Indian Women Stand Up to Provocative Face of Stand-Up Amid #MeToo
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Tanmay Bhat challenged norms as he built a comedy juggernaut, but his career might be over.
In December 2014, when a bunch of young men from the All India Bakchod (AIB) comedy collective roasted Bollywood stars Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor, news networks took note. Unlike in the United States, where comedy roasts were a longstanding tradition, they were new to India. AIB’s show was an online blockbuster garnering millions of hits, while commentators accused it of deploying “cheap jokes” and “toilet humor.”
The man who led the takedown of the two stars was Tanmay Bhat, CEO and co-founder of AIB. The “Knockout controversy,” as it came to be known, lasted for months. A social activist registered a police complaint against AIB for “vulgar content.” When the show was made available on YouTube a month later, AIB had to remove the video after critics erupted in outrage. But Bhat and AIB used the spotlight to gain a massive following in their country. Their YouTube channel has 3.4 million followers; their shows are go-to events for movie stars promoting film releases. Or at least they were.
In October, Bhat was hit by several allegations that he knew about sexual harassment by an AIB colleague but did nothing. This time, the scrutiny has proved much harder to shake off for the man who is the face of stand-up comedy to many urban Indians. Bhat’s and AIB’s soaring fortunes are now crashing.
Bhat, 31, had to step away from the collective after 28-year-old writer and comic Mahima Kukreja accused him of keeping silent when she informed him that his colleague Utsav Chakraborty had sent sexually explicit messages and pictures to her and other women, including minors. Kukreja says Bhat acted shocked when she told him, and promised to do something about it but never followed through. “When I told him about Utsav, I was expecting that he [would] do something, take some action,” Kukreja says. “I was let down by him.” Bhat didn’t respond to OZY’s request for comment.
These men have used anti-establishment stands, progressive stands and have been profiting off feminist views. But men now need to take accountability.
Mahima Kukreja, comedian
Bhat rose to fame after winning Weirdass Ham-ateur Hunt, a national comic talent contest, in 2009. He soon went on to join a comedy writing team, Weirdass Comedy, and started opening for Vir Das, an established figure in the stand-up comedy circuit. Bhat then formed AIB with Gursimran Khamba; they were joined later by Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya. YouTube was the collective’s primary medium.
The group’s videos attracted a slew of movie stars. The audience for their infamous roast in Mumbai included filmmaker Karan Johar and stars Alia Bhatt and Deepika Padukone. One of their videos with the popular Bhatt garnered 21 million views and burnished their image as comics who connected with Indian youth.
They cracked jokes about the government, the opposition, conservative social norms, stereotypes and relationships, making a name for themselves as progressive comedians who were changing the face of comedy. AIB also landed a show, On Air With AIB, on Hotstar, an online streaming platform.
Controversies often trailed the collective. In 2016, when Bhat Snapchatted a profanity-laced video of him mimicking cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar and elderly Bollywood singer Lata Mangeshkar, he faced a huge backlash — the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party even filed a complaint against him.
Anuvab Pal, who has known Bhat for 10 years professionally, says he always found his fellow comedian “decent, hardworking and thoroughly professional.” But he also says that India’s comedy circuit needs to do more to make women feel safer, starting with “a guild or union,” because there are currently no safety standards or methods of redress. “All I know is that a professional work environment, just like movies or TV has, is necessary now for comedy,” Pal says.
When Kukreja’s allegations of inaction against Bhat gained momentum, Hotstar quickly canceled Season 3 of On Air With AIB. There was talk of Amazon Prime terminating their existing deal and upcoming shows with the group, as AIB co-founder Khamba was removed as showrunner for Amazon’s political satire show Gormint. The Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) also dropped the AIB-produced film Chintu Ka Birthday from the lineup of the recent MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. AIB’s head of human resources, Vidhi Jotwani, said in a statement shared on Twitter: “We do not know what this means for the future of AIB or whether there is one.”
AIB’s arc mirrors that of stand-up comedy across India — a meteoric rise from virtual nonexistence a decade ago, mixed with frequent controversy and now increasing questions about misogyny.
“The most important learning from this [#MeToo movement] is that men should just shut up and listen — really listen, and try and understand what women go through,” says improv artist Kaneez Surka, 35, who adds that she’s “very vocal against” her industry’s bro culture.
“The reality is that [Bhat’s] comedy is directed at women when comedy should question society and patriarchy. It is misogynistic,” says Bishnupriya Dutt, a professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. She cites the Alia Bhatt video, chiding the actress’ lack of smarts, as an example. While comedy at its best is subversive and thought-provoking, Dutt says, the stand-up scene in India reeks of neoliberalism and “has a very strong elite quality.”
While Bhat is the biggest name in India to be laid low by #MeToo, he’s far from the only one on the country’s comedy scene. That includes his AIB colleague Khamba, who was accused by a woman of sexual harassment. Khamba denies the allegation.
It’s been quite the reckoning for an industry that caters to young urbanites and is known for celebrating “woke” ideas but battles the same misogyny as any major industry. “All these years these men have used anti-establishment stands, progressive stands and have been profiting off feminist views,” Kukreja says. “But men now need to take accountability.”
Meanwhile, on Oct. 5, Bhat retweeted AIB’s statement with this comment: “I’ve let a lot of people down recently. I’m sorry. I messed up.” AIB’s statement acknowledged that Bhat made the situation worse by confronting Chakraborty “in a personal capacity — which led to Utsav calling the victim, leading to further harassment.” It said that they let their cognitive biases do the work their critical faculties should have. The statement and Bhat’s apology were both ridiculed on social media.
Since then, Tanmay Bhat has gone silent.
Read more: How women are writing discrimination out of Bollywood’s script.