It’s been a satirically compelling fortnight. With heated debates on comedy collective All India Bakchod’s (AIB) roast of Bollywood celebrities, we found how laughter challenged we are. The hue and cry to bring down this particular episode (it was pulled) rode on the argument that it had crossed the line from being funny to offensive as well as sexist, alarmist and crude. It was indeed crass in parts. But to muzzle comedy on the basis of vulgarity is to forget that like pain, pleasure, thrill and risk, humour evokes different thresholds in different minds and audiences. Vulgar is a differently abled word in different social cultures.

An article in Psychology Today some time ago cited the work of psychologist Robert Provine to argue that laughter was 30 times more frequent in social situations than solitary ones. When alone, people were much more likely to talk to themselves or smile than to laugh. The psychology of comedy, on the other hand, is often dependent on personal notions of liberalism, free speech, and realities such as economic status, age, education and the kind of beliefs about religion, race, gender and caste we were raised with. Some people just cannot tolerate religious jokes but are game to jocularly call a law-breaking man a rapist. Invectives on a Bollywood heroine’s weight might be unacceptable to a feminist but not find cheap insinuations about a director’s homosexuality.

The diversity of the reactive mind should get more play in a culture as diverse as ours. But in real time, there is no consensus either on crassness or on free speech in our society. So every controversy finds its space in the sun instead of being thrown out because of a collectively evolved acceptance of conflicts. Comedy and satire are tools to rebel, question, or tell the story of our times. By curbing them, we directly spoke our war cry of change.

This tryst with our comic bones through reactions to AIB, however, opens many inter-linked terrains. For one, it is good reason to watch on YouTube’s Being Indian channel documentary maker Jaideep Varma’s film, I Am Offended. He interviews a range of comedians and satirists, working in Hindi, English and Marathi to uncover through the prism of stand-up comedy how we view humorous story telling, the context of funny Hindi poetry, the slant of newspaper columns and cartoons. It’s a vast canvas, tightly controlled and makes a pertinent argument about Indians mind sets.

I particularly enjoyed the views of Raju Shrivastava, the Hindi stand-up comedian who struggles with India’s reluctance to be democratic towards comedy and his own popularity as a comedian and find a middle ground. There are many others: Vir Das, Neeti Palta, Sanjay Rajoura, Rajneesh Kapoor, Tanmay Bhatt, Papa CJ and more. Some are incredibly direct with their words, others dripping with laden meaning. Thankfully, Kapil Sharma of Comedy Nights with Kapil on Colors TV doesn’t figure in the recent debates. He is a benign comedian with good timing and a cutesy stage manner; but throw him with a pack of satirists who rebel through comedy, and he looks like a lamb. I have always wondered about the secret of his popularity. Now I know. He suits the expectations of Indian audiences to pull a leg but never rattles the carefully cultivated image of celebrities. Why, he has even tried to have us believe that dancer director Prabhu Deva or supporting hunks like Sonu Sood are funny. Come on people. And let’s see Kapil through a raucous joke on Aishwarya Rai or Salman Khan, for instance. One perennially obsessed with being “Ms Goody Two Shoes". The other perenially obsessed with being “Bad Guy With a Heart of Gold". Rai cannot be rankled because of the Bachchan hierarchy and Khan gets to decide what’s funny about him. So Kapil Sharma does an amusing family show, but associating him with meaningful comedy is laughable.

Indian humour is, funnily enough, trotting on parallel tracks. Thousands of jokes on Sardars to Sindhis, India-Pakistan, marriage to Valentine’s Day float around in social media. There has never been such a wide dependence on banal everyday comedy to socialize through smartphones. On the other hand, most Indian film award shows also use comedy (juvenile and tedious, mostly) to thread award evenings. Comedians like the incorrigible Bharti and Guthi of TV fame are roped in to offer a boost to Karan Johar, Ritesh Deshmukh, Shahrukh Khan and Co. to be officially funny.

At the same time, we are showing up as a regressive, repressive, stuck-up people. We need humour literacy shaped by Comedy Studies courses offered in some universities abroad. “This programme is the safest place to dare to fail," says the Study Funny course of Columbia College, Chicago. Just what India needs in colleges as a multilingual course. It’s social skills and psychology training. Raju Shrivastava should definitely teach a segment called the funny secrets of the serious Indian.

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