Laughing Like a Savarna


Jun 30, 2023


Image Credit: Getty/Hitesh Sonar For The Swaddle

Every month, Prof. Ravikant Kisana (aka Buffalo Intellectual) brings you field notes from Savarna culture.

In certain corners of Mumbai, and now other big cities, a very interesting subculture has been developing over the last decade or so. In small hall venues and offbeat pubs, where entry is often restricted and pricey, gather a group aspiring to be comedians. The audience is also usually other aspiring comedians. The stage is usually occupied by Savarna men, dressed in t-shirts with English sitcom or cult Hollywood pop-culture references, lubricated with a beer or two. Thus ensues the humor: sex jokes, curse words, and urban slang – supposed observational humor à la Jerry Seinfeld: “Have you ever noticed…” 

The sets usually include a middle-class parents joke, a joke about an awkward dynamic with a domestic worker or a driver, how difficult it is to date in the big city, and a gag about not being able to afford something. Outside these sets, the insular world of stand-up transitions into an insular world of gossip. Whose YouTube clip has how many views, whose joke is hack, who’s sleeping with whom – all culminating in the creation contributing to the “struggling comic life” archetype, constructed on the foundation of a story of coming from a “struggling, middle-class home.” In the context of a city like Mumbai, where lakhs shit on open railway tracks every morning, a lot of these “struggles” sound suspiciously like luxuries. In fact, if there is a city that needs humor, it is Mumbai – a city drowning by the sea, choking on its own endless constructions, a monument to the social inequity and resilience that consumes India. And yet, only a small fraction pays to hear these jokes.

Although comedy in India isn’t new, discourse around stand-up comedy treats it like it is. Stand-up comedy in India has been around for about 12–15 years, but its reach, composition, and demographic remain virtually unchanged in all this time, barring a few comics who have transcended the bubble. 

The sociologies of humor are not very well understood or researched in South Asia, despite a rich tradition of comedy across multiple cultures and languages. Hasya kavi sammelans were regular draws across North Indian small towns till the 1990s and joke books in multiple languages were sold on railway stations till Indian Railways mostly did away with bookstalls. Joke cassettes in Punjabi were so incredibly popular that it catapulted many artists to mainstream success within the region, including the current CM of the state Bhagwant Mann. Yet, the emergence of English-speaking, metropolitan-residing Savarnas – and their attempt at recreating US-style comedy clubs of the early 2000s – is credited with starting the real comedy “scene” in India. Peaking in the mid-2010s, with comedy collectives such as All India Bakchod (AIB) and The Viral Fever (TVF), this was the scene that English social media and public circles breathlessly talked about. Much has already been written about the shortcomings of their comic gaze, especially in the context of MeToo allegations and the casteism implicit in their viewpoints. 

While their stardom may have faded, it would be instructive to turn the inquiry towards the audiences of these groups. Who were they? What were they laughing at? For instance, when Savarna comics joked about Ambedkarite politician Mayawati’s looks or about Rabri Devi’s political career, what did audiences find so funny? It’s telling that the most failsafe humor, at one time, was directed at specific scapegoats. This brand of “relatable” humor by Savarnas for Savarnas, then, comes at the expense of oppressed-caste, working-class social realities and normalizes a certain dehumanization and humiliation.  

The comic villains of Savarna humor are always working-class Bahujans – the domestic worker who takes too many leaves and does not clean properly, the auto driver who refuses a ride, the street vendor who does not agree to a bargain. In fact, Savarna humor has historically capitalized on the misery of the oppressed. In many households, caste groups like “Chamar,” “Bhangi,” and “Chuda” are routinely used as comic jibes at unpleasant behaviour or those who are perceived as being unclean or ugly. Every now and then, a Savarna figure will get into trouble for casually using these slurs in public, owing to how normalized this is in their lives. 

