For Gursimran Khamba, being funny is serious business. He and his comedy group All India Bakchod (AIB) court controversy and tackle taboos in India through a range of skits and parodies that challenge viewers’ opinions. And according to Khamba, it couldn’t have happened without YouTube.
In his Spikes Asia session, entitled ‘Create Content That Matters’, Khamba explains how he founded AIB in 2009 with fellow comic Tanmay Bhat during the emergence of a new trend in India; subversive stand-up comedy performed in English. There was just one problem; they couldn’t get gigs anywhere.
Turning to YouTube enabled AIB to carve out a brand new space where they could create content without asking anyone’s permission; “Even if you were to do 200 shows a year, and at every show you had 1,000 people, that is still less than what one YouTube video can give you.”
While it’s quite ordinary for western comics to lampoon politics, pop culture and social issues in their material, it’s less common in India, where mainstream media companies are reluctant to raise their heads above the parapet. Progressive, liberal voices tend not to get exposure for a number of reasons; some broadcasters don’t want to offend viewers, or they are fearful of regulatory authorities, or they simply cater to the broadest tastes possible. Khamba recalls the balancing act of trying to find an audience while simultaneously dodging censors. “You want more people to see and hear your jokes,” he says, “but at the same time, you don’t want too many people to see and hear your jokes, because that’s when you get in trouble with the government.”
Six years later, AIB are the top native YouTube creators in India, with over 1.3 million subscribers. “In 2009, if you wanted to go to a stand-up comedy show, you would not know where to look,” says Khamba. “Now, in most major cities in India, there is a show happening literally every day.”
But to AIB, comedy isn’t just about making people laugh. Khamba calls it “a form of cultural resistance,” and believes that there is more freedom in stand-up to talk about sensitive subjects like politics, religion and sexuality than in any news broadcast or movie. He highlights this with three examples of AIB YouTube videos that use humour to address social issues facing modern India.
It’s Your Fault
The ‘It’s Your Fault’ video is a parody PSA in which two women dictate the various ways in which victims are responsible for being raped. The clip is presented largely with a straight face, and uses real-life quotes from Indian politicians to showcase the genuine problem of rape and victim-blaming in India. It received widespread press coverage thanks to the presence of Bollywood actresses Kalki Koechlin and VJ Juhi Pandey, and provoked conversations globally, with other countries requesting translated versions. ‘It’s Your Fault’ is not something you would ever find on a mainstream Indian television network, says Khamba, but that doesn’t mean it can’t force the mainstream media to cover it, and confront these issues.
India’s First Roast
In order to raise money for charity, AIB adopted the popular American comedy format, the roast, and roped in celebrities Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor to be torn apart in the ‘AIB Knockout’. As the entire point of a roast is to be as offensive as possible, AIB knew that YouTube was a more natural home for the video than TV. However, that didn’t stop a number of people complaining about the content, and AIB were eventually forced to take the Knockout down — but not before it went viral.
Six months later, a mainstream TV channel decided to co-opt AIB’s idea, and air a ‘family-friendly’ roast, because they realised this was what people wanted to watch. Khamba believes this just proves his point; that comedy can move the goalposts of what is traditionally acceptable. “On YouTube you can create content that will not find a place anywhere else,” he says. “Push boundaries, so much so that you can actually force your mainstream media to adopt a version of it, so it becomes legitimate… This is unheard of in a country like India.”
Save The Internet
AIB’s ‘Save The Internet’ video takes the net neutrality debate, which has received little to no airtime in the Indian media, and places it in the hands of consumers. It plays on popular tropes, like the fact that almost everybody hates their telecoms provider, but also educates people on the importance of an equal internet and freedom of information.
With the help of a couple of laughs, ‘Save The Internet’ got viewers comfortable with a new topic and drove engagement in a policy conversation which will inevitably affect everyone in the country. Just another one of the ways in which “one YouTube channel, run by four comedians in Bombay” can make a difference.