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Woke To Broke: The Stunning Rise And Fall Of AIB

Exclusive interviews with Tanmay Bhat, Rohan Joshi, Ashish Shakya, Gursimran Khamba and several former AIB employees show that the forces that fuelled AIB's stratospheric rise - Twitter, internet culture, virality and advertiser-driven growth - also propelled its rapid end.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was first published on 2 June 2019. In October 2018, hundreds of Indian women said #MeToo, narrating instances of sexual harassment and assault, especially at their workplaces. A year on, we’re revisiting some of the most important stories about the movement.

MUMBAI, Maharashtra —“I saw a headline with your photo next to Alok Nath, what did you do?”

In the first week of October 2018, Tanmay Bhat fielded a worried call from his mother. As he took the call, Bhat recalled, he didn’t quite know where to begin.

That week, hundreds of Indian women had taken to Twitter and Facebook to voice their anger and frustration at the pattern of persistent sexual violence—ranging from harassment at the workplace to rape by strangers and familiars—that had followed them through their lives. The men they named as harassers included Bollywood celebrities, India’s deputy foreign minister at the time, journalists, artists, lawyers, musicians, middle managers in corporate firms, CEOs, friends, former boyfriends, and family members.

In one disturbing Facebook post, filmmaker Vinta Nanda accused Alok Nath, a 62- year-old Bollywood actor known for playing the family patriarch in Sooraj Barjatya movies, of drugging and raping her almost two decades ago. Nath denied the allegations and filed a defamation case against Nanda. Two other women subsequently accused him of harassment, a police case was registered against him, and the Dindoshi court in Mumbai granted Nath anticipatory bail.

So when Bhat’s mother spotted her son’s photograph printed next to Nath’s, it came as quite a shock.

“My mom doesn’t understand woke culture,” Bhat told HuffPost India in a conversation months later. “How do I explain to her that I’m not the same as fucking Alok Nath?”

All India Bakchod

In the last week of September 2018, HuffPost India reached out to Tanmay Bhat as part of a profile on All India Bakchod (AIB), a comedy quartet that started with Bhat and co-founders Rohan Joshi, Ashish Shakya and Gursimranjeet Khamba, making goofy, viral, YouTube sketches, and grew into a company employing 40 writers and producers dedicated to turning the inchoate obsessions, outrages and petty musings of the Indian internet into commercially viable branded content.

In 2017-18, AIB earned a little over Rs 9 crore in revenue, on which they turned a profit of close to Rs 80 lakhs, according to documents filed with the Ministry of Corporate Affairs.

Chintu Ka Birthday, their first self-financed feature-length film, which cost them about Rs 3 crore, was supposed to debut at the Mumbai Film Festival in October 2018 and then be snapped up at a comfortable premium by Netflix, a deal that fell through. HuffPost India reached out to Netflix which declined to comment.

Start-ups like Swiggy, established but ageing brands like Bacardi, and legacy players-turned-digital video platforms like Hotstar, turned to AIB for their perfectly balanced edgy-but-safe, advertiser-friendly content aimed at millennial Indians.

Then, on October 4 2018, advertising professional and stand-up comic Mahima Kukreja tweeted about how a comedian called Utsav Chakraborty had sent her dick pics. AIB had continued to work with him despite Kukreja telling Bhat about it. Days later, another Twitter user shared an account that accused Khamba of harassment, and in the blink of an eye, AIB was cancelled in the way that only those who mostly exist online can be. A week later, India’s biggest and best-known influencer brand had vanished into internet oblivion.

(Disclosure: Chakraborty worked as a content writer for HuffPost India in 2015, well before these allegations came to light. Read our statement on Chakraborty here.)

This granular account on AIB’s rise and fall is based on several months of reporting and interviews with Bhat, Joshi, Shakya and Khamba, and six former AIB employees — four of whom are women. HuffPost India also reached out to Kukreja, and three more women who had worked with AIB, but they declined to comment.

The interviews suggest that the fall of AIB was consistent with the logic of the influencer economy: the forces that fuelled its stratospheric rise — Twitter, internet culture, virality and advertiser-driven growth — also propelled its rapid end.

