Comedians struggle with the dying state of speech freedom in India
A comedian walks into a bar and tells a joke.
An audience member heckles.
The comedian ignores it and tell another joke.
The audience member heckles again.
They start sensing that things might go sideways.
Someone accuses them of something. The accusation is either political, ideological or personal.
They fumble. There’s a pause, too long a pause for the punchline to work. Nerves left to the entropy of chaos.
Someone throws a glass bottle at them, which hits the wall and shatters loudly. All this happened in a few seconds.
They are shaken. In their line of work, they know this is to be expected but sometimes awareness isn’t enough.
More people join in. A lot more heckles, a lot more aggression, a lot more noise.
They exit the café abandoning the joke at the midpoint.
As they walk out, they are held at gunpoint and threatened to never joke about that particular topic again.
They reach home humiliated, scared and cower at the thought of going back there again. Some never do. Some go to a different place. Some stop joking.
These are all real events that have happened to Indian comedians while doing open mics across the country.
Alan Moore, starts his revolutionary graphic novel Watchmen with a single question: Who killed the Comedian?
Of course, the comedian in Watchmen is not an individual who tells jokes in a comedy club, it’s a superhero. But with the continuing descent of freedom of speech in India and ascent in hypersensitivity and oblivious rage among people, an Indian comic sometimes resembles the dying vigilante in Watchmen.
A Bangalore perspective
Bangalore is one of the most prominent places in India to do stand-up. Unlike most places doing comedy in India, in Bangalore, no one knows everyone. At every mic, you meet a new person. If you fancy what they do, you go talk to them and discover that they’ve been doing stand-up in this city for two years. Most mics start somewhere between 8 and 8:30 at night. Comics struggle to beat the traffic as they try to arrive on time. By the time the mic ends, most shops are closed. The roads are empty and if you’re without money, you crash at a friend’s place or walk home. Some comics live together and walk home together.
It’s like the traffic of the city dictates the night of the comic. When the traffic is busy, comics are rushing from café to café doing spots. When their spots end, so does the traffic and the comic goes home alone. The mics dictate the route back home. The route feels longer if the night went bad. The city dictates the comic and the comics dictate nothing.
Punchlime Productions, a comedy club in Bangalore, offers no restrictions to comics as far as their material is concerned. “Comedians don’t write jokes to offend anyone, they write jokes to get a laugh. Now a lot of times, a new joke is raw and unstructured so it might sound more offensive than funny but if given enough time, it’ll turn into a good joke,” said Samarpan Bose, the founder of Punchlime Productions.
Bose also believes that restricting comics from delving into certain areas is inherently against the freedom of expression. “Open mics are testing field for comics, that’s where comics come to fail. So, there are going to be times when a joke doesn’t work and comes across as offensive,” added Bose.
Suno Bey, a popular Bangalore comedy club, leaves the responsibility of a joke to the comic who tells it. “We don’t have restrictions, but they are responsible for their content. We will not be liable if their words hurt anyone. They will have to bear the consequences.”
Orange Comedy Club, on the other hand, said that even though they would love for comedians to let their hearts out, they will have to abide by certain restrictions that are imposed by the venue. “We do not censor any comedian’s material beforehand; we just request the comedians to be mindful of the audience’s threshold and tread carefully,” said Shoaib Salarjung, representing Orange Comedy Club.
Interactions with hecklers
The vilification of Indian stand-up comedians for their jokes by raging mobs has been a case that runs on a loop. Since 2014, there has been some comic or another getting trolled for things they said in their stand-up video. But the open mics, in most cities, has always been a place for free thought. Now however, comedy venues are being attacked and vandalised. Mumbai’s The Habitat comes to mind.
But these are cases that became big, possibly because of a comedian’s established presence on YouTube. What about smaller shows that aren’t on the radar of the national media?
Samarpan Bose mentioned a particular incident where an audience member threw a beer glass at a comic for cracking a paedophile joke. The folks at Orange Comedy Club talked about another incident where a middle-aged audience member negatively affected the mood of the show because they were uncomfortable listening to profane language as there were young women present in the audience.
