Viewpoint: Why is Indian comedy kicking up a storm?

By Samit Basu

image copyrightAIB
image captionBhat (second from left) and his comedy group, All India Bakchod, shot to fame last year

An Indian comedian recently kicked up a storm after posting a video mocking cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and singer Lata Mangeshkar.

Tanmay Bhat had used Snapchat's face swap feature to stage an argument between the two Indian icons.

Bhat and his comedy group, All India Bakchod, shot to fame in India last year when they hosted a comedy roast - a programme based on US-style "roast" shows where celebrities are abused and insulted. But the show became the focus of a controversy centring around allegedly obscene jokes traded among the comedians and Bollywood star guests.

AIB had cases filed against them in several parts of the country and had to issue an apology to the Catholic Church, for material that would have been seen as fairly tame in any of the Comedy Central roasts the event was inspired by. Cases were even filed against guests for being present and laughing.

'Offending sentiments'

Authorities, political parties and religious groups all over India have a history of persecuting artists, cartoonists and writers who display an anti-authoritarian streak.

The political pressure against AIB is unusual in this regard - they have not taken on government or religious institutions with any of their comedy, so the accusations against them have been about "offending sentiments", the present catchphrase of anyone in India looking to gain some easy airtime.

This isn't an ancient Indian trait. Many classic children's stories in India follow the common trope of the wise jester teaching the king, through criticism, how to govern better.

image copyrightAFP
image captionKapil Sharma (right) is India's most widely watched TV comedian

This is a New India story - cultures clashing because of the unprecedented access the internet gives both creators and audiences.

Before last year's roast controversy, AIB was one among several young, promising comedy groups. After it, they have more than a million online subscribers, and everything they do creates waves on the Indian internet.

Here are a few things we know about humour - humour is very context-specific, and doesn't translate well.

So I can tell you that every Indian language has, in literature, film and television, comedic talents that its speakers swear are as funny as your favourites - but there is really no way to prove it.

Comedy traditions

Bengalis would put humorist Sukumar Ray and singer Kishore Kumar right up there with Edward Lear and Groucho Marx, just as Marathi speakers would take writer PL Deshpande over PG Wodehouse, and Punjabis would rate the late comedian Jaspal Bhatti's slice-of-life everyman comedy above Ricky Gervais'.

Humour dates very quickly, and often fades when seen through changing filters - I didn't see the racism in Tintin or Enid Blyton until I reread them as an adult.

What you find funny depends on you - where and when you're from, what you've seen before, and what offends you.

The same day as the Bhat controversy, the animated comedy Family Guy aired an episode set in India that compiled every possible offensive Indian stereotype. No-one cared about this in India, because the few people who see Family Guy in India know what to expect from it.

There is no definitive Indian humour, because, well, it's a large and incredibly diverse country, full of very different comedic traditions, each of which have their own recognised masters, none of whom can be wholly appreciated in translation.

image copyrightAFP
image captionBollywood is driving a certain pan-Indian comedy

In recent years, thanks to the cultural dominance of Hindi TV networks and Bollywood, a certain pan-Indian broadcast comedy has emerged.

Kapil Sharma is India's most widely seen TV comedian, and film franchises such as Golmaal and Houseful deal in largely the same comedic tropes.

Expect laugh tracks, sound effects, coy lewdness, overt misogyny, unapologetic racism, xenophobia, Benny Hill chases, and people falling down. Expect frequent cutaways to celebrities laughing their heads off in genuine appreciation for their appearance paycheques.

Censoring humour

Also, expect extreme censorship, either self-imposed or, in cinemas, dropped from above by the benevolent overlords of the Central Board of Film Certification, which theoretically exists to rate films but often releases lists of cuts far funnier than the comedies they find objectionable.

For genuinely world-class absurdist humour, pay close attention to the subtitles on anything in this category.

But it's certainly unfair to judge Indian comedy by these standards. Would you define American comedy by Pauly Shore and Rob Schneider films? Or, conversely, claim that all British comedy is as good as Monty Python or Fry and Laurie?

One subset of comedy that can't blame translation for signal loss, however, is the evolving Indian stand-up scene.

image copyrightAFP
image captionVir Das (right) is one of India's top stand-up comics

Its practitioners have grown up in the internet age, devouring the work of the comedy icons of the past few decades - Seinfeld, Rock, CK, Schumer, Burr, Oliver, Stewart, Izzard.

What's emerged is a very interesting stream of Indian or Indian-origin comedy that speaks the language of the internet, but to an as-yet-undefined audience.

Racial stereotypes

There's an interesting divergence here. Second-generation Indian-origin creators of comedy (Russell Peters, Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari) who don't live in India have moved beyond talking about cultural differences and racial stereotypes and found their own post-brown voices and comedic narratives.

Indian comedians on the internet and nascent live-tour circuit are, meanwhile, trying to delve deeper into mass-media stereotypes: reinterpreting Bollywood, politics, cricket, the media, Indian families.

A lot of this involves calling out everyday hypocrisies in a style that isn't necessarily new: readers of books and people who watched TV and film a few decades ago are familiar with every possible form of satire, but newer audiences find it shocking.

image copyrightAFP
image captionThere is no definitive Indian humour because India is a large and incredibly diverse country

As the post-broadband generation finds and strengthens its comedic voice and intrudes further into the spaces occupied by regressive mainstream Indian comedy, there will be more friction, more controversy.

In the meantime, if you want a steady source of Indian comedy, just read our news headlines. It's not very funny if you're living in it, but there are days our headlines outdo The Onion with ridiculous ease.

Samit Basu is a writer of several novels, including the internationally published Turbulence. Online at @samitbasu.