On a darker note, AIB’s unravelling is an indictment of a moment where too many brands, corporations, business models, and influencers use the language of feminism to push products, promote themselves and make money, while begging off when asked to actually live up to the principles they espouse in their Insta stories.

Tanmay Bhat, Ashish Shakya, Rohan Joshi and Gursimran Khamba.
Rohan Joshi/Instagram
Tanmay Bhat, Ashish Shakya, Rohan Joshi and Gursimran Khamba.

AIB Is Born

All India Bakchod, or AIB, came together as a podcast on SoundCloud in 2013, but Bhat, Joshi, Shakya and Khamba had known each other for a few years from their time in Mumbai’s fledgling comedy circuit.

Joshi and Bhat were contributors to the Mumbai-based humour magazine JLT when, one day in early 2008, Bhat saw Joshi’s Google Talk status about him performing a stand-up comedy act. They connected over how to turn a hobby into a vocation at a time it didn’t have much traction in India.

Bhat, Joshi and Shakya drew closer at Weirdass comedy, Vir Das’s comedy platform, where they met Khamba.

“Weirdass was my introduction to the science of comedy,” Bhat told HuffPost India. “Rohan, Ashish and I spent a couple of years at Weirdass where we wrote tons and tons of live comedy shows with Vir and we learnt an incredible amount working with him.”

In an interview with HuffPost India, Vir Das said, “The comedy scene would have emerged no matter what I did. I was just kind of looking for people to collaborate with so this stuff became more fun.

“In terms of mentorship, I don’t see it that way. I still haven’t figured out what kind of an artist I am, leave alone being able to tell anyone else. We showed up, did some work, shit was fun, and we all learned.”

Before AIB began as a podcast, the four comedians would write scripts for television, including writing jokes for Filmfare Awards, MTV and Channel V.

“The open mics were few and far,” Bhat said. “Like there’d be two open mics in a month and we’d literally be waiting for it the whole month.”

In February 2013, the quartet were part of a live show at Mumbai’s Liberty Cinema for a Bollywood-themed ‘Worst of the Year’ awards show, and were surprised by the response they got.

“We sold out on the day of the show and we couldn’t believe that we’d sold out an auditorium,” Bhat recalled.

In early 2014, when AIB started producing regular videos, brands and sponsor interest kicked in, making them think of going official. AIB’s holding company, One Two Flip Entertainment, was incorporated in October 2015.

That year, AIB signed a deal with Hotstar to produce a satirical news show, On Air With AIB, and struck deals with premium brands such as Bacardi, Ola and Google.

This was the heyday of the internet’s famous “pivot-to-video”—where growing advertiser interest in running video ads meant that video content producers like AIB were suddenly bankable businesses. In February 2016, an AIB competitor The Viral Fever, or TVF, raised $10 million from Tiger Global. Bhat said AIB, too was courted by investors, but they never struck a deal.

As more competitors entered the market, a carefully cultivated wokeness was a vital aspect of AIB’s appeal — earning them a large following amongst millennial women, one of the internet’s most sought after demographics for advertisers. One of their biggest viral hits came in 2013 when they parodied Ishq Wala Love — a popular track from the film Student of the Year.

In a coup, AIB got Alia Bhatt, the film’s breakout star, to participate in the parody of her own song, creating what the internet calls “so meta” and brand-managers call a “win-win”. Alia got to appear fresh, unself-conscious and relatable, unlike a previous generation of stars like Kareena Kapoor, who had an aura of inaccessibility about them. Unlike the stars of the early aughts, the millennial heroine was of the people; she tripped and fell, but made sure she got a cutesy Insta boomerang out of it.

Alia did another video with them titled Alia Bhatt - Genius of the Year, a parody of a gaffe she made on Koffee With Karan, which has racked up more than 23 million videos on YouTube since it was uploaded in August 2014.

YRF’s protest against AIB’s Dhoom 3 parody — Bollywood’s legacy studio had denied them permission to make one so they instead made a video on YRF’s grumpiness — also helped solidify the collective’s image as a counter-force to mainstream Bollywood.

The Ishq Wala Love parody, released in February 2013, was an early prototype for videos with high-profile stars looking to burnish their celebrity and brand values with a patina of relatable, brand-safe, feminist gloss.

