But even in this climate of fear, some comics are still holding out, balancing laughter and political perils.
Stand-up comedy is relatively new to India—comics only began to think of it as a career in the 2010s—but its antecedents are much older. It inherits its iconoclasm, for instance, from court jesters who mocked and thereby checked the hubris of kings. For centuries, comedy has grabbed power from below, but having been brutally harassed and trolled in recent years, India’s stand-up comics now think twice before upsetting the apple cart of power. If comedy is a handy model of human relations, some comedians in India are today performing routines that teach us how to survive dark times. Laughter can still be medicine.
On the Internet, humour helps us make sense of the gravest tragedies—memes have even accompanied the news coming from Gaza—but for comics, the digital explosion of their art has had consequences both beneficial and detrimental. Although YouTube lets them monetise their content and become their own producers, comedians invariably worry more about the comments section below their videos. Here, audiences express amusement but also outrage. Among the laughter emojis, comics also find rage and vitriol. And they are devising safer ways of raising a laugh at a time when keywords cause more offence than puns.
The online hate also sometimes manifests in the real world. Some of the comics Frontline spoke to received violent threats after their phone numbers were leaked. They worried about their safety, but more importantly, about their families. In the green rooms of comedy clubs, the talk regularly veers to news about comics who were bullied, browbeaten, or arrested. The recent NewsClick raids saw the stand-up comedian Sanjay Rajoura questioned. As one comic said: “This is how they join the dots and show someone as guilty by association. It is their warning to others.”
After being forced to pull their punches, stand-up comics are trying hard to find punchlines that are not political or controversial. There are others, however, who are still using their wit to give feedback to the government. Such expressions of dissent are no longer commonplace, but that perhaps makes them all the more subversive. If art were boxing, these comedians are its counterpunchers.
The loneliness of Kunal Kamra
Kunal Kamra sold 750 tickets in early October “without even posting about it”. Testing his new material over five shows at The Habitat, a comedy club in Mumbai’s plush Khar suburb, Kamra warned aspirants against the career:“It isn’t comedy; it’s an adventure.” We Indians, Kamra said, “have a world record in getting our feelings hurt”. Kamra is no stranger to offence. He has seen several of his shows cancelled. He has received death threats. His Mumbai landlady once had him evicted. But even as Kamra lamented the shrinking of freedoms in India, he used his hour on stage to show he was still punching up. His mood in Khar was defiant. For him, no one seemed too sacred or unimpeachable. He had jokes on the Prime Minister, Yogi Adityanath, V.D. Savarkar, and Jay Shah.
The day after the final show, Kamra, 35, spoke to Frontline outside Mumbai’s Shivaji Park. Prone to resisting tags, Kamra refuses to see his humour as “courageous” or “brave”. He said: “I made one courageous call in my life. I quit my job and started doing comedy full-time in 2018. After that, whatever I have done was not courageous. I’ve only done what I thought was right.”
Fear, Kamra said, was today an “undercurrent” that flowed through the subconscious minds of all stand-up comics. “If you arrest someone or file a case against them, you don’t need to use additional force. The comedian will immediately do what is correct for them and their family.” Every comic, feels Kamra, needs to have their own philosophy, their own set of reasons why they do comedy, “but everybody also needs to set their own boundaries. We all need to decide what amount of backlash we are prepared to deal with. That’s always a choice.”
Unlike several of his colleagues who have cleansed their routines of political critique, Kamra continues to lampoon the BJP government and its policies. He mocks the powerful in his bid to embolden audiences. His humour reduces to ridicule much of what is otherwise frightening. “It might be entertaining to watch someone walk a tightrope with a stick in their hand, but I am not that person. I don’t want to distribute offence. I want to joke about things I can see clearly.”