“A comic made a joke on how people don’t try to understand disabled people, and one audience got offended and kept on showing the middle finger because she believed he couldn’t make such jokes since he was able-bodied,” said Ruby, representing the comedy collective, Witches of Comedy.
So, an audience member can derail the entire course of a show and do more depending on if they turn violent. What do a lot of small comedy clubs do then? Too much havoc can end up in them losing the venue, which would be bad for the club’s business and for the comics who associate with the club. Is self-censorship a viable option?
“No, self-censorship is the death of an artist. Restrictions only make an artist more creative. It’ll force you to get your point across while avoiding unwanted attention,” said Bose.
Folks at Orange Comedy Club sadly have had to censor their material. “Yes, we have censored a lot of our material because some comedian was harassed for speaking on a dicey topic.”
“People don’t like it when you make jokes on their beliefs and opinions but it’s important to understand that comics have their own beliefs and should be allowed to speak without any fear of judgement or jail,” said Ruby.
The digital scene
The digital scene has a massive influence over a comic’s career in India. Now, more than ever, as ever since the pandemic, open mics were held on zoom where a comic in Delhi could do a mic in Chennai. When a comic has a video with a million hits, it adds a certain gravity to them. They get more shows, more people find them familiar and they graduate to a higher level in the existing hierarchy of comedians here. But the increasing number of comedians who got into trouble with the government also mainly comes from one thing: the existence of a YouTube video.
Harshit Wadhwani tells jokes and raps rhymes. He goes to open mics to try his jokes out and later; he works on his album. The idea of a viral video on YouTube has changed quite a lot. You can now market your way into a viral video by paying one or two lakhs to YouTube for a wider circulation of your video.
“I am willing to do it. I have some money saved. If it gets me to show my work to people, I do not think of it as a bad investment,” said Harshit.
But the Indian comedy industry, unlike in the US or the UK, is just over a decade old and is still in its infancy. There are no late-night or big comedy festivals for comics to flex their funny muscles. The digital scene was at its forefront when it comes to popularity and YouTube had found a way to democratize the market.
But now, the industry has reached a point where comedians don’t need a viral video to sustain their career. They don’t need to chase fame to be able to do what they do and earn money.
“Indian comedians in a way are entitled to success.The Indian comedy scene is so new that everyone who is doing stand-up now is going to make it,” said Bose.
Since it’s a new scene, the biggest comics here have only been doing stand-up for 10-12 years which is very different from more established industries, the US for example, where a comedian’s career starts when they complete 10 years.
“YouTube and the digital scene have opened up a lot of audience demographics and content variations, we also feel that stand-up comedy, which is very much an art form where live performance is key, has seen some bruises to its entirety,” said an Orange Comedy Club representative.
Suno Bey doesn’t believe that a stand-up comic should rely on YouTube since they have different payment policies for different countries. “A stand-up comic cannot make a living out of YouTube. It’s not easy.”
Many comedians have made a career without having a YouTube video. Sonali Thakker, for example, is one of the prominent names in Indian stand-up and she doesn’t have a video to her name.
“Anyone who thinks they can make a living out of only doing comedy is being delusional. Stand up is an art form. First, focus on getting better at your craft,” said Bose.
Bose also believes that comics should be realistic with their goals. To treat viral comics as exceptions and not the norm.
“It took Bill Burr roughly 14 years to get famous and he’s one of the best in the game right now. If you’re choosing the life of an artist, then be prepared for the hardships too. For every famous comic in India, I can name 10 comics that aren’t famous but are just as good if not better,” added Bose.
The context of India’s current political climate
The political climate of a country, in many ways, dictates the artists there. Art is often a reaction to an event that has its roots in politics. Kunal Kamra and Varun Grover are known to portray their activism through their stand-up. Kamra, in particular, has also been put under a lot of controversy for the things he says on a comedy stage.
Does the current government have anything to do with the curbing of freedom of speech in this country?
“Idi Amin, former president of Uganda, said: There is freedom of speech, but I cannot guarantee freedom after speech” during his presidency. That quote encapsulates India’s current political climate. Anything you say against India or its ruling party immediately makes you anti-national. Comedians have gotten into a lot of trouble because of their political and religious views,” said Bose.
