When you talk to Tanmay Bhat, Gursimran Khamba, Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya, the boys behind All India Bakchod (AIB) — yes, boys; they showed up for the shoot in Superman T-shirts and boxers — it feels like you’re talking to veterans of the business. They have an air of confidence that borders on arrogance. Much like Bollywood celebrities, they make you wait with your voice recorder till they have settled down, ordered coffee and lit cigarettes. On the other hand, The Viral Fever (TVF) team reminds me of film school grads — shaggy beards, ruffled hair, all bent over laptops, waiting for Premiere Pro to render videos. Most of the team is ex-IIT and was brought together by the owner Arunabh Kumar. While Kumar is an eloquent media man, the rest of the team are like excited teenagers. They blush and giggle when you compliment their work. They look as if after the stuffy frustration of IIT, this is their second chance to be happy in life.
This has been an exciting year for both TVF and AIB. Some of their videos are garnering over a million views within the first week. Subscribers have almost doubled from last year, to 7.8 lakh and 6.8 lakh respectively. They have been able to create a stronger fan base beyond metros. Bollywood has been kind, with more and more celebrities making cameos in their videos. For AIB, the most popular video was the Alia Bhatt gag, Genius of the Year, starring her family, Karan Johar, Arjun Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra. And, TVF got Shah Rukh Khan to sit across ‘Arnub’ Goswami (hilariously portrayed by creative director Biswapati Sarkar) for Barely Speaking with Arnub. In the second episode of Barely Speaking, TVF had Parineeti Chopra, Ranveer Singh and Ali Zafar. Khan promoted Happy New Year, and Chopra, Singh and Zafar promoted Kill Dil. AIB, on the other hand, strongly states they will not allow film promotions in their videos. They boast about how they “turn down studios every month”. Bhat says they derive a sadistic pleasure from saying no.
TVF started off with comedy, but is now venturing into dramedies and thrillers. “We are a content collective, and comedy is not our only focus. While we do a lot of satirical and funny sketches, our aim is to create original content for the web,” says Kumar. “We have started Permanent Roommates under TVF Drama. Soon we will start TVF Thriller, which will be on the lines of True Detective. We want to expand to all genres of entertainment.” Does that mean this is the beginning of the end of television? “As we know it, yes. Entertainment should be progressive, not regressive. At TVF, we’re trying to take baby steps ahead. While researching, I realised our generation just doesn’t watch what television in India has to offer today,” he says.
AIB’s members are also well-known stand-up comics. “We do sketches on subjects we want to react to. But, the challenge is to always hit the iron while it’s still hot. Sometimes, our videos are late but when we released ‘Times of Boobs’ [taking on the Times of India for its cleavage coverage], the subject was still topical,” says Bhat. And, how accepting has Bollywood been? “They have been absolutely cool about it. It’s the PR machinery that really screws it up. The whole communication with Kalki [Koechlin] for the sexual harassment video [‘It’s Your Fault’ ] happened via Twitter. Celebrities are, after all, people like you and me,” says Shakya.
Deepak Mishra, famous for impersonating mean baldie Raghu in TVF’s Rowdies, agrees. “The stars have never had any problems. No tantrums, nothing. Even someone such as Shah Rukh was so chilled out,” he says. Thanks to these two groups, celebrities have actually begun laughing at themselves in public. While Khan has always been self-deprecating, young actors such as Arjun Kapoor and Alia Bhatt are happily poking fun at themselves. For a country such as India (“it’s a funny country with no sense of humour,” says Kumar), this is quite a step forward. “But, the people in general are not that thick-skinned,” says Bhat. “They might laugh at politicians, but when we venture into religion or sex, we have had our share of brickbats.”
So, what’s the plan for 2015? “Become more regular with our videos. Also, there are some stars we would really like to work with. Hopefully, that’ll happen this year,” says Bhat. TVF is busy working on a couple of new shows and episodes of Barely Speaking. By the way, does the real Arnab Goswami know about you, I ask Sarkar. He smiles. “We have spoken to his secretary, and he is aware of what we are doing. It would be really great if we could have him on the show.” Will the real Goswami ever turn up for a chat with the fake one? The nation wants to know.