“It might be entertaining to watch someone walk a tightrope with a stick in their hand, but I am not that person. I don’t want to distribute offence. I want to joke about things I can see clearly.”Kunal Kamra
In 2017, Kamra uploaded his first YouTube video, an eight-minute clip he titled “Patriotism & the Government”. Here, he joked about demonetisation, the stifling of student voices, and the unnecessary vilification of Pakistan. Despite the several violent threats he received, Kamra did not remove the video. It has been viewed more than 18 million times. “I was not tempted to take it down. Yes, there was pressure, but I was not feeling it. There was a famous saying about comedy when we were starting out: that it’s the art of telling the truth and not getting beaten up. Today, I think, comedy runs far from the truth. That’s one way of not getting beaten up.”
The day the mob came knocking
Kamra’s shows are not regular events. He told Frontline he had moved from Mumbai to Puducherry to try his hand at farming, but on stage, he said his decision to buy the 2 acres of farmland had more to do with the untenability of his career as a stand-up comedian. “I have such little hope from this country that I feel I have a better future in agriculture than in comedy.” Having been forced to settle for venues that double up as wedding banquet halls—“if you don’t have the correct venue, you don’t have the correct vibe”—Kamra made the most of The Habitat.
Balraj Ghai, The Habitat’s owner, believes that to some audiences, Kamra is a hero, “someone who stands up to the voice of authority”. Kamra’s agenda, said Ghai, is not to be “anti-establishment” without reason: “His is an agenda for better systems, better governance, better tools. He articulates a way of thinking for a younger generation.” Ghai believes those who buy tickets for Kamra’s shows know the kind of political material they are signing up for. “If the audience in the room is completely with you, you can perform any joke you want, but there is always the possibility that someone has come with a motive of using you to become famous himself.”
Ever since The Habitat opened in 2016, it has regularly been the target of bullying and mob outrage. “We have three to four incidents every year. It’s almost a normal thing,” said Ghai. “I don’t want my comedians to tiptoe if they don’t want to. I, of course, want them to feel confident, but if they are stepping into religious or political realms, their artistry will be tested on how craftily they can say what they want to without giving offence.”
Ghai’s caution is warranted. On July 7, 2020, The Habitat was vandalised by supporters of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). Taking offence to a video (which had been on YouTube for a year), a mob of 15 political activists entered the comedy club and demanded that the stand-up comic Agrima Joshua apologise for a joke she had made on the Shivaji statue in the Arabian Sea. “The mob came when the pandemic was at its peak. They uploaded a video of them damaging the stage and some furniture. They were using Agrima as an excuse.”
Joshua said that she had thought long and hard about what to include in her debut YouTube video. “I wanted to talk about something universal so that everybody was in on the joke. I did not want to be trolled for doing jokes about being a woman. Look how that worked out for me!” In the now-deleted video, Joshua repeated for her audience the highlights of an outlandish article she had read on Quora, a question-and-answer website.
“If comics are stepping into religious or political realms, their artistry will be tested on how craftily they can say what they want to without giving offence. ”Balraj GhaiOwner, The Habitat
One Quora user had boasted that Shivaji’s statue would have solar cells to power all of Maharashtra, while another had said it would shoot laser rays out of its eyes and kill Pakistani terrorists in the Arabian Sea. Calling it an “average, even mediocre joke,” Joshua said she first thought of it in 2017. “I recorded the joke in 2019, but by the time people took offence, it was 2020. The funny thing is I still get trolled for it.” In 2020, Joshua was threatened with rape and sexual assault on social media. “At that point of time, the threats did seem very real.”
In a video that political activists forced her to issue, Joshua is seen apologising to the Nationalist Congress Party, the Shiv Sena, the MNS, and the Congress. “The apology was not meant for my safety. It was meant to continue my humiliation. More hate came after the apology.” The Maha Vikas Aghadi was new to power, and the local politicians used her as a pawn to extract from the Shiv Sena an assurance that they had not given up on their Hindutva and Maratha roots. The controversy was not pleasant, but Joshua remembers the “flood of support” her fellow comics extended. “We may not be as united as we would like,” she said, “but in times of trouble, we stand up for each other.”
