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No Country For Political Satire: How Much Can Indian Comedy Really Push the Boundaries?

By Akhil Sood 21 May 2020

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Over the last few years, an increasing number of Indian comedians have been dabbling in social commentary and political satire. This isn’t particularly surprising—there’s only so many jokes you can make about  engineering college and ‘middle class’ life after all. But 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”.

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.

One comic who doesn’t shy away from naming names, Kunal Kamra, has unfortunately become a punchline all on his own ever since he shot to relative notoriety through his bits on demonetisation. He took it further by interviewing diverse political voices on his YouTube show, Shut Up Ya Kunal, and hobnobbing with the so-called leftist malcontents, the anti-blahblah JNU lot. As his reward for taking a stand, Kamra has been evicted from apartments. Kicked off comedy rosters. Accosted on the streets and told, threateningly, to zip it. Attacked on “news” channels. The poor guy can’t even take a flight anymore. Well, no one can these days, but Kamra especially cannot.

More recently, a “Hindu activist” filed a police complaint against Aisi Taisi Democracy’s Sanjay Rajoura, for insinuating that perhaps the Ganesh plastic surgery story is allegory, and not history. Even Vir Das’ recent Netflix fiction series, Hasmukh, was taken to court for being defamatory…to lawyers. (The joke writes itself.) It’s an ongoing case, but the single judge bench of the Delhi High Court, comprising Justice Sanjeev Sachdeva, dismissed the application seeking a ban on the show with a welcome statement about free expression: “The very essence of democracy is that a creative artist is given the liberty to project the picture of the society in a manner he perceives. One of the prime forms of exposing the ills of the society is by portraying a satirical picture of the same. Stand-up comedians perform that very purpose.”

Satire, in a perfect world, points a fun-house mirror at society. It says the things—in an exaggerated, sardonic way—that we’re too afraid to think. Behind the disarming jokes lies the ugly truth. But today, comedians, who play the role of the truth-telling court jesters of society, are faced with the constant, terrifying prospect of both legal and ‘extralegal’ repercussions for their words. The impulse, naturally, is to self-censor. To limit all provocations.

This thin-skinned, oversensitive response to humour transcends current climates or political allegiances—remember Aseem Trivedi, the cartoonist who was imprisoned for his art against corruption in India in 2012, and had to face the now-familiar charge of sedition? At the risk of painting a billion-something people with the same brush, Indians often don’t respond well to humour. Our instinct, our default reaction, is to reject the existence of anything we dislike, to deem it incorrect and dishonorable, to call it vile and disgraceful. And to shut it down with force; with a chappal, if we must.

The pushback is immediate and aggressive. The legal framework of the freedom of speech and expression, as defined in Article 19 (1) (a) in our Constitution, is one thing. But what we have trouble reconciling with is the philosophical concept of free speech, of tolerating conflicting, uncomfortable ideas. Kneejerk outrage is evergreen, leading to increasingly bizarre outcomes.

The fault lines in Indian politics are so firmly drawn and emotions so high that any perceived slight is met with an extreme overreaction.

On his Amazon Prime special, Rahul Subramanian did a deliberately over-the-top bit mocking DJs. As you’d expect, DJs everywhere threatened to beat the shit out of him, some even waiting outside a venue he was performing at. As per reports, Subramanian’s name was removed from a comedy festival line-up too—he was cancelled!—over “security concerns”. Another comic, Gaurav Kapoor had a routine on Royal Enfield motorcycles, Bullet-lovers specifically. His style is built on confrontation so, in response to the hate he received, Kapoor did a whole new bit on Bullet riders—a sequel, if you will.

And we haven’t even gotten to the erstwhile All India Bakchod. Back when they had lots to say, they were consistently bogged down by FIRs and controversies—for mocking national icons Lata Mangeshkar and Sachin Tendulkar, or hosting a middling roast, or putting out a silly meme. The group even had to apologise unconditionally to the Christian community and the Archbishop of Mumbai for offending religious sentiments.

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.

In such a landscape, it’s admirable when the odd comedian has the courage to rub people the wrong way, to tackle divisive subjects, to challenge the status quo. But it’s unfair for that to be an expectation just because they have a bigger platform. How can they, when there’s a sedition charge and a group of goons waiting outside the venue? Kenny Sebastian did a bit on this, declaring that the reason he doesn’t joke about politics is because he’s scared — a perfectly understandable defense. “People ask me why you don’t do jokes on religion,” he says. “Really?! Because I’m not insane!”

Contrast this with the American tradition of free-wheeling late-night shows hosted by say, Michelle Wolf or John Oliver, or Hasan Minhaj (whom we have claimed as one of our own as long as he behaves himself). Will Indian comedians ever have the opportunity to create similar space for political satire in the mainstream? Sure, there are events like the Stand Up For India gig earlier this year, which raised funds for protests against the CAA and NRC. That one featured a range of usually apolitical comedians who, given the nature of the audience the fundraiser attracted, felt empowered enough to deliver some political punches. But they’d never make these jokes during a regular set. The speed at which dissenting voices are attacked, the boiling anger with which jokes are greeted, means that we may perhaps be doomed to an industry and an art form that will forever function within debilitating restrictions, both enforced and self-imposed.

This is not how things are supposed to work. Comedians can only ever do justice to their craft if they come from a place of vulnerability and honesty. Freedom, the liberty to mess up, is vital. The integrity of their work suffers if there’s a looming sense of terror during the process of creation. It’s a dominoes effect from there. The audience is deprived of potentially great material; they’re never exposed to free thought. We, as a society, are unable to embrace new ideas. We don’t really get to see past the strictly defined boundaries.

I’m not advocating for carte blanche for comedians to pontificate without accountability. It’s important to discuss ideas in the public domain, to question and critique the nature of comedy. Does a joke punch up or down? Who is the subject of the joke, who’s being ridiculed? Are certain subjects off-limits? Does the comedian have the locus standi, the lived experience, to even be making a particular joke? Does satire today have more of a negative effect?

Comedians can only ever do justice to their craft if they come from a place of vulnerability and honesty. Freedom, the liberty to mess up, is vital.

Saloni Gaur, online caricaturist and mimicry artist, has recently come under criticism for her character Nazma Aapi, with discussions around the ethical iffyness of a non-Muslim woman using an exaggerated Muslim character and, perhaps in the process, perpetuating dangerous stereotypes. Zakir Khan’s popular comedy has often—rightly, in my opinion—been accused of being predicated on casual misogyny. A lot of comics have been called out for taking a glib approach to casteist practices. These arguments and critiques—so easy to dismiss as intellectual wankery—are in fact necessary for comedy to progress and make the impact it’s supposed to. Art and criticism are uncomfortable bedfellows — they feed into each other.

What isn’t conducive to its growth, though, is the atmosphere of fear and violence surrounding anything even mildly contentious. The effects an offhand remark made by comedians—people whose very existence is defined by ruffling feathers and presenting radical ideas in digestible formats—can have on their lives is chilling; a reminder of how far we still have to go. And how many chill-pills we still have to swallow.

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