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Mainstream, VOL LX No 36 New Delhi, August 27, 2022

The Ugly Underside of the Everyday Sense of Humour in India | Gaganjot Kaur

Friday 26 August 2022

by Gaganjot Kaur *

Are you already offended when someone preludes a joke with, “Sorry, this may be racist/sexist/classist/ableist... but it’s funny...”? And, then, they ask, “Why can’t you just take a joke as a joke for once?”. Many of us find ourselves in these situations every now and then — sometimes with colleagues, or with friends, and, of course, a lot of times within our families. I earnestly believe in the potential of humour and how it can make people connect with one another and also manage the grief of life with doses of humour — whether used or performed by the other, or used by oneself as a coping mechanism. Additionally, humour is very helpful in destigmatising things gradually with a more lasting impact.

Humour has also, for a longest time, contributed to the addressal and acknowledgment of social and political issues. For example, satire is a wonderful medium to problematize the status quo as well as to raise a voice regarding various pressing issues. Of course, besides its usefulness, humour is valuable as an art in itself. Indian popular culture scenes are abundant with comedy and comic artists. At a certain point of time in the history of Indian television and films, there were characters played by actors and artists who were recognized for their excellent comic timing. The last two decades have seen a rise of stand-up comedy culture in India beginning largely with a much-enjoyed popular show, The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, with Navjot Singh Sidhu and Shekhar Suman as the judges. This was followed by a series of other shows on a similar pattern — Comedy Circus, The Great Indian Comedy Show, Comedy Superstar, Comedy Nights with Kapil and The Kapil Sharma Show, and others. Kapil Sharma became a hugely popular figure for his content and humour and had multiple successive runs of The Kapil Sharma Show on different prime entertainment channels.

Again, in the last few years, with social media emerging as another lucrative platform for various arts including comedy, the range of stand-up in India expanded exponentially — in terms of content, reach, followers, number of people taking up comedy as their art, skill, and genre. A lot of these artists wanted to create “relatable” content because it generated better following and feedback. Besides entertaining and problematizing, there is another thing that humour does — it normalizes! For example, humour has a potential to incorporate within our social, political, and cultural environment new ideas and practices by moderating the intensity of something which may otherwise be difficult to accept as a change — it normalizes that which was “new” or “different”. At the same time, humour also has the calibre to normalize the use of a certain language, expression, and mindset by, again, moderating the intensity of wrongness of something. For instance, when I say something offensive and suffix it with “just kidding/joking”, my attempt is to convey it without having to be held up for it.

A problem is that Indian comedy is not held up enough for “just kidding”. Let’s see, why does the Indian audience find Kapil Sharma’s comedy and content so relatable? How is it that when he cracks a sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, body-shaming “joke” — right, all of it — the Indian audience does not get offended but, rather, laughs along? The reason is primarily that his show and its offensive and insensitive content is very similar and “relatable” to the Indian living room scenes. Indian get-togethers and the humour shared in these are strikingly similar to all the problematic things that Sharma says on his show. We have, for generations, derived humour from body-shaming people including those with disabilities, from the colour of the skin, from their bodily demeanour, to their class and caste, and, of course, we have made sexuality and gender a basis for humour too. For example, many Bollywood films have used queer or “queer-looking” characters (because of misrepresentation), disability, physical attributes etc. in the film as a channel for comedy or are mere misrepresentations of these — the list is already known but Dostana (2008), Golmaal (2006), Mujhse Shaadi Karogi (2004), Kal Ho Na Ho (2003), Dil, Raja Hindustani (1996) to name a few. Interestingly, Sharma’s shows have often included artists who cross-dress for characters and these characters are met with ridicule even on the show.

The common humour sense in India, sadly, is still thriving on insensitivity. Another example would be the pati-patni (husband-wife) jokes that are circulated on WhatsApp and other media. These jokes are created on gender stereotypes and, turns out, middle-aged-and-over Indian men and even younger cis-hetero-men seem to enjoy them. For instance, they love to forward jokes with underlines as, “Main to patni se dukhi ho gaya hoon” (“I am saddened by my wife”), “Patni mujhse ghar ka kaam karwati hai” (“My wife makes me do household chores”), “Meri patni to bus mere paise hi kharch karwati hai” (“My wife just makes me spend my money” or “My wife just spends my money”) and many more similar ones in a very bad taste. Not only forwarded messages that are circulated routinely and obsessively, many celebrity artists with a reach of millions make derogatory jokes about women, and sexual and gender minorities. This is simply mocking at the unfairness of how cis-hetero-men would not want to participate in changing the narrative as well the reality but would have an audacity to crack disgraceful jokes. Look at the reality shows and the multicore Hindi films!

Moreover, if one pays attention to the words and expressions we commonly use while humouring each other or as it is called “roasting” each other off the screen, they are strongly offensive to sex, gender, class, race, caste, disability etc. For example, telling someone that they are such a “gareeb” (poor) that they look a certain way, or that their body demeanour is very “meetha” (offensive slang used to refer to someone’s sexual orientation — especially for gay men, or men showing feminine traits), or that one dresses/looks like a “kaamwali” (domestic maid/worker), and use of words like “aadivasi” (indigenous peoples of India), “bhangi” (a person from the historically oppressed “untouchable” Bhangi caste whose role was traditionally restricted to manual scavenging and cleaning of the toilets), “kanjar” (traditionally a nomadic tribe settled in parts of India and Pakistan) to insult or make fun of someone. Speaking further, and, this time with reference to a stand-up comic largely popular among the English-speaking audience — Vir Das. Last year, he was called out for his gender-insensitive and transphobic comments he made during one of his shows regarding the use and preference of pronouns. Das later shared screenshots on his Instagram handle, of his communication with and apology to a fan from the queer community.

Let me also take a bit to refer to the Australian stand-up artist Hannah Gadsby whose Netflix special Nannette was quite a groundbreaking performance. But Nannette was also more than a performance — it was a narrative of how humour becomes a channel for an expression which may otherwise not be tolerated by a conservative society. There is something very important, though, that Gadsby points out about humour — when it is self-deprecating, it is not an entertainment free of somebody’s existence and life bearing the cost of it. Gadsby explains how exasperating it is to go on telling her traumatic experiences as a queer person through comedy just so there is no tension in the room. Nannette was an act of comedy and yet also broke all definitions of comedy. It told jokes but not matters that were a joke. Gadsby creates an astounding paradox with laughter and vulnerability brought together. As Gadsby says, “..do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation”.

Coming back to the point of how humour normalizes — these are some of the many instances of how humour has normalized the use of language in a manner that intends humiliation and even dehumanization. Relatable content has its importance in acknowledging patterns of behaviour; it also helps people identify which values they find common and which they do not giving them a sense of community. However, I have concerns regarding this relatability. It makes the content very popular and entertaining, but, what if it normalizes further what rather needs to be objected to? Not only the television comedy shows like Kapil Sharma’s and others, even many independent artists doing their stand-up have used stereotypes, vulnerabilities of individuals and groups to steer their comedy careers and let’s admit it — that they have a huge following and a large audience that enables them. Humour is not be taken as a funny business — it is important that humour itself is problematized for where its source is, what it intends to do, does it objectify the vulnerable? Not taking a joke or calling out someone for a joke that is demeaning to an individual for the fact of their body, gender, sexuality, caste, class, may actually be a form of resistance to giving validation to the thought that this could be said and it would be funny.

And, that is why I can’t take that joke!

(Author: Gaganjot Kaur is Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, Kamala Nehru College, University of Delhi; Email: gaganjotk4[at]gmail.com)

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