It’s been 17 days since 28-year-old comedian Munawar Faruqui was hauled off stage in Indore and placed in judicial custody, for a stand-up bit referencing a Hindu god that he allegedly released on his YouTube channel four years ago. While Faruqui’s YouTube channel currently only shows videos dating as far back as a year ago, there are clips of similar jokes for which he has since apologised. But son of Indore BJP MLA Malini Gaur and Hind Rakshak Sangathan convenor Ekalavya Gaur was not satisfied.
When news of a comedy show that listed Faruqui on the line-up reached him, Gaur and his associates bought tickets and seated themselves in the audience. According to eyewitnesses, Faruqui hadn’t even started his set when Gaur got up on stage himself to berate the comic for his earlier videos and jokes.
The show was eventually shut down, the audience was asked to leave, and Faruqui and four others associated with the event were taken to Tukoganj police station where they were booked under IPC sections 295-A (outraging religious feelings), 298 (deliberate intent to wound religious feelings), 188 (disobedience) and 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention). Section 269 (unlawful or negligent act likely to spread the infection of any disease dangerous to life) was also included, for allegedly flouting Covid-19 safety protocols. The details of the exact words/phrases that are being deemed controversial have not been specified in the FIR.
Fauruqi’s bail application was rejected by the magistrate court, then by the sessions court, and his judicial custody was extended till 27 January. His lawyers then moved the Indore bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court, where the hearing was scheduled for 15 January (Friday). On Friday, however, the Indore police failed to produce the case diary, because of which the hearing was adjourned. Faruqui and four others associated with the comedy show remain in judicial custody until at least Monday, when his lawyers hope for the next hearing to be listed. Now the Uttar Pradesh police have also gotten in on the action, obtaining a production warrant for the comedian in connection with a case lodged against him in Pragyaraj last April.
Two years ago, we were amused when Mumbai-based comedian Rahul Subramanian upset a bunch of DJs with a joke about how much he hates their guts. For placing dramatic pause at the climax of a song, the unnecessary shout-outs mid-song, and their insistence on using only one half of the headphones looped around their necks. We even laughed when a handful of them showed up at a venue he was performing at in Gurgaon, threatening to beat him up for vilifying their profession. It was confusing when a venue in Pune cancelled his upcoming show there two days later citing “security reasons”, but we let it pass.
It was still funny that members of a biking club in Delhi were up in arms about comic Gaurav Kapoor poking fun at Royal Enfield Bullet loyalists and for saying that the Bullet looks like the illegitimate child of a Harley Davidson and a Rajdoot. Kapoor addressed this “controversy” directly in a subsequent video in 2017. We drew air quotes around it and laughed all over again; the YouTube clip went viral.
“Minimal offence is guaranteed. No matter what you say, somebody will have an issue with it, that’s the world we live in,” says comedian Abijit Ganguly, who had a joke about physiotherapists that upset them so much, they came after him en masse to abuse him on social media and register their discontent by hitting the dislike tab on his videos.
For as long as the trolls—the various offended parties—stayed on Twitter timelines and the comments sections of YouTube videos, their presence was still something you could buffer with a thick skin and a block button. But today the stakes are different—no rape or death threat can be dismissed so easily away. Early last year, trolls took their rage offline and made their way to a shuttered venue in the middle of lockdown to vandalise the place, break furniture and issue rape threats on video to comedian Agrima Joshua. She had made a joke about people’s reactions to a certain statue two years ago, but left out an honorific. This was unacceptable to them.
They leaked the addresses of those who came out in her support from the standup community and threatened to go after their most vulnerable loved ones. Terrified young comedians rushed to delete old videos that could be misconstrued, some went further and published apologies on social media platforms, and many deleted their Twitter accounts (searchable by keyword). When they came after Munawar Faruqui and tossed him in judicial custody on the first day of 2021, it felt things had gone too far. But the truth is, it has been going too far for a while now. And while it is no longer surprising, this growing intolerance towards comedy and free speech is also no longer funny. The joke, as we’ve been saying for a few years now, is on us.
“My parents have lost faith in the systems they had earlier,” says Joshua. “They keep telling me to not raise my voice, not speak up, keep my head down and not get involved. Because if someone wants to get you, they will get you; our systems are designed to protect the powerful. This has been going on since 2015, with the AIB Roast. I realise that this is a country where we pretend to be progressive, but we’re really not.”
