comedian munawar faruqui
Photo Credit: Munawar Faruqui
Life

We Spoke with the Indian Comedian Who Was Arrested for Jokes He Didn't Crack

In a no-holds-barred interview, Munawar Faruqui talks about his 37 days in jail, how it felt getting out, and what keeps him going in the face of fear and censorship.
March 19, 2021, 11:13am

On January 1 this year, as India awoke from its slumber post muted NYE parties, everyone hoped that the new year would be magically better than the bizarre one they were leaving behind. 

It was not to be.

On the first day of the year itself, news broke out that a comedian was arrested in the central Indian city of Indore. What’s worse? He had not even performed. 

28-year-old Munawar Faruqui (now 29) was in Indore to kick off a 14-city tour when the leader of a local Hindu fringe group arrived and stopped the show before it even began, complaining that the comic was “insulting” Hindu religious sentiments. Along with Faruqui, two other comedians (and organisers) Nalin Yadav and Prakhar Vyas, an audience member and a juvenile, were also taken into custody. Faruqui’s friend, Sadakat Khan, who was attending the show, was arrested two days later. All of them have now been granted bail. Eyewitnesses say that Faruqui hadn’t even started his routine yet and police later admitted they had no evidence that the comic had done so either. They said that the complainant had “overheard some jokes” during rehearsal. Gaur also brought up a video from April 2020 in his claims and confessed to having arrived at the venue to disrupt the performance. 

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Faruqui, however, had to spend 37 days in jail even as his arrest sparked a freedom of speech debate throughout the country following rejected bail pleas. Eventually, the Supreme Court of India granted him interim bail on February 5.

Faruqui has over 800,000 followers on YouTube and over 300,000 on Instagram. Besides stand-up comedy, he’s released rap songs like “Nagpada Ka Rider'' and experimented with poetry on his social media. Raised in Junagadh, a city in the western state of Gujarat, Faruqui’s path to stand-up comedy passed through several odd jobs including one at a store selling kitchenware and a graphic design studio. 

Cut to February, within 10 days of his release, Faruqui appeared on stage at a Mumbai venue, in a surprise act. The room erupted in an applause that wouldn’t stop for a few minutes. “They stopped only when I intervened. It felt good,” Faruqui tells VICE with a smile as he remembers the show. Over the course of an hour-long video interview, it’s these words that continue to light up his eyes; applause, comedy, open mic, content, and a few others. Sitting in a hotel room, on the floor, an armchair in the background, he looks weary otherwise.

Back with a bang 

That Faruqui loves what he does, is obvious. But, he does point out that now, it isn’t passion alone. “I had to go back on stage and there was never any doubt about my return,” he says. “It had already been a financial break for me and now, among other things, I have legal expenses to take care of. I need to get back on my feet.”

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On February 14, he released a YouTube video titled “Munawar Faruqui Leaving Comedy”, a first-of-its-kind where he speaks directly to the audience about the evils of the internet, troll culture, online hate and the impact of it all. It ends with him saying that he isn’t leaving comedy but living it, every day of his life. It was his way of putting all speculation to rest and bookending his ordeal. It garnered one million views in 24 hours. “There were a few people who told me to be careful and reconsider comedy. Then there were those who responded to the video teaser urging me to not [leave]. But people who know me knew I will find humour in this situation too,” he says.

Here, he mentions his time in jail without making a joke of it. But in another clip, from one of his live shows, Faruqui is seen joking about being offered sports shoes that would make it easier to flee, by a salesperson while out on a shopping spree. Not talking about the incident was never an option. “I had to address the elephant in the room,” he explains. “A tragedy will remain a tragedy. I can’t change what happened to me. But, do people really want to hear it as is? I think not, and I choose to present it in a humorous manner. Finding laughter in someone else’s tragedy is not new. The first time we laughed as children was perhaps when someone slipped and fell. But it wasn’t funny for the other person.”

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But the trauma, the comedian admits, won’t go away. His first few days outside prison were spent in a daze and he couldn’t make sense of his surroundings. “It felt like a different world. I was talking to people, receiving calls but didn’t know what was happening. I wouldn’t even remember who had called,” he recounts. “I don’t feel happy after coming out. It’s hard for me to leave it behind. Once you’ve been in jail, you will never go back to normal. You don’t want to remember it but you can never forget,” he adds. It has also instilled in him a deep and lasting fear of a similar recurrence. “As a child, if you fall off a bike, you will be afraid every time you see one even when you aren’t riding,” he says as an analogy.

Faruqui’s friends and well-wishers have advised him, on occasion, to seek professional help. But, for now, the comedian wants to bury himself in work, create new content and travel the country with shows. In January, the month he was arrested, Faruqui as part of his tour had planned to hit several smaller cities since his fandom isn’t restricted to the metros. “I’ve always healed myself and it will be no different this time,” he says in response.

The ill-fated day

In a video that surfaced on social media, Faruqui is seen on stage talking to Aklavya Singh Gaur, convener of the Hind Rakshak (a right-wing vigilante group) and son of BJP MP Malini Gaur, who had filed the FIR. He urges, repeatedly, for Gaur to sit in on the show before he makes a conclusion. The conversation lasted nearly ten minutes before the show resumed. However, five minutes later, it was stalled, violence broke out, and Faruqui and three others were arrested.

