Take stock of crowd, steer clear of religion: Comedians’ guide to staying out of trouble

Amid rising communal hostility and intolerance perpetrated by at least a fraction of people, many comedians are opting for self-censorship to avoid controversies, and for the sake of their lives.
Representation pic of a stand up comedian
Representation pic of a stand up comedian
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If the rightwingers of Telangana have their way, they would establish that a standup comedian, Munawar Faruqui, is the root cause of the communal tension that shook Hyderabad just a week ago. They would have you believe that the most natural response to Munawar’s show Dongri to Nowhere, performed in Hyderabad on August 20 despite threats from the BJP and other rightwing groups, was what MLA Raja Singh went on to do — upload a YouTube video making inflammatory and derogatory comments against Islam and Prophet Mohammad.

Not surprisingly, standup comedians across the country are feeling the heat. Amid rising communal hostility and intolerance perpetrated by at least a fraction of people, many comedians are opting for self-censorship to avoid controversies, and for the sake of their lives. 

Though Hyderabad’s circle of comedians is rather small, the city’s standup scene is alive and kicking, with the help of the shows and open mics platformed by outlets such as the Garage Moto Cafe, Sacred Earth, The Alley Drive-in, Comic Social and Aaromale among others. Bhavneet, who has been doing standup comedy in the city since 2014, says that there has definitely been a rise in the amount of self-censorship happening in standup comedy circles, while they are preparing their sets. “There has been a change in the political landscape. Depending on that, we have had to censor our content also,” he tells TNM.

In fact, even Munawar had become a controversial figure only after his arrest in January 2021 by the Indore police, based on an FIR that was filed before he staged his show. The Indore police had claimed that the rehearsals indicated Munawar would “hurt religious sentiments”. The Supreme Court granted him bail in February 2021, calling the FIR ‘vague’. Ever since, several of his shows have been cancelled in many states over law and order issues — most of them allegedly because he had hurt ‘Hindu sentiments’ by making jokes on mythological figures, Ram and Sita.

Sravanthi Basa, a standup comedian who had been working on a new set about the Mahabharata and Draupadi, says she has decided to take a pause and consider the audience before proceeding with the joke. “I still make that joke sometimes, but I have to make a conscious effort to get a sense of the crowd beforehand. Even if I try to explain that I am taking a jibe on people’s mindsets and not the religion itself, some people just take the joke out of context and get offended,” she says.

Not Hindu, just ‘traditional’

Sravanthi, who started her comedy career in the USA and has been performing in Hyderabad for the past one year, says she is not indiscriminately censoring her content as such. She would rather tweak the content to avoid certain terms and replace them with more palatable ones. “I have a joke on how women are forced to adhere to certain rules in exchange of incentives in the afterlife, by connecting it to how I was raised as a Hindu. I still do that joke, but by not tying it to religion. Instead, I make it about the rules of a ‘conventional and traditional family’,” she explains.

Some comedians feel that the more popular they get and their social media visibility increases, the more censorship they have to do. “I know many comedians who frequently censor themselves. I don't do it, because I'm not big enough to be on anyone's radar. But yes, people are scared to crack jokes about certain subjects,” says Manaal Patil, who has been doing standup shows in the city since 2015.

Bhavneet recalls four or five recent incidents in which new standup comics failed to ‘read the room’, and hence got into trouble. “Once, a section of the audience got offended by a joke and complained to the management. The next day, they came back with more people to confront the comic,” says the comedian, who has also received threats from unknown people after he cracked a joke related to festivals. “I received a message on WhatsApp along with the pictures of my family members, threatening my life and warning me against ‘saying such stuff’,” he says, adding that he knew of other comedians in the city who have also received similar threats. “It is scary, it is extremely scary.”

The situation was better in 2014, when he began doing standup routines, Bhavneet says. But the atmosphere has been slowly changing ever since and there is a lot of rising intolerance and hostility now, he adds. “If the audience is making fun of you for bad jokes, it is fun. If they don't find our set funny, it is a challenge for us. Then we can play with that audience and work to make the jokes better. But these days, a lot of specific topics are being dealt with in a very negative way, and some of the audiences are just ready to pounce. That is the problem. And of late, this trend has increased for sure,” he says.

‘Can I laugh at that?’

Many a time, the audiences also have the fear that they will be judged by their companions if they laugh at jokes about a traditional upbringing etc, says Sravanthi. “More often than not, the laughs are louder when the crowd is comparatively carefree and people show up alone,” she says.

“By definition, India is a free country, where the government does not control what people say or do for political reasons, and where people can express their opinions without the threat of punishment. But apparently that is not the case in the present day scenario. Honestly, as a comic and as a woman, the reason I got into comedy is because I don’t want to be told what to say and what not to,” Sravanthi adds.

“On paper, we have freedom of speech. But at a micro level, you are just a soft target, a guy/girl with a mic. No one will come and protect you,” Bhavneet says, adding that he was hoping people would get a little more tolerant. “We are not the scary ones with the mics, those are politicians. We do jokes, which mean nothing at the end of the day. We only want people to laugh.”

How to get away with a joke

Besides, certain jokes land in controversy because they get shared out of context in social media, the comedians feel. "People just cut out random parts and circulate it. That way, anything you say can be turned around to look like it means something else,” says Bhavneet. “To make sure we don’t unnecessarily get into trouble, we often run our jokes with other comedians first.”

If anyone finds a problem with a word, that will be avoided, the comedian says. “We often have to stay away from words that go anywhere close to any religion, mythology or even political parties. But even if we avoid using those terms, the humour element has to be retained. So we try to use code words, and if the audience is smart enough, they get our point. In a way, this improves your craft as well, because you are learning how to say things without actually saying it verbatim. It would still be great to tell things as it is without fear though,” he adds.

Sravanthi, who prefers dark comedy, says she often sees a lot of misogynistic hate comments on her timeline. “But despite all that, I always try to speak on the topics I want to. You just have to be a little mindful of the timing and the atmosphere. Say whatever you want, just be smart enough to not get caught.”

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