By Manik Sharma Sep. 22, 2022
In his prime Raju Srivastava was a brilliant observer and possibly mainstream cable television’s first brush with the heartland.
T here were two Raju Srivastava’s the world knew of. One, who introduced the average middle-class family to the idea of stand-up comedy and the other one whose decline after his shot to fame was rather uncultured, at times, even difficult to watch. Chances are most of the country will remember him for the former. Artists are never not divisive and while separating their art from their personalities remains a continuing quandary, in the case of Srivastava, his early days of stardom represent the opening up of the Indian drawing room to the idea of collective, laughter. A country that was well-trained to cry together, had possibly never laughed the way it did after Srivastava introduced us to ‘Gajodhar’ on the stage of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge.
A country that was well-trained to cry together, had possibly never laughed the way it did after Srivastava introduced us to ‘Gajodhar’ on the stage of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge
Most legacies are fraught with complexities. For every starry exterior there is a man or a woman we’d rather not know the most intimate sides of. Srivastava was revolutionary in some sense, bringing to the average, urban household – the laughter challenge was on cable and not Doordarshan – a view of the heartland. From his Bhojpuri accent, to his embodiment of characters located outside the sophisticated purview of the cities, Srivastava liberalised access to an art-form considered remote, maybe even unknown. It’s also important to consider this happened in the shadow of a televised transformation. NRI films and daily soaps had turned the average Indian family into the chaste Hinglish speaking elite who lived inside whitened castles, populated with fair-skinned people with vague unspecified businesses.
Gajodhar, a fictional character created by Srivastava, was a breath of fresh air. A man on the outside of mainstream urban culture, looking in with a sense of wonderment. There was, you could argue, a form of rebellion, even angst in Srivastava’s comedy. From acutely observed media commentaries, to empathising with the unprivileged, the comedian did it all. Then there was his relatability.
Srivastava’s legacy is a complicated one. Not just because he did crass, problematic jokes at the time, but because with his decline he also became resistant to change.
My father’s generation has possibly never been woke, nor linguistically evolved enough to accept the new wave of comedy as its voice. He still likes his Kapil Sharma, and to him and my mother, the first season of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge represented a significant, even if underappreciated moment in history. Unlike Indian Idol etc, it was this reality show that my father looked forward to, possibly because it rescued him from the minutiae of a life, weighed down by the pressure of responsibilities. In fact, Srivastava, in his view – and mine too – deserved to win that first, iconic season of the show. The fact that he didn’t but remained eminently popular still possibly says something about his reach.
Srivastava’s legacy is a complicated one. Not just because he did crass, problematic jokes at the time, but because with his decline he also became resistant to change. Generational handovers are never smooth in the creative industry, but in this case it was ugly and at times, quite frankly, offensive. That, however, cannot diminish the significance of what Srivastava accomplished, the many doors he may have inadvertently opened for artists sitting in small towns wishing to ascend the brightest, and broadest stages in the business. Today’s comedy scene, is in comparison, ruled by elitist city kids who frequent open-mics with the consistency of a bad joke that will force you to admit it is good. Srivastava on the other hand, had once chance – on cable tv and he took it with aplomb. Most importantly, he though he took it without abandoning his roots or his linguistic handicaps.
From his Bhojpuri accent, to his embodiment of characters located outside the sophisticated purview of the cities, Srivastava liberalised access to an art-form considered remote, maybe even unknown.
A lot of people might today box Gajodhar as a stereotype, marginally reflective of a people, but in Srivastava’s imagination he was also a man curious to look beyond the walls of both class and privilege. From asking awkward questions about the habits of Bollywood stars to remarking, rather disarmingly, on the political decadence of the Indian state, Gajodhar was surprisingly intuitive, channelling rather casually, a distaste for corrupt systems and practices. Unfortunately, with time, Srivastava probably stopped listening to the angst that had given birth to his early, class-querying comedy that disappeared down the spiral of political co-options. Ultimately he echoed the kind of middle-age denial that we see in our parents. It all makes sense then that he represented a generation that can only find humour in a certain kind of joke, that though not always politically correct, is perhaps the only way to represent the slide, out of ‘touch’.