Throw out your television sets." In February, India’s most revered television news anchor—Ravish Kumar of NDTV India—urged us not to watch the news. “The elections are upon us, and I appeal to you to stop watching television," he said in Hindi, at an event organized by news website The Wire. “For two months, stop watching. This is the least you can do, and the easiest demand I can make on behalf of our democracy."
A prime-time newsman requesting you to turn off his channel is significant, and we may need to watch comedians instead. On 17 March, Hasan Minhaj, the Indian-American host of Netflix current-affairs series Patriot Act, went native with an episode about our forthcoming general election. It’s a must- watch, not least because Minhaj calls Rahul Gandhi “India’s Michael Bublé."
In 2014, John Oliver had featured a segment on Indian elections in the first-ever episode of his show, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, speaking about then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi making campaign speeches via holograms. Oliver said a voter may vote Modi because “he appeared to me as a hologram and told me he’d give me a toilet". Soon after, Jon Stewart sent a Daily Show correspondent to India to cover the electoral process in a segment unsubtly titled India Jones And The Election Of Doom.
Those segments were insightful even to us, watching from India. Oliver scored immediate international buzz for a serious new show, and Stewart had set up an investigation in a style long suited to his show. Minhaj addresses a different audience. He is an Indian-American speaking primarily to the young diaspora in America, questioning their parents’ political allegiances. This is an attempt to spell out, in no uncertain terms, the fatal divide India currently faces. As the psephologist and politician Yogendra Yadav says, it is about whether India can remain India.
He starts with the Pulwama attacks, standing in front of an obscured map because the boundary lines demarcating Kashmir are too contentious. The joke is that India may have missed their targets in Pakistan because the map was too blurry. We are then presented a trademark Minhaj overview, complete with references to LeBron James and Jerry Seinfeld, with some lines of the Kuch Kuch Hota Hai title track (sung over visuals of Modi holding Donald Trump’s hand).
The jumpy host glibly takes on ruling party and opposition. He speaks of Modi, demonetization, unemployment figures and fundamentalism, revelling in Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader M.S.Golwalkar’s book being called Bunch Of Thoughts. Unable to get a reply to an interview request from anyone in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—“They left me on ‘Read’, you guys," Minhaj whines—he interviews Shashi Tharoor of the Congress, saying he sounds like “a wise moose from a Pixar movie".
Modi’s love for hugs and Rahul Gandhi’s nickname “Pappu" are too familiar to us in India, but then the excellent Patriot Act episode on Internet Censorship in China may not have held many groundbreaking insights for the Chinese. Minhaj is not trying to India-splain India to Indians. He does, however, provide context, by pointing out how “Time magazine ranked the (2008) 2G scam as the second worst abuse of all time, after Watergate", and how the BJP’s attempt to keep nearly four million Assamese from voting could be “the single largest voter disenfranchisement in history".
In this time of constant misinformation, the job of the comedian has become alarmingly important. Indian comics are at it: The collective Aisi Taisi Democracy makes no bones about its rage against the machine, while comedian Kunal Kamra uses a YouTube show called Shut Up Ya Kunal to interview people from both sides of the political aisle.
This may not be genius. It may not be the wittiest, most provocative satire—but it matters. It matters because comedians should question the custodians, while we should question what the comedians tell us. Immediately after Patriot Act, I looked up whether Golwalkar’s book really is called that (it is). Minhaj’s first broadside at India may leave things to be desired—including the Netflix subtitle “(Speaking foreign language)" popping up whenever the host says something in Hindi—but it’s a start.
One running gag sums it up. Every few minutes, Minhaj mentions how this episode could be dismissed by Indians calling him a spy from Pakistan/Qatar/Iran. He throws out these allegations with a cartoonishly intense face, accompanied by the sound of a thunderclap. Once, crucially, the accusation doesn’t mention a country, but says simply “Yeh Mussalman ladka", a sly warning about conflating religion with nationality. Patriot Act points fingers at both sides, but, make no mistake, knows which is scarier. We may be in for an India that doesn’t trust Indians.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.
He tweets at @rajasen