Humour at a click

Online comedy channels are looking to set off a laugh riot and poke fun at everything from Bollywood to high-profile politicians, says Sushmita Biswas

  • Published 7.06.15
TVF-ONE founder Arunabh Kumar (centre) and team member Amit Golani (left) have made Biswapati Sarkar (right) an online celebrity with his Arnub act in their Barely Speaking with Arnub spoofs
TVF’s first spoof to go viral was Rowdies based on MTV Roadies

Anandeshwar Dwivedi doesn’t rip off his shirt and he doesn’t have six-pack abs to show off. But you may have caught him in action in a hilarious Web-sketch titled Bhai Ho! in which Dwivedi plays Bollywood’s one-and-only bad boy and strongman Salman Khan. The skit’s part of a spoof series called The Making of... which ridicules everything that’s wrong about Bollywood including, in this particular case, its obsession with Rs 200-crore mega-blockbusters.

The company behind this and other rollicking online spoofs is The Viral Fever Media Labs (TVF-ONE) owned by electrical engineer turned comedy entrepreneur Arunabh Kumar (he graduated from IIT-Kharagpur), who switched tracks to produce online funnies and create one of the most popular youth humour channels on YouTube, Qtiyapa. Seated in his small office in Mumbai’s Aram Nagar, Kumar says: “I pitched the idea of a pilot show called Engineer’s Diary to MTV but I got rejected on the ground that it won’t work. I wanted to create satirical programming but television wasn’t ready for it.” Today, Qtiyapa has a subscriber base of over a million.

Cut to Shudh Desi Endings, a YouTube channel that turns out cartoon-like animated spoofs on the movies. The company’s run by the Mumbai-based Click Digital Studios that was set up by Anand Doshi, who studied filmmaking in Australia, and who decided that work-weary people around the world — and particularly in India — needed a chance to have a good laugh. Shudh Desi Endings has uploaded 40-odd spoof videos since it went online two years ago. A popular one which has been viewed four million times is CK, a funny take on Aamir Khan’s PK.

Says Doshi: “We were inspired by Hollywood’s online humour channel called How It Should Have Ended. Honestly, it started out because we wanted to see if the Indian market was ready for spoofs as a genre and if the youth had a flair for it.” The proof of a comedy channel is in the laughs it generates and Shudh Desi Endings has a subscriber base of 1.5 million today.

Anand Doshi’s Shudh Desi Endings is one of the most popular channels on YouTube with its multi-million-view hit, animated spoof videos on Bollywood. Photo: Gajanan Dudhalkar

India has always been accused of being a country with more than a billion people who weren’t ready to laugh at themselves. But now, everyone’s a comedian and online spoofs are all the rage even as they target everything from politics and the news — Arvind Kejriwal and Arnab Goswami are popular targets — to the movie industry and even social issues such as female empowerment.

The spoof fest has really boomed in the last two years in the wake of the digital revolution. Says Satyanarayan Raghavan, head of content and operations, YouTube India: “Affordable smartphones and data plans have changed the way India consumes content. With over 200 million Indians accessing the Internet from their phones, the mobile has become the preferred platform for consuming all kinds of content including video.” According to him, over 40 per cent of the playback on YouTube in India is coming from mobile phones. “And the watch time from mobile phones is growing really fast,” he adds.

More importantly, the online world has created a platform for more subversive content that wouldn’t find space on regular television channels. And, there is, apparently, a ready audience out there that’s thirsting for laughs. After all, India’s got a whole lot to spoof, parody and satirise. Says TVF’s Kumar: “The reason behind the success of spoofs is not merely because they induce laughter but also because, under the guise of humour, they bring out things that the mainstream media will never allow.”

Raghavan points out that comedy is among the top content categories on YouTube globally “and it’s no different in India”. “The biggest advantage is that on the Internet, this kind of content goes viral really fast and more people are able to enjoy it and participate in it with an open mind,” he says.

So everyone’s getting into the humour act — from filmmakers and stand-up comics to even movie stars, who’re using spoofs as a brand-building and marketing tool. Indeed, Alia Bhatt gave a big spur to spoofs when she sportingly spoofed her own alleged dumbness with the backing of her mentor, Karan Johar. After all, she’d first showcased that talent with her goof-ups on Koffee with Karan. So, Bhatt teamed up with comedy outfit All India Bakchod to launch Alia Bhatt - Genius of the Year, a funny that shot to instant blockbuster status on the spoof stage.  

Meanwhile, Shah Rukh Khan reached out to younger fans by featuring in TVF’s Barely Speaking With Arnub, in which he poked fun at his films and even at his infamous stand-off with a policeman at Wankhede Stadium. 

