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Pani puri, comedy & intolerance — Two days with Munawar Faruqui, the comedian denied a stage

‘I feel like I’m playing 3-4 Munawar Faruquis,' the comedian says. His last 16 shows were cancelled in a row.

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Munawar Faruqui interrupts a story I’m telling him to say he’s not listening.

“Sorry, I zoned out. I haven’t been listening for the last ten seconds,” he tells me. He’s been zoning out a lot lately, he says

And who can blame him? It’s hard to go about normal life when there’s a target on your back for being a Muslim comedian. He’s haunted by a joke he made in April 2020, and hasn’t made since.

“Now don’t write that I zone out. Write that I’m honest,” he grins.

The 28-year-old has had an intense year. He was arrested on stage on the first day of 2021, was in jail for 37 days, and just had 16 shows cancelled in a row.

Faruqui’s career’s been thrown into a crisis, and he’s being forced to court controversy over his comedy. The absurdity of his situation is obvious to everyone around him — but to him, it’s matter-of-fact.

Only one thing’s clear: He might be zoning out in life, but he’s not zoning out of comedy.

A double threat

“I don’t want to sound like a victim,” Faruqui says, pausing as he looks out of his apartment balcony in Mumbai. “I am a victim, but I don’t want to sound like it.”

In an India that is increasingly seeing comedians, cartoonists, and critics in jail, it’s no surprise that Faruqui flirts with the idea of disappearing both online and offline.

He posted a statement proclaiming he’s “done” after his latest show ‘Dongri to Nowhere’ was cancelled in Bengaluru in November after the police cited ‘potential law and order problems’. His show at Gurgaon was cancelled too.  But he can never leave the stage, it’s what he loves most.

He was arrested in Indore after a group of men from a Hindu organisation stormed the stage claiming he’d made “indecent” remarks about Hindu deities and insulted politicians. After that, his bail was rejected multiple times. He spent 37 days in jail, including his birthday.

Faruqui maintains that ‘Dongri to Nowhere’ is “clean”, and his audience — an accurate representation of India’s demographics, he says — always enjoys it. However, doing stand-up comedy in public is out of his control. He can’t run the risk of endangering his audience or organisers. He might be out of prison, but it feels like he’s still very much imprisoned.

“I think he’s one of the most talented comedians out there,” says writer and comedian Varun Grover. “The unlucky part of his identity is his religion.”

He pointed out that there are generally two comedic personas — the likeable comic and the offensive comic. Faruqui is likeable, which is why he poses a double threat, says Grover. People understand that he’s not the demon they want him to be.

“It’s a great combination – he’s funny, he’s likeable, and he’s clever enough to find a way to put his point across without offending anyone,” says Grover. “If someone goes to his show with a prejudiced mind, it would take Munawar only 15-20 minutes to convert them into a fan.”

Also read: After Munawar Faruqui, Kunal Kamra says his Bengaluru shows cancelled over alleged threats

Two Indias

The BBC has said Indian audiences can be “touchy,” and a column in Time referred to Faruqui’s arrest in January as an example of the “majoritarian wave sweeping India.” The court of public opinion routinely decides who is “anti-national” and who isn’t, and often hands out consequences itself.

So why him? Faruqui shrugs and hazards a guess. “Because I have an audience.”

People on the streets make jokes about inequalities and injustice all the time. If they’re caught on camera, he says, they’ll become a meme and go viral. The question of what would happen to him if he were to say similar things has already been answered.

Talking about “the situation” seems to stress Faruqui out. He sinks deeper into his seat, tapping his foot and rubbing his knees through the jeans in self-soothing gestures. He looks to familiar faces in the room to recruit support while trying to make a point, inadvertently falling into trained behaviour as a comedian.

It’s what he does with his audience: makes eye contact, reads expressions, and draws people into what feels like a private joke. He tells me later that it’s empowering to watch the effect his words have on people — seeing them tense as he builds suspense, then relax as he injects relief. Comedy is funny, he says, but reality isn’t.

Comedy is also contextual, but Faruqui keeps being taken out of context. And that’s when reality catches up.

Part of ThePrint’s interview took place at a café that’s the nerve centre for comedy in Mumbai. Faruqui is tired, and yawns through the interview. He stayed up the night before watching Money Heist on Netflix, which he reviewed for their YouTube channel. Earlier at his apartment, he sleepily served cashew nuts and deep-fried snacks, calling his cook to confirm where oil is kept in the kitchen. His cook followed him on Instagram before she started working for him.

Faruqui perks up when he meets his friend at the venue. He’s comfortable in the room where he began his comedy journey and jokes around with the staff, most of whom have known him before he was famous. He orders jal jeera for himself and drinks it in one go.

The staff informs us that we’ll have to wrap up early because they need the room for a poetry event, and asks Faruqui if he’d like to perform. Without missing a beat, Faruqui launches into a poem: “I come from two Indias….”

The poem he read is about love.

He transforms on stage, leaning against the mic stand like it’s an old friend. Afterwards, he tells me he didn’t enjoy being on stage as much as he usually would — he wants to tell jokes to people who’ve come to watch him, not make courtesy appearances at poetry events. He doesn’t want his comedy in a black box.

“Tragedy gives more content to comedy,” he says. “If you have seen so much in life, you’re emotional, but you’re ready for everything.”

From riots and the death of both his parents later, to the inside of a jail cell, he’s already seen a cruel amount of life.

