HYDERABAD: The seventh commandment in George Orwell’s Animal Farm reads: “ All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”. The scene of stand up comedy in India is pretty much the same, only that animals have been replaced by themes around which the acts are centered.
Take for instance Rajashekhar Mamidanna’s case. A well known figure in entertainment circles of the city, Mamidanna can be called Hyderabad’s gift to India’s stand up comedy. However, it was not very long ago when organisers at a show had asked him, very politely, to leave the stage. The humorist’s fault? He exposed a funny side of Telangana movement.
Why is it that the audience which laughs its gut out on jokes cracked on women feels perplexed the moment a ‘forbidden’ topic comes up? Are performers doing a tightrope walk when we think they are just tickling our funny bones?
Nitin Gupta has a ramrod straight answer for this. “There are two kinds of humor - plain and malicious. Steer away from malicious one, that’s the mantra,” says Nitin. An IIT graduate, Nitin has been in the scene for almost six years and performed across India. “In India we don’t have a legal backing. If a video of an act is released and someone claims of ‘hurt sentiments’, a humourist can be pulled up. And today there are thousand things people take offence at,” Nitin adds.
Has this restriction in finding a humorous side to things brought in an element of stereotype in stand up comedy? Hriday Ranjan, a humourist experimenting with the art of offense comedy, feels artistes today have come up with self-imposed boundaries. “Women, sardars etc have become tropes in Indian stand up. Comedy has been stereotyped,” Hriday says.
Also an active blogger, Hriday has earlier faced outrage for few of his blog posts regarding religion. His first brush with an offended audience was at Cafe Mocha when a group pulled him aside for cracking jokes on a particular religion.
So, what’s it that puts the crowd off? “There may be several reasons,” believes Hriday. “As an audience we are apologetic. Instead of accepting the reality we try circumventing it and stop appreciating jokes,” he adds.
For Rajashekhar, the biggest offence an audience shows is by not laughing. “The sole purpose of the act is to raise the roof. If something offends the public, we stay clear of it. But the catch is we never know where the water gets murkier,” says Rajashekhar.
Bhavneet Singh, another artiste, belives understanding the crowd psychology is the art. “The same crowd which cheers for jokes on Gandhi will boo if you target Bhagat Singh. For them, certain things are sacred,” adds Bhavneet.
Meanwhile, performers who have done stand up outside India feel a sense of liberty is yet to permeate among audience as well as artistes. Anil Kumar, who has performed abroad, feels the resources are somewhat limited here thanks to the wide array of taboos. “As the art form is relatively new here, there are several touchy issues we need to be aware of. Restrictions become self-imposed and we start taking mental notes of issues we shouldn’t touch. Religion is one such, so is sex,” Anil says.
However, all is not so glum for these agents of guffaw. They all, in their own capacities, are trying to set the stage for new age stand up. While Hriday experiments with offense comedy, Bhavneet tries reading the crowd psychology. Nitin and Rajashekhar are busy finding their ways through uncharted territories of humor and Anil is at his observant best.