New Delhi: For a set last year, stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui talked about Dongri, a neighbourhood in South Mumbai notorious for fostering criminals like Dawood Ibrahim, and where Faruqui also resides.
“Have you heard of Dongri? Every time I mention it, half the people I’m speaking to don’t know what I’m talking about, and the other half turn around and say, ‘Oh, that Dawood wala?’ But what kind of stereotype is this?,” he asked a rapt audience.
“But Dongri isn’t famous just because of Dawood, there is Haji Mastan, Tiger Memon — what gangsters we’ve given,” he added, breaking into a soft chuckle.
The video of this set, available on YouTube, has garnered 4.7 million views since it was published in April. Faruqui’s channel, meanwhile, has over 5,00,000 subscribers — modest compared to celebrity comedian Kunal Kamra’s 1.6 million — but a following he gained “extremely quickly” for a newcomer, according to comics and Faruqui’s associates ThePrint spoke to.
“Normally it takes two to three years to build that kind of following, but Munawar did it in a year-and-a-half. His popularity grew a lot during the lockdown,” said his tour manager Vishesh Arora.
However, since 1 January, 28-year-old Faruqui has been framed as one of the criminals he often joked about.
Faruqui was on a nation-wide tour with Arora to perform his newest set ‘Dongri to Nowhere’, which began in October last year, when a group of men from the Hind Rakshak Sangathan, a Hindu organisation, stormed the venue in Indore on 1 January, claiming Faruqui made “indecent” remarks about Hindu deities and insulted Home Minister Amit Shah.
An FIR led to Faruqui’s arrest, along with four others present or performing at the venue, who have now spent 22 days in a jail in Indore. After the Madhya Pradesh Police admitted there was no proof of Faruqui making indecent remarks, the Uttar Pradesh Police sought custody of him for a complaint lodged in April 2020, allegedly for hurting religious sentiments then.
Since then, Faruqui’s bail has been rejected twice by lower courts and his next bail hearing with the Madhya Pradesh High Court is set for 25 January, which his family, friends and peers are waiting with bated breath for.
“He’s afraid. His mind is full of tension. All he’s thinking about is getting out of there,” Faruqui’s cousin, who wished to remain unnamed, told ThePrint.
“We hope that all goes well and he is released soon. We’re here to give him strength. He knows that.”
A hustler with a sense of humour
Munawar is described as a hustler, by his peers and associates, who is affable and down to earth despite his new found popularity.
“He is super, super humble. He travels all the way from Dongri to places like Khar and Bandra for just 5 minutes of stage time,” said Samay Raina, fellow comedian and close friend of Faruqui. “He does everything by himself, without a manager, without anyone.”
Faruqui has always navigated life nimbly, his family and friends told ThePrint, moving job to job, city to city, to earn and make ends meet. Before becoming a comedian, Faruqui worked as a utensil seller, a salesman in a shop and a small-time graphic artist in Mumbai, after moving from Gujarat’s Junagadh in 2002.
“Munawar was only 10 years old when he came to Mumbai from Junagadh. We all lived together in Dongri,” 38-year-old Shahnawaz Yakub Sheikh, another cousin, told ThePrint. “He would work during the day and do a computer course in the evening. He had that fire in him since the beginning. He always worked very hard.”
But Faruqui has also lived through considerable hardship — his home was destroyed during the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat and his mother died, unexpectedly, soon after he moved to Mumbai with her.
A life in stand up comedy offered both a means to cope with tragedy and a platform to pursue something he was good at — making people laugh.
“When I first saw him, I thought he was so, so good. I’ve been in the industry for longer than he has, but sometimes he would get an audience to laugh more than I would,” said Raina, adding, “He’s very reserved and doesn’t talk about his struggles, except with close friends and when he decides to include it in a set. Stand up is like a coping mechanism, it is for all of us.”
Faruqui’s turn to comedy was the result of a spontaneous realisation he had during one of his odd jobs, Balraj Singh Ghai, a friend, told ThePrint.
“I remember him telling me that he was on a shoot for an ad or something, where they were replicating a stand up scene. The producers didn’t have an extra on set and asked Munawar to sit as an audience member,” said Ghai, who owns a popular stand-up venue The Habitat in Mumbai.
“Then they asked him to go on stage and say two lines. He said when he went on stage and said those two lines, it felt powerful, like it was something he should do for real. He came for some of our open mics and became an instant hit.”
At home, Faruqui’s large family always encouraged the children to pursue the careers they saw fit, but when he began to show an interest in comedy, Shanawaz said the family first dismissed it as “time pass.”
“When his popularity rose and people started coming to the house to get selfies with him, we realised that this was serious.”
In trouble with the law
Like several other comedians today, Faruqui has also not shied away from joking about religion, politics, current affairs, or his own identity as a Muslim.
“They made a dating app for Muslims. They made Minder out of Tinder. You can imagine the fake accounts, everyone is clad in a burkha” he said during a set, adding at another point: “I swiped right on someone, but then I got two options — stranger or relative.”
Every video on his YouTube channel is edited to carry a disclaimer warning that the content is without malice, and intended to make viewers laugh. This didn’t stop several people from filing FIRs against him in April 2020 when he put up a video in which he makes fun of the famous Hindi song, Mera Piya Ghar Aaya Oh Ram Ji, from the movie Yaarana (1981), and the Hindu deity Lord Rama.
The controversy fizzled out, only to be revived by Faruqui’s arrest earlier this month. The Uttar Pradesh Police, which is now seeking custody of Faruqui, is acting on complaints it received back in April.
“What is happening with Munawar is incredibly wrong. This is no longer about stand up comedy,” said Aditi Mittal, one of the most popular comics in India. “The blatant unconstitutionality of the series of events should compel all of us to speak up.”
“There are definitely some comics who, after Munawar’s arrest, feel like they can’t make certain jokes because who wants to be taken in a police jeep in UP?” noted Ghai.
On 28 January, Munawar will turn 29 and he is most likely to celebrate his birthday in prison.
Whether he will go back to stand up is something he hasn’t discussed with his family, his cousin told ThePrint. “He didn’t do anything wrong, did he? We will support him no matter what he chooses. For now, we just want him back.”