The departure of people pretending to be stand-up comedy from the social media and public space in India has left nobody crying for them. Barring some random people from South Delhi and South Mumbai, they never really had a constituency of viewers anyway, and most of the social media echo chamber was built around fake followers.
In addition, people had already seen through their tired repertoire of one-sided religious and political one-liners, whilst paid performances were few if at all after the December 2019 anti-India riots in Delhi where many of them performed as paid agent provocateurs.
So where does comedy in India go from here? Will we ever return to the days of, for example, the Tepa Sammelan of Ujjain? And are we going to see proper comedy of the sort seen in movies and theatres till about 30 years ago?
Comedy is not dead. It is still very much alive. Comedy just stays clear of politics and religion now, because both have become so strongly inter-linked, that it is better that way. And here is why.
Many decades ago, I used to work on merchant cargo ships, and landed up being posted to a ship training cadets for a particular foreign country which had just been through a seriously violent freedom revolution. The ship was also a regular cargo ship, working a regular global route, built to the highest standards of equipment and design. State of the art, a joy to work on – and unlike on most other ships being built then, with capacity onboard for almost a hundred people.
Since the country in question was in a hurry to rid itself of their colonial trappings, they had employed people from all over the world, different nationalities and different religions. As Indians, we were the largest number of ex-pats on that ship, and at one time we had 13 different nationalities on board – including some from countries that were certainly not friendly with each other.
The Master (Captain, Commander) of this ship was a very elderly and wise old German, who had been on ships since he was 13 years old, and was now into his 70s. Right in the beginning he laid down a simple rule towards a happy ship – in the working and common areas, there would be no discussions on religions and politics. This was implemented voluntarily by all and it kept the ship happy and laughing and working well all the time.
So over a few beers, some of us asked him what was the logic of the zero tolerance on political and religious jokes? And he said – look, apart from safety in mixed environments, it teaches you to think that there is a whole world out there which is if you look with eyes and mind open, very funny. The best comedy, he told us, was to learn to laugh at yourself.
Which made so much sense, actually, as we looked around us. Think about the old funny movies, the comedians, the topic they covered, and similar? On ships, with so much of the power of nature around us, it was so easy to see humour even while watching the seagulls dive and play behind the ship, for hours, when you thought about it. Another great topic for comedy was, what else, gender relationships. Even the equipment in the engine room provided enough opportunities for comedy.
Sure, there were the Shankar’s Weeklies and then there was Punch – but these were magazines that you enjoyed on your own steam, and not something that was the end all and be all of existence for specific types of propaganda?
Actually, more people are laughing about the stand-up comedians now, than laughing with them. And that’s the sad truth about how specific political and religious attacks disguised as comedy have come to an end.
Let’s bring back comedy into our lives and let’s try to keep religion and politics out of it.