Laughing at ourselves is an art Indians, across the political spectrum, have failed to master.
I wouldn’t watch Michelle Wolf’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner routine with my parents. Hell, I added a ‘wear earphones!’ when I sent the video to my friends, because if they were at work, they’d be lambasted for the deliciously straightforward, profanity-laced punches that Wolf threw for 20 minutes. I watched the video twice, laughing through the first time, and in absolute awe of the fact that she didn’t collapse at the podium the next. If, in a few years, essays are not written about her absolutely hilarious act of defiance as a milestone in the storm that US politics of today is, it would be a damned shame.
And now, of course, I’m waiting for India’s Wolf to howl.
She started off without much of a preamble, with the first punchline about a prostitute and Trump. Michelle refused to spare a single person or paradigm, barrelling down her set with the courage of a woman with absolute nothing to lose. Most of what she said could be a headline in the next few months. She went after the liberal media and the Women’s March.
The Indian comedy circuit has much to learn from Wolf. While Indian comedy has grown up in recent years, mainstream shows like Kapil Sharma’s homophobic, transphobic dailies continue to pull crowds. The niche, subversive, unapologetic comedy acts like Aisi Taisi Democracy, the keen socio-political commentary by Sanjay Rajoura, Varun Grover, and Rahul Ram, solo acts like Kunal Kamra and Aditi Mittal have added their voices to this small but growing chorus. All India Bakchod tries too, but is often held back by the group’s incredibly wide audience.
Political humour punches up, and often with offence. The problem with India is that we tend to take offence far too easily for such humour to flourish on a larger scale. Punching up would require a public temper that allows for difference of opinion, and a legal backing of the same. In a world where using the PM’s photo leads to FIRs, and questioning patriotism leads to death threats, we live in a context parallel to Wolf’s. There, freedom of speech allows for the right to mock the holy cows most wouldn’t touch. Here, I’m pretty sure someone will have an FIR slapped against them for making fun of any cow, let alone the holy ones. These holy cows don’t just exist in binaries, as much as we’d want them to. The hallowed names of elite liberals who seem to espouse the freedom of speech when it comes to anyone but themselves are a part of this list too. Laughing at ourselves is an art Indians, across the political spectrum, have failed to master.
It would be incorrect to say we’ve never managed to laugh, though. Comedians have poked fun at Manmohan Singh, Mayawati (albeit with casteist overtones I refuse to support), and Sonia Gandhi. Rahul Gandhi has been the butt of jokes over the years, irrespective of who’s in power. These leaders, by not reacting to comedy as virulently as today’s politicians do, did not give it the power comedy today has. Today, laughter in India is not just political. It’s weaponised. Look at Humans of Hindutva, for example. It is not comedy meant for just laughter. It is meant to antagonise and question. And it’s doing its job well.
The schism is apparent. As comedy comes of age in India, comics are ready with cutting insights. But are we, as an audience, capable of interacting with them?
Take the example of Rahul Subramanian, whose set on the idiosyncrasies of Indian DJs caused the kind of outrage that deserves its own standup set. A mere observation on the kind of music Indian DJs play, and everything that happens around it, led to threats of physical assault, and eventually had Subramanian step down from his set at the Pune Comedy Festival. Kamra was unceremoniously evicted from his rented accommodation with an arbitrary, ‘it would be better for both parties’. Women in comedy like Aditi Mittal, Aayushi Jagad, and Radhika Vaz face incredible amounts of abusive blowback for well, being women.
How do we bridge this gap? We, as the ‘liberal’ sections of Indian society, are guilty of not standing up with our artists and comedians when they are under attack. We laugh when it’s convenient and often refuse to react when it’s not. Just tweeting out in their support isn’t enough. We need to start attending open mics. We need to share and amplify relatively unknown artists. We need to start questioning our own biases when it comes to humour. We are guilty of the hypocrisy of convenience, and we are not better than the people we laugh at.
Most comedians moving beyond the usual ‘I’m an engineer from the middle class and I am single’ trope and its variations are usually shut down, and quite effectively so. The moment a comedian tries new content that makes us uncomfortable with our privilege, they’re told ‘bro, why are you doing this political stuff? We just want to laugh!’ For so many comics, the fear of this exclusion far outweighs the need to make a statement.
As Ashish Shakya, founding member of AIB and a prolific writer of political humour, puts it, “We have the talent, but we lack the freedom”. The Indian comedy scene is filled with voices aching to break out of the little boxes they’re slotted into. This is not to say they are without their faults. The shadows of casteism, sexism, and infuriatingly common normalisation of violence still loom large over the space.
As with any other field, it will take time and patience to work through these knots. Laughter is always political, and as comedians in India come to their own realisation of this, it is our duty to offer them a platform, an audience, and nuanced critique they can be better through.
Harnidh Kaur is a poet and feminist.