Is speaking your mind really worth it in India? Think about it. How do you publicly put your opinion forward without having an FIR slapped against you, getting arrested or the authorities bulldosing your house?
Muslim stand-up artistes have taken a completely different route to tackle this hurdle: Self-deprecation. They are punching themselves down (metaphorically) in an attempt to address growing prejudice and break stereotypes. Their tragedy, narrated funnily in their own words, only makes the audience sympathise with them.
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Munawar Faruqui is one of the best examples to take this point home. He was arrested in Indore for a joke he was yet to crack in his act. Soon after, videos of his self-deprecating jokes, especially about his Muslim identity, became so popular that he ended up winning a reality show that was highly political in its concept.
The show called Lock Upp pitched Left-wing contestants against Right-wing contestants trapped as prisoners in a jail whose jailer was the Right-wing ecosystem’s queen, Kangana Ranaut, herself. In fact, Ranaut was seen praising Munwar throughout the show for being authentic and competitive. The point is, Munawar managed to win the hearts of a huge section of the audience through self-deprecation, people he otherwise would have probably offended.
Most Muslim comedians are using the same template: highlighting prejudices against their community through self-deprecation. Urooj Ashfaq, Rehman Khan, Mohammed Anas, Haseeb Khan, Abbas Momin, Mohammed Husain and many others like them are diving head first into the hate and lies, addressing the daily Islamophobia Muslims face. But they do it by making fun of themselves offering a slice of their life — anecdotal but extremely relatable situations of bigotry that they have faced.
No topic is off-limits. Some of the stereotypes constructed through media propaganda that comedians are tackling include how youth from madrassas are joining terrorist organisations; Muslims being unhygienic; incestuous marriages with sisters; not being nationalistic or patriotic, Muslims being anti-vaxxers and so on and so forth.
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Jokes that land well
Rehman Khan’s one joke would probably be recognisable by every Indian, irrespective of their religion, as something they’ve seen or heard of in their own life. He jokes about watching an India-Pakistan match with a group of friends in a street-side shop, where every time Zaheer Khan or Yusuf Pathan bowled and the Pakistani cricketer scored a boundary, the owner of the shop shouted ‘kat***’, a slur used for Muslim men who are circumcised. Rehman spoke of how uncomfortable he felt. When he was prodded by another spectator about why he looked so uneasy, he introduced himself too as a ‘kat***’.
Urooj Ashfaq recounted a similar experience while taking an Uber cab when she complained to the driver of how the last three drivers had cancelled the trip. To which the Uber driver who was taking her home replied that they must have all been Muslims because all Muslims are “chors” thieves.
Mohammed Anas jokes of an incident where a friend asks him while the latter was preparing for IAS, would Anas be preparing for ISIS? At a time when outrage and anger are the dominant emotions, humour is welcome.
Anshul Saxena, a political observer with a huge following, pointed out in a recent thread how famous stand-up artiste Kunal Kamra has deleted many of his old tweets, which could be offensive to minorities, after Nupur Sharma’s comments on the Prophet in a prime time debate. So, a telling trend is even beginning to creep into the stand-up artiste community. Joke with caution!
With prominent Muslim personalities keeping silent, Muslim stand-up comedians can truly be called the unsung heroes of our times.
Without offending anyone but themselves, they’re the only people today who stand in front of an audience as jesters, narrating their own misfortunes. Dangerously opinionated artistes who become fools to critique the system, that if criticised otherwise in today’s times can lead to unforeseen consequences.
In that, they are much like the Fools from Shakespeare’s plays, though humour is rarely an armour against retribution. “They’ll have me whipped for speaking true, thou’lt have me whipped for lying, and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace,” says the Fool protesting against the King in Shakespeare’s King Lear.
The author is a political observer who tweets @zainabsikander. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)