With most of his videos clocking over 5 lakh views on Instagram, Danish Sait is among Indian social media’s biggest trailblazers
When we catch Danish Sait on a Zoom call mid-March, he’s down with Covid-19 and isolating. “Are you sure you can speak?” we ask. “Of course. I am much better now,” he says. We offer to do the interview another day, but the 32-year-old insists, “I’m fine. I’m not such a delicate darling either.” The first few days of the infection were bad, he admits, but with the symptoms on the wane, Sait is looking for an escape from boredom. “I’ve asked my manager to line up as much work I can do from home,” he says.
His friends, though, will tell you isolation fatigue is a mere excuse; even in the best of times, Sait is a restive chap. “He can’t sit still for a minute,” says Vamsidhar Bhogaraju, writer, comedian and the director of One Cut Two Cut, Sait’s third film. “Even if he’s on a break, he’ll call up five times with some idea or the other. He’s always thinking about his next project.”
Sait doesn’t deny his eternal restlessness. “If I’m sitting idle, I’ll probably start eating my furniture,” he laughs. Which is why, during the first phase of the lockdown in early-2020, he picked up whatever was lying around in his home—a broomstick, sneakers, glasses, tissue boxes, and even a cat—and transformed them into props for his daily minute-long skits, imitating typical households struggling with the agonising confinement. Out of Sait’s boredom emerged conversation pieces between the fictional motley avatars of Jaya, Ramamurthy, Bro and others who, through their chatter on topical themes (from the PM’s 8 pm speech to the British royal family split), transcended the Bengaluru tropes he upheld and resonated with a wider pan-Indian audience.
As an RJ, emcee, show host, actor, influencer and IPL’s only travelling comedian (with the Royal Challengers Bangalore, hosting the Insider Series as loveable buffoon Mr Nags for seven seasons now), Sait was a recognised multi-hyphenate even before the lockdown. But through the last several months, he’s broken out of his regional playground and produced online content that had social media across the country hooked and in splits.
A childhood photo of Sait and his elder sister Kubbra (right), who is now an actor. It was at home, growing up with Kubbra and his mother, that Sait learnt how to laugh without judgement
With most of his videos clocking over 5 lakh views on Instagram, Sait is among Indian social media’s biggest trailblazers. He’s as comfortable autographing actor Anushka Sharma’s palms as Mr Nags, as he is asking cricketer David Warner poker-faced, “Australia first had Warne, then Warner, when are they going to have Warnest?” His fan-following ranges from commentator Harsha Bhogle to former Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who alluded to his lockdown sketches through a tweet on his birthday on July 1: “Happy birthday... I’m not sure whether I should be wishing Jaya, didi, Ramamurthy, bro & all the others who share a birthday with you...”
Sait was quite the showman, even as a child. Kubbra, his elder sister and now an actor, recalls that in his pre-school days, he would sit on a merry-go-round with his classmate and hum ‘Do deewane shehar mein’. Later, at Coorg Public School in Kodagu, where he studied for six years, and at his college in Coimbatore, Sait would always be up on the stage for cultural events.
Mimicry also came easy to him and, at home, his antics were appreciated as the Sait siblings would record impersonations and voices on blank tapes, encouraged by their mother. “My mom’s great at mimicry too,” says Sait. It is at home too that Sait was wired to laugh without judgment. Says Kubbra, “Because he grew up with two women—our mother and me—his Hindi would be feminine gendered. Like ‘Main khaa rahi hoon.’ But instead of chiding him, we’d always have a good laugh.”
Sait has been travelling with RCB during the IPL for seven seasons now
Despite an early initiation to humour, being funny is not something Sait cultivated consciously. “I think it was his survival instinct. He would think that’s his way of being accepted when he was bullied in school, or when the pressures were too high. It came to him as a reflex. And his impersonations aren’t meant to hurt people. He catches on to quirks faster than anyone else and copies them,” adds Kubbra.
Through his astute comic sense, Sait is able to embellish a character from minutes-long spoofs into a full-fledged feature film. Self-centred politician Nograj, who started off as a radio and YouTube sketch, morphed into a Kannada movie in 2018 as Humble Politician Nograj and now a web series, produced by Applause Entertainment, filming for which has been completed. For his current and third overall, One Cut Two Cut, Sait elevates simpleton Gopi into an arts and crafts teacher and the protagonist of a family entertainer. “We put together a video of Gopi while Danish was travelling during the IPL in 2020,” says Bhogaraju, the debutant director. “In half a day we received about 600-700 emails from people saying they were interested in the character. That’s when we decided to turn it into a feature film.”
Adds Bhogaraju, “Most characters Danish does are not merely because he can do accents and impressions well, but because he has great insights into people. He picks up things that most of us are probably aware of but never really observe. That’s why his characters are life-like.”
Because Sait manages to sculpt characters through keen observation, and weave the quirks into scripts even for branded content, his product plugs seem far more organic and real than blatant. In over 40 brands that he has endorsed, from national ones like Swiggy to local ones like Bengaluru’s Hotel Empire—“I’ve sold pretty much everything. I have no filters of choosing a brand”—Sait has laid down clear ground rules on how much control he will have on content (“almost entirely”).
