The sari pallu is pulled over demurely, a red bindi is centred on her forehead. Neha Singh Rathore looks directly into the camera and croons: “UP me ka ba? UP me ka ba?” This is a song, a satire, and a challenge: what’s going on in Uttar Pradesh, it asks. By Rathore’s account, not much. The Ganga overflowed with bodies during the pandemic, the Hathras rape victim awaits justice, and communal friction stains the air. The rhetorical question “UP me ka ba” is the refrain that runs through the song. “If there is unemployment, inflation, exploitation of women in our society, I want to convey it to ordinary people and the government through Bhojpuri songs,” says Rathore, 26, whose YouTube channel has 1.2 million subscribers. “Some of my songs are born from my anger.”
Anger might be the lubricant, but the message is neatly packaged in folksy tunes and quirky lyrics, delivered with a half-smile. Rathore’s “Ka Ba” series, which has multiple editions across multiple States, is at its heart about a common woman talking about what she sees. “I am living in a democracy, I believe in constitutional values, I will speak out.”
Rathore has been singing on social and political issues on her YouTube channel since 2020. “I never planned to start a channel or become an influencer,” says Rathore, a science graduate who grew up in Jandaha, a hamlet in Bihar. Her satirical takes on the shindigs of politicians during the 2020 Bihar Assembly election brought her immense popularity. “People would say, you’re so good, you can start a channel and earn money.” That is how it began. Now she produces two to four videos a month, writing, singing, and editing the content herself. Part of her motivation to perform in Bhojpuri stems from the sleazy associations the language had accrued over the years. She wanted to show how rich and vibrant it could be.
Although comedy in India today is conflated with stand-up artists in the big metros, performers from all over the country are finding their voices and their audiences online and on social media. Either through relatable characters who comment on current affairs or through poetry and song, these artists are bringing hyperlocal issues and a range of regional flavours to the forefront. And they are doing it in a country increasingly intolerant of humour and suspicious of dissent.
“Ten or 15 years ago comedians struggled to find the big stage,” says Shyam Rangeela, a comedian from a village in Rajasthan, who shot to fame lampooning Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2016. “Now a comedian from a small town or a big city has to struggle less. Wherever you are, there are opportunities. This is thanks to technology and social media,” he says. Rangeela first became viral in 2016. In a video that was shot guerrilla style—unsteady phone camera, a torchlight for illumination—he fused an uncanny imitation of the Prime Minister’s voice with a topical meme. “Earlier, I used to do shows for free. When I started getting offers and payments, I realised comedy could be a career,” he says. “I told my farmer parents that this can also be a way to earn money.”
Feeding the hunger for content
Many young stars like Rangeela started in humble circumstances, performing locally for friends and family at home or at school programmes. Then came the pandemic, rendering live shows and performances out of the question. But with time hanging heavy, people trapped indoors were hungrier than ever for content.
“I wanted to do something related to acting. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I was sitting at home for two or three months and didn’t know what to do,” says Harsh Singh Rajput, a YouTuber and actor who went from Mumbai to his home town in Aurangabad, Bihar, a day before the lockdown started. Rajput bought a laptop and camera and started making videos to spread the message of masking through humour. “I spent all my money at a time when people were saving money,” he chuckles. His character of a mask-wearing busybody television reporter began with a focus on COVID-19 and masking but now tackles all manner of topical issues such as loan scams, voting on caste lines, and prohibition.
The lockdown also saw the emergence of Urvish Kothari. The Gujarati journalist and writer from a town called Mahemdavad started a Twitter account and began posting videos: straightforward, direct-to-camera pieces in which he commented on topical events. As a print person, it was a challenge to pivot to a new medium. “‘Can I do this for 100 days?’ I asked myself,” says Kothari. It turned out he could. And people wanted more.
“There is hypersensitivity, trolling, political backlash: comedians across the board are facing increasing threats to free speech and personal safety. Sometimes shows might be cancelled or artists discreetly asked to avoid certain topics.”
His channel, Gujarati Funda, which now has 2,17,000 subscribers, seeks to show Gujaratis in another light. “People think all Gujaratis are pro-Modi, but that is not always the case.” In one video, he explains “Amrit Kaal” as a time when “the Prime Minister talks about exams, but never takes one himself”, alluding to Modi’s aversion to press conferences. In another video, he deadpans about the national strategy on the Manipur crisis: “Remember, it is essential to give people anaesthesia, and there is no better anaesthesia than lies.”
