In Mahim, a Western suburb in Mumbai, a young boy of 14 would follow his father to his chemist shop, every Sunday. On careful observation, he would see him scan the customers and as many as ten times a day, suggest cheaper substitutes. "Sometimes doctors aren't mindful and for several reasons prescribe a brand that is priced much higher than another with the same compound,” he told his son when prodded about why he did this. “If I saw a guy who had the money I would take it but if it was someone who visibly earned less, I would suggest the cheaper alternative." For the son, this was a lesson in empathy. And he knew charity wasn't about shouting from the rooftops. It was to be restricted to off-the-record conversations.
Activism, on the other hand, was never part of the plan.
The boy grew up to be counted among the most successful stand-up comedians India has ever had. If Twitter trends are anything to go by, THE most talked-about comedian in the country. If you’re in India, you may love him, you may hate him, but what you certainly can’t do is ignore Kunal Kamra.
In the past year, Kamra has confronted TV personality Arnab Goswami on a plane, donated his YouTube play button to raise funds for RT-PCR kits urging several Bollywood celebrities to part with their prized possessions for the same, collected funds for masks and protective gear for Mumbai Police and been instrumental in taking down an abusive social media page by the name Hindustani Bhau. He has even texted news anchor Navika Kumar as a prank to draw attention to the media trial of actors like Rhea Chakraborty and Deepika Padukone.
He has done very little comedy this year, barring a 30-day series of online shows. Dressed modestly, seated on the floor in his apartment, surrounded by framed images of some of his favourite comedians, over a video call, he says, "It didn't work for me or the audience. I'd rather just wait it out”. And yet, he insists he is a comedian first, and in fact, no activist.
Comedy began in 2013 and he, like others at the time, failed to see the politics of a joke. There were jokes about Gujaratis and Punjabis, wives and girlfriends, BJP and Rahul Gandhi, often in a single set. There was no moral compass. Kamra's own political awakening wasn't going to come until a few years later. "Mine was like most Indian childhoods, you voted for who your father decided," says the 32-year-old. "In my case it was NOTA (None Of The Above, an option in the Indian electoral system that allows voters to not select any of the listed candidates). Much later I would realise that it is basically a useless tool. The Indian politics of voting is about choosing the lesser evil."
Like other comedians, he consumed the news for fodder. But, in 2016 something changed. "The Rohith Vemula institutional murder happened. That made me understand caste dynamics. And then JNU happened. I realised that if I was on that campus I would be part of the dissent. Basically, what happened to Kanhaiya (Kumar) or Umar (Khalid) or Anirban (Bhattacharya), could have happened to me or any of my friends. It gave me a broader understanding of things," he says. He began educating himself. "I saw Final Solution, Rakesh Sharma's documentary on the Gujarat riots, that led me to Anand Patwardhan's work which in turn led me to the student movements around the country."
In 2017, Kamra raked up over a million views with his YouTube video, Patriotism & the Government, with the famous hook phrase, 'Siachen mein hamare jawaan lad rahe hain… (Our soldiers are fighting in Siachen)'—a jibe at the statement commonly used by supporters of the ruling right-wing party to discredit criticism. "To their credit though, the current regime has made people more politically aware than ever before. I was perceived as far more anti-BJP than I was. For the first time people were coming out to defend a political party with such rigour. I knew there was something fishy, so I dug deeper. For me, it was no different from being vegan or a gym boy. I was just the guy with a clear stand on politics," he says.
Kamra strongly believes that it is the audience who decides a comedian's path, and that had been chosen for him.
In 2018 came Shut Up Ya Kunal, a popular podcast by Peeing Human's Ramit Verma. Here, Kamra interviewed politicians in an approachable and candid manner. The episodes would be interspersed with news clips and commentary that put the duo's own views and politics out there, unabashedly. There were elements of comedy, but overall remains fairly well-researched. An upcoming episode, will feature Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut, who has been in the news for his remarks about Kangana Ranaut's Twitter comments about Mumbai's safety. It is evident that Kamra has a pulse on the news and his largely millennial audience at all times.
His journey in comedy since 2017, could well be a timeline of Indian politics for the period, punctuated by major developments. Politics may be his forte, but he does not want to be categorised as such. "I call myself an observational comedian. Right now, I choose to observe the politics of the country, further on it may be something else," he says, adding that he refrains from the self- referential brand of comedy and that there is actually very little out there about him.
A New Leaf
That his Twitter timeline, his weapon of choice, has taken a new, more aggressive turn, is something Kamra refuses to notice, or perhaps, acknowledge. His ascent in public life has been as seamless as his rise in political comedy, even as meteoric. A single Tweet places him on the list of Indian Twitter trends in minutes and the attention (primarily hate) he receives is often disproportionate to the actual content of his comment. A harmless post about someone (Raja Vemula) looking for a job garnered over 500 comments, last we checked, and a majority of them were trolls (yes, we scrolled).
