It’s not easy being a standup comic in Kashmir, one of the most militarised zones on the planet. Between FIR-happy authorities, religious conservatism, and regular curfews and internet bans, there’s little space for jokes and those who would make them. Creating comedy in the state-turned-union-territory is as much a logistical and legal balancing act as it is a creative endeavour—like walking an eternal tightrope between landing a good punchline and becoming tomorrow’s newspaper headline.
And yet, young people in the valley are stepping up to the mic and mining humour from the tragedies and absurdities of life in Kashmir. Leading the charge are Aahmad Hussain (25), Shoaib Shah (26) and Faheem Firdous Qureshi (26), three childhood friends from Srinagar who formed the Jajeer Talkies comedy collective in 2015. Over the years, the collective has been the driving force behind Srinagar’s nascent comedy scene—organising some of the first open-mics in the city, releasing a slew of popular standup videos and comedy sketches, and putting together their own podcast. DeadAnt spoke to the three young comics over the phone about Kashmiri comedy, censorship, and making jokes during a year-long lockdown.
What first ignited your interest in comedy?
Aahmed: Back in 2008, the three of us became very interested in watching the comedy shows that were available back then—the Great Indian Laughter Challenge and the Comedy Circus. We didn’t know too much about YouTube or the comedy scene in India. So all three of us had an interest in watching those shows, and that is what made us different from the others. While people were busy watching mainstream dramas, the three of us would sit and discuss the jokes we saw on TV.
Faheem: I remember if one of us missed an episode, the next day the others would re-enact the entire show for them.
Aahmed: We didn’t know much about standup comedy at the time, beyond the Indian and Pakistani comics on television, Sunil Pal, Shakeel [Siddiqui], Ahsaan Qureshi.
Shoaib: For me, the first standup comic who introduced me to the standup comedy world on the internet was Russell Peters. This was in 2014. For all of us. And in the early years, I remember Biswa Kalyan Rath was great in the Indian comedy scene.
Aahmed: In the Indian scene, I’d seen a few bits by Papa CJ, and then I started exploring comedy in various formats. And then, YouTube started recommending other Indian comics to us.
What’s the Jajeer Talkies origin story?
Aahmed: Back in 2015, we were in college and our friend circle had this WhatsApp group to share memes and jokes. So what happened was, the swine flu pandemic was going on, so we made a joke about it. It was very funny, so we thought we’d make a meme out of it and post it online to see what the reaction would be. It was a joke in the Kashmiri context. Then the issue was who is going to post it? So we thought we’d start a page, and see if we can make more of these and post occasionally.
As soon as we posted that meme, it kind of went viral within Kashmir. So we figured we’d keep doing it occasionally. But the reaction we got was so great that we ended up devoting a lot more time to it.
How did you make the transition from a meme page to a standup comedy collective?
Aahmed: Once the page started doing well with the memes, we thought we’d explore other genres of comedy, like sketches and short videos. After that, we decided to expand into standup comedy. All three of us love standup, and we’d already written a lot of material. So we organised an open mic event, the very first open mic in Srinagar. We got 8-10 participants, and the auditorium was fully booked out. The capacity was 200 people, and at least 400 people came to us for tickets. Since then, we’ve done a lot of events, as well as done a lot of standup comedy videos online.
According to you, this was the first open-mic event in Srinagar. Was it a challenge putting it together?
A: We had no idea how to organise events, but we’d been following the Indian comedy scene for a while, so we had a rough idea about how an open mic event should go. The big problem was getting a place to put up the event. The cafes wouldn’t agree because they’d never given out the space to comedy artists before. So we had to go to the University of Kashmir and book an auditorium. We also had to print our own tickets. Did you know BookMyShow doesn’t support ticketing in Kashmir? It was quite an investment, especially since we were fresh out of college.
Shoaib: The bigger issue was what kind of content will they present? Because it’s Kashmir, and this was happening at a university, which had already told us that the content must be completely apolitical.
Aahmed: Yeah, we had to give an undertaking about that, so we had to filter out people who would have any such references in their content. We also had to call all the participants a day before and listen to all of their content so we could filter out anything that might be controversial. Usually, an open mic is a place for comedians to test their jokes. But for us, even the open mic had to be filtered beforehand.
How open are Kashmiri audiences to standup comedy?
