An Indian comedian is facing an onslaught of criticism and calls for police to investigate over a comedy monologue that spoke of the country’s contradictions on women’s safety, religion, Covid and politics.
The routine performed on a US tour by Vir Das, one of India’s most popular comedians, went viral in India this week after it spoke of “two Indias” – conflicting elements of his own country that, he felt, had an element of the absurd.
“I come from an India where we worship women during the day and gang rape them at night,” Daswho has had several Netflix specials, told an audience at the sold-out show in Washington DC last Saturday.
He went on: “I come from an India where we take pride in being vegetarian, and yet run over the farmers who grow our vegetables.” His routine finished with him speaking of the pride he had for India and asking for the audience to raise a cheer for his motherland.
After the video was uploaded to YouTube, it quickly went viral across social media. The polarised responses pointed – just as Das had – to a divided India , where freedom of speech is now regularly clashing with hardline nationalist sentiments, and the space for political comedy is shrinking.
Aditya Jha, a spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), filed a police complaint against Das for “insulting the country”.
“These derogatory statements against women and India are inflammatory. They were made in the US and malign the image of our country internationally. I want police to conduct an investigation,” said Jha. The police have not yet registered the case.
The Mumbai BJP secretary, Vivekanand Gupta, also contacted Delhi police to request that a case be filed against Das for “hurting the feelings of nationalists”. The BJP chief minister of Madhya Pradesh said that Das was now banned from performing in the state.
The outrage was not contained to the BJP. A leader from the opposition Congress party, Abhishek Singhvi, wrote on Twitter that “vilifying the nation as a whole in front of the world is just not done”.
Vehemently pro-government Bollywood actor Kangana Ranaut, who is known for rarely holding back, said that “such creative work targeting an entire race is soft terrorism… strict action must be taken against such criminals”.
Ander, egter, celebrated Das’s routine as an incisive and satirical take on India. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said that Das was “standing up” for the citizens of India. Another opposition MP, Mahua Moitra, thanked Das for exposing the two Indias – “one having a laugh and the other filing complaints with the police”.
The outcry prompted Das to issue a clarification on his monologue. “The video is a satire about the duality of two very separate India’s that do different things. Like any nation has light and dark, good and evil within it. None of this is a secret,” he wrote in a statement posted online. Hy het bygevoeg: “I take great pride in my country and I carry that pride across the world.”
For many on India’s comedy circuit, the reaction was a further sign of how comedy is facing the threat of a crackdown – which is now spreading beyond the country’s borders. . While the industry initially emerged in India as a vehemently anti-establishment platform, comedians now spoke of their fears of even touching upon politics and religion in their routine in recent years.
“There is no space for political satire in this country anymore,” said Vishesh Arora, a comedy manager and booker who runs tours across India. “Comedians who have any political content are struggling these days, getting two or three shows cancelled every month. Venues are refusing to host certain comedians and comedians are even scared to improvise on stage anymore in case something they say goes viral and they get police cases filed against them.”
In Januarie, Munawar Faruqui, a Muslim comedian, was arrested and detained for almost a month for a joke he did not even tell, after he was accused of hurting religious sentiments and insulting Hindu gods. Despite Faruqui’s subsequent release, his shows have repeatedly been cancelled after threats from rightwing groups, including a recent show in Goa where 500 people threatened to set themselves on fire if he was allowed to go on.
Arora said it was only in the last three or four years that he had begun to see comedy become a target.
“Vir knows India, so I don’t think this reaction would come as a surprise to him,” added Arora. “But he is brave for going out there and saying it anyway.”
Das had been one of the few comedians to jump to Faruqui’s defence earlier this year. “The system is not just telling comedians what they can joke about, it’s also telling you what you can laugh at,” wrote Das on Twitter. “The main target isn’t our pen, it’s your throat.”