All India Bakchod: Changing India…One Gag at a Time

The  following excerpt from my travel diary describes a meeting I had with Vijay Nair, the CEO of Only Much Louder, and Rohan Joshi, one of the key performers from the comedy troupe, All India Bakchod, which occurred early in my time in Mumbai and informed my understanding of how digital media and popular culture were working together to change political discourse in the country.

We were taken to the headquarters for Only Much Louder, former industrial space which is being adopted to the needs of a creative company, while preserving at least some elements of its old atmosphere. The company’s director and founder Vijay Nair told us the story of how his company was helping to transform Indian popular culture. Nair had started out while still in high school managing some local bands – mostly rock and heavy metal. He said at that time most bands in India were doing cover versions of western rock performers, but he began identifying artists who were trying to develop and perform original material, especially in college campuses, and he sought ways to support their efforts. His promotions were very much aided by the emergence of the internet which allowed artists and fans alike to learn more about performers who might previously have been known locally but would not have been able to develop a national following. The web supported communication across scenes, and he began to provide these artists with management to help give them the business support they needed. Gradually, the company also began organizing concerts and music festivals, became a production facility to help them make music videos, and became its own record label.

He had what struck me as a very enlightened attitude towards copyright. He said that there was a long history in India of the retailers being very slow to pay the labels for the records they sold (if they paid at all) so the revenue from record sales could never constitute the primary income stream for his artists. As a consequence, they embraced the web, giving away much of the music for free and trusting their fans to help publicize and distribute it, counting on live event revenue and sponsorships, rather than retail sales, to sustain them. He said, “piracy was the best thing to happen. Our fans took over our distribution.”

Along the way, he also observed a shift from performers doing rock only in English to more artists performing in Hindi and other local languages, which also helped to differentiate alternative artists from the commercial mainstream. In 2010, they started hosting music festivals which now travel city to city, exposing audiences to new and established bands, and further building up the music scenes.

But around this same time, the company started to branch out to work with comedy and Youtube stars. He described the dramatic growth of comedy performances in India, with his stars going from small venues to large concert halls in a matter of two years time. Much of the energy here, he suggested, came through the platform which Youtube gave to these comedians. He gave me some sense of the comedy traditions of his country, which were highly localized until the rise of the web. He talked about local theaters cultivating a troupe of comic poets who would do satirical verse about contemporary developments, but who would be so grounded in local references, vernacular languages, etc., that they would be almost incomprehensible outside of their local community. There were strong traditions of comedy grounded in imitation and mimicry with a strong focus on parodying regional and caste differences. He referenced the introduction of a comedy competition, the Great India Laugh Challenge, which gave some of these local performers a chance to compete for more national visibility.

But he felt that YouTube has had an enormous transformative impact on the audience for comedy, creating a new generation of personalities who had followings across the country. Most of the audience, he said, still comes from the top ten cities in India – very urban based, not yet penetrating the small towns, but definitely having an impact on youth culture.

Comedy still is heavily gendered as a male profession, but there were some emerging female performers, and he said that Youtube was also having an impact in terms of Indian audiences accessing U.S. based female comics, such as Sara Silverman, Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, etc., which is exposing people to the idea that women might have their own distinctive comic contributions to make to the culture. Much of the stand-up comedy was modeled on British and American performers, so it was done in English, though he is seeing a rise in performances in Hindi and other regional languages, following the pattern of localization he had previously observed with rock bands.

The comedians are performing at some risk, because free speech is inconsistently defined, and there can be legal consequences for jokes that ruffled the feathers of powerful people or which make fun of religious beliefs in particular. Yet, despite or perhaps because of this, comedians were playing important political roles in India, speaking about issues that are not being discussed within mainstream media, and becoming a force in shaping how young people in particular think about the political process.

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Around that time, we were joined by Rohan Joshi, who is part of All India Backchod, a group which has been at the center of much of the debates around comedy in India. Parmesh had shared with me an interesting article which used their fights with censorship to illustrate the shifting limits on what comedy could or could not address in their country. And the article led me to a feature length documentary,I Am Offended, which centers around the struggles of comedians in India to deal with both formal and informal forms of censorship, an issue which has also drawn increased interest here in the United States.

AIB had done a “roast” of several Bollywood stars, one of the first public examples of this well-established genre of comedy performances in India, and the response from the public had been enormous, reaching many million viewers via YouTube, but then they got complaints from the government about some of the material included, especially some of the comments about sexuality and religion, and they were forced to take the videos down from their own Youtube channel though it continues to informally circulate through many more dispersed networks. It is hard to remove something from circulation once it has gained a life online.


The Roast of Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh… by AlllndiaBakchod

I had been warned we would be meeting Rohan so I checked out some of their videos online yesterday morning. Many of them are in Hindi without subtitles, so I was not able to fully comprehend the comedy, but here’s a link to a video depicting what an Indian version of Mario Brothers would look like, which was visually oriented and thus largely comprehensible to me (even if some of the local references fly over my head).

