Stand-up comedy thrives on confession, but Muslim comics bring to the stage a candour and perspective that often sets them apart. With jokes that hover around the intersections of humour and identity, they talk about how they are regularly stereotyped and made victims of misconception. Their sets include references to the clichés that fashion how Muslims in India are perceived—terrorism, biryani, circumcision—but every once in a while, they drag out from under the carpet issues like riots and discrimination that impact the community even more adversely. Their comedy, however, comes at a price. These stand-up artists constantly worry about repercussions and persecution.
Adel Rahman told Frontline that being Muslim is “part of the act”. Audiences, he said, know he is Muslim the minute his name is announced. “How you look and talk, where are you from—all this becomes part of your routine. Comics talk about their experiences, so, yes, being a Muslim is part of everything.”
In January 2021, Munawar Faruqui was jailed in Indore for a joke in which he supposedly referenced a Hindu deity, but according to Rahman: “Anyone can go to jail. It doesn’t matter if you are Hindu or Muslim. Filing an FIR is so easy, and we have a right-wing government. They obviously prefer outrage to free speech. Performing political material is always risky, and Muslims cannot joke about India’s majority religion.”
In the video “Mulla, Modi, Muslim & Kunal Kamra”, Rahman is unfettered. Alongside jokes that refer to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the comedian Kunal Kamra, Rahman talks about insults that are commonly directed at Muslims—katua, mulla, and so on: “If you want to become a ‘mulla’ in India, just write something against Modi on social media,” he quips. Alluding to Islamic polygyny, Rahman laughs about how Muslims are accused of having too many children. Having tackled discrimination and communalism in his shows, the comic said he was frequently trolled. “Go to Pakistan” was a comment he heard repeatedly after his clip “U-Turn in Gurgaon” went viral. The threats he gets have forced him to change his material. “I don’t have enough mental bandwidth to fight the police and the government,” he said.
Staying away from religion
The Mumbai-based stand-up comedian Mohammed Hussain found it difficult to find rented accommodation in the city. “Every broker wanted to first know my name. They showed me houses accordingly.” On one occasion, a broker mistakenly showed Hussain a flat in a Hindu neighbourhood. He was told: “Only our people can live here!” Although he did not protest at the time, Hussain said: “I will use that bit in my comedy when I feel safe enough.”
Besides the 37 days Faruqui spent in Indore Central Jail, Hussain also became fearful when he saw comics like Kamra being forced to cancel shows because of their political material. “I now never joke about religion. That is why Kamra is still alive. He jokes about politics, not religion. I was once asked to enact the Lakshman rekha in a play because I was such a bad actor, but I cannot joke about this in a set because I am Muslim.”
Even though Hussain avoids material that could potentially be controversial, jokes about his Muslim identity, he said, are integral to his content: “A lot of my comedy is attached to my Muslim identity. Initially, I would try to not be the ‘Muslim comic’. I’d joke about other things, but I had to finally accept that comedy is about being able to voice one’s opinions in a fun way. I stopped running away from who I am. I am Muslim, so I will talk about the things that bother me.” For Hussain, stand-up comedy involves a give and take. He said he provides audiences humour in order to gain their attention. “I want to use that attention to be able to say what I want, but, yes, I admit there are some jokes that I am too scared to publish online.”
- With jokes that hover around the intersections of humour and identity, they talk about how they are regularly stereotyped and made victims of misconception.
- Having tackled discrimination and communalism in their shows, Muslim comics are frequently trolled. “Go to Pakistan” is a comment they frequently hear.
- Even though they avoid material that could potentially be controversial, Muslim comics say jokes about their religious identity are integral to their content.
- If you are a Muslim stand-up comedian in India, you become used to looking before you leap.
Safety before free speech
Compared with the Internet, live shows afford more freedom, said the stand-up comic Md. Anas. According to him, fame is a double-edged sword: “Once you become a public figure, you start worrying about career, family, personal relations, and so on. This makes some censorship necessary, but things get trickier if you belong to a religious minority. Thanks to draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, there is always a danger that what you say might land you in trouble. I think I would want to pass on jail time.”
Anas spoke of a time when the online abuse against him grew particularly vicious. “When violence erupted at Jamia Millia Islamia towards the end of 2019, I remember sharing on my social media a personal story of love and peace. Suddenly, the comments and messages I received were all filled with hate. The slurs were mostly about me being Muslim.” Anas believes there is a common pattern to cyberbullying. Troll armies, he said, hunt in packs.
“People degrade Islam every day with the religious memes they post on social media, but they all get away with it.”Md. Anas
Although Anas’ family prizes freedom of speech, they also worry about his safety. Anas told Frontline: “When I started out, I would only joke about politics and religious identity, but I slowly started exploring more topics. I still include political jokes in my routine, but I try to make them as funny as possible. Muslim comics are today at risk because of how polarised our society has become. My family constantly asks me not to ruffle any feathers.” Anas, though, is struck by how hypocritical the online space is: “People degrade Islam every day with the religious memes they post on social media, but they all get away with it.”
Over the years, the stand-up comic Zakir Khan has become a household name. Recently, when asked whether he would tackle political issues in his comedy, Khan said: “I cannot jeopardise my career for your personal pleasure.” His reluctance seems justified. If you are a Muslim stand-up comedian in India, you become used to looking before you leap.