'My superpower is untouchability': the Indian comics challenging the caste system

Manjeet Sarkar and Neha Thombre are among a new generation of comedians using humour to shine a spotlight on deep-rooted prejudice

Neha Thombre is among a new generation of Indian comedians from the Dalit class who are challenging prejudice. Photo: Neha Thombre
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“When people don’t laugh at my jokes, I touch them. After that, they have no choice but to bathe themselves … My superpower is untouchability,” jokes stand-up comedian Manjeet Sarkar at a New Delhi cafe, as the audience roars with laughter.

Meanwhile, thousands of kilometres away in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, Neha Thombre is tickling the funny bones of a group of 20- and 30-somethings on a makeshift stage at a restaurant.

“A few days ago when I was abroad,” says Thombre, “I was surprised that nobody there asked me my caste. Not accustomed to so much equality, I felt like I was going to collapse with shock.” Many voices shout out their approval: “Way to go Neha … loving it.”

Stand-up comedians Thombre, 29, and Sarkar, 25, are part a growing group of young Dalit comedians in India’s upper class-dominated comedy scene. Examining caste through a lens of humour and satire, the comics are taking pot shots at the entrenched Hindu caste system; a centuries-old hierarchy that puts Dalits at the bottom of the social pyramid and the Brahmins at the top.

Although practising the notion of “untouchability” was outlawed by the Indian government after the country's independence from the British in 1947, anti-Dalit violence and stigma still thrive across the South Asian nation of 1.4 billion people. In a class-obsessed country, marginalisation of Dalits — in jobs, on campuses and in terms of access to resources, is an everyday reality.

Reports of Dalits being harassed, bullied or even killed on flimsy pretexts are routine. Suicides of Dalit students at universities and colleges are common. On March 23, in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, Dalit women were stopped from entering a temple by upper caste men, considered an upper class privilege. In another incident on March 27, a Dalit youth's head was shaved by a crowd in northern Uttar Pradesh. His face blackened with tar and he was thrashed and kicked in full public glare until he collapsed.

“It is these injustices that we’re trying to draw people’s attention to, albeit in a light-hearted, self-deprecating manner,” says Thombre, a YouTuber from a tiny village in the western state of Maharashtra. She says she performs in the local language (Marathi) because “it has a better resonance among my semi-urban audience”.

There are others like Thombre and Sarkar — Ankur Tangade and Manaal Patil to name a couple — who are fighting for Dalit rights through their stand-up comedy acts. And the audiences are lapping it up. Social media is further helping these emerging comedians gain recognition. Dalit comics often go viral on Twitter and Instagram for their clever and witty pushback against casteism. Some comedy shows have even started marketing “all-Dalit line-ups”.

Sarkar says that with increasing education and empowerment, social issues and discriminatory practices that were previously brushed under the carpet are being challenged. Through social media activism and ongoing debates, he says “people are standing up for what is right”.

Sarkar adds that perhaps that’s why the response to his pan-India tour last year titled Untouchables was “tremendous”.

“The tour was a first-person account of my experiences as a Dalit. In villages in my home state of Odisha, ostracism of the poor is an everyday reality. Only 30 per cent of people are upper caste in my village. And since I belong to the lowest strata (of Dalit tribals), my caste often has to bear the brunt of such ignominy.”

One of Sarkar’s favourite jokes, he says, which also elicits maximum laughs, is about how as a child he was reprimanded for using a handpump in his village.

“A Brahmin upper caste woman came rushing to the well as soon as I touched the handpump to 'purify' it with Gangajal (holy Ganges water). As a child I couldn’t understand what was happening at that time, but gradually, with exposure and sensitisation, when it sunk in I realised the enormity and gravity of the episode. It scarred me for life.”

Thombre, who calls her work “comedy with social pinch”, says her comedy is also social satire and activism. “Art and artists have no caste, nor do viewers. Why should one person be less than another?”

She adds: “God created everyone equal, so there should be no disparity and certainly no ill treatment of individuals by the more privileged.”

This social asymmetry has also spurred iconic African-American comedians to call out racism in the western world. Comics such as Bernie Mac, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key and Leslie Jones are viewed as “idols” by many young aspiring Indian comedians for their witty takes on class.

Cinema and TV content is also pushing the social disparity debate further, with shows like Blackish and Fresh Off The Boat. Literature has followed suit. In his book Personality & Sense of Humor, Professor Avener Ziv theorises on the function of humour as a “social corrective”, concluding that humour can indeed have a transformative social impact.

Madhavi Shivaprasad, an independent researcher based in Bengaluru, who has published a paper on caste and stand-up comedy in India, says that comedians have a special responsibility in today’s divisive world to challenge social inequities.

“Stand-up comedy as an art form has been known as one of the most powerful forms of expression to speak truth to power”, Shivaprasad says.

“Recognising that humour and laughter are social activities also means acknowledging that they hold potential to break existing stereotypes.”

Prejudicial attitudes towards the underprivileged create a toxic social milieu. As the world grows increasingly interconnected, amid rising social and economic disparities in the post-pandemic world, comics everywhere can have a meaningful role to play in chipping away at racism and casteism — one joke at a time.

Updated: April 26, 2023, 4:13 AM