Anuvab Pal: The two nation state theory of Indian comedy

The Nation keeps asking itself, ‘Do we have a sense of humor?’

I walked into a cocktail party recently. Varying clusters had formed around the room, each with its own dynamic, discussing the movie of the week, the losing of weight, high profile infidelities. I entered a safari suit cluster just when the conversation reached a lull. To bridge the awkward moment, one safari suit, perhaps in his early fifties, said, ‘I’ll tell you a joke’ adding, with casual patriarchy, ‘Not for Sheetal’. Sheetal (the only lady among us) giggled shyly and left us, as is the common practice among a certain generation in India when a profane joke is about to ensue.

He began. ‘Why did it take so long for Akbar to masturbate?’ and without waiting delivered the punch line, ‘because he was coming via Agra. Get it, coming, ha ha ha’. The cluster erupted. This group of testosterone had just heard the funniest thing ever. I was wondering how to get myself out this and also the petty detail of why he asked if people got ‘coming’ and not ‘Via Agra’. ‘I’ll tell you one more’, he said, then ‘whisky’ immediately after that. ‘Eh give him two’ said one of his audiences perhaps assuming that Black Label is directly proportional to wit.

‘What did Bill Gates say to Monica Lewinsky?’ said our hero, unstoppable. ‘Baby, I want it Microsoft’.  People lost it. Some spilled their drinks. Two dropped their snacks. Some fell. One, laughing uncontrollably, left us because he couldn’t take it anymore. Our safari suited joke-teller had become a confluence of Monty Python, Jerry Seinfeld, Woody Allen, Ricky Gervais, Ali G, Larry David et al for his listeners; a member of some hallowed chamber of comic pantheon hereby established in this Mumbai garden. They would never think of him and not laugh. As I slithered away, un-tickled, some were still rummaging through the debris, ‘Microsoft, super, what a line boss, what a line…’

Comedy in urban India is going through an unexpected revolution. I say revolution, as if to suggest that it has come out of necessity (as the above anecdote hopefully reveals) but it didn’t.  Elite India always asked itself, after watching something humorous and western, why can’t we have an Indian Ali G or Seinfeld or even a mass product like a Hugh Grant romantic comedy?  But no one did much about it, except to watch Russell Peters, the Canadian Indian stand-up comic do Chinese impressions and jokes about his testicles (sometimes together) or download The Office or Entourage.

Suddenly, across Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore a range of British and Australian comedians started showing up. Local comedians like Vir Das and Papa CJ (that’s not a restaurant but a person) found release through larger producers and bigger gigs. The Hangover, a Hollywood comedy about the aftermath of a Las Vegas night (tiger in the bathroom, baby in the closet, lost groom, lost tooth, Mike Tyson, unplanned marriage to stripper, clearly nothing hugely specific to us) became the highest grossing English language comedy ever. City hipsters found themselves laughing every other weekend, in halls previously populated by Naseeruddin Shah in robes and a sword, to Australians making jokes about Varanasi god men (bribes and weed) or Vir Das ranting about the Indian male sexual organ (small).

Then of course there’s mass India, people laughing at sexual innuendos, established puns and local mimicry and for whom jokes like Microsoft or Viagra at that cocktail party are on the sophisticated end of the scale. This India, arguably, has undergone a larger revolution than its urban counterpart, seeing the rise of young comics born out of an explosion of reality television. Several Indian TV channels have gone on to create their own comedy shows syndicating hit American shows like Last Comic Standing. They are composed either of traditional stand-up or skits (sketches like Saturday Night Live) and titled, modestly, with names like The Great Indian Laughter Challenge or The Great Indian Comedy Show.   Judged by a short tempered ex-cricketer weaving bad puns (Navjot Sidhu) and a late night TV host (Shekhar Suman), these shows have turned small-town Indian funny men doing impressions at tea stalls, into national celebrities. Suman and Sidhu have also become quite wealthy in the process (the former, also a calendar model for Gold’s Gym and the latter, a Member of Parliament).

Though wildly popular, (check out any intercity Jet flight’s entertainment system), this comedy is not often watched by the cultured classes, not because of the language but because of the aesthetic. Jokes, like everywhere else, involve telling a story and its foundation is the taboo (Ricky Gervais opener, ‘George Michael was caught having sex with a midget on a piano, his excuse…it’s an Elton John tribute’). But the mass Indian comedy describes non-confrontational and harmless incidents, spicing things up with odd noises, strange accents and body contortions. A lot of the time, it imitates Bollywood, never the lucrative terrain of sexual humor (the lifeblood of western comedy).

