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India Loses Its Sense of Humor

Threatened by hardline nationalists, the country’s stand-up comedians increasingly steer clear of religion and politics

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India Loses Its Sense of Humor
A stand-up comedian performs at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai, India, on Feb. 7, 2018. (Aalok Soni/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

One August evening last year, as I took my seat inside an auditorium in Hyderabad, India, a bizarre sight greeted me. A row of police officers wearing helmets and carrying shields stood in front of the stage. Dozens of officers were stationed in the center aisle and on both sides of the hall. I had already spent two hours in line for a stringent security check before entering the venue, which had only been disclosed that morning. When we finally took our seats, a police official announced that everyone had to switch off their phones. When the man sitting beside me furtively took out his phone to snap a quick photo, a police officer snatched it out of his hands, ignoring the man’s desperate pleas.

All this for a stand-up comedy show.

The comedian was 30-year-old Munawar Faruqui, who has spent much of the past two years in the crosshairs of far-right Hindu groups. On Jan. 1, 2021, Faruqui was performing in the central Indian city of Indore when a self-proclaimed Hindu nationalist in the audience barged onto the stage, angry about a video Faruqui had uploaded months before in which he referenced a Hindu god in one of his jokes. Faruqui was arrested the same day and spent over a month in jail for a complaint filed under Section 295-A of the Indian penal code, which prohibits outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens. The charge sheet is yet to be filed in court. Following his release, several of Faruqui’s shows were canceled after Hindu nationalist groups threatened to disrupt them. Recently, his shows in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Gurugram were canceled for similar reasons. A rare show in Hyderabad took place amid heavy security, protests and threats to vandalize the venue, including by a local politician of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Faruqui is not the only artist to come under fire in recent years. In 2020, a political monologue about India by the Indian comedian Vir Das prompted a huge backlash and several police complaints. In November last year, Das’ in-person show in Bengaluru was canceled after a right-wing Hindu group objected. The comedian Kunal Kamra, who often makes Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and the ruling party the butt of his jokes, had his show in the Delhi suburb of Gurugram canceled in September after Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a leading right-wing organization, threatened the organizers. In 2020, Kamra was also sued for contempt of court over some tweets that were allegedly disrespectful of India’s Supreme Court. In his reply to the court, Kamra wrote that “there is a growing culture of intolerance in this country, where taking offense is seen as a fundamental right and has been elevated to the status of a much-loved national indoor sport.”

In the comedy world, these attacks on artistic freedom have led many to tread carefully when it comes to certain topics. “[Joking about] religion is a complete no right now,” said the Indian stand-up comedian Anirban Dasgupta, whose material often covers themes like online trolling and freedom of speech in India, to New Lines. “Politics is still doable, but it’s a very tricky subject because the ones in power will come after you. These power dynamics and self-censorship feature in the writing process.”

Worries escalated after Faruqui’s arrest. Dasgupta remembers a time when these concerns were not front and center. While working on his 2017 comedy special “Take It Easy,” he had no thoughts of self-censorship. His show touched on political issues, including Hindu nationalism and the left-wing politics that dominate his home state of West Bengal, and centered on how easily Indians take offense to anything they don’t agree with. He toured extensively, performing in cities across India, yet faced no objections from any venue owners or audiences.

He did, however, once face ire online. Years before “Take It Easy,” he had uploaded a stand-up clip to YouTube about Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian freedom fighter who organized the Indian National Army against the British Empire and hailed from West Bengal. Bose died under mysterious circumstances. In the video clip, Dasgupta joked about how some Bengalis believe he is still alive. He was trolled viciously and threatened with lawsuits for criminal conspiracy. “[The threats] were pretty explicit. I basically had no other choice but to delete the video,” he says.

In 2019, Dasgupta decided he wanted a break from political comedy. It was partly for the challenge of exploring other topics but was also a form of self-care to spare himself the trouble and stress. For once, he did not want to be bothered about the legal consequences of his jokes. Nowadays, if he uploads a video online, he sometimes runs it by a friend or lawyer to check for anything that could invite trouble. But even that feels redundant now, he says, because anything can trigger offense these days. “It doesn’t even have to be a joke on religion; even if there’s a mention of religion that’s good enough for outrage,” he says.

While some grapple with how to balance creativity with personal risk, many have chosen to stay away from politics altogether. The popular comedian Kenny Sebastian did a set in 2018 on why he’s content doing jokes on tea and biscuits. “Why I don’t do jokes on politics is because I’m scared,” Sebastian says in the show. “It’s not like I can’t get punchlines on political jokes. It’s because I don’t want to get punched on my face.” Most stand-up comedians in India today are turning apolitical, says Dasgupta, which is bizarre given the charged political climate. “It’s the result of the situation that we are in. Everybody is holding back,” he says.