Photo: Munawar Faruqui

Also read: ‘Hate has won’ — Munawar Faruqui hints at quitting comedy as ‘12 shows cancelled in 2 months’

‘Comedy is not cheap’

You need courage to find comedy in tragedy. “Wahi himmat se hum yaha khade hain (I’m standing here with that courage),” he says. 

Faruqui’s story is one that breaks through class and geography. And this is why he’s successful: His audience is broad and comedy relatable. From talking about geysers and chappals to telling ghost stories, Faruqui draws comedy from his personal life without alienating anyone from his context —  even if it includes something as personal as living through the Gujarat riots. The candid self-awareness is obvious to everyone he meets, whether onstage or off.

Originally from Junagadh, he worked at a utensil store for two years after he moved to Mumbai, and says he was happy with his life. But when his father was paralysed, he did a course on graphic design and got a job at a local firm to make more money for medicines.

Faruqui’s ascent has been meteoric. His journey in comedy only began in 2018, when he saw a show being advertised. He wanted to buy a ticket, but it cost Rs 500 — twice the amount of a movie ticket. There was a cheaper ticket, priced at Rs 300, to enter an open mic event. Faruqui bought it, and never looked back. In true Mumbaikar fashion, the first time he was ever publicly recognised was on a local train in February 2020.

“But comedy is not cheap,” he tells me. Class differences are always present, whether in the audience or among performers and the kind of jokes they tell. It’s like anything else in life, he says.  

The tragicomedy of his life carries into the dark humour he shares with his closest friends.  

“I feel like I’m playing 3-4 different Munawar Faruqui characters all the time,” he says. “One with family, one with friends, one on stage…” His favourite character to play? Definitely the person he is with his closest friends, he says.  

One of his friends, who was there during the poetry open mic event, saw Faruqui watching the performances through the glass door leading into the greenroom. It looked like Munawar was behind bars. His friend texted him, “jail ki aadat nahin gaye na?”

Sadakat Khan, another friend, was arrested in Indore along with him in January. Khan was a fan of Faruqui’s, and the two struck up a friendship after Khan messaged him and attended one of his shows. Khan travelled from Mumbai to Indore to attend the show as a fan, and was arrested after he stood up for Faruqui. They got closer while in jail, and are now like brothers. After they were released, they decided to work together. Khan is now his tour manager.

“He’s not the kind of person who will break down,” says Khan. “He’s faced a lot in his personal life. All this is nothing compared to that. The only thing he feels bad about is how this affects his fans, who are so special to him.” He wants to do live shows for his fans, and not just interact with them online.

His close friends are protective of him, and he’s protective of them in return. He’ll talk about anything, but Faruqui doesn’t want to talk about the trauma he’s been through, or how being threatened by Hindu groups affects his loved ones. It’s almost as if he’s worried about implicating them in the same imaginary charges leveled against him.

Also read: Political hate has engulfed everyone on internet — Munawar Faruqui on safe jokes & jail trauma

Between comfort and discomfort

When it’s time to continue our interview, Faruqui is wary about eating in public because he knows he’ll be recognised. He’s quick to clarify that everyone he meets in person is incredibly supportive, and he knows they mean well. He just doesn’t want people to pity or feel sorry for him.

He dissociates in person, often disappearing into his phone, and seems comfortable in the company of his fans and admirers. He scrolls through mentions and DMs on Instagram, occasionally replying to some, and then switches to YouTube to check his stats and comments.  

It’s not that he doesn’t want to spend time in real life with people — he just doesn’t have much to say about what’s happening with him. And at the same time, there’s nothing else he can talk or think about, because it’s all-consuming. 

“If there’s one thing I want to learn, it’s how to say no,” he says, buckling his helmet and getting on his motorcycle after an unsuccessful attempt to decline an invitation to hang out with someone.

He warns me that riding pillion on his motorcycle will be uncomfortable, but it’ll be worth it for pani puri. We’re forced to wait behind a bus, and he briefly contemplates slipping into the gap between the bus and the sidewalk to continue forward. He would have liked to not stop, but just like everything else in his life, he’s brought to a halt.  

Mid-motorbike ride, he invites me to his sister’s house for dinner and instantly reconsiders. His family eats dinner late, and he has to read namaz — he’s sure I’ll be bored. Offer rescinded, he decides that instead of pani puri, we should eat an early meal at an old favourite.

Sure enough, the restaurant’s servers recognise him and seat us in a corner, and one comes over to say hello. At the end of the meal, our server asks if he should pack the leftover dal tadka. Faruqui says yes, and asks that he give it to someone hungry outside.

Photo: Munawar Faruqui

‘Comedy adds to me’ 

Munawar Faruqui’s therapy is prayer and performance, but one thing he likes to do for himself is shop. Especially shoes, watches and caps. He shows me his Tag Heuer watch, and talks about how he used to save money to buy caps when he was younger. Things have changed today.

He doesn’t think he’s being made into a poster boy, or that he’s being turned into an example for the comedy community. “I don’t add to comedy,” he says. “Comedy adds to me.”

And Faruqui does wear different caps. Though stand-up comedy is his main love, he’s a writer first and hasn’t limited himself in his craft — he raps and is writing a web series. But stage ka alag nasha hai, he says. The stage has its own charm. And he can’t wait to perform again.

This sentiment was clear when he took the stage earlier in the day. But he wasn’t there to tell a joke, or to talk about hate. He was there with a love poem.

Ek shayari likhi hai, kabhi milogi toh sunaunga…,” he reads. I’ve written a poem, I’ll recite it to you in person.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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