When other forms of expression are suppressed, comedy becomes a beacon of dissent.
An image that went viral in recent weeks showed a weeping Palestinian mother on her knees cradling the blood-stained body of her dead infant. Half a dozen TV mics are thrust at her face and the reporters ask: “But do you condemn Hamas?”
The dark wit in that meme censures the Western media’s deeply problematic coverage of the Israeli assault on Gaza more sharply than any serious critique can. This is the power of political comedy. We are surrounded by deeply asymmetrical structures of power, as evidenced in the Israel-Palestine conflict, or in the hegemonic Western media control over global narratives, or closer home, in the lopsided government-citizen relationship. In such structures, straight questions and arguments are often simply drowned out by a blitz of propaganda, by dismissals and firings, or simply by official fiat. Political comedy alone can act as a countervailing force. And, in the worst of times, it is often the cartoonist who strikes the hardest.
There’s a reason why the interview of the Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef by the controversial British broadcaster Piers Morgan became as viral as it did. Channel after channel was inviting Palestinian supporters on air only to counter all their arguments with the reductive question “But do you condemn Hamas?”, a bullying tactic meant to shrink 75 years of Israeli occupation and oppression to just one date: October 7. As historians and columnists struggled to counter this with facts and data, Youssef simply used satire. Oh yes, he said, “If I were Israel, I too would kill as many people as possible because the world is letting me do it.” To another question he said, “I keep trying to kill my wife, but she uses our kids as human shields.”
This is black subversive comedy at its best. By seemingly acquiescing to the arguments of power, it erodes the foundations on which it stands. The interviewer is no longer sure of his ground because Youssef has pulled the rug out from under his feet. The satirical portal The Onion has produced some of its sharpest stuff during these disturbing times.
The art has a rich history in India. Bharata’s Natyashastra lists comedy as one of the eight genres of art, vyangya kavya (satirical poetry) is a highly respected and widely practised genre, and folk art forms have always allowed the voices of women, of marginalised groups, of the praja against the raja to be heard through insertions and asides in the main narrative that take sly digs at power. It is this rich tradition, as Amartya Sen said, that has “helped to make heterodoxy the natural state of affairs in India”.
The women who couriered pink lingerie to Pramod Muthalik in 2009 were led by a group that called itself the Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose and Forward Women. Like Youssef does with the phrase “human shields”, this group took the adjective “loose” from the hands of the oppressor and used it upon itself, thus draining the word of power.
Consulting Editor Shreevatsa Nevatia has written for and curated the cover package this fortnight, bringing together some excellent pieces that try to make sense of where Indian stand-up comedy is today. Increasing state surveillance, a free pass to troll armies, and an arrest-happy police force make for a chilling atmosphere in which, sadly, many stand-ups and satirists have begun to self-censor.
But honestly, it’s hard to keep a good joke down. Or a meme, retweet, hashtag, reel. And I am sure they will thrive even in this unforgiving soil. As the viral satirist and singer Neha Singh Rathore might ask, “Comedy mein ka ba?”