Naturally, spoofs have occasionally offended people and caused outrage, like when AIB held a roast with the likes of Karan Johar, Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor at a live event in Mumbai last year. But everything — and everyone — is fair game in the world of spoofs. And the spoof-makers are experimenting with all kinds of formats from animated sketches to original videos to comic strips.

Every Delhi Girl in the World was among the big online hits from digital video entertainment channel, Being Indian, which is founded by Samir Pitalwalla (below) and Venkat Prasad

Take Delhi-based Karthik Laxman’s The UnReal Times with its faking news parodies. Most recently, Laxman poked fun at Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa by carving out a new place in spoof history with the headline Mount Rushmore, Make Way for Mount Amma!

Karthik Laxman’s website The UnReal Times deals in political satire, taking on everybody from Rahul Gandhi to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Jagan Negi

Laxman, who graduated from IIM-Ahmedabad, initially did a nine-to-five job in the relatively humourless arena of policy research and the social sector before launching his political satire site in 2011. His first piece was on the UPA regime’s much-hyped direct cash-transfer scheme, which became a massive hit. “We clearly saw a market ready for political satire,” he says.

Laxman started out by teaming up with a friend C.S. Krishna to publish posts under the pen name, Unreal Mama. This grew to the portal, The UnReal Times, which offers a consistently funny bouquet of satirical news reports, a spin-a-yarn-with-pictures around recent political events, and Fikileaks, which provides glimpses of the private Facebook walls of celebrities.

Politics, of course, offers ripe pickings for the spoof-makers. But there are others like Sameer Pitalwalla and Venkat Prasad, who are poking fun at the idiosyncrasies and cultural differences of Indian society on their online video entertainment network, Being Indian. It’s part of their parent company, Culture Machine.

They’ve created viral hits like Every Delhi Girl In The World and India’s Facebook Timeline Journey on the Being Indian channel. And they’ve also got other online channels like Put Chutney and Enna Da Rascalas, which focus on the cultural quirks of the South. Pitalwalla, 29, who headed the digital media business at Disney UTV before founding Culture Machine, says: “We try to stretch beyond humour and connect with the cultural identity of people.”

Meanwhile, stand-up comics may be making their money on the live stage, but they’re also using spoof videos to market themselves. So, Sorabh Pant, one of the founders of the stand-up comic troupe East India Comedy (EIC), admits that their spoofs on YouTube have enabled them to garner audiences for their stand-up gigs. They’ve loaded 45 videos so far.

Sorabh Pant, a stand-up comic and founder of the East India Comedy troupe, says that their online spoofs have helped draw crowds to their live gigs

“The idea was to have a bunch of very good comedians do as much content in as many spheres as possible. The intention is to tackle socially relevant topics,” says Pant. While stand-up remains his forte, Pant has also dabbled in sketches. For instance, his recent take on women’s rights and taboos on sex got three million hits.

Meanwhile, Bangalore-based stand-up comic Sanjay Manaktala has a YouTube channel, SanjayComedy, which deals with the funny side of the tech world and city life. Manaktala, who was born in New York, started doing stand-up as a hobby. But after moving to Bangalore in 2010, he took it up full-time and also began making funny videos around Bangalore’s booming IT business. His hilarious Maid Interview video on a couple hiring a maid has crossed 550,000 views.

Now, the business of spoofing is no laughing matter. The cost of producing a funny video can range from Rs 50,000 to 
Rs 50 lakh. “Like in a big-budget film, a spoof’s budget depends on the concept, the shoot locations, actors and the VFX and post-production work,” says Kumar, who has a 40-member crew across Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, which uploads one video a week. EIC’s videos too range from Rs 50,000 to Rs 8 lakh.  

Bangalore-based comedian Sanjay Manaktala’s online videos typically have a funny take on city life and techie-humour, as in Porn Clichés: Outsourced

In order to recoup this investment, a video must go viral and have three million to five million hits. YouTube’s Raghavan says: “As a creator, when you upload a video, you can decide to earn money by offering to run ads on it. The money made from advertising is then shared with the content creator, wherein the majority share is given to the partner while we retain a part of it.” The videos can earn over Rs 1 lakh in ad revenue if they go viral.

In a country where satire and humour are met with suspicion — and umbrage — how do the spoof-makers deal with criticism and censorship? Says Laxman: “Over a period of time, we have developed a sense of what will work and what won’t.” So, they all steer clear of religion. But Pitalwalla is not one to give in to censorship. He says: “There’s always something that’s going to offend somebody, somewhere. We just deal with it and move on.” 

The spoof-makers are eager to keep their audience in splits. So, while the spoof industry may be at a nascent stage, the laugh riot is set to continue.