Rape: It’s Your Fault, released in September 2013, was a video with Kalki Koechlin, who was looking to concretise her brand values as a smart, self-possessed woman shaking up the patriarchy.

However, it was the roast of Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh, held in December 2014, where AIB stood on stage in Worrli and insulted Bollywood royalty to their faces, that catapulted the collective into national stardom. From threats by the right-wing party Shiv Sena to FIRs in various cities, AIB had managed to shake India’s fragile morality

Post the roast, an event that cost AIB dearly to the point that they had to borrow money from OML to field legal costs, AIB kept a dedicated legal corpus although they’d have to yet again reach out to OML to bail them out during the Modi-Snapchat filter controversy in July 2017.

Karan Johar, Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh at the AIB Roast held in December 2014.
Karan Johar, Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh at the AIB Roast held in December 2014.

While AIB’s early videos had a camp aesthetic with visibly low production values, the February 2017 video Coz I Have Vagina, Re with Kangana Ranaut was a slick Bollywood-style video complete with a gaudy set and back-up dancers. The video, which parodied the hit Chittiyaan Kalaiyaan Re, leveraged Kangana’s well-justified image as a talented, bankable star who was still taken less seriously than her less-accomplished male counterparts.

But as AIB grew from a small group of men making funny videos into a full-grown business with a diverse pool of talented young writers and producers, women employees began to spot a divergence between the values espoused in the company’s videos and the working environment at the office.

“If it’s a company run by four men, that becomes the collective voice,” one woman writer who worked with AIB told HuffPost India. “No matter what you do, that will remain the company’s dominant voice.”

Turning A Blind Eye

When Krupa Gohil joined AIB as a social media writer in February 2017, the then 22-year-old was excited at the prospect of working with the coolest comedy collective in town.

Gohil, whose talent Bhat first spotted on Twitter, was hired to make relatable memes for AIB’s legion of fans on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, but within the first few weeks, she began to feel that the company in general, and the four founders in particular, saw the internet’s emerging conversation about feminism as just another meme-worthy narrative to tap into.

One time, said Gohil, an AIB employee on the social media team “made a meme about smashing patriarchy but he didn’t even know what patriarchy meant. It was just made and shared on social media to score woke points. These were empty, token actions.”

Gohil recalled how her team was encouraged to make memes that appealed to an overwhelmingly male audience. Stand-up comedian Zakir Khan’s following was pointed to as an audience to tap into.

On one occasion, Gohil said, when she made a meme about women’s clothing not having pockets, she was told to make something on men’s clothes as well.

“I was like, um, but there’s nothing really wrong with men’s apparel.”

In February 2018, comedian Aayushi Jagad and Sumedh Natu posted a scathing criticism of the lens with which AIB looks at women.

“AIB seems to cast women and write female characters only and only when they are absolutely needed,” Jagad said in the video titled ‘How AIB uses Feminism’, essentially making an argument that the collective rarely casts women unless it is a video specifically about women.

Most gender-neutral roles, such as a news anchor, a police constable, a doctor, a talk-show host and engineers were almost always played by men.

“It almost feels like in the AIB writer’s room, women exist on their own planet,” Jagad pointed out in the video, saying women exist as feminists or plot devices or stock characters such as mother or maid.

AIB’s founders disputed the charge that their espousal of feminist principles was a facade.

“We were four boys who became a company of 40 people. There wasn’t any insincerity behind our feminism,” co-founder Ashish Shakya said. “Saying that we used feminism as a business model implies we went like, ‘chalo, feminism pe videos banate hain, hits aayenge’.

“As writers and creators, we did something we believed in,” Shakya said.

But in early 2017, Gohil said, AIB tried to hire a person who went by the handle @dopeengineer, who was notorious for transphobic humour and rape jokes.

The hiring, which eventually didn’t go through, Gohil said, was motivated by the fact that @dopeengineer posted a lot of memes dissing AIB. (The @dopengineer handle has since gone silent).

“I didn’t understand the logic of hiring a guy who was very, very problematic and making at least two existing women employees, uncomfortable,” Gohil recalled. “I told them very clearly that I’m not comfortable. I voiced that and hoped to be heard.”

