The Laughter Challenge is on us: How dominance of upper caste men affects our consumption of comedy
While male comics being awkward, rude, cynical, gross, horny makes us laugh, female comics who perform the same acts make us awkward | #FirstCulture
Meet Bumper. A short, fat nurse working in the 50-50 hospital, sister to Lottery, a tall, slim nurse. She is surrounded by people who have called her a truck, a pumpkin, an uncle, an entire district. They lift her up frequently only to drop her on the floor, and sometimes she skids and falls voluntarily. When she desires a makeover, the parlour owner arranges for cement, a crane and a chainsaw. Everybody keeps talking about her size and the associated ugliness, incompetence and stupidity. She raps about burping and farting, and her dance warrants immediate laughter.
Bumper was a character on The Kapil Sharma Show, accompanied by 'Besharam Nani', who desperately force-kisses celebrities, and Rinku Devi, a Bihari woman deeply dissatisfied in her marriage. All three female characters were played by male actors, while Kapil ridiculed them with and in front of celebrities, and this awkward mess was sealed into prime-time comedy by Siddhu’s endless ROFL.
Despite controversies, Kapil Sharma is set to return yet again with a new show, and I would be naive to expect anything to change.
Funny men and their entitlement to our laughter
Last year, Bollywood star and Padman actor Akshay Kumar found it perfectly alright to direct a crass innuendo at comic artist Mallika Dua on The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. The audience was expected to laugh at that, and if questioned, defend him like author and feminist Twinkle Khanna did in her follow-up jokes and comments.
Well, how can one complain about Khanna when more established feminists of our society hurried to question the victims of sexual harassment to protect ‘their own’ men who found themselves on ‘the list’? Just like academia and the media, the comedy industry is also dominated by the same group: upper caste males.
And it’s not just comics, the key thing about all privileged men we meet in everyday life who fancy themselves as funny is that they feel unquestionably entitled to your laughter. Once the joke has darted out of their mouths, the challenge is on the rest of us to prove a sense of humour. The power they have in society is directly proportional to the pressure felt by the audience to laugh, irrespective of how cool or uncool the joke is.
If your boss happens to belong to this species, not laughing might risk not being favoured at work. If you question a male friend for a joke made at the expense of your weight, you are asked if you are on your period. Not laughing is a serious offence. We have found ourselves in coerced laughter at work, at family events, and in front of the TV set. This laughter comes with an inherent sadness — about what passes off as humour in India and its mainstream creators: cis-het savarna men.
It is tough to question these men without being called a humourless prick. Further, when censorship is involved, hereby recalling the All India Bakchod (AIB) roast, the focus shifts to regimes and stifling freedom of expression, while the freedom to crack sexist, casteist, homophobic jokes stays upheld.
Kapil Sharma: A case study
Kapil Sharma has ruled this species. The man could produce not one but three shows titled around his own name — a rare event in the history of Indian TV. Son of a constable, this Sharma ji ka beta grew up in Punjab, performing at college events before winning The Great Indian Laughter Challenge in 2007. On his own shows, he was paid to rub shoulders with all kinds of celebrities, promote their films and make them laugh.
It is not surprising that our sexist, casteist, bhakt-filled society adores him, for he is a small-town, North-Indian, fair Brahmin man who had neither dynasty nor reservations, but only used 'pure' talent to gain success through reality shows. He made it to the top 10 of all sorts of popularity lists and was declared brand ambassador for a bunch of government schemes. His claim on a 'humble' background and his awkward English creates a special space in the hearts of merit-mongering savarna families, to rephrase a term popularised by the Twitter handle @DardEdiscourse.
This is not the first time that his shows have been criticised for sexist jokes. However, savarna feminists like me have ignored his surname, the caste privilege that shields him from any controversy or backlash. Any criticism of his show would be incomplete without the criticism of his brand, of which being a Brahmin is a big, understated part.
