How India′s stand-up comedians are challenging authority | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 26.11.2021

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How India's stand-up comedians are challenging authority

Space for political satire is diminishing in India as authorities crack down on stand-up comedians who are taking political swipes and speaking truth to power.

Vir Das

Comedian Vir Das' recent show drew sharp criticism and some even lodged police cases against the comic

One of India's top stand-up comedians, Vir Das, recently delivered a monologue called "Two Indias" while performing in Washington DC, in which he shared his thoughts about the South Asian nation's social issues.   

During the show, Das described India as a country of paradoxes where people "worship women during the day but gang rape them at night."

The show drew sharp criticism and even resulted in legal cases against the comic. Critics have accused him of defaming India.

Aditya Jha, a spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), filed a police complaint against Das for "insulting the country."

"These derogatory statements against women and India are inflammatory. They were made in the US and malign the image of our country internationally. I want police to conduct an investigation," Jha was quoted as saying by local media.

No place for political satire and dissent?

Amid the backlash, Das issued a statement saying his intention was to remind that India, despite its issues, was "great."

"The video is a satire about the duality of two very separate Indias that do different things. Like any nation, it has light and dark, good and evil within it. None of this is a secret. The video appeals for us to never forget that we are great. To never stop focusing on what makes us great," his statement read.

Watch video 03:46

Indian female comedian in a man's world

Das isn't the first Indian stand-up comedian who has come under fire for sharing thoughts on social issues and taking political swipes at those in power. Many have had run-ins with authorities for simply being daring enough to directly mock the current political establishment.

In January, Munawar Faruqui, a Muslim comedian, was arrested and detained for almost a month in central Madhya Pradesh state based on a complaint filed by the son of a local BJP politician, who alleged that the comedian was going to make objectionable statements about Hindu deities.

Faruqui was detained before the show began and the police later admitted there was no evidence he had insulted Hindu deities.

Still, right-wing Hindu groups have repeatedly targeted him since then and forced the cancellation of his shows, including a recent one in Goa, where 500 people threatened to set themselves on fire if he was allowed to go on stage.

In July 2020, comedian Agrima Joshua was threatened with legal action and even faced rape threats after a video showing her joking about a statue project by the Maharashtra state government went viral on social media.

Willing to stand up to power

At a time when large sections of the mainstream media are accused of kowtowing to those holding political power, a handful of stand-up comedians are attempting to speak truth to power. But they increasingly end up facing legal action.

"With every passing year I feel laughter is costing comedians more and more. It's costing them their spontaneity and it's costing them their impulse. I have even heard some comedians telling jokes to their lawyers and showing their videos to a legal team before they release them online," comedian Kunal Kamra told DW.

Last November, India's Supreme Court initiated contempt of court proceedings against Kamra over his tweets against judges and the judiciary.

In response, the comedian told the court that the "tweets were not published with intention of diminishing people's faith in the highest court of our democracy" and that "the suggestion that my tweets could shake the foundations of the most powerful court in the world is an overestimation of my abilities."

Watch video 02:50

Speaking out against harassment of domestic workers

Vasu Primlani, India's first openly gay comic, wears many caps — as an environmentalist, a somatic therapist, triathlete and a baker.

She isn't apprehensive of taking up issues like homophobia, gender and sexuality in her stand-up routine, and most of it is done in her trademark deadpan delivery.

"Political statements in India are censured at best, and dissent is criminalized. You will remember I was jailed in 2014," Primlani told DW.

In her shows, she uses humor to address the twin challenges of being gay and a woman in India, where homosexuality was only decriminalized in 2018.

Similarly, Sanjay Rajoura, known for his razor-sharp wit, believes the situation for stand-up comedians has worsened over the past few years. 

"The 'national arrogance' has now not even spared a comedian who is performing outside India. This in itself is a joke. The thing that has changed drastically is the legitimacy this intolerance is gaining within the confines of our homes and that is the most disappointing part," Rajoura told DW.

Stand-up has a tough future in India

In the United States, which has a long tradition of political comedy, former President Donald Trump was a boon to late-night talk shows.

During his tenure, the likes of John Oliver, Stephen Colbert and others hit home more sharply than the erudite editorials in the morning papers and TV channels.

Neeti Palta, a female stand-up comedian, said political humor is generally not taken lightly in India, especially by supporters of political parties and state authorities.

"You know what does it take to be a stand-up comedian? Quick wit, quicker legs and a lawyer on speed dial. India, the land of agriculture, is now becoming the land of aggro-culture where dissent is usually expressed by trashing a property or thrashing a person," Palta told DW.

Indian comedians are still looking for wider acceptance. But in the last few years, it has become increasingly difficult for them to practice their trade, especially under the current political dispensation.

"A zen master once said that when you're laughing you can never be in the past or the future, that immense beauty of laughter is being penalized and criminalized," said Kamra.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru