Akash Banerjee gives a masterclass to UPES students on the power of satire
Founder and host of popular channel ‘The DeshBhakt’, Akash Banerjee gave a riveting talk about his experiences in more than a decade of journalism, how humour can amplify the impact of cold facts, and the questions students must ask themselves
In a world of hardening divides and increasing political control over freedom of expression, speaking truth to authority does not come easy. The age of digital media has also brought with it the age of outrage; media, especially news, is under scrutiny as never before.
“News is brutal; it is hard-core,” Indian journalist and founder and host of ‘The DeshBhakt’ channel, Akash Banerjee remarked. He was speaking at a Pre-Semester Learning Session moderated by Professor Nalin Mehta, Dean, UPES School of Modern Media. “It wrings you dry and requires a lot of physical and mental strength. News is for people who are headstrong,” Akash reiterated.
That is because a responsible press is powerful; facts are powerful. And when those facts are told with a pinch of humour and loads of sarcasm, the impact is exponential.
Satire is that deadly concoction, which uses humour, exaggeration, irony, and mockery to state the truth.
“Satire, by the way, is not comedy. It is a relatively new genre in India. We have had satire practice in cartoons and writing but not much in the video format. The only name that crops up when you talk of satire in our country is Late Jaspal Bhatti; he was a legend. The only satirical news show we have had was Shekhar Suman’s ‘Movers and Shakers’, a long time ago. After that, India has degenerated in this area,” Akash explained.
In the fascinating discussion that ensued, Akash whole-heartedly answered questions by the Dean as well as students. Excerpts:
How is satire different from a stand-up?
Stand-up is where you go and have some laughs, do caricatures, and come back home, happy. Satire intends to talk about data, facts, and what is happening. It pokes fun at people in power and usually has a deeper underlying message delivered with possibly some humour and sarcasm.
How did ‘The DeshBhakt’ begin?
When I was doing radio, the culmination of serious news and the frivolous and irreverent came into being because Indian legislation does not allow private FM radio to do news. That’s where this passion for satire was born. With ‘The DeshBhakt’, we are trying to take this genre forward, telling people that it is ok to make fun of politicians.
What about the character ‘Bhakt Banerjee’?
‘The DeshBhakt’ as a platform and I as a host are Constitutionalists. We are not right, not left. We believe in the Constitution and uphold the secular values of the nation. ‘Bhakt Banerjee’ is an interesting character. Contrary to what ‘The DeshBhakt’ stands for, the character will believe only in the supreme leader of this nation. He sees the country through rose-tinted glasses that is why everything is rosy to him. His eyes turn red whenever someone criticises the supreme leader. He is out there to question those people who are questioning his leader.
How difficult is it to deal with the political criticism on what you do? How big is the production team that works with you?
For the students who are listening, if you are swayed by criticism, then you are in the wrong field. If you want to be a journalist or do anything related to liaising with the public, if criticism impacts you, then you are finished. People will find a fault in a two-day-old baby or even a kitten.
Then comes the issue of the videos we make that question the establishment. Any small mistake could land us in trouble. So we take a lot of pain to ensure that our videos are free of errors. We are personally proud that we have spent three years doing this and nobody can say that this was a propaganda episode or based on lies.
As for how big are we? We are about a dozen people with close to four million subscribers across different platforms. Our YouTube views are close to 250 million.
Do you think people are more sensitive to satire today?
The abuse or the terminology keeps changing. Generally, people are intolerant to facts. Most of the people today who are abused for questioning the authority have not said anything wrong. They are all factual. Now how do you beat facts? By slander, abuse, and insinuation; that is the oldest trick in the book.
How do you produce these videos?
I hope the students are taken through a class on the new social media guidelines that are being introduced by the government. Digital was in the fringe and did not matter to the government. Suddenly we are seeing this rush to control digital media (as per the legality of the new bill). Digital media is the future. If it is also controlled and shackled, then how many opportunities would be left there?
Why is it becoming a problem? Because unlike traditional media – which requires millions of rupees to set up a newspaper or news channel – setting up a YouTube channel requires a few thousand rupees. What do you need? One smartphone and a microphone may be, that is all. So the entry barrier has gone. You do not need a license or funding; all you need is a mobile phone. If you do well, you can get an SLR, a lighting setup, and an editor.
There are different ways of making money. One is through views, which translates into ads; the second is advertising, which can be problematic at different levels. When you are looking for marketing support and advertising, how much does that impact you?
Majorly. We have been able to survive not because of advertising, but because of YouTube memberships and Patreon. Three years ago, we would have laughed at this idea. But people who like our work come and support us, subscribe to us, give us say 3$ a month. When you have a small community giving 3$ a month, it adds up to something that allows you to pay for your rent, salaries, and have a dignified existence. Because I have always said that journalists don’t need to always be with a torn slipper; they also have the right to a dignified life.
I sold my house when we started this. I will not say that I recovered that money but what I have recovered is in terms of independence, creativity, and the fact that I can live a dignified life. I would say 80-90% is all driven by subscribers. Now, we are starting to see some advertising.
Are there many politicians who are willing to subject themselves to this kind of interview?
We get a lot of rejections because people do not know which way this is going to go. Because we don’t give sheets beforehand; the questions are pretty much spontaneous.
Is politics baseless without religion?
One of the problems today is that students today are not studying history. They would realise that it has taken millennia for democracy to evolve. And what is the fundamental work of democracy? It is the separation of the Church and the state. By Church, I mean religion. The separation of religion and the state is the fundamental bulwark of democracy and modern-day politics. Unfortunately, we are unlearning history and going back to an age where the head priest is also the head of the nation.
The Queen of England is the head of the Church. You had the Magna Carta and the Queen was given a titular role. Would you like the Queen today to be the ruler of England? Would you like the Biblical Church of America to be the President? The involvement of religion in politics is what makes politics unfortunate today. Because then you are not talking about development.
What is your message to students?
We saw liberalisation happen in front of us; Nalin saw it, I saw it. We got the fruits of it. India opened up. Unlike our parents, we had several options to choose from; I got employed when I was in college. I was part of the radio, part of a news channel that had opened up at that time. Today, I am part of the digital generation. I got the fruits of liberalisation; our earnings went up.
This pandemic saw about 3.5 crore people slip out of the middle class and become poor (for the first time since 1990); the number of poor doubled in 2020. The second wave figures are not even in at this time. The question we must ask is in the next 10-20 years, are we going to be poorer as a generation or richer?
(This session has been edited for length and clarity.)