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What are We Laughing at? Politics of Recognition and Representation in Indian Stand-Up Comedy
Stand-up comedy in India from The Great Indian Laughter Challenge (2005) to stand up specials digitally released on OTT platforms such as AmazonPrime, Netflix and Youtube has come a long way. Stand-up comedy as defined by Lawrence E. Mintz is “an encounter between a single, standing performer behaving comically and/or saying funny things directly to an audience, unsupported by very much in the way of costume, prop, setting, or dramatic vehicles” (1985: 71), a genre that is a relatively recent phenomenon in India as just a decade ago slapstick comedy and mimicry was what passed off as comedy in both cinema and television. The growing pub culture in cities like Bangalore and Mumbai and now in Delhi-NCR, the explosion of digital media which enabled Indian audience to watch stand-up artists such as Russel Peters and the opening of the Comedy Store in India which gave a space to stand-up comics to perform could be some of the factors that contributed to the emergence, success and proliferation of stand-up comedy in India. Currently, it can be looked at as a new site of entertainment with its own market dynamics that connects local and global flows of information and consumption, hence requiring a more nuanced engagement with the genre. Stand-up comedy, as outlined by Brodie tells jokes but in addition to being funny it is observational, reflective, perspectival, critical and vernacular.
Humour entails the creation in-groups and out-groups, “a nuanced play of exclusion and inclusion, a dialectic of hostility (laughing at) and joyful solidarity (laughing with)”, thus while some forms of humour could be perceived as bullying, others create a sense of community and belonging. Indian Stand up comedian Kunal Kamra’s 12-minute act available on YouTube which begins with “Yeh mere aur Ambaniji ke beech mein Modiji kya kar rahein hain?” (What is Mr. Modi doing between Mr. Ambani and me?) has more than 22 million views. While the likes of Kamra, Varun Grover, Sanjay Rajoura might be doing “charged humour” uninhibited in their contestation and critique of the dominant ideology, others like Daniel Fernandes are more subtle in critiquing the functioning of systemic failures, institutional structures, populist imagination or social malaise. There are also a few like Kenny Sebastian who engages with topics like the middle class and their everyday life and clarified his aesthetic and political choices in a gig titled ‘Why don’t I do jokes about politics in India’. Simultaneously, the case of Aditi Mittal who takes constant digs at the rampant sexism and misogyny of the society in acts like “Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say” while she herself is accused of sexual harassment by a colleague makes us question the ‘wokeness’ of Indian stand-up comedy. The #MeToo movement laid bare the deep, dark secrets of the stand-up world and three comedy groups, Schitzengiggles Comedy (SnG), All India Bakchod (AIB) and East India Comedy (EIC) either fell apart or saw the loss of some of the founding figures.
Although the influence of British (mainly alternative) and American (mainly observational) forms of stand-up comedy is acknowledged and evidenced by the form and nature of the performance, can we also look at Hasya Kavi Sammelan, as another possible influence as comedy lies somewhere between vernacular and popular (Brodie, 2014)? Are the various theories of humour such as superiority, incongruity and relief adequate to grapple with stand-up comedy in India? Is there an ecosystem that has been created wherein comics reach out to restaurants, bars and pubs to organise open mics as pointed out by Sanjay Manaktala with respect to Bangalore? What is the audience paying for? Are they paying for the humour or the multimedia experience that they encounter in an act such as A History of India, where Vir Das uses large screens to revisit Indian history through the lens of humour? How do we engage with the use of comic personas and the dynamic between a performer and their audience especially in sites like the Canvas Laugh Clubs’s “Kill or Die” that allows the audience to gong the performer off stage? What happens when a stand-up artist becomes a celebrity, as Papa CJ says, “Comedy is all grass-roots and anti-establishment. Being a celebrity is against its ethos.” A stand-up comic is considered the truth teller of his/her age but if they are performing in elite spaces such as clubs and pubs, that are governed by the politics of production, distribution and consumption, who are they telling the truth to? How do we look at the growing digital spaces with an increasing number of stand up comedy specials being announced so very often? Stand-up comedy occupies an “indeterminate place between mediated and intimate cultures” as it is performed before a live audience and is commoditised in the form of a recorded version of the performance which can be circulated through various distributive networks (Brodie). How do these mediatised performances, then, alter the relationship between the performer and her audience? Are those on the margins perceived as agents of humour? How does language play a role in the politics, aesthetics, circulation and reception of the act? Do cities such as Bangalore where multiple languages are spoken offer more fodder for stand-up comedy, as compared to other cities? Does collision or conflict provide better material for stand-up comedy, since “If everything was kosher, our material would be homogenous too” (Sundeep Rao). How gendered,if at all, is the stand-up scene in India? Does the form/structure of the act also contribute to the meaning intended by the artist? What happens when the stand-up comic uses the form to talk of a traumatic experience, both personal or collective? Has there been a change in the form of comedy leading to more inclusivity?
The proposed volume intends to grapple with the aforementioned issues within the larger theme of politics of recognition and representation. The book solicits chapters on Indian stand-up comedy related to the themes (but not limited to them) mentioned below:-
- Interrogating the term ‘Indian stand-up comedy’
- Politics of language and laughter
- Charged humour vs ‘safe’/profitable comedy
- Stand-up comics as parrhesiastes
- Performance of the self and comic personas
- Historical lineage of stand-up in India
- Comedy and other forms of artistic expression
- Laughter Clubs, urbanism and stand-up comedy
- Surveillance, Censorship and Trolling
- Economy of production and consumption of stand-up comedy
We are in touch with two leading international publishing houses and should hear from them soon.
Submission of Abstracts (500 words): 15th December, 2021
Notification about acceptance: 22nd December, 2021
Submission of final chapters: 25th January, 2022
Abstracts should be sent to email@example.com
- Dr. Richa Chilana, Assistant Professor, School for Life, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun, India.
- Dr. Rashi Bhargava, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Maitreyi College, University of Delhi, Delhi, India.