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A farmer, an engineer and a sex worker walk into an open-mic

A unique initiative groomed and platformed a diverse group of people from rural Maharashtra for a stand-up comedy tour. A new documentary, Gheun Tak, chronicles the journey

A 'Kai Boltay!' performance.
A 'Kai Boltay!' performance.

Stand-up comedy in India has boomed over the past decade. Its venues have gone beyond tier-1 cities, its performances beyond English. Comedians, too, have come into their own. From Zakir Khan and Kapil Sharma to Kunal Kamra and Vir Das, forms like storytelling, mimicry, satire and irony are employed to entertain, lampoon and sometimes, challenge the status-quo.

Yet, some voices are sorely lacking. The ‘mainstream’ comedy circuit in India is largely young, male, educated and urbane. The best-known ones use Hindi and English; those in other regional languages haven’t found the same degree of fame or money yet. There’s also a lack of diversity among comedians. Only a handful come from remote towns or marginalized communities.

"When you hear the story of a Dalit, an adivasi or a sex worker, they are mostly spoken for by people who work with and for these groups," says Nihal Passanha, member of Maraa, a Media & Arts Collective from Bengaluru. "It's often a specific tone - of a victim. You only see them as individuals who need something, who are struggling. But they are people with multiple levels to themselves. They are thinkers, writers, people with families, and lovers."

Last year, Maraa, along with BhaDiPa, a Marathi comedy collective, and the non-profit Fund for Global Human Rights, attempted to change this. As part of an initiative called Kai Boltay! (meaning ‘What’s up?’), they selected 13 aspiring comedians from Maharashtra’s towns and villages. The participants then got to perform in a series of shows held across Maharashtra. Gheun Tak!, released on 8 November on YouTube, is a documentary chronicling this effort.

Sarang Sathaye, founder of BhaDiPa, says in the documentary that their goal was to rope in voices not heard before, and in a language they're comfortable in. “One of the reasons why Zakir [Khan] could make a breakthrough is because he went to the masses. So if we want to tell stories from the grassroots, there’s no alternative but doing it through regional languages.”

To do so, BhaDiPa held stage-shows in tier-2 and tier-3 towns like Sangli and Sangamner, giving the audience a taste of stand-up, and then inviting them to join in too. Those interested were invited to sending a short video featuring one of their stand-up acts. The best ones would get a chance to perform live.

The 16 participants thus selected cut across caste, class and occupation. There were sex workers and social activists, farmers and engineering graduates. During the five-day workshops, they were groomed in delivery and through theatre exercises, with four mentors guiding them through their acts.

From the snippets of the live performances in the documentary, the diversity of topics stand out. A lot of them borrow from their own lives. Like Trimbak Dharade, a farmer from the town of Dhaman in Maharashtra, who narrates the story of being married at the age 7. “When someone goes to marry, they go in a car or a horse. I went in my mother’s lap,” he says. “The girl’s parents had asked what I do. My dad told them, 'My son has now learnt to wipe his own arse.'"

Another memorable bit comes from Pratiksha Khobragade from Chandrapur, who lampooned her parents’ obsession with having a male-child. “There was a belief [in my village] that after you have two daughters, the third is definitely a son. But at my time, they seemed run out of the stock of boys’. My parents didn’t give up though,” she pauses before landing the punchline: “They’re very hard-working.”

Watching such acts comes as a refreshing change, especially at a time many established comedians prefer to stick to ‘safe’ jokes: on family and relationships, Bollywood and bumper-to-bumper traffic. One can’t always blame them considering the vocal ones are increasingly targeted by trolls and vested interests. The latest such instance was when Kunal Kamra tweeted that the Supreme Court of India was a ‘joke’, and the attorney general KK Venugopal allowed proceedings of contempt of court against him.

Nevertheless, it’s only when the scope for dissent is widened, and the mics handed over to the lesser-heard, that freedom of expression can be realized in true form. Already, Maraa is working to select, groom and platform similar performances for aspiring comics in Tamil Nadu. "The idea is to bring out minority voices through regional comedy in multiple states, create network of stand ups who can occupy bigger stages," says Passanha. "Due to political climate, spaces for free expression were getting smaller. It is through such creative ways that we can help people speak out."

The comedians from the documentary feel the same. As Kiran Deshmukh, a sex worker from Sangli, says, “I want to plant this seed among my colleagues too... that we need to tell our story. If they’re not willing to listen, this is one way we can [make them].”

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