Shekhar Suman, B-league-actor-turned-Indian-JayLeno, takes a swig from his fizzless cola while a make-up artist dabs powder on his face. It's time to get down to taking potshots at politicians. On Poll Khol, his satirical take on the Lok Sabha elections on Star News, he could show you some hilarious footage of Laloo Prasad Yadav, the at-least-technically former Bihar CM, demonstrating how to use the electronic voting machines by pressing on his party's symbol, the lantern. Or take a dig at Jayant Babu, Ajit Singh's son and Chaudhary Charan Singh's grandson, who's climbing into a tractor to find out about farmers' problems: "Kisan bhi wahin hain, problems bhi wahin hain, khandaan bhi wahin hai (the farmer is where he was, so are the problems and so is the Family), nothing has changed."
Election reporting on news channels has changed. There's of course the usual discussions and detailed analyses of opinion polls, swings and various predictions, but this time around, there's also a lot of humour. At the cost of our politicians. And the funny takes are working, as far as viewership goes. Of the top 20 news programmes for the week beginning April 4, five belonged to the 'funny election shows' genre. While the airtime devoted to political satires was just two per cent, they commanded a five per cent news viewership. For a relatively nascent concept—the genre is just some months old on Indian television—this sure is a sizeable share. In fact, Poll Khol has made it to the top of the charts within two weeks of its launch.
All news channels have jumped on the bandwagon. Aaj Tak unleashed Javed Jaffrey via JBC sometime in late January. JBC supposed to stand for Javed Broadcasting Corporation, is presented as a pirate news channel that makes fun of the news on TV. Also on Aaj Tak is Chunavi Qawwali on weeknights where gaudily dressed singers fight it out for both the BJP and the Congress. This is not funny, even though Hari Voter Bana Reporter with Apple Singh (whom we first saw on Sahara Samay during assembly polls as Dharti Pakad and on cricket promos) gets a few laughs. Bleached hair and all, microphone in hand, he trails politicians and mingles with voters.
On Zee News, veteran Doordarshan satirist Jaspal Bhatti presents Chunavi Bhatti Khabar Thadka. After the Lucknow sari distribution tragedy, where 21 people died during the stampede, Bhatti distributed socks on his show. Lampooning the BJP's India Shining campaign, Bhatti turned up as a candidate for the Shining India Party and declared crores of rupees as assets. When his sidekick asked why he made such fictitious claims, he replied: "I'll get it once I'm elected."
NDTV's Gustakhi Maaf (and its English version, Double Take), the second-most watched satirical show (after Poll Khol), has been the pioneer in this area. Its 14-member production team was sent to France to master the art of puppet-making and today has a portfolio of 20 life-like caricatures of most politicians worth their salt. Just the other night, puppet versions of BJP spokesperson Arun Jaitley and his Congress counterpart Kapil Sibal jabbered away, both insisting their daily briefings were the best attended, and one of them even claimed that God himself attends his press conferences.
But don't dare call these shows mere comedies. "I'm not a comedian, I'm a political analyst," says Suman. And adds that he's like an anchor who's reconstructing news: "The attempt is never to be funny but satirical." Poll Khol often uses real footage and gets Suman to give his take on it. Ravina Raj Kohli, president, Star News, agrees, "Ours is not a silly show, it's something like what R.K. Laxman has been doing for years (with his pocket cartoons in The Times of India)". These shows, explains Aaj Tak spokesperson Rajesh Sheshadri, aids the "holistic" portrayal of polls."We need to give elections a different spin, hardcore news can lead to fatigue," he adds.
Media and popular culture analyst Sudheesh Pachauri admits the gloom on news channels has been lifted by these satires and the "sameness" of programming has been broken. "They have worked as a great leveller and eased some pressures from TV which was increasingly being viewed as a platform to only make politicians look good." Media columnist Shailaja Bajpai says news channels have found a way of saying the "unsaid" under the garb of humour. In addition, it allows the channels to show things that would be edited out in the normal course. Imagine serious news programmes showing clips of an actress saying she had no idea why she had joined the BJP minutes after doing so! Says Bhatti: "Doing political satire is easy because politics is full of hypocrisy, and sometimes what politicians say is so funny that my comments sound grim."
Obviously, while the viewers love it, not all politicians are amused. Cinestar Dharmendra, the BJP candidate from Bikaner, is angry about the jokes cracked by Suman. But Shireen, a senior anchor with Sahara Samay, which has Gufi Paintal as the Shakuni of (election) Mahabharat in Paasa Phenk Chunav Dekh trying to explain political shenanigans to viewers, feels "most politicians are happy and laughing at these shows." Now Sahara wants to start Bole to Bharat Bole to India, where Shriman Bharat and Miss India are going to look at the two Indias, one shining and the other udaseen (SAD).
Despite their success, at the moment, advertisers are not buying into them. Says Anita Nair, executive director at media buying house Starcom: "Though these satires are welcome, it has not enthused advertisers greatly. They see it as value addition and news still occupies primetime." Marketing experts also think comedy shows generally start with a bang on the rating charts but take a beating after a few weeks as the punchlines begin to lose their edge. Says veteran TV actor Vinod Nagpal, who anchors Chunav Chalisa on Sahara's regional channels as a laptop swami: "Indians are not used to laughing at themselves and the Hindi language doesn't lend itself to satire either. This is a phase that will pass with the elections."
Probably that's why unlike the developed world, where stand-up comedy shows and political satires play throughout the year, the Indian shows' popularity is still low. Therefore, the real viewership test for news-based comedies will be once the election dust settles. But they have managed to rope in viewers who don't usually watch news. And the Lok Sabha polls provided the perfect chance to do that. People like Bhatti are hopeful that they will work like opium.
Will they? One really can't imagine viewers being interested in Apple Singh asking BJP leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi why he hasn't shaved his beard. Walking the streets, Singh asks people directions for Allahabad Bank and State Bank. And then throws them off balance by asking: "Where is Vote Bank?" But the title song fades, Shekhar Suman pats on some more powder, straightens his suit, takes a sip of a fizzless cola, and it's time for the next show.