Splitsider

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

JayHind! A Barrel of Lakhs for India

In India, the expression “Jai Hind” usually functions as a patriotic salutation to the homeland. Like L’Chaim, but instead of “to life,” it’s “to India!” When the host of the world’s oldest full-format TV show on the Internet utters the phrase, he is both referring to the title of the show and firmly planting his tongue in his cheek. When it premiered online in 2009, “JayHind!” became India’s first late night stand-up comedy show on the Internet, in addition to being the first in general to create a 20+ minute program for Interweb eyes only. The show’s creators describe their show as “uniquely scripted, uncensored, and has an unabashed humorous take on fundamentalism of all kinds across the board.” And they do it twice a week, with new episodes every Monday and Thursday.

More than 250 episodes later, JayHind! spawned a television version aptly called the Late Night Show [which may also mark a world first of TV adapting a full format from the Internet], as well as an English-language international version called Better Late Than Never, an awards show for the “worst of the worst” of the year — like a Razzies but for real people — and a regular stint at The Comedy Store, Mumbai. The show has such a large audience, the website was deemed hack-worthy last summer by an anti-India fundamentalist group. In response to the incident, @Jayhind tweeted “Jayhind.tv was hacked today by anti-India fundamentalists. If we were Arindam Chaudhuri, we’d have sued the World Wide Web.” Arindam Chaudhuri is a self-help guru of sorts in India, notorious for some flagrantly litigious behavior. In other words, JayHind! preferred to take the high road to humor even with regard to a very serious situation.

Quick numbers game: The website has cleared 100 million hits, and gets a reported average of 1 and a half lakhs in hits a day (a South Asian unit of measurement for 100,000). Their YouTube channel has nearly 16 million total video views, a statistic that made even YouTube take note. In late 2010, Jay Hind was handpicked by the company to join the YouTube Partner Programme in India. All of this is to say JayHind! may be the biggest Internet comedy series you’ve never heard of.

There’s some English sprinkled in here and there, but this most recent episode should give you an idea of what its all about:

The language of Internet click-through might be universal, for better or worse, and the makers of JayHind! seem to have a keen understanding of how YouTube works. Provocative thumbnails abound, and their most popular segment on the platform is called “Savita Bhabi Sexy Solutions.” Savita Bhabi was one of the first modern “porn stars” in India, though in the form of a comic strip. Turning her into a real life joke on JayHind! has translated to views in the hundreds of thousands to million per video — in other words, a lotta lakhs. Here is the most popular video on the channel, also with the word “Avatar” in the title.

Well played, JayHind! — the Internet.

There are much more risqué Savita Bhabi segments than this one, but it’s clear that the people behind JayHind! understand the algorithms to building an online audience. The major forces behind the show are the host/anchor Sumeet Raghavan and the executive producer/director Abhigyan Jha, who also co-founded the show’s production company Undercover Production. Jha is no stranger to the late night comedy world in India; he was the executive producer, creative director, and script editor of JayHind!’s popular predecessor Movers and Shakers.

Raghvan was a seasoned veteran in India’s entertainment industry when he joined the show, but the show has made him even more of a household name. Even without the popularity points, the freewheeling spirit of the show is reward enough for him. Upon the completion of their 250th episode, Raghvan told the Times of India:

“Shooting for Jay Hind feels like a breeze! We are always laughing and cracking jokes on the sets, not only on others, but even on ourselves…The show has also contributed enormously towards improving my capabilities as an actor. I feel proud to be associated with a path-breaker like Jay Hind!”

It may be difficult to comprehend just how much of a breath of fresh air JayHind!’s spirit is for India, a country that still technically outlaws pornography. There still exists an ambiguous line of propriety around what one should and shouldn’t discuss in public. In the past decade, though, comedians have slowly been chipping away at this edifice. When British comedy enterprise “The Comedy Store” opened in Mumbai in June 2010, it was the first stand-up comedy venue in all of India. Despite the newness of it, more than 1,000 people showed up for the opening of the Comedy Store’s first overseas outpost. A sea change was not just occurring among comedians, but among the general population as well.

Last month, a two-day comedy festival called Comedy Fest debuted in Delhi. At the beginning of the year, India got Comedy Central. However, one comedian participating in the Delhi festivities told reporter Pooja Kashyap “Indian audiences need psychological manipulation to get over the societal barriers to laugh at darker stuff.” In other words, slapstick is still the quickest way to belly laughs from an audience in India.

The New York Times published an article declaring that humor had officially come of age in India. Reporter Vikas Bajaj asked the revered comic Asok Chakradhar to explain the evolution of India’s sense of humor in recent years, and Chakradhar responded with the following joke:

In the 1980’s, women told men, love me but don’t touch me. In the 1990’s, they said touch me but don’t kiss me. In 1995, they said kiss me, but nothing more. In 2000, it was do whatever you want but don’t tell anybody. In 2010, they say do something otherwise I will tell everybody you don’t know how to do anything.

Chakradhar attributed the perception shift to globalization, but as Bajaj points out, cultural battles continue over questionable content across all facets of media. The opening up process might be slow, but it provides increasingly fertile ground for comedians right now. In fact, the process is more one of rediscovery than one of creation. Professor Lee Siegel, interviewed for that same article, wrote an entire book on ancient Indian humor. The country had a long and rich legacy of satire, but British censorship shut much of it down — and the censorship continued in post-imperial times.

Likely inspired by their success with the sexy Savita Babhi segment, JayHind! decided to skewer Indo-Canadian porn star Sunny Leone recently, who is a trending topic across the country. The segment, called “Sunny Days,” nearly doubled their regular viewership. However, 20 years ago they may not have been able to cover such a sexual topic with uncensored glee. Then again, 20 years ago there was no Internet shows and no YouTube. I see your point.

After three years, JayHind! is showing no signs of slowing down. Sumeet Raghavan slipped comfortably into his hosting shoes for the premiere of The Late Night Show on the Colors network. You can watch the full episode below — there are bits of English spattered here and there.

The format is relatively similar to the online version, right down to the live band, scriptwriters, and liberal use of green screen.

Simultaneously, the creators are working on world domination. Their show Better Late Than Never is the English-language international version of the JayHind! The tagline is “International Madness made in India,” and they tackle so many taboo subjects in under 30 minutes you might believe they are actually mad.

In this clip entitled “Most Offensive Humor” from February of this year, Sumeet zings fundamentalists with that uninhibited glee we keep mentioning.

They claim to be the most offensive humor show in the world, but there’s something sweet and earnest about their delivery that makes them too endearing to be deeply offensive. This is the most recent episode of Better Late Than Never if you need more a little more evidence on the offense front.

Classic penis on Berlusconi’s forehead visual! JayHind! and its various spin-offs may take an equal-opportunity approach to offensive jokes, but the delivery lacks any sense of malice or mean-spiritedness. The show ultimately feels inherently good-natured. A crowd-pleaser. Poised for world domination.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.

  • Rishabh Bablani@twitter

    Huh. How did I not know about this? Very un-Indian of me!