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08.08.2017

It’s not exactly breaking news, but bhenc**d is Delhi’s favourite word. Also called the B-word, or the equally cringe-y “BCMC”, this freeform expletive acts as a wildcard, a morale-boosting cheat code, for comics in the city. Drop a B-bomb anywhere in your act, and everyone’s going to burst into laughs, nodding in violent agreement. Other standard tropes include sociological insights such as: Don’t you think Indian weddings are loud, ha-ha. Punjabis eat butter chicken, Gujaratis are good at business and dhokla, ha-ha. Bombay has no space, ha-ha; Delhi is so violent, ha-ha. Women are evil and unpredictable; have you noticed how they take selfies?! Arranged marriage. My parents are middle-class. Engineers are total losers. I never match with anyone on Tinder. The Samsung Galaxy explodes. What’s the deal with airplane seats? Bhench**d, ha-ha.

These are, at best, Delhi comedy’s growing pains. Generic or not, the themes are usually worthy of a laugh. Really, the city’s comedy map is at a crossroads. On one hand, there’s a lot of buzz around English comedy, particularly in the aftermath of acts like AIB gaining indie-cred and mainstream notoriety, or Aditi Mittal and Vir Das reaching out to bigger audiences through Netflix specials. There’s also a bunch of specials by Indian comics on Amazon Prime (all of them male — “There’s no sexism in comedy; it’s all merit-based. Lalalalalalala!”). Added to that are the pop culture triumphs of honorary Indians Mindy Kaling and Russell Peters first, and Aziz Ansari and Hasan Minhaj more recently (have we adopted Kumail Nanjiani yet?). And then there’s King of Comedy Arnab Goswami making the form accessible for everyone.

Comics in the city have been doing their thing for a while, steadily gaining a following — Rajneesh Kapoor springs instantly to mind — but there now seems to be a groundswell approaching. Pubs are doubling up as venues, hosting regular comedy nights that range from name-brand acts to open mic nights. Every Tuesday, Summerhouse Café does a comedy event. Antisocial, which also hosts regular comedy nights, did a fun women-only open mic night just last week. (The land of Gurgaon, famous for its joviality, has many gigs too.) A lot of comedians are experimenting with storytelling and structure; there’s a new comedy club called Aisle opening soon; you have secret gigs; collectives and entertainment groups are actively booking acts. The Mumbai scene is still an aspirational goal — the celebrity status, the role of spokesperson of the urban internet, doesn’t exist yet in Delhi — but in its own right, things are happening.

Generic or not, the themes are usually worthy of a laugh. Really, the city’s comedy map is at a crossroads.

Almost as importantly, the audience is also not an asshole. It’s easy to please — say “sex” really loudly, do a physical jig of some sort, and everyone’s cracking up. There’s barely any heckling; even the predictable jokes get a response. At the all-women’s open mic at Antisocial, one of the comics is bombing — she acknowledges as much. She mentions how it’s her first time on stage, and the crowd cheers her on; they do their best to laugh in support.

(At the same time, the audiences are still figuring out what works for them. Without sounding too judgemental, in my limited experience they’ve often been fairly flaccid. Comedy in Delhi, at least the pub-gig variety, is often treated as accompaniment: something to fill up the awkward pauses during conversation, something to complement the food and drinks. At one gig, a large group of rich-looking people having a reunion is oblivious to the performer on stage, talking over the punchlines, asking each other how much money they’ve made in life.)

In a nutshell, we have plenty of exciting things to look forward to. But then there’s the other side.

***

It’s May. I’m at ZAI, a pub near GK2. I’m playing a game with myself, called Comedy Bingo: I’m counting the number of times my friend, a woman, clicks her tongue in annoyance — the classicpachaack. The host talks to a couple; he suspects the woman is nagging the guy to take the ‘dreaded plunge’, or something similar. My friend clicks her tongue. There’s a group of middle-aged couples — men on one table, women on another. The host makes a tiredmiyaan-biwi joke, one my parents’ parents’ parents might make. My friend makes a noise. Every three minutes of good material by the headliner is followed by an obvious joke directed at women. Sometimes it’s shrewdly underplayed, and I — with my penis privilege — don’t even notice. But my friend does; she has 30 years of experience in facing subtle, casual sexism. It’s the same at many of the other gigs I attend in the time before and since.

Delhi, like all young comedy scenes — and standup comedy at large (not just in India but everywhere) — has a woman problem. This isn’t an attempt to take some kind of moral high ground. I’ve been guilty of the same (without a paying audience, but still), if not worse, and we’re all victims/accomplices in some way or another of a misogynistic, patriarchal system. But it goes beyond that. What’s lacking here is a kind of self-awareness. Be an equal opportunity offender, by all means. But targeting a section of people, even if it’s well-meaning and free of malicious intent (even when couched under feckless ‘irony’ and ‘provocation’), is a problem.

We’re in 2017. Twenty years ago, with whatever little brains I had, I thought that by now, we’d be flying around in space, shaking hands with friendly aliens. Yet here we are. Without wasting time spelling out all our troubles — no one likes a bore — let’s just say we’re f**ked. So we might as well have a good laugh.

So it seems counterproductive that humour — as a kind of subculture — is actively alienating half the city’s population. In Delhi, where we anyway struggle with the pinko-liberal notion that women are in fact real people, the onus is on the ‘voices’ — the educated, liberal, artsy-fartsy kinds with an audience: the artists, the writers, the comics, the academics — to not be dicks in their work, even if it’s at the cost of sincerity.

That said, this is the stuff people are laughing at. It elicits a response; it’s the easy way to get the audience on your side, raising the question all performers face at some point: Do you pander to the crowd, catering only to the critical mass at the bottom? Or do you instead rely on your own judgement, trusting the crowd to understand what you’re trying to do? Is comedy, specifically, supposed to enrich and, um, ‘edify’ its audiences, or is it simply enough to make them laugh (and make no mistake, I did laugh)? Stay tuned to find out.

This story was contributed by Akhil Sood, an arts and culture writer living in New Delhi.

Image Credit: Canvas Laughter Club

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