While it is no longer surprising, this growing intolerance towards comedy and free speech is also no longer funny. The joke, as we’ve been saying for a few years now, is on us.
Stand-up comedy is one of the fastest growing sectors in Indian entertainment, with fan followings that run into the tens of millions across social media—comparable to that of the younger Bollywood and cricket stars. Artists like Kunal Kamra, Zakir Khan and Abhishek Upmanyu comfortably sell out auditoriums and arenas in India and abroad; online, the views on their videos regularly hit the 20-30 million mark.
But the comedy scene has grown astronomically in an environment that is becoming particularly hostile towards it. Ganguly is worried that this means we’ll have to go back to the jokes the stand-up community was consciously steering clear of. “I don’t mean to sound patronising,” he explains, “but earlier there was a distinction between TV comedians and stand-up comedians. On TV, the jokes were limited to the whole “tu mota hai, kaala hai” zone, and stand-up was trying to look at other things. But now the lines are diminishing. It’s just becoming more and more of that, because weirdly people are okay with fat-shaming somebody or berating the colour of their skin.”
Stand-up comedy is also the most direct of the performing arts—you can’t hide between the lines of wistful lyrics, or the alchemy of a double jazz turn and 52 hasta mudras. When a comedian takes the mic, you get straight talk, a conversation. And some conversations are difficult. Because for an artist, the idea—indeed the job—isn’t to perpetuate the status quo, it is to question it. What are the people in seats of power doing? What are those with privilege missing? Why was there a Chewbacca in a bikini at the Capitol building?
Big names like Kunal Kamra and Varun Grover, who are known for their biting political satire, are now constantly in the eye of the storm that dog headlines. Kamra has battled a whole spectrum, from a six-month flight ban to the more recent contempt cases over his tweets attacking the SC for granting Arnab Goswami bail after his arrest in an abetment to suicide case. In an Instagram post, Grover recently said, “…our systems now just want to brutally silence every voice. They don’t want to hear, they don’t want to even argue – they want to simply erase every shred of individual thought, every iota of reason. And we the people of the greatest civilization of earth are ok with it.” (sic)
Some comics have made a conscious decision to stay away from certain topics entirely. Kenny Sebastian addresses why he doesn’t do political comedy in a painfully hilarious video he still has up on YouTube. “I know why I do jokes about restaurants and chai. It’s not by accident […] People ask me why I don’t do jokes on religion. Really? Because I’m not insane. […] Why I don’t do jokes on politics? Because our government is super chill! […] Why? It’s ’cause I’m scared!”
“The problem is that legally anybody can file a case saying my sentiments are hurt, and the law is in their favour,” says Ganguly. “That it is ‘satire’ doesn’t mean anything, according to the laws it immediately becomes questionable. Also, once you’ve been identified as someone who is supporting a particular ideology or being against something, then no matter what you say after that, it will always be twisted to feed that narrative. Unfortunately, if you’re Muslim, it just makes it worse for you. As comedians we have to preempt these things as well.”
It’s also why many of them refuse to comment on these incidents for this story, choosing instead to lay low and support fellow artists and the community in an individual capacity.
Comedians had already started self-censoring, but today the stakes are disproportionately high. In a recent interview with DeadAnt, Abhishek Upmanyu explained that when we decided as a society that fat shaming, racists, sexism, punching down, and community stereotyping is just not/no longer funny, the jokes stopped. The intention is never to offend, “we go after laughs more than anything.” He puts the onus on audiences, who he believes have the power to challenge the material and artists they support. “If you stop laughing, we’ll stop doing the jokes.”
Vir Das believes that there will come a time when all of this will seem utterly ridiculous. “Much in the same way that it doesn’t feel strange at all to see hasya kavis talk about god or politics or your country, [in time] this won’t feel strange either. You just have to keep doing jokes until there’s too many of you doing them to lock everyone up, and too many jokes out there for people to get upset at. You’ve just got to keep doing it. The only way out is through.”
Until then, comedy in India will remain cloudy with a chance of FIRs.
This editorial was originally published in Mumbai Mirror on Sunday, 17 January. Reprinted with permission.