‘Can perform all over the US but not even in four places in India,’ Kunal Kamra to Yogendra Yadav
If I could perform here, why would I go abroad? It’s no fun applying for visas, waiting for six months, going through all the rigmarole, biometric verifications every time
Comedy thrives in hard times, agree stand-up comic Kunal Kamra and academic turned-activist Yogendra Yadav. Kamra, who joined the Bharat Jodo Yatra for a week in Rajasthan and Yadav, who is walking from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, sat down for a little chat on the sidelines of the Yatra. At a time when lies pass for facts and unhappy bureaucrats pretend to be pro-establishment ‘Sanghis’ in their WhatsApp forwards, it is comedy that can break through and perhaps make a difference, suggests Yadav. Excerpts from a funny-sad-thought-provoking conversation:
Yogendra Yadav My special guest today is [stand-up comic] Kunal Kamra. I’ll grill him à la TV anchors, and extract my revenge for the tricky questions he asked me and Javed Akhtar in one of his shows. So, here goes: what is Kunal Kamra doing at the Bharat Jodo Yatra?
Kunal Kamra If TV anchors were doing their job, I might have sat at home, but they are not. I joined the Yatra on 8 December. For a week, I observed the Yatra and spoke to people, trying to understand why they are joining in such large numbers. I realised this wasn’t a time for neutrality or to quibble about supporting the Congress; ideologically, I have always identified with the Congress, so there was no real reason to not join.
Ah, so Kunal Kamra has all along been a closet ‘Congressi’. This is ‘breaking news’ on TV. I can see the screaming headlines: ‘Kunal Kamra admits he is a Congress supporter’.
Aren’t they all splinters of the Congress in India? Even the leftists and socialists broke away from the Congress. I have opposed the Congress in the past and criticised its policies… but with a following (on social media) comes responsibility. I have no hesitation in saying that this is a unique attempt, not aligned with party politics or aimed at elections. There is no reason for anyone to stay away. At a time when few are willing to stand with the Congress, when Congressmen themselves have quit the party, to stand up for the Opposition is a democratic duty.
But people will say Kunal Kamra is looking for work, now that he cannot perform in India…
Oh, there is enough and more work. I do travel abroad—for ‘Dollar jodo yatras’ (laughs). Next year, I’ll perform in the UK and from there travel to LA for other shows.
So, you want dollars abroad and ‘kranti’ (revolution) at home?
If I could perform here, why would I go abroad? It’s no fun applying for visas, waiting for six months, going through all the rigmarole, biometric verifications every time… In the US, I can perform in 18 states, but in India, I can’t in even four…
Where, you tell me? Don’t talk about Kerala because there people do not come to listen to you, they want to make you listen to them… if there is a microphone, there is no way the comrade will not speak… (laughs).
I cannot perform in Delhi, Noida or Gurugram because of the police. In Hyderabad also, it’s hard to get permission. Mumbai and Maharashtra are still hospitable but who knows when they will place restrictions… there are very few outlets here for comedy outside Maharashtra…
Has anything changed after the change in government there?
Not really. Even when there was a BJP government in the state between 2014 and 2019, there was no problem staging shows in Mumbai or Pune… that is the Maharashtrian ethos, which accommodates all points of view, embraces everyone, all ideologies… But there is this problem, and it applies to all comics, not just me: if you are doing comedy, at some point you’ll offend and disturb… if you don’t, then you’ll feel disturbed.
There is actually a theory about comedy: dictators anywhere have no problem with facts and figures, data or the truth. You tell them about their false promises, the dire state of the economy, their other failures, it makes no difference to them. They have a way around facts and logic. But they are afraid of comedy…
People who take themselves too seriously can never be fans of comedy. It will invariably disturb them because comedy at some point will raise disturbing questions about their life choices too… which is why I think that comedy and the BJP are polar opposites… people who are not democratic in their personal lives can scarcely be democratic in public life.
I speak a lot against the BJP but it makes no difference to BJP supporters. Some of them might even compliment me. They say: ‘Yogendraji, you are a nice man, you speak well, but you are on the wrong side.’ But when you poke fun at them, they get irritated, they can’t stand jokes…
Yes, comedy can be powerful. It can help build narratives. The BJP also used comedy to lampoon the Congress and its leaders. The comic image and one-liners endure. Even now, when I’m walking through an airport, somebody will smile, wave at me and quote my own line to me, “Ambani ko hi bana dete PM”. So, yeah, the BJP, which used comedy so effectively to attack the Congress, will certainly be scared to be the butt of jokes…
Isn’t it already? Who changes clothes five times a day? Who goes to meet his mother with six cameramen? Only a very strange person will choreograph the act of giving way to ambulances or wave at non-existent people or place cameras in an empty cave meant for meditation? Somebody had gone to interview the Prime Minister. A Doordarshan staffer present there confided—thankfully, he is no longer there—that the Prime Minister spent 15 minutes before the interview giving directions on how to fix the cameras and lights. Imagine the Prime Minister of India fussing over camera angles… tell me, don’t people see this?
On the contrary, they couldn’t avoid it if they tried. You and I also ride in cars, but the PM’s car has lights installed to create a dramatic halo-like effect while he is inside. Yes, people see it.
I’m always reminded of the emperor without clothes. You know the story in which a garment is woven and the emperor told that only the honest will be able to see it. Neither the emperor nor the people dare admit that the emperor was actually without clothes. Everyone was praising the ostensibly glittering garment when a child spoke up and said the emperor was naked. I believe a day will come when children will be the first to say he is lying.
I was amused to see the charade of travelling in a metro train with school children in uniform on a Sunday. It was choreographed to show that the PM was travelling in the same compartment with schoolgoing children. But which school remains open on Sundays?!
…but I’m digressing; I was to grill you like those TV anchors, remember? So, tell me honestly, are you seeking a Congress ticket? Are you joining the Congress or politics?
Sir, never! I have no interest in politics; I’m not cut out for it. Supporting a cause is one thing but joining a party or politics something else. The day an artist joins a party or identifies with a political ideology, his objectivity is finished. I love comedy and know how to tell jokes. I’ll be happy to excel in my field. I’m not even among the top five… hopefully, I’ll get there some day.