Stand-Up Comedy in India: Path to bring a Social Change

“Humor is a rubber sword – it allows you to make a point without drawing blood.”
                                                                                                                               – Mary Hirsch.

I’ve been following the Indian comedy group ‘AIB’ for quite some time now and I’ve also watched their news comedy series called ‘On Air with AIB’ which airs on Hotstar. The second season of this series unfolds with them talking about Nationalism vs. Anti-Nationalism.

Game of thrones comedy by AIB

Performing before a packed studio at Summer House Café, Mumbai, Rohan Joshi, one of the comics says, “Most nationalism as it is practiced in India today is not a positive or productive force at all.

It’s a fuck-all, toxic mess that is conveniently used by people whenever they need an excuse to discredit, threaten or bully anyone who has a point of view or opinion that goes against the popular sentiment.” He quotes the example of Gurmehar Kaur, a student who took a stand against the ABVP (student organization) and against an act of violence at the Delhi University and had received threats of rape and violence.

He continues sarcastically, “What’s sad is, not that this happened. But what’s sad is that women who are watching this right now and saying – A woman got rape threats for offering an opinion? So, just a regular Monday morning then!”

And just like that, he has not only made people laugh, but also made them to think about an important issue. The group has in fact acquired reputation for raising hard-hitting social issues through their acts and shows.

Sanitary Napkins comedy awareness

At a time when critiquing issues can invite heavy backlash or create controversy, an increasing number of comedians are, in fact, choosing to layer their acts with social commentaries, in order to raise difficult questions or highlight uncomfortable truths. Touchy topics like religion, politics, HIV/AIDS, marital rape, in fact, invite laughter and agreement on stage. Humor does the job of sugarcoating the bitter syrup. It takes the sting away.

Let’s trace the evolution of Indian comedy scene. From actors like Mehmood Ali, Kishore Kumar, Kader Khan and Johnny Lever to newer ones like Kenny Sebastian, AIB, Vir Das, and Atul Khatri, comedians have always been big in the Indian comedy scene.

Old comedy hero

The country has also seen a dramatic shift in the way comedy is done in the past four years or so. The rise of the Internet revolution, as well as a growing pub culture, especially in cosmopolitan cities, has in the latest wave, made stand-up comedy extremely popular.

But, the question remains, can stand-up comedy also open a path to social change? If yes, How?

Just like successful social awareness campaigns, good comedy can change perspectives by holding up a mirror to society, forcing it to confront realities that it often ignores. The process gets even more interesting when the comedian pauses for the audience to reflect upon a topic. Because, making people uncomfortable forces them to think.

Once the thought process starts, the chance to establish a new perspective can begin. However, with humor also comes an added risk – that of trivializing a problem or an issue. The distinction between creative license and sensitivity is a fine line to be walked upon. Sure, talking about social issues and not being preachy is a difficult line to toe. The trick, however, is to get the right balance, to use humor constructively for the cause of social change.

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