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Has India learned to laugh?

Aditi Sengupta | Updated on April 19, 2019 Published on April 19, 2019

Laugh out loud: Indians are poking fun at themselves — in Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali and English — by turning stock characters into credible comic plots   -  AKHILESH KUMAR

Mother of mine: RJ Somak as Sarala Debi in O Maa Go!   -  IMAGE COURTESY: MIRCHI SOMAK

Breaking the mould: The late Jaspal Bhatti (in blue turban) and his wife Savita (second from right) are known for the 1989 comedy serial, Flop Show   -  AKHILESH KUMAR

Delhi act: Actor Ssumier Pasricha in his Pammi Aunty avatar

Kashmiri calling: Anshita ‘Crazy’ Koul at a stand-up comedy show   -  IMAGE COURTESY: ANSHITA CRAZY KOUL

The contemporary comic is unafraid of laughing at mothers, uncles, neighbours and even themselves. But it may not mean that the touchy Indian is finally ready to take a joke

It’s a winter afternoon. The market in Sarojini Nagar, a neighbourhood in South-West Delhi, is bursting at the seams. Rows and rows of vendors, armed with all kinds of trendy clothes, are vying for the attention of buyers. In the midst of the commotion, a young woman — clad in a collared green shirt and black blazer — is looking for something “very different and unique”: A white shirt.

Just a lane away, a newly-wed woman from West Delhi is correcting her husband’s pronunciation of ‘lingerie’. “It’s lingerie [long-erie], okay,” she coos into her phone as she surveys lacy underwear and nightclothes. And somewhere round the corner, another young woman — from an upscale South Delhi colony — castigates her friend for bringing her to a place covered with dust. “Why the f*** did we have to come here? I need an Allegra!” she declares.

Cut to Kolkata. Sarala Debi, a middle-class housewife, wants to open an email account. Her only son Babu gets down to the job and asks his tech-illiterate mother to choose a password. She first confuses it with a bank passbook, and then settles on the name of her husband, the only other man in her universe, for the password.

Another Sarla is Punjabi housewife Pammi Aunty’s best friend, and the two are always on the phone, discussing everything under the sun from demonetisation to Arnab Goswami’s lung power.

Pammi Aunty has a Punjabi drawl; Ma Sarala Debi a distinct Bengali accent. The shoppers in Sarojini Nagar — all played by actor Mallika Dua — underscore different classes and regions: The uppity south Delhi-ite, the middle-class but upwardly mobile west Delhi-ite and the bored MBA in search of a white shirt.

No matter the language — Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali or English — a bunch of stock characters (aunts, uncles, mothers, neighbours and so on) are tickling our funny bone like never before. And, instead of being touchy about “stereotyping”, many are laughing along and urging others to join in.

The proliferation of digital platforms — Facebook and YouTube, among others — has prodded a battalion of comic characters to leave the tried-and-tested entertainment spaces for newer avenues. No longer a slave to the medium of films and television, the contemporary Indian comic is only a click away, at the beck and call of an audience that loves a good laugh. The same followers also turn up at stand-up comedy shows, where performers often roast accents, cuisines, rituals and customs, clothes and dress sense. In short, anything that describes a community.

While Pammi Aunty (created and played by actor Ssumier Pasricha) epitomises the temperamental and penny-pinching “aunty” from West Delhi, Uncle Francis (pronounced “Prawn-jizz” by comedian Naveen Richard) is the nosey Malayali patriarch who wants to hang out with the cool, young crowd (especially the ones who travel by Uber Pool). The very Bengali Sarala Debi, from the O Maa Go (OMG) series created by radio jockeys Somak and Agni, believes that her only soul-mate is her domestic help, Krishna.

There’s more. The ever-complaining Kashmiri mom (an Anshita ‘Crazy’ Koul creation) doesn’t want her children to eat non-vegetarian food on the following days of the week: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Dua’s Delhi girl loves to shop, gossip, haggle with vendors and observe Karwa Chauth for her “newly marriage” husband Chugpreet aka Saajan. Then there is Sawan Dutta, who makes fun of Bengal’s favourite icons — from Boroline to the monkey cap — in songs sung with a thick Bong accent.

In nine cases out of 10, the performers come from the very community that their series or shows are based on. Does this mean that the touchy, sensitive and proud Indian has finally learned to take a joke?

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For a very long time, Bollywood films — with storylines mostly dominated by Malhotras, Khannas and Kapoors — were responsible for the stereotyping of many communities and ethnicities in India. The Hindu Punjabis were all about large-heartedness and over-the-top weddings; Rajputs were synonymous with masculinity and honour; the “Madrasi” — a homogeneous tribe that seemed to inhabit the world south of Delhi and Mumbai — was a Bharatanatyam dancer who could only dream of a fair complexion, and the Bengali was the argumentative football lover whose wellbeing depended on the availability of “roshogollas”. The scripts were also not too kind to the Sikhs, who were depicted as well-natured but not exactly rapier-sharp people whose lives centred on lassi, kukkad (chicken) and bhangra.

Though in a different sphere, the first artist to break the “silly Sardar” mould was the late Jaspal Bhatti, a Chandigarh-based comedian who created the hugely popular Doordarshan series Flop Show (1989). Through 10 episodes, Bhatti, who died in a car accident in 2012, satirised different aspects of life in urban India — from corruption in government departments to research students running errands for their PhD guide’s household.

