Mumbai, laugh like a Bombil
A new wave of comedy podcasts that discuss the city's problems and take on the system with rip-roaring satire and unfettered language are setting the online space aflutter. Is this the social movement that'll prove a worthy opponent to the censorship of Dhoble and Kapil Sibal and co?
Walking into RJ Rohini Ramnathan’s room at Sion is like getting your head dunked into a vat of colour. Bright green and blue doors just beg to be opened, assorted, incredibly cool paraphernalia — including an Audrey Hepburn poster, a Mick Jagger icon and a Gone With The Wind alarm clock lines the corners, and lightbulbs rim her dressing table, from which hang accessories so bright, they are probably banned in your homes.
From the mayhem emerges Ramnathan, waving brilliant red flip-flops shaped like fish. “Bombils!” she screams, and readily poses for a picture with them. The flip-flops themselves have no idea of the logo they’re on, the Twitter account they have spawned, or the podcast they have inspired, mainly because they’re inanimate objects, but that’s no excuse. Ramnathan has just launched India’s first ever girls-only podcast with her friend Fidgety Fish, who enjoys Clark Kent-like anonymity and everyone needs to stop what they’re doing for a minute and take notice (even inanimate objects).
Bombil Radio (bombiltimes.com), as the girls like to call it, is the sister podcast of Bombil Times, the Twitter account that tries to keep you informed on every event happening in Mumbai. While the latter focuses firmly on events, the former has the two girls talking about everything, from alcohol permits to the unchecked menace of armpit fat.
“We’re just trying to have some fun,” says 28 year-old Ramnathan, a radio professional. “We want to be two real people, talking.” The weekly has had two episodes so far, with the first episode getting 200 listens on the first night itself, and over a 100 more since. The two women speak freely, tearing into their Facebook friends with the ferocity of Rakhi Sawant discussing morality, and slotting them into neat little categories based on their crimes. They talk like they’re with friends, unfettered by the chains of censorship that plague mainstream media.
“You couldn’t talk about sex, politics and religion on the radio,” Ramnathan says. “It has to follow pretty much the same diktat as other media. That being said, radio has always managed to get away with a lot more than say, television.” Bombil Radio gets away with even more, including the occasional f-bomb dropped by one of the girls, sex sounds, and discussions on whether or not they should record an episode drunk on a Saturday night. “Because it is an alternative, it exists without being tampered,” Ramnathan says. “We get to say everything that we can’t say otherwise.”
You can’t stop me
Bombil Radio is not the only podcast setting online airwaves aflutter; there are others far more popular and controversial. Actor and comedian Suresh Menon hosts Kaanmasti with MTV VJ Jose Covaco every fortnight. Stand-up comedians Tanmay Bhat and Gursimran Khamba founded All India Bakchod in February, and a ragtag group of media professionals named Rohan Joseph, Vaishak Ravi, Floyd Fernandes and Ashtiaq Dalton have created a weekly — The Plan B Project.
Though all four of them claim to exist just to entertain people and get their voices heard, they’ve also consciously or subconsciously touched upon political and social topics — the furore over ACP Vasant Dhoble and his liquor permits, for example, have featured on all four podcasts. Noted theatre artiste Kaizaad Kotwal, who was also a professor of theatre, film and media studies at the Ohio State University in the States for 16 years, equates this phenomenon to the plumbing system, so to speak.
“Block water at one place and it’s going to find another to get out of,” he says. According to him, the reason for the proliferation of podcasts is simple — the encroachment upon civil liberties by our government, and not just on free speech. “People are being rounded up at parties,” he says. “A woman’s house was raided because she makes liquor chocolates, while land is being stolen in the North East by the government and given to the industries.”
When Kapil Sibal decided in December 2011 that the Internet should be monitored, there was an uproar amongst its users. According to Kotwal, these podcasts are part of a collective technological middle finger shown to the authorities by the educated middle class. “Block me on FB, block me on Twitter, and I’ll show up somewhere else,” Kotwal says. “How far will they go to stop me?”
Comedy and the city
Put on your dark glasses before you step into Covaco and Menon’s daily workstation, because that gig’s redder than a baboon’s bottom. The scarlet studio in which Menon and Covaco record their daily show comes equipped with a cricket bat and ball, for those moments when yanking each other’s chain gets too boring for them, and also sometimes doubles up as the venue to record their weekly podcast Kaanmasti (kaanmasti.com).
