‘Tis Not Just a Laughing Matter: A Conversation with Chris M. Kurian
Madhura Lohokare: So what got you interested in stand-up comedy?
Chris Kurian: I have been pondering over an alternative, accessible language to engage with contrarian opinions within my own middle class family. It is in this context that humour emerged as a possible tool which had the promise of preserving connection even while conveying critique. As I engaged with it, I realised that humour is also a crucial site of fashioning a sense of self for the urban, middle class. In India the stand-up comedy scene has literally exploded in the last few years and several male stand-up comedians have emerged as icons. I grew curious about these men- who are they and what kind of changes do they represent in middle class masculinity.
ML: How do you locate this new phenomenon of stand-up comedy in India?
CK: The majority we see among stand-up comedians today hail from middle class, service class origins, growing up in the India of the mid-70s onwards. So there is a shared imagination about this thing called “middle class values.” Post-liberalisation, the upwardly mobile section of the middle class has really risen as a key actor, both the beneficiary and driver of liberalisation. Typically an urban, upper caste, English-speaking professional, it is a very powerful voice within the Indian polity. The importance of this voice is being underlined through various social, political and judicial processes around us. The voice of the stand-up comedian is emerging from there and its content is largely about middle class India. So it is a celebration of one’s own life, one’s own kind. Also, I think for the professionally qualified section of middle class today, humour is an important site of constructing the self. It pertains to presenting oneself as easy going, cool, hip… I feel it is also becoming a very important site now of social critique: for instance, of the hypocrisy of an earlier generation vis-à-vis gender and “tradition.” Of course it is also happening within a time when gender equality has become visible and more saleable. These performers are benefitting from and contributing to these changes.
Their audiences come from diverse regional origins and income segments of the middle class that have experienced upward mobility. Roughly speaking it is people below forty five, having the money and the taste that leads one to spend on a stand-up comedy performance. There is a boom in this arena. Most recently Amazon has signed up 14 comedians from this circuit, all very young people, mostly below 30. Their’s is the kind of humour that a young urban person would relate to.
ML: Who are some of the comedians you follow?
CK: I follow Aisi Taisi Democracy and Varun Grover’s solo performances because I enjoy political humour. Sanjay Rajoura, Zakir Khan, Kenny Sebastian and Biswa are the four who I have followed the most. I will limit my comments to them, though there are several others like Kannan Gill, Abish Mathew, Varun Thakur.
ML: When I was preparing for this interview, I noticed that these men clearly locate themselves very firmly in a particular context: one is of course middle class. But even in terms of actual places where they come from…
CK: That’s right. I see it as being connected to the articulation of a particular kind of middle class identity. For instance, Kenny Sebastian, Biswa and Zakir Khan refer to their regional identities: like Biswa is Oriya, Zakir Khan is from Indore, Rajoura has grown up in Ghaziabad. He refers to his caste identity- talks about belonging to the Jat community, stereotyped as being uncouth and regressive in north India. Kenny Sebastian has grown up in different parts of the country, but he refers a lot to his being from Kerala and has these nuggets about his visits to his native village…
ML: And he does not hide his accent!
CK: Nobody does. They in fact flaunt it, if anything. They are owning the vernacular and claiming it, refusing to feel embarrassed about it. I see it as a reaction to an earlier upper class imagination where being urbane required a disowning of your rural roots or vernacular allegiances and acquiring certain convent educated airs and graces. This assertion of the vernacular is a hallmark of certain sections of the educated, upwardly mobile middle class, now have the confidence and power to construct their own version of themselves. It is akin to a sort of “heritage-construction” that earlier was the prerogative of the elite. So if the khaandaani elite had their wedding trousseaus passed down from their great grandmothers and secret family recipes from their cooks, the middle class legends celebrate our parents’ excessive fuss about electricity and our fraught relationship with English.
Zakir Khan does it in different ways. His performances are in Hindi. The leitmotif there is about the awkwardness of bringing a small-town, Hindi speaking identity into a metropolitan city …and what it means to inhabit a metropolitan space. He comments about how he looks like a working class person, so how when he goes into big showrooms the salespeople don’t treat him with respect, till he establishes his capacity to buy a branded good. Or when he talks about his first flight, how he’s torn between (laughs) the attention that a city-girl, a Delhi girl is giving him and his desire to sit next to the window and see the clouds. He chooses the clouds over the possibility of a little dalliance with the city girl because he is sure that the latter will pretty much remain unattainable… there are audiences that clearly relate to the kind of trade -offs that he is calculating ; a constituency distinct from the big-city-convent-educated middle class.
ML: If you see Biswa, Rajoura, Zakir Khan, Kannan Gill, all are trained as engineers, but have now left that and are doing something as incomprehensible as stand-up comedy, to their middle class families. So in a way, that breaking out of a certain mould also defines their comedy.
