- “We don’t have a sense of humour,” quips stand-up comic Sanjay Rajoura, in the opening scene of I Am Offended, a documentary on humour in India.
He’s possibly both right and wrong. Indians have a tangled relationship with humour.
They love a staple of family and community jokes. Political comedy – gags and mimicry – go down well. Young, liberal audiences prefer hard-hitting satire.
Yet people continue to enjoy body shaming and disability jokes in tone-deaf Bollywood comedies. They laugh aloud to TV comedy awash with slapstick gags and sexist humour.
Cuss words don’t work with his audiences, says popular Hindi language comic Deepak Saini, who does more than 200 shows a year. Yet Vir Das, one of India’s most well-known comedians, says his “filthiest, most obscene show of the year” is one he does for the Rotary Club for 65-year-olds and above.
Clearly Indians consume a diverse range of comedy – from the cringeworthy to the ribald to the acerbic – across ages. “To each his own. All kinds of humour co-exist in India. It’s a big country,” says Balraj Ghai, who owns The Habitat, a popular stand-up venue in Mumbai.
Comedy has moved from films and poetry sessions to cafés, clubs, bars, corporate shows, festivals, TV, YouTube and streaming services. A single comedy cafe in Mumbai hosts some 65 shows a month. Fans mob comics and take selfies with them. Many comedians have millions of followers on Twitter.
So, on the face of it, it appears that all’s well.
Except, it isn’t. Last fortnight, a monologue by Das in Washington DC triggered a storm of protest, prompting complaints to police and censure from peers. Das said it was “about the duality of two very separate Indias” that he lived in; his critics scorned him for vilifying the country.
Munawar Faruqui, a Muslim comedian who spent a month in jail this year for a joke, has now hinted at quitting comedy after a dozen shows were cancelled in Mumbai and Bangalore following protests from right-wing Hindu groups. Kunal Kamra, a stand-up comic who has done savage impersonations of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, fell foul of Supreme Court judges when he cracked a joke about them.
The Habitat was first targeted in 2017 by a bunch of youngsters who wanted Ghai to remove a comic from his line-up because he had cracked jokes about Shivaji, a 17th Century warrior king who is now a symbol of Hindu identity.
Again, in 2020, another group entered the cafe, shouting and screaming. They wanted the organisers to take down a comedienne, who they said had insulted the same king.
In October, activists of a right-wing group turned up at the cafe seeking a ban on Faruqui’s shows. Ghai’s employees have received anonymous threatening calls. “There is a worry that all this outrage can translate into a threat to life and liberty. It kills your hopes and frustrates you,” Ghai says.
Audiences can be touchy too. Family jokes almost always fetch laughs. Yet comedienne Neeti Palta faced criticism about “denigrating” the family when she cracked a joke about corporal punishment; and comic Amit Tandon was called a sexist when he joked about his wife. In 2017, a Sikh lawyer petitioned the Supreme Court seeking a ban on jokes about the community. (The court refused, saying it could not “lay down moral guidelines” for citizens.)
A thriving “outrage industry”, fuelled by social media, is not helping matters. People are taking offence to things “much quicker now,” Palta says. Fringe groups – often right-wing and mainly made up of jobless young men seeking attention – usually end up disrupting shows. It’s an unsettling time for comedians who are trying to explore sensitive themes.
“In India, there’s a movement going on. If you crack a joke, we will crack you,” Palta punned at a show recently. “When I started [comedy] my challenge was [how to frame] the shortest sentence to get to a punchline. Now my stress is that my punchline might lead to a sentence,” she said, alluding to comedians being thrown into prison.
In many ways it appears to be the best of times, and the worst of times for Indian humour.
Cloying family and community jokes are fine, but don’t poke fun at religion, national symbols and deities. Tandon says he avoids even “simple references” to religion these days. Faruqui, many believe, is being targeted because of his religion. It would be also nearly impossible, they say, for a Dalit – formerly known as untouchables and placed on the lowest rung of a rigid Hindu caste system – comic to poke fun at upper castes.
Rajoura, a member of a musical satire show, Aisi Taisi Democracy (This Screwed-Up Democracy), believes that many Indians have become touchy about comedy because they are “ill-informed and unsure about their place in the world”.
A climate of intolerance can easily circumscribe comedy. “Ideology has become more important than having a few laughs. How can humour thrive in an environment when you are constantly looking over your shoulder?” Jaideep Verma, director of I am Offended, says.
Comedians like Saini don’t believe things are as dire. Comics should not avoid politics but “be balanced,” he told me. “There are right-wing and left-wing comedians. Audiences want balance. Also a lot of English-speaking comedy is simply made up of abuse and cuss words. That doesn’t work in the [Indian] mainstream.”
It’s all a bit ironic because India has a rich history of humour. Star medieval court jesters like Birbal and Tenali Rama regaled audiences with their quicksilver wit. Traditional wedding songs have been bawdy and fun. Khushwant Singh, the country’s most well-known humourist, wrote a hugely popular syndicated column for decades called With Malice towards One And All.
During a recent open-mic night near Delhi, an audience member asked Palta to “dig deeper” with her humour. In a mirthless moment, she returned to her deepest fears.
“I said, if I go any deeper I will tunnel my way into a prison”.