Let's look at the audience of Kapil Sharma: I'm Not Done Yet, his hour-long comedy special, now streaming on Netflix — perceptibly upper middle-class couples, in dresses and suits, some men in mustaches and Nehru jackets puffed by a paunch, a kitty table including women of all age groups, younger ones hooting through cupped hands, middle-aged ones in kurtis and hoodies, and an older woman, wrinkled, bespectacled, grinning like she was looking at a crush manifest. Almost perched they were, waiting for the wife-jokes.
What would you wear to a stand-up comedy show you were going to attend? Would people around you look, dress, and speak similarly?
The cheers are thus not a reaction to the joke, but a reaction to Kapil telling the joke. The difference is best exemplified in something he said in a 2014 interview, "Once people start liking you, they listen to everything you say."
The questions swirled. Some shows, some movies are so narrow, but so precise in their targeting of a specific audience — like a TVF show, like Kapil Sharma — you can appreciate it only by finding yourself within the periphery. And I am somewhere on the hazy border. Not the kind of person who watches his shows, but the one who enjoys how the show is shredded into 25 second reels, deluging Instagram, warping my algorithm. He has the presence, the charm, and the courage to pull off questions and punch lines that one would be wary of. The people he invites are turned to pulp, sometimes like Salman Khan sliding off his sofa, or Deepika Padukone begging for tissues. That bite is missing in Kapil Sharma: I'm Not Done Yet, perhaps because he is alone on stage, with no one to cast barbs at but himself. The self is always a tame target. But it does not matter much.
For this is the kind of audience who will clap and hoot when Kapil Sharma shows a childhood photo of himself. (It's not of him though, he will later clarify.) They will cheer him on for statements he is making, which they mistake for jokes. At one point Kapil Sharma has to clearly tell them, while talking about his depression, that he is being serious. It is hard to distinguish the audience's love for him from their love for what he is saying, his jokes. The flip side of this is that they are not looking for humour as much as they are for charm.
This is most evident in the timing of the claps. These are not pre-recorded cheers that they filigreed over the comedy in post-production. And the live response is telling. The claps, the cheers, often come a few seconds after the joke ends and the punch line floats above them like a cloud waiting to be addressed. The cheers are thus not a reaction to the joke, but a reaction to Kapil telling the joke. The difference is best exemplified in something he said in a 2014 interview, "Once people start liking you, they listen to everything you say." He has earned people's love. Kapil Sharma: I'm Not Done Yet is merely coasting that wave, one might add, rather lazily.
After winning the The Great Indian Laughter Challenge (2009), one of nine reality television shows he has won, he turned a host to some of the most popular comedy shows on television. With brief blights of controversy — like his public spat with Sunil Grover, his confrontational tweets directed at Modi, which he, in this show, insists were written under the haze of alcohol, a dip in TRPs, etc. — his star is largely, undimmed. Netflix commissioning him to do a comedy special is in tandem with their strategy of reaching out to an entirely different demographic. Can they be the slippery slope between television and streaming?
Kapil Sharma: I'm Not Done Yet is not the answer, for it does nothing for the Kapil Sharma brand than milk it. There is also something to be said about what being on Netflix represents to Kapil himself. It comes in the title, that Kapil Sharma was not done yet. He ruled the television screens, and now he wants to go "aage" — forward. The whole first few minutes of this special feels uncomfortably like an advertisement for Netflix. This is not to say that Netflix might have asked him to name drop a Narcos but that also there is this desperate, seething obligation within him, like he feels blessed, fortunate to be on that stage and that he must thank his stars and the star-generating machine. Sometimes, you should wear fame more lightly.
The frame of the show — Sharma talking to his therapist about his childhood — allows him to provide a brief biographical sketch of his life, but we soon realize he is not the most structured storyteller. Often you don't know the story he was telling has ended till he has begun a new one. But the therapist frame allows him to both introduce himself to a new audience while also deepening his bond with his older fans. (Though it has to be noted, he has been spinning the same stories since his early days when journalists tried to mine meaning from his background. Even the way he frames and phrases it hasn't changed.) His relationship with his late father, which climaxes in a song he sings while his wife in the audience tears up, is a reminder that to look at this show as a comedy special would be a grave error. It is a comedy special in the television sense of the term — one that is occasionally cutting, briefly emotional, flittingly turbulent, but charming throughout. That kind of energy, that kind of humour where you need an Archana Puran Singh to laugh and shriek and gasp to know that, indeed, that was funny. Ha ha. Ha ha.