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The Burmese junta fears this comedian

It’s one of the juiciest ironies to emerge from our grim eastern neighbour, Myanmar. The all-powerful military dictators there are seemingly more rattled by the country’s top comedian than by its top opposition leader.

art and culture Updated: May 30, 2011 11:52 IST
Amitava Sanyal

It’s one of the juiciest ironies to emerge from our grim eastern neighbour, Myanmar. The all-powerful military dictators there are seemingly more rattled by the country’s top comedian than by its top opposition leader.

General Than Shwe’s government may have allowed conditional freedom to Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. But when it comes to Zarganar — a dentist who is more famous for his stand-up acts — the junta doesn’t want to take chances. So in 2008 the military government put away the then-47-year-old to serve a 59-year sentence (later reduced to 35 years) in one of the country’s remotest jails, Myitkyina.

The rulers have reasons to fear the rabble-rousing instincts of this popular entertainer whose name means ‘tweezers’. Zarganar shot to prominence in the late 1980s when, called to perform in front of military junta founder Ne Win, he went with a plaster on his lips. When asked why, he told the supreme leader it was because his friends feared he would let loose his tongue.

When British documentary filmmaker Rex Bloomstein arrived in Yangon in 2007 to shoot for a feature on freedom of expression, he learnt about the comedian who was, by then, “banned from producing, directing or acting, banned from any performance on stage, banned from talking to any foreign media, banned from writing in any journal or magazine”.

Later, when Bloomstein learnt of Zarganar’s imprisonment, he scouted for funds to do a film. He found a ready ally in another comedian, Germany’s Michael Mittermeier. To Mittermeier, a Burmese comedian was as rare as a German one. And they embarked on a journey in the hope of “getting as close to Zarganar as possible”. ‘This Prison Where I Live’, the 90-minute documentary that resulted from the trip, is being premiered in India next week.

What makes Zarganar so potent? Tint Swe, one of the four elected Burmese MPs belonging to Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy currently exiled in India, says, “He is the most popular among a generation of educated youth who took to comedy… They are afraid of his tongue more than that of the ‘mature’ political leaders.”

The educated as well as the unlettered Burmese loved Zarganar’s down-to-earth humour — which was unfailingly political. In a repressive country where there are as many spies as there are flies, he could tell the ‘emperor’ he wasn’t wearing any clothes. And that’s why, in his role as a Birbal to their insecure Akbars, he was much more dangerous than the soft-spoken Suu Kyi.

@ IIC Main Auditorium, May 30 at 6.30 pm. DVDs will be available for sale