What Makes Kapil Sharma India’s Most Popular TV Star?

(Photo courtesy - Comedy Nights With Kapil)

(Photo courtesy – Comedy Nights With Kapil)

By Mansi Choksi

Kapil Sharma is flopping around inside his vanity van, belt unbuckled and jeans hanging below the waist, bemoaning the agony of stardom. As three men with cascading paunches – whom Sharma has invited to go shirtless for a gag – wait outside, he bellows in Hindi, “Poora din bas photo hi kheechata rahu? (Should I just keep posing for photos all day?)” A production assistant who appears to be mostly legs and collarbone shivers anxiously. “I feel hungry and tired too,” Sharma grumbles, throwing a towel onto the dresser. “Ok, sorry, bring them in,” he finally concedes.

It’s past midnight in Film City, a strange place in suburban Mumbai reserved for television and film shoots, safe from the spell of irony. Sharma, 32, has just finished shooting another episode ofComedy Nights With Kapil, the most-watched non-fiction show in India, where he makes people laugh and gets to kiss the cheeks of famous Bollywood stars. He’s let the mantle of most-watched show slip only twice in the seven months since his show launched in June last year, and is often greeted with overtures like “Comedy King,” “The Ruler of Hearts,” “Laugh Riot,” and “Indian of the Year”.

“I don’t know how I became so famous,” Sharma says to me, sinewy with a square face and neatly parted hair. “This is the fruit of blessings. All of India’s blessings.”

Sharma grew up in police quarters in Amritsar, fantasizing about making it as a singer. His father, a police officer, and mother, a housewife, would watch dreamily as he whipped out his guitar at family functions, and as aunties in embellished saris and uncles in safari suits scurried across halls with praise and tips to ward off the evil eye. He was in his early 20s and not getting much farther than singing at local college youth festivals when he heard that a local TV channel was recruiting comedians for its Punjabi stand-up show, Hasde Hasounde Ravo. He showed up with a backpack and a wry smile, and made it to the final round.

“My father would pull my mother’s tail, and my mother would pull my father’s tail,” Sharma says to me tonight, sitting on a bouncy faux leather couch inside his van. “So basically, our house was full of pulled tails.”

Even though he didn’t win that first TV contest, the sight of audiences bending with laugher inspired him to move to Mumbai in 2007 to participate in The Great Indian Laughter Challenge on Star One, a Hindi stand-up comedy show judged by actor-comic Shekhar Suman and cricketer-comic Navjot Singh Sidhu (the latter is now a fixture on Sharma’s show). By now, Sharma had mastered the character of Shamsher Singh, the arrogant, paan-chewing, occasionally drunk Punjabi police officer. Shamsher gave him a ticket to another hit show called Comedy Circus on Sony TV, in which he participated in seven seasons and won six.

Last year, Sharma hosted the dance reality show Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa, compered the “Colors Golden Petals Awards” for TV stars, appeared 93rd on Forbes India’s Celebrity 100 list and was named ‘Indian of the Year‘ by the news channel CNN-IBN. He’s growing used to the cameras trailing him these days.

His show Comedy Nights With Kapil on Colors TV is an unofficial adaptation of the British show The Kumars at No. 42, complete with a libidinous grandmother, an unmarried aunt, a dangerously fat neighbor and a nagging wife. While a chunk of the show is solo stand-ups and sketches between the characters, at least a third usually involves interaction with members of the audience, who happily line up for their public flogging. In one episode, a good-natured gentleman told Sharma he had travelled from Indore to attend his show. “Look at him,” Sharma crowed back. “Do I ever show up in Indore to see your factory?”

“I started doing really well, but I [still] wasn’t getting to sing,” Sharma tells me. And so, he says, he began slipping in the odd song before opening his act. In August, Lata Mangeshkar tweeted about his “good singing”. “Lataji, I can’t believe you said this about me. My life is now complete. I bow down to the Queen of Melody,” he tweeted back in his typically polite hyperbole.

Sharma’s face crumples into a mix of innocence and insidiousness when he laughs. But he strictly reserves self-deprecation for the screen. “I have many, many offers. Other channels want my show, producers want me in their films. I’ve lost count,” Sharma says to me in his vanity van, looking into his own eyes in a mirror. Recently, he reportedly demanded more than Rs. 1 crore to host the Celebrity Cricket League; his appearance on the opening night prompted further reports wondering if he was now the highest-paid comedian in India.

He speaks with a noticeable Punjabi accent and has no compunction about slipping in the occasional cliché or tired marriage joke. The appeal of his jokes seems to be all about finding the predictable ‘snicker’ button in his audience – and pressing hard. “At fancy restaurants, even a cup of tea is for 500 rupees because it comes with 4 or 500 utensils,” he said in one episode. “Sir, this is hot water, here is milk, this one is from cow and this one is from buffalo, there white sugar, here brown sugar, and here some toothpicks in case the tea gets stuck in your teeth,” he continued in his high-society voice, imitating a waiter. “But people like us, we like roadside dhabas because the tea is cheap. There is always one man in filthy knickers, pouring tea in five glasses at once, with one finger dipped in each cup.”

