For a while now, comedy on Indian television has believed that it needs to be inherently sexist, overtly misogynistic, largely homophobic and basically just banal to achieve primetime slots. OTT platforms, on the other hand, might be a bit more woke in their approach but when it comes to comedy, it’s not like they’ve had anything refreshing to offer either.
But a 20-year-old might just change the scene as we know it.
Saloni Gaur has a voice of her own, a world of carefully crafted characters, and an opinion on everything under the sun—from the U.S. politics to Modi taking a social media break, the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and television anchor Arnab Goswani to the Dalgona craze, and more. And though her teenage years ended just recently, she already knows what starring in her own web series is like.
In mid-November, on a Zoom call from Mumbai, Saloni Gaur is dressed casually, with a bookshelf serving as a backdrop. On display is Biksu, a graphic novel illustrated by Raj Kumari with dialogues by writer/comedian Varun Grover. The connection is patchy but Gaur is confident, witty and measured. You can tell she is used to interviews. The internet knows her as Kangana Runout, Kusum behenji, and most popularly, as the endearing and chatty Nazma Aapi, a character sketch of a thickly-accented Muslim woman from Western Uttar Pradesh. With over 500,000 followers on Instagram and 100,000 on Twitter, the internet star has become a household name in less than a year of her arrival on the scene.
Around this time last year was when she first tasted viral fame. A year later, we’re talking about her special Uncommon Sense that dropped on the streaming platform SonyLiv on November 6. Gaur doesn’t let the excitement get the better of her but last year, she couldn’t stop herself. “I was literally jumping in my hostel room when Zakir Khan sent me a message saying he had seen my video. My roommate didn’t know what was going on with me. I didn’t eat anything that day. It’s as if I had had my fill,” she recounts.
The video she is talking about, first put out on her Instagram on November 3, features Nazma Aapi talking about the Delhi smog. “I hadn’t put much thought into it. I had woken up in my hostel and looked outside. I could see nothing. I held the phone and started shooting without cleaning the front camera. It looked like I was sitting in the thick of the smog. The internet was slow and I couldn’t upload a caption. There were random numbers instead,” she says.
A few days later, while on a family vacation in Benares, a city on the banks of the Ganges, she learnt through her friends that the video had gone viral. “When you start getting your own videos on WhatsApp you know you have gone viral,” she says.
Life in a bubble
It was Gaur’s first brush with fame, followed by perhaps her first brush with life outside home. She spent the first 17 years of her life in Bulandshahr, a small town in western Uttar Pradesh, in a self-confessed bubble. There were no outings, no drama, and no family vacations. The younger of two siblings, Gaur’s life in school was ordinary, too. “There were no guitar players in school. Nobody was bullied. I came to believe bullying was a rich-people concept. Our life was very limited. We never participated in inter-city competitions either,” she confesses.
On television, it was the 10 PM news and on occasion, cricket and Hindi soaps. “I was the youngest in the family and quite pampered. But, some things I could never have, like the TV remote. My friends would be discussing Doraemon and Shin-chan in school while I had only watched the news on TV because it’s what my father would play,” she says.
It is also perhaps what left a mark on her, more indelible than she had imagined. She grew up to pursue a BA in political science and economics from the Janki Devi Memorial College in Delhi University. She waits for her degree as we speak.
Much like school, her college life turned out to be fairly ordinary, too. She auditioned for the drama society only to be rejected. “I was a fan of the film Raanjhanaa and thought college life was about street theatre and politics,” she says. Her classes were often hours apart and her travel to and from the hostel would take a couple of hours, too. She remembers being perpetually bored.
It is during this time, in 2017, that Gaur had begun exploring social media on her newly-acquired smartphone. To kill time, she started putting up videos that would talk about the mundane things she encountered, on the Delhi metro, in class and elsewhere. Humour comes easy to Gaur, as does inspiration, from characters that pervade her everyday life.
It began with familiar ones like Kusum behenji and Asha behenji based on two women in her Bulandshahr neighbourhood, followed by celebrity impersonations of actors, the popular Kangana Runout and Sonam Kapoor. And then came the internet favourite, Nazma Aapi, on Eid in 2018. She had views on everything from politics to film, cricket to the pandemic. She spoke to the camera and found ways to connect the subjects to her immediate life and household. It’s what Gaur admits, remains her ace.
The accent, though drawn from her hometown, was one she heard quite often in Old Delhi. “Until then I didn’t know it would find resonance elsewhere,” she reveals.