When jokes are your crime
As Joshua pointed out, she was not the only comedian targeted in 2020. “There were others who faced very real consequences: they were beaten up, they had things done to them.” Comedians were made to apologise for jokes that had suddenly been made controversial. When Munawar Faruqui posted a joke that referenced the popular hit song “Mera piya ghar aaya, O Ramji” with the punchline “Ramji don’t give a f**k about your beloved”, his joke was declared incendiary.
By January 1, 2021, Faruqui had deleted the video, but for those intent on disrupting his New Year’s Day set at Indore’s Monroe Café, his crime was unpardonable. Nalin Yadav recalled the events of that day. He had just left the stage, having opened for Faruqui, when five people entered the venue and started roughing up members of the audience. Led by Aklavya Laxman Singh Gaur, a member of the hard-line right-wing outfit Hindu Rakshak Sangathan and son of Indore’s former BJP Mayor, the mob, said Yadav, wanted the audience to turn against Faruqui. “But they were pumped up. They said they’d paid to see him. This angered them more. They beat up all of us, everyone except Munawar.”
The violence ebbed when the police arrived. “There were 200-250 people assembled outside,” said Yadav. “I felt the safest place for us was the police station.” But at 2 am they were told that FIRs had been lodged against them all. Arrested with Faruqui and three other associates, Yadav learnt of the charges only when they reached Indore Central Jail. Amongst other sections of the Indian Penal Code, Yadav was also booked under 295A (outraging religious feelings), 298 (deliberate intent to wound religious feelings), and 188 (disobedience). “I didn’t think things like this could happen to me. You finally lose your rose-tinted glasses when you are in jail. It shakes you to your roots.”
On Republic Day, Yadav performed for fellow jail inmates his routine on Indian weddings. “They all laughed.” What struck Yadav was the hypocrisy. “A Hindu preacher would come to the jail, and I could hear him mock other religions. The irony is this was precisely the offence we had been jailed for.” Faruqui spent 37 days in jail before the Supreme Court granted him bail on February 5, but Yadav’s ordeal lasted another 22 days.
“I don’t think artists get to decide when you stumble into a conversation or when you create a conversation. But I don’t think comedians are a threat to anybody or anything. I don’t think laughter is a threat.”Vir Das
Before his arrest, Yadav had been performing almost once a week for three to four years. As a producer, he was bringing star acts like Faruqui to Indore, but all that has dried up in the last few years. “Even as a comedian, my output is sporadic. It has been over a year since I performed live. People now introduce me as ‘the guy who went to jail with Munawar’. It is a tag. For people in Indore, I am a terrorist. I feel like I have lost my identity.”
Comedy, said Yadav, was his escape from the toxicity and negativity that surrounded him. “I am from Pithampur, an industrial town near Indore. Even if I avoid overtly political jokes, the stories I tell about my home town are all invariably political. What isn’t?” Yadav said he feels boycotted now. “Many rooms have not given me permission to perform. You might think reaching audiences will make you feel more understood, but what will you do if your channels are blocked? Who will you do it for?”
When Yadav started out in 2016, he built a stand-up culture in Indore by distributing pamphlets and free tickets. Sumit Mishra, 25, tried similar stuff in Bhopal. Like Yadav, he too organised a Munawar Faruqui show, which he had to cancel when the comedian was arrested. But he was himself harassed for a 2020 joke that referenced his father and Ram. “During lockdown, many families were watching Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan. We were, too, so when my father asked me to be more dutiful like Ramji, I turned around and told him that Ramji’s father would not ask his son to go buy him paan. The joke was about my father, but those outraging said I had mentioned their god in a joke, that I had taken god’s name.”
Local Hindutva activists found Mishra’s address and that of his friends. “I received threats and eventually deleted the video. I realised mental peace matters most. I stopped writing political sets, and I dropped all jokes that referenced religion. The trauma still lingers.” A downcast Mishra said: “We can’t joke about anything and everything. India doesn’t have that culture.”