Rohan noted that within India, he reached an audience much bigger than any comic reaches in America or the UK, so he asked why he would want or need to “globalize” his address: he felt his success came in articulating an Indian perspective on world events. AIB has been fearless at tackling controversial political issues. One of their first videos to really get on people’s radar, “It’s Your Fault,” dealt with rape culture in India and had women repeating some of the absurd statements made about rape by various Indian public figures (male and female).

AIB also played an important role in reshaping the debate in India around Net Neutrality, an issue which, as in the United States, got almost no media coverage. The government was very quietly calling for public comment on the issue and they were inspired by John Oliver to produce their own comedy video explaining the issue to the Indian public and encouraging them to weigh in.

And the group has continued to rally support and educate supporters at each twist and turn of this complex regulatory process. Here, for example, is a more recent video which further elaborates on the various ways that Indian telcomms had sought to misinform the public about what net neutrality meant. What a bunch of pineapples!

Rohan noted that their net neutrality  videos were produced in English, albeit in simple English that could be understood by those with limited comprehension of the language, because they wanted it to be seen across the nation. They said that they moved between English and Hindi as the dominant language for their work depending on what felt most organic to a particular project, and that it was not uncommon for Indian comics, much as in everyday life, to code switch sometimes in the same sentence. Ultimately, they were able to get 1.2 million people to send in their responses to the government in support of net neutrality and thus helping to shape the policy that emerged.

Both Vijay and Rohan described a vision where they would help to create an alternative media channel, largely crowd-funded, in order to get around commercial constraints on free speech and which would help to mobilize young people of all classes to get involved more directly in reforming the political system. Crowdfunding was a new model in India, with Kickstarter only tapping the top few percent of the population. A major obstacle was that the use of credit cards was still not widespread in the country, where cash based exchanges are the norm, but they were seeing e-commerce sites allowing more people to place faith in credit card exchanges online, which they felt would pave the way for more widespread interest in the crowdsourcing of entertainment content. For now, their content production is mostly supported by brands and by the revenues from live performances, which is why the kind of management they provide is so vital to these rising artists.

Around this time, Parmesh pushed me to share with them some of our recent work, and I talked a bit about Civic Imagination, the Harry Potter Alliance, The Nerdfighters, and the use of the superhero motif in various immigration rights struggles, all of which interested them greatly. We got into an interesting set of exchanges about what might be the Indian counterparts for these efforts, and they identified two projects in Indian politics which were using the superhero motif in particular. Rohan shared the example of a particular political figure, Arvinnd Kejriwal, who suffered from Ashma and who tended to wear rather unfashionable mufflers around his neck, which had made him an object of ridicule from the political opposition. His supporters turned this around by dubbing him “muffler man” and creating a series of videos which used superhero imagery to suggest the muffler was the source of his super powers.

Our discussion shifted more generally to the political culture of India, which they saw as characterized by a certain degree of cynicism, but within limits. They said the basic deal was that all politicians were corrupt, so the public wanted them to “eat” from the public trough but “get shit done,” and the outrage was directed at incompetence far more than corruption. They also said that political engagement was very much class-based in India but in a somewhat counter-intuitive way. The upper classes did not vote because they did not want to be associated with the corruption of the political class, where-as much of the politics was directed towards the common classes, which really cast the deciding votes in most cases. They argued that recent campaigns, though, were using social media and even transmedia tactics in ways that were reaching the attention of young people from the upper-classes and pulling them into the political process. The result was not necessarily a more progressive politics but was changing the political style, including the rise of a generation of “cool” or “hip” young political figures who were themselves using comedy or willing to engage with comedians in getting their messages out to the world. Needless to say, I found this entire discussion VERY interesting.

Through my engagement with Indian students via the LOUD tour, I came away by the end of my trip with an even stronger sense of how important AIB had become at merging the worlds of comedy and politics. Most of the audience seemed to recognize AIB and knew about their videos, and for many of them, AIB played much the same role that the Daily Show performed in U.S. undergraduate culture. AIB, like the Daily Show, consistently calls attention to the foibles of the mass media and especially of the news media, as might be suggested by this video, “The Great India Media Circus.”

The proliferation of screens in the talk television segment seems particularly target at Arnab Goswami, a conservative talk show host, more or less in the same vein, as Bill O’Reilly, but pushed to the Nth degree. Here, you can see what has become perhaps the most famous segment on Arnab’s program, where he talks through and hectors a guest who dares to challenge his presentation of the facts. Arnab’s “Never, Ever, Ever…” has become emblematic of the voice of mass media in India, and would generate easy laughs when I referenced it during my talks.

Ironically, I had a chance to have a brief conversation with Arnab, during a conference hosted by Twitter in Mumbai, and I found him to be charming, soft-spoken, and thoughtful off-camera. Remixing Arnad is a popular pass-time in India and I incorporated this example in many of my talks as I traveled across the country — a way to illustrate the collision between old and new media that is helping to shape political discourse around the world.

As we were leaving India, AIB released a new video,”Unoffended,” featuring Arnab, and speculating what would happen to mass media if the world decided to be reasonable rather than shouting at each other. This adds yet another layer to my argument about the interface between AIB/Remix Culture and Arnab/Mass Media.