Nothing of note appeared till the digital evolution began. A handful of young Indians began exploring their talent in this genre. Some of the early movers were Faking News (September, 2008), The Vigil Idiot (March, 2009), Fake IPL Player (April, 2009), Jay Hind (August, 2009), The Viral Fever (sometime in 2009), The UnReal Times (March, 2011), All India Bakchod (February, 2012) and Garbage Bin (December, 2011).
Jay Hind, a late-night comedy show for the internet, was founded and created by Abhigyan Jha, who also co-founded Movers & Shakers. Fake IPL Player was a blog initiated by Anupam Mukerji around the Indian Premier League. Faking News and The UnReal Times are news satire portals. Faking News was started by Rahul Roushan while The UnReal Times was started by Chepuri Krishna and Kartik Laxman. The Vigil Idiot is a picture-based blog that reviews movies in a comic format. It was started by Sahil Rizwan.
Roushan is a former news anchor, Mukerji a marketing specialist, has worked with HCL Perot Systems, Wipro and Career Launcher. Laxman and Krishna are IIM-Ahmedabad graduates, who were in rural Bihar working full-time with a BJP MP on development initiatives in his constituency, Purnea, when they turned to humour for relief.
All India Bakchod (AIB) and The Viral Fever (TVF) are online entertainment networks in the video format. AIB was founded by comedians Gursimran Khamba and Tanmay Bhat, along with Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya. Rizwan, a graduate, was a blogger even while in college. Garbage Bin is a recent entrant that has gained popularity on Facebook for its gags (mostly in Hindi), focus mostly on funny incidents from childhood in everyone's life. Faisal Mohammad, the creator of Garbage Bin is a graduate working at Geek Mentor Studios.
How it began
Krishna and Laxman, The UnReal Times wrote their first satirical piece as a relaxation exercise after an exhausting project. "We got a good response, so we thought that we should start writing regularly," adds Krishna.
Mukerji of The Fake IPL Player wanted to play a prank on the world and make a name for himself. "I thought it had the potential to go viral but could never predict its sucess," he reflects. For Kumar, founder, TVF, it was more like giving expression to his interest and passion. "I began making radical videos and my motto was lights, camera and experiment."
With Jay Hind, the idea was different as its founder had already tasted success with Movers & Shakers. Says founder-director Jha, "We were looking for a route to connect with people without the via medium of television channels."
Satire and spoof are the two most prevalent, liked and shared forms. The underlying message of a satire is a call to action for improvement while a spoof re-creates an entire theme and mocks it by exaggerating the characters to entertain people.
Next come the stereotypes. For example Arnab Goswami, editor-in-chief and anchor, Times Now, is a stereotype for angry young man, who carries the burden of the country on his shoulders. Social satire also finds resonance. Take the It's Your Fault video by AIB which has reactions to absurd comments and suggestions made by well-known people or political leaders on the increasing instances of rape. The video featured Bollywood actor Kalki Koechlin and VJ Juhi Pandey telling viewers how their dressing sense, eating habits and lifestyle victimise them. The video went viral and was liked both nationally and internationally. Sport, specifically cricket, is another.
Mukerji chose teams such as Kolkata Knight Riders, Royal Challengers Bangalore, Kings XI Punjab and personalities like Shane Warne, Sourav Ganguly (Dada), Shahrukh Khan and the wild RCB and KXI Punjab parties that Vijay Mallya and Preity Zinta threw. Both Faking News and The UnReal Times sometimes go for geo-politics also. Other categories that work well are campus humour, office politics and daily lives.
But religion is a category that all stay away from. Writers, however, need to be given a free hand and the content has to reflect common public opinion. For example, one cannot say that Arvind Kejriwal is dishonest or corrupt because it is not the opinion of people. They can comment on his U-turns, righteousness or dharna strategies, because people see it and they are in the public opinion.
There is a pattern
When it is online, the most effective format is the audio-visual as people prefer to watch more videos and pictures than reading text. Arnab Qtiyapa from TVF, It's Your Fault from AIB and Ae Mere Vaitan ke Logon from Jay Hind, Manmohan Singham from The UnReal Times are some of the popular ones.
Second on the list is the podcast format favoured by AIB. Some popular shows are Humble Plea to Bollywood and Raju Srivastava. Says Kumar of TVF, "I think the video has the charm of flesh and blood live on the screen. Audio has always lagged in India and it will be tough for it to take off."
The genre experiments with pictures also. There was a recent poster of J Jayalalitha, chief minister, Tamil Nadu, which showed world leaders bowing to her in respect. The UnReal Times tweaked it and came out with one which showed The Avengers, Harry Potter, Batman, Spiderman and other superheroes bowing before her.
The comic strip format with pictures of well known people also gathers traction. It is frequently used by Faking News and The UnReal Times. The Vigil Idiot spoofs movie reviews using caricatures instead of celebrity pictures. The most common is the long/short/blog story format. Some examples of hit stories are 'IRCTC site running slow due to fog' or 'Taking a cue from Micromax, Chaini Khaini hires Brad Pitt as brand ambassador'.
TVF has a subscriber base of nearly half a million on YouTube and claims average views of over 6 lakh for every video and a total of over 30 million views. AIB has a subscriber base of 3.8 lakh on YouTube and 18 million views. They have a relatively low presence on Twitter and Facebook. Jay Hind has a base of 38,000 subscribers on YouTube with 32 million views so far. They produce at least 2-3 videos a month now.
