For comics around the world, every performance is an act of courage; to stand-up in front of a room full of strangers and elicit a laugh is no easy feat. But for Indian stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra, performing his material involves an entirely different kind of bravery.
Kamra is known and loved for his anti-establishment humour that has won him wide acclaim while also making him an easy target for detractors, hard set on demonizing critique and dissent. Over the years, he has used his art to call to attention the many shortcomings of those seated in power with jibes and punchlines that have gone viral among his worldwide viewership. While abuse and death threats have become a quotidian matter for the outspoken comic, he recently made waves, capturing national and international headlines for confronting a popular Indian news personality on a flight for which he received a swift four airline ban without due process.
He performed for the first time in Kuwait this past weekend accompanied by talented opening act Garv Malik, at a stand-up event organised by Philosophy Brand and Marketing. Filling every seat in the house, Kamra received a warm welcome, rousing applause and uproarious laughter. Through his humorous take on current issues, he offered both moments of contemplation and catharsis for Indians in Kuwait, frustrated and disillusioned with the state of affairs back home.
Speaking to the Arab Times on the sidelines of the event, Kamra describes his journey into comedy, his turn to political humour, the condition of stand-up comedy in India today while also commenting on some pertinent political issues.
Arab Times: Can you start by telling us about when you first started doing stand-up comedy? How easy was it to break into the scene at the time? Are there any barriers to entry for newcomers today?
Kunal Kamra: I started comedy when it was fairly young in India, just three years old. My first open mic was on Nov 25, 2013. It was fairly easy for me to break into the scene, my first paid gig was in 2014 and I started travelling to other cities to do stand-up in 2015. I put my work out on to the internet somewhere around 2017, and since then I have been a full-time stand-up comedian. I quit my day job in 2018.
My journey has been very easy compared to the usual hustle and what people go through abroad. I come from the first batch of comedians so I benefited from that push. Now comedy is a cluttered space and you have to be very unique to viral out. Most of my colleagues today are aiming for that virality and are putting themselves out there and they are doing a great job of it. But what I am noticing as a trend is that personalities are going viral and people are latching on to the person more than the art which sometimes worries me.
So while it was fairly easy for me to break into comedy now the space is getting tighter and the younger comedians are feeling more pressure, the space is feeling more cluttered, they feel that there is too much competition. But I truly believe that there is enough space for everybody and the internet is a great leveller. As long as you can switch on the front camera of your phone and relate with people, you will sail through. If you are being honest to your own self and communicating via your art which has honesty, it will hit a cord. These are the rules that I’ve followed for my life and that’s what worked. Follow the heart. It is so basic and stupid but follow the heart.
AT: In the pantheon of great comics, whom do you most admire?
KK: Varun Grover, Aditi Mittal, Sanjay Rajoura and Anubhav Pal are my favourite comics from India, I love them a lot. Internationally, I really admire Doug Stanhope.
AT: When and why did you make the transition to political comedy? What were the initial reactions to it?
KK: The Rohith Vemula case in 2016 was when I became political in life. Before that I was just a voter. That case made me enter politics and understand my privilege and understand how compromised the marginalized communities of India are and how unaware and clueless those of us sitting in urban cities are about this. Rohith Vemula’s suicide was a wake-up call. That is when I got political and my comedy found a purpose. For now I am a political person, 60% of the stand-up I do is political, 40% is just stories about my life which don’t have anything to do with politics.
AT: How do you deal with the challenges that come along with doing political humour – from criticisms, evictions to show cancellation and death threats?
KK: My master had told me one thing that has always stuck with me – Life begins when fear ends. Fear has ended for me. There is no fear because there is no malice on my side. So why should I be scared of anything? I am following my heart and speaking my mind.
I neither care for criticism nor for validation. What I care about is the source of these. There are people whose work I am interested in, invested in, people who are invested in me and who matter to me, these are the select few that I show my work and videos to for their critique. They are not all from the same political spectrum and they give me a fair judgment of my work. I have tried to look for objectivity in the comment section of my videos for a year and realised that it is a waste of my time so I will never do that again.
AT: How open are your peers in comedy today to criticize the government?
KK: My peers, if they get a feeling organically, do speak out and if they don’t get a feeling organically, they don’t. But I would like to tell you that being an artist itself opens you up to so much vulnerability and just by creating good art and excelling in your field you are doing enough for society especially to your immediate family and people around you. You change the opinion of many of what comedy is, what the space is, it is not a rock and roll life, people go on the road and work hard. I have only admiration for those who choose this path. If they speak up or don’t, it’s on them. They are good-hearted people and they do speak out when they feel the time is right. Ultimately it is a matter of choice and we are all wired differently.
AT: When performing internationally, do your jokes track as well with Indians living abroad as they do back home? Do you find there to be a lack of context or information?
KK: I think my jokes do cater to Indians living abroad but more-so to those who are rooted in India i.e. a first generation Indian. The third generation Indian would watch and relate better with comics like Aziz Ansari and Hassan Minhaj. But if it is a first generation Indian, then everything I say would hit home very well with him because India is fresh on his mind. For the second or third generation Indian, India is just an idea.
What I have noticed is that in my international shows, when people buy a ticket, they come with a basic level of information of who I am and what they are buying a ticket for. There has never been a loss of information. I have had good and great international shows, I am yet to have a bad one.
AT: How have on-demand entertainment platforms impacted comedy in India? Is there a Kunal Kamra special in the works?
