At 9 pm, my family would drop their work and gather in front of the television, as was perhaps common practice in most middle-class Indian households in the early 2000s. It was an hour of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge (TGILC), a perfect distraction for me as my parents even overlooked my homework. While the whole family tuned in, including my three-year-old diaper-clad brother, I, as a starstruck nine-year-old, would study the chops of Sunil Pal, Navin Prabhakar, Ahsaan Qureshi and my favourite, Raju Srivastava.
Growing up in suburban Mumbai, we spoke Hindi at home, or a Bombaiyya cousin of the language. My father’s mother tongue is Telugu while my mother’s is Marathi and they both grew up in Mumbai. Watching Srivastava at TGILC was my first brush with North Indian dialects. I picked up the nuances (as much as a child could) perfecting aye Gajodhar, arey sankhata or eeya aao along the way. Here was a kid, thousands of kilometers away from Uttar Pradesh, trying to talk like someone from the state. When I finally met people from North India, I amused them by speaking in those dialects. It was safe to say, Srivastava was in my bones.
Back in 2005, Srivastava rose to prominence as a stand-up comic in the first season of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. After his film debut in the 1988 Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit starrer Tezaab, he provided comic relief in hits like Maine Pyar Kiya, Baazigar and Aamdani Atthani Kharcha Rupaiyaa. Although these were small roles, Srivastava’s dedication to a character was what made him memorable.
Mimicry was a big part of Srivastava’s standup act, but it was a peculiar idiosyncrasy – the way he crossed his hand behind his head and stood in that relaxed position – that left an indelible signature on his performances. If social media trends are any markers of popularity, an audio clip of Srivastava’s act is going viral on social media, where the comedian is heard saying the typical line: “Yadav! En Sankatha! Gajodhar! Birju!” As a Class 4 student, I was bitter when Srivastava did not win the Laughter Challenge and came third.
Then life happened, and like any angsty teenager with internet access, I devoured the world of Western standup comedians. It was probably Russell Peters who first caught my eye. Soon it was time for ‘edgy’ comics like George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Dave Chappelle, Louis CK and Mitch Hedberg. I pulled out of this hippy gaze where comedy had to be ‘pure’ and suddenly found myself empowered by the anti-establishment commentary that ran parallel to these comedians’ actions.
At the same time I enjoyed the sketches of the now dormant All India Backchod (AIB). It was heartwarming to find that they tipped their hat to Srivastava by talking to him on one of their podcasts in 2013. Coincidentally, after the controversial AIB Roast in 2015, Srivastava condemned the show and I found myself at odds with my childhood hero and my newly found gusto for freedom of speech and expression. Srivastava, with fellow comedian Pal, also went on a tirade against the new age cartoons on several news channels.
Srivastava went on to do other things and I fell out of admiration for the comedian. He was also fielded by the Samajwadi Party in 2014, but the comedian later shifted allegiance to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In March 2019, he was appointed as the Chairman of the Film Development Board of the Uttar Pradesh Government. He was also the brand ambassador for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in 2014.
On Wednesday, Srivastava died at the age of 58 after fighting for 41 days. As condolences started pouring in, former AIB co-founder Rohan Joshi showed his displeasure with Srivastava on Instagram. Srivastava, along with comedian Pal, criticized the comedy that I enjoyed as an adult, but I could not accept the suffocating expression. Srivastava had opened up the world of stand-up comedy to kids my age. His performance made me believe in the magic of standup comedy as a performance art form and how a person can make people laugh with their honest dedication to the craft. Thanks to Srivastava, I can have a friendly banter with people from the Hindi speaking belt. I’ve never met Srivastava in real life, and since the jury is still out on whether to criticize Srivastava for not understanding today’s comedy and putting down new comics, I’ll take solace in the old adage: never meet your heroes.