Indian comedians are angry. Really, really angry.
“People are waiting to get offended. They open their computers in the morning, and they think ‘how can I be offended today,'” said stand-up comedian Atul Khatri. “It’s becoming a national pastime.”
“Comedians speak the truth—and get paid for that. We’re saying it like it is,” said Sumukhi Suresh of “Anu Aunty” fame. “It’s sad if you pull the plug.”
There is reason for such derision. A week after All India Bakchod (AIB) released videos of a live performance on YouTube, the comedy collective has taken down the content in the face of outrage from right-wing Hindu groups, threats of action by politicians and a police investigation.
And thus, the already difficult business of stand-up comedy in India has suddenly become even more challenging as comedians find their freedom of expression questioned and their preferred medium of distribution under scrutiny.
But there’s a strange irony in this entire situation: Stand-up comedy in India has rarely got such mainstream publicity—and that definitely won’t hurt an industry where eyeballs matter.
“AIB took every possible precaution to make sure that if someone doesn’t want to see the video, they shouldn’t see it,” stand-up comedian Kenneth Sebastian told Quartz. “Seriously, don’t watch it if you can’t handle it.”
The three YouTube videos came with appropriate warnings for adult content. Even before the live performance took place, the comedy collective suggested watching roasts of Charlie Sheen and Pamela Anderson to prepare attendees to what to expect. Not only this, there were boards at the venue to warn about the content.
“If you don’t like it, watch MSG (The Messenger of God) or an episode of Ramayana. Don’t waste your time,” Khatri suggested.
The show—christened “AIB Knockout”—was neither aired on television nor on radio, where people could have stumbled on it by chance. To be offended, one had to go on YouTube and search the video. “It’s like breaking into someone’s house, going into the bathroom, using it, and then putting a notice that ‘your bathroom is not clean,’” Sebastian said.
Karan Johar, who was the roastmaster and a butt of some seriously insulting jokes himself, felt similarly:
The internet—and YouTube, to be precise—has always been the medium of choice for India’s fledgling comedy community.
“They won’t let us be on TV or radio, so let us be on the internet. There is no other medium like YouTube that let’s you have freedom of speech,” said Sebastian. “If you are going to moral police the internet, that’s insane, because then we might move to the Middle East or North Korea.”
Though pressure was evidently piling on, it was unclear as to why exactly AIB chose to restrict access to the videos on YouTube. The comedy collection has been reluctant to talk to the press and declined comment when Quartz reached out on Feb. 03.
It has now given this lengthy explanation.
“The internet is what unites us 1% who think like that,” added Sebastian. “We will find a way through Twitter or Facebook, and ironically, we will make sure that they don’t do more moral policing. We know our rights.”
“Forget India. YouTube is the last bastion of free speech for every country in the planet,” said stand-up comedian Sorabh Pant.
Being the path-breakers they are, AIB isn’t new to authorities clamping down, said Sebastian. “But they didn’t realise the magnitude.”
“India would have had to wait at least 10 years to watch gay jokes openly—that too by celebrities—in a country where being gay is illegal,” he added. “Basically, you’re so open and accepting about each other that you make jokes about it.”
The same was true for a woman comedian, Aditi Mittal, being roasted—with the same level of audacity as for a man—and she was fine with it.
“You make a joke as an equal—that’s what women want in India. She is above these jokes. That’s maturity,” Sebastian said.
For women stand-up artists like Suresh, what’s even more grating is that groups and politicians vociferously oppose AIB’s humor, while comedians like Kapil Sharma can go about night-after-night making blatantly insulting jokes about wives and women. “It’s a little irritating.”
The double standards are difficult to miss.
“If any politician says…shit like ‘women should stay at home,’ that’s fine. But they’d have a problem with celebrities making fun of each other—with complete consent,” said Sebastian. “All this is not about AIB. It’s just a sense of control they want to have.”
“There were people who got offended over PK without even having seen the movie. So these are unemployed people who would go out of their way to get offended,” added Pant.
But India’s stand-up comedy community isn’t planning to back down.
“It won’t stop AIB or anyone else from coming up with live shows,” said Suresh. Instead, all the mainstream publicity that AIB and their ilk has managed in the last few days will only help broaden the audience. “Comedians aren’t going to listen to people saying, ‘Don’t do it.'”
“We thrive on this,” said Sebastian. “Such things are just gonna push us more to talk about things like this.”
“This whole thing makes us aware of what you can do and cannot do. It was waiting to happen. The only thing will happen is that language might be diluted,” added Pant, “But we will still be working hard to create comedy.”
So, who will have the last laugh?