Thanks to social media outrage by many Ambedkarite and other progressive voices, such tropes no longer find home in the work of mainstream comedians today. However, it is important to ask why Savarna audiences were laughing at these jokes in the first place. 

Related on The Swaddle:

New Voices in the Indian Comedy Scene Might Break Its Reliance on Stereotypes

Feminism uses the concept of the “glass ceiling” to explain how women, during the course of their careers, hit an invisible ceiling that prevents them from rising further. In a caste society, we must view social “relatability” as being borne from a “glass floor.” The Savarna microcosm that lives above the floor is visible to each other; they live and acknowledge each other and consider their cohort to be the entirety of “society.” Yet the vast majority of heaving, struggling masses of the country, predominantly from SC, ST, and marginalized OBC backgrounds, lie under this glass floor. They can look up. They can see the Savarnas talk, discuss things, watch TV, laugh at a comedy show, etc., but they cannot be part of that world. They are excluded from the matrix of social relatability – and even relevance. 

One of the other biggest gaps in the stand-up scene is that Savarna comics, to a large extent, borrow uncritically from Western comics without a shared context. Savarna comics thus look outside, rather than within, for inspiration. When comics with relatively successful careers are interviewed about their art and journey, many of the answers about their approach to comedy sound like recycled tropes picked up from interviews of great comics like George Carlin. On questions of social inequity and problematic humor, Savarna comics often regurgitate the line about “punching up and punching down” – a trope that has been so often repeated that a sharp comic would have made a sketch about the irony implicit within this standard response. In many cases, this line has become a copout for actual reflection or theorizing on what people’s comedy is about in relation to their own social positioning. 

For this urban cohort of comics, any reflection on the purpose of comedy inevitably veers into the familiar discourse around “free speech.” But the fact is that Savarna comedy seems to have no structural understanding of power and its privileges in the context of a caste society. Our purveyors of freedom, in the race to make the edgiest jokes, confuse their fight for free speech with speaking truth to power.

Around 2014, many Savarna comics became “anti-BJP” as a showcase of their punching up credentials, once again aping political humor from the West. This earned many the ire of rightwing political cadres, who have threatened and bullied them online and, in some worrying cases, offline as well. The point worth noting here is that, in many cases, the people who troll these Savarna liberals online are often folks who lie below the glass floor. This is most certainly not to make a case to defend trolls or justify abusive behaviour. The sociological question here really is that when “trolls” – who often come from backgrounds where they would never have the social opportunities to explore passions such as stand-up – lash out against people they consider privileged elites and social hypocrites, who is punching up and who is punching down? 

It’s an incongruence that arises out of attempting political comedy using Western points of reference,– without looking within. But there are arguably better, more Indian ways to do political comedy. Consider the comic work of artist/writer Anurag Minus Verma, where themes of alienation, boredom, and “loserism” cut across artificially created “liberal vs bhakt” binaries of political ideology as constructed by Savarna comics. Despite his very open political stances – his widely heard podcast primarily features Ambedkarite voices – his work transcends ideology and maintains its popularity among individuals from both the left and the right wing. His video diaries about a Rajasthani wedding, a camel farm, etc., were appreciated by a large audience because they felt rooted and close to a reality beyond the narrow elite Savarna frame. His reviews of recognizable urban spaces, such as Starbucks and McDonalds, also hark to a more laidback gaze of a “man on the street,” someone from below the glass floor looking up at the absurd lifestyle of Savarna elites. It creates the possibility of humor that punches up at the very notion of comedy as it has been curated by those in big cities. 

