No country for comedians?
Comics are under constant fear that their jokes might offend someone somewhere and lead to harassment and threats. The fear is much more if they happen to be Muslim
Mohammed Hussain’s extended family have been asking him to abandon his career as a stand-up comedian. They’re scared for him. He himself admits to being scared too.
He’s considering moving to Canada. Says he, “I've never wanted to leave India, I never even wanted to study outside India. I love this country but the way things are going on is scary. It’s not just about my freedom of expression, it’s about my existence. I'm running on the assumption that my socio-economic status will limit the kind of damage these things can cause, and I have to be conscious of my privilege about that.”
On January 1, 2021, Munawar Faruqui, a 29-year old stand up comedian was arrested in Indore during his show. He was kept in police custody for 30 days, despite lack of evidence against him.
Hussain says, “It’s very gutsy of Munawar to crack the kind of jokes he does. The right-wing propaganda videos pick out stray jokes and sentences. I don’t know what was so offensive to people about that video, but he did take it off six months before he was arrested and this show at Indore hadn't even started yet.”
“The biggest joke is that people think Munawar was in jail for cracking a joke. At least Munawar ke baare mei hashtag tha, baaki panch log bhi jail mei the, unke naam pe toh kuch nahi aaya. (At least people used hashtags to get Munawar justice, what about the other five? They were left behind),” he adds ruefully.
Mohd. Anas, a Delhi-based stand-up comedian, shares Hussain’s views. He says, “It’s hilarious what things have come down to. Some individual somewhere decides to pull off a gimmick and puts somebody’s life in jeopardy just like that. Somebody who hears about this story will go to some other comedian’s show and do the same. Why would they not? Because they would see this as a system where they’re being heard and they are being taken seriously.” He laughs and says this reminds him of a Tom Cruise movie, ironically called, Minority Report.
When comedians are attacked during live shows, one assumes social media platforms like Instagram and Youtube would provide safer interaction for artistes. However, Hussain disagrees. He believes that people would forget what happened in a live show or there’d be a lack of proof if someone did get offended.
But that’s not the case on social media. The reach is higher there, and so the threat is permanent. He says, “I once made a reel with a celebrity and it went viral and someone somewhere got pissed. I had to take it down. But the reel is there, the world has seen it.”
Another comedian, Shaad Shafi, who has been doing comedy since 2013, thinks there’s a no-win situation for comics right now. “At a live show, the person who might get offended will be there in person which can be unsafe but online, the number of people watching it is larger so the amount of "trolling" you get is much higher and more vitriolic.”
All of them agree that ‘Social Media’ holds no beacon of hope, nor is it a space for nuance. Hussain sums it up. “They [social media] feed liberals rainbows and the right-wing saffron flags.”
There’s another thing all three strongly believe. That the comedy circuit in India is accommodating and inclusive. Anas says it is the most liberal crowd one can find. He says, “Comedy allows a lot of opinions to coexist and grow. As long as they are not regressive in nature, and if somebody is not being a bigot about stuff, opinions are appreciated.” Shaad adds, “I do see everyone making a conscious effort to make it [the comedy circuit] a safe space.”
“The community is there for you. It might not be every single individual, but most people are. And that is what democracy is, right? Most people are willing to fight for you,” says Hussain summing up his experience in comedy.
Their Muslim identity is the elephant in the room. However, Hussain says, “I always start off with some Muslim jokes about myself because I want the audience to know that I understand who they're looking at. But I hate it when some immature comedian/host while introducing us goes for a line like, ‘our next comic is a Muslim, he's going to bomb us tonight’. I know they don’t mean to hurt, that it’s just an easy laugh.” But…
Shaad worries about a bigger issue at hand. “I think we’re really going downhill. Today it’s not okay to make jokes about one thing, tomorrow it won’t be okay to make jokes about anything. And once these precedents are set, it’ll become very difficult to go back because no matter who’s in power, they’ll use it to clamp down on the voices of the people.”
As if censorship was already not scary enough, Anas drops a truth bomb. He says, “Art, in general, is in jeopardy at this time. Art cannot survive like this. Satire is dead in a society that can’t take dissent, because it is basically punching up to the government/authorities.”
Is there a solution to all this? They don’t know. But there’s something that haunts them all. If anyone can go up to an artist while he is performing on stage and succeeds in disrupting, abusing and harm, comedy may not survive for long.