MUMBAI — When Varun Grover and Sanjay Rajoura stepped into the spotlight at a packed club here last week with a bagful of jokes about India’s new prime minister, the two stand-up comics knew they were on tricky political terrain.
Cracking wise about Narendra Modi is risky, not just because of the Hindu nationalist leader’s tough, no-nonsense reputation — and his followers’ sometimes ferocious devotion — but also because of his sky-high popularity. Still, the country’s nascent stand-up comedy scene continues to test the limits of what is fair game.
“Raise your hands if you voted for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and if you are not embarrassed,” Grover, 34, instructed the audience.
A few giggled. But many raised their hands.
Then a volley of Modi jokes followed.
“For a right-wing party that is opposed to homosexuality, the BJP has been obsessing about one man’s chest for months now,” Grover said, referring to the fascination with Modi’s self-proclaimed 56-inch chest among members of his Bharatiya Janata Party.
The audience whistled and guffawed at each joke. Some shouted approvingly, “Killing it, dude!”
India has a long tradition of satire in poetry, mimicry and comic movies. But as its movie industry wanes and middle-class affluence expands — along with Indians’ self-confidence and willingness to laugh at themselves — this kind of U.S.-style stand-up routine is emerging as the cool new thing among young people in the big cities.
It is almost as much a fad as having a “pasta counter at Punjabi weddings,” Grover quipped.
Stand-up made its Indian debut during a TV talent quest some years ago, but it was only in 2009 that the first comedy club opened in Mumbai. Now, more than a dozen cities host stand-up festivals, and several comedians who have launched comedy start-ups find themselves overwhelmed with applications.
The comics make fun of everything Indian — public spitting, honor killing, observing Earth Hour even when there is no electricity to conserve, dating, parental pressures, the traffic, the caste system, Bollywood, Hindu gods, the IT boom, non-English speakers, overpopulation and even Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest business baron.
But as business booms and word of the cozy club network gets out, comics worry about attracting public or government censure.
“We carry the tag of being ‘the world’s biggest democracy.’ But sometimes when you test democracy, you find it missing,” Grover said.
In recent years, vigilante groups have sought bans on books, movies, song lyrics and artwork that they said offended them.
“In this landscape of offense-taking, stand-up comedy is an oasis right now. They are saying what they want to in a fairly cutting-edge way, mostly because it has remained in small circuits until now,” said Jaideep Verma, who made a documentary film about the industry titled “I Am Offended.” “But that may not last long.”
Flying under the radar, however, may also have encouraged abuses.
“Those who go to watch stand-up comedy in English are urban, upper-caste and successful,” said Rajnish Kapoor, a comic in New Delhi. “A few comedians often crack horribly bigoted jokes and insult members of lower-caste groups because they know they can get away with it.”
Many used to crack anti-women and rape jokes, too. But that changed after the fatal gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi in 2012, which stirred profound anger across India. Now, rape jokes are off-limits, and if one is tried, the audience doesn’t laugh.
“We refer to sexual harassment as Eve-teasing in India, as if it is a cute and benign thing like something a puppy would do to a fairy under a rainbow,” said comedian Aditi Mittal, 27, drawing laughs recently from the women in her audience at the Manhattan Club in Gurgaon, an upscale suburb of New Delhi. “But we are undergoing a revolutionary awakening now in India. We have just discovered that women are human beings, too.”
The biggest success story in Indian stand-up belongs to Kapil Sharma, 33, the host of a mega-hit weekly TV show, in Hindi, on the Colors channel. Bollywood and cricket stars line up to appear on the show. Women send him marriage proposals. Men turn up at his door with gifts. Children wear T-shirts inscribed with his catchphrases.
But television has defanged Sharma’s humor, some say.
“My shows are watched by little children and grandmothers. They have faith that I will not say anything offensive,” Sharma said. “We have so many religions, language and caste groups in India that we grow up with a self-censorship device inside us.”
But outside television, there is a lot of questioning of the emerging India — including class, privilege and the effects of modernity — among comedians who perform in Hindi or regional languages.
“I take my anger to the stage. I am angry because the last two decades of economic growth has only widened the social gap. Our inherent patriarchy is now compounded by this runaway capitalism,” said Rajoura, 42, a New Delhi-based Hindi comic who satirizes class and the rural-urban divide. “The rise of stand-up comedy is good. But earlier humor was used as a language of protest. Today it is entertainment for the privileged middle class.”
Meanwhile, laughter has proved that it can be good politics. A stand-up comedian from Punjab was elected to Parliament as a member of the new Common Man Party this year, and a critique of Modi that he delivered on the House floor has become a hit on YouTube. In rhyming verse, Bhagwant Mann skewered Modi’s campaign promise to bring in the “good days,” noting that prices have kept right on rising.
“Tell us,” his refrain went, “when will the good days come?”
“We are a small party. We get only two minutes to speak in the House,” Mann said. “As a comedian, I have an advantage. I know the economy of words, and I know how to deliver punch lines.”