The famous stand-up comic Vir Das tested the limits of India’s tolerance when he ended his November 2021 performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, by reciting his poem “I come from two Indias”: “I come from an India where we worship women during the day and gang-rape them at night.” The backlash was noisy and swift. Aditya Jha, a spokesperson of the BJP, filed a police complaint against Das and called for his immediate arrest. In January this year, the actor-comedian told NPR (National Public Radio): “I think I touched a chord with people, and I don’t think artists get to decide when you stumble into a conversation or when you create a conversation. But I don’t think comedians are a threat to anybody or anything. I don’t think laughter is a threat.”
- In a country where laughter has historically been a potent tool for societal critique, stand-up comedians in India are finding themselves at a crossroads.
- The burgeoning popularity of online platforms like YouTube has allowed these artists to reach wider audiences, but the digital realm has also become a battleground where comedy meets censorship.
- Threats, violence, and legal challenges are forcing comedians to reconsider their content, with some opting for safer subjects, while others defiantly use humor as a tool for dissent.
- The struggle to balance freedom of expression with personal safety is reshaping the landscape of India’s stand-up comedy scene.
The law against jokes
According to the stand-up comic Prashasti Singh, outrage engulfed comedy in three phases. In the first phase, people took offence mainly on social media. “They would outrage about something and make you apologise, but then came the phase of threats: people finding your address and coming to your house; mobs breaking down comedy spaces.” Then, in the third phase, comedians were jailed. “I think that day, we all took a step back. I have a family. There are things I care, worry and fear about.”
Currently touring the country with her set “Man of the House”, Singh said when she writes a show, her self-censorship feels intuitive. “Ten years ago, if joke ‘x’ would have caused offence, today even .01 per cent of ‘x’ can get you into trouble. When I write, the instinct is to not venture into certain zones. Earlier, comedy helped build bridges. It felt great when someone with a counter opinion laughed at your joke.” Today, said Singh, comics are mostly preaching to the converted. “If you were, for instance, wanting to comment on the education system, your joke would have to be so crafty that only those on your side would get it. There is no chance one can break through to the other side. It feels permanently blocked.”
Although she is from Amethi, Singh seldom singles out the Uttar Pradesh government in her jokes. “Everyone, even in movies and media, is doing a lot less of punching up these days. You certainly can’t do it freely.” Singh has also begun to get her online material vetted by a lawyer. “They tell me if the context of a joke can prove controversial.”
Kamra, too, uses a lawyer. “She has asked me to say what I like, assuring me we will find a way to defend it. This helps me feel free to say what I want. My lawyer is a great asset. I have no fear.” For comics like Joshua and Masoom Rajwani, however, the prospect of legal harassment has made them more mindful of the hate speech laws in India that can be used against them. Rajwani, 28, said: “Some laws in the country—those against hurting religious sentiments, for instance—can turn my joke into a crime or offence. The stakes are clear. Before saying something, I have to ask which do I respect more, the joke or the law? Is it worth fighting for? So, sometimes you stop at the level of thought itself.”
“Followings for stand-up comedy have grown massively. Comedy engages audiences of all ages; it’s not only some young person’s thing.”Bruce GuthrieHead of Theatre & Film, NCPA
In 2018, Rajwani performed some jokes an audience member alleged were objectionable. “I saw how the outrage cycle worked. Being at the receiving end made me think there was no end to the hate, but eventually, people moved on.” Rajwani said the targeting of his friends and colleagues sometimes forced him to avoid the news. “Every third day, I hear of someone I know getting into trouble or getting hate because of their political opinions. It is very upsetting to know these things are happening. It takes time to process.”
Between a rock and a hard place
Despite the attacks, stand-up comedy has grown resiliently. In Mumbai, for instance, stand-up comics are filling both small clubs and larger auditoriums. Ghai said The Habitat has tied up with venues such as the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) to make comedy available to audiences in a “much larger and longer format”. “The Big Show”, its six-month comedy festival, kicked off at the NCPA’s Experimental Theatre on October 15. Bruce Guthrie, head of theatre and film at the NCPA, said: “Followings for stand-up comedy have grown massively. Comedy engages audiences of all ages; it’s not only some young person’s thing.”
