Jaideep Varma’s documentary, I Am Offended – which explores India’s burgeoning comedy scene – could not have come at a better time.
Last year, Indian comedy group, All India Bakchod (AIB), hosted a wildly popular roast event in Mumbai with Bollywood stars Karan Johar, Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor. Taboo topics were fair game: sexuality, crude language, profanity, poking fun at past sex partners and poor box office showings. The comedy troupe has a huge international social media following, and fans were eagerly waiting for the video to be posted on Youtube, but the roast was removed from Youtube after several complaints were filed. The group quickly launched a defence of their roast: “With the Knockout, in our own juvenile, idiotic way, we wanted to push the envelope of comedy in this country.”
I Am Offended premiered two days after AIB removed their roast from YouTube, and it has certainly added to the hot debates around censorship and moral policing of comedy in India. The documentary comes at a crucial time for audiences to assess and introspect about comedy’s role in a democracy.
Varma’s documentary features the AIB gang early on in the film. Gursimran Khamba eerily notes, “It’s only a matter of time before one of us gets in trouble.” However, AIB aren’t the first comedians to skewer, as Varma unearths a whole repertoire of comedians who poke hard at Indian attitudes, and foibles so that their audiences reaches that uncomfortable, but revelatory territory. Standup comedy is a tricky minefield for comedians, especially as India is divided along religious, language, caste, and political lines. Varma tracks how standup comedy has risen up as a sharp and witty tool to challenge this tendency for hypersensitivity and free speech through all its various formats (online web-series, television, cartoons, columns, and standup shows).
I Am Offended is impressive with its scope, as it touches on almost every aspect of the art form from its roots in Hindi poetry and mimicry nights to the present day with using cussing or the storytelling/observations format. Varma throws out many questions like how much edge can Hindi or English comedy have? Why do comedians perform at corporate shows? The corporate shows and television work are the conundrum for most performers who feel like it does muffle their creativity and style, but that it allows them to earn a living. It’s these complexities and varying viewpoints where the film finds the most material, such as the language privilege side, when Khamba points out that English comedians are “upper-middle class people with cultural capital” who can get closer to that depth, or Johnny Lever feeling that comedy sidekicks have been phased out in Bollywood. It would have been nicer to see more women in the film, but Neeti Palta and Aditi Mittal offer hilarious and differing perspectives to their journeys as the main female comics in the country.
I Am Offended is your Indian Comedy 101 course, covering its history and current struggles. But at heart, it’s celebrating comedians as rule-breaking revolutionaries who are, as Varun Grover puts it, creating a “censorship-free space where the unsaid can be said.”
Watch I Am Offended below: