It was during Tech conversations with Dad (2016), a series of short videos that ran like a weekly comic strip, that Jitendra Kumar’s fan following began to feel like a bit of a cult. The first time he had played a character named after him was in The Viral Fever (TVF) web series Pitchers from the same year, in which he plays Jeetendra Maheshwari, a newly married guy who has had enough of his painfully boring corporate job, but is also hesitant to take the leap and create a start-up with his friends. In the Tech Con videos, he is a Google employee, living and working in Mumbai, away from his family, who gets a call from his dad (Gajraj Rao) every once in a while, asking his son to explain him how to place an order online, or how Mark Zuckerberg is stealing our data. There can’t be bigger proof of the popularity of the series than the fact that last week’s Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan cast Jeetu and Rao as father and son, riffing on the same generation-gap aspect of their equation in the series (in the movie, Jeetu is trying to make his father accept his sexual orientation).
Even earlier in his career, he played bizarre characters that, even if they existed in movies, would have been side parts; but they were the leads in their own sketches, many of which are shorter than 10 minutes: an overenthusiastic intern (Munna Jazbaati); a foldable Navjot Singh Sidhu you can buy, who’ll laugh at your saddest jokes to boost your morale (Aapka Apna Sidhu); an overgrown Sachin fan who is in denial that he will retire one day (Bhagwaan Zameen Par). Or in what was one of his first appearances as an actor — another phone conversation-based sketch, like Tech Con called Har Ek Friend Zaroori Nahi Hota Hai, where he played an obnoxious guy who randomly calls up acquaintances from school as if they are long lost friends. If there is a single Jeetu expression I’d like to zero in on from all his work, it is that look of mild frustration on his face, where he seems like he could burst into tears any moment — also an example of how good a comic actor he is.
His winning act from Kota Factory (2019) — you wait for him to appear onscreen — is a good measurement of how the cult of Jeetu had grown. As if a variation on his on-screen persona, he was now Jeetu bhaiyya, the star teacher at the institute around which the story revolves, and a stud in the eyes of the young IIT aspirants — who, in turn, are like an extension of the fans he has gathered over the years. When the lines between the character and the actor begin to get blurred, you know this stardom isn’t manufactured. (All you need to do is go to the YouTube comments section of his sketches or web series’ or the trailer of Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan.)
“Jeetu struck a chord with the middle class kids who couldn’t speak up to their fathers, and that sort of became a trait for the character, and I guess got him a lot of love. Even in Tech Con, he is struggling to convey his emotions to his dad…” says Biswapati Sarkar, writer-actor, TVF
The fact that Jeetu, an IITian, is from Khairtal in Alwar, Rajasthan, more comfortable in Hindi than in English, helps. He exemplifies a new India, the upwardly mobile, the big achiever from small town. Writer-actor Biswapati Sarkar, a year senior to Jeetu at IIT Kharagpur, would write and direct plays in which Jeetu would act. When Sarkar later left engineering to pursue his passion and joined TVF, he asked him to join them. “For a young company with 6-7 people, you don’t really employ actors. So he used to act but he also managed other stuff, like being a part of production and direction team,” he says.
While the roles got better and the sketches longer, Jeetu, unsure if he could sustain a career in acting, took a job in Bangalore and worked for a year, coming down to Mumbai only when he had a part in something new TVF was shooting. “Things had started looking up for TVF, which was getting to into creating web series’, and he started getting noticed as well,” says Sarkar. He tries to explain the relatability factor. “Jeetu struck a chord with the middle-class kids who couldn’t speak to their fathers, and that sort of became a trait for the character, and I guess got him a lot of love. Even in Tech Con, he is struggling to convey his emotions to his dad, so that character has traits which is relatable to every kid who is scared of their parents,’” he says. Sarkar adds that by the time Kota Factory came, “the show was almost riding on Jeetu’s name.”
Now that the superstar of the web has graduated to films, he has made interesting choices so far. By playing the partner to Khurrana’s character in what is being dubbed the first mainstream gay romance in Hindi cinema — a move not necessarily in character with the Jeetu persona — he has shown that he has none of the apprehensions about ‘image’ that cripples actors. In last year’s Gone Kesh, he is a shy, sensitive guy who falls in love with the protagonist even more after he discovers that she has alopecia and is bald. In the yet-to-release Chhattisgarhi film Chaman Bahar, he plays a guy who arrives new in town and opens a pan-cigarette shop; the shop happens to be across the road from a bungalow of a rich businessman, whose daughter he falls in love with. I recall a TVF sketch from 6 years ago—a spoof of Arnab Goswami’s TV news debates—in which Jeetu played Arjun Kejriwal from Bollywood Aam Aadmi Party — a hilarious, cleverly observed enactment of the Delhi Chief Minister — who wanted to bring sweeping changes in the Indian film industry. The promises included ending the domination of the Kapoors, Malhotras and Bhatts by launching the Mahapatras, Shuklas and Bansals. Now, it can be said that the actor is part of that change.