Society

An interview with The Unreal Times founders

posted on : 23 Jan 2014
Consider these headlines: ‘Maneka Gandhi demands PM’s prosecution for cruelty to animals after SC dubs CBI as a caged parrot’;  ‘Congress symbol ‘Palm’ to be adorned with astrological gemstone rings to revive fortunes’; ‘Sonia Gandhi hits back at Modi on Facebook after his FICCI speech’. Clearly, there is no truth to this. But, it is exactly for headlines like these that the satire, spoof and parody site, The UnReal Times, has a loyal following and it’s growing. Started by two IIM graduates-turned-consultants, Chepuri Krishna and Karthik Laxman, The UnReal Times taps into newsmakers to deliver humour-laced satirical news.

How the website came into being is an interesting story of chance, fate and acceptance. Karthik and Krishna, with a BTech from BITS Pilani and IIT-Bombay respectively, were one year apart in IIM-Ahmedabad. “I graduated in 2007 and Krishna in 2008. I just knew him as an acquaintance. Post-IIM, I started a website called Crickstock.com and Shoppingcricket.com that was like a virtual stock exchange for cricket. It was eventually bought by an American start-up company. Then, I worked as a consultant with various multi-lateral agencies. Krishna, at that time, was also working in the policy research and social sector space,” says Karthik.

It was not until late 2010 that the two came together to develop a ‘shadow budget’ with former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha. But, it was not launched in the public domain as LK Advani was skeptical of causing needless offence to the government, says Krishna. He adds, “By that time, we were completely saturated with all the heavy workload and just to plug out of stress, we wrote a satire, mocking the inefficiencies in the welfare programmes of the UPA,” says Krishna. Little did they know that their innocent blog post, titled, ‘Government mulls direct cash transfers by dropping money bags from the sky,’ would become a massive hit. “We received tremendous appreciation and people wanted us to publish more often. That’s what got us thinking about an online portal. Also, we did have the advantage of working closely with the system.” The portal eventually took the form of The UnReal Times on April 14, 2011. So, their day job as consultants (they now have their own firm called ‘i-Cube’ Consultancy) is complimented by content generation for the website. “We work with the MPs for their parliamentary interventions; do grassroot-level research and surveys for NGOs and assist other clients in their business decisions. Simultaneously, we work with a group of writers and develop content for the website. We ensure that there are at least three news updates per day.”

Initially, it was just the duo that published posts under the pen-name, ‘UnReal Mama’ (whose apt digital representation is a jovial Mehmood from Padosan). Today, they are supported by a group of dedicated columnists from various parts of the country, whose daily contributions take the content input count to five to six posts per day. “Initially, we only had Ashwin Kumar, a Bengaluru resident, who worked very closely with us for content generation. His contributions have been so significant that we might as well name him as one of the co-founders of the site,” says Krishna. “Apart from Ashwin,” he adds, “we have Ajayendar Reddy, Anand Walunjkar, Divya Srikanth, Lokesh Bahety, Pankaj Vaidya, Pritam Chatterjee and Srini Chandra, and a few others with pen-names like MAN, Hitler Swamy and Insane Insaan.”

They also receive a regular flow of inputs from other occasional contributors from various parts of the country. Says Krishna, “All the people who contribute do it out of their love for satire and for a relief from the daily grind. They are imaginative enough to weave out a fictitious scenario that seems totally plausible, given the careful attention they pay to traits, habits and mannerisms of the celebrity in question. Like, LK Advani’s repeated references to his blog, or Sonia Gandhi, who is often shown to shout out, ‘Holy Ravioli’ when she is shocked, and so on.” The duo admits that all they do is provide the writers with a good platform. “There are no commercial or monetary returns,” says Karthik. Well, if social networking sites are any indication, we can safely say that though not money, an increasing fan base does give the writers their due share of appreciation and visibility. They have 1,50,634 and 36,887 (and counting) followers on Facebook and Twitter respectively.
While India has been fairly accustomed to satire in the audio-visual form (remember the late Jaspal Bhatti’s ‘Flop Show’ and ‘Ulta Pulta’, Shekhar Suman’s ‘Pol Khol’, or the ongoing, ‘The Week that Wasn’t’ by Cyrus Broacha?), satire in the news form is a less-ventured area. “Audio-visual satire has the luxury of drama, sound effects and music, which we don’t,” says Krishna. “That’s why we need to ensure that our content is fresh, engaging and witty. It has to be humorous and also have a depth that imparts useful information about the society and governance. It’s the only way to have a loyal and increasing audience base. At the end of the day, news competing for bandwidth needs to be compelling.”

No surprise then that The UnReal Times serves you with an exciting bouquet of satire in different formats. There is the regular satire news report—‘The Skit’ is a dialogue between two or more celebrities; ‘In Pictures’ spins a yarn around a recent political event with pictures, dialogue boxes and captions; ‘Fikileaks’ gives you a glimpse of the celebrities’ private Facebook wall. “We have different kinds of audiences who are looking for different things,” says Karthik. “What attracts people to the site is mostly ‘In Pictures’ and ‘Fikileaks’. And, when they gradually develop a liking for the site, they go on to read the regular news updates as well.”