A rising star
Shubham Gaur, 25, her older brother, by now had established himself as a popular YouTuber and appeared in the TV series Hostel Daze. He had introduced her to the work of Zakir Khan (a hugely popular Indian stand-up comedian) back when she was in the tenth grade. Little did he know that his sister’s dreams would go on to feature him. While encouraging of her pursuits, he wasn’t prepared for her breakout moment. He wasn’t even following her on Instagram. “She would tell me when someone big shared or commented on her content. I knew it was going somewhere but I didn’t want to say much. I didn’t want her to be disappointed in case things didn’t work out. I didn’t imagine an OTT special in less than a year,” he tells VICE.
Gaur, on the other hand, had her eyes set on comedy early, but imagined an uphill path with a day job in banking and evenings in comedy clubs. She has only performed at college festivals so far and is uncomfortable being referred to as a stand-up comic. It is the video medium that remains her home, where she slips in and out of her world of characters easily.
She had also begun preparing for these banking exams despite her disdain for mathematics. She knew she had to do it her way, sustaining herself in a city while working towards her passion.
Following her viral moment, Gaur got to work. She began posting more frequently, with consistency and talking about issues that were less personal and more public. “Earlier I would work without a script. Some jokes would land and some wouldn’t. But then I had a bigger audience and I could no longer spend as much time arriving at a joke. Every line had to have one,” she says, “Kangana Runout was only a voice until then. Now I had to show my face. So, I quickly bought a wig on Amazon even though I now think it barely resembles her.”
The lockdown factor
Once juggling college, exam preparations and her videos, Gaur’s respite and for that matter, fortunes, came through the lockdown. She arrived in Bulandshahr for a Holi break ahead of it, and never returned to college. “I came with two T-shirts and couldn’t go back. My last semester and exams were both shifted online,” she says.
With time by her side, she began posting more frequently on Instagram. In fact, she would put out a video every single day. Her audience, hungry for entertainment in an unprecedented pandemic, was lapping it all up. Nazma Aapi and the wig-donning Kangana Runout had become a regular feature on the country’s otherwise infamous WhatsApp groups. Something she admits may not have happened as swiftly without the lockdown.
Shortly after, she received a call from SonyLiv. “I assumed it was for promoting a show. But, they were offering me my own,” she says recounting her disbelief. Her brother, Shubham, who was now managing her work, put together a team of writers and before she knew, she was shooting in Mumbai.
The format takes off in part from Jaspal Bhatti’s iconic Flop Show, a satirical show that aired in the early 90s on the national broadcaster Doordarshan. Divided into three segments, the first episode features a stand-up act, a sketch and one of Gaur’s popular characters, in this case Nazma Aapi. She admits she hadn’t watched Bhatti’s show, released much before she was born, until the writing team discussed it.
The ongoing 20-episode series will feature many more of her characters and include new ones created for it. Gaur won’t go into details of those. One of the things she wanted to do with the new format was act on the criticism from her fans, of her videos being too short, often under a minute. The first episode of Uncommon Sense is 20 minutes long.
The production quality and viewing experience is far from impressive. The slice-of-life segment invokes a 90s nostalgia but fails, in most parts, in the humour department. The gaze admittedly belongs to the writers. In the first segment, Gaur experiments with the stand-up format and does so with ease and a sure-footedness one would associate only with experience. Except, the jokes are delivered without pause, often without a moment for laughs. It betrays her inexperience in front of a live audience and is perhaps the one disadvantage of taking the OTT route directly. It is in the third segment that Gaur truly comes into her own, inhabiting the characters Nazma Aapi and Bhavika (a dig on news anchor Navika Kumar) with effortless charm. The writing here is crisp too and the humour more in line with her social media videos.
The path ahead
Only time will tell if her show will retain the characteristic small-town charm of her characters. Her world differs from that on set where she is the star to that on Instagram where she is a one-woman-army. But a show doesn’t mean she will let her followers down. She posts videos, only a little less frequently. It is no wonder then that the internet won’t give up on her. On Instagram, she went from 50,000 followers in early March to over 500,000 this month.
High praise doesn’t stop with Zakir Khan and other well-established comedians routinely comment on her videos. “She’s cut through the clutter, she’s certainly here for the long run and I’d be lying if I said I’m not envious of her work,” comedian Kunal Kamra tells VICE.
Gaur herself isn’t sure what the long run holds for her. For now, the show has become the centre of her universe. And yet, she does see herself performing to a live crowd, outside the confines of a college. “I watch stand-up comedians and I see that they are all so refined. I am nowhere near there yet,” she says. “I’d like to start from scratch and do it well”.
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