The reason his show is doing well, Sharma argues, is because India needs comedy more than ever. “There is so much corruption, rape, price rise. Everyone roams with tension on his head. My show takes some of that stress off for a little while,” he says. “But let the government also do something, or have I taken responsibility for all of India’s problems?”

But Sharma may have unintentionally added another problem to India’s ‘issues’: fairly unintelligent but socially acceptable humor.


* * *

The crowd is bobbing, screaming. A short, thin man dressed in all-black with a skull entirely engulfed by enormous headphones rockets across the vast orange stage. “Ready to have some fun?” he screams into a microphone. An army of other short, thin men in all-black goes around the room, separating families and friends. Pretty girls must sit behind Navjot Singh Sidhu, who regularly butts in with bad poetry from an oasis in the audience. People in white must be seated between those in red and green because that’s what looks good on TV. Those who have been selected to ask questions must be evenly spread out through the room, and each must be surrounded by more pretty young women. If there aren’t enough, attractive production assistants must take their place.

It’s been over four hours since the audience was seated, bored and hungry, when an electronic blast begins. There are big lights, a drumming crescendo, and the boom of an invisible voice: “Audience ready? 3, 2, 1…Clap!” One middle-aged man who has dozed off near the aisle is shaken awake by the all-powerful leader of the army of short, thin men in all-black, the masticating associate producer. “Clap, clap,” he growls.

Sharma finally takes the stage and introduces his guest, Bipasha Basu, the Hindi film actor whose red hair rises from her head in a corona. Basu, who has appeared in more than 50 films and won several major awards, appears in a neon green top and black leggings to promote her new fitness DVD calledUnleash. “So Bipasha, you have done many things, but did you ever think you would get the opportunity to be on Comedy Nights with Kapil?” Sharma asks earnestly.

Giddy with laughter, Basu doesn’t even attempt a comeback and goes straight to the point.
“When Indian men work out, they focus on the upper body,” she giggles some more. “They need to focus more on their…how do I say it, asses.”

Sharma smirks. His two eyes have now popped open like umbrellas. “If you’re willing to teach, every Indian man will become fit,” he announces, prompting avuncular audience members to throw their heads back in laughter and shake their hands above. Sidhu, from his quiet corner, also butts in, “Thokko, thokko!” (a generous interpretation of which might be “Bam, bam!”). By now, the audience is shaking like a living thing.

After a round of rehearsed questions about Basu’s secrets to keeping fit, what she looks for in a partner and how she feels about being named one of Asia’s sexiest women, she invites three housewives on stage to show them how to lose weight while doing housework. As they lift the ends of their kurtas to squat, beaming with pride as cameras zoom in their direction, a man who has come dressed in a sequined sherwani sighs next to me. “Who doesn’t want to be on TV?” he whispers. “Tell me one person.”

Suddenly, the studio’s lights came on and the short, thin men in all-black pluck out a boy who has managed to sneak his mobile phone inside. “He was recording!” their leader snarls.
“Guys, please,” he adds, as the accused is unceremoniously walked to the door.

Sharma announces a 10-minute break. “I have to pee. Can I?” he chuckles, one pinky raised. “Thokko thokko!” Sidhu replies, and bursts into laughter at his own joke.
Some members of the audience, who’ve by now been captive inside the freezing studio for six hours, also hope for a bathroom break.

“Please sir, it’s come really bad,” pleads one young man, growing desperate and incoherent.

“Just look at him,” the masticating leader mocks him. “Come on yaar, [the] children and elderly are [also] holding.”

“Please sir, please, it’s a request.”

“Why did you come here if you can’t hold it!”

“I should not have had water, sir.”

“You should be ashamed of yourself.”

* * *

The shoot is finally over, eight hours after the audience first got in at 4pm. As a steady stream of gratified faces emerges from bathroom stalls behind the set, Sharma dismantles a tiffin box on the dresser inside his van.

“I do the kind of comedy that is attached to the masses,” he says. “A majority of people in this country lead ordinary lives, and I try to appeal to them.”

He’s certainly learned that one sure way to appeal to audiences is to steer clear of direct jokes on sex (something most shows on Indian TV pretend doesn’t exist). Sharma gets to work at least two hours before show time everyday to ensure that nothing dirty has crept into the script. “If you do dirty comedy, only some people will watch,” he says. “Families don’t get scared to watch [my] show. A father can sit with his daughter and watch it because he knows there won’t be anything dirty in it.”