When Gohil brought her objections to Bhat, he wrote to @dopeengineer, saying if he could “convince” the women opposed to his hire, AIB would still hire him. @dopeengineer messaged a woman employee at AIB — setting off a chain of uncomfortable interactions in which the women employees felt they had been thrown under the bus by Bhat.

Bhat didn’t hire the person but Gohil said that her protest made her suffer and that he would often act hostile at work. Through this episode, Gohil said, Joshi or Shakya didn’t stand up for them.

“This just leads you to think that the wokeness is a bit of front,” Gohil said.


An ICC That Actually Worked

Yet, AIB was also a place where women employees felt supported.

Unlike many Indian companies, AIB had a functioning Internal Complaints Committee — mandatory under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act of 2013 — to deal with cases of sexual harassment at the workplace and, according to two women who worked with AIB, the committee worked.

In July 2017, when Nisha Kalra was working with AIB as a writer on a contract, a male employee dropped his pants and exposed his penis.

At first, Karla ignored it.

“I let it pass as I didn’t want that to affect my work,” Kalra told HuffPost India.

However, the flashing continued, and when the man exposed his penis in her presence thrice in a single day, Kalra confronted him to which the person said his ‘pants were loose.’

The next day, Kalra proceeded to file an official complaint.

“I spoke to Tanmay the next morning,” Kalra said. “He was very angry at what happened and that shared anger validated my trauma as it was reassuring — I had spent a sleepless night worrying that nobody would believe me.”

She said that Bhat put her in touch with AIB’s complaints committee. A woman lawyer, who was not an AIB employee, was Kalra’s point of contact.

“Throughout this, it was ensured that the person didn’t come in contact with me, even accidentally,” Kalra said.

The man was found guilty after a month-long formal inquiry, and was fired. The ICC asked Kalra if she wanted to pursue a police complaint, which she declined.

“This is, by no means, to minimise the trauma of other victims but in my experience, the ICC was prompt, the support I got from AIB immensely helped in dealing with the incident, and on the occasions when I was caught in self-doubt, talking with the team members actually put me at ease,” Kalra said.

Kalra said AIB actively encouraged her to go to therapy and she continued working with the company.

“I felt cared for. They asked me to take as many days off or come hang at work, whatever worked for me,” she said. “In my case, I think they, especially Bhat, went beyond what was legally required for them or him to do.”

What Went Down On October 4

When HuffPost India visited the AIB office in Mumbai’s Lower Parel in September 2018, a month before the October denouement, the space felt like a startup with bespectacled youth sprawled on low couches, tapping away at their MacBooks, discussing ideas for sketches, lunch plans, and bad Tinder dates.

In one room, writers tried out jokes — some funny, some controversial, and some plain bad.

“Our slogan is Incredible India. But it should just be, ‘We’re not Pakistan’,” one writer quipped, prompting a round of laughter.

A week after our visit, on October 4 2018, when Mahima Kukreja called out AIB for working with comedian Ustav Chakraborty despite knowing that he had sent her dick pics, the situation at the office was tense but in a “low-key way”, an AIB writer told HuffPost India.

Of the four founders, only Rohan Joshi was in the office, making insta stories. Ashish Shakya was at home, nursing a painful back, while Khamba and Bhat were out on meetings.

Devaiah Bopanna and Girish Narayandass, the main writers of the collective, were in the writers’ room, working on a sketch for Swiggy, the food delivery startup. The sketch was expected to go into production in the next few days. Another group of producers were out scouting for a location for the same Swiggy sketch.

As Kukreja’s tweets gained traction, Joshi remained calm. AIB, Joshi’s thinking went, had nothing to do with Chakraborty as he hadn’t been working for them, even as a freelancer, for over a year.

The AIB team with Ranbir Kapoor with who they did a podcast in July 2017.
The AIB team with Ranbir Kapoor with who they did a podcast in July 2017.

“We didn’t panic immediately. You have to understand that we’re a company that’s regularly in the news because of something or the other,” Joshi said. “So our first reaction was to process the information.”

Thirty minutes later, Kukreja’s tweets had snowballed into an avalanche.
#AllIndiaBalatkaris started trending on Twitter, causing panic in the office.

Joshi got on a call with Bhat, Khamba and Shakya, according to two people who were present in the office at the time, and then went into a meeting with Only Much Louder, or OML, the company that manages AIB and who shares their office space.

