Over the past decade, the scene of stand-up comedy has changed dramatically in India. Thanks to the internet, jokes made by comedians in the West began gaining popularity in our country. Today, we have dedicated and hilarious stand-up comedians of our own, including Aditi Mittal, Biswa Kalyan Rath, Kenny Sebastian, Zakir Khan, Kaneez Surka and Vir Das, to name a few. In the 1990s, however, stand-up comedy was quite a foreign idea. With the increasing popularity of shows such as Comicstaan and the introduction of ticketed comedy shows, we sure have come a long way. So, what changed?
Social media platforms have played significant roles in raising concerns, questioning and talking about a plethora of matters experienced by a large audience, ranging from racism to menstruation, from politics to mental health. In a place which has upheld its tradition of not having conversations about important issues, comedy has certainly facilitated some such discussions. With middle-class youth forming the majority of their audience, stand-up comedians often bring these subjects up in a light-hearted manner, such that it becomes easier to talk about the matters without undermining their gravity. Be it Sapan Verma’s Obsessive Comedic Disorder, wherein he talks about dealing with mental illnesses or Aditi Mittal calling out misogyny and related issues in her stand-up special, the comedic medium has stirred up thoughts and provoked multiple conversations that needed to open up.
Now, this is not always encouraged under our inherently flawed national framework. There have been multiple instances where joking about the political situation of the country have landed comedians the likes of Tanmay Bhat and Kunal Kamra knee-deep into controversies; certain organisations have also claimed their jokes to be anti-national. Similarly, female comedians have often been reduced to the level of irrelevance, their material deemed as activist, unfunny and even unrelatable, often by heterosexual males who like how patriarchy benefits them. Interestingly enough, such curb on expression has not stopped these comedians. Kenny Sebastian recently did a show about why he chooses not to make jokes about the government or political and religious jokes, voicing out, albeit through jokes, that he is scared. Ironically, by talking about this, he did end up making certain remarks on the system, which the audience seemed to agree with.
While comedians play a vital role in our society by speaking up, there are several instances of the jokes being regressive as opposed to progressive. Taking advantage of the now fashionable culture of opening up, certain comedians have used the platform to take forward age-old ideas of masculinity, patriarchy, classism and the likes, all under the pretense of relatability. This trope, although a powerful one, also has the potential to be grossly misused and propelled in the wrong direction. This, however, does not imply that anything relatable can be deemed funny. In my opinion, utilising shared experiences of the public and manipulating them to challenge and urging people to think about the topics in motion is where a comedian comes handy, for they do it in a subtle, humorous manner.
In a country where we are still figuring out if our opinions could ever be politically correct, these comedians are paving a way for more conversations to happen, conversations we really need to have.