It may be preposterous to attach his arrival in public life to an altercation on a flight, but it is easy to see that something changed that day. On January 28, 2020, in a shaky video, Kamra was seen heckling Arnab Goswami urging him to break his silence on hateful commentary. It was an act that left him on the no-fly list of several domestic airlines including the national carrier Air India. He made the headlines at every major news outlet, but Kamra spoke little himself, releasing instead, an explainer video. "It wasn't a calculated decision. It was a heart decision. Being a coward was not an option. I wouldn't be able to face myself. I don't want to be just a Twitter warrior," he tells VICE. "I wanted to tell the world that we don't need to be scared of him." Goswami is among Kamra's favourite targets (he was recently seen at Republic TV's headquarters with Anurag Kashyap holding a framed award for him, featuring a slipper), but he insists that Goswami is only a metaphor for paid journalism. "Besides, he lives closest to my house," he says.
Varun Grover, comedian and writer, and one of Kamra's idols, tells VICE, "My first reaction to the episode was that he could have found a better way. But, then I realised that, that was his truth, his emotion at that moment and it came from a place of honesty." Kamra's act had left some of his fans divided, too, but not without comment on the harshness of the flight ban that followed. There were scattered reports of placards being held on Indigo flights (the carrier on the day), to protest the ban. Kamra also went on to slap a lawsuit against Indigo.
The ban ended, mid-pandemic, without any of the noise it came with.
Grover also observes that Kamra's videos this year have favoured the urgency and need to comment on a topic over production quality.
What Riles Him Up?
His timeline (on Twitter), is peppered with commentary/jokes on current events, retweets to amplify calls for help, and more recently, charity work and pranks. There are also brickbats including a recent one with Ranaut, and memes made on him.
Is there a method to the madness?
Kamra will have you believe there is none. A no-go then? "I try not to enter spaces where I'm co-opting another person's narrative. I would leave the gender debate to the women in the comedy scene. It is their space. I don't want to take someone's premise away," he says, relenting. Then again, he Tweeted vociferously to take down Hindustani Bhau, an Instagram page that threatened violence against fellow comedian Agrima Joshua.
For a long time, Kamra has received criticism for making no tangible efforts for change—for activism that often begins and ends with a Tweet. "I realise if you are not performative with the constructive work you do, it will never be acknowledged. I thought if this helps more people understand my work and point of view, then I'll do it. Personally, I am not a fan of doing charity publicly." He goes on to add, "I often joke with Kanhaiya [Kumar] saying, 'hamari dosti us din tootegi jis din tum Bihar mein kisi ko kambal dete huye photo khichwaoge (our friendship will come to an end the day you have pictures taken while distributing blankets in Bihar)'." It is for Kumar, friend and confidante, that Kamra campaigned in Begusarai, Bihar, during the 2019 polls.
Haters Gonna Hate
The fame and courage have often come for Kamra at great personal cost. Weeks into his first video, Kamra was getting death threats. Soon after, he was asked to vacate his rented apartment in the city for being a controversial tenant. He has had a handful of cancelled shows too. "Initially, it was difficult. But once you know how to negotiate with fear, it gets better. Earlier I would think about the repercussions if I said something. Now, I am ready to see what happens. That's the blessing of being an artist. Any experience I go through that has a larger point can be milked for comedy," he says. He now insists on a longer lease when renting an apartment. "Fortunately for me, Nikhil Wagle, the first revolutionary critic of Shiv Sena, stays in the same society. They've already seen the worst with him," he says in jest.
Grover believes Kamra’s fearlessness has inspired not just comedians, but other artists too. "Bravery is not just about dissent or being anti-establishment but also about being emotional publicly. Being naked and unashamed of baring your emotions. To be able to say, I am my art. Something Kamra is able to do," he says. Over time, Kamra has noticed that the trolls too have softened on him. "They know the more they attack me, the more I grow. Most of the hate I get now is genuine, not fabricated. In fact, some are very articulate in their criticism," he says.
Fortunately for him, his parents live a life, far removed from his apparent stardom. "They are spiritually inclined and quote religious texts to me. They are not on the internet and their world is very different from mine. My family doesn't come for my shows. Just because my work is in the public domain, doesn't mean it has to be discussed endlessly," he shares.
On His Own
Kamra has also, deliberately, crafted a career path that leaves him with little to lose. He doesn't partner with brands or platforms, or perform at corporate shows. He is no longer represented by an agency and runs his own house, so to say. He also has few friends among the superstars in the industry. Most of his collaborations feature younger, lesser-known artists. "I have no ambition, no financial goals. No celebrities are spotted with me. I am happy to just sustain myself creating content. What are they going to come for? My Aadhar card?"
He recalls a conversation with filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, one of the people behind his political awakening, where he said to the comedian, "Before you enter society you need to have a deep conversation with yourself about what is negotiable and what is not".
Sipping on a cup of coffee, Kamra says nonchalantly, "I had that conversation with myself quite early. Being unhappy is non-negotiable for me. And stand-up makes me happy".
Follow Prachi on Twitter.