Akash Banerjee is posing tough questions to the establishment -- and getting away with them.
Dhruv Munjal meets the political satirist.
Akash Banerjee knew it was time to move on from broadcast journalism when a co-anchor held him in a chokehold during a special episode on the Great Khali he was hosting many years ago.
Another time, he shot for a James Bond segment, dressed in a bow tie and with a charming Bond girl by his side.
"Television makes you do some crazy things," laughs Banerjee.
Much before that, his stint in radio was equally adventuresome: Banerjee played Dr Love on Radio Mirchi, handing out late-night relationship advice to anxious listeners in a seductive baritone.
Technically, Banerjee still works out of a studio.
Just that his modest single-room office in Noida comes minus the technical sophistication that he was once surrounded with.
Working with a team of only four people and shooting against a makeshift green backdrop in a tiny corner is not something Banerjee would have encountered while anchoring for the likes of Headlines Today or Times Now, but he seems content as long as he's getting the job done.
Banerjee now, of course, runs TheDeshBhakt, an independent, social media-driven platform that focuses on political satire -- perhaps the first of its kind in India.
He hosts a YouTube series by the same name, often posing tough questions to the establishment by combining light humour with hard facts.
Takedowns include a dissection of the promises made in the Bharatiya Janata Party's 2014 manifesto, and a special on how the government has much to answer for on the Pulwama attack that left over 40 CRPF personnel dead.
On other occasions, Banerjee sits down with personalities from the country's political class; a 2018 interview saw him test Shashi Tharoor's Hindi vocabulary, with the Congressman passing with flying colours. (Interestingly, when American comic Hasan Minhaj put forth a similar quiz -- this time for English words -- to Tharoor on his Netflix special recently, the Thiruvananthapuram MP flunked embarrassingly. In Tharoor's defence, though, all the words were mostly made-up millennial lingo.)
"Tharoor took a risk by appearing on my show. But it worked and probably helped him build a better connect with the youth," says Banerjee.
"That's what more politicians should do, shed that 'I'm-greater-than-everybody-else' image they've cultivated for themselves."
Tellingly, Banerjee had given up on all things news a few years ago.
He quit television journalism in 2012 because he felt that the profession was losing the dignity and relevance that had made him take it up in the first place.
"I watched the Barkha Dutts and Rajdeep Sardesais of this world and wanted to do TV. But after eight years in the job, there was disillusionment," he says.
Not to say that Banerjee wasn't doing well when he first started contemplating a change.
He enjoyed a stellar career in TV, covering the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, the Naxal insurgency in Chhattisgarh and the launch of the Chandrayaan-I, among other stories.
Things did get a bit challenging sometimes: He was beaten up by the police in West Bengal, and once got lost in the Nallamala Forest near Hyderabad in the middle of the night.
"I was what they call the 'generalist'. Whenever a big story broke, I rushed to the spot," remembers Banerjee.
All this allowed him to gain rare access to the kind of India we live in, experiences that culminated in a 2013 book, Tales from Shining and Sinking India.
Around the same time, Banerjee moved back to radio, this time when Radio Mirchi offered him a management role.
He worked his way up to regional programming head for north and east India, managing 17 radio stations and a team of 120 people.
"I started doing a bit of satire on Newslaundry and eventually started enjoying it. It appealed to me because satire is a marriage between serious, hardcore news and some fun and entertainment," he says. "And all my experience from TV and radio helped me immensely."
The fulfilment was such that Banerjee left his lucrative job at Radio Mirchi early last year to do satire full time -- the riskiest thing he's ever done, he admits, one for which he had to sell his house.
Revenue streams are yet to fully take off, but it helps that TheDeshBhakt is fully crowdfunded.
Moreover, with a subscriber base of 500,000 in just a year -- Banerjee hopes to hit a million in 2019 -- the prospects look bright.
Staying true to the hip ethos of start-ups, Banerjee, 39, has ditched newsroom suits for more relaxed attire.
When I meet him, he is sporting one of his newly launched DeshBhakt tees, denims and a smartwatch, with the script of his next video open on his laptop. A giant bookshelf lurks in the background.
"I get most of my ideas from my audience. Some people suggested that we launch our own merchandise. Here we are."
The one he's wearing has 'DeshBhakt: Question Everything' -- Banerjee's very definition of the term -- emblazoned on it.
Others in the line include a black variant with the message 'This T-shirt is white: Facts are not facts', and another that bemoans the vast amount of misinformation available on WhatsApp.
"Politics does not have to get so serious. It's not very complicated, either. You just need to break it down in a fun way," feels Banerjee, quickly adding that the motifs visible in his satire are different from the ones implemented by people who do political comedy.
"The Week That Wasn't on CNN-News18 is an example of comedy. People are having a rollicking good time and that's that. With satire, you may or may not laugh, but there's always a deeper, research-based point to be highlighted. And that makes all the difference," he explains.
Since a lot of his content is severely critical of the ruling BJP dispensation, Banerjee has naturally been accused of bias, often being at the receiving end of vicious trolling.
In fact, one of the popular characters on his show is 'Bhakt Banerjee', a fervently right-wing alter ego, who appears in a red robe with tilak smeared on his forehead and rudraksh beads around his neck.
"I'm biased when it comes to standing up against religious bigotry, political nepotism and parties that go back on their promises," he says.
As for trolling, Banerjee takes that as a compliment. "People will troll you if they have nothing to say. When someone is abusing you, that person has run out of ammunition."
But the challenges are manifold. In a society that still isn't fully prepared for a cross between politics and humour, the blowback can be intense.
Content has to be thought of prudently and every fact diligently double-checked.
A shutdown, after all, is always around the corner. "That's my biggest fear. That's why we always refer to material that has already been published. Having said that, it's handy to have a couple of lawyers on your side," says Banerjee.
While the deterioration in the quality of TV journalism has steered viewers toward digital platforms such as TheDeshBhakt, Banerjee, having spent almost a decade in the industry, emphasises the need for TV channels to reinvent themselves.
He even feels that late night shows -- along the lines of those hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert in the US -- aren't too far away.
"You can't have people shouting at each other for long. Kimmel, Noah and Colbert are more likeable, more watchable than the 9 o'clock anchors. Viewers are ready for that."
Ironically, Banerjee has offers to return to TV this busy election season, not as an anchor but in his latest avatar as a satirist.
Elections, after all, provide him with more fodder and he is hopeful of pushing out daily content.
Talks are ongoing with a few channels, he admits. It will be interesting to see if the masses find his brand of 'bhakti' as funny as his followers on YouTube do.
Photographs: Kind courtesy Akash Banerjee/Facebook