“Tragedy happened in my life a couple of years back. My dad joined Facebook,” comedian Rahul Subramanian starts off one of his shows, on a mock-sombre note.
“I’m having a slightly weird day, because earlier today my dad called me to tell me that he has sent me a WhatsApp.” That’s Kanan Gill during his act, titled “Kanan Gill-Explaining Technology To Parents-Keep It Real” on YouTube.
“If people of our age have to travel with our parents, that’s trouble,” Aakash Gupta tells his audience, touching upon the Indian experience of train travel.
Parents as a subject are a staple for the growing breed of Indian stand-up comics. Hardly any performer misses a chance to take a swipe at “my dad & mom.” If anything, his or her repertoire seems incomplete without such a reference.
There are other favourites, too, such as nagging wives, lecherous men, the average middle class family, Mumbai versus Delhi, and even demonetisation. But the possibility of a backlash, even violent ones, is higher in India with other sets of people like, say, politicians or religious figures. In the past, there have been instances of cartoonists being locked up by the police for taking on the ruling class and comedians indulging in mutual ribaldry being hounded by the government.
Good old mom & pop may just box your ears at the end of the show. So take them on.
It could be the cultivated parsimony of a working-class father who, for all his life, has struggled to make ends meet; or the penny pinching mother who’s tried—again, all her life—to chip in. It could be their bumbling attempts at getting social media right or merely their hard-to-abandon quirks and prudery.
“That (parents) is a common theme because India is changing at a very fast pace. Our generation versus the previous generations…it’s a topic that makes a lot of sense to everybody. It’s everybody’s story,” Amit Tandon, a popular stand-up comic, told Quartz.
“A lot of people in India have moved from smaller towns to metropolitan cities. For them it is a big change. So a lot of stories you will hear will be from somebody whose parents are in Bihar or UP, Aligarh or other smaller places, and how they moved to Mumbai or Delhi, and their lives changed completely after that,” Tandon said.
Indeed, in the past few decades, particularly since the opening of its economy in the early 1990s, India has seen lifestyles, income levels, penetration of technology, and communication change dramatically. While its per capita income (in purchasing power parity terms) stood at Rs1,205 in 1991, it was estimated by the IMF at Rs7,308 in 2017. Till the sweep of mobile phones beginning from the 1990s, households had to wait for years to get the government-controlled telephone connections; today the remotest of Indian villages are using WhatsApp and Facebook to connect with the world. During this period, India has witnessed what The Hindu newspaper referred to as the “restaurant revolution,” with families eating out more frequently than ever since the mid-1990s.
All this has been fuelled primarily by a swelling youth population—41% of Indians are aged below 20, says Census 2011.
So, a generation that has eased into relative prosperity in recent years now has a humorous take on the standard practices of its predecessor.
For instance, here’s a bit where Tandon refers to his dad’s “black colour folder” that carried the family’s finance portfolio—typically a few shares, a couple of long-term fixed deposits, and few savings bank accounts. If you had grown up in a middle-class family in urban India, these “folders” were indeed unmissable. Tandon then goes on to talk about the government-run State Bank of India (SBI) as the old folks’ Café Coffee Day. This juxtaposing of “CCD,” a hangout popular among young Indians, with India’s largest bank, with its alleged creaky infrastructure, can’t get more tongue-in-cheek.
In another video, Jeeveshu Ahluwalia recalls a comment made by his mother. “When I was your age, I used to walk 10km to school,” she said, to which an irritated Ahluwalia responded with, “You were poor!”
And the audience loves it all.
And why not? After all, these are funny observations about everyday life that they connect with instantly.
Meanwhile, many middle-aged Indian dads and moms are trying to make the transition, with varying degrees of success, from a statist economy and a limited-resource society to relative prosperity and evolving values. Often, though, they are unable to let go of some of the vestiges. So their struggle with these changes, too, is a favourite subject of humour-laden social commentary.
One Bengaluru-based comedian who did not want to be named said that apart from current events like demonetisation, movies, and cricket, the experiences of one’s parents and life in the 1980s and 90s are perhaps the most common elements connecting the performer and the audience in India’s comedy circuit. “Tapping into that reservoir is only natural. So is there a difference between gentle ribbing and denigration? Perhaps. But I have rarely seen that line blurring,” the 29-year-old said. “In any case, these lines can vary from person to person. My dad is cool with stuff I say. Yours may not be.”
Largely, performers do not see a need for such lines.
“I don’t think there is a line to be drawn for any comic…I think our parents were cool then, they are cool now. And they are attempting to evolve according to modern technologies,” said Ahluwalia. Evidently, neither does he believe it is about the generation gap. “I am close to turning 40. Many comedians today are just 25. So there can be generation gap between me and them, too.”
In any case, it is not that having a go at parents is the favourite among Indian comedians alone.
Global names like Russel Peters and Hasan Minhaj—both born to migrant Indian parents—have done it to send their audiences, without fail, into splits. In his latest hit “Homecoming King,” for instance, a good part of Minhaj’s show was about his dad’s attempts to integrate with the western way of life following immigration. Of course, the migrant’s endeavours is the dominant theme in most such cases. It is still about the parents’ struggle with change.
And if that can get your audience laughing, why not?
“At the end of the day, somebody has paid a good amount of money; he’s dedicated four hours of his life to me. These days people don’t dedicate four hours even to their parents in a day. So when they go back after my show, they should feel that those four hours were worth spending on me,” Tandon signs off.
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