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The internet is increasingly helping Indian comics to challenge cultural norms, writes VIRAT NEHRU
Indian audiences have recently welcomed their very own version of a John Oliver-style satirical current affairs show. It’s called On Air with AIB and will feature ten episodes, each lasting around 23 minutes.
Oliver is a hot commodity right now, with everyone trying their hands at recreating the success of Last Week Tonight, albeit in slightly different ways. Australia’s answer has been in the form of The Weekly with comedian Charlie Pickering at the helm.
Satirical current affairs programs aren’t new to the Indian media landscape. Jog your memory and you remember Movers & Shakers, a hark back to late-night American television talk shows, replete with a band and a corny laugh track. There is also The Week that Wasn’t with Cyrus Broacha that’s been on the air since 2006 – long before the John Oliver craze took hold – and is a nostalgic nod to BBC’s Not the Nine O’Clock News.
What’s exciting about On Air with AIB has less to do with its content and more to do with its mode of delivery. The episodes will air first online at hotstar.com in both English and Hindi on Thursdays, making it accessible to the Indian diaspora around the world, and will be subsequently telecast on television on weekends.
This might seem like a simple case of adopting a more digital friendly attitude and embracing technological change in terms of the mode of delivery of content. However, the embracing of digital platforms, especially by India’s latest comedy outfits, such as AIB, represents a conscious shift in addressing the global Indian diaspora.
This new wave of Indian comedy has forever altered the nature of India’s cultural landscape. This generation of comics represent a more self-aware consciousness, acutely aware of the absurdity and hypocrisy that surrounds Indian society. No subject is off-limits and the boundary between the public and private sphere, which has continued to govern what is ‘acceptable’ and what is not in public discourse for so long, is finally becoming blurry.
The emergence has been as rapid as it has been radical. In the past three to five years, we have seen the emergence of numerous comedic outfits that have challenged and/or subverted Indian cultural norms in their own way. Names such as AIB, The Viral Fever, East India Comedy, SnG, The Humour Beings, Pretentious Movie Reviews, Son of Abhish and others have quickly established their very own niches and fanbases and are invariably shaping and re-shaping the dynamic sensibility of a global Indian identity.
This new wave has chosen the online platform as their mode of address. Being a ‘YouTuber’ is no longer a scoff-worthy enterprise, being a legitimate career-option for many as they compete in the online market space. The ‘internet’ which has always remained somewhat dubious for the previous generation – much like the quotation marks encompassing the word – is a natural navigation tool for Gen Y. The online space is a more attractive option for audiences today as opposed to traditional forms such as television. Platforms such as YouTube have allowed online personalities to grow and become internationally known brands in themselves such as Superwoman aka Lily Singh.
The online platform also circumvents a rather sinister problem. India hasn’t really had a proper debate around the concept of freedom of speech. It’s more like a buzzword that gets thrown around whenever convenient. There are absurd laws regarding censorship around broadcast, for example, silly statutory warnings about smoking and drinking in films and beeping of words that might imply vulgarity. Seeing a simple PG-rated sitcom such as Friends where half the utterances are beeped out on an Indian channel is simultaneously the most hilarious, but also the most depressing thing ever.
Let’s say your intended product survived these Kafka-esque censorship laws with some sense of the original essence still intact. There is no guarantee of smooth sailing even after this nightmare. If your product discusses any aspect of religion, politics or reference to any particular community residing in India, chances are there will be a police complaint lodged against it. And that’s just the nice scenario.
The internet, however, is a nanny-free zone. The new wave of Indian comics have lapped up this opportunity and have been quick to disseminate messages that challenge the status quo. Everything is open for discussion. And these ideas are not just reaching Indians in India. They are reaching the Indian diaspora.
The swift pace at which these outfits have been able to establish themselves and gain loyal audiences is a testament to the fact that this debate around freedom of speech and ideas is one that needs to happen in order to re-define Indian identity.
Of course, this kind of radicalism doesn’t come without its challenges. Earlier in the year, AIB did a ‘Roast’ along the lines of the Comedy Central Roast, with Indian celebrities Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor. Despite having an age disclaimer at the beginning of the video, they were forced to take it down from their YouTube channel after much sensationalism and public furore.
But the seed was sown. The Roast cropped up surreptitiously on other online platforms. Love it or hate it, you could no longer avoid it. Nor could you avoid the bigger debate around freedom of speech anymore.
So whether you’re an Indian in India, Australia or anywhere in the world, this radical new wave will sweep you along with it. The progress of On Air with AIB and the success of other similar ventures will invariably shape a more global and self-aware Indian identity.