“Jaspal Bhatti’s humour also represented the Sikhs. With his work, he broke stereotypes about the community. He became the face for clean, good and intelligent humour, which appealed to a large spectrum of people,” says Savita Bhatti, his wife, co-actor and creator of the annual Jaspal Bhatti Humour Festival in Chandigarh. “Perhaps for the first time Indian audiences were learning to laugh at characters who were like themselves — the telecom department worker, the real estate agent, the teacher, the boss, the jealous wife, the stingy husband,” she says.

Things have moved on since then. More TV channels have been launched, internet has changed the game plan, and the formation of comedy and laughter clubs have made humour a round-the-clock venture. Yet, Savita Bhatti holds, “the undivided attention that we enjoyed in the days of Doordarshan said something for the ability to appeal to people from all backgrounds and age groups”. Nowadays, everything is niche and the viewership more fragmented, she points out.

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For Anshita Koul, IT professional-turned-stand-up comedian, finding humour in everyday life was as important as addressing stereotypes. Born in Kashmir and raised in Jammu, she recalls that she was always the first in the family to start singing or dancing at weddings, or recite poems.

While she channelled her energy and talent into making videos for YouTube after quitting her job in 2011, Koul discovered that most of the jokes about the region she comes from were related to terrorism. “That’s like taking matters to a different level,” she tells BLink from Germany, where she is working at a summer camp.

With occasional help from her husband — who assists with the filming of the videos — Koul, also a finalist on Netflix’s Queen of Comedy reality show, has demystified, among other characters, the Valley’s finicky mother, TV-addict Kashmiri father and gluttonous son-in-law. While the ideas are mostly her own, Koul always seeks her father and brother’s opinion on the very “Kashmiri themes”.

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Friends and colleagues Somak Ghosh and Agnijit Sen — more popular by the names of Mirchi Somak and Mirchi Agni — took less than a week to conceptualise and launch OMG. The idea came to Ghosh on a Friday night, as he enjoyed his mother’s witty one-liners on a TV serial she follows closely.

“My mother’s sense of humour is widely appreciated within the family. The household is her domain. She runs it, takes pride in it and she also gets bogged down by it,” says Ghosh, “but she never gives up on it.” He continues: “Her exchanges with me are very much like the exchanges you see between Sarala Debi and Babu in the OMG videos — a mother and a son who were, for a very long time, close friends, but things changed after the son found friends outside the house. The son got busy with his life while the mother became lonelier.”

According to Sen, who plays Babu in the series, OMG was not launched to decode or simplify the Bengali mother-son equation (though a widely held notion is that Bengali mothers are supremely possessive of their sons, often nicknamed Babu, Bubai, Bablu and so on). “We didn’t even think of stereotypes when we first discussed the idea. We simply wanted to go beyond the radio and reach a wider audience,” says Sen.

Ghosh and Sen keep Tuesday evenings for ideation and Wednesday for rehearsal and filming. On Thursdays, they upload the videos first on their Facebook pages, and then on YouTube. It’s been more than a year and the OMG topics have ranged from the domestic help’s decision to quit — thereby threatening to turn the hapless matriarch’s world upside down — to Sarala’s attempts at ordering food in Hindi. There is a refrain at the end of each episode: The mother tells the errant son to remember that his wife will never tolerate him the way she — Maa — has been doing.

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Ssumier Pasricha’s Pammi Aunty — with her colourful shades, face pack and curlers — is another housewife who craves attention. “She was never valued as a daughter; she was married off young to a person who was always busy at work; her children don’t spend enough time with her and she will do anything for love and respect,” says Pasricha, who was born and raised in a large Punjabi family in Delhi.

Pasricha didn’t have to look far for ideas, names and the traits that define his immensely popular creation. “In my family, there is a Pammi and a Sarla. There are people who are as cranky and petulant as Pammi Aunty. And there are those who have an opinion on everything — just like Pammi Aunty,” he says. Pasricha needed little practice for the fluency in Punjabi that Pammi Aunty has maintained since her first video on May 16, 2016.

She doesn’t hold back her words when it comes to topics such as politics (one of her recent videos is about her views on the #MainBhiChowkidar campaign launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi) but Pasricha’s father, who is also his fiercest critic, feels that she should best stick to non-controversial matters.

Pasricha, who has appeared in TV serials and films, believes that Pammi could not have survived anywhere but Delhi. The way she speaks, the things she talks about (from rajma-chawal to cocktail gowns) and the people she relates to are entrenched in the Punjab that thrives in the Capital, he says.

Away from her dear friend Sarla — or her favourite chhole kulche — Pammi would only be a shadow of herself, hor ki!

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The artistes are making a million Indians laugh, but Savita Bhatti is not convinced that people are making fun of themselves. Indians, she fears, still laugh the loudest when the joke is on others.

Delhi-based advocate Harvinder Kaur Chowdhury, for example, is not prepared to take matters lightly. She claims that she was “harassed and bullied” (even as a student of law in the UK) repeatedly for being a “Sardarni”. “In 2015, after a heated altercation with a colleague at the Bar Association Library at the Supreme Court, I decided to seek a ban on Sardar jokes — Santa Banta et al,” she says. Chowdhury eventually filed a PIL before the apex court, asserting that such jokes amount to “racial slur”.

But even if laughter is circumspect, let comedy bloom, Savita Bhatti says. “Comedy, even when it is bad, is more important than saas-bahu dramas, so let there be more of it,” she holds.

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Published on April 19, 2019
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