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Hungry for laughs

Bhanuj Kappal | Updated on January 09, 2018
A mouthful: The bhel-eating Mumbai rapper Gari-B of Tadpatri Talkies recently released the sublimely ridiculous 12-track album called Bhookh.

A mouthful: The bhel-eating Mumbai rapper Gari-B of Tadpatri Talkies recently released the sublimely ridiculous12-track album called Bhookh.   -  Tadpatri Talkies

United by guffaws: The founders of Tadpatri Talkies wanted to make the sort of absurdist video content they loved but couldn’t find in India.

United by guffaws: The founders of Tadpatri Talkies wanted to make the sort of absurdist video content they loved but couldn’t find in India.   -  Tadpatri Talkies

Left-of-centre comedy collective Tadpatri Talkies warms up with a perfectly executed swipe at the poverty fetishisation that passes for Mumbai’s hit-making ‘gully rap’

Earlier this year, Indian hip-hop circles went into a tizzy over ‘Gari-B ki Kahaani’, the debut music video released by then-unknown Mumbai rapper Gari-B. At first glance, with its opening shots of a hooded figure in well-worn clothes posing in the middle of a construction site, and a spoken word intro overflowing with Mumbaiya street-slang, ‘Gari-B ki Kahaani’ seems like yet another Divine and Naezy imitator. Ever since the two gully rap pioneers broke through to the mainstream in 2015 with their hugely popular ‘Mere Gully Mein’ — a celebration of Mumbai working-class life that struck a collective nerve with its mix of slang, street style and stories of growing up on the city’s mean streets — YouTube has been flooded with scores of me-too acts, in the process turning gully rap into an easily recognisable music form. Suddenly, too many rappers are trying to parlay a lower-income zip code and a (not necessarily true) sob story about their ‘struggle’ into a lucrative career.

But about half a minute into ‘Gari-B ki Kahaani’, just as the music and the visuals descend into absurdity, with deadpan rhymes like “hum pet bhar lete hain sunke khaane ke awaaz (we fill our stomachs with the sound of food)”, it quickly becomes clear, however, that this is not just another Naezy imitation. Instead, it’s a well-conceived, perfectly executed piss-take, poking good-natured fun at the gully rap trend that has taken over Mumbai hip-hop. Over the next few months, the bhel-eating, scooter-riding Gari-B became a regular fixture in Mumbai’s rap scene, performing live alongside veterans such as Enkore and Poetik Justis, and, earlier this month, releasing a 12-track comedy rap album called Bhookh.

On a muggy Sunday evening, a couple of days after the album launch, I meet up with the boys from Tadpatri Talkies — the independent, left-of-centre comedy collective/production house that is the brains behind Gari-B’s sublimely ridiculous and OTT parody rap. Six friends from the media industry came together last year with the aim of creating the sort of absurdist video content that they loved, but which was sadly not being made in India. Big fans of British surrealist sketch comedy legends Monty Python and the anarchic, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink comedy of The Eric Andre Show, they remember asking their marketing colleagues why there was nothing similar coming out of India. “We got generic responses like ‘there’s no market for it’, which basically translates as ‘there are no investors’. So we decided to do it ourselves on zero budget. The idea was to do something left-of-centre, be beta testers for the comedy scene, if you like,” says the group’s content creator and food blogger Gaurang Bailoor, over beer and house fries at the Doolally brewpub in Andheri.

Comedy without purpose

Since October 2016, Tadpatri Talkies has put out on YouTube a number of short sketches, video edits and prankster interventions. Their low-budget, D-I-Y aesthetic is heavily influenced by the absurdist sketch comedy of Dave Chappelle and MAD TV, but also owing a debt to the world of camp, and the stranger, darker corners of the YouTube rabbit hole (they think Dhinchak Pooja’s music — amateurish, off-tune rap songs that became a viral sensation earlier this year — is a ‘work of genius’). B-grade films, Indian and foreign, are also a major source of inspiration, especially for comedy writer Aseem Chandaver, who has a collection of them from all over the world.

“I think B-films are where you can really see the spirit of filmmaking,” he says, adding that their spit-and-duct-tape aesthetic also inspired the group’s name — tadpatri refers to the blue tarpaulins that are ubiquitous in Mumbai’s perennially under-construction landscape. “Despite their low budgets, they’re trying to do things that are high-concept. They offer what mainstream films don’t, tapping into the deepest recesses of your mind and bringing your fantasies and nightmares to life.”

