The Body Positivity Smash for India
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she's taking on societal ills with the best kind of piercing humor.
By Tania Bhattacharya
- Kusha Kapila has emerged as one of India’s leading comedic voices, with a socially conscious style puncturing racism, homophobia and other societal ills.
- Her web videos have led to an explosion in her social media following during India’s pandemic lockdown.
When the George Floyd protests erupted in the U.S., the world expressed solidarity, including India. And it didn’t take long for Indian social media influencer and video star Kusha Kapila to put up a clip on Instagram entitled “Selective Outrage Explained,” pointing a nuanced finger at the millions of Indians decrying police brutality in the U.S. who’ve remained resolutely silent about similar crises that plague India. Kapila’s character in the video tells a friend, “If we don’t donate money, who will?” while refusing to pay her domestic help because she didn’t work during the lockdown.
“Everything is about social equity,” says Kapila.
At 30, she is one of India’s most famous social media star-comediennes, with 1.2 million Instagram followers, about 400,000 of whom have appeared during India’s pandemic lockdown months. Kapila was worried about sustaining her business (and staff) beyond a couple of months without visibility-garnering events, but she has been busy, uploading new sketches and videos every day, scripting, shooting and editing them often on her own.
Fans are getting to see more of Kapila and her comic self instead of just her characters like the super-rich socialite Billi, the inappropriate and nosy Zulmi Aunty, and typical Indian mother Gurri di Mummy. “I’ve now reached a point where I don’t need nor want to be defined by characters,” she says. Some videos also feature her husband, Zorawar Singh Ahluwalia, but as an internet star — because “nothing feels it’s your own” — Kapila is determined to preserve her privacy. What gets to her are mean comments directed at Ahluwalia. She remembers an instance when a viewer described the couple as a monkey and a grape: “It gets distracting and a bit annoying.”
Nikita Jain, Kapila’s friend of nearly 20 years, admires how Kapila has dealt with hate with poise and sass. “She has a knack of saying the right things,” Jain laughs.
Kapila had a quiet, middle-class childhood, growing up in North Delhi away from the glamor of India’s capital city. “The idea was to study and build a stable life,” she says. “I had enough privilege to nurture my dreams, but again, traveling abroad was the benchmark.” Fiercely competitive, Kapila shone as a student throughout school, but college derailed her perfectionist, politically correct trajectory. After a year of studying English literature and doing theater, Kapila headed to the National Institute of Fashion Technology. “I suffered from anxiety and depression, became obese,” she recalls. “I spent those four years in confusion, to the point where after graduating I didn’t want to do anything.”
But not knowing what to do was a good starting point. With zero expectations and the will to be molded, she took several jobs before landing at iDiva, owned by The Times Group, India’s largest media company, as a writer and content creator. “Here I found myself, it was a self-reflective period.” A Facebook deal got the team making videos starring Kapila and her colleague Dolly Singh, and months later they hit pay dirt with the series South Delhi Girls, followed by South Delhi Aunties.
The astonishingly realistic, mostly improvised spoofs of Delhi’s rich and elite made Kapila a sensation. The idea was to be “more accessible and less intellectual,” and it worked. Kapila’s comic repertoire grew rapidly, as did her following, which includes Bollywood celebrities and even international stars like Ronny Chieng and Raja Kumari. Her soaring popularity landed her the job of hosting the star-studded Vogue Beauty Awards last year, as well as a place on the ad campaign debuting megastar Katrina Kaif’s beauty line, Kay by Katrina. The latter reflects Kapila’s journey of self-acceptance as an “hourglass pear” and winning the battle against body image issues.
With a towering presence in India’s social media landscape, she also co-hosts the weekly show Behensplaining (inspired by mansplaining) on Netflix India’s YouTube channel with Srishti Dixit, where she reviews movies and shows for Indian women around the world. “We need more shows written by women,” Kapila says.
When shit hits the roof, you have to step up.
As with all good comedians, Kapila’s acts address India’s deep-set social woes like patriarchy, homophobia and racism. Her videos on the everyday struggles of being a woman resonate positively among her viewers, many of whom comment that they’ve found it easier to talk about their troubles. “I have learned that the great virtues of life are kindness and compassion,” she says. Partner and mentor Santu Misra extols her passion and empathy, but believes Kapila needs to control her overflowing emotions to do greater things, “like a racehorse with blinders on.”
More recently, Kapila has donned the activist hat, since the contentious passing of the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act in December and the subsequent protests that rocked India. She made an appearance at Shaheen Bagh when the protest was under threat of being forcibly disbanded, and her father had been very worried.
But “when shit hits the roof, you have to step up,” she points out. “Otherwise, what will I tell my friends and family?”
OZY’s Five Questions with Kusha Kapila
- What’s the last book you read? We Need to Talk by Celeste Headlee.
- What do you worry about? Our world’s obsession with wealth and fame.
- What’s one thing you can’t live without: My self-worth.
- Who’s your hero? Santu Misra, my partner.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? Going a month without the internet or a phone.
- Tania Bhattacharya, OZY AuthorContact Tania Bhattacharya