“The fringe elements associated with the political outfits are a major threat to the freedom of speech in stand-up comedy. It would be unfair to point just at the current regime because the previous governments too had their fair share of instances where freedom of speech was curbed not just in stand-up comedy but other art forms as well,” said Shoaib Salarjug, representative of Orange Comedy Club.
“You can and should make jokes on the ruling government for one simple reason. They’re at a position of power,” said a representative of Witches of Comedy.
Sexism in the comedy industry
Despite progressive thoughts and a largely liberal attitude, the comedy industry, like most industries in India, has fallen prey to sexism.
“When there are misogynists in the audience, and they see a confident empowered woman doing jokes on feminism, patriarchy or how things work in our society, they don’t like it. They get offended. Such people don’t want to see women in comedy. Some people just look down on women and don’t want to watch them speaking up,” said Ruby.
She further mentioned how it’s a lot more easier for a male comic to get away with a sex joke compared to a female comic.
“In comedy, we see a lot of male comics and very few female comics. And there are a lot of reasons behind this. Female comics don’t get the emotional support that male comics get from one another. In a lot of rooms, there will be only one woman on the line up or none,” added Ruby.
She believes that both comics and audience members need to be more open and supportive towards women in comedy.
“If women want to joke about periods, they should be able to without the audience or other comics cribbing about it. We don’t tell men to not do jokes on masturbation,” said a representative of Witches of Comedy.
Parallels between 1960s America and 2010s India
Stand-Up comedy in the US, has come a long way from what it used to be. The artform had a chance to evolve gradually over decades. Starting from days in Vaudeville Theater in the 1920s for a quick buck to now comedians doing Netflix specials and earning millions.
Kliph Nesteroff in his book The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the history of American comedy, mentions: An obstacle always seemed to lie in the way of achievement. Opium habits and corrupt managers plagued the vaudeville comedian’s life. Nightclub curfews, conscription, anti-Semitism and mankind’s impending doom hampered comics during World War II. In the 1950s there were comedians arrested for ‘lewd and obscene’ material. In the late 1960s, there were comedians listed as enemies of the state for their political opinions. No matter who you were or to which generation you belonged—you had to pay your dues.
So, the comic always faced trouble, be it within themselves or from a third party. But the evolution of American comedy was gradual; it was organic. In India, however, because of the internet and accessibility to American pop culture, it took us a few years to try doing what the American comedy industry had spent decades at.
Through the internet, we found a phantom doorway, an artistic wormhole, and we went through it. But an audience doesn’t leap, it walks. It needs time to gradually get used to things; to understand them better. So now, at the start of the third decade in the new millennium, the Indian crowd is, quite understandably, still getting used to it. With Indian politics leaning right since 2014, the path for stand up, a very liberal form of expression, is difficult.
Lenny Bruce ran 1960s Americana comedy. At that point, stand-up in the US was taking a new shape. People stopped writing for others and lifting jokes became a sin. Writing original material was becoming the proper way of doing things. Lenny Bruce was one of the comics who was at the forefront of this paradigm shift.
In fact, in the 1950s, he’s quoted saying,” If he’s a chap who needs writers, he’s not a comedian. He’s an actor—whom I respect as a craftsman.” But originality isn’t always welcomed with open arms, especially by a society that is set in its ways. The material of Lenny Bruce’s was deemed too vulgar and by the 1960s, he was dubbed as ‘the most shocking comedian’. There were multiple lawsuits charged against Mr. Bruce.
The sixties in America were the age of the hippies, and Lenny Bruce’s act was the hippiest of them all and he paid a hefty price for it. Riddled with lawsuits, Lenny Bruce died defending himself.
The Indian comedy scene in the early 2010s paints a similar picture. In 2014, All India Bakchod (AIB) hosted the now infamous AIB Roast that had an audience of very prominent faces of the Hindi film industry. AIB was charged with obscenity lawsuits and FIRs were filed against the individual members. Tanmay Bhat, one of the founders of AIB, later found himself caught up in a Snapchat debacle where he was filed with another FIR.
Munawar Faruqui is the latest to join the list of stand-up comedians who have gotten in trouble for telling jokes that hurt religious sentiments. In 2020, Agrima Joshua received death and rape threats for making a joke on the upcoming statue of Chattrapati Shivaji.
