New Delhi: All India Bakchod (AIB) has died a quiet death.
Amid the heady anticipation surrounding the Lok Sabha election results on 23 May, many might have missed the public statement issued by the comedy collective the day before.
“The AIB YouTube channel is for all intents and purposes, dead for the foreseeable future — there will be no new sketches anytime soon,” read the statement issued Wednesday.
Ever since allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced against Utsav Chakraborty — a former employee and frequent collaborator — and separately against co-founder Gursimran Khamba in October 2018, the creative company’s fall from primacy has been fast and relentless.
Tanmay Bhat, co-founder, chief executive and perhaps the most visible face of the comedy quartet, was indefinitely suspended on 8 October last year after it came to light that he knew about the allegations against Chakraborty, confronted him in a personal capacity, but took no official action.
Meanwhile, Khamba was put on indefinite leave.
“After the events of early October things moved fast. Almost all of our partners hit freeze on future associations, while others pulled out of active projects effective immediately. All of this hit revenue hard,” said the AIB in its statement.
“The events of early October” 2018 refers to India’s first instance of the #MeToo movement being used on social media to specifically identify and call out alleged perpetrators of sexual harassment.
Women all over the world had taken to the hashtag a year before, both as a rallying cry of global unity, as well as one of public emancipation from the silence, shame and fear that characterised such experiences in the past.
But Chakraborty was among the first to be named in 2018 as the movement spread to India, followed immediately by Khamba — laying the foundation for the outpouring of Indian #MeToo stories which was to follow.
The rise and fall of AIB
All India Bakchod, started as a podcast by Bhat and Khamba in Mumbai in 2012, was meant to be a satirical and subversive take on the life and politics of everyday living in India — the name itself was a humorous play on state-run public broadcaster All India Radio.
Comedians Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya joined the duo as co-founders after its conception, and together, the four men grew the project into a full-fledged creative company by untiringly performing stand-up shows, filming sketches and collaborating with artists to create original and often branded content.
By 2015, AIB’s controversial roast show ‘AIB Knockout’ was making enough noise to warrant activist Santosh Daundkar filing an FIR against 14 people who appeared. The names in the FIR are enough to tell you that AIB had arrived on the big stage — Karan Johar, Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt, among other high-profile Bollywood celebrities.
A year later, the “rising stars of Indian stand-up” were touring Melbourne, had featured in a ‘India’s top 10 YouTube superstars’ list that called them “role models”, and had found their name alongside actor Shah Rukh Khan’s in ‘Forbes India’s 2015 list of top-earning celebrities’.
Controversies only helped the company’s public image as the group was seen as one with the gumption to take on the system in the name of ‘free speech’ — even Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In 2017, another FIR was filed in Mumbai against Bhat for “posting an image of a Modi lookalike at a railway station, along with a photo of the prime minister with a Snapchat dog filter, captioned #wanderlust”, Deccan Herald reported at the time.
But a short year later, the #MeToo movement took AIB from being the country’s foremost comedy collective to a group of scattered and apologetic individual players.
“We had to let our office space go overnight. Production, creative, admin, all of it. This was particularly hard not just because making people laugh with us is a ton of fun, but because we had to say goodbye to some of the finest minds in the field, people we’d built dreams with for many years,” the Wednesday statement read.
Case against Utsav Chakrabarty and Tanmay Bhat
On 4 October 2018, writer-comedian Mahima Kukreja put out a Twitter thread accusing former AIB member Chakraborty — also a former employee at digital media outlet Huffington Post India — of sending sexually explicit messages and unsolicited “di*k pics” to multiple women, including herself and minors. Kukreja also shared several accounts of women claiming to have been asked for nude photographs by the man.
I want everyone to know @Wootsaw is a piece of shit. He sent me a dick pic, was creepy, then cried saying I’ll ruin his career if I tell others. I told two of the most influential men in comedy in India. Nothing happened. Let me tell you what else he has done with others.
— Mahima Kukreja 🌱🌈✊🏽 (@AGirlOfHerWords) October 4, 2018
Kukreja also said, “The person who runs it knew. I told him. AIB still gave him work.”
