Satire rarely sticks in the memory. Like fleeting ghosts, they haunt with humour and leave. Unless they are egregious. Unless they are profound. Unless the comedians are so far gone that they are closer to a police station lockup than they are to their homes. (In which case they stick to our Twitter timelines and newsroom reels.) Perhaps it is the immediacy of the material they perform, which is hard to recall, for satire prefers wit to profundity, a chuckle over a swoon, it privileges being in the moment to being remembered.
Humble Politiciann Nograj, the 10-part satirical show created by sketch comedian Danish Sait, a sequel to the 2018 film Humble Politician Nograj, is attempting something else altogether. To test the elasticity of sketch comedy — how long can we stretch it, beyond which it snags and snaps? How cutting and obvious can we make the references?
Danish Sait's claim to pan-Indian fame, the minute-long sketches where he slithered between being Rammoorthy Avre, the cantankerous know-it-all old man of the neighbourhood, Jaya Didi, the croaky househelp, and the millennial Bro, among others, lent cheer to moments of deep moral and social deprivation. The pipeline from reality to reels was polished by his comic timing, his outrageous caricatures that paired well with the outrage we were simmering in, all packaged in the length of a sneeze. It floated into and out of our timelines, like pinpricks of joy. (All the while, widening our Kannada vocabulary with 'Bevarsi Kudka'.)
With Humble Politiciann Nograj, he asks, can minute long sketches become 10-episode long stretches? This isn't a novel idea. Bhuvan Bam did it in Dhindora where he mobilized the characters he has been performing for years into one coherent narrative. It did well for his brand and his artistry, but eventually tapered off. Even then, he was telling a story with a protagonist armed with an arc. The comedian Saloni Gaur, too, attempted to ground her Nazma Aapi sketches in a broader strokes of comedy with SonyLIV's Uncommon Sense. When the RD Sharma book on which she used to rest her laptop for shooting her sketches was now given the budget to be placed inside a bookshelf with a glass casing in the background, the charm of her contained humour frayed.
With Humble Politiciann Nograj, something similar happens. Unlike Dhindora, the main character here isn't given an arc. He is who he is, and he remains that way through the episodes. As are everyone else. This sense of moral stagnation should be offset by outrageous humour. But what we get are mere trickles.
While in Humble Politician Nograj, Nograj plays a corporator who wants to become an MLA, in Humble Politiciann Nograj, Nograj is now an MLA who wants to get into an alliance in order to become the Chief Minister of Karnataka. His rival is Krishna Gundu Bala (KGB, though he has none of their bite or smoldering villainy, played by Prakash Belawadi), president of Most Secular Party, who needs to only pay off, or convince, three more politicians to join his party in order to get the majority and become Chief Minister. Nograj kidnaps the politicians he needs and sends them packing to a resort. A strange, not to mention unethical, tactic, this is taken from the rulebook of Karnataka politics, which since Ramakrishna Hegde in the 1980s has pioneered this method of winning elections. Sait is merely reproducing reality and pitching it a notch above with his endearing physical comedy.
Nograj is styled with vermilion on his forehead, a paunch with a white undershirt peeking from below his colourful shirts, gold on his neck, wrists, fingers, and a caterpillar moustache trailing his upper lip, which is trimmed into a Hitler moustache in a scene that doesn't milk the humour beyond stating the obvious parallels between Nazi Germany and contemporary India. The show provides a masterful scalpel at the political ideologies that underpin politicians, which is to say there are no political ideologies that underpin politicians. They shift parties as though their affiliations are lubricated, slippery, not for any reason beyond following the money trail.
Is this daring? Yes. Is it partisan? No. Is holding the political feet to the fire through art enough to be appreciated in India today? Perhaps. We get a Prime Minister who is more of a travel vlogger, sometimes in London, sometimes in China, a wastrel of an opposition leader, clad in vest jackets, who needs his Italian mother's approval, and then there is Nograj himself. References to gay politicians (done rather tastelessly) and watching pornography in the parliament come directly from news reports. Everyone, including the media — with Simi Naveen (Disha Madan) as the journalist who receives frocks as gifts from politicians — is an equal opportunity offender in Humble Politiciann Nograj. Perhaps that is the moral spine of the show. A nihilism. Everyone sucks. The silver lining is more of a noose.
To the show's detriment, there is no person capable of countering Nograj's heroic villainy. (Make no mistake. Nograj, as awful as he is, is the hero here.) Krishna Gundu Bala is briefly given the position of competitor but slowly, over the first few episodes, he turns into a moping, demanding child. His wife who seems shrewd — at least shrewd enough to battle and, perhaps, batter Nograj — is given the short end of the narrative stick. She is barely there. Not to mention an odd comedy track in the background when Gundu threatens to lock her up in the kitchen. Perhaps this was why they refused to give Nograj a love track, for love unravels even the most hard-hearted.
Then there is the criminal run-time. 5 hours of storytelling without a story where characters grow or maneuver morally is a daring proposition, which falls flat. The show flounders, with only brief jumps of joy, with no challenger and thus, no challenge. Watching comedians graduate (or translate) their talent from the small screen to the streaming screen is always a litmus test. To be funny, to be a storyteller, to be a funny storyteller, are perhaps three, distinct artforms.