On his shows, men enter dressed as women, and this is a cue solid enough for the audience to burst into laughter. If that doesn't describe our collective transphobia, I don't know what does.
Casteist, racist and ableist humour is neatly woven into the script. A character named 'Baccha Yadav' is reduced to his caste occupation of a milkman, shown to be obsessed with his buffalo. Chappu Sharma is presented as a childish, feminine character who is fresh out of a mental institution. In some episodes, Kapil plays a Japanese or an Arab and a series of silly, stereotypical jokes follow. Sarla, a character played by the only female actor in the main cast, is shown as being a clingy, nagging, desperate girl. Kapil gets to sadistically friendzone her while attempting to flirt with the actresses who are guests on his show.
Is English comedy on the Internet any better?
Let's not kid ourselves by blaming this on Indian TV's general sh*ttiness and swear by 'woke' stuff on the web. In early 2017, we had The Viral Fever (TVF) using feminist content to cover their a**es while Arunabh Kumar was accused of molestation by several women. Later in the same year, when Amazon Video wanted to enter the growing comedy scene in urban India, they signed 14 comedians, all savarna dudebros.
We have All India Bakchod, who had recently requested us to let them know through Sarahah if they have been sexist. I was puzzled — whether to send them a link of the AIB roast where they make a cocktail of racist, homophobic, sexist jokes or the link of the Film Companion interview where Tanmay Bhat and others mansplain sexism in comedy while not letting Aditi Mittal speak.
Sorry if we are not ready to applaud them yet for giving space to female writers and comics only in videos about sexism and women’s bodies (duh). They are still hosting podcasts with dudes just bro-ing around, while the female comics only congregate without men for the promotion of Lipstick Under My Burkha. Seems like feminism is important for business — a checklist to avoid making ‘launda sketch(es)’, something to be plugged in without much natural commitment towards its cause.
The larger issue: Our non-acceptance of female comic talent
When Indian comedy dudes try to include female talent, whether it is on TV or on the web, it just doesn't appear to be an equal partnership. It is almost like how a doctor requires a nurse; she is needed to assist him in his own performance (or to do the 'lady bits') but is not autonomous enough to call the shots.
While male comedians are now experimenting and making money with their art, we are still busy proving the basic fact that women can be funny too.
Talented performers like Sumukhi Suresh, Urooj Ashfaq and Supriya Joshi among others do not enjoy the same popularity and fandom as their male counterparts. Unlike the music and dance industries, comedy has no trace of marginalised, non-urban, queer, Bahujan men and women, the ones used as subjects for feel-good social reality shows like Satyamev Jayate.
On TV, female comedians are somewhat welcome only when they crack self-deprecating jokes about their own weight and appearance. I do not know how to cheer for Bharti's presence in a male-dominated business when she has to constantly infantilise, de-gender and fat-shame herself.
The audience finds it difficult to welcome female comics. We need introspection: why are we are this difficult to please for women comic artists?
The expectations of Brahmanical femininity
Perhaps this has a lot to do with expectations of femininity in our caste society. Humour often comes from being awkward, rude, cynical, gross, horny. Grace—which is what is heavily demanded of women in our Brahmanical patriarchy—is the exact opposite of these behaviours. For example: Can you imagine a female artist do what Bhuvan Bam does in BB Ki Vine videos and be appreciated in the same way?
To see women breaking out of the ‘graceful’ and ‘feminine’ mould on their own accord makes us awkward, whereas the same act by men tickles us. Workplace humour by men is seen as enriching for the work environment, whereas that by women is seen as unnecessary and unprofessional. Humour is defined by who gets to create a culture around it.
Challenging the domination of cis-het savarna men in the comedy industry is important to create an environment where everyone has an equal opportunity to be funny in non-discriminatory and creative ways. It will also, hopefully, liberate us from the misery of coerced laughter.
Also read on Firstpost: Stand-up for feminism: Indian women comics are making patriarchy the punch-line in their acts
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