On a pleasantly chilly end-of-winter evening, all eyes are on three men on a Delhi stage. One of them, Varun Grover, is running a dagger through intrusive Indian relatives who pester married couples to procreate.
The worst, he reminds us, are those doddering, grandparent-like figures who resort to emotional blackmail with the cliché: “Marne se pehle mujhe potey/poti ka chehra dekhna hai (I want to see my grandchild’s face before I die).” Or this one: “I bought a kada (bangle) that I want to place on my grandchild’s wrist before I breathe my last.”
If I fall for the lure of a kada as an incentive to have a child, he says, “jab woh bada ho jayega, main usse kya kahoonga? Ki bête, ek din maine do hazaar rupye ki laalach mein aakar tumhe paida kiya?” (What will I tell the child when it grows up? Kid, one day my greed for two thousand rupees prompted me to produce you?)
Of all the deities in this nation’s pantheon of gods, he has the audacity to disparage the most worshipped of them all: the apparently divinely ordained duty of every Indian to yield descendants. Thin-skinned self-appointed guardians of Indian culture may cringe at his words, but thankfully they are either uncharacteristically silent or missing from this hall where the audience collapses into a heap of collective laughter.
Two years earlier in Gurgaon, at the trio’s debut show in the summer of 2014, Varun’s on-stage companion Sanjay Rajoura skewered those who urge people to have children as insurance for their old age. “Matlab bachche paida kiye thhey aapne, aur zindagi bhar karz chukaana hai unko?” he mused. “Indian ma-baap bachche nahin, mutual fund paida karte hai.” (So you produced children but they have to repay the debt all their lives? Indian parents give birth to mutual funds, not children.)
The resultant resounding applause rose to a crescendo when the then new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the just evicted PM Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi came up for discussion. Since then, audiences have come to expect nothing less than delicious impertinence from this threesome that, in under two years, has become arguably the most provocative and popular stand-up comedy collective among urban India’s consumers of Hinglish entertainment.
They call themselves Aisi Taisi Democracy (ATD), which could be literally translated from Hinglish either as Screw Democracy or Democracy Is Screwed. Varun, who coined the name, would like it to be read as This Screwed-Up Democracy.
As the title suggests, they are not your standard-issue stand-up comedians who crack up over sex and sexual expletives. Their USP is unapologetic socio-political satire and their commitment to being anti-establishment. And so from the concept of marriage to family, patriarchy, caste and religion, from Narendra Modi to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, the Bachchans, the Army and Jats, there are no holy cows for these three men.
Team ATD’s earthy humour owes much to its members’ diverse backgrounds. Varun, 36, with a perpetual half-smile on his face, is an engineer turned humourist, lyricist for Bollywood films (Gangs of Wasseypur 1&2, Dum Laga Ke Haisha), and scriptwriter of Masaan. Sanjay, 43, satirist and actor, has eyes perennially on the verge of a twinkle or a temper. He earlier worked as a software pro in Singapore, San Francisco and across India. Both are originally from Uttar Pradesh. Both were well-established on the comedy circuit before ATD was formed, and continue to do solo shows.
Their partner in crime comes armed with the wisdom of his 52 years, a PhD in Environmental Toxicology from Cornell University and a guitar. Veteran musician Rahul Ram of the iconic band Indian Ocean has also been associated with the Narmada Bachao Andolan. He describes his role in ATD as that of “a sit-down musician among stand-up artistes”.
ATD’s sharp tongues have not spared any Indian neta or devta, but it is for their Modi and BJP jibes that they have found themselves constantly described as “courageous” since the 2014 elections.
At the India Today Conclave last weekend, Varun addressed ruling party supporters’ claims that India’s ongoing intolerance debate is a manufactured controversy unsubstantiated by facts. The evidence is everywhere even if, as he admits, it is “anecdotal”.
“I’ve been writing comedy since 2005,” he explains. “For the initial nine of these 11 years, UPA was in power in India, but at that time no one ever came to me and said, ‘Yaar bahut brave ho tum, yeh jokes kar rahey ho.’ (You are very brave to crack such jokes.) Yet in the past two years, I’ve been told this every single week, ‘Bahut dum hai tum mein’ (You have a lot of guts) or ‘Itna panga kyun le rahey ho?’ (Why are you taking such risks?) I tell them, if at all this is a risk, then I’ve been taking this risk for 11 years now, yet in the first nine years I did not get this feeling.”
Coincidentally, ATD’s emergence as a group coincided precisely with Modi’s rise to power at the Centre. Their first show was in June 2014, the month after his swearing in.
These 22 months have been marked by nationwide discussions on the suppression of free speech under this regime. During this period, ATD’s acidic humour has been aimed at pretty much all the country’s high-profile public figures, privileged communities and news developments. Yet, the heat they have directed at AAP, Arnab Goswami, Asaram Bapu, Baba Ramdev, big corporates, Congress and misogynists faking feminism, pales into insignificance in the minds of BJP followers who troll the group on the Internet for taking potshots at their party.
How then has ATD managed to get away with snubbing their noses at the establishment? Does their success suggest that all claims of rising intolerance in India are exaggerated?
“We were intolerant before too, but such people have become vocal with Modi’s arrival,” says Sanjay who surmises that ATD has survived despite “the kind of atmosphere right now” because they are preaching to the converted; he thinks their shows are attended primarily by those who share their ideology.
Rahul adds: “If everybody around you is laughing and you know it’s funny but do not politically agree with what’s being said, you still don’t want to make too much of a noise about it. To respond to comedy with hate would make you look like a fool.”
