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Sir, can I touch your comedy feet?
What's Indian funny? You don't need to go to YouTube to find out. Look around, or look in the mirror.
I've been doing stand up comedy for a while, about three or four years now (not exactly the most graceful way to age but that's another matter), and I've heard a lot of stories from a lot of comedians. The comedy "scene" (if there is such a thing), although niche and English language, has become quite appealing to urban people across a few metros essentially because it allows people to hear what's going on in India, with opinion that you can't hear on TV (which explains TV's ongoing demise). Or perhaps it gives them an alternative from having to see new-age Bollywood in multiplexes that have porn stars playing RAW agents or 50-yearold men driving Ferraris wooing 20-year-old women in Istanbul or New York, trying to say to their audiences that these are credible Indian situations and reflect our current human condition.
Stories comedians began telling depended on who they were. Foreign comedians often talked about their experiences of India, the first things that hit them - insane traffic, spirituality, dancing in our movies. Our audiences enjoyed these but also longed for stories that talked of how they felt. Hoping things taboo brimming under the surface in India, the controversial dinner table gossip, the rumours, could be tapped into and shared collectively and cause them to erupt. With demand, there was supply.
A breed of very talented Indian comedians emerged, from urban English-speaking India, and perhaps a reaction to the very loud slapstick stuff on general entertainment TV channels, a kind of comedy that could be best described as harmless mediocre observations that anyone can make followed by a drummer hitting a cymbal. The only thing on them that seemed controversial were the facial muscles of the celebrities judging, because of how long they could display laughter without feeling it.
Indian English comedians seem to turn to the West for their structure of narrative. The extremely personal (a person's insecurities, going through a divorce, my building society, et al) to the extremely universal (Is there a god? Men and Women - aren't they different, - let's laugh, etc). And along with that rose the inevitable questions - what is Indian and funny? The answers varied from "nothing" to "everything" to a frantic search for obvious targets (certain chief ministers, the ruling party, certain Bollywood people, certain pop stars who were parodies of themselves, a cricketers' style of playing).
Enveloping the artists' inner inquiries was the press surrounding it. Questions arose around what is actually funny, are we inherently funny, can we take a joke, etc. These were usually followed by asking a comedian, "Can you tell me something funny?" I was on a comedy tour answering one of these questions before a show and it wasn't going well. These questions were near impossible to answer, essentially because one doesn't know. You go out, like any stage performer, and do your show. Whether as a collective that shows a national irony, is impossible to analyse. As is having a ready joke. I answered (thinking this was funny), "Well, sir, if a neurosurgeon were giving this interview, would he be asked to perform a brain surgery to prove he's a neurosurgeon?" My interviewer didn't laugh. He paused and responded with "No, because there is no equipment here to do that. "
That's when it struck me. All these questions were looking in the wrong place. The answer was in front of us. What essentially made us funny was also what made us unique. Like the very search for what is funny. Extrapolated, this could be explained as thus: an analysis of a thing that hasn't even happened to such a degree that there are more experts and analysis on the subject than the subject. That to me was a quirky, funny, this was who we were. I spent some time therefore trying to find out what other traits made us unique.
This is my list. It's only three. And it ranges from the petty to the grand, against hierarchy (which also, is a very Indian trait, as the last one explains).
PAYING THE BILL
Dine with anyone in urban India, including family, and if it's not decided who is paying, there will be the inevitable grabbing of the bill at the end of the meal with everyone trying to outdo the other to pay. Causing a ruckus at the restaurant. It involves hand waving with the bill folder (it resembles a ballet dance move) by whoever grabs it, as if to say, if I swing this around enough, it will eventually vanish. If you are with a patriarchal man, forget it, not only will there be a lecture about how no one else can pay, but the poor waiter will be dragged into a non-existent dispute and accused saying, how could the bill even have been placed democratically instead of being handed directly to the shouting man? How long the man has been coming to the restaurant, do they know who he is, that is, his place in the world, will be invoked, making the waiter feel guilty and uncomfortable, almost like he's killed someone. When others drop the matter to avoid further embarrassment and let the man pay, if you keep your eye on him while others resume conversation, there's a moment when he opens the bill folder and gulps.
SUPERHERO OR ZERO
For years in our cinema, and popular culture and in conversation, if a man said he loved a woman, he had to do something. Something manly. He had to kill a bad guy, or save her from a precarious situation, or build a bridge with his bare hands so she could cross. Some sort of unrelated show of strength rather than just being with her. And these things were supposed to impress women. The assumption being, Oh, you built a bridge for me, or oh, you saved me from that guy who was trying to molest me, I will now love you forever, as you go off and do other manly things for me that involve violence, regardless of whether we have anything in common. Whether I like witty men and you are a big muscular bore. Or I like indie bands and you like to dig your nose all day. The idea that a man didn't have to do super-heroic stuff, involve a third party and overcome it but just be around, chat, listen, talk, was madness. When that happened, it was too much for the creators, so they thought, "Right, man and woman are alone, I don't know what to do, best to make them sing and dance in a nightclub. "
HIGH ON HIERARCHY
We've got hierarchy in everything, perhaps second only to a Pakistani feudal landlord who'll have you shot if you don't prostrate yourself when he gets out of a jeep. Some months ago, I was doing a show in Mumbai and a guy, a young college age guy, came up to me and said, "Sir, I'd like to touch your feet. " I thought he was confusing me with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar or perhaps a yoga guru or a Maharashtra politician or someone, so I said I'm a comedy writer, are you looking for someone else? Nope, he was looking for me. He explained that he's just started out in comedy and I was a "senior" so he'd like to do this. Now I am a senior in age, without a doubt, and our culture of respecting elders with this display I can sort of understand (if genuine and not for cameras, like at awards stuff), but I thought to myself, this has taken hierarchy to another level. Breaking out of a really old feudal patriarchy is not easy, one understands hierarchy in corporate India (the CEO makes a speech about how everyone is equal in the company, he walks off the stage and everyone stands), in classical music (doing household servantlike errands for the guru), one understands it in Indian bureaucracy (where hierarchical structures are laid out and tangible things come with it, a car with more red lights, a bigger bungalow etc. ), but what the hell was a "senior" teller of jokes? What was, by contrast, a "junior" teller of jokes? A 12-year-old could be as outstanding a comedian as a 60-year-old. Old Indian hierarchy, a beautiful trait, when applied to comedy, just made it ludicrous. Where would it end, "I am your senior, you touched my comedy feet, now I will tell this joke before you?"
There is hope yet. The playwright Tom Stoppard said, and I feel this about the times we live in, "It's the best possible time of being alive when everything you thought you knew, is wrong. " And at Davos recently, the CEO of consulting firm Bain and Company, complemented that by saying, "The worse thing one can do in today's world is stand still. " We have 600 million young people who are ironic, impatient, cynical and disbelieving of anything that's come before them. And they aren't standing still. If stupid things happen, whether serious or ludicrous, they will point it out and no regulation, censor, old media system can stop them. I met a comedian who goes around posing for photographs with celebrities he hates, just in an ironic way, so the joke is on them. This century belongs to him.
Till then, these and other quirks will make us who we are. And hopefully, instead of searching all over the place and looking at YouTube links for what's uniquely Indian and funny, we can look at ourselves and find the answer.
Anuvab Pal is a comedian, playwright and author of 'Chaos Theory'.
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