“This makes Danish’s content primarily entertaining in a Danish-way than making it seem like a mildly entertaining branded content. It helps the audience enjoy the content from the content creator’s perspective. The brand infusion is only incidental,” says Karthik Srinivasan, communications consultant. “If FMCG brands can try to infuse Hindi and Hinglish across India through advertising, then Danish is showing the reverse is possible too, that even without Hindi, you can gain pan-Indian acceptance if you stick to what you do best.”
Sait, in character as Mr Nags, with cricketer Yuzvendra Chahal
Once Sait graduated from college, he joined events management firm Phase 1 as a client servicing agent. “I used to put together a lot of profiles of artistes who were emcees and hosts. At some point, it hit me, ‘Hey, I also deserve being on these presentations as a performer and not be the guy putting it together’,” says Sait, who soon got a job offer with a radio station in Bahrain. “I lied my way into the job saying I had done radio before. It was a good lie, and I don’t regret it.” Sait’s earliest gig on air entailed saying his and the station’s name, and playing a song. The first time, it took him 6 minutes to get it right. It was while working at the community radio station in Bahrain that he would scour the internet to access international stations and learn tricks from them—like conducting game shows and constructing short sentences appropriate for radio. That’s where the idea of playing prank calls came from.
“However, my first prank call was also my last. I called up a school teacher and asked her to help me speak to a girl that I liked. But the local community didn’t like their trusted radio station fooling them. We had to take it off air immediately. But I had that clip that helped me land a job at a station in Dubai next,” says Sait. He started off as a producer in Dubai, doing prank calls every morning with celebrated presenter Kritika Rawat. Sait was young, ambitious and impatient, looking to get ahead of the line, perhaps a little too quickly. It threw him into a spiral of unhappiness. “I constantly felt I was painting a canvas and someone else was signing on it. The art was mine, but the artiste was someone else,” he says. “My mind was rogue and that was my first handshake with mental health issues.”
When Danish spoke to Kubbra about his condition, she hardly identified it as clinical depression as we know it today. But her brother’s bristling unhappiness was enough for her to tell him to pack up and return to India. In subsequent years, Sait has gone through depression in three phases and it was only later, through a similarity of patterns, that Kubbra realised what he had suffered from earlier. But even during his toughest phases—and Sait has openly spoken about it across platforms—when even tying shoelaces would seem onerous, he has performed seamlessly when thrown in front of the microphone. “When I perform, I am in a state of trance, the feeling is almost spiritual. I reach the zenith when I am playing someone else,” says Sait.
In 2010, Sait came back to Bengaluru from Dubai and “with some luck” met Darius Sunawala, an RJ on Fever 104 FM, and landed a job there. But his creative restlessness continued to bug him here as well. “My only goal was to show off my work. I realised it was not about the length or the size of your content, but the impact. For instance, I thought I wanted an evening show, but then when it did come to me, I no longer wanted it. By then, I got interested in films, digital content etc. You constantly evolve,” says Sait.
It was around the same time that the discovery of instant gratification on social media began to distance Sait from radio. “On air, you had to solicit text messages from listeners. But the minute you upload on the internet, you begin to get reactions,” he adds. During an improv comedy show, he struck up a friendship with Saad Khan, the director of Humble Politician Nograj. The stage of improv also opened the doors of RCB for him when Nikhil Sosale, the team’s head of business partnerships, saw Sait at a show. Since 2015, he has been travelling with RCB, alternating between Mr Nags (a character inspired by Ali G and Borat, both played by Sacha Baron Cohen) and the presenter, rubbing shoulders with the likes of AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli. “The idea was to emulate content by global sporting giants like Barcelona or any NBA/NFL team and give fans a glimpse of the lighter side of cricketers,” says Rajesh V Menon, the vice president and head of RCB. “With Danish growing and coming into his own in the last couple of years, we have used him to build other properties like Bold Diaries. He also adds to the versatility of content, ranging from short-form documentary to parody press conference videos.”
The flipside: The bio-bubble which Sait has had to endure since last year due to the Covid surge. “I felt completely down when I entered the bio-bubble last IPL. But then you learn to get on with it. When you get to speak nonsense with AB and Virat, strapping on a moustache, a wig and a pair of shades, you learn to pick yourself up,” he says.
But once the lights are off, Sait prefers to leave his characters behind and doesn’t like to indulge in casual mimicry at times too. “It got boring after a point,” he says. He does admit though that, at times, he is a bit of a Ramamurthy—the old-school Bangalorean. “Even though I am young, a part of me is an old soul. I believe I am wise enough to not do something stupid, and I am young enough to do something stupid. It’s a dichotomy that I live with.”
Check out our Festive offers upto Rs.1000/- off website prices on subscriptions + Gift card worth Rs 500/- from Eatbetterco.com. Click here to know more.
(This story appears in the 07 May, 2021 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)