Aakash Gupta (Ritvik Sahore), the hero of the new amazon Prime Video series of Laakhon Mein Ek, has the temerity to enroll in a coaching institute for the Indian Institute of Technology’s entrance exams after scoring 55% in his tenth standard board exams. The show’s creator, stand-up comedian Biswa Kalyan Rath, scored 90% in real life. While Aakash goes through a stressful time during his time at the coaching class, Rath had a much favourable experience with higher education. Aakash is hardly the things Rath was. But the world around Aakash is very familiar to his creator.
Creating an autobiographical show was less of a goal for Rath than telling a good story. Though he began writing Laakhon Mein Ek as a series based on his own experiences at making it into an IIT, he quickly realised that his own story would be a boring one.
“A character on screen is capable of going through things much bigger than what one goes through life,” Rath explained. “Here, Aakash goes through changes that I can relate to but the circumstances for those changes are different from my own. I have stayed true to the essence of my experience but I have not tried to replicate it on screen.”
Laakhon Mein Ek is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video from October 13.
Rath burst into public consciousness along with fellow stand-up comedian Kanan Gill when they teamed up to create Pretentious Movie Reviews, a YouTube series in which the duo took apart the illogicality of Hindi films with illogicality of their own. The video reviews became immensely popular and launched the careers of both comedians. The series was discontinued but by 2014, Rath had become a star in the stand-up and web scenes. Rath went on to conduct two solo national tours, Biswa in your Face (2015) and Biswa Mast Aadmi (2017).
Biswa Mast Aadmi was released as a stand-up special on Amazon Prime Video. What stood out were his borderline surreal humour and an idiosyncratic way of performance that drew on memories of his childhood and stayed clear of cliches associated with the Indian stand-up scene, such as ethnicity-based humour, poking fun at cultural differences and jokes borrowed from morning headlines.
With Laakhon Mein Ek, Rath makes his debut as a screenwriter. His show has little to do with stand-up, much like the work of Louis CK, a comedian and writer he looks up to. “Why can’t one be both [a comedian and writer]? I want to be both,” Rath said.
Rath began writing Laakhon Mein Ek more than a year and a half ago. The first draft was entirely based on his experiences, and his friends chipped in with their stories for subsequent versions. “The first draft was totally my story, the second draft was half of my story and half something else, the third was half of the second script and half of other things, and so on,” Rath explained.
Rath’s creative impulses were in place right from his days in school, and then at IIT-Kharagpur. He did not use his IIT degree for a conventional job but instead dabbled in advertising and graphic design before he got hooked on to open mic events in Bengaluru, which is where he met Gill in 2013. “I don’t know if I can still do it [storytelling and performance] well but I am trying different things,” Rath said.
Rath has indeed achieved some amount of success and fame in a short amount of time. So why the doubt? “Sure, it feels good when people like your stories, but success means different things to different people,” he explained. “If you write one word on a paper and you know it’s not perfect, you keep scratching it and rewriting till you find the right word. Finding that right word is success.”
After Laakhon Mein Ek, Rath hopes to go back to stand-up comedy. “The more you write and perform, the more you stay away from stereotypical jokes, as one should,” he said. “Finding that right word, as I said, or the right joke is important. Thoughts will come to you which may or may not be funny but your job is to find that one joke nobody else has cracked. Something’s that original. That’s what I attempt to do.”
For Rath, there is no brand of humour that should be avoided – “If it seems true and original, I go for it.” That said, Rath never cracks jokes about contemporary politics, Indian or international. Does he choose to play safe? He disagrees.
“What is called political humour is a very specific set of topical affair-based humour,” Rath explained. “All humour is inherently political. All humour is about power and the correct usage of it. To say that this minister has done this is a very superficial political joke.” As an example, he cited the instance of small town state board students being denied the proper facilities to compete with Central Board of Secondary Education students in an inter-school basketball competition, a childhood memory that formed the basis of a segment on Biswa Mast Aadmi.
“Saying what happens to a kid in school without proper sports equipment is a personal story that resonates with people and that way, you achieve a different sort of political impact,” Rath said. “Then one becomes aware of the actual problems and not just the person causing the problems. That way, if you can change one person, you can change society’s values. But that’s just my theory. I wish I could even put 10% of it into my work.”