By Rohini Banerjee:
“You remember corruption? It’s that thing you used to care about before beef,” wisecracks All India Bakchod’s Rohan Joshi, and, in its very first few minutes, sets the tone for a show which, for India’s most talked-about comedy collective, is a foray into completely new territory. ‘On Air With AIB’, the comic quartet’s first television outing, and first tryst with hands-on news comedy (which they very determinedly claimed will be a complete turnaround from their now-infamous roast), is them hopping full-fledged on the John Oliver bandwagon. Going bilingual—with Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya hosting the English version and Tanmay Bhat and Gursimran Khamba hosting the Hindi version—they take on corruption scams, The Whistleblower Protection Act, the Israeli Prime Minister and more, in the pilot episode that aired yesterday (29th October 2015) on HotStar, Star TV’s digital platform. While they addressed some serious issues—like the common instances of whistleblowers dying “mysterious deaths”, and how the proposed amendments to The Whistleblower Protection Act are actually going to endanger their lives further rather than protect them—they brought their signature humorous edge to it, with jokes and gags that were almost always on point.
“In America, whistleblowers are like Voldemort—you can’t name them. But here, whistleblowers are like Rahul: naam toh suna hi hoga!” went one joke about the lack of anonymity provided to whistleblowers by the new proposed legislation; and this was just one among many such incredibly witty one-liners. There were jokes on Rahul Gandhi, the terrible state of police security provided to Vyapam whistleblower Ashish Chaturvedi, Ashok Khemka’s multiple transfers, Chandrachur Singh, Robert Vadra, and many others that really hit home. However, the most interesting part about the episode was the final segment, where stand up comic Abish Mathew interviewed Dr K. Padmarajan, who, satirically dubbed ‘the election king’, holds a record for losing the maximum number of elections (171, to be exact). Padmarajan’s whimsicality and fascinatingly candid stories provided a nice change of scenery from the otherwise newsroom-style format. Another interesting and hilarious addition to the show was a mock public service advert on corruption, featuring a surprise cameo by “jaane-maane villain” (well-known villain), Prakash Raj, which ended with the slogan, “bhaago graahak bhaago (run customer run)”. It is these little quirks that kept me glued to the screen, and brought more variety and character to a show that could easily have fallen flat if not done right.
However, despite its many positives, On Air With AIB is not without flaw. The Hindi instalment, hosted by Tanmay Bhat and Gursimran Khamba, seems awkward and unpolished in comparison to the easy-flowing banter of Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya’s English version. The jokes don’t land as effectively in Hindi as they do in English—something that perhaps even Bhat and Khamba are aware of, because of which they seem less confident and more conscious while delivering the punchlines. They often fumble, or give in to unnecessary histrionics which, on many counts, seem unwieldy and plain weird. However, their content is still solid, and I really hope that Bhat and Khamba work on levelling out the kinks in their script and performance, and make it as effortlessly funny and impactful as the English version.
So far, they have definitely stuck to their promise of being something “different” from their usual fare. Both tone and content-wise, this seems vastly different from what they do on YouTube. There is no doubt that this is a brave attempt, and an excellent way of bringing to attention things that Indian mainstream media often ignore or brush aside.
Social and political satire has always existed in our country: whether it be R.K Laxman’s ‘Common Man’ comic strips, animated clips in between news broadcasts, or shows like the classic ‘Office Office’. In more recent times, socio-political satire has found a steady audience in social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, and hence, ‘On Air With AIB’ is almost a natural progression in this trajectory. It is interesting that Star TV, the network originally associated with Ekta Kapoor soaps and saas-bahu dramas is the one supporting this enterprise. This is perhaps an indication that the time is ripe for Indian television to evolve and come of age, and invest in more topical, real, and hard-hitting programming like this one. The fact that Star is supporting this show, and working so hard to promote it and help it reach diverse audiences is testament to the fact that Indian audiences are ready for something different—something that will challenge the status quo. However, the question remains whether All India Bakchod will be able to start the kind of critical social conversations that John Oliver or Jon Stewart have done through their shows. In a national climate where censorship, bans, and offence-taking has become the order of the day, will AIB’s voices of dissent be crushed too? That, only time will tell. Till then, I look forward to the rest of the episodes in the series, and hope that they don’t shy away from delving deep in their social and political commentary.