Stand-up comedians challenging authority

Vir 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.
Comedian Vir Das.
Comedian Vir Das.

Chennai

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.
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.”
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 criminalised. You will remember I was jailed in 2014,” Primlani told DW. In her shows, she uses humour 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. Neeti Palta, a female stand-up comedian, said political humour 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.
This article was provided by Deutsche Welle

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