One night last year, Gursimranjeet Khamba found himself fighting off a drunk guy after a show in Delhi. It was shortly after Sai Baba’s death and Khamba had been unable to resist making jokes about the sex abuse allegations against the guru. The drunk audience member, a devotee, was not amused. “He said, ‘I’ll kill you, motherfucker’ and tried to beat me up,” said Khamba. But with both of their friends intervening, “it was fine”.
Like other comics, Khamba jokes about relationships, porn and his girlfriend. Unlike many of them, the 26-year-old is making a name for himself barrelling into the holiest of cows. The Delhi-bred comic has a “poor people set”, “an Islam bit”, “a caste set” and recently made a joke about Indira Gandhi that had fellow comic Rajneesh Kapoor worrying about a possible death threat. That won’t be new for him either: he’s already received several threatening emails. “It’s funny pushing those buttons, but it’s like you’re racing the clock till you die,” he said.
Khamba first hit the Mumbai comedy circuit last April preceded by a reputation for acid-tongued commentary on current affairs and religious and social taboos, expressed freely on his blog, on Twitter and at stand up gigs. In January, the media student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences drummed up more fans with the launch of a no-holds-barred podcast, All India Bakchod, with comic Tanmay Bhat. Khamba will hit his first Local Heroes and weekend shows at The Comedy Store this fortnight.
It was Kapoor who first brought Khamba onto the Delhi circuit in 2009 when he invited him to his open mic after reading his acerbic tweets. Those rants are often targeted at the upper classes – they’re particularly sensitive about Narendra Modi, he said – but he knows his limits. “You want to see how far you can push an audience,” said Khamba, adding, “I’m still trying to find the sweet spot between social commentary and laughs because you don’t want to be the asshole ranting on stage.”
Moving to Mumbai to study has meant having to balance going from a late night comedy gig to an 8am “lecture on feminist theory”. But it’s also helped him realise a two-yearold dream – hosting a comedy podcast. The intention behind All India Bakchod is no less than “a tool for subversion against the despotic regulations being brought forth by the powers that be”. That translates into gleeful lampooning of the news, a couple of comic songs and even a conversation that lasted eight minutes without a punchline that garnered the hosts “shitloads of hate”. Khamba also prizes jamming with the city’s comic fraternity. “When I came here, I felt that I had to really learn more because all of these guys were just so much more evolved in terms of style,” said Khamba, who is now planning to bump up his repertoire by learning the guitar and improvisational comedy. He recently talked to his father about staying on in Mumbai. “We’re a regular Punju business family but they’ve been cool,” he said. “My dad doesn’t know what stand up is, but as long as your photograph gets printed in the paper, he’s like you’re doing something right.”
The move to Mumbai hasn’t been entirely positive for his material. “In Delhi if you do politics, everybody’s with it. In Bombay, nobody has a clue,” Khamba said, who was infuriated to find audience members hearing about the 2008 proposal to put a Shivaji statue off the coast for the first time at his show. “If you do The Comedy Store, in the front row there are people drinking wine and shit, and any political reference is going [over their heads] and I’m like, ‘It’s your country, just look beyond town’.”
Khamba describes himself as a renegade at Sikh school, though his outspokenness never landed him in trouble. When his parents separated, he lived with his father and sister in Hauz Khas, which later inspired a blog rant on Delhi’s “posh kalonies”. Most comics in India come from privileged backgrounds, said Khamba, so “all you get in stand up is very upper class rich elite perspectives”. Khamba is aware that he’s a long way from breaking class barriers like American comics Bill Hicks, George Carlin and Richard Pryor. “If you want to talk about gay rights at The Comedy Store, 90 per cent of the audience already agrees, so you’re not breaking any cultural ground,” he said. “There is a need to address issues like caste and religion in an Indian context, because on some level you are exposing how hollow their liberal facade is.”
Khamba’s effort to stay true to himself often gets in the way of spinning clean material for lucrative corporate gigs. It was in Mumbai that the comic had a “change of heart” about doing jokes for mass appeal. “I have a porn set I hate doing but it kills,” said Khamba. “I’ve reached a stage where it doesn’t matter. The audience paid money, the audience is laughing, it’s cool.” But he’s in no danger of selling out or toning it down. He’s now reading DN Jha’s The Myth of the Holy Cow to rustle up some fireworks for a new set on “our hypocrisy towards beef”. And if he does die at the hands of an angry audience? “That’s one way to leave a legacy, to be the first comic killed for his material,” he said. “Because that means I’ll have a Wikipedia entry and people will quote me later and T-shirts will be printed with my name, and that’ll be cool.”
By Saumya Ancheri on May 11 2012 4.30am
Photos by Amit Chakravarty