“What a time to be alive…depressed people telling jokes to depressed people… to raise funds for depressed people,” comedian Varun Grover said slowly, addressing 800 audience members at Rang Mandir in Mumbai on the same evening that a student was shot and injured in Delhi at an anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protest at Jamia Millia Islamia.
While tireless protestors in Mumbai made their way to #MumbaiBagh in one part of the city, others gathered at the auditorium to sit-in at an admittedly more convenient kind of protest. For the next two hours, Rang Mandir was filled with the kind of noise usually reserved for opening weekend of a Salman Khan film. Hosted by Rohan Joshi, a rolling lineup of 15 top comedians of the Mumbai circuit punched in and out of seven minutes of their best material to roars of laughter, thundering applause and standing ovations (yes, multiple).
The resistance takes many forms—‘Stand Up for India’ is the first of a possibly recurring fundraiser show, proceeds of which are being redirected to various organisations that help organise nationwide protests against the CAA-NRC, both by raising awareness as well as providing legal aid to democratic and peaceful protestors. This month’s charity is the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), which seeks “to ensure that Indian citizens can use the Internet with liberties guaranteed by the Constitution”. Tickets were sold out within three hours of the announcement.
“What’s your name?” Joshi asked an unsuspecting audience member in the front row. “WRONG!” Joshi bellowed as he started to answer him. “That was a test! YOU FAILED! The correct answer is ‘Hum kaagaz nahin dikhayegein’!” Loud cheers. By the time he got around to his theory that the only people who looked like they were at Shaheen Bagh for 500 bucks were the Delhi Police, the room was all in.
Stand Up for India is the brainchild of lawyer Amshula Prakash and comedian Kaneez Surka, born from the frustration of figuring out how to help India’s growing population of peaceful protestors and relevant organisations in need of funds. Prakash suggested getting more comedians involved. “We scrolled through Instagram to see who’s shouting about this right now, and those were the ones who got on the list,” Surka told DeadAnt. “We are raising funds, but also showing solidarity as a community, which is so important. We hadn’t found a way to come together till now.” While Surka called up the comedians by turn, Prakash took on the responsibility of finding the right organisation to tie-up with, Urooj Ashfaq came up with the name, and OML’s Abhishek Oswal was roped in to handle the logistics.
“More than the money itself—which comedians could have donated directly—them taking a public stand was the larger point.”
“It’s important just to know that someone’s taking a hard enough stand,” Prakash explains. “More than the money itself—which comedians could have donated directly—them taking a public stand was the larger point.”
A comedian could not have asked for a better audience. Here was a crowd least likely to get “deeply offended” and file FIRs, all more than happy to loosen their pursestrings to feel like they’ve done their bit for the country.
What does it mean/feel like to be Muslim or a Kashmiri Pandit or from Uttar Pradesh right now? Kaneez Surka, Urooj Ashfaq, Samay Raina (on FIRE!) and Prashasti Singh took turns answering. What’s the kind of absolute bullsh*t that can get you into trouble these days? Tanmay Bhat elaborated with a completely bananas story about having to translate lewd jokes from AIB’s infamous Roast into Marathi at a local police station following multiple FIRs.
What does it mean/feel like to be Muslim or a Kashmiri Pandit or from Uttar Pradesh right now? Kaneez Surka, Urooj Ashfaq, Samay Raina and Prashasti Singh took turns answering.
Even between jokes about the hazards of finally learning how to swim (Biswa Kalyan Rath), the logistics of an Indian kidnapping, aka galti se bhi police ko mat bulana (Kanan Gill, in top form), hideous visuals of Bappi Lahiri having sex (thanks for nothing, Pavitra Shetty), and learning how to hold a tune (Abhishek Upmanyu), were throwaway zingers referencing CAA and NRC.
“Kya haw-haw? Issi ke liye toh aaye hain, yehi toh show hai aaj ka,” Upmanyu scolded, following a collective gasp from the seats when he swerved unexpectedly into dangerous territory. Varun Thakur ventured into political comedy for what (I’m pretty sure) is the first time, breezily referencing Modi’s new beauty secret of wiping his sweat into his face while wondering where else that sweat may be going. Ditto for Sahil Shah, who tacked savage one-liners onto his existing bits, slicing into CAA-NRC every chance he got.
The final act for the evening was Varun Grover, most recently on every Indian timeline for his viral Rahat Indori-inspired protest poem, Hum Kaagaz Nahin Dikhayegein. Except that the first thing he did was pull out a piece of paper from his pocket. “Itna kuchh ho raha hai desh main, kahin bhool na jaaon,” he clarified, taking us through a list of the ongoing atrocities demanding our attention right now.
As Grover closed the tightest comedy showcase I’ve seen in months, he levelled with the audience. “We lied to everyone here tonight, we’re sorry.” This wasn’t a show to raise funds for net neutrality, he said. They were actually raising money for Kunal Kamra’s private jet. “Until then, since he can’t travel anywhere else tonight…” The audience had already flown out of their seats and onto their feet. They knew what was coming. Hoots, whistles and goosebumps shot across the auditorium. Bandra’s ‘sickular libtard leftist-saala’ hero and newly-appointed Supreme Leader was the big surprise of the night. Kamra walked on to a standing ovation.
Hoots, whistles and goosebumps shot across the auditorium. Bandra’s ‘sickular libtard leftist-saala’ hero and newly-appointed Supreme Leader was the big surprise of the night. Kamra walked on to a standing ovation.
It took him ages to quieten the audience. He skipped the Arnab jokes altogether. Still visibly emotional from the last 48 hours, he ripped into Modi—one fierce smackdown after another. He didn’t give a fuck about the punchlines (though there were plenty), and the audience couldn’t have cared less if they tried. They were here for all of it. If Kamra had tried to crowd surf last night, he wouldn’t have regretted it.
The applause was still going when Zakir Khan came on as the second surprise of the night. “Main political comedy nahin karta, par ab paani sar ke upar aa gaya hai…” he said in an agitated tone. Since he now has both his papers in place and enough money, though, he’s no longer worried, Khan confessed to an audience who couldn’t believe he was even standing there.
“Main political comedy nahin karta, par ab paani sar ke upar aa gaya hai…” – Zakir Khan
At curtain call, all 16 comedians made their way back on stage for another standing ovation.
Back in the green room, comedians were high on adrenaline and emotion, and a feeling of belonging that is frequently missed in the comedy scene here. Outside, people’s phones were lighting up with notifications. Protestors had started moving from Mumbai Bagh to the compound of Republic TV’s office. The channel had falsely declared that the Jamia rally had turned violent, and that the gunman from earlier that day was a protestor gone rogue. Even worse, it took them a good 30 minutes to make the correction. It was time to #ReclaimTheRepublic, and the night’s new protest was christened.
Audience members made calls to coordinate the rest of their evening, bundling themselves into cabs to reach Lower Parel. Their break was over; an after-party in silent protest, possibly in detention, felt well worth it.