It shows how there’s a mighty ocean of low stakes bored “frivolity” that floats beneath the “glass floor” that the Savarnas standing above never see or address in their humor. In fact, such frivolity is always frowned upon and considered cringe. Before his crossover to mainstream comic cult status, Puneet Superstar was dismissed by many Savarnas as loud and embarrassing. The widely popular TikTok platform, before being banned, used to host various content creators who were considered the “Shudras of the internet.” Now, Facebook and Instagram groups, such as Emo Boys of India, Reptiles of Kurla, etc., have risen to popularity under the audience’s assumption that poor Bahujan creativity was meant to be ridiculed as cringe and unintentionally funny. But it’s an assumption that ascribes intention to some comics and takes it away from others – otherwise, what makes audiences so sure that these content creators weren’t intentionally creating comedy? No one has bothered to investigate whether this is the case, assuming the creators are so out of touch that they cannot tell that millions are laughing at their reels. For the Savarna, these are irrelevant nuances to unpack, because theirs is a laugh meant to humiliate the content creator and ridicule their attempt at creativity. But humor comes from social contexts, so what is it about the lives of folks living above the glass floor that some tropes are considered funny and relatable, while others aren’t worth laughing with but laughing at? 

One explanation is that most Savarna lives have always been wrapped around a myth of eternal victimhood. It is perhaps a vital component of the anthropology of Brahminism, which needs a victim complex to justify its vicious, petty, personal, and structural violence against some of the most oppressed peoples. In all those tropes, the victim is the Savarna whose life has been inconvenienced and the calling out of that inconvenience forms the punchline. In this construct of humor, working-class Bahujans are not human beings in the Savarna comic gaze – they are “humanoid appliances,” “person-like apps” who must always deliver what is asked of them. The frustration-victimhood that comes from being denied services forms a key axis of Savarna artistic mediocrity across many artforms, where lack of success is always blamed on the perceived stupidity of the audience. The assumption is that mainstream audiences “do not get” the brilliance of Savarna genius. Even in abject failure and mediocrity, the myth of eternal victimhood saves Savarnas by relocating the blame. Within this narrative, it is thus unimaginable for Bahujan masses to step outside their ascribed service roles and step into the role of the comic themselves. 

Comedy in Savarna India may not have fully taken off in the way stand-up sustains audiences in the US, but it has certainly found a home on social media apps like Instagram. Ostensibly, career comics and influencers rely on “safe” content, leaning on daily household occurrences, tropes of sibling rivalry, parental nagging, stress of college/work, and lack of a love life. A closer look at the work of several leading comic influencers reveals that their content too is essentially aimed at mocking the lack of social sophistication or refinement around them. For instance, Ankita (sahigal.ankita) – 2023 winner of Cosmo Bloggers Award for (female) comic of the year – regularly creates reels parodying the conservative-traditional “newly married” bride, complete with bad makeup and lipstick on her teeth. The humor here is to ridicule the aspiration of upward mobility in these women, who have not yet mastered the use of makeup or English words. The contrast of their base social roughness and upward class dreams is supposed to be funny and is liked and shared by thousands of Ankita’s followers on Instagram, a platform that remains inherently Savarna in its prime composition and aesthetic. Elsewhere, Adarsh (adarsh_suyal) posts sketches that include a drunk character who routinely mispronounces English words for comic effect. The Savarna fascination with making fun of poor English is interesting to unpack. Good English is the essential marker for social class and caste in India. However, a white-skinned French person’s poor usage of English, for example, would not be mocked in a Savarna space. Instead, it would be seen as endearing, or even desirable. So the humor here does not come from the misuse of language per se; it comes from socially oppressed Indians attempting to assimilate into the urban English life and failing at it. Once again, it is a laughter designed to humiliate. 

