How Hasan Minhaj poked fun at Modi and survived

Last Updated 22 March 2019, 07:36 IST

Most of you reading this would have been around long enough to know that an Indian-American Muslim joking about Narendra Modi’s strongman politics and the upcoming Lok Sabha elections is not going to be received particularly well by many.

Not to mention that this comedian, Hasan Minhaj, of Netflix’s stand-up political comedy show Patriot Act, has courted controversy before.

In a style that may remind you of the political satire of US greats like Jon Stewart and John Oliver, Hasan had taken on Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman for the murder of Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, as well as the crackdown on dissent in his kingdom.

The prince and his cronies took offense and they cited an obscure and ill-defined law in the country to demand that Netflix take it off air.

Netflix duly obliged. Perhaps, because it wanted to retain its subscriber base in Saudi Arabia or perhaps — in what would be an ingenious PR move — to set into motion the Streisand effect. The Streisand effect is when an attempt to hide or ban a piece of information will bring all the more traction to it. And although we are not quite sure of Netflix’s intentions, it catapulted Hasan, already acclaimed for his stand-up piece Homecoming King, and Patriot Act into further celebrity.

There’s another reason why you would think Hasan Minhaj joking about Modi may court controversy: stand-up comedians aren’t exactly India’s darlings. A vast majority of people in this country came to know they exist only after AIB’s Comedy Central-style roast of Bollywood actors Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor in December 2014, which troubled many conservative Indians with its abundance of explicit sexual cracks, references to the film-maker, TV presenter Karan Johar as a “queen” and Ranveer Singh, who went on to mime a blowjob.

Other controversies were in the waiting. AIB’s Tanmay Bhat joked some time after this that Lata Mangeshkar is “5,000 years old”, her face looks like “it was kept in water for 8 days” and “Jon Snow has died, so you (Lata) should also…”.

Political comedian Kunal Kamra, a known critic of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime, has been stopped from attending his shows and once was even gheraoed by a few people who took offense at his “anti-Hindu” rhetoric.

But despite these red flags, when Netflix aired Patriot Act episode on the Lok Sabha elections about three days ago, it attracted a surprisingly little amount of hate. Of course, there were some comments against it, but nothing extraordinary or out of proportion.

One Indian media organisation cherry-picked a couple of tweets to show there was a backlash, while another said #BoycottNetflix was trending on Twitter. This was true, but less for Hasan and more because people were outraged that Netflix wouldn't let one of the shows it had cancelled, One Day At A Time, be picked up by another platform.

While it’s fantastic that a brilliant young comedian’s show did not turn into a controversy, the reasons why it didn’t may tell us something about our society.

Hasan, with the Homecoming King, had established his public image: a geeky guy who’s a little awkward around girls; a victim of Islamic terrorism as much as any other American; a son who cannot wrap his head around many of the ideas of a father he loves; an excited husband to a woman from a Hindu family: all this combined to portray a ‘secular’ pretty picture.

Besides, Patriot Act episode itself had taken plenty of precautionary measures. In the prologue, he is shown seated opposite Indian ‘uncles and aunties’ who tell him that if he does a piece on the Indian polls, people are going to think he is a Pakistani agent, to which a stunned Hasan responds: “Me? A Pakistani agent?”

He jokes about being the agent throughout the show, at every instant parodying the look of a stereotypical Muslim terrorist that Hollywood finds it all too easy to write about and putting anyone from India, who may have doubts about him, at ease.

In addition, although a lot of the screen time is given to criticising the BJP for the rising violence against minorities, Hasan also goes after the Congress, the traditional Muslim go-to party. He attacks them for the 2G scam, while not mentioning that the courts have not prosecuted any Congress leaders for it. In fact, he underlines the sheer size of the 2G scam: it stands second, he says, only to Richard Nixon’s Watergate.

In hindsight, anticipating a controversy from Hasan seems a bit foolish. By making a case against the Saudi crown prince, by getting, in his own words, “Saudi Arabia to issue its own Muslim ban”, he was proving himself to be a liberal, moderate voice beyond doubt. Netflix is probably looking smug through all this because whatever little traction #BoycottNetflix is getting may set the Streisand effect in motion yet again.

(Published 22 March 2019, 06:14 IST)

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