The funny side of faith

Stand-up comedian Azeem Banatwalla cracks jokes about his community that are appreciated in good humour by Muslims as well.

We Muslims eat biryani,” says stand-up comedian Azeem Bantwalla. “Then because we feel bad that we have killed a goat, we don’t eat for one month. Then again we eat biriyani.”

Azeem (24) is performing at the ‘Pant on Fire’ stand-up comedy show at the JT Performing Arts Centre in Kochi. Comedian Sourabh Pant introduces Azeem, who is off-stage, saying, “Azeem is a Muslim with a sense of humour. That’s an oxymoron. It’s like a Congress politician who says, ‘cheque payments.’”

And in walks a tall (6’3”) and gangly person, wearing spectacles and looking more like an eager college student rather than a comedian. And he swings the bat straightaway: “When Iran sent a rocket into space, they also sent a monkey along with it. We Indians would never do that. We know that a flying monkey is useful only if your wife is stuck in Sri Lanka,” he quips.

As the crowd bursts into laughter, Azeem gets into the groove easily. But there is a small gasp when Azeem ventures into territory, which would have been considered forbidden because of its sensitivity. “As a Muslim, all you do on Eid is to eat biryani,” he says. “Honestly, I don’t even know why we call it Eid. We should just call it ‘lunch’!”

Off-stage, a more relaxed Azeem says, “In India, talking about Muslims and Islam are sensitive topics. But being a Muslim, I feel that I have a license to do so. If not me, then who else would?”

Of course, Azeem is careful about the way he tells his jokes. “I don’t want to offend anybody,” he says. “Basically, I am analysing the idiosyncrasies of the religion. Poking fun is one thing, and being insulting another. And that is not my aim,” he clarifies.

He remembers how once during a show in Mumbai, he noticed a bearded Muslim wearing a skull cap and his burqa-clad wife sitting in the front row. “They laughed the most at the Muslim jokes,” says Azeem. “In fact, they were enjoying the show as much as the rest of the audience.”

Interestingly, Azeem, a Gujarati, who was born and brought up in Mumbai, stumbled into his passion in quite a convoluted way. He graduated in engineering from the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Technology in 2010. At that time, because of recession, he could not get a job. “I sat at home and did nothing for six months,” he says.

It was during this period that Azeem got an opportunity to write humour for a show on UTV Bindaas. Later, he secured an opening as a writer for a Delhi-based magazine. In September 2011, he did an interview with one of India’s top comedians Vir Das. “It was while talking to him that I got interested in stand-up comedy,” says Azeem.

That very month, he got an opportunity to perform at The Comedy Store in Mumbai. The joke which got an enthusiastic response went like this: “Facebook is a lot like Delhi. You can poke all the women you want and get away with it.”

And when the crowd laughed and applauded, it was a giddy experience for Azeem. “There is no preparing you for the rush of energy that comes from the audience,” he says. “Your adrenalin starts pumping. It is like doing bungee jumping.”

A hooked Azeem has now performed in Pune, Bangalore, Kochi, and Baroda, apart from doing several shows in Mumbai. He is a rising star in an art form which is rapidly gaining popularity across India.

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The New Indian Express