NOBODY REALLY DOUBTS that the Indian public has a great sense of humour. Toothless grandmothers sing ribald wedding songs about sex, nautanki and street performers deliver biting satires about politicians and tycoons, and everyone tells sardarji jokes—which may be lame, and paralleled all over the world (“An Irishman, an Englishman and a Pole walk into a bar…”) but at least demonstrate a willingness to mock one’s own. The Indian sense of humour is sophisticated, nuanced, and referenced across a vast array of comedy-rich social and cultural cues, much of it universally accessible, much of it unmistakably rooted in the Indian context. Possibly only an Indian can fully appreciate why it’s so funny when a young man calls another young man ‘aunty.’
Public India, on the other hand, seems to have no sense of humour at all. The mainstream media space—where public figures such as politicians and movie stars shape the national dialogue—is where fun goes to die. Here, in both the English and the vernacular spaces, people seem unwilling or unable to give or take a gentle ribbing, let alone attempt sarcasm and other sharper kinds of humour.
Typical example: a couple of years ago, Indo-Canadian comedian Russell Peters came to India and, in the course of his sold-out show, mentioned Aishwarya Rai. “She’s a stunning, beautiful woman, but she can’t act for shit!” he said. This was not particularly funny, merely true. What made the jam-packed hall shriek with laughter was the sheer delight of watching someone dare to take a bite out of a much-revered Bollywood VIP. The newspapers, on the other hand, instead of laughing with Peters, gathered outraged reactions from Rai’s friends and admirers. (“Russell Peters has no business coming to India!” and “Who does he think he is?”) This is also funny, but unintentionally so.