Indian comedy group AIB challenges the values of conservative Indian society
Founders credit U.S. and British satirists for inspiration
AIB found themselves at the center of a media storm after a divisive comedy "roast" offended many in India
Rohan Joshi is perched on the edge of a couch in the All India Bakchod – better known as AIB – premises.
It’s supposed to be an office but feels more like a frat house, with t-shirt and shorts-clad men lounging around, cracking jokes.
Joshi is describing a skit from the upcoming season of AIB’s runaway success TV show, launched last year.
If his mile-a-minute explanation feels inconsequential, it’s not: AIB has amassed more than 100 million YouTube views, proved a controversial force for freedom of speech and changed the comedy landscape of India.
The joke’s on YouTube
What began as a podcast skit with Tanmay Bhat and Gursimran Khamba became AIB when Joshi and fellow standup comedian Ashish Shakya joined the group.
In 2013, they started publishing videos online, and today, their YouTube channel boasts over 1.5 million subscribers.
“What attracted our audience to us is that we were talking about things that nobody else was,” Bhat says.
The group became popular for making comedy skits about current affairs and sending up celebrities.
Their video “Alia Bhatt – Genius of the Year“, which satirizes public perceptions of the Bollywood actress, has been viewed over 12.3 million times.
Scoring millions of views, other hits include “India reacts to ban of pornography“, “Honest: Indian weddings“, and “When India Spoke to Pakistan“, in which the group asks strangers from India and Pakistan to speak to each other over the phone on Independence Day.
India’s funniest, filthiest night
On December 20, 2014, the group took controversy to new heights, with what has been described as India’s “biggest, filthiest, most progressive, and most shocking” night of comedy.
Bollywood A-listers Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor joined AIB for a comedy roast – an American-style celebrity bashing at the guests’ expense.
Subject matter for the two-hour show included homosexuality, Aids, and sexually-explicit jokes. Joshi says it was a thrill to send up actors, who are “usually considered demigods”.
The Maharashtra government didn’t see it that way, calling for a probe into the “inappropriate” content, and social activist Santosh Daundkar filed a complaint with the police.
The show polarized Indian comedy fans on where the line between freedom of speech and public decency should be drawn.
After ample coverage from international media outlets, AIB looks on the bright side.
“When you’re the prime-time story [described as] ‘desh ka kalank,’ which basically means ‘stain on our great nation’, I think that’s pretty much immediate fame,” says Joshi.
New generation, news comedy
The comedy roast furore accentuated a generational shift in attitudes towards entertainment in India.
“[Our parents liked comedy from] 50 years ago,” says Shakya, noting that his generation – thanks to social media and the internet – has access to more contemporary, international material.
AIB wants to steer India’s next generation of comedians in that direction.
Earlier this year, it launched the AIB First Draft: A Writer’s Residency Program.
From thousands of applications, eight writers will be chosen to undertake a six-month residency in Mumbai, where they will write their own movie or a web series script.
AIB hopes the future of Indian comedy will be smarter, surpassing the current slapstick trend for men dressing up as women.
For inspiration, they look to Comedy Central stars, such as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver, who shaped America’s “The Daily Show” with their controversial current affairs-based satire.
“You see that evolution of news comedy. Jon Stewart is very clearly satire and then John Oliver kind of harnessed that for the internet age where he took that and then sort of told you what you could do as a citizen,” says Bhat.
AIB has produced videos on net neutrality, explaining it for an Indian audience, and tackled the delicate topic of attitudes towards sexual violence in India, with the provocatively-titled YouTube video: “Rape: It’s Your Fault.”
While AIB acknowledges the international comedy world is getting smaller, their focus is still on India.
The group last October launched their TV show “On Air With AIB”, catapulting them to a new level of fame in their native country.
“There is so much to do here that the thought that we should cater to an audience outside India doesn’t come into my head,” Bhat says.
“Plus, if you target Indians you get to do shows around the world because Indians are everywhere!”