“Man, balatkari means rapist. It’s a big word. Take a second to understand what it means,” Joshi told HuffPost India at his Santacruz residence.

When Joshi emerged from his meeting with the OML brass, he told the rest of the office that he had some bad news. The suits had decided to pull down the dozen-odd AIB videos, with a million hits each, featuring Chakraborty.

The writers protested.

“It was their work. It’s basically their CV. When they go out looking for jobs, the numbers these videos landed are crucial,” said an AIB employee on the condition of anonymity. “Almost all of them were against the idea but Joshi was firm that the videos had to go.”

“At that point, every minute the videos were out there, it was an excuse for people to pummel us,” Joshi said, explaining that it felt like the right thing to do, as Chakraborty’s image could have triggered people. “We had a conversation with the team, saying that while we had to delist the videos, nobody can take their work away from them.”

Later that day, AIB issued a preliminary statement condemning Utsav’s behaviour, accepting that they should have done better, and adding that they would do more as more information emerged.

Back at the AIB office, Joshi announced that for now, work would slow down until there was more clarity.

“We are figuring this out,” he told the assembled pool of writers and producers.

In The Eye Of The Storm

The following day, October 5 2018, AIB released a more detailed statement.

This fresh statement, two employees told HuffPost India, came as a shock to the wider organisation as it appeared that Bhat knew more about Chakraborty’s alleged misdeeds than AIB had let on at first.

“We messed up,” the statement said. “Some time after Utsav had stopped being an AIB employee, Tanmay Bhat received specific, detailed allegations about him in a private and personal conversation.”

Tanmay confronted Chakraborty in a personal capacity, the statement continued. Chakraborty called up Kukreja, leading to further harassment. No one at AIB was told, so the company continued to work with Chakraborty.

“That’s on us. We made a big mistake,” the AIB statement said. “We should have cut all ties immediately.”

Three days later, on October 8 2018, Twitter user Pedestrian Poet posted an anonymous account of a woman who said AIB co-founder Gursimran Khamba had emotionally abused her and made unwelcome physical advances.

“We are a public-facing company. We responded very quickly and made our responses public,” Joshi said. “We put both Khamba and Bhat on suspension as and when the stories came out. We suspended him before we even knew what the process should be. We didn’t want to hide behind the excuse of not knowing the process.”

The Aftermath

Soon after AIB released their first statement on Chakraborty, Swiggy called to say their brand campaign was on hold.

“On hold basically means they are pulling out. This was only the beginning,” a writer who worked with AIB said.

Swiggy did not respond to HuffPost India’s request for comment.

Actors and technicians were informed that the shoot has been cancelled and location bookings were scrapped.

On October 8, once AIB co-founder Khamba was accused, Hotstar pulled the plug mid-production on On Air With AIB, a satirical news show modelled on the lines of The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight and which was a major source of revenue for AIB. Hotstar also pulled down episodes of Better Life Foundation, another web series that featured Chakraborty.

“They did this while they still have a whole lot of movies that feature Alok Nath, who has been accused of rape,” said one AIB employee, who was creatively associated with the show. “It’s just very unfair and hypocritical.”

“Before deciding on taking down On Air, there was a conversation about what needed to be done about the titles that featured Bollywood actors and filmmakers accused of harassment and assault,” said a Hotstar source privy to the details of a meeting at the Star office. “One of Star’s top executives smiled and said, ‘if we were to do that, we’ll have to take all our content down’.”

The Mumbai Film Festival removed AIB’s debut production, Chintu Ka Birthday, from their line-up, effectively reducing its chances of finding a buyer, and talks with streaming platforms halted.

After aggressively courting AIB for years, brands suddenly wanted nothing to do with them. Within a week, co-founder Shakya confirmed to HuffPost India, every single client had backed out.

“People started re-evaluating their relationships with us and quite publicly distanced themselves as a result of the emerging narratives,” Joshi said.

“What are you gonna say?” Shakya added. “It’s their brand.”

Ashish Shakya, Rohan Joshi, Tanmay Bhat and Gursimran Khamba at the taping of Hotstar's On Air With AIB.
Mint via Getty Images
Ashish Shakya, Rohan Joshi, Tanmay Bhat and Gursimran Khamba at the taping of Hotstar's On Air With AIB.

