Why comedy in Narendra Modi’s India is an extreme sport
Last month, opposition leader Rahul Gandhi was sentenced to two years in prison for defamation for making a joke at a 2019 rally that “all thieves” have the surname Modi. A day later, Gandhi was expelled from Parliament.
Dasgupta says opposition parties, including Gandhi, have also targeted writers, cartoonists and other artists during their tenure.
“[But] The difference between the previous regime and the current one is that the current one is more blatant and they are often backed by online mobs that turn into an offline mob very quickly.”
Muslim comedian Munawar Faruqui, for example, was jailed in 2021 for allegedly insulting Hindus. The offense stemmed from content he had uploaded to YouTube the year before – which was interpreted by religious hardliners linked to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party as insulting a Hindu deity.
“Comedy audiences buying tickets in India are as good as anywhere else in the world. They know what they are coming for,” says Dasgupta.
“Perhaps the problem is when you upload something online, an audience in India that doesn’t watch comedy sees a joke and mistakes it for a speech.”
Thakker says she doesn’t post too much material online or delve into religious issues.
“Initially I had a few minutes on these subjects, which I rarely do now… There’s definitely an unspoken level of censorship. For example, there are certain personalities that you cannot comment on; Religious issues are best left untouched.”
Dasgupta agrees, saying it is an unspoken rule that “in India at this time, no joke about religion may be uploaded” to the internet. His own Amazon Prime Special, Take it easycaused some outrage online.
“Nevertheless, Indian online audiences have been seriously offended by jokes about DJs, physical therapists and whatnot, so you have to be prepared for all kinds of backlash and exaggeration.”
The Melbourne International Comedy Festival is now running until April 23rd. Age is the media partner of the festival.