Ashwin Kumar, he adds, has played a major role in taking the ‘In Pictures’ section to the heights of popularity it is enjoying today. Says Krishna, “People can’t stop laughing when they look at the different reactions politicians and celebrities might have to a particular situation. And, the pictures chosen are completely bang on target, thanks to Ashwin.” But, what makes it different from ‘just another picture series’ is a definitive touch of character. “We lend a distinct tone to every celebrity. We internalise and integrate their basic mannerisms in the content. For example, we figured that Manish Tiwari has the habit of adding ‘holistic’ in every other sentence. We capitalised on the stir Manmohan Singh’s ‘Theek Hai’ or Arnab Goswami’s ‘the country wants to know’ created. And then, there are certain trends in news reports. Whenever a report titled, ‘Sonia is upset over (something)’ crops up, people feel it is planted by the government machinery as a diversion tactic. We take all that and more into consideration,” says Krishna. The duo believes that this helps readers connect with public figures on a more personal level. “But, we make sure it does not become too repetitive. Then, there will be no humour or surprise element left.”

Editors or writers, all of them follow unwritten, but strong principles. “India is still warming up to satire. What people must understand is that we are critical of the state of affairs, but put our opinions across in a lighter vein. Neither are we here to pass judgments, nor to poke baseless fun at anybody. We always have a credible foundation for the satire,” says Krishna. “For example,” he explains, “we take up something real and extend it along a fictitious line logically. We carefully map the behaviour, actions and reactions of politicians and celebrities on different events, and draw up a fictitious scenario strictly on those lines. For instance, we just cannot pass off something like ‘XYZ is a murderer’ as a satire, without any fair basis to it.”

When you tell them that The Unreal Times is gaining popularity as ‘The Onion of India’ (The Onion is an American satire website), they say, “Satire is our common foundation. But, the issues that we focus on and the manner in which we deal with them have a marked difference. Our satire is catered to suit the Indian culture and sensibilities of the people here. For instance, we employ clean humour. There is not much of vulgarity, sexual innuendos or slapstick humour.”

In a country where satire is still new and humour is still looked at with suspicion, how do they manage to live and play with fire, and not get burnt? “You know,” laughs Krishna, “it’s surprising, but we have had no major issues to worry about. We must give thanks to the government for this.” But, they have experienced minor, isolated instances of censorship and opposition. “One of our videos, titled, ‘Manmohan Singham’ (which had Manmohan Singh’s face edited over Ajay Devgn’s in certain action sequences from the film Singham) went viral on the net and a few youth Congress workers filed a complaint against us. But, there was no pressure from the higher-ups. I guess they did not consider it important enough to be pursued.”

Another censorship instance was when the so-called ‘management moghul’ Arindam Chaudhuri, blocked their website link that carried a satirical piece called ‘Dare to search beyond Google!’ Arindam Chaudhuri to launch Ponytail Search’. Says Karthik, “That’s the time when he (Arindam) got a court order to block around 160 URLs that spoke against him or the IIPM.” He re-collects a CNN-IBN debate on ‘Face the Nation’ in which one of the panelists showed Arindam a copy of The UnReal Times article and asked him what was so offensive about it. “Arindam admitted that he actually found the piece quite funny and it was one of his partners who had blocked the link.”

They believe that in a democracy, filtering media content is a part and parcel of politics in a bid to shape people’s opinion. “It’s like invisible censorship,” says Krishna. “Sometimes, politicians directly approach the service providers and we have no way of knowing who blocked our content.” He opines that while trying to set legitimate boundaries to the narrative is fine, muzzling content for vested interests is not. “The government usually just has reservations when it comes to blasphemous content that revolves around caste, religion or communalism. But then again, as a thumb rule, we stay away from such sensitive issues, so we’re safe.” Criticism, they say, comes hand-in-hand with the kind of work they do. “We write stuff about all and sundry, irrespective of the standing of the politician or the party, so we end up facing flak from all corners,” jokes Krishna. “But, at the end, almost everyone takes it sportingly, I believe, since we have not run into any serious trouble. And, many national politicians have even appreciated our work.”

So, they have popularity, support and appreciation tick-marked in the list of essentials for a successful venture, but what about finance? “At present, we have website advertisements and our day jobs to cover the costs. And, the writers are ready to contribute without expecting money, so we’re not all that hard-pressed for funds.” However, plans to make the site a full-time commercial venture are underway in full swing. “Many established media houses have wanted to buy us out in the past. But, we are clear that we need to establish a profitable but stand-alone venture. We want to be completely objective and independent.”

By the end of the year, they plan to scale up their operations and set benchmarks in terms of traffic. “We are looking at increasing website traffic through various user engagement initiatives like quizzes, forums and mass-multiplier games. Once that is in place, we will zero down on an independent funding source that is robust enough to resist external opposition to content, if any.” Post that, they plan to get into this full-time, have a proper content management system and work with a dedicated pool of writers in an official set-up. Diversification by creating additional sites catering to regional politics is also on the cards. “We have already launched tamil.unrealtimes.com that focuses on Tamil Nadu politics. We want to create similar sites in addition to the parent website. We have it in us to bring meaningful satire closer to the daily lives of people.”
If the news is not exciting enough for you, but it is parodies, spoofs and satire that you want, you know where to look for it!



By Divya J Shekhar
 

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