Aahmed: The audience is there, every time we do an event a lot of people turn up. Also before we try anything on the ground, we try it out online. So we put out different types of content every now and then, just to see what people will like. What we’ve found is that Kashmiri people are not very accepting of things like dark humour. The thing they love the most is political humour, but the problem is that there’s no platform to perform that. Everywhere we go, we’re told not to perform political jokes. So we don’t have the platform for the jokes we want to make, and the platform we have is for the jokes we don’t want to make.
Faheem: The stakes for a Kashmiri performing a political joke are much higher than a non-Kashmiri performing political jokes.
Apart from political jokes, are there any other red lines you can’t cross?
Faheem: Religion is a total no-no.
Aahmed: There’s a lot of things. We can’t talk about religion, we can’t talk about the conflict that is going on here. In Kashmir, we don’t have the freedom to talk about things like people from the rest of India have. People from India can observe a lot of things going on around them. In Kashmir, there’s only a few things we can observe and talk about regularly, but you can’t joke about most of them.
So what sort of themes do you feel comfortable exploring in your comedy?
Shoaib: I think it’s the culture. You can always joke about the culture, and most people will laugh at those jokes. So we usually joke about things like weddings, different Kashmiri dishes, etc.
Aahmed: We can also joke about companies and authorities who aren’t so powerful. We have to be very careful about it, but there’s a few things we can get away with.
Shoaib: But things are changing. There are young politicians who do have a sense of humour and can take a joke.
Even with the self-censorship, you’ve had to deal with a few FIRs and police complaints…
Aahmed: Yes. We’d made a joke about a government department in Kashmir, and they did not like the joke. So they called me to the police station, threatened me with an FIR for defamation. Eventually I had to apologise to three different people so that they let us go. That kind of thing happens here quite regularly.
Another thing that happens is that when you have a strong social media presence, you feel this responsibility to speak about social issues. For example, artists elsewhere often use their social media to speak up against things that are wrong. We tried that in 2016 when Burhan Wani was killed in Kashmir. So we used our social media handles to put out facts about what was happening in Kashmir—the internet gags, curfew, people being killed in protests. And then we had an FIR filed against us for ‘anti-national activities’.
That Facebook page got deleted, so we started a second Facebook page and rebuilt our audience. But recently, we discovered that our second page has also been shadow-banned, we couldn’t share new posts and nobody could like our page or share our posts. So we just decided to delete it and get off Facebook altogether. Now we’re only on Instagram or Twitter. This has been going on for a while in Kashmir. A lot of pages and profiles have been shadow-banned on Facebook and Twitter.
How did the lockdown and internet shutdown put in place last August affect your work? Is it hard to sustain a comedy collective with such regular curfews and internet bans?
Aahmed: We were already very restricted in the content we put up, and then we had the internet snapped in Kashmir for six months. We couldn’t put anything up, our entire page was dead for six months, which is probably partly why it was shadow-banned. That really affects our audience and reach. The other thing is that when you work so hard on building a following for your page, and then it gets deleted or shadow-banned again and again, it really affects you mentally. You start wondering if it’s worth it, what’s the use of working so hard if our stuff is just going to get banned and nobody will be able to see it?
We started off as an edgy comedy page. Then we had to leave the ‘edgy’ part behind and be so careful that we don’t offend anyone. And even then we had to deal with shadow-bans and page deletions. It all adds to the mental stress we’re talking about, till you reach a breaking point. So now we have to stick to the most basic of comedy, we can’t make fun of anyone. We also stopped doing live standup comedy shows, because Kashmir is always under curfew so we don’t have a lot of places to work out of. Now we only do a show very rarely. We’re mostly focused on sketches.
In your opinion, what will it take for a comedian from Kashmir to break into the national spotlight?
Aahmed: I think we’re a long way from that. The main problem is getting out of Kashmir. There are several factors that come in here, the first being the differences between Kashmir and outside. We have to bridge this gap between the two peoples, make them understand the culture and language. That will take a lot of time to happen. See, if you make a joke about some metropolitan city, a person from anywhere in else will understand it. But if you’re a Kashmiri making a joke with reference to Kashmir, not many people outside will. That’s what we need to overcome, and it will take a lot of time and effort.
We have to make our own platform, our own base, so that we can reach the global audience. That’s why we’ve been making sketches and videos that would make a lot of people from outside understand how things work in Kashmir. Once that happens, that’s when we can go out and perform, take our content to people outside Kashmir.