Hinging on recognisable types
Much of this content is created in a few hours on phone cameras, with minimal equipment and basic technical skills. The videos are rarely more than a few minutes long. You can see in the background Rathore’s drawing room or Kothari’s bookshelf, for instance, and there is no pretence of creating a sealed-off fictional universe. Kothari’s videos are unscripted, though it may require a few retakes to get it right. Rathore has one accompanist who plays percussion as she sings, but that is all. Rangeela and Rajput often hire actors so that their characters can play off situations. Rangeela says he has to react quickly. If, say, the Prime Minister does something, he has only a day or so to create something for the sketch to be topical.
These skits often hinge on recognisable types: such as Rajput’s bristling and breathless television reporter or Uttar Pradesh-born Saloni Gaur’s Nazma Aapi, a middle-aged, middle-class Muslim woman with a hijab and penchant for irony. Thombrebai—a Maharashtrian woman with a spicy take on a range of sociopolitical affairs—is not far behind. Fashioned by Neha Thombre, 35, a performer who grew up in Pulgaon, Maharashtra, and now works in Nagpur, Thombrebai, with her mangalsutra, bindi, and sari, is instantly recognisable.
“She is a middle-class woman with a socially progressive outlook,” says Thombre, who started her channel, Nehagiri, in 2020. Thombrebai, a hyperlocal character from Vidarbha, asks why only women should cook and encourages them to work. She did a recent piece on a G20 meeting in Nagpur, which transformed the city overnight. She has commented on the State budget, festivals, Gautam Adani, the wrestlers’ protest, and Maharashtrian idiosyncrasies.
“Even though many of these performers work in their mother tongues, the audiences seem to transcend boundaries.”
When she was in Mumbai a few years ago, Thombre tried her hand at open mic. “When I talked about my agricultural background there, it just didn’t work,” she says. “But when I performed in Nagpur, they [the audience] could relate.” Thombre is a Buddhist-Dalit, and though her work sometimes skates on casteism, her broader focus is gender. “I chose the medium of comedy because there are broader things I want to say,” she says.
In 2019, Thombre was selected with 13 other performers for a stand-up workshop. Put together by the content collective Bharatiya Digital Party (BhaDiPa) and Maraa, a media and arts collective from Bengaluru, the programme focussed on unearthing underrepresented voices from all corners of Maharashtra. Like Thombre, most participants came from rural backgrounds: the line-up included a farmer and a sex worker. The diversity birthed new ways of telling stories or approaching issues and took stand-up outside the limits of urban concerns and audiences.
“Audiences couldn’t believe that jokes about child marriage and sex work were coming from people who have lived that life,” says Paula McGlynn, co-founder of BhaDiPa. “The fact that they could tell a joke about it hits you differently than just hearing about all the bad things that happen,” she says. The aspiring performers were taken through sessions on shooting videos for online content, punching up and punching down in humour, and BhaDiPa’s own experiences of navigating offended viewers.
Later, the comics gave a series of performances across Maharashtra. This resulted in a charming 30-minute documentary called Gheun Tak. “It [the series] gave the comics power and a skill set, teaching them how to present themselves and do public speaking. I think it was cathartic for some as well,” says McGlynn. Of those who completed the workshop, a handful, including Thombre, are actively pursuing comedy. But for Thombre, who works at a university, stand-up is not a full-time job. While she made Rs.15,000 to Rs.20,000 a month through her channel during the lockdown, she is now more focussed on Instagram shorts. This also leads to branding and promotion opportunities.
- Comedy in India extends beyond urban stand-up scenes, with performers from diverse regions gaining traction online and on social media.
- Much of this content is produced swiftly using phone cameras and basic technical skills, eschewing the creation of elaborate fictional universes.
- The widespread origin of these heartland comedians underscores the enduring presence of comedy and satire in the country’s cultural fabric, despite challenges.
Long tradition of satire in India
Even though many of these performers work in their mother tongues, the audiences seem to transcend boundaries. “I get views from countries whose names I don’t even know,” says Rajput. “Every month, 2,000 to 3,000 people in Japan are watching my videos.” There are audiences for Bhojpuri and Marathi content outside their home States—in all likelihood, driven by diaspora viewers.
The nature of the content may differ: some comedians are more political than others, some prefer neutral topics, some want to see societal change, others just want to amuse people. The fact that these performers come from all pockets of India suggests that comedy and satire have been constants in our culture.
Beyond the Internet, comedy is alive in the large fairgrounds and public spaces of north India. “Satire can be traced all the way back to Narada’s satire on Lord Vishnu,” says Sarvesh Asthana, 58, a Lucknow-based poet and vyangkar (satirist) who regularly attends kavi sammelans (large gatherings featuring poets, singers, and satirists) in different parts of Uttar Pradesh.
Kavi sammelans started 100 years ago and are baked into the culture of north India. Although they have changed and declined over time, a few big ones still draw up to a lakh people in towns like Kota and Jabalpur. “A satirist and a poet are a diagnostic centre for identifying evils in society,” says Asthana, who has been doing this for more than three decades. “Ordinary people feel that this person is saying what we want to say.”
