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America, listen to your comedians

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MAY 21, 2019

When I think political comedy in America, I think Hasan Minhaj, Seth Meyers, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah — I could go on. When I look around my uncomfortable table at Moffitt to see people eating Kiwibot-delivered Chinese food while laughing at a YouTube video of one of these commentators, I am subtly reminded of just how easily and how wonderfully some of these comedians can grasp attention.

The results of the 2019 general election in India are going to be announced Thursday and will essentially set the precedent for how the country will be run from now on. As a citizen of a country that does not allow absentee voting, I found my fear of missing out manifesting in strange ways — I would indulge in long, politically sparked debates with my family back home in India and with Indians at Berkeley. I would nudge my friends who did have the opportunity to vote in India into engaging in tedious discussions about whom they were inclined to vote for, and why.

One morning in April, after I all-too-aggressively dismissed the 8 a.m. alarm on my phone, I opened up my Instagram to be pleasantly surprised by a campaign by Indian comedian Kunal Kamra that had gone viral. It was dedicated not only to encouraging masses of people to vote, but also to voicing his own political opinion. The Instagram post consisted of a series of photographs of Kamra standing in various places in Mumbai, holding up a sign that read, “DON’T VOTE FOR MODI.”

In a country whose citizens avoid anti-nationalism like the plague, and where much of media and entertainment is limited primarily to stories considered “safe” or in line with government agenda, it was refreshing for me to see a new, unflinching perspective on an issue that was of utmost necessity. It was encouraging to see this light shed on an issue I had almost given up attempting to read unique views about, owing to the monotony of the voices in the bulk of the publications I came across that documented the elections.

Free speech in India is, to put it mildly, restricted. I used to think that being a journalist in India was the most terrifying job to do. Seeing the work that Indian comedians like Kamra are putting out has led me to question that perception. With massive reaches and genuinely incredible content, comedians like Kamra are indeed journalists in their own way, but they’re also positioned as entertainers.

As a fan of comedy, I merely have to scroll through my Facebook and Instagram news feeds like I routinely do to find fresh political information in hilarious one-liners and 30-second videos. I simply have to open YouTube or Netflix to find a suggested stand-up comedy special or a comedic monologue that is able to grab my attention. Comedians make flipping through social media or watching videos online an active, engaging process while conveying vital political information. All that they’re asking us to do is listen, and they’re using humor to do it. The process could not possibly be made any easier.

Kamra, specifically, highlighted two primary points through his “DON’T VOTE FOR MODI” campaign: First, he emphasized the importance of individuals across the country getting out to vote, and second, he implored those voting to not vote for Narendra Modi. His campaign underlined not just the fact that a change of government in the country is urgent, but the sheer significance of having a voice like Kamra’s step up in a climate that has silenced opinion, suppressed creativity and questioned freedom.

It takes everything you have to be unafraid in a country like India. Kamra has taken it upon himself to place himself in an innately dangerous position and still appear to embrace it with a sense of fearlessness. Yet despite the all-caps title on his signboard, exit polls are starting to confirm that Indians did vote for Modi. Despite Kamra’s pleas for his audiences to listen, his carefully curated jokes on his YouTube talk show “Shut Up Ya Kunal,” and his efforts at targeting even the most dismissive of young voters, many people did not listen, and it is already too late for India and its election results.

The 2020 presidential election is menacingly close, America, and political comedians who are ceaselessly writing and performing about the consequences the election could have know what they’re talking about. It takes guts to be a political comedian. Give them the respect that they deserve, and really listen when they speak. As an Indian who wished her country did the same, that is all I am asking from you.

"Off the Beat" columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.

JUNE 13, 2019