Move over, prime-time shouting matches on news channels. The youth would rather tune in to satire shows to get their dose of current affairs.
Between ‘liking’ cat videos and memes, posting images of what they ate for breakfast and ‘checking in’ at the latest place to be seen at, something else has caught the fleeting attention of today’s young. Stand-up comedians have done what otherwise staid news presenters and over-the-top anchors failed to do: make current affairs relatable to the youth. The medium of choice here is the internet — where the youth practically live.
Satire shows, inspired by ones by international comedians such as John Oliver and Jon Stewart, have found popularity. Last year, one of India’s leading comedy troupes, All India Bakchod (AIB), launched a news comedy show on the content-streaming app, Hotstar. True to its tagline, ‘Tragedy mein comedy’, the show covered topics like the Vyapam scam and the Whistleblowers Act with humour.
Then, a video by another comedy unit, East India Comedy’s (EIC) Sapan Verma on student suicides got over 2,16,900 views. The video is a part of EIC’s Outrage series, where various issues like the water crisis, intolerance, and the beef ban are touched upon. “We try to be as topical and relevant as possible,” Verma says. “What works in our favour is our pace. We keep it snappy because the attention span of people today is two seconds. If we think there’s a lull in the video, we try adding a meme or a picture, switching where the punchline comes in, or just changing the camera angle,” he adds.
Mind your language
FilterCopy’s News Darshan series (hosted by Mithila Palkar of the viral Marathi Cups song fame) covered topics such as the Facebook Free Basics debate and the odd-even scheme in Delhi. The videos are often interspersed with clippings of Bollywood films and songs, which adds to the humour. News Darshan’s writer-director Kartik Krishnan says he was cautious about keeping the activist-y tone in moderation and amping up the humour and sarcasm instead. “I had to keep reminding myself not to fall into the trap of [providing] information only, because, if the youth were interested in that, Arnab Goswami and Ravish Kumar would have been their pop culture icons,” he says.
On these shows, there are no shouting matches, no droning on, and no demands of the nation wanting to know. Indeed, the videos work because they speak a language that the average, social media-savvy millennial identifies with. And what better than humour to critique the country’s state of affairs?
But while comedy is a great tool for initiating dialogue about issues that are otherwise too uncomfortable or often perceived as too complex or dry, there’s a flipside to it as well. Japleen Pasricha, founder of feminisminindia.com, a portal that deals with social justice issues in India, warns: “One needs to be careful when using humour for social change. It depends a lot on how grave the issue is, who the issue directly affects, and who the humour addresses. For example, humour used in the case of sexual violence or caste-based violence might just end up doing the opposite,” she cites.
For many, these shows have become a primary source of news. “Even though I was a journalism student, I wouldn’t open the newspaper,” says Verma, adding, “Now, people write to us saying they keep track of current affairs through our show. It’s especially true of those who live in hostels and in small towns. In fact, a lot of NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) too follow Outrage to keep up with what’s happening in India.”
Sure, former Visual Jockey and actor Cyrus Broacha and actor and host Kunal Vijayakar have been doing it for a decade with The Week That Wasn’t (now The Other Week That Wasn’t) but it’s only now that we’re seeing the trend of news satire shows catch on.
Internationally, the concept of politically-oriented radio talk shows saw a boost in the ’90s. While nothing of the sort really took off in India, we are following the steps of western stand-up comedians who popularised news satire shows in recent years. So, while That Was the Week That Was (London, 1964), one of the early ones on television may not be such an inspiration for today’s young comics, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight certainly is. The format is similar and Verma and Kartik cite the show as a reference point.
Not just talk
Last year, writer-lyricist Varun Grover, iconic band Indian Ocean’s member Rahul Ram, and stand-up comedian Sanjay Rajoura, came together to create a comedy and musical act called Aisi Taisi Democracy, which they toured with. Apart from socio-political diatribe against various things like moral policing and the pornography ban, they also launched a song called Mere Saamnewali Sarhad Pe. A spin-off on Mere Saamnewali Khidki Pe from Padosan (1968), it points out how India and Pakistan are similar, and questions why the neighbours can’t resolve their differences.
In doing that, creators of content for the web in India are doing something differently from the West. They are not only using satire and comedy, but music for political awareness. Sure, the history of music often goes hand in hand with making a statement, and being a voice of protest and liberation, but we’re taking that to the web.
In February this year, in the midst of the JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) controversy, two electronic dance music (EDM) tracks went viral. Chandigarh-based Siddharth Sharma (stage name Dub Sharma) borrowed audio from Kanhaiya Kumar’s slogans, fused it with a Punjabi folk song, and turned it into a track called Azaadi. Likewise, Delhi-based Akshay Johar (stage name Mojo Jojo) chose Umar Khalid’s speech and turned it into an EDM mix.
“I was infuriated by a few TV channels which overnight painted Kanhaiya into an anti-national, by repeatedly playing a badly edited video,” Sharma says. “I am not supported by any major label, which gives me the freedom to talk about anything I really want. I’m making use of my ability to voice my opinions,” he says.
By his own admission, Johar has never been actively involved or interested in politics, but with the JNU incident, he says he was especially moved because it hit close to home. “The socio-political climate in the country was in a state of flux, and a lot of people thought the government was handling matters with an unnecessary heavy-handedness. As an Indian citizen, I felt deeply troubled by how the situation was unraveling. Virtues like freedom of speech, expression and being tolerant were under fire.”
Once again, feminisminindia.com’s founder Pasricha provides the critical voice. “The problem with such songs is that although they go viral and trend for a particular period of time, they do not go beyond the ‘coolness’ factor. There’s a danger that they might derail the youth from the main issues that the activists (Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid) were talking about: freedom from casteism, Brahminism, feudalism, patriarchy and hunger,” she says.
At the same time, the fact that EDM is being used to spread political awareness is surprising. It’s a genre that’s a favourite among the youth currently. But it’s not a genre that carries with it the legacy of protest music — something which can be claimed by rap and folk music. Musicians have long used rap to express their angst against the system. One viral hit that stood out last year was Sofia Ashraf’s Kodaikanal Won’t. Based on Nicki Minaj’s My Anaconda Won’t, the song caused enough stir for Hindustan Unilever to financially settle the mercury poisoning dispute. “The fact that the workers have been compensated practically moved me to tears because I never thought that something that we did could actually result in change,” Ashraf told The New Indian Express.
The JNU controversy, it would seem, really got the musician’s goat. A witty spin-off of the iconic The Eagles song, Hotel California, called Welcome to Hotel JNU, also went viral. The track made fun of the various allegations and tags tossed around while reporting the events related to JNU. Sample these lyrics: ‘So I called up the krantikaari comrade… And said, “Please show me some national pride”. He said, “We haven’t had that feeling here since 1969”.’ Swarajya magazine even held a competition (giving out cash prizes worth ` 20,000) that called for readers to send in their own version of the song.
Today’s youth is often accused of being politically indifferent. Perhaps, it was just a matter of packaging content in a way millennials understand.
International news satire shows to track
Last Week Tonight by John Oliver
Oliver has a taken on everything. From Donald Trump (Remember the Make Donald Drumpf again campaign?) and transgender rights to Indian politics.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
The popular host quit the show after a 16-year run last year, but his biting social commentary still remains relevant.
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
Colbert’s take on American politics is as entertaining as his chats with guests on his show — Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, among others.
The Day Today by Chris Morris
Dark British humour characterises the show. “Those are the headlines.... God, I wish they weren’t,” Morris said in an episode.
The Late Edition with Marcus Brigstocke
Not just all things British, Brigstocke touched upon American politics and celebrities as well.