I once saw Sunil Pal (we’re not related), currently the most famous product of Hindi television comedy do a bit where he went, ‘If you go to a Punjabi wedding, they will tell you, do you want tandoori chicken?’  Some of us would say there was nothing funny in the statement. He said it in what he thought was a Sikh accent and laid special emphasis on tandoori chicken (even doing a Bhangra gesture to bring home the point). The crowd lost it.

Suman and Sidhu have to keep laughing through all the jokes as per their contract with the channel (we encourage on our reality shows; this is not Simon Cowell land). It’s sort of pathetic and makes you feel sad for them. Then again, if someone said to me, show up at an Andheri studio, wear a beige suit from Digjam, and laugh recklessly at anything said by a bunch of not very funny people for x crores a year, I may not say no either.

Even more pathetic are movie stars who show up as celebrity judges on these shows to promote whatever they are peddling (movie, shampoo, hard to tell nowadays). Not having the training to continuously laugh at nothing, they wear a weak polite smile exposing their more refined sense of humor as if to say, ‘I’m smiling because my producers want me here but I have no fucking idea what you’re saying because I’m posh. I laugh at Sex And The City’.’

Indian comedy, like the nation, is booming. But as in economics, two India’s are forming here. Here’s an example, I recently saw in the waiting lounge at Mumbai airport. A cleaner accidentally slipped on a wet floor. A Rajkot bound passenger with a moustache burst out laughing. Sitting next to him, a New Delhi bound teenager with spiky hair and an Ipod, rushed to help. Sometime later, the airline put up a sign which accidentally read, ‘Business Class Passengers to Rajkot Get A Head’. The young man couldn’t control himself, the Rajkot man obeyed, and boarded.  

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Anuvab Pal is an acclaimed playwright and screenplay writer. His screenplays include the award-winning Loins of Punjab Presents and The President is Coming. His plays Chaos Theory, Fatwa, Paris and Life, Love and ETIBDA have been performed at numerous festivals. Anuvab has also written for acclaimed sitcoms Frasier and Law & Order. He currently lives and works in Mumbai. His novel, The President is Coming is published by Random House India in October 2009.

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9 responses to “Anuvab Pal: The two nation state theory of Indian comedy

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  3. Also, a lot of western stand up comics (AFAIK) use religion as material. Eddie Izzard, who I find brilliant has most of his show centered around The Old Testament / Jesus.

    Such religious humor would never work in India. We take our religion way too seriously to have a laugh about the ridiculous and far fetched bits of it.

  4. “Elite India always asked itself, after watching something humorous and western, why can’t we have an Indian Ali G or Seinfeld or even a mass product like a Hugh Grant romantic comedy? But no one did much about it, except to watch Russell Peters or download The Office or Entourage.”

    very true. But you didn’t take a shot at answering the question. Why hasn’t anyone done much about it? Why haven’t more ‘Sarabhai vs Sarabhai’ (indian version of everybody loves raymond) – esque attempts been made? Not that SVS was anywhere remotely close to the quality of western sitcoms, but a worthy effort, nonetheless, in the land of illiterate programming that is the reality tv scene in india.

    “Why hasn’t there been a ‘Friends’ or a ‘Seinfeld’ or ‘Scrubs’? Why is our version of ‘Whose line is it anyway’ so lame?”, I had asked someone from MTV Colors, citing that the only decent sitcoms since the 90s had been Dekh Bhai Dekh, Zabaan Sambhal Ke and Office Office. She said all three of those had one thing common, Ashwini Dhir as a writer. She said the dearth of quality writing was the problem.

    So, Mr Pal, who better to remedy the situation than you? If anyone can write an urban indian sitcom to match the quality of the western stuff that we have been downloading like junkies, its you. Not a lame copy effort like ‘Hello Friends’ (the horrendous Zee TV effort all those years ago) or coming across as artificial like ‘Dil Kya Chahta Hai’ (on Star One) but the first real alternative to the immature amateurish slapstick that is the current hindi sitcom.

    IMO, a well cast, well-written show, with a half-decent celebrity as one of the leads, could potentially do to the sitcom what KBC did to the game show. There just hasn’t been such a show to give the urban audiences something to be excited about.

  5. Pingback: The two nation state theory of Indian comedy – Random House India | anuvabpal·

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  7. “the lucrative terrain of sexual humor (the lifeblood of western comedy).” I think this is a rather narrow summary of Western comedy. It’s true, of course, that sexuality is a key element of much Western comedy, but there are many fields of humour and comedy without any reliance on sexual humour. Given the intensely, irrevocably subjective nature of comedy, it is just as true in “The West” (not the monolith your article paints it) that different types of people laugh at different things.

    As an aside, your little bio has an oddly worded phrase in it: “Anuvab has also written for acclaimed sitcoms Frasier and Law & Order” – Law and Order a sitcom?!

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