That also probably explains why he resorts to clichéd marriage jokes. In one episode, when Sharma asked a balding man in the audience to name all the great dishes his wife could cook, the man fumbled. “Just go home and see what’s cooked for dinner. I know what you’ll find,” Sharma said. He folded his right palm like a stinging cobra before delivering his punch line: “Babaji ka thullu.”

It’s a phrase often offered by Sharma as the answer to most questions in life. “Babaji ka thullu” now thrives on t-shirts, dance routines, even Twitter memes. Varun Thakur, a stand-up comic popular for playing his character of ‘Mamman Bhai’, says he’s convinced “Babaji ka thullu” is a subtle reference to the phallus.

“It has to be,” says Thakur. “Look at the way it’s used. It’s everywhere and no one knows what it really means so it’s not offensive.”

There’s most likely truth in that. While much of Sharma’s show continues to be about fat men whirling their bellies while dancing, or Sharma’s cross-dressing grandmother trying to land a wet kiss on some actor’s cheek, the underlying sleaze in his ‘family’ comedy often spills over. In one early episode, when Sharma entered the stage surrounded by Caucasian dancers, he announced, “I’m not a naughty guy but I want to be naughty with her, because it’s not like she or her forefathers are going to understand me.”

“I don’t know what Babaji ka thullu means,” Sharma says cheekily when I ask him. “Thullu is a cute word but apart from that, I know nothing.”

According to Thakur, Sharma’s popularity is a result of his signature deadpan sincerity. “What he says may not always be funny, it’s the way he says it. He can sell a really bad joke,” he says. “He has a likeable persona and if anyone is funny and likeable, there’s no stopping him.”

Prahlad Kakkar, the hatted ad filmmaker, has a completely different explanation. According to him, Sharma’s comic delivery is successful because it’s dry and cynical. “What makes him really funny is that he takes an ordinary situation and narrates it in an extraordinary way,” says Kakkar.

They’re both on to something. When Sharma delivers a joke, he isn’t immediately consumed by a wave of self-satisfaction. As he waits for a reaction, it is in an almost goofy, awkward way, which makes him relatable and likeable.

“He speaks in Hindi, looks like an ordinary guy and appeals to the lowest common denominator,” Kakkar says. “In effect, it’s a show about a comic take on a common man’s problems,” Sidhu also notes. Sharma does tend to populist themes, such as mocking people who show off their English fluency to rickshaw drivers, bus conductors and street vendors. “They tell the rickshaw driver, ‘Oh your meter is running fast and it’s charging two rupees extra,’” Sharma said in one episode. “If you know so much English, why are you crying for two rupees? Get out, die,” he snapped.

Kakkar considers Sharma to be the Hindi version of Cyrus Broacha, the wig-wearing satirical fixture on MTV. “Both are well-read, well-informed, and are never caught on the back foot,” says Kakkar. “You can’t prepare for something like that.”

It’s also safe to say that both celebrity managers and TV audiences are fairly impressionable. When everyone from Salman Khan to Madhuri Dixit to Ranbir Kapoor to Deepika Padukone begins to show up on Sharma’s set, there is a domino effect. Shah Rukh Khan has already appeared twice in seven months – once even with a fractured arm, when he declared there was no way he would have missed the opportunity to be on Sharma’s show. In a culture where we get through a comedy show on the crutches of ridiculous sounds effects like “Toing!” to mark where we should be laughing, such access to the Bollywood A-list provides cumulative validation.

And then there is the constant bugbear of comedy – someone taking ‘offence’ to a joke. The Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan landed up at the Maharashtra State Women’s Commission earlier this month. Sharma had demeaned women, they declared. In an episode with Hema Malini, Sharma had announced that there were benefits, after all, of living in cities with potholed roads. “If a poor person is travelling with his pregnant wife and they hit a pothole, on the spot delivery happens,” he had said on the show.

“[This is] why only slapstick works [on Indian TV] because the joke is on someone else,” says Kakkar. “People in power especially have no sense of humor because they’re so full of shit. Kapil manages to take the piss out of them and that’s refreshing.”

Sharma does make fun of people, but only through polite, underhanded compliments. When Shah Rukh Khan offered to buy his show in one episode, Sharma replied, “Why sir, you’ve fallen on such bad times? You have such little money?”

Back in his van, Sharma is finally eating a dinner of chappati and dal and wishing Indians didn’t take themselves so seriously. “We have a tendency to go deep with every issue,” he says to me. “I never mean to offend anyone but if I say that a wife loves her husband and a husband loves his wife, where’s the comedy?” he asks.

“I’m making people laugh, doing something good,” Sharma says to me. “What are they doing?” And for such rhetorical questions, he himself has only one answer: Babbaji ka thullu.

Mansi Choksi is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Read more of her work at mansichoksi.com.

Published on January 27, 2014 in Yahoo Originals.