stand-up comedy

The rise, fall and rise of Kapil Sharma: For now, the comedian has the last laugh

After a public spat with a co-star and a dip in his show’s ratings, the funny man from Amritsar is poised to make a strong comeback.

In 2007, a 26-year-old aspiring comedian from Amritsar made an appearance on television screens across India as one of several contestants in a popular television show. At the time, the stand-up scene on India television was in its early days, and even when Kapil Sharma went on to win that season of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, no one could have guessed that he would soon dominate prime time Indian television, becoming a dinner-time fixture for families across the country and one of India’s richest TV stars.

The story of Sharma, who is now awaiting the release of his second movie Firangi, produced by his company, K9 productions, is one of several compelling rags-to-riches tales in the entertainment world. It began in a middle-class home in Amritsar. The son of a police constable father and a housewife mother, Sharma dabbled in singing (said to be his first love) and theatre in his school and college days. While doubling up as an acting coach to make money, he discovered what he was best at: making people laugh.

After doing some odd jobs and testing the waters in the realm of TV comedy with the Punjabi show Hasde Hasande Ravo on MH One, Sharma cracked the audition to the Great Indian Laughter Challenge. He joined an emerging crop of comedians such as Raju Srivastava, Bhagwant Mann and Sunil Pal as stand-up comedy began to gain a foothold on Indian television.

Sharma’s successful stint at the Great Indian Laughter Challenge solidified his small-screen stardom as a staple on Sony TV’s Comedy Circus in 2013. He went on to host the sixth season of the dance reality show Jhalak Dikhla Jaa, based on the Dancing With the Stars international franchise. By now, Sharma was steadily rising as a star. But the best was yet to come.

Such great heights

In June 2013, he launched his own show, Comedy Nights With Kapil, which would become a gold mine for its channel, Colors TV, and make Sharma talk show royalty. The series, a mix of sketch comedy and celebrity interviews, also brought fame to its ensemble cast that included Sunil Grover, Ali Asgar and Kiku Sharda – many of whom had been known faces on TV for a while but would now become familiar names as well.

The show had a stock set of characters, all Sharma’s apparently mad-cap family and neighbours: among them an alcoholic grandmother, an unmarried aunt whose sole objective was to find a groom, and two neighbourhood women with a permanent grudge against Sharma.

Most of these characters were played by men dressed as women and all of them were depicted as lascivious and eager for male attention. The jokes were almost always crass, sexist and misogynistic and most of the sketches showed Sharma (playing the head of the house, Bittoo) hurling insults at his family members and his domestic worker.

But somehow, it clicked. The show struck a chord with viewers and was billed as a show the family could watch together, partly because of Sharma’s undeniable ability to nail the punch lines, his comedic timing, his deft ad-libbing and his connection with the studio audience. The show was one of the highest-rated non-fiction shows on Indian television and the top money spinner for Colors TV.

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Sharma’s success on the small screen paved the way for his debut on the big one, in the comedy Kis Kisko Pyaar Karoon (2015), a story about a man trying to juggle multiple marriages while trying to keep each of his wives in the dark about the others. More than the plot, it was Sharma’s popularity that drove the movie to success.

For the next couple of years, Sharma could be seen everywhere, as a guest on countless TV shows and as a host of several award functions.

Free fall

At that point, it appeared as though everything Sharma touched was turning to gold. But the laws of gravity were waiting to take effect. The first signs of controversy emerged when a tiff with Colors TV saw Sharma end the contract with the channel for Comedy Nights With Kapil – the last episode aired on January 2016 – followed by much talk about ego clashes between the channel and the comedian.

Within a few months, Sharma was back, this time on a rival channel and an even grander set, with Sony TV’s The Kapil Sharma Show.

As its title suggested, Sharma had become an independent entity, and his show was bigger than the channels on which it aired. The early days saw record viewership. The show had a similar format to its predecessor and brought back much of the old ensemble cast, including Grover, Sharda, Sumona Chakravarti and Asgar, in new avatars.

But in time, the jokes began to fall flat, the gimmicks got old and there were murmurs that all was not quite well between Sharma and his co-stars.

The controversy around the comedian reached its peak in March, after a public fallout between Grover and Sharma after an alleged spat on board a flight. Grover accused Sharma of abusing and insulting him in a drunken spate and in response to a public apology from Sharma, requested the comedian not to “act like god”.

This was followed by a rapid exodus from the show of some key cast members, including Grover, Asgar and and Sugandha Mishra.

Media outlets were quick to declare a fall from grace. Chronicles of Sharma’s “rise and fall” started doing the rounds and reports emerged of colleagues saying Sharma couldn’t handle success. Murmurs of alcoholism, mental health issues and reports of Sharma cancelling several shoots at the last minute, leaving celebrities in the lurch and allegations that he had violated building norms while constructing his home and office in Mumbai were added to the mix.

Ratings of The Kapil Sharma Show hit a low in April. Though they stabilised again later, neither the show nor its host could recapture the former glory. All this culminated in reports of the show’s cancellation, at least temporarily, in September, purportedly because of Sharma’s poor health.

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For most of that month, the comedian lay low, surfacing only occassionally and each time striking a humbler tone, admitting to his drinking problem and that he had “slipped a little”.

Back on solid ground?

That humility carried forward to the promotions of Sharma’s upcoming movie Firangi as well. At the trailer launch, he once again spoke to the media about his battle with alcoholism and his mental and physical struggle over last few months.

The trailer of Firangi made news for reasons beyond the frank press conference. In the colonial-era tale, Sharma’s portrayal of Manga, a simpleton whose sympathy towards British rule is tested after he falls in love with the daughter of a staunch nationalist, has been positively received and has piqued the interest of his fans. With 12 million views so far, it has been a declared a success and has built anticipation for the movie ahead of its November 24 release.

For now, it looks like Sharma – and his fans – will have the last laugh.

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Firangi (2017).
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