Amid growing communal hostility and intolerance perpetrated by at least a fraction of the population, many comedians opt for self-censorship to avoid controversy and for the sake of their lives.
If the right-wingers in Telangana were successful, they would establish that a comedian, Munawar Faruqui, was behind the communal tension that rocked Hyderabad just a week ago. They would have you believe that the most natural response to Munawar’s show Dongri to nowhere, played in Hyderabad on August 20 despite threats from the BJP and other right-wing groups is what MP Raja Singh continued to do – upload a YouTube video making inflammatory and derogatory comments against Islam and the Prophet Mohammed.
Unsurprisingly, stand-up comedians across the country are feeling the heat. Amid growing communal hostility and intolerance perpetrated by at least a fraction of the population, many comedians opt for self-censorship to avoid controversy and for the sake of their lives.
Although Hyderabad’s circle of comedians is rather small, the city’s stand-up scene is alive and well, with the help of shows and open mics put on by outlets such as Garage Moto Cafe, Sacred Earth, The Alley Drive-in, Comic Social and Aaromale. among others. Bhavneet, who has been doing stand-up comedy in the city since 2014, says there’s definitely been an increase in the amount of self-censorship happening in stand-up comedy circles, as they prepare their decorations. “There has been a change in the political landscape. Based on that, we also had to censor our content,” he told TNM.
In fact, even Munawar only became a controversial figure after his arrest in January 2021 by Indore Police, based on an FIR that was filed before he staged his show. Indore Police had claimed the rehearsals indicated Munawar would “hurt religious feelings”. The Supreme Court granted him bail in February 2021, calling the FIR “vague”. Since then, several of his shows have been canceled in numerous states for public order issues – most of them allegedly because he hurt “Hindu feelings” by making jokes about mythological characters, Ram and Sita.
Sravanthi Basa, a comedian who was working on a new set on the Mahabharata and Draupadi, says she decided to pause and consider the audience before continuing with the joke. “I still make that joke sometimes, but I have to make a conscious effort to get a feel for the crowd beforehand. Even though I try to explain that I don’t care about people’s mindsets and not religion itself, some people take the joke out of context and get offended,” she says.
Not Hindu, just “traditional”
Sravanthi, who started her acting career in the US and has been performing in Hyderabad for a year, says she does not blindly censor her content as such. She prefers to modify the content to avoid certain terms and replace them with other more acceptable ones. “I have a joke about how women are forced to follow certain rules in exchange for inducements in the afterlife, linking it to how I was raised as a Hindu. I I always make that joke, but don’t tie it to religion. Instead, I talk about the rules of a ‘conventional and traditional family’,” she explains.
Some comedians feel that the more popular they become and their visibility on social media increases, the more censorship they have to do. “I know a lot of comedians who censor themselves frequently. I don’t, because I’m not big enough to be on anyone’s radar. But yeah, people are afraid to make jokes about certain topics,” says Manaal Patil, who has been doing stand-up shows in the city since 2015.
Bhavneet recalls four or five recent incidents where new comedians failed to “read the part” and therefore got into trouble. “Once part of the public was offended by a joke and complained to the management. The next day, they came back with more people to face the comic”, says the comedian, who also received threats from strangers after making a joke related to the festivals. “I received a message on WhatsApp with the photos of my family members, threatening my life and warning me against ‘saying such things,'” he said, adding that he knew other comedians in town who had also received similar threats. “C It’s scary, it’s extremely scary.”
The situation was better in 2014, when he started doing standing routines, Bhavneet says. But the atmosphere has slowly changed since then and there is a lot of growing intolerance and hostility now, he adds. “If the audience laughs at you for bad jokes, it’s fun. If they don’t find our decor funny, it’s a challenge for us. Then we can play with that audience and work to improve the jokes “But these days, a lot of specific topics are treated very negatively, and some audiences are just ready to pounce. That’s the problem. And lately, that trend has certainly increased,” he says.
‘Can I laugh at that?’
Often viewers are also afraid of being judged by their peers if they laugh at jokes about a traditional upbringing, etc., says Sravanthi. “Most often the laughs are loudest when the crowd is relatively carefree and people show up alone,” she says.
“By definition, India is a free country, where the government does not control what people say or do for political reasons, and where people can express their opinions without threat of punishment. But apparently that is not the case in the current scenario. Honestly, as a comedian and as a woman, the reason I got into acting was because I don’t want to be told what to say and what not to say,” Sravanthi adds.
“On paper, we have freedom of speech. But on a micro level, you’re just an easy target, a guy/girl with a microphone. he hoped people would become a bit more tolerant. “We’re not the ones who scare with the microphones, we’re the politicians. We make jokes, which mean nothing in the end. We just want people to laugh.
How to get away with a joke
Additionally, some jokes are controversial because they’re shared out of context on social media, the comedians say. “People just cut out random parts and pass them around. That way everything you say can be reversed to sound like it means something else,” Bhavneet explains. jokes with other comedians first.
If someone finds a problem with a word, it will be avoided, the comedian says. “We often have to steer clear of words that come close to any religion, mythology, or even political party. But even if we avoid using these terms, the element of humor should be retained. So we try to use code words, and if the audience is smart enough, they understand our point of view. In a way, it also improves your craft, because you learn to say things without saying them verbatim. It would still be good to say things as they are without fear, ”he adds.
Sravanthi, who prefers dark comedy, says she often sees a lot of misogynistic hateful comments on her timeline. “But despite all that, I always try to talk about the subjects that appeal to me. You just have to be a little careful with the timing and the atmosphere. Say what you want, just be smart enough not to get caught.
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