“Dude, did you see what Cardi B just did?” queried José Covaco, visibly excited after a night of editing videos. “She gave a solid opinion and it went crazy viral.” The radio and video jockey, podcaster, YouTuber, Instagrammer and all-round entertainer of the Indian internet age is crafting his post-nap meal of chapati and cheese slices at his home in Bandra. His gleeful recounting of hip-hop sensation Cardi B’s expletive-laced rant about the US government shutdown is a high watermark for someone whose stock-in-trade is wading through the social media’s vortex of videos every day.
Covaco, 37, is shooting for his new MTV show titled The Anti Social Network, in which he reprises his role as a video jockey. “In this show, we go through a person’s social media accounts and change what they are doing,” he explained. “We troll them live, tinker with their accounts, and get them to do something that is either the opposite [of their normal online behaviour] or exaggerated.” The idea is to push the willing participant and their unknowing followers out of their comfort zone and into cackles of laughter caused by incredulous confusion.
“This show was a big learning process, bro,” said Jose, clearly happy at being involved in the show’s creative production.
It’s a familiar pattern in the career of the Bandra boy next door-turned-radio jockey, who went from college to producing shows at Red FM in Mumbai’s then-emergent radio scene to co-hosting shows with co-conspirator, actor Suresh Menon. Their vocal antics, under-girded by Covaco’s instincts for what would work, and Bambaiya rambling brought in a newly-enthused local following.
Vaibhav Vishal first met Covaco in 2007 when they “did a bakra [prank] at Red FM”. Vishal, who was the creative director at MTV at the time, was on the lookout for VJs, who the audience could relate to. Covaco fit the bill. “He was quick on the uptake and had the smarts,” said Vishal. He had a “carefree approach to his listeners, vocation and craft…. So we got him a haircut and made him join the gym…and then he backed out.”
After much cajoling, Covaco finally returned. His TV debut got off to a shaky start, but soon enough things changed. “It took him two weeks to demolish everybody,” said Vishal. “The reaction on Orkut was overwhelmingly positive. Viewers felt ‘he is somebody like me’ – someone with no VJ airs at a time when we were coming out of the ‘VJ as an icon’ era.”
Despite his success though, the tedium of a stilted medium wore Covaco down eventually. “The more I did it, the more it was getting to me…especially when I knew that if I make a video in my balcony, it will reach more people,” he said. This was around 2013, a time when social media was taking off, and there was growing hunger for content tailor-made for the internet generation. “And then I started doing this [making memes and videos] only,” he said, before devouring the final morsel of cheese wrapped in chapati.
Lounging around in a T-shirt and pyjamas, one of Mumbai’s popular internet entertainers looks endearingly boyish. Surrounded by superhero merchandise and graphic novels, his living room-cum-studio conceals a grown man acutely aware of his filial duties. “For the first two years of my life [after parenthood], I would wake up and say ‘oh f*ck, I’m married, I have a child’. I was in denial...but I think it’s great that it happened or I would have wasted my life.”
Covaco rarely seems to leave his living room or building compound in his videos, and uses this self-imposed house arrest of sorts as a creative trampoline. His latest campaign, created in collaboration with the newspaper Mumbai Mirror, is against illegally abandoned cars. Sketches regularly feature the building watchmen co-opted as an improvised cast of characters, as Covaco stalks defunct four-wheelers to raise awareness. “I think it’s something that should be seen – social issues like [the state of the] roads, corruption, traffic... anything that I go through and that the audience goes through every day.”
His digital timeline is a mix of unpretentious videos. Some regularly regale followers with misheard lyrics – popular songs, whose words can be misinterpreted to comic effect. Others are vignettes that include gags, gadgets, games, brand partnerships and more recently, playtime with his pre-school daughter Chloe. Viewers often message him about how the videos with Chloe help them get through their tough day. Other ventures include Kaanmasti – a podcast that turned into a YouTube video blog of candid chats between him, Menon, and their other collaborator, stand-up comic Cyril Dabs. Kaanmasti spans everything from zany app ideas to embarrassing everyday anecdotes peppered with toilet humour. The comments section elicits the ardent reactions of a largely male audience eager to lap up locker room-like exchanges.
True to the times, this candour, comic relief and do-goodery haven’t gone unscathed. “In social media, the people who want to debate you is endless,” Covaco said. “The whole point of harassment online is that they want you to shut up.” It’s a tightrope walk, he says, between speaking his mind, and obsessively protecting his family from the possibility of vicious backlash.
Clearly, Covaco’s genre of humour seems to operate on two levels. On one level, you can choose to be playfully drawn into his exchanges with minor internet celebrities. On another, you can marvel at the modern maladies of a time when all it takes to change the world’s notion of who a person has become is the fiddling of their Twitter timeline. The sheer irony of this being showcased by someone, who literally lives on and off the internet, is hard to escape for a thinking audience. Still, Covaco’s craft is moulded with subtlety. He entertains his audience without pushing them towards heavy-handed introspection. His holding of the proverbial mirror to the audience doesn’t obstruct their view, should they choose for it not to.
His next big project could be a stage show that synthesises Kaanmasti with stand-up, improv, sketches and on-stage discussions. “But it should be spontaneous and completely ranti [wild] and uncontrolled,” he joked, betraying his Bambaiya roots with slang.
It’s not hard to imagine the coming together of the sketch show on a live stage in the manner that Covaco, Mumbai’s everyman entertainer, conceives of it. Come to think of it, it won’t be unlike everything else he does online – entertaining people into thinking about the issues of the day, and showing them how to escape apathy while also dodging acerbic agitation. Whenever the man, who never seems to leave the confines of his apartment, jumps onto the stage in the real world offline, it’s likely that his audience will feel as much at home as he does.