There is, however, one comedy troupe that does not hold back. The trio — of comedian Sanjay Rajoura, writer-lyricist Varun Grover and musician Rahul Ram — known as Aisi Taisi Democracy, which loosely translates to “to hell with democracy,” was born in 2014 out of frustration over the lack of hard-hitting political satire in India. The country’s caste inequities, draconian sedition laws, digital disinformation, rising authoritarianism under Modi and violence in Kashmir are some of the themes the group have covered in their shows. These days, comedians rush to issue apologies at the slightest hint of objection, Rajoura says. He, on the other hand, wants to “hurt sentiments.” During the troupe’s 2019 tour, coinciding with the general elections in India, Rajoura talked about how his father would beat him up as a child and his mother would later explain that it was all for his own good. His punchline — “So basically we are brought up like Kashmiris” — was a reference to the Indian government’s heavy-handedness in the region. Most mainstream comedians in India are playing it too safe, he says. “[The word] stand-up has ‘stand up’ [in it]. Stand up to what? Stand up to something!” he says.

English-speaking urban elites dominate India’s comedy scene, both in terms of performers and audiences. Open mics usually happen in bars and clubs — spaces that are largely immune to sociopolitical changes. “Lack of politics is also politics, and it’s a choice made by those who are privileged enough that whatever is happening to others is not happening to them. They can easily say, ‘I’m not interested in politics, I just want to make people laugh,’” Rajoura says. Stand-up comedy should be a representation of dissent, but in India, it’s a representation of oppression, he adds.

The problem lies in the way India’s comedy ecosystem is structured, says Madhavi Shivaprasad, an independent researcher of gender and cultural studies. Starting out, comedians have to perform at open mics for no pay, sometimes even paying a registration fee themselves. “A lot of comedians, very understandably, don’t do political comedy because it would affect their livelihood,” she says. “Especially if it’s a new comedian, they cannot afford to alienate the crowds before they’ve even established themselves. … It ensures that only certain kinds of people — [of a] certain class, caste, gender — who have fairly cushy jobs, will even think of doing [stand-up].”

In 2020, the comedian Agrima Joshua was on the receiving end of an online hate campaign, which included rape threats, after a clip of one of her shows went viral. In the video from 2019, the Mumbai-based comedian joked about the Maharashtra government’s plans for a massive statue of the 17th-century Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, who remains highly popular in the region. Joshua apologized for the joke and had to restrict the visibility of the video on YouTube; the only one she’d uploaded on her channel. Her audience reach suffered as a result, which can be hugely detrimental to artists’ careers, Shivaprasad explains. Indian audiences consume more comedy content online, where it’s free, as many cannot afford to attend live shows.

At the same time, the comedians themselves are also at fault and have not fully grasped what political comedy is, Shivaprasad says. “The comedy industry still needs time to understand [that politics] is not just about the government,” she says. “It’s also understanding criticalities around gender, caste, sexuality and race. It’s not just, ‘I hate the Bharatiya Janata Party, or I hate the Congress [Party]’ — that’s very reductive.” Even among female comedians who are considered woke for their jokes challenging patriarchy, Shivaprasad continues, there is ignorance about the intersectionality between caste and gender.

Since 2014, when Modi first came to power, violence and discrimination against minorities, especially Muslims, has been on the rise. In recent years, international watchdogs and human rights groups have been raising the alarm about India’s authoritarian backsliding. However, some comedians feel the idea of stand-up comedy as a means to challenge those in power is a romantic one, especially when freedom of expression is not absolute. “There is one typo in the constitution that nobody has bothered to correct over the years. … It says, ‘India has freedom of speech,’” Dasgupta jokes in his comedy special as he talks about the eight exceptions to freedom of speech in India.

Rahul Tripathi, a political scientist at Goa University, believes that, under the current regime, self-censorship is becoming prevalent but it’s not unprecedented. “This has been the case in India in earlier times as well, as ruling regimes have not been very receptive to satire,” he says. “The problem with the current ruling party and its foot soldiers is that they have such a narrow interpretation of nationalism, Hinduism and pluralism that any contrarian thought that conflicts with their idea of what is right unsettles them. Hence the retribution,” Tripathi says. “They justify it by putting their own parameters of perceived hurt religious sentiments and national pride.”

Yet these days, says Dasgupta, the joke itself has become irrelevant. Many believe Faruqui’s arrest and the backlash against him had less to do with the content of his joke and more with the fact he is Muslim. “Material is immaterial in this kind of situation,” Dasgupta says. “They say in comedy, did you cross the line? Over here that question is invalid, because if the government decides to go after somebody, then they will find something. Evidence is the least of their concerns.” In the case of Kamra, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad demanded his show be canceled because he had disrespected Hindu culture. But in an open letter, Kamra asked the group to tell him which show or video clip they were talking about.

Meanwhile, Faruqui has taken his run-ins with the government in stride. During his show in Hyderabad, he didn’t shy away from political or religious topics, taking several digs at the Hindu right wing and his own Muslim community. In one joke, he described how some groups in Goa threatened mass self-immolation if his show was allowed to go on. He said when he learned about this, he asked his manager if it was possible to do two shows. “I might be the only Muslim who’s reducing the population,” he said in his punchline, referencing a popular Hindu right-wing conspiracy theory that Muslims in India are actively reproducing to become the majority. Over the course of the show, he cracked jokes that, by his own admission, were racist, sexist and ableist. He pointed out how the audience was laughing at all of them and said this was acceptable because it was a comedy show.

“Comedy is not offensive,” he said. “Reality is.”

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