Home / Industry / Review | On Air with AIB

You don’t make fun of the government in India. Ever. Whether it’s the Congress or Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or even Trinamool Congress. Our politicians don’t like anyone laughing at them. And our entertainment and news channels, in deference to them and to wanting to stay on air, try not to make programmes which will offend them. Which is why it was most impressive to hear that All India Bakchod (AIB)—which has already earned the ire of the government, Aamir Khan and the Church—was going to be front-lining a news comedy show. That too on primetime entertainment channels, Star Plus and Star World.

Would we finally see someone taking the mickey out of the government and other newsmakers?

The show is called On Air With AIB (I’m assuming that the title isn’t inspired by On Air With Ryan Seacrest) and has two versions. A Hindi version anchored by Tanmay Bhatt and Gursimran Khamba on Star Plus. And an English version anchored by Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya on Star World. The format is very similar to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, in the sense that it picks up one topic and discusses it through the major part of the 22-minute episode. The topic for the first episode was corruption and the Whistleblower’s Act.

If you watch John Oliver’s show, it’s a pretty straight format. They discuss what’s in the news for a bit and then go into discussing one main topic. On Air’s first episode discussed the details of the Whistleblower’s Act, the Vyapam scam murders and the dodgy security given to whistleblower Ashish Chaturvedi. There were some funny bits, especially in the Hindi version which I preferred to the English one, as the jokes with Indian references just seemed to sound better in Hindi.

Was it as funny as I thought it would be? No. But that’s because AIB themselves have set the bar so high for humour that you expect them to hit you with sarcasm and jibes through the episode. The show is definitely informative and by the end of the episode, you’re quite well-informed about the Whistleblower Act, RTI Act, Official Secrets Act, Vyapam scam, Deepthroat and Ashok Khemka. What the boysy have going for them is that the tone of the show isn’t preachy. Also all four of them are extremely comfortable in front of the camera.

The problem is that it’s not particularly funny. And that’s disappointing because if you’ve watched AIB’s shows or videos or follow them on Twitter, you know these guys can be hilarious and risqué. Yet throughout this episode, they seemed to be erring on the side of caution as there were absolutely no BJP jokes and barely a couple of Congress mentions. This isn’t surprising, because many stand-up comics and scriptwriters I know, who’ve been asked to script political satire shows on the lines of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and so on, have been clearly told by Indian channels approaching them that they cannot make jokes about the ruling party, Modi, Amit Shah, Amitabh Bachchan, Mukesh Ambani and so on. But that makes for very flat viewing.

Also, if you’re doing a news comedy show, you need to take on the establishment, point out political boo-boos. Take the US for example. In the last few weeks, we’ve seen Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon call Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on their shows and take a dig at their politics and policies. Saturday Night Live has seen Hillary Clinton be scoffed at and scoff at her own idiosyncrasies and dodgy policies. The bar for political and news satire is currently very high—and unlike earlier when all of us sitting in India didn’t know any better, we have the world of news satire programmes at our fingertips.

Also, On Air With AIB actually has a number of pretty impressive Indian shows which have attempted news comedy before—and done so successfully. Shekhar Suman did it way back in 1997 with the evocatively named Movers and Shakers. He commented on politics and newsmakers and actually made some pretty good digs at his favourite bug bears, Laloo Prasad Yadav and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Then there is The Week That Wasn’t—that while not very high-brow doesn’t shy away from cocking a snook at politicians across all party lines including Modi and Rahul and Modi’s BFF, Amit Shah. The show closest to the On Air With AIB format is Newslaundry’s Clothesline, which is a satire show on Indian news and newsmakers and started three years back. (Full disclosure: I was the chief editor of Newslaundry and one of the co-writers of the show for over two years.)

When shows before you are doing the same thing you’re attempting and did a pretty good job at it, you have to up the game. You cannot be afraid of treading on India’s various Holy Cows. And a weekly news comedy show needs to be topical, on both Indian and international news. So while the Netanyahu segment on Hitler was topical, the rest wasn’t.

I have great faith in AIB because these boys are immensely talented. They pushed the envelope with AIB Roast where they took on another set of India’s Holy Cows—Bollywood’s biggies. They were the first non-Bollywood insiders to crack a joke on which director likes the feel of a casting couch or which ageing superstar has a glad eye. Their stand up shows are brilliant as well. They pull no punches when it comes to telling the establishment to pull up its socks.

But, it seems that they’ve been told to proceed with caution on this show. More’s the pity for us. But these are still early days and maybe the commentary will get braver and sharper, once they’ve lulled the Star Network into a false sense of security.

Should you watch it? I’d say yes, simply because it’s great to see such talented, young comics go where few Indian men have gone before. Speaking of which, it’s good to be inspired by Jon Stewart and John Oliver’s shows, but even they hired at least two female scriptwriters each in their male-dominated writing team. AIB could at least hire one. What’s with the all-male scripting team, guys?

You can watch On Air With AIB every Sunday at 10pm on Star Plus and Star World or on Hotstar.

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