Why so serious? Have a laugh at Indian elections

In the current age of twitter, YouTube, Facebook memes and TikTok, one can find much to laugh about.

By Aditya Sinha

Published: Tue 19 Mar 2019, 7:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 19 Mar 2019, 9:48 PM

Along with parliamentary elections in India, there is a spike in political satire. One might believe Indians lack a sense of humour: we are notoriously thin-skinned; our TV news debates are internationally famous for their shrieking; our film comedies rely on such elevated humour as double entendre and flatulence; our novels are boring and unfunny; and stand-up comedy plays it safe by sticking to sex or marriage. No wonder non-resident Indian (NRI) auntyjis sit quietly at parties with grim looks on their faces.
Actually there has been humour in India, even political humour. In my childhood, we read such humour in the vernacular magazines of our respective states. In newspapers we enjoyed the pocket cartoons that took a wild and acerbic look at societal politics or general slices of life - in this regard RK Laxman (the brother of the novelist RK Narayan) was the best-known of the trend-setters. After the satellite TV explosion, even news channels carried shows of satire: So Sorry on AajTak and Gustakhi Maaf on NDTV are long-running ones.
In the current age of twitter, YouTube, Facebook memes and TikTok, one can find much to laugh about. On Twitter, the medium dictates satire to be snappy or snarky one-liners based on headlines or political quotes. And while Twitter is quite democratic, humour needs calibration; it is not an art many Indians have mastered. (One master, though, is Akash Banerjee, whose YouTube series "#TheDeshBhakt" is an entertaining explainer.) Memes are funny, but somehow, I think, they are just evidence of how unemployed Indians are. The videos on TikTok and elsewhere follow a formula where a popular song is played over an incongruous video grabs (like the variations of the video of a BJP parliamentarian beating a party colleague with his shoe), or where a political speech is edited for funny effect.
The best satire requires a narrative that is more than just the sum of one-liners. Web-streaming has come to our rescue; I recently watched two performances that are evidence of the opening up of Indian political satire. One was Kunal Kamra's 12-minute video on YouTube uploaded last week, called simply Stand Up Comedy 2019; and the other was the latest episode of Hasan Minhaj's Patriot Act on Netflix. Kunal has a regular YouTube show called Shut Up Ya Kunal, and his politics are quite clearly not right-wing. Similarly, Hasan, the California-born son of Indian immigrants, earlier worked on The Daily Show and cannot be mistaken for a right-winger. (It brings up the question of why there are no visible right-wing comedians or satirists; it is probably the same reason why most right-wingers do not make for rigorous intellectuals, relying solely on mythology, rumour, fake news, and WhatsApp for their scholarship.)
Kunal's performance included many moments of genius, and it made me LOL at several places. He jumps right into the nexus of business and politics, naming India's best-known (and richest) industrialists. He also does a killer impression of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Surprisingly, he has a wildly appreciative audience - given how pro-Modi Mumbai has been, it is possibly an indication of the cracking of the popularity monolith - and he dives deep into his material without trying to explain anything.
Hasan's performance, on the other hand, is for a wider audience and thus has too much exposition that it sometimes seems like a political science class, though the comedian's sharp wit breaks through every so often. Also, his show makes use of video-clips, graphics and web-shots, so it gives the impression of being fast-paced razzmatazz. However, so much time goes into explanation that there isn't enough for humour - and there's much less ribald humour - though I did appreciate his analysis of the similarities and differences between Modi and US President Donald Trump.
Hopefully we will see more of this kind of satire. Elections seem like the right time for everyone to emerge from hiding and poke fun at our political leaders because one, they're too busy fighting elections, and two, it's uncertain who will be in power by end-May, and whether or not they have a sense of humour. (Though if Modi is the favourite to return to power then given his government's vindictive nature, the comedians are taking a big personal risk.)
What's missing in India, however, is a true long-form satire. There are just no funny novels about the current moment or zeitgeist. I'm nowadays reading Frankenstein in Baghdad, a story of how a man collects pieces of corpses that are the victims of terrorism and war, and assembles a person who then wanders off into Baghdad. By introducing this surreal element, author Ahmed Saadawi manages to extricate humour from the fear and tragedy of innocent citizens caught in a warzone. I've also read two collections of short stories from the 1920's Soviet Union, and I'm convinced no history book captures the absurdity of the Soviet system as well as these do. I am happy therefore that Indians are (re)discovering a sense of humour; it is the best way to take a proper measure of today, and leave a real record for tomorrow.
Aditya Sinha is a senior journalist based in India, and author, most recently, of 'India Unmade: How the Modi government broke the economy'

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