Visuals by: Anupal Deuri Bharali
Over the last few years, an increasing number of Indian comedians have been dabbling in social commentary and political satire. However, this isn’t particularly surprising—there’s only so many jokes you can make about engineering college and ‘middle class’ life after all.
Stand-up comedy and political satire both have their unique history in the Indian context and have existed separately until rather recently. The common element that they both build on is humour. In the past decade, the genre of stand-up comedy has added a new innovative way for Indian satirists to speak truth to power and has given humorous resistance a new face. At the same time, comedians have come under fire for taking political swipes at the authorities.
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It’s hard to blame the comedians for these sudden bouts of name-shyness though. The fault lines in Indian politics are so firmly drawn and emotions so high that any perceived slight is met with an extreme overreaction. There’s all the online abuse and “trolling”. But it has serious offline implications too.
History of Political Commentary
Political commentary and resistance through humour have existed in India long before the genre of stand-up comedy found its feet in the country. Early evidence of the history of humour has been found in the Natyashastra, a comprehensive work containing texts about the theory of drama that dates back to about 2000 years ago.
The Natyashastra contains several descriptions of how laughter can be elicited and it continues to serve as inspiration for contemporary Indian theatre. Raja Birbal, a famous courtier of Mughal emperor Akbar in the 16th century, is known up until this day for his ability to solve problems through his wit and sense of humour. He and his tales constitute some of the first prominent examples of resistance through humour in Indian history.
But now, in this age, there’s a curious phenomenon accompanying it, one that seems unique to Indian political comedy. Our comedians spend an inordinate amount of time thinking up clever new euphemisms to use instead of ever taking PM Narendra Modi’s name—a privilege not afforded to most other political figures.
“The One who Must Not Be Named”. Or “Dear Leader”. Or “Gobiji”. They try their best to work the euphemism into a larger punchline, but the impact is blunted. They say something moderately scathing, and the crowd goes “ooooooohh”, like when you’re in the eighth grade and the biology teacher says “sex”.
From Shyam Rangeela— a young comedian, competing in a television show on Star Plus who was told that his act imitating Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be dropped and so was another, where he mimicked Congress president Rahul Gandhi, to Kunal Kamra— one of India’s most well-known comedians, discovered recently that his show at a university in the western city of Baroda had been cancelled for being “anti-national.” Apparently, the vice-chancellor of the university had received a complaint from former university students that Kamra intended to “ideologically pollute the minds of the youth” ahead of the 2019 general election.
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There are far too many comedians who have found themselves in the eye of the storm unnecessarily. While online flak is mostly unavoidable, the amount of misogynistic abuse regularly dished out to Aditi Mittal for daring to speak about women’s rights or bra sizes is frightening. A young comic had to go into virtual hiding, erasing their social media imprint, after a contentious comedy routine. Another had a complaint filed against him for “mocking” Hindu gods over a joke that wasn’t even mildly controversial. It’s an endless list.
Today, the stand-up comedians clearly position themselves towards the ambiguity that the current circumstances yield despite being fearful of the unpredictability of the initiatives that the government or non-governmental organizations take to silence a person.
They seem to be aware that they are only able to do so due to their own status as members of the educated upper-middle class and they know that it is only this status as well as their publicity that keeps them from possibly becoming a target of goons. Nevertheless, it becomes obvious that they try to not be too specific, as the public accusation of an influential person or group could nevertheless get them into trouble and most probably be the end of life in comedy for them.