Mumbai, India – If you go to his Twitter account, his bio says: “…currently trying to lose weight and be funny”.
But Kunal Kamra surely knows – his disarming modesty notwithstanding – that he is making a huge understatement.
For somebody who, at just 29, has emerged as the poster boy of free speech in India, it’s a more serious business than just “being funny” on Twitter, where he, despite his massive popularity, has just over 70,000 followers.
Or outside Twitter, where he has even received death threats for his edgy and biting political humour. He was recently evicted from his rented house because his landlady in Mumbai disapproved of his idea of a joke.
“One day your landlady will ask you to vacate her house and look for another place because of your political opinion,” he wrote in his viral Facebook post earlier this year. “So CHOOSE wisely about the comedian you want to become.”
Kamra surely has made his choice, especially in an environment in India where freedom of expression in the media is being allegedly gagged by the state.
Kamra’s abrasive comedy has made waves in the backdrop of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in India, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, trying to regulate, and even pre-empt, any criticism.
Recently, the Indian government announced that it would issue radio frequency or RFID-enabled cards to journalists, controversially allowing it to track their movement. The decision was withdrawn following a major protest by the news media industry.
Days before this decision, the government announced that it would blacklist any journalist who propagated “fake news”. Journalists saw it as another instance of “policing of media”, which opens doors to frivolous complaints against them and their organisations.
That order has also been withdrawn.
As the Indian news media passes through a phase where its independence is being challenged by a reactionary government, Kamra has his job cut out.
“My humour has always challenged the authority. Before following any rule, I will think a hundred times,” he told Al Jazeera.
His favourite targets? “Modi, Arnab Goswami, and the general right-wing mentality.” Goswami is a vituperative TV anchor known for his nationalist positions.
Though much of his humour targets the current government and the political party behind it, Kamra insists that he is bipartisan and carries no brief for any Indian political party.
“People are always angry in India,” he said. “Earlier they were angry with (former Prime Minister) Manmohan Singh. Now it is Narendra Modi.”
“I am interested in politics because it is amusing. Politics and pop culture are blending right now (in India). Everything is political. In comedy, your premise has to be relatable and your punchline has to be hilarious. Politics fits that bill perfectly.”
When asked how he got into political comedy when he was already a successful advertising professional, Kamra says he was “deeply anguished” by the death of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula at the Hyderabad Central University campus in 2016.
Vemula had committed suicide following his long protest against the federal university’s housing policy, which the Dalit rights activist found discriminatory.
“Vemula’s death conflicted so much with everything I knew about this country. That got me motivated and charged to talk about it,” Kamra said.
As anger against Vemula’s suicide spread across the country, Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one of India’s premier liberal arts institutions, became the epicentre of those protests. The government cracked down, sending some of the student protesters to prison for sedition.
“Then I became sure this was institutionalised gagging,” said Kamra, recalling the incident. “You can’t discredit students who have no malicious intent. I felt that things were going wrong somewhere.”
Last year, Kamra started his YouTube show, Shut Up Ya Kunal, where he began uploading his conversations with some of the most trenchant critics of the Modi government.
Kamra’s “non-seditious chat” with JNU student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid – both charged with sedition and briefly jailed by the Modi government – itself garnered over a million views on YouTube.
“In the absence of free press in India, comedians are the fourth pillar of democracy,” JNU student leader Shehla Rashid, who appeared on Kamra’s show and who is also a close associate of Kumar and Khalid, recently tweeted.
“One may look at him (Kamra), and other comedians with political content, as analogous to print-era commentators, op-ed writers, satirists,” said Siddharth Varadarajan, who is the founding editor of The Wire, a non-profit news portal which has gained traction for its anti-establishment coverage.
“What Art Buchwald practiced – or what the writers of feuilleton columns in European newspapers wrote – was always regarded as journalism. But that was in a different medium. As long as we don’t demand from comedians the objectivity that news reporting requires, then yes, they are part of the wide universe that is today the fourth estate,” said Varadarajan.
But Kamra says he does not consider himself a part of India’s journalism community. “That is because I am heavily biased. My content is rooted in my opinion, and I want to make you laugh.”
With Shut Up Ya Kunal turning into an online rage, Kamra soon became a controversial figure and has been at the receiving end of much flak for his outspoken humour. “Every day, you consume news that Modi is the best in the world, and then someone makes fun of him. You’re going to get angry,” he said on the countless threats he receives.
Kamra says he bears no ill-will towards his former landlady for evicting him from his rental flat. “Some landlords evict tenants for cooking non-vegetarian food. Some say you must light incense sticks in front of the idols of the gods. I would rather attack the structural problems that make someone a landlord through nepotism and inherited property while you work hard and have to pay rent,” he says with a smile.
After he was forced to vacate his modest Mumbai flat, Kamra also shut down his Twitter account for a few days. He has since re-activated his account, but discrimination continues. Many of his corporate shows get cancelled when he turns down the organisers’ suggestion to tone down his critique of the government.
Not that it matters much to Kamra. He does six to eight shows a month “by choice” and cultivates a laidback lifestyle. “I just work to meet my expenses,” he says. A biking enthusiast, he says a good chunk of what he makes fuels his Enfield Himalayan motorbike treks.
Kamra was born in Mumbai’s Mahim area and still lives in the same part of the city. He comes from a business family; his father owns a pharmacy. He says, with a chuckle, that his parents are “mostly proud of him, because they do not read the online comments about him any more”.
Born dyslexic he dropped out of college at 17. He interned with MTV before joining an advertising company, where he worked until last year.
The comedian counts industry veterans Varun Grover and Gursimran Khamba as his influences in the Indian political comedy genre. Though he himself doesn’t make much of his impact on India’s comedy scene, other comedians believe he has made a change.
“He is the baton leader,” says Ameya Deshpande, an upcoming comedian. “Before him, there were other comics doing their jokes, but there was always this shadow, the feeling that you can’t say this or that. Then Kunal came out with his opinions, and there is this sense now that you can say this and it can go on YouTube,” Deshpande added.
Masoom Rajwani, another upcoming comedian, thinks Kamra has breached the taboo around comedy on politics. “More people are doing political comedy because of Kunal,” Rajwani said.
But Kamra refuses to look at himself as a political crusader. “The Indian comedy scene is surely breaking barriers. Whether it is issues such as the feminist Me Too movement, the right-wing violence, or triple talaq, the Indian comedy has dealt with these,” he says.
“Ten years from now, an Indian comedian may even have a set on having many sexual preferences,” he says.
But Kamra, at the same time, also thinks Indians cannot take humour sportingly. “They take offence easily.”
“Indians are thin-skinned. I tell my comedian friends that people like you because you have not ridiculed things that they believe in, because you haven’t contradicted them yet. People don’t consume comedy as comedy,” he says.
The comic says he looks forward to a time when his jokes will be irrelevant and reduced to a historical archive. “If this kind of comedy remains relevant 25 years down the line, then things are seriously wrong,” he says.
Kamra knows where his fears come from. After all, his previously pinned tweet on Twitter said: “India is the best country in the world unless you’ve to live in it.”