Last week, the social commentary comedy collective, Aisi Taisi Democracy was performing at Motilal Nehru National Institute of Technology, Allahabad when their microphones were suddenly turned off, and they were asked to leave shortly after they began talking about sex and sex education.
In light of the event at MNNIT that exposes increasing intolerance and an affinity for wanting to censor what one doesn’t agree with or like.
I had the chance to catch up with lyricist and screenwriter Varun Grover (one of the members of the collective), for an interesting chat where he cleared the air around the incident, the need for us to get rid of taboos around sex and about larger questions of freedom of speech in the country.
Rajkanya Mahapatra (RM): With Aisi Taisi Democracy, the collective has started a new conversation, where it put things into perspective. Why did you feel the need to talk about sociopolitical issues through the format of stand-up comedy? What kind of an impact do you see ATD making?
Varun Grover (VG): The first reason for forming a group like Aisi Taisi Democracy is very personal. I haven’t set out to change the world. We don’t know if there’ll be an impact or if we’ve been making an impact.
We make sure that we talk about things that happen around us on a daily basis. Things that need to be said a little differently need to be presented with a new perspective by adding humour to it.
There are many things that we normally don’t get to criticise, like the government and regressive mindsets. When people find something funny, it becomes easier to explain things to them. Humour facilitates the whole process.
After we started performing, we realised from the feedback we received that people thought ours’ was a unique show. That kind of a feedback brought with it an element/feeling of responsibility. We handle that responsibility by always ensuring that we are politically correct. Our idea of being politically correct is not about playing it safe but standing with the oppressed.
We talk about things that people can’t normally talk about in public. People are often scared to talk about sex. We must realise that there’s a power system that’s stopping it from being discussed.
There’s also this Victorian morality that we still abide by, something that wasn’t there before. We know about the Kamasutra and the Khajuraho. Even just before the British came, the situation was much better.
We wanted to find humour in these things so that we could take the conversation forward.
RM: Could you tell us a little about the incident that happened at MNNIT, Allahabad?
VG: We were having a great show till we were interrupted shortly after we began the segment on family structure and its morality. I had made it clear right in the beginning of the show that we would use a certain kind of language that might seem shocking to the audience. If anybody in the audience disagreed or didn’t like what we were saying, they could obviously leave whenever they wanted to.
So I think, they (professors) got scared when I started to talk about sex and more specifically, male genitalia. I was also talking about how porn is very easily available now than it was before. When we were teenagers, nothing of this sort was there. Porn has become a sex education tool for teenagers because parents don’t talk about sex even now.
Nowadays, you get everything on the internet. So I was talking about what sex education was like when I was a teenager. The thoughts that came to our minds back then, were really funny. They were also factually incorrect. The teachers were really shy when it came to talking about sex. Especially, the biology teacher.
My teacher used to say ‘Hexual organs’ instead of ‘Sexual organs’. Because he was shy, he would often fumble when pronouncing these words. I was talking about these things when I saw a few professors getting a little uncomfortable. The ones in the front row got up and started to leave.
I was fine with them leaving, but I don’t think they understood the context in which I was speaking. I believe they were scared because they couldn’t anticipate how far I would go. I knew that I wasn’t crossing any line. I knew my limits.
It would have been okay had they left the show, but they stopped it instead. They went backstage and asked the sound technician to pull the wires.
Had they even spoken to us about it, had a conversation, it wouldn’t have been so bad. There’s this feeling of being insulted, not that I am taking it to heart.
It was ridiculous because four people from the front row were deciding what 2000 people should see and hear. Switching off our mikes wasn’t as objectionable as the reason they gave for switching it off. They said that we shouldn’t be talking about sex in front of girls.
This is sheer hypocrisy. I know that on the stage if I were cracking misogynistic and sexist jokes, the kind you often hear on Kapil Sharma’s show, if I were actually insulting women at that event, I know for sure that nobody would’ve gotten up to say that we shouldn’t be saying such things in front of women or saying them at all, in the first place.
But the moment we kept women and men on an equal plane and wanted to talk about sex, that’s when they said, “Ladkiyon ke saamne mat boliye.” (Don’t say it in front of the girls).
RM: Were you performing this act for the first time? Or have you performed this elsewhere? If yes, what were the reactions there?
VG: We have already performed this act at IIT Bombay and VIT Vellore and have received great response. Apart from colleges, we have performed this act in several other places. This (At MNNIT) was ATD’s 26th show, and we have performed this particular segment in about 10-12 shows.
There was this show in Hyderabad where we knew that we were going to perform for an NGO but didn’t know that the audience was going to be only women.
The NGO works on issues of women employment and empowerment. We were a little scared in the beginning because there were only women. We told them too, right at the start that there might be issues or use of certain kind of language that can get people uncomfortable. They said that it was okay with them.
We were appreciated the most for the segment on sex and sex education. There were ladies who came with their 15-16-year-olds to thank us. They said that there needs to be more conversation on the topic of sex. They said, “We are often shy to talk about these things, but after this show, I’ll ensure that we talk about it in our house.”
RM: How do you think students should/can contribute to the whole conversation on and around sex and sex education? By the time students enter colleges, chances are they already know quite a lot about sex or are already sexually active which is all the more reason that such a conversation must happen because the risk is so much more.
VG: Every generation thinks that the next generation will solve all the issues. “Agli generation ke paas pichli wali se zyada power hoti hai cheezo ko badalne ki.” (The next generation always has more power than the previous one to bring about change).
The young should realise the power they have. My generation is still in the process of creating an environment that’s conducive to change because matters have totally gone out of hand for the generation before us. That’s what needs to be understood first. That’s where they (the youth) need to start. They should realise that even little decisions that they take can make a difference.
For example, if the student community of a college decides to call Aisi Taisi Democracy instead of some other group, that’s a conscious choice that they’re making. They know that our content is political. When something like this happens, it is important how they respond to it too. Their response decides what will happen in the future.
RM: Because you talk about sociopolitical issues that are otherwise not articulated in the public sphere. Where do you think freedom of speech and expression stands in India today?
VG: The thing about trying to explain freedom of speech in India is that even if you write books on it, you wouldn’t be able to accurately explain it. It’s really complicated.
People in different pockets with various privileges and moral compasses have access to different kinds of freedom of speech and expression. Some people have a lot of privilege but not a lot of freedom to express what they want to.
For example, Sachin Tendulkar is one of the most privileged individuals in the country, but I don’t think he has a lot of freedom of speech because I believe he’s stuck in thousands of different kinds of commitments and obligations.
The environment on the internet, on the roads today, is one with a lot of fear. There’s always this fear of ‘someone else’. Sometimes it is fear of Muslims, of Pakistan, of intellectuals.
TV channels cash in on this fear. Arnab Goswami comes every day to tell you things that you should be scared of. Such an atmosphere is not a very healthy one for freedom of speech which is why I say, the worst time for comedy is the best time for comedy.
The atmosphere is high on emotions. It is a good time to talk about things because everybody will engage completely even if they don’t agree.