The performers often hold the stage through the night and often in front of local politicians. Besides being quick-witted, rhythmic, and funny, the performances are also bold. “Satire requires a lot of courage,” says Asthana. “Today’s media has sold out, they are scared to tell the truth.” Artists like Asthana do not just tell jokes, they also write poetry and sing.
“Political satire is like chow mein: you make it, enjoy it, and it’s done,” says Sudeep Bhola, a Jabalpur-based satirist and singer. “But songs are like besan ka laddoo [sweets made with gram flour]: they have a longer shelf life.” Still, he says, political content appears to be the most popular. Bhola rattles off the names of politicians he has lampooned. Both the Congress and the BJP have accused him of being a sell-out. But Bhola insists that he is an equal-opportunity offender. “We are not the people who fight elections and campaign, we are the people,” he says.
Sometimes, a small-town background is still a hindrance. Bhola stays partly in Noida as living full-time in Jabalpur hampers his ability to travel quickly or show up for live shows at short notice. The Bhojpuri YouTuber, Neha Singh Rathore, spoke of how connectivity was an issue in her village before she moved to Lucknow in 2022. Sometimes it took her five or six hours to upload a video: she would wave her phone from the rooftop to catch a signal.
“If I say on Facebook, today is Tuesday, even if it is Tuesday, 10 people will angrily turn up to argue with me. People can afford to be hypersensitive today because there is social acceptability and political patronage for it.”Urvish Kothari
But that is not the only issue. There is hypersensitivity, trolling, political backlash: comedians across the board are facing increasing threats to free speech and personal safety. Sometimes shows are cancelled or artists are discreetly asked to avoid certain topics. “Of course, it is not a good time to be a satirist today,” says Urvish Kothari, who has had speaking invites withdrawn by organisers. But he has never faced the ire of the government directly. “It’s not that Amit Shah is sitting and cancelling shows,” he says. “But, of course, people are scared.”
Quick to take offence
India has never been totally tolerant of dissent. Politicians across party lines have been quick to take offence—one recalls Mamata Banerjee’s government in West Bengal charging a professor for forwarding a cartoon and the Shiv Sena’s threats against books and films down the years. But the crackdown on dissent has been turning more virulent since 2014, after the BJP came to power. “If I say on Facebook that it’s Tuesday, even if it is Tuesday, 10 people will angrily turn up to argue with me,” Kothari says. “People can afford to be hypersensitive because there is social acceptability and political patronage for it.”
No one knows this better than Shyam Rangeela, who has incessantly lampooned the Prime Minister’s vanity and penchant for photo-ops. “There are so many challenges when you do comedy related to the Prime Minister,” he says. “You can’t do mimicry on TV, you don’t get invited to States with BJP governments.”
Rangeela received a legal notice from the Forest Department for feeding an animal while shooting a spoof video. The video itself was in response to the Prime Minister’s much-publicised Bandipur forest visit. Rangeela, playing Modi, is only concerned about camera angles. At one point he gets annoyed with the cameraman. “There have always been animals, but there have not always been cameras,” he chides him. The notice did not faze Rangeela; he promptly made another video about the notice itself. “What keeps me going is the love and positive comments I get,” he says.
Neha Rathore, too, has also collected a handful of FIRs over the years. “Four in Madhya Pradesh, one or two in Jaunpur [in Uttar Pradesh], perhaps. I’ve lost track,” she chuckles. “As the number of FIRs kept growing, so did my songs.”
Unfazed by trolling
For women, it is predictably worse. Thombre has been called “anti-Hindu” and received rape threats. Rathore has been called ugly and subjected to all manner of filthy comments. “It happens every day,” says Rathore. “Earlier I used to cry; now I feel if a taunt does not come, my work is not going well.” Sometimes online vitriol spills out in the real world. During a visit to Banaras, a group of young men recognised Rathore and tried to pelt her with stones. “Isn’t this the Ka Ba-wali [the woman who sings the Ka Ba songs]?” they asked. But the police were nearby, and the situation was quickly diffused. “I was terrified. I used to get a lot of filthy calls,” she says. “But you can’t stay locked up in a cage. If you want to create something ,you have to be out and about.”
That spirit keeps the best of them going. As Kothari, who too has occasionally faced “weapons-grade trolling,” says: “Modi and Amit Shah might be here today, but they won’t be here 20 years from now. Satire and humour won’t go anywhere. There are dark periods, and we are going through one right now. But despite the pressure and self-censorship, there are still arts and artists out there.”
Bhavya Dore is a freelance journalist who writes for various Indian and international publications.