AIB: A cold roast?

The AIB Knockout saw the group falling short of meeting the unprecedented standards of Indian comedy set by themselves
Shazia Nigar Delhi 

The YouTube video of the All India Bakchod Knockout, as the roast featuring Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh is called, starts with a note of caution: the “following video is filthy, rude and offensive”. It was, but not just in a way that gets to the waiting-to-be-riled right-wing (as it already has – the Maharashtra government has said it will investigate the show for obscenity, prompting the makers to take it off YouTube). Having set the bar for Indian comedy several notches higher, AIB itself fell quite short of meeting it this time around. The AIB Knockout was inundated with jokes laced with the trite and banal - the kind of humour Bollywood and Indian television abound in and precisely the kind AIB has circumvented previously. 

The past few years have seen comedy emerge as a powerful art form in India and the AIB (namely, Ashish Shakya, Tanmay Bhat, Gursimran Khamba and Rohan Joshi) has a lot to do with it. Television affords space only to the likes of a Kapil Sharma, whose humour falls back on the heterosexual male template – an unceasing feature in his show is a male dressed as a female who is not only the constant butt of jokes but his appearance as a cross-dresser itself is calculated to generate laughs. Or, he often resorts to attributing feminine characteristics to a man as a means of questioning his ‘manliness’. The Internet has given Indian comedians a space to push boundaries - of Indian morality, practice of politics, and simply as an art. Social media has created a cusp between freedom of expression and access to a ready audience that has spawned a comedic culture hitherto unknown in India. This escalation of interest in the genre could never have been possible with stand-up acts travelling from one pub to another. There have been political parodies, satires and sketches by various groups like AIB, TVF and East India Comedy that have tackled subjects like sex education and mocked politicians who were until now only subjected to mild raps in newspaper editorials (unless they were participating in a shouting match against each other on a certain television show which could well have been a roast). 

At the AIB Knockout fat, dark-skinned and gay emerged as the theme for the evening by default. This was unbecoming, not just because these subjects are easy targets (so is sex or dropping the words ‘fuck’ and ‘c--t’ in a country rife with abuses on the streets), and hence the humour was lazy, but because they reflect an unhealthy obsession with body image, being fair-skinned and heterosexual. 

Karan Johar, introducing Shakya, says, “If you were any blacker, Angelina Jolie would adopt you.” Another one aimed at Shakya’s skin colour was “Ashish Shakya is so black, his mother screened him for ebola when he was born.” These were just two of the several jokes targetting dark skin that evening. Usually, AIB would be the one puncturing the myth of the ideal skin colour and not cracking racist jokes. “I would like to thank everybody for coming out tonight and Karan for not. Karan, let’s just address the elephant in the room. What’s up, Tanmay?” was a conflation of a fat joke with a gay one. True, the gentlemen these jokes were directed at took them in the spirit of a roast but, as a fan, I expected better. Especially considering that AIB itself has used humour to tackle homophobia. The group’s sketch, “It’s your fault”, mocking rape culture and its practice of victim blaming, featuring Kalki Koechlin, went viral, even making it to Policy Mic’s list of top feminist moments of 2013 along with Malala Yousufzai, Tina Fey and feminists who stood up against the anti-choice abortion Bill in Texas. It is lamentable, then, that one of the jokes that got the audience roaring with laughter was: “Parineeti Chopra is not here because we told her she would get fucked by 10 dudes in front of 4,000 people. Karan is here tonight because we told him he’d get fucked by 10 dudes in front of 4,000 people.” What also pulled the humour level a notch down was how repetitive these jokes were. 

Cussing was funny in elementary school. Swear words contained a novelty element because they had to be whispered when we first encountered them but they lost their charm soon enough. Hence, watching a bunch of grown men throwing abusive words at each other is hardly humorous. Of course, uttering ‘fuck’ or ‘c--t’in public can lead to charges of obscene behaviour (as it unfortunately has) and is considered beyond the threshold of Indian morality, and hence there was some flexing of that boundary there. But it certainly wasn’t funny. 

Despite this, there were several witty and chuckle-inducing moments. There were quips about the industry that were refreshing, being funny but also because they trod territory that Rohan Joshi, putting on an uppity filmi accent, remarked on: “Why are they saying things here that we say at parties?” Film critique Rajeev Masand threw this at Johar: “Look at Karan being openly mean to me, I guess you don't have a movie coming out anytime soon, huh? Karan, you joked about how you pay me for good reviews. Here’s a thought - you wouldn’t have to pay a critic if you actually paid for a decent f*****g scriptwriter!” Bhat said,Karan Johar, why do your movies pander so much to the NRI audience? If they pander to the NRI audience more, I’ll have to call you Narendra Modi.” 

In subjecting itself to a roast onstage and even as an audience at whom the jokes were targetted, Bollywood has come a long way. Usually uptight about subjects like sex, homosexuality or being mocked at (remember the AIB video that resulted from YashRaj Productions not being able to take a joke or two?), it was refreshing to see actors show a capacity to laugh at themselves and the industry. Nepotism in the industry, a no-go area until now, was also subjected to a few barbs. Arjun Kapoor went down on his knees when Rohan Joshi sent “It takes a special something to be the least talented member in the family that has Sonam and Sanjay Kapoor” his way. 

The AIB has been at the forefront of the comedic subversion India has witnessed in recent years. They have parodied the prevalent attitude of homophobia or victim blaming in cases of sexual harassment, daring to go where performance artistes in India have not ventured before - not just in the topics they have selected, but also in mocking what probably constitutes their audience. While they have set high standards when it comes to social satire, they have also dabbled successfully with musical comedy and political satire. Their take on Indian Mario aka Mukesh (there is also a reference to Anil so, yes, Ambani) pokes fun at Indian superstitions (force-feeding curd for good luck), people’s daily hassles with auto rickshaws, the corrupt cop (who is quick to run for a selfie with Salman Khan after his car runs over Mario) and caste, on the basis of which the Brahmin king, replete with a white string across his torso, denies his daughter’s hand in marriage to Mario, compelling the couple to elope. The animated video ends on a happy note a la a DDLJ ending. 

Political satire, until now limited to puppets imitating politicians in newsroom studios within acceptable limits, dished out in musical formats (Thank you, Dear Congress) or taking on references from popular culture (AIB Quickie M.I.T.R.O.N. – a reference to the popular ’90s TV series F.R.I.E.N.D.S.) transgressed a critical impunity, stemming from fearful reverence, enjoyed by politicians such as Modi or Sonia Gandhi. AIB, while expanding the capacity of Indians to laugh at themselves, did so intelligently. Not just because they chose to work on socio-political themes but because they deviated from the stereotypical tropes of gender, class, obsession with a certain body type, skin colour and homophobia. Instead of laughing at gay men, they took up the challenge to reverse the comic in the given situation. In their sketches, homophobia is funny, not those who are homosexual. What we experienced was the cultural power of the comedian to mock and hence identify the absurd that surrounds us. In doing so, they created a safe space to reflect on and understand issues of earnest gravity. And this is precisely why the AIB roast featuring Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh was a washout, albeit not a complete one. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2015