The group’s penchant for subversive, cringe-inducing humour and bizarro WTFery is best exemplified by Delta News, a series of three-minute news broadcasts with a decidedly postmodern twist. The one-line brief for the videos is, ‘what if the news was being presented by performance artists’, but that doesn’t fully capture the sheer obtuseness and vaguely sinister nihilism that’s on display. A rooftop chess game with pills instead of chess pieces stands in as commentary on a headline about a kidney transplant racket. The Indian Motion Picture Producers Association’s ban on Pakistani artistes is fodder for a weird interpretive dance sequence that features ritualistic consumption of meat and a mutton-bone shootout. “The funniest part was that nobody was willing to admit that they didn’t get it,” laughs independent researcher and producer Nandan Kini. “They kept insisting that there was some sort of deeper, illuminati-style meaning to the videos.”

“It’s difficult for people to understand that there can be comedy without a purpose or without the need to make sense,” adds Bailoor. “But we just want to have fun.”

‘Poverty’ of ideas

Their other early works include a wildly profane video edit parodying American thrash metal band Slayer’s Angel of Death, and a video compilation of Ila Arun’s orgasmic singing style (apparently the singer has seen the video, and is not amused). But their breakout success would be Gari-B, the character portrayed by musician and digital content guy Sidharth Raveendran, with lyrics by prominent battle-rapper Anmol Gawand (who also plays Gari-B protégé Badboy Bandya). “I was watching a documentary about the Dharavi hip-hop scene and it struck me that everyone in the video was saying the same things about their struggle,” says Bailoor, recalling how they hit upon the idea for the Gari-B character. “So I called Anmol and suggested a rapper character who talks about the struggle in this very literal way, so literal that it’s actually funny. He wrote something in, like, 45 minutes and sent it to us, and it blew our minds.”

They unveiled the character at a battle rap competition in Mumbai, introducing Gari-B as the event’s ‘cheap guest’ and awarding one of the title winners ₹500, all in coins; ‘Gari-B ki Kahaani’ then played to a crowd of die-hard Mumbai hip-hop fans. The audience loved it and soon the group was besieged by messages from fans asking for more music. When they put out a meme resembling the cover of Kendrick Lamar’s new record Damn, complete with a fake tracklist and ‘Bhel’ as the title, a couple of fans fell for the gag and even offered to pay in advance for the record. So, the one-off track ‘Gari-B ki Kahaani’ now became a full album, poking fun at not just the poverty fetishisation that largely characterises upper-class fascination with gully rap, but also many other tropes of Indian hip-hop — whether it’s the triplet-obsessed music coming out of Delhi (Catchy) or the faux-gangster affectations (Aankh Band Tapli). There’s even a hint of serious social commentary, especially on the track Real Talk. “It’s a day in Gari-B’s life,” says Raveendran. “Every song is a different aspect of his life, be it romance (‘Scooty Wali Ladki’), or his daily situation (‘Bhookh’), or him trying to get high without any money (‘Iodex Pav’).”

So what’s next for the group? Gari-B will spend a little time on the backburner, even as they work on a series of music videos for the tracks on ‘Bhookh’, a 27-minute Marathi sci-fi epic (“just 27 minutes of ad after ad that adds up to an end-of-the-world drama”), and something focused on anime that they’re secretive about, saying only that it’s their most ambitious project to date. Aside from comedy, they want to branch out into short films, horror and mockumentaries. “We don’t want to stick to one thing; we’ve opted for a lateral growth plan,” says Kini.

Before we head our respective ways — me, to a cat waiting for me angrily at home, and they to celebrate their first anniversary with home-cooked chicken wings and chicken curry — I ask if they ever see Tadpatri Talkies becoming their main source of income. The answer is a resounding ‘no’. “There are people in the industry who like the sensibility of the stuff we’re putting out as Tadpatri Talkies, and they’ve reached out to us for commercial work,” says Bailoor. “We’ll make our money through those projects and that gives us the freedom to do Tadpatri content the way we want. We don’t want brands coming in and saying, ‘you can’t make this joke because it affects our brand’. You can keep your brand.”

“We want to build our fanbase,” adds Chandaver. “We want them to engage with us and our jokes, just come and be stupid with us.”

Published on November 17, 2017

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