Bye Bye, Bai Jokes: Punching Up in Indian Comedy
Girlyappa’s Manju is an urban creation of what we think a bai is – kaamchor, arrogant, always asking for leaves.
Lately, promotions are abuzz for the much-awaited Zoya Akhtar film Gully Boy – a movie on desi rap and marginalised voices from the streets. Reactions, gifs and parodies abound, and TVF Girlyappa’s spoof on the trailer went viral with 4.2 million views.
In it, Ranveer Singh’s Naezy/Divine-inspired character became Manju, the rapping bai from the gully. Khushbu Baid’s ‘Manju bai’ makes her second appearance after debuting in a parody of Sanju.
The storyline follows the movie’s trailer almost scene-by-scene, but Girlyappa’s Manju is an urban creation of all we think a bai is – kaamchor, arrogant, always taking unexpected holidays and whining for raises.
The production and rapping is great, and with the same catchy beat as the original trailer, you can’t help but bop along.
But it still feels uncomfortable.
In the original, Ranveer’s character’s father yells, “Is this what I’m paying for?” when he discovers his son rapping. But in Girlyappa’s version, the madam yelling (and head-butting) that line at her maid doesn’t feel the same.
The unequal power dynamic between the bai and her madam(s) made jibes like “Go back to your gully” cut deeper. The trope of the urban maid always ready to scam her way out of honest work felt stale and caricatured.
Social media called out the unfavourable stereotypes for classism and casteism, though that did little to put a dent on the video’s popularity.
Unfortunately, that’s not where it ends.
Scrolling through my Youtube feed, I find page after page of bai jokes: Annoying things all bais do, Cosplay of comedians as bais, Millennials vs bais, etc.
Bais are an integral part of our lives, so why do these portrayals feel uncomfortable?
Domestic workers are stitched into our social fabric, but the relationship with our maids is not the same as any other employee. The lines are blurred – their workplace is our home and with the class and often caste disparity between the two, reports suggest that you have a scene rife with unequal power hierarchies.
Our dependence on them, coupled with their lower economic status (= a need to work in less than ideal conditions, lesser privilege) has made us feel almost entitled.
We’re paying them so they owe us! And because they have little to no formal worker rights, we get to set the rules. The lack of a formal working agreement and professionalism in our relationship leads to a lack of dignity afforded, and it gets worse.
We need them, we love them and we also hate them. Plus, many accounts show we love to talk about them, the fascinating 'other' that inhabits our lives for some time becomes exoticised and stereotyped.
Of course, then, this fascination spills over to urban India’s new favourite venting spot – the comedy circuit.
Urban India’s Comedy Problem
Last year, amid #MeToo revelations in the comedy scene, we spoke a lot about punching up. About how comedy can’t be and isn't removed from socio-political reality.
On how laughs are important to sustain us, but can’t be removed from our own prejudices.
We started introspecting and asking the big questions, forcing comedy and our comedians to do so as well. Who are we laughing at? Who are we laughing for?
We’re figuring it out.
We collectively got (or tried to get) woke. No one wants to restrict what we can or can’t laugh at, but the lens changed.
Bais on the Big Screen
Over the weekend, I caved and watched the surprise multi-Oscar-nominated Alfonso Cuaron film, Roma. Set in early-70s Mexico, the film is told from the perspective of Cleo, (played by Yalitza Aparicio) a domestic help working for a troubled family.
By centring Cleo and creating a gentle, hard-working woman with her own story, Cuaron complicated and humanised the ‘other’.
Creating films, and Youtube videos, is a privilege afforded only to a few insider groups.
And making content that riffs on those outside this realm seems unfair, cruel and pretty blind.
The maid or cleaner is so often seen as the invisible – working in an unorganised sector, to clean up after us so all we see is the 'neat' – that they often become it, voiceless and invisible. As Nayyirah Waheed writes in her poem ‘The Maid’,
"Look through her.
call her a part of the family, but never ask her
her children's names.
do not be surprised the day
look in her eyes
her spirit pulls your heart out through your mouth."
The complexities of class divides, and our blindness to its privilege, easily translate into #relatable online content where privileged classes still dominate and invisible ones remain oppressed.
So What Do We Do About Bai Jokes?
Enter Deepika Mhatre. Maid and jewellery seller by day, Mhatre is a comedian by night. When given a chance at Bombay stand-up, Mhatre grabbed the mic and spoke about domestic issues from an oft-ignored perspective – the maids.
Her jokes tell her story, she talks about worker discrimination and the everyday casteism so rampant (and ignored) in our homes (think separate utensils, toilets etc.). But it's still funny, and slightly uncomfortable too (although now in a good way).
Entertainment isn't devoid of biases and can be used to bring up thorny subjects. Like original gully boy Naezy says in the documentary Bombay 70 that he uses rap to raise public consciousness in an entertaining way.
“Hip-hop is not just about money and girls, it’s about ideologies and our truths,”Naezy explains
Mhatre’s jibes on her employers reveal the lack of dignity afforded to the people who we regularly claim we owe our lives to. Her delivery is on point, and though her jokes aren’t stellar yet, there is something very interesting about her material that points out the hypocrisy in our liberal societies.
Better yet that she uses stand-up, poking holes in the liberal comedy industry and subverting the vast genre of maid jokes with more authenticity.
Does this mean people who aren't maids can’t joke about maids?
Without veering into the complicated journey of who can tell whose stories, maybe we need to re-imagine jokes that don’t always make the maids the butt of them.
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