a job with Red Chillies Entertainment, an advertising agency and even a phase of independent documentary making. He also created a show for MTV, which he claims, wasn’t made in the way he had imagined it to be.

At every step, recounts Kumar, he was met with what he calls “creative inertia” — a stubborn resistance to any kind of change in content. That’s when he decided to set up The Viral Fever, or the TVF Group. He says he envisioned it then to be the Indian counterpart of Disney or HBO, and he is pleased with the pace with which the group has grown in the little time it has had. However, when he started out, TVF was mostly producing music videos and corporate films, and though they were well ahead of the times in terms of production value and aesthetics, Kumar’s heart was set on making entertainment shows for television that could appeal to the youth.

He met with cynicism every time he went to someone with this idea. The kind of TV shows he had in mind were “too intelligent” for the Indian youth, he was told. Kumar went ahead and made them anyway. The next step was to reach out to the masses. And YouTube turned out to be the most amenable medium for this. He formed the TVF Group’s online entertainment division and created different YouTube channels to disseminate content that ranged from political parodies to social satires. One of the first such channels was Qtiyapa, which was launched on 21 February, 2012.

With Rowdies, a parody of MTV’s popular reality show Roadies, Qtiyapa pretty much propelled TVF to instant stardom in cyberspace. It registered over a million views in less than five days. Qtiyapa has since consistently produced parodies that brilliantly portray various facets of society through humour.

Recently, to celebrate its 10th anniversary, Facebook came out with a feature called Look Back that allowed users to make a montage of their favourite and most popular posts and pictures. Recycle Bin, another of TVF’s YouTube channels, came out with a parody that showed what Facebook’s “Look Back” could be like. Internationally renowned online entertainment company College Humour included that video in its list of best Facebook “Look Back parodies”. The fact that all this content is available only online doesn’t bother Kumar. “These days, most young people would not really sit in front of a TV,” he says. “They want to watch a certain kind of content on their own time. That’s who we want to serve: the progressive urban youth aged between 18 and 30. And they’re all online.”

For AIB’s Gursimran Khamba too, the online medium is the best platform to showcase his brand of humour. The 27-year-old is one in a quartet that forms AIB. The other three are Ashish Shakya, Rohan Joshi and Tanmay Bhatt, all in their late 20s. Khamba’s acerbic commentary had already made him a rage in the blogging circuit before he made a successful foray into the stand-up scene. After getting his degree in journalism from Delhi University, Khamba was all set to pursue his masters abroad, but was forced to stay back because of ill health. That’s when he started blogging.

Eventually, one of his posts — an open letter to Indian tennis star Sania Mirza — went viral. In the letter, Khamba blasted Mirza for her marriage with Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik. Subjective it might have been, but the manner in which his angst (and presumably of many others) came through, riding on outrageous humour, ensured a big fanfollowing. Soon enough writing assignments from various media houses came his way. After a while, Khamba started out as a stand-up in Delhi. One of his ideas was to start a series of podcasts about comedy, where informed conversations could be had with fellow comedians. “I wanted to build an archive of conversations with people who have influenced Indian comedy or were directly associated with it,” he says. “The idea was also a reaction to the fact that you can’t really say much beyond a point on Indian radio, which is a medium I enjoy. Likewise in print, any interaction is also likely to be edited. Unlike the West, where there is a culture of podcasts of comics interviewing other comics, in India, we don’t value our comics at all.”

Khamba eventually moved to Mumbai, where he studied at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). It was also in Mumbai that he met Shakya, Joshi and Bhatt, and AIB was born sometime in the year 2012. But, does AIB want to make TV shows too, or is it happy being just an online medium? Khamba answers that quite candidly. “There are so many regulations in India that a multi-million dollar network will not risk getting into s**t because of four guys,” he says.

With such a huge ecosystem of humorous content online, free and accessible to all, there comes the obvious question of monetising it. But Khamba, for one, is not thinking about that, at least not yet. “We make our living off the stage, not online,” he explains. “The online platform helps us reach out to people we would otherwise never reach out to. Most people watch us online and then come to see us live. So, monetisation if any, is mostly an offline process.”

Kumar too says his company’s most profitable division has been TVF Live, which is the branch that conducts entertainment shows across major youth spots in the country. YouTube, or the online media in general, is primarily “the means to an end”, a way to connect with the right audience.

The Internet it seems, remains the most conducive place for comedians looking to push boundaries. Says Rizwan, “Online is the only place where people can just go all out, isn’t it? No censors, no one to hold you back. Especially in the context of our country where people get offended by things as trivial as books or tweets. For comedy to truly work, it needs to be no-holds barred, which is why the Internet is so awesome!”

Emerging comics, do take note.

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