Part of The Habitat’s “all-star” line-up, Anirban Dasgupta started performing in 2012. He said he saves for the stage jokes that can be controversial but are worth saying. “I probably won’t put them online. We all make such calculations.” Live audiences, said Dasgupta, are more tolerant of political humour: “They know what they have signed up for. They don’t cause trouble.” In 2017, Dasgupta released a video where he joked about his upbringing in Kolkata and what children there think about Subhas Chandra Bose’s disappearance. “It didn’t matter what I was saying. They had found their keyword. Soon, everyone was angry, just because I had mentioned Netaji.”
According to Dasgupta, the outrage came from all sides. “Politicians across parties—the BJP, the Trinamool, everybody. The Left might not have the same outrage machinery the Right does, but they follow the same pattern. Your number is leaked, and people start making threatening calls.” Dasgupta’s mother, a firebrand educationist in Kolkata, thought the phone threats were meant for her. Whichever party is in power, said Dasgupta, invariably cracks down on comedy. “I feel dejected about the government, but I also don’t have hopes from others. Comics aren’t pro-establishment.”
In 2018, Dasgupta came back swinging. He pegged his Amazon Prime special Take it Easy on offence-taking, online bullying, and freedom of speech. At that time, OTT platforms expected comics only to deliver content, “but now they scrutinise our material more. They ask us to stay away from politics. Having gotten into trouble in the past, they don’t want to take risks.”
In times of peril, Dasgupta is reminded of something fellow comic Varun Grover once said: “The worst time to do comedy is also the best time to do it.” In September, Dasgupta saw Grover perform “Nothing Makes Sense” in Mumbai, a set he toured the country with. Grover’s jokes on cheetahs, the G20 Summit, and Chandrayaan-3 mocked the ambitions of Prime Minister Modi, but he also took off on liberals being “stuck in two or three forms of easy protest”. Our hate, Grover said, was inherited. The fault is in our politicians but also in ourselves. Dasgupta said: “Very few people do such shows now. Political comedy is dwindling. Seeing Grover made me want to do better.”
Punching up with a fractured hand
On January 14, 2017, the PMO’s official X handle quoted the Prime Minister as saying: “I think we need more satire and humour. Humour brings happiness in our lives. Humour is the best healer.” The actions of his party colleagues and affiliates suggest that Modi’s faith in humour is neither a mandate nor party policy. When on stage at The Habitat, Kamra narrated a story of how 50-odd Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal activists once protested against his show in a Bengaluru police station. “I offered to go there and find a middle ground. They would have tried to make me a little more Hindu, while I’d have tried to make them a little more human.”
In recent times, the Modi government has also tried curbing dissent through legislation. According to Kamra, the amended Information Technology rules will curtail his “ability to engage in political satire”. By giving its fact-check unit the power to remove content it considers “fake, false and misleading”, the government, believes Kamra, is leaving comics vulnerable to “arbitrary and subjective” interventions. “The government wants full monopoly on social media and that puts us in a terrible situation. I petitioned the Bombay High Court, but even if we win, the government will change the jacket and pass a law that wears the same vest.”
With the odds stacked against them, comics are looking for other sources of revenue—Nalin Yadav works as a content creator and Agrima Joshua is pursuing a career in advertising—but none of them is prepared to give up on comedy. “Comedy made me feel I was doing justice to my life. I never wanted to give it up. Besides, you can go to jail even if you are a journalist or Shah Rukh Khan’s son,” said Yadav. Joshua said few highs compare to getting a laugh for your joke: “I love that people sometimes laugh in spite of themselves. I could never get better feedback.”
While Kamra acknowledged the need to be true to oneself—“comedy is an extension of your personality”—he also prescribed self-preservation: “If you have a family and you are trying to sustain yourself through comedy, you must be very careful. You have to make sure you have a sustainable career.” In a world where jokes are often taken to be speech, Kamra advises a Gandhian approach: “Non-violence comes before truth. If what I say hurts someone in a violent way, I must not practise such speech. We all need to have principles we can justify and abide by.”