No laughing matter

Updated: Jul 18, 2020, 09:10 IST | Sukanya Datta | Mumbai

In the wake of Agrima Joshua and fellow comics facing threats and harassment, members of the community discuss freedom of speech and the future of their profession in an increasingly intolerant atmosphere

Incessant trolling, harassment of family and friends, and vandalisation — this is the treatment that stand-up comedians in India have been subjected to, especially in the past week. While it started with trolling directed at Kenny Sebastian for a tweet on TikTok, things took a nasty turn after an old video of Agrima Joshua, who had supported him, was dug up. In the video, Joshua can be seen mocking misinformation that abounds online, surrounding the construction of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj statue. Alleging that she insulted the national icon and hurt their sentiments, a certain section of social media users then started abusing her, and two men were arrested for threatening to rape her. Since then, the comics who've supported her have also been targetted, and Khar-based venue, The Habitat, where the video was shot, was recently vandalised by MNS supporters.

Agrima Joshua
Agrima Joshua

New normal?

After posting a satirical video on "offensive" comedy, comic Vir Das recently tweeted what was on the community's mind:" In the last 24 hours. Myself and every comic I have spoken to, male and female have had threats, abusive messages and all sorts of filth. It's literally all of us going "yeah...same". Hang in there. Stay strong." Echoing his thoughts, Punit Pania, founder of Chalta Hai Comedy, says it's an "Orwellian nightmare, where practically every comic received a few death threats, to the point that it's become disturbingly normal." Funnyman Cyrus Broacha shares that while people have the right to take offence or dislike a joke, violence can't be the answer. "Have a dialogue, don't support the artiste or go to their show if you want, but to threaten and vandalise is unacceptable," he says. Daniel Fernandes, who agrees, adds, "What needs to be addressed is how we communicate our offense.Violence, death/rape threats have no place in a civilised society. If a joke has hurt your feelings, follow due process."

Cyrus Broacha and Punit Pania
Cyrus Broacha and Punit Pania

Writer and comedian Radhika Vaz, who's been tackling a horde of abusive comments, tells us her way of coping with all of this is writing jokes. "If anyone followed my work, they'd know that I use humour to question man-made customs that discriminate against women regardless of religion. I have not actually made fun of Hinduism or any other religion or their teachings. The only people reacting badly to this are some men, who, from their willingness to threaten rape and death, are clearly not practising Hindus," she asserts. So, how then can comedians continue to do their jobs in this environment? Stand-up comic Anuvab Pal, Pania, as well as Broacha feel it's best to not indulge these hateful messages since we're going to be in an online space for a while. Broacha recalls the MTV Bakra days, "Sometimes people get offended. We were on the backfoot so many times and we'd apologise, after which no one was offended. But, the way this is unfolding, it looks like organised behaviour."

Nuanced writing

Anirban Das Gupta
Anirban Dasgupta

In the past week, many comedians including Joshua, Sahil Shah and Rohan Joshi, have put out apologies for jokes made years ago. So, do such instances have an effect on content? While condoning censorship, Pal reveals that it leads to cleverer jokes — "Censorship pushes you to find newer ways to tell your joke." Fernandes, on the other hand, feels that while what any comic chooses to talk about is a personal choice and shouldn't be determined by pressure, it helps to be aware of the socio-political climate and adapt. Pania points out that such instances will possibly lead to nuanced writing. His advice: "Be clear of legal implications of what you're saying, and if someone doesn't laugh, that's the biggest feedback.".

Eye on security

Daniel Fernandes and Balraj Ghai
Balraj Ghai and Daniel Fernandes

While speaking of protection, Broacha calls for increased security at venues when they open up. Balraj Ghai, owner of The Habitat, however, feels, "You shouldn't have to find protection for your speech in a country that allows you the freedom of it. The Habitat is a platform for not just comedy, but also other forms of art. Sure, we can hire bouncers, screen audience and open-micers, but that doesn't mean the threat won't loom outside the space." Anirban Dasgupta and Vaz, meanwhile, demand that the law take its course. "In some cases the perpetrators go scot-free. The police and the authorities have to do their jobs," he says. Vaz also concurs, "There is nothing we can do other than depend on law enforcement and the justice system to prevail. To relegate art to the back-burner in favour of 'not causing offence' is to accept that we'll remain in the Dark Ages." Many feel that social media platforms should also take responsibility in cases of cyberbullying. "Unless social media platforms themselves clamp down on bots, it's difficult. Maybe we can talk to them about this," suggests Pania.

Radhika Vaz and Anuvab Pal
Radhika Vaz and Anuvab Pal

All said and done, Pal believes that artforms go through these phases. "Comedy will survive this. For every crazy person out there, the audience has been very supportive," he points out. We see what he means in a video put together by an Instagram page @humansforhumour, where stand-up comedy fans from India to Germany have extended solidarity to the community, and shared how comedians have helped them question things, apart from making them laugh. Fernandes, who shared the video, thus, sums up: "Comedians are a tough bunch of people. We're in the business of laughs, and we'll always find a way to make that happen. And after the dust settles, we will still be here to entertain you."

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