Indian comics are choking and it’s not funny

Kunal Kamra, Kenny Sebastian, Akash Banerjee, Danish Sait, UPA, BJP, Narendra Modi, Stand-up comedy, Humour, Laughter, Self-censorship
Stand-up comedians feel self-censored in the present day political environment. Image: Eunice Dhivya

In 1968, Tamil actor and political satirist Cho Ramaswamy directed a satirical play ‘Muhammad bin Tughlaq’ and played the title character. The play was a parody of India’s political situation at the time. It remains as one of his best works to date. Buoyed by its success, Ramaswamy went on to start a Tamil weekly magazine by the same name in the 1970s.

Cho was quick and spontaneous with his political wit. Over the years, he became quite vocal about the powers that be and freely expressed his views through his publication.

Cho, who died in 2016, and his magazine’s popularity was such that it attracted the attention of many, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who attended two of its annual-day celebrations.

Addressing the 47th anniversary of the publication in 2017, Modi lauded the work of Cho and said his satire made his criticism more likeable to even those he criticised.

The Prime Minister went on to say that we need more satire and humour. “Humour brings happiness in our lives. It is the best healer. The power of laughter is more than the power of abuse or any other weapon. We need them to build bridges between communities and societies.”

But for the artistic community, making political satires or any dark comedy sets for that matter, is easier said than done. And that is happening under the same prime minister’s rule.

Despite living in a democracy, free speech, many artistes say, faces severe curbs. A large number of comics believe that tricky topics such as religion, politics and caste are off limits.

Chennai’s humour club chairman KS Seetharaman says there’s some resistance now, and self-censorship follows. The club advises its artistes to not make controversial remarks or statements that would hurt anybody’s feelings, but make jokes where people can read between the lines.

Noted standup Kenny Sebastian did a show to say he doesn’t make jokes about politics. “I make simple jokes that don’t get me in trouble. I don’t want to take a dig at politics or politicians because I am scared. It’s not like I don’t get punchlines on political jokes, just that I don’t want to get punched in my face,” Sebastian says on the show.

“Today, people don’t just dislike, they hate jokes,” he adds.

Not many standups today do political satires and comedies. And those who do resort to self-censorship. The Federal spoke to multiple artistes and organisations who all say that there is a lot of pressure on artistes who are critical of the powers that be.

Take for instance 30-year-old Kunal Kamra. He is quite vocal about the current political dispensation. Besides facing backlash over his jokes, Kamra has also faced death threats and verbal abuse from people who support the ruling government.

“There’s no direct censorship from the establishment. But it has indirectly killed spontaneous behaviour in general,” says Kamra.

According to him, today one has to be 100 per cent certain of what they say and why they are saying it. “If you have to make a joke about the BJP, you cannot be spontaneous about it. It has to be thought through, written out, vetted by people and the artiste has to pre-empt how people would react,” Kamra explains.

This is the self-censorship that artistes face, where they cannot speak their mind as people are more watchful. “When you kill spontaneity in an art form, it can never have a positive impact on people,” Kamra says.

YouTuber and vlogger Akash Banerjee, who goes by the name ‘DeshBhakt’ on Twitter and Instagram, says while there were cases booked against artistes even during the UPA’s tenure, the current government has created a narrative where making fun of the government is equivalent to making fun of India and, hence, one is termed ‘anti-Indian’ or ‘anti-national’.

“They have been successful in orchestrating that sentiment and there’s a pall of gloom. People are afraid and cautious about what they do,” Banerjee adds.

He says that while the government directly meddles with the artistes, it also indirectly tries to find ways to cut their revenue stream. “We have had cases where people don’t just scrap the shows but also question corporates and companies booking the show for inviting an artiste who is critical of the government,” he explains.

Kamra’s shows were cancelled thrice in recent months (in Surat, Baroda and Mysuru) over threats of disruption from BJP supporters. “There is systematic legal harassment that one worries about while speaking up. It is a passive way of subverting voices,” Banerjee says.

Banerjee, who has a journalistic and legal background, says the ban on shows comes through online means. “People try to shut you down by downgrading the video. Then they abuse you and dislike and report the video to forums to take the content down,” he says.

“I don’t think people like cartoonist RK Laxman, who survived the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi, could have survived in the present-day scenario. People like him would have been shot dead,” he quips.

Danish Sait, a Bengaluru-based standup and actor who recently made a political satire ‘Humble Politician Nograj’ that showcased how a politician exploits a city and its resources, says people are put in a box from the beginning. “But if they decide to go ahead and make fun of politicians they can still do it and finds ways to avoid the hatred.”

For Hasan Minhaj, the Indian-origin American comedian and writer, things are slightly different. In 2017, Minhaj went to the White House Correspondents’ dinner, traditionally attended by the President of the US and covered by the national press, and made fun of Donald Trump and Barack Obama. However, for his counterparts in India, it’s difficult to imagine doing something similar without getting attacked.

But Minhaj too had a taste of the Indian ‘patriotism’ with his own Patriot Act on the recent general elections in India. There was a hue and cry from right-wing groups to take down the show.

“I think it is important not to seek any validation from social media or take such criticism very seriously for your own sanity. It should matter only when it comes from people who inspire you or something that’s worth discussing,” Kamra says.

Until then, just laugh it off.