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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Caste-less comedy: Time to lift curtains

Kunal Kamra, Suraj Yengde write: It is about time comedy gets caste on board because it is the original humour that we can collectively fight and riot over.

Written by Kunal Kamra , Suraj Yengde |
Updated: December 26, 2021 9:42:15 am
Lately, a few younger comedians have brought the content of caste into their performances. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Comedy and caste are perhaps two friends who have never met. They don’t know how much they are missing each other. If comedy meets caste, they can make content of the highest quality. Think about it. What is funnier than an arbitrary system that differentiates one from the other merely by their last name. A billion-and-a-half people keep hunting for people’s last names like Indiana Jones does treasure, so they can find out how much of a ‘worthless’ person I am than the other.

Caste is comedy. However, its experiences are not. Any reasonable person will revolt against it. Unlike the visible physical features that race distinguishes, caste doesn’t offer that stark difference. Yet, we are so innovative that we have invented mechanisms to part our ways and keep disturbing the unity of society because of caste. Caste is everywhere. We need to be an observer. We cannot be obtuse when we talk about caste. When we go to a restaurant, we can see the person sitting at the counter has a different social capital than the person taking orders. Similarly, the waiter’s social capital is different from that of the one wiping the tables or mopping the floor or cleaning utensils in the kitchen. This is because of the caste differences that endow birth-based professional hierarchy.

There are so many issues that liberal, middle-class India can get upset about, but when it comes to caste, they have comfortably skirted the issues in order to protect their privilege. This is an outcome of unpaid labour. It’s a problem of unequal distribution of wealth. We justify our position as an outcome of “merit”, immediately discarding millennia-old privileges that have produced an accepted caste atrocity.

What can comedy do to engage with caste? Comedians are representative of a class and caste who mollycoddle the audience of the same last names. When a comedian performs, even if they feel like taking up an issue, they fail to do so. The nature of stand-up comedy is urban-centric mainly, and these are the topics that the audience comes to hear. The audience wants to hear about the Uber driver issue, the potholes, the exhausting traffic, our politicians, the mall, Netflix, etc.

There is a slight discomfort among the comedians to slip in a joke about something that would upset their set genre of “last name” audience.

We have comedians from diverse genders, sexuality, religion taking on the issues of their concern. The two major themes that go well are gender and secularism. Comedians hark on the established narrative without attempting to create something anew. What will it take for caste to become a narrative that we will commit to, in order to abolish it?

The creators have to find ways to communicate a topic that is ubiquitous to the audience, that everybody can feel, but nobody wants to acknowledge. It is like a fart released during pooja at a relative’s house.

Isn’t it ironic that our influences and culture get shaped by the world around us? In America and elsewhere, black comedy is a theme. It has made a massive mark on the stage. We also laugh at their jokes and admire their commitment. We might even tweet #BlackLivesMatter, but that’s where we leave it. Black comedy is possible mainly because of a vibrant black business community, black bars, black clubs, and a market that is run by black people. When Black Americans got TV in their house, Bill Cosby had to appear on their screen. In India, too, the industry is market-oriented. If a stand-up show goes to small towns, the comedians will be forced to bring that experience into perspective.

The market is not secular in India. That is why it needs to be made aware of our immense diversity. India needs consumers who are paying to watch content that is unrepresentative of them.

We can make jokes about topics that we have personally experienced. If we are to speak about caste to an audience that is majorly married within their gotra, then they would not appreciate the joke. However, if comedy surrounds the topic of caste and its abolition, we can make a case without indulging into self-aggrandisement. A caste joke need not begin with Dalits and end with them. Caste is a Brahmin; it is a Baniya, a Shudra. If one spends time with one’s family, they will pick up ample content in this discipline.

Lately, a few younger comedians have brought the content of caste into their performances. They have done it in a way that the message was sent, and nobody broke their heads. We can now scratch the surface and be original entertainers without plagiarising or borrowing the untended content.

It is about time comedy gets caste on board because it is the original humour that we can collectively fight and riot over.

Comedy has a responsibility. It is a demonstrative medium that doesn’t relegate the audience into invisible, insignificant entities. The audience is part of the act as much as the comedian delivering their content.

If stand-up comedy and the entertainment industry, in general, has to prolong its identity, it has to integrate and educate. A workshop of ideas integrating our history with artists and the anti-caste academic sphere can be a good start. The entertainment industry can support a festival of anti-caste. We need to create platforms and spaces for comedians from Dalit backgrounds to take the stage. As a start, whosoever has a space and a dedicated audience needs to start an unapologetic conversation about caste.

If we all laugh at caste, we are laughing at bigotry, misogyny, patriarchy, sexism. Why not begin with laughter as a new armament in the arsenal of anti-caste protest?

Kunal Kamra is a comedian based in Mumbai Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column

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