Getting content published or aired on channels is expensive. TVF and Jay Hind tried hard for long to get a show for TV - channels said that young audiences do not want to watch this kind of content. The option open now was to eliminate the 'middleman' and go directly to the consumer.
Moreover, freedom of expression is far more democratic online compared to TV. "Our creative guys need it," says Jha of Jay Hind. He adds that television channels do not like to experiment. The advent of social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube came as a big boost. Now, if there is a great idea for a movie, it can be shot and then promoted online. Roushan says that Faking News would have been just an idea if it were not for social media.
The consumer is mostly the urban English speaking Indian between 18 and 40 years - mainly graduates, post graduates, executives, brand people and college-goers. While most ventures spent their early days as blogs with no revenue stream to speak of, they have started figuring out ways to monetise it now. Two of the main routes are sponsorships and Google ads. While a million impressions could earn around Rs. 1 lakh from Google ads, YouTube gives anywhere between Rs. 30,000 and Rs. 2 lakh for a million views, for the ads it puts up on a show. But the content creator has to be a YouTube partner. A million video impressions by a non-partner, on the other hand, could give the creator Rs. 3-5 lakh.
The UnReal Times too lives on Google ads. Now, it is reaching out to mainstream agencies. It is also coming out with a book called The UnReal Elections. There exists a beta version of the portal in Tamil. According to Laxman, The UnReal Times has started paying its bloggers and is looking to expand the team.
Apart from Qtiyapa, Recycle Bin and Humorouslyyours, TVF has set up three new channels, and plans to launch three more. It earns from YouTube ads and subsidises itself on the income it generates from other divisions such as live events and stand up shows. TVF has brands like freecharge.in, Bharti SoftBank, Infibeam and Colgate Plax on board. Other brands too are attracting sponsors. AIB recently got Snapdeal.com on board. TVF has also started text and images.
What to watch out for
Creating spoofs and parodies is hard work. "India is a funny country with very little sense of humour," says Kumar of TVF. When Mukerji began his blog, the few things that he took care of was to use nicknames instead of the real names, put a disclaimer on the blog that it is fake and call the blog Fake IPL Player, so that it left little scope for misinterpretation. Even so, there have been hilarious misunderstandings.
One publication took a news item from Faking News seriously and published it on its website. The piece was titled 'IRCTC site running slow due to fog'. So Faking News and The UnReal Times invariably mention in their story 'as told to Faking News/The UnReal Times.
The Information Technology Act 66A applies to these content creators, and requires them not to be defamatory, blasphemous, obscene, cause disorder or confusion, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will. Most content creators find 66A vague, but they have to follow the rules.The other no-nos are nudity and plagiarising.
Each channel has its USP. Faking News and The UnReal Times raise a good laugh with their irreverence. They believe in not being serious and never attempt at making a point. TVF wants to be a family entertainer. Its underlining philosophy maintains that whatever the script is, the family comes first. AIB, on the other hand, through its content wants to be funny and intelligent as well as make a point. It wants to tell what it thinks through its videos. Jay Hind wants to do every type of content and reach out to all kinds of audiences.
There is recognition too. In 2013, YouTube organised the Comedy Fan Fest where it invited content creators to showcase their talent. Pratik Gupta, director, new business and innovations, FoxyMoron, says, "Google has specific funds to give out to content creators."
No laughing matter
According to Jha every player needs to differentiate. "Also, if the content is not pushed it cannot go viral. The value of the content is not the number of people who shared it but the number of people who enjoyed it," he says.
Timing is of great essence. Says Kumar, "A parody of a movie has to be made within a month of two of release, otherwise it goes flat." For current issues, the reaction time has to be quicker. If the show depends on brands for sponsorship, it would like the brands to respond instantly to catch the wave. "Otherwise," adds Kumar, "they miss a golden opportunity. Brands are scared of mistakes - what if something goes wrong?"
The online audience, say the players, is tolerant and if one accepts one's mistake the viewer appreciates it and says, 'Good job, lets move on.' That is a big plus.
A Note From the Editor
Back in the 1980s, educated Indians had a rather low opinion of most things Indian, and with good reason. However, that self-flagellation sometimes extended to the most unexpected areas.
One grumble heard often was that Indians didn't even have a sense of humour! I remember getting into an angry argument on this one because I hate whiners and this was really the limit. How could one even begin to compare one nationality with another? Was there a ranking of the 'World's Most Humorous Countries'? Of course there wasn't.
As Indians' opinion of themselves improved, I began to hear less on the subject. Of course, one has to concede that in a country as diverse as India where everyone is in a minority on grounds of language, caste, region, religion or gender, people are quick to take offence at laughter purportedly directed at them. Sometimes I wonder if some people lie in anticipation, just waiting to be offended so that they can burn something down or enjoy a cheerful little riot.
One thing is certain: there has never been a better time for the comic next door. (There is even an article on 'How to have a sense of humour' on Wikihow!) In the past, a great joke would have travelled slowly around a hostel or college at most to another. Today, a lazing teen can punch a one-liner into his mobile and that could light up a million smiles within days.
From sharing a private joke digitally to making a business out of humour was just a step away. And that is exactly what we have. A bunch of young men - it is mostly men - are using the digital media to laugh at everything they see around them. And in India, there is a lot to laugh about.
These attempts are being powered by social media. We like to share funny stuff with friends and family because making them laugh is a nice way of saying hello.
The 'funnies' are the subject on the cover not because it is big business but because it says something about the digital medium as well us as Indians.