“I started off doing the typical ‘Muslim jokes’ about circumcision and suicide bombers, but after a while I started questioning myself—why am I doing this? Am I punching down at myself and my community so that upper-class audiences who come for comedy shows feel more comfortable about accepting me?” says comedian Abbas Momin, 32, halfway into a conversation about Muslim comedians in India.
Momin is a Mumbai-based stand-up who also writes comedy scripts and is head of production at Maed in India, a podcast production company. He started his career as a dental-college dropout working with comedy collectives, and as a journalist with Rolling Stone India and GQ India, while developing his stand-up career. Like most comedians, his first material came from his own life—living in Byculla in Mumbai, the heart of “Muslim Bombay”, there was no dearth of material.
Momin, who comes from a fairly orthodox Muslim family, had been quite religious until, he says, he started doing comedy. “I started questioning many things about my Muslim identity,” he says. The process of writing comedy helped him come to terms with some of the contradictions that were part of this identity—maybe even the low-hanging-fruit jokes about being a (fake) terrorist helped. But over time, Momin realised that there were other issues he could address using comedy—he started doing routines about homophobic Islamic preachers, for instance, and about relatives pushing him to “be more religious”.
One of his sets is about an uncle who lectures him on being a better Muslim because when he dies, there’s either heaven or hell waiting for him. Momin asks his uncle to describe hell, and hearing all about fire and pain, about burning and sweating, comes to the conclusion that hell is a gym. “I have been overweight all my life,” says Momin, “and my family is obsessed with my weight. They are also obsessed about making me more religious. Well, this seemed a great way to combine the two.”
Even as Munawar Faruqui, an Indian Muslim comedian, continues to be held in jail for a joke he did not even crack, a joke that purportedly would have “made fun of Indian gods and goddesses”, it is interesting to actually watch Indian Muslim comedians at work. It’s fairly obvious that far from being obsessed with bringing down Hinduism, as those who tore into Faruqui’s show in Indore allege, these comics are actually far more taken up with dissecting, examining, and fully owning their identity as Indian Muslims, and how this collides with the realities of urban life.
Comedian Urooj Ashfaq has a telling routine that demonstrates this neatly. She starts by talking about a universal woe—finding an Uber driver ready to go to the city’s outskirts—and makes it her own by revealing the increasingly casual Islamophobia of Indians. When she complains about three other drivers cancelling the trip, the driver reflexively replies, “They must have been Muslim.”
Instead of dissolving into outrage, she decides it’s a good way to “find out, for free, what Hindus say to each other, when they are alone, about Muslims”. She proceeds to have a long conversation with the driver, who trots out the usual aspersions against Muslims: “They eat non-veg, they don’t bathe, they marry their sisters.” The interaction ends with Ashfaq finally telling the driver that she’s Muslim, and the driver replying, “But please give me five stars.” Except that’s not how it ends—in the concluding minutes, Ashfaq talks about her grandmother and her brand of insularity and bias.
Or take Md Anas’ routine about a friend asking him in school, “We will be preparing for IAS after graduation, will you be preparing for ISIS?” To which Anas, 23, responds, “Yaar I can’t clear the group bombing round, I come out alive each time.” Anas also talks openly about being “a pure secular product” of a marriage between a Hindu mother and Muslim father, the only advantage of which, according to him, is that he needs to fast for only half a month during Ramzan and four-and-a-half days during Navratri.
It’s not like Muslim comedians are doing something spectacularly different—most comedians, including stars like Jerry Seinfeld and Hasan Minhaj, use their own lives as material; overwhelmingly so at the beginning of their careers.
“Most comedians make fun of their own lives, and I don’t want to be perceived as a ‘Muslim comedian’. There is no quota that I am filling,” says Anas, who lives and performs in Delhi. “Like I was at this show where there was this other Muslim comedian, and a third guy came to me and said ‘woh tere se better Muslim jokes maar raha hai (he is cracking better Muslim jokes than you)’. Yaar, I don’t represent all Muslims,” says Anas, laughing.
