Why you should care
Because he is India’s Stephen Colbert … if Colbert were the only big-time comedian skewering American leaders.
Indian comic Kunal Kamra has just 24 videos on his YouTube channel, mostly stand-up sets and episodes of his hugely popular indie podcast Shut Up Ya Kunal. He still has more than a million subscribers, and his most viral stand-up bit has been watched more than 10 million times. Clearly, there’s an appetite for his criticism of the right-wing BJP and second-term Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But he still stands pretty much alone on the comedy scene.
At 30, Kamra is the most prominent comedian to consistently critique India’s most powerful. When Modi’s reelection was announced, “everyone I know called me that day as if there had been a death in my family,” he says. He seemed to have dropped off the map after the election results, but he was merely processing the events and figuring out what to do next. “This is the best and the worst country for comedy,” he says. “Material just writes itself in India. There’s so much conflict here. Life is unique and amusing; there are trolls who fact-check my jokes. Rightists are very dumb.”
An advertising veteran, Kamra jumped into comedy in November 2013 with open mics and was racking up paid gigs within just a few months. By 2016, he was getting hour-long slots at shows across the country, but it still took him another year to put a video online. This wasn’t part of some well-thought-out growth strategy — the comic is remarkably unambitious when it comes to fame or millions in his bank, moving at his own pace. While Amazon Prime and Netflix have put out a slew of stand-up specials, Kamra hasn’t joined the rush. “I’m happy to just go on Amazon and shop,” he says.
Even his podcast has only 14 episodes since launching in 2017 because Kamra does a lot of the heavy lifting. Not only does he put in his money, but he recruits guests, scripts the roughly hour-long episodes, and hosts them before handing over post-production duties to his colleague and creative director Ramit Verma.
“I invite people I admire and portray guests in the correct light,” he says. Shut Up Ya Kunal has been praised for its rational, informative and dignified conversations, a great relief from senseless sociopolitical debates on Indian news channels. And chasing figures like the president of the Muslim AIMIM party Asaduddin Owaisi — “six months before he said yes” — makes the DIY process worthwhile. The zero-network-and-funding approach also ensures Kamra and Verma have complete control. Other prominent intellectuals, activists and politicians to be featured in the podcast include writer-lyricist Javed Akhtar, Swaraj India president and political analyst Yogendra Yadav, and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
“I think he’s on the right path,” says 27-year-old Verma, who runs his own social media content platform, Peeing Human. “He’s logical, rational, calm and patient. But we both need to work on our lazy attitudes. He needs to write more.”
In a way, what Kamra does is create art purely for the sake of it, so if something is funny, it doesn’t matter whom or what he provokes. “As an artist, you make art out of whatever you consume,” he says. “Criticism or validation matter from people who matter.”
This attitude has taken time to develop, and ever since he became a full-time dissenter, Kamra has faced incessant trolling, death threats and even eviction. His jokes had whipped up such an intense virtual frenzy that he was asked to move out of his home in January 2018. His attacks on politicizing Hinduism draw a ton of flak, but most daring is his willingness to take on BJP president Amit Shah and his well-earned reputation for ruthlessness. (In one bit, Kamra jokes about Shah cutting off the arm of a bowler to give Modi an advantage in a cricket match.)
“I realize that people don’t know that they shouldn’t take the internet seriously,” says Kamra. His friends also grew anxious. “He wasn’t entirely emotionally removed from everything, so watching his friends and family get attacked was worrying,” says fellow comic and friend Agrima Joshua, 29. But Kamra endured. “His thick skin gives us confidence. But considering he has a perspective on every aspect of life, his anti-establishment persona is limiting his purview because there’s a lot of richness to his comedy,” she adds.
Every 16- to 25-year-old Indian enjoys Game of Thrones, but no one is interested in the history of our post-independence political parties.
Growing up in Mahim, Mumbai, Kamra lived a short walk from the drugstore run by his family. He dropped out of college to start working; the only condition his father placed was that both he and his son can’t do the same thing. Incidentally, Kamra’s family remains almost entirely in the dark about the perils of his profession. “If you’re popular and have had your picture in the paper, it doesn’t matter if you’re a smuggler or a comedian,” he says. “Your family will be proud and post your picture in the family WhatsApp group.”
Kamra says he’s not overly worried about his safety. “I’m more valuable alive, because who else are they going to brand anti-national?” Still, he adds, “they do end up wreaking economic damage.” Shows have been canceled, and fans who’ve posted pictures with him online have also suffered trolling and abuse. At least he’s getting paid well (“as much as an [engineer] when he gets a job in San Francisco”), and he doesn’t do what he doesn’t want to anymore.
Now, he’s looking to tweak the podcast and document India’s political past, based on facts. “Every 16- to 25-year-old Indian enjoys Game of Thrones, but no one is interested in the history of our post-independence political parties,” Kamra says. Surrounded by a strong circle of contemporary dissenters and friends — including actress Swara Bhasker, activist Umar Khalid, activist Kanhaiya Kumar and writer/comedian Varun Grover — his path is set.
“Today, we [comics] are struggling,” Kamra says, “but when stand-up becomes as popular as Bollywood, the world’s biggest comedian will be Brown.”
OZY’s 5 Questions with Kunal Kamra
- What’s the last book you read? India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha.
- What do you worry about? Not being fresh; also, that I don’t become Vivek Agnihotri at 50!
- What can’t you live without? Coffee and whiskey.
- Who’s your hero? Doug Stanhope.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? Amsterdam, I’m trying to rig a show there.
Read more: Indian women stand up to the provocative face of stand-up amid #metoo.