Happy Birthday Kapil Sharma: The Rise and Fall Of The Comedian’s Laughs and Luck

La commedia è finita!” is how Pagliacci, the opera, ends, its protagonist Cano, ‘the crying clown’ declaring “the end of the comedy.” The legacy of Kapil Sharma, India’s “Funny Man” has stumbled at the same precipice with the comedian’s latest show, Family Time With Kapil, which premiered last month but seems to be heading down the same highway to development hell, where his previous shows are still languishing after frequent reports of Sharma’s erratic behaviour, including verbally and physically abusing his former cast mates, tantrums, and even walking out before or during shoots with celebrities for his variety shows.

His last show, The Drama Company (TDC), ended up tottering on SONY Liv on its debut. TDC was expected to be the show that would replace The Kapil Sharma Show (TKSS), after the latter and previously top-rated TV skit show came under a cloud of criticism for Sharma’s alleged recent behavior towards fellow cast members as well as his inability to deal with mainstream success. But perhaps more significantly, Kapil Sharma and his fate still figure at the center of the debate raging across TV watchdogs and sites, which are often interchangeable.

It started, unlike so many other success stories, with 10 lakhs of rupees. This was the prize money that Kapil Sharma won on the 2007 edition of the Great Indian Laughter Challenge while also achieving name recognition across TV sets in the country. The humor of this son of Punjab, specifically Amritsar, struck a chord with audiences in North India (the most important part of the country, in terms of TRP, with all due respect to Asianet) and he found himself breezing through Sony’s Comedy Circus in six derivatives of the show, aired over three years (2010-2012), winning each successive season. In a competitive environment, participating against a collective of other comedians, Sharma tapped on his audiences’ funny bone and basked in the resultant laughter. And TV found the heir to Shekhar Suman and his Rubber Band.

At this point we must also mention that Sharma, who adopted his maternal surname, was the son of a housewife and a Punjab Police head constable, Jeethendra Kumar Punj, who passed away to cancer in 2004. The competitive TV shows having highlighted this pathos underlying the man’s comedy were all set, waiting for directors to say ‘Action’.

They did just that with Comedy Nights with Kapil, which debuted on June 22, 2013. Part sketch comedy, part celebrity talk show, Comedy Nights… was India’s answer to American late-night talk show programming, a respite from the usual gloom and doom of popular soap operas.

It was here that Sharma blossomed from comic with a 10-minute screen time to a legitimate talk show host, his previous admittedly blunted pokes and prods at celebrities becoming more jabbed, even pointy, as he feted Bollywood and all its ilk. The sketches punctuating the show also introduced viewing audiences across the country to the comic timing of previously kind-of famous actors such as Ali Asgar, Sunil Grover, Kiku Sharda, Sumona Chakravarti and Upasana Singh. Navjot Singh Sidhu – as he has been since quitting the cricket field – remained a permanent fixture at the helm of proceedings, as well as presumably smoothing over any Sardar jokes.

As Comedy Nights and his contract with SONY came to a close, Sharma found a new home on Colors TV with The Kapil Sharma Show. Another variety series, with a medley of skits, interviews and the de rigeur dance numbers, Sharma found himself in the enviable position of Bollywood’s soft power. Apart from banners, billboards, social media and other promotions, producers had found the perfect vehicle to advertise their upcoming releases. Now instead of feting, Sharma was feted by studios, all hankering for a slice of prime time programming. Actors from lists A to C became a part of the TV tableaux, with Sharma (and of course Sidhu) the captain of the ship, er, float. You know what we mean.

Meanwhile, Sharma evolved his mien as well as reach, winning a treasury-worth of trophies and medals, becoming the face of at least two major political campaigns, and achieving the name recognition of a Tulsi or Mr Virani. His thet Punjabi accent was replaced by a more generic North Indian manner of speech and his dress sense kept pace. This is not to knock on the man but rather showcase his increasing appeal across audiences and ideologues.

Alas, like the old Lion King joke, with the pride comes a fall. After a golden period wherein he seemingly could do no wrong, Sharma’s zaibatsu from 2017 onward has come under fire. Reports of a mid-air altercation, which alleged a drunken Sharma hurling his shoe at Grover, showed cracks in the façade, which further crumbled under the strain of an apparent exodus of prominent cast members leaving the show.

Also, Sharma, as captain of his own ship was finding producers’ expectations of top TRP-levels a strain, something he didn’t have to deal with as a cog in a show as opposed to its main wheel. Rumors of physical as well as mental strains on him abounded as shoots with upcoming films casts on the show were delayed due to Sharma’s ill spells.

‘Something is rotten in the state of TKSS’ cried tabloids, even as loyal friends of the comedian rubbished reports of depression and blamed more prosaic ailments such as high blood pressure and low sugar. It was a tenuous July 2017, with rumors of cancellations and non-renewal of contracts. The Drama Company, helmed by the retro star power of Mithun Chakraboty, and starring all those cast members who had abandoned TKSS, seemed a safer bet than the clearly sinking Kapil Sharma ship. His debut as a leading Bollywood man in 2017’s ill-received Firangi also disappeared without a trace into the misty screens of obscurity.