On 20 March 2015, a giant roar rented the air at the 5,000-seater National Sports Club of India (NSCI) stadium in Worli, Mumbai. The second edition of the YouTube Fan Fest was underway. The event featured YouTube superstars from around the world, including the Canadian stars Superwoman and JusReign, and American beauty specialist Bethany Mota.
But the cheering wasn't for them. It was for a group of casually-dressed young Mumbai guys who weren't even part of the event. Their popular YouTube channel hadn't seen new uploads in more than a month (considered to be hara-kiri by serious YouTube creators).
A chant filled the stadium. "A-I-B! A-I-B!" The acronym expands to All India Bakchod (NSFW Hindi slang that roughly translates to "senseless f**ker"). The collective of four Mumbai comics--Tanmay Bhat, Gursimran Khamba, Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya--was being felicitated for exceeding 1 million subscribers on their YouTube channel, which is currently India's most popular.
But AIB's growing cultural influence is hardly captured by the subscriber figures on their YouTube channel or the insane popularity of some of their videos--a short featuring actor Alia Bhatt has amassed close to 10 million views.
AIB has played a huge role in defining entertainment for India's Internet generation. The 53 videos they have posted on their YouTube channel chart their journey from a group of funnymen doing what they do best to evolving into a group that unhesitatingly embraces and searingly comments on social issues ranging from patriarchy to net neutrality.
In doing so, perhaps unwittingly, they have created a language and an idiom--funny, irreverent and iconoclastic--to tackle weighty subjects. This is now being adapted widely by young people around the country to comment on everything from parents to politics to relationships--shot on a cellphone camera and uploaded to YouTube and Facebook.
Having arrived on YouTube as a sketch comedy troupe, AIB started off by making the kind of skits you would expect from an Indian version of, say, College Humor. But 19 September 2013 was a turning point. On that day, a video called 'Rape - It's Your Fault', featuring actress Kalki Koechlin, blazed one hell of a trail through Indian social media with its on-point satire and astute indictment of India's inherently patriarchal mindset.
After that, there was no stopping them. While their contemporaries in the online space continued to spar with the usual suspects of popular culture, AIB started landing hard knocks on bigger contenders. They took on Bollywood, the mainstream media, the country's (then) probable future Prime Ministers, and emerged victors. With each video, they upped the ante as well as their production values.
A Comedy Central-style roast that featured rising Bollywood stars Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor--catapulted them to national fame, but not for good reasons. The troupe faces obscenity charges for their no-holds-barred event that was held in December 2014, and has since been lying low somewhat.
But the aftermath of that exceptionally brave experiment and the reactions it triggered forced India to face up to its cultural taboos, and to what it deems unacceptable and why.
AIB is decidedly an urban phenomenon. But with India's Internet user base projected to touch 354 million by June 2015, their potential audience is vast.
And the power of putting that audience to use was demonstrated last month when they did to India's debate on net neutrality what John Oliver did to its American counterpart.
A month ago, they published a video that exhorted viewers to tell India's telecom regulator that they supported net neutrality. In their video, they urged viewers to email TRAI with their concerns for their consultation paper before the deadline: April 24.
Within three hours, 10,000 emails had been sent to TRAI. "10,000 emails is cool," Bhat had then remarked on Twitter. "A 100,000 would be cooler."
By the time the deadline had arrived, the final number of emails stood at over a million.
What is it you most hope to personally achieve in the next 10 years?
A couple of private islands might be nice. But that aside, it's an exciting time to be a digital content creator in India. The opportunities are limitless and we want to have a body of work behind us that we can be proud of, and another body of work waiting to be worked on. The idea is not just to entertain, but also to do work that challenges conventional notions and also gives people something to think about. Oh, also private jets to get us to the private islands. Naturally.
What has been the biggest challenge you've had to overcome in the past year?
We've gone from being four guys in shorts hanging around and cracking jokes, to what is now a start-up and expansion phase. That transition is pretty challenging and it's only just begun, so we'll probably have a better answer to this next year. And a better one the year after that, and then one after that and... you get the idea, right?
Who has been the biggest role model in your adult life?
Anybody who works harder than us is an inspiration, so that would mean a lot of people. We've been lucky enough to meet and know immensely talented and determined professionals from across spheres and it would be limiting to just name one person.
What is a story you wish the media would do a better job of covering?
It's not so much a story-specific issue, as it has to do with the 24/7 scramble for eyeballs that results in a lot of noise and very little substance. And yes, we get it, the media are only responding to fleeting attention spans, but it's a cycle that feeds off each other, leaving no real room for nuance. Oddly enough, the one person doing a great take on the news is a little non-journalist called John Oliver.
Which living person do you most admire?
The person who designed this question and made us feel like a Miss India finalist.
What advice would you give a young person trying to decide what to do with their life?
If you want to do something, find a way to do it. The money will come. You cannot make money your start and end point, unless you're a stock broker in which case, ignore this answer and also pass on a hot tip if you can?
What are you most thankful for?
My Miss India sash and tiara.
Where do you get your news from?
Online, mostly. Across news sources. Twitter for sure, and then from there to parent websites including the amazing HuffPost India that is amazingly amazing, no plug intended.
What is the cause or issue that you are most interested in seeing solved over the next 10 years?
The right to freedom of expression. It'd be great if we could stop harassing people for having opinions, no matter how contrary they may be to your own. And of course, poverty, AIDS, food shortages, climate change and people taking photos of their food.
What is the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
Check Twitter, which is a stupid thing to do, because it leads to you being annoyed by at least three headlines before you've even rubbed the morning gunk out of your eyes.
What do you do to de-stress, recharge and stay balanced?
HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! What do you mean de-stress?
Finish this sentence: In the year 2025, we will... ?
"... be reminiscing about how the current generation is stupider than ours, and how we were the best generation ever."
What current trend do you think we'll look back on in ten years in disbelief?
I repeat myself when I say, people taking photos of their food. Especially plates of half-eaten food. Nobody needs to see those skid marks.
How many hours of sleep do you get each night? How important has sleep been in your life?
The answer to that is Not Nearly Enough hours per night.
What do you value the most?
Liberty, Fraternity, Equality and of course, Originality.
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