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While he has faced trolling on the internet before, Faruqui had no experience with disruption at a show. “I have never seen such a thing before and wish no artist does. It was heartbreaking. I wasn’t scared because that would show on my face. It just deeply saddened me,” he says recounting the events of the fateful day. Faruqui chose to engage, not to prove a point but to ensure his fans and audience don’t go back home without the promised performance. “There were about 80 people in the audience and they were my responsibility. If I was going to be aggressive, the situation could have erupted. The audience was already getting restless and this was my way of diffusing the tension. It’s what felt right to me then,” he says of his calm and calculated response on the day.

“The reason I also chose to engage was because he (Gaur) decided to talk first. The platform was technically my workspace, and the means (taking the mic from me) were wrong, but he was still talking. When everything is going wrong, the smallest right feels reassuring,” he says.  

At this time, Faruqui did not know that he and the others would be arrested. “The moment I heard that we were being taken to jail, it’s as if everything in front of me froze. Every minute was hard to pass thereon,” he says of the moment that changed his life forever.

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Of hope and prayer 

Passing time when in Indore Central Jail, is something Faruqui remembers as harrowing. “The days and nights were difficult, but the thought of being out one day gave us a lot of joy; of imagining the things we would do, the people we would meet and the food we would eat. I would think of a restaurant I wanted to go to. But, the restaurant itself was not as much joy as the thought of being free to go to one,” he says. The hope of freedom over the course of his time in jail was also like a double-edged sword.

“I met people who have lived in hope for years, some four, some ten, who believed that they will be free in the coming week or month. It was a story that would repeat itself over and over again. I would then hear from other inmates that they have been saying this for years. Looking at their plight should have scared me but it gave me a strange kind of hope,” he explains. “At the end of the day, I was happy to be alive and knew I would figure the rest out.”

On January 28, Faruqui’s 29th birthday, his second bail plea was rejected by the Madhya Pradesh High Court. When the news came in at 5.30 p.m., he had just prayed. “I was crying already and as soon as I got up after namaz, I heard about the rejection. It did not affect me as much as I had imagined. I said to myself, ‘Allah ki marzi (god’s will)’. God knows my truth and I had to leave it up to him,” he says.

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The hate machine

On February 28, Munawar Faruqui released another video, titled “Ghost Story”. With over 800,000 views so far, he was staying true to the promise he had made his fans, of saying everything he had to through his work alone. This one took a childhood spooky story and found humour in it. “It was my way of telling people that this is my art, this is my talent, and I can make a scary childhood story come alive as comedy. If they thought I was here to offend, they have misunderstood me. My job is to make people laugh and I can joke about everything,” he says. On April 1, Faruqui is due to release a new rap song. 

This is not to say that Faruqui has traded his commentary for less risky themes. He maintains that his content will see no change and he will continue to write and perform jokes about anything and everything. “Because those who have decided that they don’t like me will find it difficult to accept me no matter what I do,” he says.

It goes back to the Right to Freedom of Speech debate, and Faruqui believes that the problem is that people are often ready to take offence even before watching a show much like the events on the ill-fated day in Indore. “Rahul Dua (another Indian comedian) put out a video with jokes about dentists.” he says. “There was so much trolling from dentists and doctors that he had to take the video off. People couldn’t see the humour in it. It is sad when an artist has to take work down or explain it. If this is what we keep doing, in a nation that’s a superpower, when will we do our work? Besides, you cannot insult a God, of any religion. They run the world and not a twig moves without their instruction. How can a human being insult them? Will God, who is all powerful, not find a way to deal with it? You can’t protect the almighty, it is God who protects you, and the Quran has taught me this,” he goes on to say.

As in his video, Faruqui also thinks the nature of the internet and its current culture has a lot to do with. “If someone is angry, who should I be apologising to? There aren’t one billion people watching me. There are about one million viewers of which 90 percent actually like the work I do. Should I be apologising to the 10 percent who don’t? What will that make the others think of me? And how does one even apologise on the internet? A few days later, a new person will find the video and not the apology, and will abuse me again,” he says, sounding calmer than his words convey. Besides, he says that the problem is hardly ever with the joke itself. “Like Vir Das (a popular stand-up comedian and actor) said in one of his videos, they don’t have a problem with my jokes but with the agreement from people that comes through the laughter.”

Since his release, the comedian has received an outpouring of support, but also some hate online. His own fraternity rose vociferously in support, bringing attention to his arrest, every single day, through their work and social media. He remains grateful to them for ensuring this became a burning issue demanding attention in the country. With little access to news apart from local papers, it’s something he discovered only when on the outside.  

Faruqui is also a lot more hopeful than one would imagine someone to be after having spent over a month in jail. “I know the country is divided but I don’t want to believe it,” he says. “I want to work for change and towards a country where people will not target each other based on religious differences. If every influencer promotes religious unity, it will bring about a wave of change.” 

Follow Prachi on Twitter.