Punchlines in a conflict zone: Stand-up comedy catches on in Kashmir
Cafes are hosting open-mic nights, teens are creating viral memes, gifs and YouTube videos as a new generation experiments with new means of dissent
Azaad Kashmir pehle banega ya Rambagh flyover (Will there be a free Kashmir first or the Rambagh flyover)?
Wry jokes about delayed government projects. Riffs on what Kashmiris do during internet bans. Memes about that one friend who blames everything on the Hurriyat.
In the beautiful valleys of Kashmir, the joke’s almost always on the Kashmiri. And it’s now being crafted and narrated by young Kashmiri stand-up comedians, either live or in videos, memes and Instagram posts. Sometimes the material is in English, with a little Kashmiri thrown in; sometimes it’s the other way around. But the context is almost always rooted in the political tussles of the troubled state.
It’s not a calling taken to lightly. Kashmir is, after all, one of the most heavily policed states in a country where pushing the envelope in comedy can mean chargesheets and prison time — even if you’re a celebrity in a mainstream metro city. Two political cartoonists have been jailed under an archaic sedition law in recent years, and a live roast organised by AIB, a leading Indian comedy troupe, and featuring some of India’s top Bollywood celebrities ended in a rash of police cases (primarily over jokes about homosexuality).
And yet youngsters are stepping forward, taking the mic and putting punchlines to their reality as they see it.
“People don’t laugh here. They are not happy. It’s not a happy state,” says Taha Naqaash, 17, a viral video sensation in Kashmir. “I want to do only one thing — make my people laugh.”
I don’t want to get political, he adds, it’s just that Kashmiri politicians have so much to offer. (Cue laughter).
The humour itself is not pathbreaking. Some of it can feel juvenile — the kinds of theme you might have riffed on in your college canteen. Except for the underlying tone of dissent — against what they see as an ineffective state government, a fruitless separatist movement, a callous or indifferent State.
The jokes are characterised by the same gentle defiance with which Kashmiris are known to greet domestic tourists. Famous for their hospitality, they are warm and inviting, but will call out, “Chai le aana, Bharat se mehmaan aaye hai (Bring out the tea, there are guests here from India)”.
“A new generation is finding new innovative tools to dissent,” says Shiv Visvanathan, sociologist and executive director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. “They don’t represent a political party or ideological view. They’re creating space to express themselves, redefining their narrative with the tools at their disposal, in this case social media.”
Through the comedy coming out of Kashmir, everyday life can be understood better by everyday Indians, Visvanathan adds. “It takes courage, and creativity, on the part of these youngsters. In return, they get a chance to break free.”
Mimicry and slapstick are comedic traditions in Kashmir, as in the rest of India. Stand-up and memes are imported formats. In deciding how to present their comedy, Kashmiri comedians are following in the footsteps of successful Indian comedy troupes.
The state’s only comedy troupe, Jajeer Talkies (jajeer is Kashmiri for hookah), was inspired by AIB to create podcasts, reinvent the lyrics and lines in popular films in parody videos. They started with a series of memes and still use text on photos to satirise subjects ranging from protests to curfews to current chief minister Mehbooba Mufti.
Cofounded by Mohammed Shoaib, Aahmed Hussain and Faheem Qureshi, all in their mid-20s, JT also organises open-mic nights in cafés across Srinagar, creating a platform for other young comedians. They’ve organised five so far; they call them Laughter Riots.
In May 2017, JT organised its first open-mic night, at Kashmir University, introducing 10 stand-up comedians to an audience of 200. The second was held at Winterfell Café, a Game of Thrones-themed outlet in August, and featured another six comedians.
Among the first lot was college student Khalid Firdous, 18, from Srinagar. Firdous was 14 when he started posting short comic videos on Instagram. His most popular clip is titled ‘Namtuk Su Zamani (Those ’90s’ Days)’ which he co-wrote with fellow teen comedian Danish Lone.
This video is essentially two Kashmiri men reminiscing about the 1990s, back when militancy was at its peak. Here’s a sample:
Man 1: “The ’90s were the days! Everyone was so scared; nobody dared to walk on the roads.”
Man 2: “I wasn’t scared in the ’90s. I was standing at Ghanta Ghar [in the heart of Srinagar] when the area was cordoned off. Then a cop fired at me with an AK-47 and the bullet started chasing me. I ran through the lanes and the bullet followed me. I got home, and the bullet knocked.”
It’s a riff on the exaggerations of old-timers, the teenagers say.
When he found out about JT’s first open-mic night, on Instagram, Firdous says he had to sign up.
“I had never had the opportunity to perform live. I wanted to test myself, test my material. It was a wonderful experience.”
His 10-minute act was about the name-dropping, price-tag-flaunting show-offs from a private all-girls’ school in Rajbagh. “I wanted to write something that would be funny and relatable to the audience,” he says. “There’s more to us than curfew and politics.”
This seems to be a common pattern — online, politics is often the theme, with the understanding that the audience is national / global; offline, when the audience is people who live their shared experience, the aim is to amuse and lighten the mood. The themes are lighter and more generic — social media addiction, stereotypes, the dating scene.