AIB knew. I don’t know if all them knew but the person who runs it knew. I told him. AIB still gave him work. You should know this. https://t.co/X4OcM1pcTr
— Mahima Kukreja 🌱🌈✊🏽 (@AGirlOfHerWords) October 4, 2018
Chakraborty, an actor and comedian who had collaborated with AIB on several videos in the past, put out a confusing apology over a series of 26 tweets shortly after. AIB also apologised the same day, saying they were removing all videos featuring Chakraborty pending an investigation.
The next day, however, AIB admitted, “We messed up”.
“Some time after Utsav had stopped being an AIB employee, Tanmay Bhat received specific, detailed allegations about him in a private and personal conversation. Tanmay confronted Utsav in a personal capacity – which led to Utsav calling the victim, leading to further harassment,” the 5 October 2018 statement read.
“We made a big mistake. We should have cut all ties immediately.”
Bhat was asked to step away from the company, and was subsequently fired from his roles as a judge on the video streaming service Amazon Prime Video’s show Comicstaan. AIB’s web TV show On Air With AIB was also cancelled by streaming platform Hotstar during the show’s third season.
The last time an otherwise active Bhat tweeted was on 5 October 2018. That was until two days ago.
On Wednesday, Bhat retweeted AIB’s “update”, along with posting his own statement on social networking site Instagram, in which he said he was “deeply sorry for the distress I’ve caused to my friends, and anyone affected by my actions”.
“I realise that in the past, I’ve failed to live up to ideals that I’ve propagated myself, and my resolve is to ensure that this never happens again,” he wrote.
As Bhat himself pointed out, perhaps the biggest shock and disappointment for AIB fans was that the comedy group had consistently put out content championing feminism, critiquing oppressive structures, and speaking truth to power.
As of today, Bhat is no longer CEO, although his suspension was been lifted.
Gursimran Khamba sees light
Things are looking up for Khamba, though, who announced his new venture Light@27 Thursday in a statement that also explained why he chose to withdraw from AIB’s sexual harassment inquiry conducted against him.
Four days after Chakraborty’s allegations surfaced, Khamba was accused by an anonymous woman of violating her consent when he “repeatedly to make out with me while we were hanging out”.
The woman claimed, through the Twitter account of journalist Sandhya Menon, that when Khamba realised he had feelings for her, it “led to drunk calls, threat to ruin friendships, emotional blackmail and (emotional) abuse that went on for five months”.
At the time, Khamba categorically denied any allegations of harassment, saying that he was “aware of the person who’s stated the incident… in 2015 we had hooked up consensually multiple times…I was not forceful”. However, he admitted that he “did not behave appropriately at all” and apologised.
Apart from being relieved of his duties at AIB, Khamba was also fired from his position as show-runner for the yet to be released Amazon Prime show Gormint.
Soon after, AIB set up an External Committee comprising a senior partner of a law firm and a diversity consultant to review the case, which Khamba now says was “neither a court/tribunal nor an internal complaints committee under the POSH Act”.
“…this process which lasted 4 months was replete with procedural lapses and did not follow principles of natural justice. Despite my repeated requests to follow due process, these lapses continued,” he wrote on Instagram in his statement Wednesday.
Because his “requests” for “a fresh committee to be constituted” were not met, he chose to withdraw from the inquiry. But he would be “happy” to cooperate with any committee “constituted fairly”, he added.
“The silver lining” for Khamba, though, is the start of his solo venture Light@27 — a comedy consultancy offering content and strategy solutions across live and digital media.
The unlikely future
For AIB, however, the road ahead looks bleak.
They have no money, no CEO, no office and barely any employees. Co-founders Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya will continue to manage the remaining affairs.
But for its 3.5 million YouTube subscribers, the AIB only had to offer this: “If and when we decide to release new content on the channel (e.g. stand-up clips), you will be the first to know.”
In that “if” lies the future — or whatever is left of it — for AIB.
This is an updated version of the article. It was previously reported that Gursimran Khamba was a judge on Comicstaan, but he was not. The error is regretted.