The Collapse

“You’d expect me to give you all a brave CEO-type speech but this isn’t going to be one,” began Rohan Joshi’s speech on October 17, 2018, two weeks after Kukreja first tweeted out her allegations.

All AIB employees had gathered at Ashish Shakya’s house in Bandra. The mood was grim. The collective’s writers, who had spent an anxious week staring at an uncertain future, were expecting some clarity.

“We did the maths. And the numbers aren’t just adding up,” Joshi went on.

The room went silent.

Several people broke down. Joshi’s voice was choking; he was holding back tears and, according to one person present at the meeting, “doing a really bad job of it.”

Finally, he said, “We are shutting down.”

Two employees told HuffPost India they knew things were “really bad” but nobody expected the company to fold.

“I thought they’d suspend work for a month, two months, not shut shop. I was clueless,” one said. “Everybody was. What were we going to do?”

Unlike the competition, which had raised money from investors, AIB was largely self-financed from its own operations and investments by Bhat, Shakya, Joshi and Khamba — who each own 25% of the company.

The company made most of its money from brand collaborations, and when the company went low on cash, a former AIB employee said, the four founders would go on international comedy tours and invest their earnings back into the company. AIB’s 2017-18 annual report states the company owed Rs 36 lakhs in loans from the four founders as of March 31 2018.

A poster announcing AIB's international tour.
A poster announcing AIB's international tour.

AIB’s brand of humour, and the current political climate, posed its own set of unique problems.

“Every other company in our space like FilterCopy, TVF, etc, everyone has raised money from the market,” Bhat said. “We didn’t because how do you explain to a VC that business has suddenly shut down for 6 months because somebody thought we called Modiji a kutta because we put a Snapchat filter on him and now nobody wants to give us money?”

Yet even so, the collective decided to expand the company’s operations to self-finance a feature-length film —Chintu Ka Birthday. As a consequence there were no funds to bail out the company when this most recent crisis hit.

“Our reservoir of funds had gone into making Chintu ka Birthday,” Joshi said.

“Let’s just say we were reliant on a steady cashflow and a return on our investment, which would’ve come in a few months,” Shakya said.

AIB’s financials back this up. The previous year, the company had recorded annual expenses of close to Rs 8 crore, of which about 3 crore were salary expenses. This meant AIB was spending close to Rs 66 lakh per month on expenses, of which Rs 25 lakh per month was spent on salaries alone.

Borrowing money from the market would have been perilous.

“It would mean taking on an unserviceable amount of debt that we’d have spent a lifetime paying off,” Joshi said.

Shutting the company down seemed to be the best option.

“For the first week or so, we did debate on which way to go,” Bhat said. “But the news cycle was changing everyday and our finances were getting directly affected by it.”

Back in Shakya’s apartment, the final meeting with employees lasted an hour and a half. Everyone who was laid off was given two months pay.

In the end, people hugged each other, promised to stay in touch, and cracked a few final jokes.

“You were going to ask for a leave for your vacation,” one employee told another. “Guess now that’s taken care of.”

Another writer pointed out that the online outrage was now shifting away from AIB and towards Alok Nath, the actor.

“Ye kya life hai yaar,” he said. “Fucked by Utsav Chakraborty, saved by Alok Nath.”

Soul Searching

Just where AIB went wrong was succinctly summed up by a woman employee who worked with the company for a year.

“If the management was better at managing, and not at fucking up, I’d love to have continued to work for them,” the woman said. “But they just messed up and the reason is that they are good at making jokes, not being suits.”

Joshi, Shakya and Bhat all admit that they struggled with the nuts and bolts of building and running a diverse company.

Overall, did our content have more masculine tone? Yes, I concede to that. It was a company started by four guys, it had a lot to get through to get to the side of diversity. It never fully got there,” Joshi said. “But every next day was better than the previous one in terms of effort.”

Bhat was more forthcoming.

“I as a leader have made a tonne of mistakes,” Bhat said. “I don’t think I was very good.”

Bhat pointed out that none of the founders had actually ever worked full-time for a company before they started AIB.