Beyond these corporate-facing Savarna influencers of Instagram lies a cruder humour space for openly caste-based comedy in the meme ecosystem. One handle called “Being Baniya” (being.baniyaaa) says on its bio “No Castism” (sic). The page has community-based humor that essentializes and glorifies the Bania caste pride as one obsessed with commerce and profit, lavish marriages, and the Hindu sanatan dharm. Other, even more “dank” meme accounts with tens of thousands of followers often cross over from Instagram into Reddit forums, Telegram groups, Discord servers and, in some cases, even porn communities. The “humor” here enters a darker realm of unrestrained, unchecked casteism, Islamophobia, and pornographic sexism. These groups splinter into thousands of smaller, niche subreddits – ranging from outright pornographic degradation to caste and Hindu supremacist “funny/dank” diatribes – which increase in controversy the deeper one tunnels down from Reddit. From this dimension, feuds between “trad” and “raita” rightwingers or “Bulli Bai”/ “Sulli Deals” cohorts sometimes spill over into the mainstream discourse but are quickly forgotten again. While exploring the scope of this realm is beyond the scope of this piece, it is instructive to observe that these disparate threads of sexual aggression against women and marginalized communities are built with “humor” as the base theme. Contrary to popular belief, it is not rural and small-town India that populates these troll spaces; the English proficiency, the mimetic references, and self disclosures often indicate youth from very elite IB schools, engineering hubs, and tech firms. This is Savarna humor retreating into untraceable spaces to avoid scrutiny. 

One is reminded of a scene from the little known 2004 Bollywood film Run. While the main protagonist of the film is Abhishek Bacchan, the comedy of Vijay Raaz’s character has become a cult favorite of Bahujan humor. The “kauwa biryani” scene has widespread recall, wherein the tantrum-throwing showoff played by Raaz gets tricked into eating a crow and starts cawing like one. He later gets fooled into jumping into a filthy sewer. It is built upon familiar tropes of most subaltern humor from across South Asia, which almost always features an elite (often explicitly identified as Savarna and usually male) character who has become too cultured or Westernized. When he returns to his native village or town, forgetting the ins and outs of the system he grew up in, he makes very basic errors much to the joy of the poor folk around him. The setup for such jokes and performances always hinges on the elite making a very hypocritical point about their lifestyles, which is inconsistent with their upbringing or praxis. And instead of responding, the poor Bahujan simply watches the elite fall flat on their face from their own idiocy. Generations of Bollywood comics from the great Mehmood to the legendary Johnny Lever have effectively utilized these tropes. Sadly, such humor is amiss in the Savarna comic mind, which often finds it too crude, reductive, and unsophisticated. 

Famous Savarna comedian Vir Das, in a recent clip posted from his official YouTube channel, announced that he will soon be attempting what no other Indian comic has done, i.e., he intends to fill out a whole stadium. He is so convinced about the monumental nature of this event that he is recording the behind-the-scenes for a docu-series about it. While the originality of this claim is dubious (many mass comedians of yore have held massive public shows), it does bring us back to the important question– why haven’t modern Savarna comedians filled out arenas yet, in the manner that a lot of successful comics abroad are able to do? Today, even the most recognizable Savarna comics like Kunal Kamra, Kanan Gill, etc., sell out only small to mid-sized auditoriums with seating in the hundreds, often in cities with populations in crores. 

Vir Das, in another clip, mentions how his grandfather is a Padma Shri winner, the fourth-highest civilian award in India. In the anecdote, he casually shares that he could not make it to the official family celebration for the same, and so he called in a favour with his friend, the late actor Tom Alter, to step in. The punchline of this joke involved Tom, a White person, being fawned over by Das’s family. The real punchline here is the irony of joking about a famous actor attending a family celebration of an impressively elite civilian award in a country where millions migrate away from their homes in search of livelihoods and live in inhuman conditions just to survive. 

Maybe the reason arenas are not selling out to listen to Savarnas telling jokes, then, is because the joke is elsewhere. The few who are in on it laugh. The rest are irrelevant. The audience below the glass floor remains there.

End of act. Curtains. 


Written By Ravikant Kisana

Ravikant Kisana is a professor of Cultural Studies and his research looks at the intersections of caste with structures of privilege and popular culture. He tweets/Instagrams as ‘Buffalo Intellectual,’ focussing on critically scrutinizing Savarna systems of cultural hegemony. His podcast, ‘Mind Your Buffalo’ is available for streaming on all platforms.


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