A few months ago at an airport, an old gentleman walked up to me and said, “Beta aap ki problem kya hai? Aap kyun prime minister ka mazaak udaate ho Twitter pe?” To which I responded with that old standard line: “Uncle, main toh joke maarta hu, stand-up comedian hu”. What he asked me next left me confused and irritated but also made me laugh: “Ghar pe sab theek hai? Agar haan, toh problem kya hai?”
The India we live in, this 2018 version that just celebrated its 69th Republic Day, can be summed up in that one line: “Ghar pe sab theek hai toh problem kya hai?” As people struggle to find a roof, two meals a day, health facilities and education, airport uncle suggests I stop cribbing because “mere ghar pe sab theek hai”. How do I explain to those countless people the role of comedy — to question those in power, albeit wrapped in a layer of laughter? How do I stress the need for comedy at a time when the fringe is mainstream and when dinner time conversations are peppered with politics? There’s a cost to pay for those stand-up acts. But before I come to that, let’s take a tour inside the mind of a stand-up comedian on stage.
Comedy is a unique perspective on something you’ve already experienced. When a comedian talks about it, it’s funny because it’s relatable. That’s how we start: A joke about the most obvious “Punjabi wedding”. Loud cheers, every time, everywhere. Crack a similar joke on “boarding a plane”, “going on a Tinder date”. More hurrahs, you’ve got the audience on your side. And then you throw an opinion on “tax money being spent on a statue in the sea” or how “marital rape should obviously be criminalised”. They’re still with you — most of them at least.
Warmed up, you finally give the audience something they wouldn’t agree with — that’s when it gets exciting, purposeful, with the intention of drawing laughs from an audience that otherwise wouldn’t agree with you. Talk about how politicians use the name of the Indian army for votes, the two lord Rams (Mahatma Gandhi’s and the one we are fighting for now), demonetisation and GST, and then throw in some Reliance.
Well, a few laughs and hecklers later, you go home after the show, open social media, find a meme about you with a caption “Congress ka Kutta”. You, my friend, are no longer a comedian. You are now an opinion-maker, a person many love to hate.
Being a political comedian in India comes with a lot of baggage. One viral video later, everyone starts guessing which bracket you fall in: Commie, Paki sympathiser, Congress employee, part of the tukde tukde gang? Who are you, they wonder? Often, you ask yourself the same question. Over time, you learn to deal with social media slander, the hatred, the memes, the personal attacks. But nothing prepares you for the real, non-virtual consequences.
Once people realise you are funny, some work comes your way — a corporate show or two, a few gigs, even offers to perform at weddings. Over cups of coffee, your set is ready, confidence peeking, ego kicking, and then comes a call. “Sorry, we’ll have to cancel this one because our CEO is a big fan of the PM and he doesn’t want political jokes.” You protest, you are adamant because you asked that question when the offer first came; a disclaimer was given about the brand of comedy; you had refused another gig for this one; you had decided where you’re going to spend the money.
A day before you are set to perform at a news conclave — in a room full of journalists — a member of a political party suddenly confirms his presence. And just like that, you are bumped off. That call comes again: “We don’t want to risk it, our guests are powerful (you mean, unfunny) people, who we can’t piss off. Comedy session cancelled.” It’s a lie. The session goes as planned with a different comic. You’ve seen the photos on social media. It’s all politics, but not really.
You find hope in brands that commission you work; they tell you how much they relate to your comedy; and when the work is submitted comes that all-too familiar call. You are politely told that “affiliations with these radical, activist types can land us in trouble… you know how much people nitpick naa.” You get replaced, again.
People distance themselves from you, “known faces” who send you messages about how much they love your work refuse to acknowledge you in public. In the age of Instagram posts and tweets and Facebook updates, you don’t figure as often as you think you will. Your own contemporaries don’t come out to support you as associating with a “foul-mouthed” political comedian is going to lose them fans. I don’t blame them, I blame the person who has enforced fear in them.
Interview excerpts in newspapers are mostly edited, steering clear from the political. A fake work inquiry online triggers panic — someone takes your number on the pretext of work and then abuses you for mocking the PM, for questioning demonetisation, for being a political bait, even a dalla (agent/middleman). The joke is suddenly on you because this person is threatening to leak your number. You cocky comedian, you think you’re funny, smart, political and climbing the success ladder. An international tour is on its way already but that’s daydreaming, my friend. “Sir, NRI logo ko desh ke baare mein acha sunn na hai, nostalgia feel bhi chahiye…aap politics mat lao, unko pata hi nahi hai desh mein chal kya raha hai,” says the man on the other side of the phone call.
While there’s much to gain, there’s also some to lose. And in the middle of all this chaos, when you’re dealing with an existential crisis, unable to cope with the plethora of news that can turn into a comedy set, realising trolls hate you more than Karni Sena — the bank messages you for the 9000th time asking if you’ve linked your Aadhaar Card. Chose wisely about the comedian you want to become. I, for one, find the trolling hilarious, so I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. And, I hope aapke ghar pe sab theek hai.