What sets the current group of Indian Muslim comedians apart is their place in the here and now of Indian society. There is an urgency to their work that comes from responding to a creeping Islamophobia in India, and to perhaps show that Muslims are not the stereotypes that WhatsApp jokes make them out to be; that they are complex, contradictory, often biased and flawed human beings like everyone else.
Another upcoming Mumbai-based comedian, Saad Shaikh , 24, says he felt there was a “void” in comedy that Muslim performers are filling by talking about their own lives and experiences as Indian Muslims,experiences that no one else was talking about. “When I was starting out in the comedy circuit, there were hardly any Muslims around. And there were so many stereotypes—some of them are even a little bit true, and I have made jokes about family planning and becoming a nana at 13. But there are many funny and weird stereotypes as well, like how people keep saying ‘wah wah Urdu Urdu’ about us when so many Muslims don’t know a word of Urdu. Maybe this is a way of making people think ‘they are like us only. They face the same things in life’,” says Shaikh, a close friend of Faruqui’s.
It’s common to come across trolls on Twitter saying things like “if you were really brave you would make fun of Islam”—with an implicit challenge—when Muslim comedians have been doing so for years, says comedian and podcaster Azeem Banatwalla, 32. He was influenced by the likes of English comedian Eddie Izzard, who routinely takes on religion in his work, and says “people making fun of religion and politics has been done all along in India”. Muslim comedians combing their lives for material is a way for them to work through the dichotomies in their lives and identities, he believes.
“It is partly a way of embracing that identity, and partly a rejection of that identity. When done right, it is satire and social commentary. When they are still young and just starting out, a lot of their material is raw, and they can perhaps offend someone who is not used to the rough edges of stand-up comedy. But now we have reached a point where a comedian just saying a name is somehow offensive,” says Banatwalla, referring to the names of Hindu gods.
They all believe that Faruqui’s arrest has had a chilling effect on the comedy scene, especially among Muslim comedians. Many of them feel they are being singled out because of their religious identity and that even though there have been reprisals against non-Muslim comics, none were as serious as the trouble Faruqui finds himself in. A few comedians Lounge reached out to for this story did not want to comment. However, the ones who did are open about admitting that conditions are becoming increasingly difficult for them. Ask Momin why many of his videos are not available on YouTube and he says, “Because Munawar is in jail.”
“I don’t think any of us was shocked by his arrest. It was probably a matter of time before one of us was jailed,” says Momin. “And that’s because we know now that the offence-taking machinery is not random. There are some people sitting through hours of comedy videos and scanning them and then buying tickets to go watch a particular comedian’s show because he has been identified. And let us not pretend that Munawar’s religious identity had nothing to do with his arrest,” he adds.
“Of course, there was trolling earlier, like people would comment on my videos saying ‘chup baith, jaake puncher bana de’ (referring to a stereotype about Muslims running puncture shops). So it’s like you don’t even want to listen to me, you are just exasperated ki yeh chup kyun nahi ho raha (why isn’t he shutting up)? But this? This will really define how we do our comedy from now on,” says Anas.
Ironically, the performers are aware that they are not the darlings of Muslim society either. There are fundamentalists on the other side as well who can easily take offence at being satirised and made fun of. “Aisa nahi hai ki they love us,” as Shaikh says. But the difference, probably, is that they would find it tougher to get the entire state machinery—from the police to the judicial system—so ready to take offence on their behalf.
It has been a month since Faruqui was arrested and incarcerated, and there is no saying when he will get bail, let alone be acquitted for what would amount to at most, if at all, a thought crime. “Don’t worry, he will get out. We used to sit and joke earlier that if ISIS comes to India, Muslim comedians will be the first to be beheaded. And I am sure that we will write jokes about this episode too,” says Shaikh.