“I’ve never been a part of a formal organisation before; I went from being a comedian to being head of a company,” Bhat said. “I’m also learning — how to have employees, how to deal with them. I think diversification was important, we should have done it much earlier.”

In 2018, AIB was looking to hire a woman Chief Executive Officer to help keep the company on track, according to Bhat and Joshi. In the past, Bhat said he had reached out to women friends for advice, but realised the company needed someone in a more formal role.

“The biggest learning from this episode is that if at all we would reconstitute AIB, there’s absolutely no way that the top layer of management would be just dudes,” Joshi said.

Yet simply having more women in key roles — while welcome — isn’t always enough.

“Having more women doesn’t guarantee a safer work culture. The biggest example is Tehelka,” said Michelle Suradkar, Group Chief Human Resources Officer of the MullenLowe Lintas Group. “They had a woman in a key position but that didn’t help.”

Sudharkar said a combination of policies, gender diversity and gender sensitisation workshops are the solution to creating a work culture that doesn’t kill a company.

“Having policies alone is also not enough, they need to be enforced,” Suradkar said. “Your company’s leadership should be openly and visibly supportive of the safety of their employees because it’s the attitude that filters down.”

While Bhat and the other founders spoke the language of building an organisation where all employees felt safe and respected, interviews with the founders and women employees suggested they did not see this as a priority.

“We sacrificed cultural fixes for growth and that was an error,” Joshi said, when HuffPost India put this question to him.

It appears that Joshi, Bhat, Shakya and Khamba assumed that their “wokeness” and feminist-friendly branding, and a reliance on corporate buzzwords like “cultural fixes” meant AIB would automatically have a work culture where women felt supported, and that the founders themselves were well-equipped to decide what was unpleasant but acceptable behaviour, and what wasn’t.

As a consequence, many of the red flags that women employees like Gohil raised were either ignored, or acknowledged but not acted upon.

In sum, the founders were unable to look past their male privilege. This was most vividly illustrated in how Bhat and AIB handled the Utsav Chakraborty episode, where they clearly did not think that sending a dick pic was grounds for cutting professional ties with a collaborator.

When HuffPost India asked Gohil, the former AIB employee who protested the hiring of a transphobic writer, what she thought AIB could’ve done differently, she said, “They should have learnt to listen.”

A ‘Well-Timed’ Statement

On May 22 2019, AIB released a new statement on Twitter, more than seven months after their last post. It was hard not to consider the statement’s timing — the results of the 2019 general elections were due the next day, and so Indian Twitter had a lot going on.

Bhat — who had been suspended from AIB pending an inquiry — had been reinstated, but would no longer be the CEO of the company.

“Tanmay Bhat’s lapse of judgement regarding Utsav Chakraborty was egregious,” the statement said.

Gursimran Khamba, on the other hand, had withdrawn from the inquiry process into allegations that he had emotionally abused and harassed a woman that he had once been in a personal relationship with.

Khamba, the statement said, would no longer be associated with AIB. Khamba told HuffPost India he was withdrawing as the inquiry process was unfair and lacked transparency.

The Amazon show Khamba conceptualised and wrote, Gormint, will have his credits for the episodes he worked on although he isn’t associated with it anymore. “I’m confident that credit for my writing and show-running will be naturally accorded to me,” he told HuffPost.

He has launched a new venture, called Light@27, a comedy consultancy service. Shakya and Joshi have gone back to performing, both open mics and live shows. Bhat has been involved with consulting too.

Several other employees of AIB have found writing gigs in other content platforms such as FilterCopy, some have been absorbed by OML while several others continue to freelance for ads, short films, and features.

On Saturday, Reliance Entertainment announced that Vikas Bahl, accused of serious sexual assault had been ’exonerated,’ his credits as director of the upcoming Hrithik Roshan-starrer Super 30 reinstated while filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani, accused of sexual assault, was seen at the Prime Minister’s swearing in ceremony.

As for the actor Alok Nath, he appeared in a key role in Ajay Devgn’s De De Pyaar De, a film that was released on May 17, and did reasonable business at the box office — as most of Devgn’s films do.

In March, reports emerged that Nath had been cast as a judge in a film titled #MainBhi — Hindi for “Me Too”.

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