KK: On-demand platforms have impacted India very positively. There is a lot of business that they are generating for comedians. I was featured on Amazon Prime show One Mic Stand with Shashi Tharoor. About putting out a comedy special, I don’t think it depends on me. I just don’t feel confident enough right now to hold your attention on the screen for 60 minutes. I think I’m funny in ten minute clips and in my live shows. But I don’t know how to make you emote through a screen and hold your attention for those 60 minutes, that is still a struggle for me. When I have a product ready, I will put it out and if there is a platform that accepts it, I will be grateful to them. If they don’t, I will upload it on YouTube and if viewers like it, they can pay for it.
AT: Let’s talk about your video podcast Shut Up Ya Kunal – how did that come about? You’ve had guests on the show from the BJP. How easy is it to get them to participate and what has your experience with them been?
KK: Shut Up Ya Kunal is co-owned by me and Ramit Verma. He has shaped Shut Up Ya Kunal and is the guiding light on the programme. The format and programming has been co-created by both of us. We are equal partners. We both had different ideas and we came together and created this property that has developed a cult fan base that enjoys watching episodes and they are very curious to who is next.
I’ve had guests from BJP on the show, it wasn’t easy to get them but they were all nice to me. Nobody was rude or unruly towards me. Once they are on board, they understand that I come from no malice and no political affiliations and then the process is smooth. When I open up with them and the mask is off, it is smooth. Maybe they didn’t like the final edit that was put out but that’s fine.
AT: You take shots at the ‘modia’ a lot. Do you think real news and informed opinions stand a chance against the regime’s vast machinery of propaganda and distortion in India?
KK: I do take pot-shots at the ‘modia’ a lot of the time because that is the easiest way to attack somebody where you communicate everything but you are attacking the institution of media, so it is less risky. There is a vast propaganda machine distorting facts in India and they have a large distribution. We are nothing in comparison to who they are. The criticism of my craft, art, personality or lies about me, have reached far more people than my work has. So you have to give it to these guys, they are super-organised and if they decide to mess with you, they definitely can.
AT: You participated in a YouTube Live of 2019 Election results. What was your takeaway from that experience?
KK: My takeaway from that experience is that I will never ever do it again. If I am emotionally rooted in an election I will never ever face the camera on that day. That was pathetic. People still make memes about it and I laugh at myself looking at those videos totally ashamed of how vulnerable I am. So I am not going to do that again. I am going to enjoy the election results with my friends and have fun on that day next time around, in happiness or sadness.
AT: As someone who is often brandished as being anti-national by your detractors, what does patriotism mean to you?
KK: I think patriotism is a fabricated feeling because you do not choose your country so it cannot be inculcated in you. There are some things about your country that you should love organically. I love India because I truly believe that she is a beautiful country. Others also must fall in love for their own reasons not because some political party is asking you to.
Why I am in love with India, is totally different from why the next person is in love with India. But I truly love India and that is why I am here. We shouldn’t let someone else fabricate patriotism for us, it has to come organically. Go around India, meet its people, explore its rich and vast culture, admire the warmth that a stranger would show you. Let your patriotism be rooted in your experiences, not in history or narratives, not in the future or past, but just in the today. That is what I believe when I talk about patriotism.
I have been called anti-national many times. Weak minds need to put labels on people because it is easier to identify them. Just like all the products are kept in one shelf in a shopping market to simplify, Twitter is a marketplace for opinions. So when you are in such a marketplace you will be called a name because the person you are dealing with is weak-minded who will not understand an individual nor does he have an individual identity of his own. So he will bash your individuality and just call you anti-national and other names.
AT: Do you feel that the current opposition to the CAA, NRC and NPR is a turning point in India? What can Indians abroad do to be better informed?
KK: I think the opposition to the CAA, NRC and NPR is a turning point in India but I don’t know which way it will go because the distribution the party in power has and the narrative the party in power has is consolidating their vote bank while the opposition in India is just trying to save their political structure. The heroes of this movement are the students of India, they are doing a great job by organising themselves and that is why they are rattling both the political structure of the establishment and even the opposition.
Indians abroad can be better informed if they consume news from multiple sources to ascertain the truth for themselves. Don’t trust one news outlet, watch at least two.
I must state that I totally oppose the CAA, NRC and NPR policies because they are just a backdoor entry to make our country more polarised, more communally divided, to make people fight in their homes and outside of it. It is not a good idea. Our economy is in shambles and that’s what we should be discussing.
AT: What is your hope and outlook for the next decade for yourself?
KK: I’ll continue doing what I did this decade. I have been in the business seven years. I have been a follower of the heart most times, the mind sometimes. In the next ten years of my comedy career, I will follow my heart more, and mind, less. The decade after that, I will only follow my heart and just avoid the mind.
AT: I would like to end this rather arduous line of questioning with perhaps the most pertinent question in India – do you eat mangoes?
KK: Aam ke daam itne badh gaye hai ki main khaa nahin pa raha. Aam ho gaye hai mehenge, main aam nahin khaata, dost. I don’t eat any mangoes because the mangoes have become very expensive. I will eat mangoes when everybody in the country can buy and enjoy a mango. Otherwise, I denounce mangoes.
Fresher Thoughts by Kunal Kamra was organised at Philosophy, a 360 marketing agency who provide brand and image consulting, advertising, social media & PR and events. Philosophy aims to be pioneers in inviting artists that Kuwait hasn’t seen live. For more information on upcoming events, visit www.philosophy.com.kw
By Cinatra Alvares
Arab Times Staff