New Voices in the Indian Comedy Scene Might Break Its Reliance on Stereotypes
Remember dumb Sardarji jokes? Or stingy Marwadi jokes? Or the neverending Bandra girl/South Delhi girl jokes? India is a country so diverse and so bigoted that we have never run out of cultural stereotypes to laugh about and for professional comedians thrive on.
Take, for example, the comedy bits thrown up by Youtube when you search for Gujarati comedy: there are jokes on Gujarati food, Gujarati families,
Gujarati tourists, Gujaratis on social media, Gujarati cooking shows, and the more random generalizations. Of course, this isn’t an intra-India problem; Indians as a whole have been recipients of racism from comic shows like The Simpsons (remember Apu?). Actor Kal Penn once revealed a horrific list of stereotypically South Asian roles he had to audition for — including one for the much-loved sitcom King of Queens. Stand-up comedians like Russel Peters also rode the Indian cultural stereotype wave to stardom.
While cultural stereotypes are easy wins for comedians looking to elicit a good laugh, they tend to do a lot more bad than good. For one, people laughing at these jokes might not think it’s just a joke — they might be laughing along because they genuinely believe their bigotry is being validated. For instance, multiple studies have stated that sexist men are more likely to enjoy sexist humor. When a group of people — the stand-up comedian and their audience — make jokes about another group, the laughter is a function of looking down upon the group that’s the brunt of the jokes. When the group that’s the brunt of the jokes is more privileged, the jokes are punching up and when that particular group isn’t, it’s punching down.
Stereotype humor is almost always punching down.
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However, new voices, that aren’t standard comedy dudebros, are subverting the stereotypes the audience expects of them — and still eliciting laughs. These people — from different genders, classes, and sexualities — draw power from their often stereotyped backgrounds and add fascinating twists, irony, and unique storytelling to make their audience laugh along with them. These voices in the Indian stand-up comedy scene are also pivotal to its eventual evolution from the heavily bro-centric space it began as (and still is).
An important example of subverting stereotypes by speaking truth to power is Deepika Mhatre, who is a stand-up comedian with full-time jobs as both a domestic help in Malad, Mumbai, and a jewelry seller in Mumbai’s local trains. While Bollywood and Indian stand-up comedy has often relied on the sassy domestic help stereotype to get laughs, Mhatre, speaking from the perspective of the domestic help amid the moneyed, punches up gleefully. She routinely calls out the subtle and open discrimination she faces from her ‘madams’ or employers, which is important as it flips the power dynamic. The laughs, which first came for people stereotyping their help, now belong to those who call out employers’ various hypocrisies.
In one comedy set, Mhatre tells the audience she is so special that the building she works in has different glasses and plates, even different lifts, for people like her, calling out people who have an issue with their domestic help ‘polluting their utensils.’ She then adds that none of her ‘madams’ have this problem when she’s making the rotis they eat or when she puts balm on their sore backs.
“My struggles in life have made me strong. Appearing on stage has added to my confidence now, so no, I don’t fear any repercussions. In fact, some madams who bumped into me near the lifts spoke politely to me for the first time. Before, I had been invisible,” Mhatre told The Guardian.
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Another way that comedians have subverted stereotypes in the Indian comedy scene is by just being the complete opposite of the stereotype imposed upon them. Navin Noronha, a stand-up comedian who often does sets about homophobia and being gay, subverts the insidious Bollywood-fed stereotype of a hyper-exaggerated gay man by just being himself.
“I did not venture into comedy thinking that I will inspire someone to break stereotypes or challenge notions. I am up there telling my story,” says Noronha. In his set on being gay, he questions the idea of ‘gay’ being different from ‘normal.’ “What did you expect?” he asks, adding, “Should I ride a unicorn, should I shoot rainbows out of my bum or should I do a Z-snap every time I speak?”
While Noronha is comfortable in his relaxed stage persona, he believes there will be room for different kinds of queerness in the stand-up comedy space someday. He said, “For most of us (hetero-blenders I call ’em), it’s easy to wear a certain style of clothing and not be bullied by it. But it’s unfair that those who do embrace their queerness vehemently should be shunned at any point. I will fight tooth and nail to defend that individual’s right to self-expression,” He added, “Femme or butch, I think the urban audiences are smart enough to not be hateful. One day we shall also have our own Eddie Izzard or Bianca Del Rio. You never know, maybe you’ll see my drag avatar someday. Who says I don’t have a sassy, femme and elegant side to me?”
Sometimes, subversion involves taking a stereotype completely linked to one particular gender and flipping it, causing hilarity and discomfort simultaneously. Agrima Joshua, a stand-up comedian, has taken the age-old stereotype of ‘man wooing/chasing women’ and flipped it to ‘woman wooing/chasing man,’ and turned it into a unique performance for her online and offline audience.
Joshua’s inspiration often comes from much-loved vintage Bollywood. She says, “Lots of comic narratives explore the concept of men as these bungling idiots chasing women [romantically]. ‘Women are not funny’ is an idea that stems from the belief that we’re elegant, elusive creatures of fantasy — we can never be the butt of the joke or even the source of one. But, I went through this phase of revisiting some beautiful cinema from the 60s and 70s, where women (in Bollywood, that too) pulled off tongue-in-cheek dialogue, sang songs to woo the hero and it was hilarious — especially this one scene from Jewel Thief, where Tanuja blatantly hits on Dev Anand.”
The over-reliance on stereotypes may also be a nod to Indian comedy’s low hanging fruit problem. Since the audience laughs at a particular set of jokes, the comedian will rely on the same jokes to rake in the laughs. But, Noronha and Joshua trust their audience. “Most new comics (and some old ones too) go for the lowest hanging fruit when it comes to talking about women or queer people. Slowly but surely, there is a voice of reason. My friends in the Mumbai comedy circuit will run a joke about gay people through me, and likewise for jokes about women. That’s a start,” said Noronha.
Joshua added, “The audience is actually hungry for fresh perspectives and new voices. Even the established comics are now searching for ways to evolve beyond their shtick so they remain relevant. If anything, the comedy scene is evolving fast, because our version of stand-up has grown in the age of the Internet. The audience will get bored quickly and move on if we don’t bring in new voices.”
The need for fresh perspectives from new voices is also a sign that the average stand-up comedy show goer is moving towards wanting more than a tired generalization lobbed at them for easy laughs. How long can you laugh at the same jokes, anyway?
Stereotypes in comedy are both boring and regressive, but comedians with interesting new perspectives are dismissing the easy win of a punch down to have fun with more nuanced, interesting observations about the human condition. While there remains a bit of time to pass before the Indian audience will become the ideal audience for innovation in comedy, the hustle continues to slowly yield fruit and much hilarity.