Story

"I Want to Quit ISIS"

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East India Comedy members Kunal Rao and Sapan Verma at a workshop hosted by the U.S. State Department. Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

East India Comedy members Kunal Rao and Sapan Verma at a workshop hosted by the U.S. State Department. Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

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East India Comedy members Sapan Verma and Kunal Rao with Priyank Mathur addressing the audience at the workshop “Fighting Terror With Comedy." Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

East India Comedy members Sapan Verma and Kunal Rao with Priyank Mathur addressing the audience at the workshop “Fighting Terror With Comedy." Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

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Priyank Mathur rides in a rickshaw through Mumbai. Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

Priyank Mathur rides in a rickshaw through Mumbai. Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

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An armed guard stands near the entrance of Film City, where many of Bollywood’s movies and television shows are filmed. Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

An armed guard stands near the entrance of Film City, where many of Bollywood’s movies and television shows are filmed. Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

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Hundreds of young Indian boys gather to play cricket every Sunday in the heart of Mumbai. Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

Hundreds of young Indian boys gather to play cricket every Sunday in the heart of Mumbai. Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

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Young Indian boys take a break from their cricket match to pose for a photograph. Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

Young Indian boys take a break from their cricket match to pose for a photograph. Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

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Indian men take pictures near the Taj Mahal hotel, one of the targets of the 2008 terrorist attack. Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

Indian men take pictures near the Taj Mahal hotel, one of the targets of the 2008 terrorist attack. Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

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Indian police officers on guard near markets frequented by tourists. Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

Indian police officers on guard near markets frequented by tourists. Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

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East India Comedy members Azeem Banatwalla, Kunal Rao, and Sapan Verma. Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

East India Comedy members Azeem Banatwalla, Kunal Rao, and Sapan Verma. Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

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East India Comedy members Azeem Banatwalla, Kunal Rao, and Sapan Verma. Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

East India Comedy members Azeem Banatwalla, Kunal Rao, and Sapan Verma. Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

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Priyank Mathur, creator of the “Fighting Terror With Comedy” program. Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

Priyank Mathur, creator of the “Fighting Terror With Comedy” program. Image by Wes Bruer. India, 2017.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Priyank Mathur is grinning as we drive into the hectic belly of Mumbai after a long flight from the U.S. The sites, sounds, and smells of the city conjure memories of his childhood years in India. We make our way through the winding, shaded streets of Bandra, a neighborhood in West Mumbai, arriving at the Taj Lands End, a swanky hotel known to be frequented by Bollywood stars, given its proximity to the home of Shah Rukh Khan, one of the highest earning Indian entertainers in the movie business. 

After adjusting from jet lag, Mathur is ready to discuss his latest venture, settling into the makeshift office in the hotel room which will serve as our interview studio. While he is eager to discuss this project, he’s not absolutely positive the State Department will want him to. But we decide that’s a bridge to be crossed later. Tonight, with the sun setting on the Sea Link bridge in the background I hear the story of how Mathur convinced the State Department to give him money to produce videos using local entertainers that mock the terrorist group ISIS—and ones that might go viral. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The following day, Mathur and I hail a cab for the hour-long drive to the outskirts of Mumbai, arriving at a checkpoint with armed guards vetting vehicles entering Film City, where many of Bollywood’s movies and TV shows are shot. Soon, Mathur and a handful of State Department officials will host more than a dozen influential Indian comedians to hold a workshop on how they can help the U.S. “fight terrorism with comedy.” 

Feeling a bit nervous before his presentation, Mathur steps outside in the sweltering Mumbai afternoon sun where we are met by a handful of members of East India Comedy, a very popular group of stand-up comedians known throughout South Asia from their social media followings. All of them are about to do something they never could have imagined—convince other comedians to make videos poking fun at ISIS at the behest of the U.S. government. It is also the first time the comedy group will reveal that their latest sketch comedy video, titled “I Want to Quit ISIS” and viewed more than one million times, was funded by the State Department.

Sunday, February 19. 2017

B-roll day. Waking up early to see the Gateway of India before the sun sets high enough to make the day unbearably hot. My driver speaks great English, learned from years of driving Westerners around Mumbai. We talk about the 2008 terrorist attacks that paralyzed the city and how he left the South Mumbai area where a majority of the violence occurred just an hour before the first gunshots were fired. 

From the Gateway of India, he points out the almost finished renovations of the Taj Mahal Hotel, where the last attacker made his final stand after setting fire to the building. From there, we go to the Leopold Cafe where a few bullet holes in the columns still remind those walking by of those frightening three days. After a visit to a local Hindu temple and a stroll around the tourist markets for some footage, it’s back to the hotel to transcribe and edit. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2017

We arrive at the office of East India Comedy. Located in a sleepy suburb of Mumbai, it’s a modest residence filled like a fraternity house with at least a half dozen comedians and writers and even more coming and going, racking up views, hits, and likes on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. 

After peeling themselves off their laptops, Kunal Rao, Azeem Banatwalla, and Sapan Verma sit down and tell me how they teamed up with the U.S. government to help fight terrorism. Though aware that publicly provoking a terror group could raise some security concerns, they feel the importance of this work outweighs the risk, saying that while groups like theirs are used to writing content to promote products like soda or potato chips, it’s rare that they get to do something like help fight terrorism.