Freedom of Speech – A legal perspective
Freedom of speech is defined in the constitution of India itself. Under Article 19, freedom of speech is very specifically defined. It also has a few limitations, in the sense that you can’t defame someone, you can’t use it as libel or slander and you can’t use it to incite violence or riots.
“At the same time, defense is something that is a big part of the institution because, even in the Supreme Court when a judgement is given, if there are three people who are giving a confirming verdict and one person isn’t happy with it, the former three will write a confirming judgement and the latter one will write a defense judgement saying how they find the verdict to be incorrect and why they are voting against it,” said Rajvi Dedhia, LLB.
Ms. Dedhia also thinks that freedom of speech has always been there and at the same time, so has censorship. That people will always fight for censorship and the government will always fight to shut people up.
“Earlier there was not much awareness about this issue. It happened on a small scale and no one was interested. After a couple of days, that person would get bail or the cases would be withdrawn or they would go in for a year. Finally, if they’ve done something worse then they’d receive punishment,” said Dedhia.
Otherwise, the cases would be held and be dismissed or they would be given a verdict of innocence.
According to the law, a comic can make a joke that is allegedly deemed as offensive, as long as it’s not insulting someone or something.
“You can’t say that this person is a thief without using the word “allegedly”. You can’t just call someone a thief without adding any proof or evidence to back it up. Then it becomes a false statement which becomes a defamatory statement,” said Dedhia.
Even if one is using it in a joke, the law is very strict in the sense that one can’t just say things that will automatically offend people’s religious practices.
But what if a comic writes a joke about an offensive thing that a particular religion has done? The joke is offensive but it’s not offending the religion, it’s offending the act. Many comedians have gotten into trouble for this as well.
“See, the comic getting into trouble is where the news stopped covering it. Somebody gets arrested, their anticipatory bail gets denied or their bail gets annulled, and then the news coverage ends. After that, what happens is also needed to be covered. If the comic stays in jail for a few days when their bail is denied; they have the right to go all the way up to the Supreme Court to get their bail,” said Dedhia.
Ms. Dedhia said that for charges like this, the supreme court almost always gives bail. Then they give one a very high bail bond where one has to pay a huge amount or one might be restricted from travelling abroad while the case continues. One might also be harassed in some other way but the law cannot extensively hold people in for an offence that does not include a lot of criminal felonies.
Time-consumption is a relativistic idea. For certain cases, things take more time than others. Many such cases that should be dealt with in a month at most, end up taking a lot more time.
“Of course, in recent years it’s been taking too long. Especially when political parties are involved. The law is not perfect, it is executed and managed by people who have a lot of power in their hands. If they decide to misuse that power, there is nothing you can do as an individual,” said Dedhia.
India is a democracy where people elect a political party to power. If people find what the elected government is doing is wrong, they can vote them out in the next election. That is the only way out in a democracy. As a single person in a democracy, the power in one’s hands is very small.
“I know a lot of comics who now get an anticipatory bail before their show starts. They do this because they suspect they might get arrested. This is what the process is and people have abused it. It isn’t like the comics don’t have an out, it just takes a while,” said Dedhia.
The legal way to get out of trouble
First, they have to go to Sessions Court for bail. If the sessions court denies their bail, they can choose an anticipatory bail.
Second, then they go to the High Court. There’s a chance the HC might reject it.
Finally, then they go to the Supreme Court That is their last option. Things will take longer in the Supreme court. The person has no other choice but to wait.
But no matter how long it takes, if one is honest, they will get their bail eventually.
“This is the way that the system works and it can also very easily be abused. Especially if there’s a political influence or if there’s money involved,” added Dedhia.
This country is living inside a bell-glass, oblivious to what’s happening in most of the rest of the world. Despite this, comedians are going up on stage looking for giggles. They hustle for chuckles on unknown faces.
Jerry Seinfeld says stand-up comedy is about failing 97 percent of the time. Cities sleep as these insomniacs develop their craft. Most citizens haven’t truly taken notice yet. Until they do, these players shall continue to dance their dance, like the shadowy figures at the end of Bergman’s Seventh Seal and work towards breaking the chain, discreetly.