As political humor becomes more accessible, so do the repercussions of having an opinion in the public sphere.
According to Varun Grover, ardent fans of Modi/RaGa/Kejriwal can appreciate the humor in jokes cracked on the politicians. “They may not admit it on their social media handles but they do tell us in private that they are Modi/RaGa/Kejriwal loyalists and still loved the jokes,” says the comedian, screenwriter, and lyricist who forms one third of the Aisi Taisi Democracy (ATD) with singer Rahul Ram and fellow funny-man Sanjay Rajoura. The problem then arises when a comedian makes fun of Gods, cows, holy books, and past heroes. “Me and [Rajoura] wanted to do a show together — just one show,” remembers Grover talking about the origins of ATD that was established in 2014. “Then we thought why not have some music too in it. Rahul Ram joined and we never stopped doing that ‘just one show’.”
Today, stand-up comedy is omnipresent, moving out of clubs and bars, and taking over the Internet in the form of sketches, parodies, and music videos. The medium, from as early as five years ago, has now given way to a bolder anti-establishment philosophy. Political humor has always been popular in India but this year’s Lok Sabha Elections marks India’s first polls with a vibrant stand-up industry willing to engage and question the political mainstream. Take, for instance, Shut Up Ya Kunal, the popular YouTube series which features comedian Kunal Kamra interviewing politicians, journalists, and activists on socio-political issues. Though his peers have been including politics in their material for far longer, Kamra’s contentious subject matter has propelled him to the foreground.
In a span of 11 episodes, he’s interviewed BJP Youth Wing Vice President, Madhukeshwar Desai, AIM President Asaduddin Owaisi and other figures. During a recent stand-up show, he relayed how a politician told him to stick to comedy and leave politics alone. The comedian replied, ‘Sir aap pe hi choda tha, phir mai dekha aap log comedy kar rahe ho.’ Conversely, when he detailed his criticism of the Congress party on Twitter, those who lauded his earlier joke had similar sentiments as the politician. Kamra’s experiences echo comedian Abijit Ganguly’s observations, in that Indians have a ‘particular set of convenient belief systems’. “Everybody has a particular attitude and opinion and as long as the jokes are suiting that opinion, it’s fine. Nobody is in it for the freedom of speech or the notion that ‘nothing is sacrosanct’,” he says.
Divide and rule
In a way, the comedy scene is reflective of the divisive times we live in. The work of comedians is either deemed to be noble and vital or abused and decried as a partisan conspiracy. “I think that the deification of humor as if a good joke will cure cancer is hilariously misguided and unfortunate,” says stand-up comedian Aditi Mittal. While it’s certainly not comedy’s end goal, Mittal finds that humor does help, however little, in educating people especially owing to the lack of information in the country. One of the most common misconceptions Mittal has encountered is when people hold comedians equally responsible as politicians who aren’t fulfilling their public duty. “They say when you start taking your comedians seriously and your politicians as a joke, then you’re in a lot of trouble,” chuckles the comedian.
The hostility surrounding public political discourse isn’t restricted to Indian artists. Recently, Indian-American comedian Hasan Minhaj covered the #LokSabhaElections2019 on his Netflix show, Patriot Act. He parodied how his opinions on the episode would be indicative of him being a Pakistani, Iranian or Qatari spy intent on defaming India.
In the same vein, comedians here have to constantly face accusations of being stooges of a rival political party. “The logical fallacy here is that if we wanted to make money by selling our art — we would be making pro-establishment fluff and winning Padma Shris for them na?” reasons Grover. “Abuse means you have tickled someone exactly where (s)he does not like it,” agrees Rajoura who is learning to ignore these reactions.
But the truth of the matter is that these artists are inviting the ire of fanatics, some who could be dangerous. “We would all love to kind of imagine that everybody is gung-ho and we are all sort of warriors of free speech. But at the end of the day, you’re also a person that is showing up in public places and you have got your own safety to worry about,” says Mittal.
Sense and censor
Here’s where censorship comes into play. Mittal says there are three layers to it. The first has her become a personal censor, conscious of what could be construed from her material. “That’s just me wanting to protect my own perception that I put out there,” she says. Then comes the audience or performance space that may contradict a comedian’s political bent or inclinations. “The third layer is the pushback; abuse, harassment, and sometimes doxing (revealing a person’s private information in public, typically as a form of punishment or revenge) that you’re sort of subjected to,” she says.
Ganguly accepts that at times, his work might be appropriated for political maneuvering and positioning as people will be keen on serving their own agenda. “Of course I won’t be happy about it. But what can I do?” He has previously observed this behavior where certain supporters of political parties celebrate the release of his stand-up clips which make jokes about their rivals. The sudden attention doesn’t obscure his goal. “I will be true to my integrity. I need to stick to my voice. I will make fun of everything and anything I deem worthy and which deserves to be made fun of.”
Grover cannot remember what motivated the first political joke he ever wrote but speculates that it might have been in response to the absurdity of a politician’s statement. “Political satire is like any other comedy genre — you have to find the stuff that riles you, angers you, and then have to find a surprising, hilarious, insightful angle to channelize that anger.” The nature and power of such cathartic humor might not have found a wider acceptance with Indians yet but that won’t stop comedians from trying.
When asked if he feels any special care should be taken while making jokes in an election year, Rajoura has a simple response. “Election year or not, we keep asking questions.”
Vote for humor
- Recently, Facebook took down 687 pages and accounts linked to individuals associated with an IT Cell of the Indian National Congress for engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” The Atlantic Council’s Digital Foreign Research Lab noted that the content of the pages was more satirical in nature, with memes and cartoons aimed at ridiculing the incumbent government.
- In December 2018, Railway Minister Piyush Goyal tweeted a video clip of comedian Raju Srivastava mocking those who criticized the Prime Minister and defended the Rafale Deal. Captioned in Hindi as ‘Identify those who point a finger at the Prime Minister in the name of democracy’, the video received over 8,000 Retweets and more than 22,000 likes. A member of the BJP since 2014, Srivastava was made a chairman of the Film Development Council, Uttar Pradesh, in March. He has been actively campaigning for the party and PM through appearances on television and events.
This article was originally published on The Hindu on April 5, 2019, and has been re-published with permission.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.