“I’ve wanted to do something like this since 2004,” Covaco says. “I told him — ‘Suresh, let’s record stuff and put it online. It will be so cool — there’s no censorship and you can be real and say what you want. Plus, there are no clients!’” At first there was no time, then Menon was reluctant, but finally in 2012, the powers that be smiled upon Covaco, and the first episode of Kaanmasti was released on the Internet.
“It’s very explicit and no-holds-barred,” Covaco says. “I don’t let my wife listen to it,” Menon adds with a straight face. All episodes of Kaanmasti are laden with cuss-words, and talk about some really funny, really ridiculous stuff. The latest episode, for example, focuses on sex toys and has a long discourse on inflatable dolls.
All India Backchod (http://soundcloud.com/allindiabakchod/) on the other hand, is more current-affairs oriented. “We tend to talk about what’s in the news,” Bhat says. “Except, it’s a lot more hilarious. Comedy is the best way to get at the truth,” Kotwal says. “Go back to the time of ancient Greeks, and you’ll see that their comedies were all aimed at their political weaknesses.”
Khamba and Bhat spare none — from Bollywood to politicos to Japanese men with a penchant for cutting off their own genitals and cooking them — you’ll find them all turned into the butts of many a joke in each episode of All India Bakchod. Khamba and Bhat enjoy a natural chemistry, which makes you laugh along with them in their podcasts.
In many ways, The Plan B Project (http://theplanbproject.in) is similar. However, none of its creators have the advantage of being comedians — they’re just regular people, taking the mickey out of one another. Since they’re four, their opinions tend to differ and the result is a more balanced view.
The response to these podcasts has been tremendous, with Kaanmasti clocking 50,000 page views and 50,000 downloads so far, Bakchod averaging 6,000 listens per episode and 10,000 downloads on iTunes and Plan B doing between 15,000-20,000 downloads on iTunes. With the number of people listening to them only increasing with each episode, the stock of these bright young Internet radio stars seems to be on the rise. “We’re looking for someone to invest 10 million dollars in Kaanmasti, so that people can listen to it all over the world,” Menon says, with a trademark deadpan look. “It’s very popular on Mars already.”
While they’re looking to make money from their online radio adventures, none of them want to compromise on their content. “If we’re not charging our audience to listen to us, and if we’re saying the same things we would otherwise, we don’t mind getting sponsors,” Bhat says. “There are advertisers who understand that it’s the content that’s driving it.”
Another thing they have in common is a certain regard for each other, and the desire to see more podcasts, more competition and at some level, more evolution. Rohan Joseph of Plan B thinks that proliferation will lead to maturity in the content of podcasts. “We have mainly comedy podcasts, because if it’s not fun, it’s not received with as much enthusiasm,” Joseph says. “Once people get used to the format, they’ll get used to serious discussions. We’ll have different types of podcasts.”
Satire and subversion
Podcasts have ushered in a new medium of free expression, once again courtesy technology and the Internet. What you can’t achieve with a post or a 140-character tweet, you can with a podcast by making your voice heard, literally. And although they haven’t purposefully been positioned as an underground movement by their creators, they may well be the beginning of one.
Khamba gives the example of Russian political satire that developed during the communist regime. “Songs, comics, movies and everything satirical was underground. They’d create their own codes, and everybody in the public knew that code. When you said, “fish” you’d mean the president was a c-word, and so did the people listening.”
“As soon as you start repressing people, the first ones to try to subvert that are the artistes — stand up comedians, playwrights and the lot,” says Kotwal. He knows that the existing podcasters haven’t set out to fix society with their products. However, he insists that we focus on the impact, not the intent.
“If you look at the historical nexus of comedy and political subversion, podcasts also fall into that combination, whether deliberately or unknowingly,” Kotwal says.
Ramnathan credits the movement to the times we’re in. “A few years ago, the mainstream was running away from social responsibility, but Anna Hazare — you have to give him credit — made the mainstream grow a conscience,” Ramnathan says. And now you have Satyamev Jayate, a show in which a Bollywood powerhouse, who could’ve made the same money in a mindless blockbuster, chose to tackle social issues and strive for change. Perhaps these podcasts are a step in the same direction, and perhaps one of you can start one too, provided you have a little red fish-shaped flip flop or a quirky personality, for inspiration.