"If you get offended by a joke, there's nothing left," says breakout comedienne Saloni Gaur, 20, who is taking Indian social media feeds by storm – one Twitter and Instagram video at a time.
This belief is how the talented Delhi University student shores up the courage to comment on deeply polarising political issues, adopting a faintly critical view of the excesses of the ruling BJP party in India.
Viral fame is a new companion of Gaur’s, and while she’s found popularity quickly, hers is the quintessential underdog story.
Until 2017, Gaur didn't even have a mobile phone to record her comedy on, as she mostly did her live impromptu performances for school friends in her home town of Bulandshahr in northern India. She bought her first phone only upon moving to Delhi to go to college.
Gaur was doing what all aspiring comics do: making clumsily shot and roughly edited videos of her material using her phone's camera. She's been posting content on Instagram sporadically since 2018, and while she had her friends perpetually in splits, in the larger scheme of things, Gaur remained anonymous.
All of that changed in November last year. Gaur made a video about the pollution in Delhi, performing as Nazma Aapi, a middle-class, mother-of-two Muslim character, which has now become synonymous with her emerging brand.
Nazma Aapi complains about her children, her best friend Salma, and the family's small, struggling sweet potato business, while commenting on the most pressing political and social concerns of the hour. Gaur's accent – the sparingly used Karkhandari dialect of old Delhi Urdu – is so spot on, most fans are surprised that Gaur is a young Hindu woman, and not a native speaker of the language.
While there are a few who criticise her for cultural appropriation, largely, Nazma Aapi is seen as Gaur's endearing tribute to a style of Urdu that's fading away.
The Delhi pollution video was an instant hit, racking up close to a 100,000 views in a matter of days. Not bad for something she created on a whim. "I made that video right after waking up. I hadn't cleaned my face or the phone's camera, which is why the video is yellowish," she says, with a laugh.
The four months since that fortuitous video was posted have been a whirlwind, and more than a little surreal for Gaur. She has spoken about Maharashtra politics, soaring onion prices in India, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the resultant protests that rocked the country, Delhi's biting winters, the controversy around late Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz's 1979 poem Hum Dekhenge (it was deemed "anti-Hindu" by a university in India after students recited lines from it in solidarity with those subjected to police brutality while protesting against the CAA), the Indian Union budget, Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone's silent participation in anti-CAA protests, Tik Tok, coronavirus, the Delhi elections, US President Donald Trump's visit to India and the recent Delhi riots.
Nazma Aapi has something (funny) to say about everything, frequently offering a moment of levity in these seemingly unending dark times.
Gaur has made almost 70 videos to date, but it's only the last dozen or so that have turned her fortunes. The videos are immensely popular, garnering anywhere between 50,000 and 250,000 views, and growing rapidly.
"I really, truly hadn't imagined that the videos would be so well-received. I mean, my friends always told me that I was super funny. But I never expected this kind of response," says Gaur. "In fact, I'm still so taken aback and unprepared that I show up for all interviews wearing the same red jacket."
Nazma Aapi is not the only ace up Gaur's sleeve. Her mimicry of Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut, as Kangana Run-Out, who comments on all things related to media and entertainment, is as popular as Nazma Aapi – if not more.
While the Kangana Run-Out videos are relatively newer and fewer, they're among Gaur's most successful. One, in particular, where she reacts to a recent controversy involving fellow comedian Kunal Kamra and Indian news anchor Arnab Goswami, has clocked up more than half a million views. These days, Kangana Run-Out mostly sticks to reviewing movies. "I adore Kangana," Gaur says, with a laugh. "I don't know if she's seen the videos, but I hope she has, and I really hope she isn't offended by them. They're just jokes, after all."
That might be, but there's a real price to being a female comic on the internet in India, especially one so young, commenting on political issues. Browse through the comments on their videos and social media, and you'll find a stream of abuse, threats and vile pronouncements on topics completely unrelated to their work – mostly, their looks.
It can be unnerving and demoralising, especially to someone who is starting out, like Gaur. But she has a simple formula: ignore, ignore, and ignore some more.
“I simply don’t pay attention to or engage with trolls,” she says. “But I have to say, I think I’ve been exceptionally lucky. Overwhelmingly, it’s been an outpouring of love and encouragement. If anyone’s been particularly nasty, I’ve missed it.”
Even so, given that she's only 20, Gaur's family do worry for her safety and there are some basic precautions she's forced to take: no disclosing her whereabouts in any video or interview.
But considering that she is now popular enough to be invited for sit-down meetings with the deputy chief minister of Delhi, one can only wonder how long it will be before someone lets slip an identifying detail.
It's something else she doesn't think too much about, or stress over. "I tell myself, I'm still waiting in line to get my food from the hostel canteen. I might get recognised in the line, but life is more or less still the same," she says.
What she does spend a lot of time thinking about, though, is her material. "I script more of what I say and I stick to the script for the most part," she says.
"It used to be more of a stream of consciousness sort of thing. I used to say whatever came to my mind. I'm aware of the expectations, and of the number of people watching now. I'm more conscious of my responsibility. So far, I haven't felt the need to change or delete something I've said, but I know that if there comes a day when, say, 60 out of 100 people tell me that something was offensive or insensitive, I'll take it off. I do think about these things now."
There have been small, incremental changes in the past four months. Nazma Aapi now wears a black headscarf in all her videos for the sake of visual consistency. Similarly, all Kangana Run-Out videos now show Gaur wearing a curly-haired wig to simulate the actress's own curly mop. And yet, the more things change, the more they remain the same. "I still shoot and edit my videos on my phone," she says, with a laugh. "In my hostel room."