‘Without humour, we are all just a bunch of egotists’

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Jaideep Varma | 46 Documentary Filmmaker
Jaideep Varma | 46 | Documentary Filmmaker.
Photo: Gayatri Ganju

Edited Excerpts from an Interview

What prompted you to make I am Offended?
Humour has always interested me but I never really followed the stand-up scene. I have two friends who are stand-up comedians — Varun Grover and London-based Andy Zaltzman — and although I have known Varun for five years, I had never watched his shows. I met Andy during the Cricket World Cup in 2011, and in 2012, when he was performing in Mumbai, he wanted me to shoot some of his shows. There I saw Gurusimran Khamba, Tanmay Bhatt and Aditi Mittal, who were support acts for Andy, perform for the first time. Their work was a breath of fresh air. They were taking chances and pushing the envelope. The scene appealed to me, but, at that time, I stalled the idea.

Why was that?
I had no money to make this film. I could make it only when a friend and a gentlemen who I didn’t know, but had watched Baavra Mann and Leaving Home, decided to pitch in. The whole film was made over a period of three months with 8 lakh.

What was the initial idea for your documentary and how did it evolve?
The initial idea was to see if this stage was indeed pushing the envelope unlike any other. We decided to include other humourists and through their voice, we wanted to examine if they have any point-of-view that could complement those of stand-up comics. I worked with a small crew of three: Dhruv Sehgal and I worked on sound, he also did the camera and Harshad Nalawade edited the documentary. We were in an ideal situation because the people who put in money, didn’t expect it back. So we only had to focus on making the film and ensuring that it reaches the maximum number of people. It doesn’t make sense to make such a film commercially and I didn’t make it for the market. We made this film because we had fun doing it and the original plan was to release it online. That could still be the plan but we are reconsidering it. Interestingly, things have changed politically and the film is even more relevant. I hope we can release it sooner than later.

Did you have to remove any offensive content from the final product?
It is ironic that in a film that is called I am Offended, we actually remove content that might offend people. I wasn’t bothered about who I offend as much as I was worried about dealing with the censor board. So, yes we had to remove some content. The film is cutting-edge even now without being objectionable or sensational. Let’s see if we can release it in its current form.

Why do you think stand-up comedy today remains a metropolitan art form?
English stand-up is limited to metropolitan cities because their sensibilities are closer to British and American comics. But there is a lot happening in regional languages as well. Of course, their sensibilities are different. I wish I had the budget and space to cover them as well.

Has humour become a casualty to cultural insecurity? Do you think it can help us become more tolerant?
Yes. We think that we are colonially inferior and that stunts original thought. It reflects in everything we do as a collective. If we are limiting ourselves by thinking that we ourselves are not good enough, how can humour thrive? Humour goes hand-in-hand with being liberal with ourselves first. Why are there no great biographical films or books in India? Because there is a fear of hurting sentiments attached to telling the truth. Humour can help us become more tolerant by enlarging our personal spaces. For example, Varun (Grover) has a set in where he talks about how everytime an advertisment of a condom played on TV, someone would switch the channel. That set helped me realise that we are all in it together.

Humour can also play a crucial role in starting a conversation on issues that are taboo. Without it we are just a bunch of egotists, taking ourselves too seriously.

How has that belief shaped your work and journey so far?
For me humour is just as important as music, but my understanding of it has evolved over the years. Humour can’t be the main reason to do something. It is a by-product and the most important stolen element. In my novel, Local, I tried too hard to bring in humour. It made me realise that humour is an agent, not the story. When I made Leaving Home, I wanted to bring out personalities of the members of Indian Ocean, who were bound by their sense of humour. I can be a very heavy handed guy to work with but my overall outlook towards life is much lighter because nothing is permanent anyway. I was diagnosed with kidney cancer recently and had a kidney removed. I am under observation now. I’ve actually been pretty easy about it at every stage – I think it is that lightness at work. Humour is not just about making people laugh but it is about
the way you look at the world.

What kind of support does stand-up comedy need to survive as an art form?
The State needs to do one thing for standup comedy — stay the hell out of it! Censoring stand-up comics means attacking the core of what it is. As far as the entertainment industry is concerned, it only cares about money. It has to realise that the kind of humour that is outside of what appeals to the masses, is fairly cutting- edge and niche. Stand-up comedy is a cost-effective art form; one mike and an artist is all it takes. The entertainment industry needs to look at these factors and find more ways to reach out to that audience.

Who are your favourites in the stand-up comedy scene in India?
Sanjay Rajoura and Varun Grover because their humour is not just about jokes but also makes a comment. Sanjay’s humour comes from rage and I can relate to that. I also like Rajneesh Kapoor, Anubhav Pal and Khamba.

What’s next?
I am working full-time on Impact Index, an alternative cricket system I invented completely accidentally in 2009. It is a method that factors in context to statistically evaluate a player’s performance in each game and each tournament. I was making documentary films because I needed to do something while I was working on Impact Index, but it has now found a home. It is now a sister company of Wisden India. However, from 2015, I want to make films full-time, and in all probability, I am Offended will be my last non-fiction film. I have another idea for a non-fiction film in mind: a documentary on the 2001 India-Australia cricket Test series, but, one needs to find the right kind of producers for it. If I can do that this year, I will make it or else I plan to make fiction films full-time.

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