Jitendra Kumar wouldn’t have been an actor had it not been for a ragging session in college. Now, he’s the web series star who famously faced off with Arvind Kejriwal, dressed as Kejriwal
The sign of a good college campus is its hostel — a chance to live away from parental supervision, amid friends and peers. The folk at The Viral Fever (TVF) — a production house best known for web series such as Pitchers, Permanent Roommates, and Tripling —have a hostel hangover.
While the office in Andheri is called a Campus, and resembles the hallways of a college — 20-somethings hanging out, smoking, sipping coffee — TVF’s “writer’s lounge” is pretty much a two-bedroom-hall-kitchen apartment in an adjoining residential building, where the content creators ideate. Obviously, this is the equivalent of the hostel.
The set-up makes sense. The core team is from IIT Kharagpur: a group of boys who switched from engineering to create content for the web. The only thing they hang on to, and that binds them, is a sense of college.
Jitendra Kumar (26) is one of the prominent actors to have emerged from TVF’s camp. We meet him at the Campus. He, too, is one of the engineering boys, whose struggle with English would lead him to the Hindi drama club at IIT. And the road would, unwittingly, lead right here.
When you see Kumar, it’s tough to reconcile the man with his now-famous avatar of Arjun Kejriwal: a parody version of Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal. Kumar comes across as shy; far from the assertive personality of a politician. But it’s only when we switch to Hindi, that he comes into his own.
Mocking Kejriwal, with Kejriwal
Kumar grew up (in Khairthal, Rajasthan) practising mimicry as a child: from Nana Patekar to Amitabh Bachchan, he was able to pick up body language and tone with ease. In college, that would translate to boisterous parodies of actors for hostel entertainment. But he never considered it a real talent. Until, during a more recent reading session for another show, Barely Speaking with Arnub ( TVF’s actor writer Biswapati Sarkar’s parody of Arnab Goswami), he impersonated Kejriwal.
“Kejriwal has a peculiar pitch and mannerism. I picked it up while watching his interviews, particularly the one with Arnab Goswami,” says Kumar. His avatar — complete with a blue sweater, a muffler, the bushy moustache, and the signature coughing — was instant YouTube gold. The video has 5 million views till date. But the bigger testament to its popularity was that Kejriwal himself took notice, reaching out with a face-off request ahead of the 2015 Delhi elections.
The general tone of the show is a roast. And Kejriwal was, surprisingly, sporting about the insults hurled his way. “He didn’t request any cuts. We shot the video in under two hours,” Kumar says. The face-off clocked another 4.2 million views.
And, overnight, anyone in India with an internet connection knew about the man who’d impersonated Kejriwal.
The English barrier
The Kejriwal act holds personal significance for Kumar. Not only because of the internet fame it brought, but because both he and Kejriwal rely heavily on Hindi. “His English has a Hindi twang, just like mine. I am a Hindi-medium student whose first brush with English wasn’t until college,” he says.
He’s now at ease with the language. He even knows it’s his strength. But it wasn’t always this way. When he joined IIT, he was insecure about his struggle with English.
So, in addition to the fat engineering books, Kumar bought English textbooks as well. Things didn’t go as planned, however. Kumar was once ambushed in a college ragging session, where his seniors demanded he perform an impromptu English elocution act.
He was handed Al Pacino’s lines from The Scent of a Woman (1992), and asked to recite. Kumar had never seen the film, and he didn’t know the context. “The seniors insisted I give it a try. So, I read it slowly, without emotion,” he says.
His peers laughed, but his seniors were impressed by his courage. They also recommended him to the Hindi drama society. This is where Kumar met Biswapati Sarkar. Sarkar would, years later, invite Kumar to join TVF in 2012.
Even at TVF, Kumar started as a misfit — the concept of sketch comedy (TVF’s signature content) was alien to him. “I’d seen funny Bollywood films before, but thematic comic videos were entirely new to me,” he says.
He took it as a challenge, and shot for Munna Jazbati, a 2013 TVF video that went viral with 2 million views. Kumar plays an overly sensitive corporate intern who breaks down at regular intervals.
He’s come a long way since. Today, he stars as the lead in Tech Conversation with Dad, a sketch comedy series where he plays a son who has to patiently explain the mysteries of new technology — online shopping, Twitter, finding the cheapest mobile internet plan — to his father. You see the appeal, of course. Each video has over a million views.
In real life, Kumar says he lacks his character’s patience. “I cut the call when my father starts asking too many tech questions. So he’s now appointed four of my friends back home to help. They abuse me for it,” he says.