Perhaps. That view seems too optimistic though for a country in which comedian Kiku Sharda was arrested recently on charges of spoofing the highly spoof-able Dera Sacha Sauda chief, ‘Saint’ Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan. It is, however, likely that Aisi Taisi Democracy remains unscathed despite ruffling feathers by striking just the right balance between earning public plaudits yet not gaining too high a media profile. They have not, for instance, chosen to tie up with major movie stars as the comedy group All India Bakchod (AIB) did for their controversial AIB Roast, nor are they yet on television as Kiku is.
Be that as it may, ATD is in no mood for self-censorship — unlike AIB, who succumbed to pressure and pulled down the video of their Roast from YouTube without being legally compelled to do so. That Roast, in any case, arguably hit the trough of maturity in AIB’s career so far, filled as it was with a juvenile fascination for the F-word and little else, a far cry from AIB’s previous — pathbreaking — work. ATD’s speech is not entirely bereft of abuse, but abuse is not the fulcrum of their jokes. Their humour has depth because their knives are permanently sharpened on the edge of each day’s news headlines and their own personal experiences.
Sample Varun’s reaction to Arvind Kejriwal’s participation this month in Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s controversial culture gala on the banks of the Yamuna: “The Delhi CM doesn’t apply the odd-even scheme only to traffic. His personality is itself odd-even. On odd days he enforces the odd-even rule for Delhi cars and wants to save the environment, on even days he supports those who want to ruin the Yamuna.”
Congress’ legendary sycophancy towards the Gandhis has drawn this acerbic comment from him: “If by mistake Rahul Gandhi ends up rubbing poison on his ass, half the Congress would be found dead the next day.”
And Sanjay tosses this swipe at Modi and touchy Sachin Tendulkar fans: “People get really offended when you say something against Tendulkar. In this country, if you instigate a genocide, you can probably become PM, but if you say something about Tendulkar, you might get killed.”
Not that such irreverence is new to the country, but in the present scenario, ATD’s refusal to mince words, their level of political and social awareness and their particular combination of skills is unique on the urban Hinglish humourscape.
Their work is a modern-day culmination of India’s rich traditions in this artistic genre, ranging from the haasya kavi sammelans of the Hindi belt to the komalis of Tamil Nadu, elements in Maharashtra’s tamasha and Goan tiatr.
In the 1990s, the urban English space witnessed the advent of a string of stand-up artistes whose monologues on stage were more akin to Western stand-up comedy conventions in terms of style and language. ATD’s format is similar, but they are less gentle and far from Westernised. Their no-holds-barred desi idiom, more than anything else, is perhaps what is contributing to the cult status they are gradually acquiring.
The journey continues, with ATD travelling across India and being noticed internationally too. They performed at the People’s SAARC summit in Nepal in end-2014. In mid-2015, the video of their song "Mere saamnewali sarhad pe" — a take-off on "Mere saamnewali khidki mein" from the 1968 Hindi film Padosan — gained attention on both sides of the border for lampooning the Indian and Pakistani establishments. Sample this extract:
Waha mulley YouTube ban kare
Yahaan pande kissing se ghabraaye…
…Democracy sad rahi jailon mein
Aur sarkaron mein qaatil hai
Bas do family ki chaandi hai
Wahaan Bhutto hai, yahaan Gandhi hai
(Mullahs ban YouTube there, Pandits oppose kissing here… Democracy rots in jail, while the
true culprits are in government. Only two families thrive, the Bhuttos there and the Gandhis
ATD’s parody drew a response from the Pakistan Army’s Major Muhammad Hassan Miraj who wrote a similar song that became the Aisi Taisi Hypocricy (sic) video. Unwittingly underlining the boundless over-sensitivity on both sides of the border though, an article in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper interpreted Miraj’s song as a rebuttal to ATD’s alleged anti-Pakistan bias.
Miraj, who calls himself “a huge fan of Varun Grover’s work”, disagrees: “ATD’s song was an expression of art and did not take sides. My response was not of a counter attack, but of a continuation. The common enemy, I strongly believe, is jingoism and the extremist mindset.”
Irrespective of who may feel slighted, Aisi Taisi Democracy remains brutally frank about their political views. What works for them is that they draw on their personal traumas to hold a mirror to society, they speak the tongue of their audience and they share an easy chemistry as friends off stage. On stage, their individual contributions to each performance, their personalities and styles are an alluring blend in contrasts.
Varun comes across as an easygoing revolutionary, while Sanjay is the IED who may explode any moment – Rahul describes him as an “angry Jat”. Rahul himself is the Wise Man From The East who has seen it all, is vocal about right and wrong, yet has made his peace with this messed-up world. His music is a bonus for listeners, the unexpected icing on this comedic cake.
For Sanjay, being on stage is cathartic, a way of expressing the anger within him against “the kind of life I’ve had” which includes “a lot of violence in my childhood because that was the norm in the village where I come from”.
They are not ideological clones of each other, but on one point they completely agree: their jokes are about the oppressor, not the oppressed, about the privileged, not the disadvantaged. “I won’t crack a joke about rape, physical disability or being Dalit,” says Varun. Or as Sanjay puts it: “A rape joke or a genocidal joke has to be on the perpetrators, not the victims.”
So being subversive, as some might call them, does not mean being insensitive. The rest is all fair game.
After all, in an India where you could stand on a street corner doing nothing and “hurt sentiments” by your mere existence, perhaps some degree of offence caused is a measure of your worth. As the American academic Lee Siegel observes in the preface to his book Laughing Matters: Comic Tradition in India, “Any book which is in no way offensive must be thoroughly devoid of either humour or truth.”
The same could be said of comedy shows.
Or as the gentlemen of Aisi Taisi Democracy might put it, offend hone waalon ki aisi ki taisi. Read: screw those who take offence.