CK: Yes that is true. I think their stories are marked by some kind of journey of moving away from the beaten track. They are marked by the language of freedom, opportunity, individual will and pleasure that we are now familiar with, post liberalisation, inspired by trends in stand-up comedy in North America. Their themes pertain to questioning set norms like I said earlier- but norms and ethos that this middle class now sees as outmoded. However, while they are breaking out of the mould in a certain way, most of their critiques (barring Rajoura’s) rarely if ever question class or caste-based discrimination with a comparable elan. In terms of place again, while they are foregrounding their vernacular identities, they are al lnow based in metropolitan cities. Second, they are all male and mostly seem to be upper caste! Additionally their critique fits right into a larger discourse in which consumption and now women’s emancipation are gaining legitimacy. Hence they are also representatives of a caste/ class privilege, which enables them to pose these critiques on what has come to accepted as ‘old school’ among young, urban middle-upper middle classes today.
Having said that, a closer look also reveals interesting ways in which they push at difficult boundaries. For instance, in one of his shows, Zakir Khan throws light on how the interactions even with his “secular” acquaintances were shaped by the stereotypes of Muslims as being all about, “Abba-Ammi”, “bhai jaan,” “mashallah” and biryani! (laughs)
Or another of my personal favourites is Rajoura’s critique of the film “Baghban.” He uses his commentary on the film to question the perpetuation of patriarchal and misogynist values within the sentimentality surrounding the sacrosanct institution of the middle class family. He also calls out the violence that is visited upon children in the name of love, attention or correction, from their parents. Rajoura does not mince his words about either.
ML: This leads me to think whether they are also pushing the conventions of masculine posturing…clearly they seem to consciously distance themselves from a typical, brawny, macho masculine ideal.
CK: But isn’t that a necessary part of the figure of the comedian in popular culture, including Bollywood? Think Mehmood, Om Prakash, Johnny Lever or even Kader Khan…
ML: So how do you think these stand-up comedians may be different as men? Or are they different at all?
CK: I think one is their presence as a separate genre, not juxtaposed against the macho Bollywood film hero. Second these are far more accessible male figures. Accessibility is a quality which we did not celebrate or appreciate in men in an urban context, whose masculinity we conventionally measured in direct proportion to their distanced, aloof stance. This accessibility is also the function of the internet-based/ live format of these performances, where the distance between the performer and her/ his audience has radically reduced. The technology, the format, the content and the audience demand a casual stance to establish connect.
Third, they are reflecting on or talking about their gendered selves in the kind of anecdotes they bring: like Zakir Hussain talking of the myth of “conquest” or power differential with his father he contended with in his adolescence.
In one of his acts, Rajoura talks about how a “vernacular’ like him was like a “project” for his intellectual, urbane girlfriend from LSR (Lady Sri Ram college, Delhi). The LSR woman figure stands for somebody who is upper class, English-speaking, intelligent, political, and how for this group of women (and for women like us), many times their encounters with the subaltern becomes the way to prove their politics…and Rajoura recognises these gendered and class dynamics.
In an episode produced by SNG, a bunch of young male stand-up comedians discuss their guilty pleasures. Each of these men had various levels of discomfort in revealing what their guilty pleasure was…Kenny went on to talk about how his love of make-up sessions with his female friends and cousins letting them apply cosmetics on him. Of course he puts it as something delightful to the women, resulting in turn in his happiness, but still it was good for a start to see such a man in the public realm. It was refreshing to watch these conventional, straight men articulate enthusiastically their pleasures which included creams, hair washes, bath gels, fragrances, make up, colourful cakes, choco-pies, conversations and gossip. All things stereotypically associated with women and considered too frivolous for “real” men to indulge in.
Gendered stereotypes are present implicitly or explicitly in most of these performances; stand-up comedians use them and play them… one of the most common stereotypes that Zakir Khan uses is that of the Delhi girl.
At the same time, there is a definite shift that is happening in terms of how these young men construct themselves as men through the content of their shows. There is a conscious fashioning of themselves as comedians who cater to an educated audience and hence their humour as being “intelligent” as opposed to the slap stick comedy of laughter shows. Secondly, young working women are a big part of their audience now and the men in the audience are also probably negotiating changing relationships with women. Given that the comedians themselves are drawn from this segment, the content of their humour and their performance of their gendered selves clearly responds to the increasing focus on a non-sexist way of being. It is suggestive that words like “sexist,” “non-sexist” and “feminism” are used in their performances to qualify their content. There is a strong imperative to engage with the ideal of being non-sexist and to locate oneself in relation to this ideal. For instance, Sanjay Rajoura in a later interview reflects and says that he would not repeat some of what he had said about women in his earlier shows. I think it is heartening to see such public reflections coming from men.
ML: So there is this confusing mix of caste/ class privilege and gendered stereotypes all vying with a desire to liberate themselves of the stereotypical image of masculinity in their humour. There is a muddling of certainties when it comes to presenting themselves as men…
CK: Yes, and this muddling and the language of self-reflection is valuable at a time when we see upper class male offenders creeping out of the woodworks… I think this uncertainty is also a function of how women are asserting themselves and making demands in relationships. I would be curious in terms of watching where these comedies go…whether they are able to address the blind spots of caste privilege and poverty, which seem all but invisibilised in most of their current performances.
Chris Mary Kurian is a doctoral scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her research focuses on lay understandings of well-being among the lower middle class.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.