Why Kunal Kamra’s “Bold” Satire Stands Out in the Age of Bollywood’s “Apolitical” Stars

Pop Culture

Why Kunal Kamra’s “Bold” Satire Stands Out in the Age of Bollywood’s “Apolitical” Stars

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

With Lok Sabha elections announced to begin next month, the country is suffering from a serious case of election fever. Members of Parliament are jumping ship in the run-up to the battle, switching parties with the same frequency that the rest of us change our chaddis. Allegiances between parties are being forged and broken faster than you can say “Mahagathbandhan”, and every politician is competing for who can make the least believable promises to voters.

But you know it’s election season when stand-up comedian and enemy of the state, Kunal Kamra, releases a video. Kamra is known for his challenging, truth-to-power approach to comedy, couched behind a diffident, bemused onstage persona. While his gift for articulating what many of us think about politicians has won him plenty of fans, Kamra’s refusal to recognise sacred cows has also garnered him criticism, and worse. As Kamra detailed last January in a long Facebook post, he was evicted from his apartment for his spicy political commentary; he claimed that show organisers routinely ask him to tone down his jokes, or worse, cancel his sets at the last minute.

Clearly, Kamra is not one to stay down for long. In this latest set, he wonders why we should bother with PM Modi as “middleman”, when mega-industrialist Mukesh Ambani could simply run the country himself. Besides the allusion to the too-close friendship between the pair, Kamra pointed out that Ambani would be an incorruptible politician because he’s too rich to bribe. He also said that Nita Ambani as First Lady would be an improvement over BJP leader Amit Shah — taking a dig at PM Modi’s own scandals over his estranged wife, and at Shah’s reputation for thuggery.

Kamra doesn’t pull any punches when it came to the PM’s overactive PR machinery either. Using a cricket analogy, he described how everyone, from the opposing fielders to the umpire, would hype up PM Modi if he came out to bat — until finally, the commentator would insist that PM Modi scored a century off of three balls.

Despite saying that he actually likes PM Modi, Kamra is taking sides, and has never pretended to be unbiased. But as the slate at the end of his video says: Kabhi raat ko 9 baje ki news dekhe ho? In this day and age, is there anyone who doesn’t have a partisan agenda, and who hasn’t picked a side?

In recent days, PM Modi has put out several calls urging the nation to get out and vote, using his Twitter clout to spread this positive, democratic message far and wide. Everyone from Congress President Rahul Gandhi to actor Bhumi Pednekar was encouraged to share and promote voting among youth.

But Modi did send out a special message to his Bollywood #baes, Ranveer Singh and Vicky Kaushal, tweeting: “Many youngsters admire you. It is time to tell them: Apna Time Aa Gaya Hai and that it is time to turn up with high Josh to a voting centre near you.” This isn’t the first time the Modi government has referenced the dialogue from hit film Uri: The Surgical Strike, which glorifies their 2016 military operation. And Gully Boy star Ranveer has gotten pretty cosy with the PM. Of course, both men are well-documented huggers. But Ranveer has since mentioned that when they met, the PM advised him and other actors to make films that promote unity and an “inclusive India.”

The entertainment industry has been all too happy to pick a side, churning out a series of jingoistic political films that have been perfectly timed to line their pockets in an election year.

Based on Bollywood’s latest efforts, however, they require no prompting to speak out, both vocally and through their work, on behalf of the administration. The entertainment industry has been all too happy to pick a side, churning out a series of jingoistic political films that have been perfectly timed to line their pockets in an election year. Besides Uri, we’ve got patriotic costume drama like Manikarnika: Queen of Jhansi, and Akshay Kumar’s upcoming Kesari. The Accidental Prime Minister provided us a uniquely awful glimpse into actor/BJP husband Anupam Kher’s hammy attempts to act like former PM Manmohan Singh. And even though the PM is still in office, we can look forward to both a biopic, where he’s played by Vivek Oberoi, and a web series called Modi on Eros Now.

In our vast and diverse democracy, is it really possible for every filmmaker, writer, and performer to have this same rose-tinted view of the country? Obviously not — and yet here we are, surrounded by a single, and singularly lucrative narrative that is beyond question. Someone like Kamra, who dares to challenge that status quo, is exactly what we need. Aside from a handful of commentators like Aisi Taisi Democracy and ROFL Gandhi, fewer and fewer entertainers have the space to express their political views, hemmed in by troll armies and humourless leaders.

Look at Ranveer, who despite his friendship with PM Modi, claimed to be “apolitical” when asked about the Gully Boy song “Azadi”, stripped of most of its biting, anti-establishment commentary. Perhaps that’s why Kamra’s light-hearted digs at the government and its followers seem bolder than ever before. We’ve seen voices of dissent, or even calls for tolerance and peace, being drowned out by cries of “anti-national”. As Kamra mentions, the ascent of Narendra Modi from CM, to PM, to the unassailable human embodiment of “dharam”, is truly impressive. But he also quotes the PM, who famously said that criticism is the backbone of democracy.

As public figures, from cricketers to Bollywood stars, trip over themselves to prove their allegiance to the government, Kamra highlights just how undemocratic our political narrative has become.