The Great Indian Laughter Challenge first aired on Star One in 2005, reshaping the disorganised and largely sidelined industry of stand-up comedy in India. The series packaged desi humour into an hour-long segment, offering both a show solely dedicated to comedy and a stage to the many struggling funnymen of the country. The first season’s winner was Sunil Pal but this achievement seemed to be undercut by the show’s second runner-up, a certain Raju Srivastava, who won hearts with his uncanny mimicry and humorous retelling of mundane events. Today, as the country mourns his passing, fellow comic Sunil Pal described Srivastava as “The king of stand-up comedy.”
Srivastava was born Satya Prakash Srivastava in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh on December 25, 1963. In school, he’d imitate his teachers and his commentary for mohalla (local) cricket matches showed his flair for comedy, which made him a hit with the audience even though he didn’t know much about the sport. In an interview with Dr. Vivek Bindra, the comic talked about how he would infuse his commentary with funny anecdotes about the players, whom he knew personally. This public reaction, along with his school principal’s encouragement, brought a young Srivastava to Mumbai, with the hope of becoming a comedian.
In the city, his talent landed him a few small roles in Bollywood films like Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), Baazigar (1993), and Aamdani Atthani Kharcha Rupaiya (2001). Looking back at Srivastava’s scenes, his screen presence and memorable comic timing, it is clear that he deserved a much a larger stage. However, before The Great Indian Laughter Challenge cemented the man in public memory, Srivastava struggled to survive in Mumbai. At one point, he drove a rickshaw and for his mimicry of Amitabh Bachchan, he’d be paid just Rs 50.
With his success in The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, Srivastava became synonymous with his creation “Gajodhar Bhaiya”. Inspired by a barber from his hometown, Gajodhar Bhaiya often talked with his hands behind his head, imbuing simple stories with great hilarity. Here was a character who felt relatable to audiences across regions of strata in the country, and it served to make Srivastava also feel familiar to television audiences.
Srivastava was the second runner-up in the first season of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge and in its spin-off, The Great Indian Laughter Challenge – Champions, he won the title of King of Comedy. Srivastava’s comedy was celebrated for being largely non-offensive and although there is a pronounced streak of sexism in some of his jokes, much of his humour remains inoffensive and a favourite for many. Apart from starring in his own show called Raju Hazir Ho in 2008 and appearing in many shows, such as Comedy Nights with Kapil, Mazaak Mazaak Mein and even Bigg Boss season 3, the comedian tried his hand at politics. While he was initially fielded for Kanpur by the Samajwadi Party in the Lok Sabha Elections of 2014, Srivastava later joined hands with Bharatiya Janata Party. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made him the brand ambassador for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in 2014.
Earlier today, the comedian breathed his last at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi, after having spent weeks on a ventilator. Condolences poured in from his admirers, frequent collaborators and Bollywood stars. Read their tweets below: