(Dalits were formerly deemed untouchable under the Hindu caste system. Untouchability was banned in India after Independence.)
In contrast to politically charged Dalit humour as a lived critique, the non-Dalit humorous sphere lacks rebellious content even in apparently “political” stand-up comedies. The Indian comedy scene largely lacks protest humour. It exists simply to pass the time, and for unreflective entertainment. The Indian stand-up comedy circuit took off on a grand scale during the late twentieth century. Until then, stand-up comedians had been a complementary addition to entertainment shows.
Comedians in India mostly had space in the public performances of music shows, election rallies, netas’ birthdays or private ceremonies as in-between acts to entertain for five to 15 minutes. These stand-up comedians mostly engaged in mimicry and taunts. Given the limited space and time, they had to draw upon the most relevant issues to cater to the temper of the contemporary period. The names that have become the most well known from popular Hindi cinema are Johnny Walker, Mahmood, Kader Khan, Johnny Lever, Keshto Mukherjee, Shakti Kapoor and Govinda.
People in both villages and cities enjoyed letting off steam through their simple comedy. Lever was perhaps the only one among them who came from a background of stand-up comedy, which he continued to be part of even after his entry in Hindi cinema.
Then there was a huge wave of professional stand-up comedy in the first decade of the 21st century where mainstream cable networks carried entire segments on comedians. Suddenly, stand-up comedy had become prime-time entertainment, and this made people laugh hard every week for a good number of years.
The diversity of gender, region and religion were all represented in the space of comedy, which had otherwise become monotonous. The success of this wave of comedy encouraged other regional language networks to carry vernacular segments. And so it happened: comedy became a central theme for a country that had otherwise found rape, horror, violence and scandals in their daily news feeds.
Comedy became widely appreciated and stand-up comedians saw their art being compensated handsomely. Next was the era of independent comedians, who started occupying the space of the Internet and YouTube in the second decade of the 21st century.
This fresh set of comedians began creating new content that largely found purchase amongst the young, urban-educated and English-speaking audience. Millions of subscribers started tuning in to discover freshly baked puns that were traditionally not made for cable television subscribers. These comic acts soon gained astonishingly wild popularity. The current era can aptly be described as the golden age of stand-up comedy in India.
The YouTube generation of new comedians challenged the dynamics, structure and aperture of traditional cinematic comedy. They brought with them vibrant new energy. The YouTube channels of comedy collectives like AIB, East India Comedy, The Viral Indian, TWTW, Being Indian and Bollywood Gandu alongside scores of other streams run by budding comedians were professionally crafted and viewed by millions.
The comedy clubs that claimed blasphemy on the cultural norms started taking up abusive words or vocabularies censured as “uncultured” and turned them into puns. In their skits, one could easily find palpable influences of Saturday Night Live, Comedy Central and the concept of the “roast” that are popular on American cable networks. Popular YouTube comedy channels took up issues of social concern like censorship, bans, racism, arranged vs love marriage, politics and Bollywood by offering saleable critiques. However, what they singularly overlooked was the political streamlining of racism that had been taken up by their American counterparts.
American comedy became popular thanks to the African-American artists who injected fresh voices, themes and content into the existing scene. Giants like Bernie Mac, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Leslie Jones, etc., provided an unforgiving sociocultural critique to the American public about its culpability for blind racism. This successfully tackled the issues of stereotyping of the black body, gender and sexuality issues, crime, politics, Hollywood, judiciary, music and almost every space available to public scrutiny. However, the young comedy scene in India has not matured enough to offer a humorous critique of the social system that Dalit humour easily lives off. It is a far distance away from taking up sociopolitical issues the way their American contemporaries have done.
From among the issues Indian comics take up, the historical ramifications of caste and untouchability are starkly missing. They seldom deal with the privileges of caste supremacy and rarely offer a wider perspective on the ills of Indian society. They’re usually satisfied with issues of the middle class, which is a dominant caste concern, but in the enlightenment of the comedy era, there is barely anyone—with a few exceptions—willing to take the cudgels of caste alongside class, religion and authoritarianism.
Therefore, we need to explore the internal spheres of the world of Dalit humour. These spaces are as much a revolt against as a relief for suppressed thoughts. They also carry a powerful counterculture of art that remains unknown to the rest of Indian society.
Excerpted from Suraj Yengde’s Caste Matters with the permission from Penguin Random House India.
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