Part of the reason for this is self-censorship. “When we audition for open-mics, political jokes get taken off,” says Firdous. “If you push your luck, you can’t perform.
Jajeer Talkies has been treading carefully too; the troupe is two years old and has had three police cases filed against it. All three cases have been closed, but only after hours of questioning and, in one case, a written apology to the government department concerned.
Across India, and around the world, these have been the stages of evolution of a comedy scene—an initial push, periods of outrage, litigation, a pullback, self-censorship and eventually a new normal.
“The important thing is to have a mic and know the audience is listening,” says Sanjay Rajoura, a Delhi-based comedian and member of the Aisi Taisi Democracy comedy troupe that specialises in political satire. “Around the world, young comedians start out by telling their stories — of families, neighbourhoods, friends. Generic stories, anecdotes. It’s only slowly, as the scene matures, that they will find ways to use their stage to make a larger point and get political.”
In Srinagar and pockets of Baramulla, new cafés and restaurants are offering a platform for this evolution, giving artists, musicians, comedians and poets a space.
Firdous organised his own open-mic, at Srinagar’s Hukus Bukus Bistro & Grill, in July — a ticketed event featuring two stand-up comedians and two musicians. He has also since performed at the Books & Bricks Café and at Winterfell.
Winterfell, set up in December 2016, now hosts events every Sunday. Danish Yousaf, 29, owner of the two-year-old Books & Bricks, is determined to create “a cultural space for budding talent” too. They hosted their first open-mic in August, with four comedians performing for about 40 patrons.
“It was a business decision for us to diversify and open a café,” says the restaurateur. “With cafes mushrooming in Srinagar, cultural events was a way to stand out in the crowd. I do think musicians are currently more popular than comedians.”
In Baramulla, Irfan Bhukari, a 28-year-old video producer, co-founded Café Pirates in May. “Srinagar has always been the hub. Baramulla is where we have maximum curfews. I set up this café because I want to get people to come out and talk to each other, even if for an hour over a cup of coffee,” Bhukari says. “People should know that this café in this area will have regular events – of comedy, poetry, music, literary meet-ups. I want Baramulla to have its own cultural scene.”
At the launch of Pirates, Kashmir’s favourite veteran comedian — Nazir Josh aka Ahad Raaz (his character from a popular DD show of the 1980s) — did a stand-up act.
Josh is Kashmir’s Johnny Lever, except he’s known for his political satire as well as his mimicry. He’s been an entertainer for over 40 years, performing on TV, on the radio and at events. “Everyone’s sad in Kashmir, there’s a gloom that never leaves us,” Josh says. “So it’s important to have comedy. When the situation is bad, it’s our duty to make people laugh.”
When people like him do stand-up, Bhukari adds, it sends a message out.
Establishing an ecosystem is important, says stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra, host of the popular, politically themed web series Shut Up Ya Kunal. “The young Kashmiri comedians need to do more open-mics, do corporate shows or even college festivals in other cities to sharpen their craft. Eventually, they’ll find their own crowd and space.”
Kamra believes that space will likely be outside Kashmir, in cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, where the paying markets for stand-up are. Rajoura agrees. “I’m positive at least two or three will break out to tell the Kashmir story,” he says.
An early example is the Kashmiri Pandit stand-up comedian Anshita ‘Crazy’ Koul, 31, who was born in Srinagar and whose family fled to Jammu during the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus in 1990.
Koul, who now shuttles between Germany and Mumbai, moved to Pune to study engineering as a teen, but had always had her heart set on comedy. “I saw that there was a lack of Kashmiri content on YouTube. I decided to fill that gap,” she says.
Her content is rooted in the culture of the state. Her most popular YouTube videos are ‘Things Kashmiri Moms Say’, ‘The Zamtur (Son-in-Law)’, and ‘Kashmiri Cheap Thrills’.
As her videos went viral — the moms one alone has 3.64 lakh views — she began to travel to Mumbai for stand-up gigs.
She organised her first open-mic at Downtown Café in Jammu in 2017. She also did a set at Winterfell in February. “I had returned to Kashmir after 10 years. It was a nice feeling to see that sort of set-up there,” she says. “But Mumbai is the place to be for stand-up, simply because of the sheer number of venues and open-mic sessions.”
Aahmed of JT worries that, for most of his fellow comedians, a crossover wouldn’t be so easy. “We can’t joke about having stones in our pockets outside of Kashmir,” he says. “Non-Kashmiris expect people from Kashmir to be musicians, politicians, activists, writers. But never comedians.”
For now, there is a dedicated, if small, audience for content being posted online by young Kashmiri comedians, and it’s made up primarily of young Kashmiris who have migrated to other cities to study or work.
“The pages I follow, the comedians I watch talk more about social issues that plague Kashmir. There we don’t have political allegiance to any party,” says Aatif Lone, 28, a brand manager who moved from Srinagar to Mumbai 10 years ago. “Humour is a coping mechanism because everyone’s so frustrated with everything. If you can’t make it better, you can at least laugh about it.”
And there’s a dedicated, if small, audience offline. “Stand-up gives us a space where we can be young, free and just laugh together in a room,” says Sobia Shasi, 23, a student from Srinagar who says she attends every open-mic organised by JT. “It’s a warm feeling.”