A group of three youth from Kashmir – Faheem, an MBA student in Bangalore; Aahmed, also an MBA distance student from Srinagar; and Shoaib an engineering student, came together to form a comedy group called Jajeer Talkies in 2015 to bring a large community of Kashmiris from within and outside the region together over comedy as an alternative to the depression plaguing Kashmir.
“Srinagar is not a big place like other cities, so most of us, almost all of us have these common stories of our ancestors, all of us would have heard this, some guy back in the nineties drove a jeep over Dal lake, so everyone thinks that their grandfather has done it,” explains Ahmed summing up the group’s light hearted take on the collective Kashmiri identity that underlies all of their jokes.
According to a 2016 report focusing on Kashmir by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) – 1800,000 adults that comprise 45 percent of the population suffer from some form of significant mental distress. Around 93 percent have experienced conflict related trauma while as 50 percent of women and 37 per cent of men are likely to suffer from depression; 36 percent of women and 21 percent of men have a probable anxiety disorder; and 22 percent of women and 18 percent of men suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
As a comedy group rooted in Kashmir, Jajeer Talkies prefers to work their content within Kashmiri society and thus end up facing numerous obstacles while joking around in the conflict ridden region. The group has had three police complaints registered against their activity so far despite which they continue to work towards creating a space for the culture of comedy to grow in the region. The following conversation with the two members of the group – Faheem and Aahmed, reflects the group’s humble beginnings, the limitations they face and the vision they have for comedy in Kashmir.
How do you know each other and what made you start the Jajeer Talkies?
The three of us are friends since school. After school we went to different places, so we stayed connected through WhatsApp and other means. We initially used to make jokes and fun in the WhatsApp groups. One day in early 2015 we were discussing some topic and I [Aahmed] made a meme and sent it on the group. It was very funny so we thought we mad a Facebook meme page and posted the meme on it. It went viral, so we started a comedy page and called it Jajeer Talkies.
What was the meme?
How did the page grow into a comedy space?
Initially, we had only planned to make memes and post on Facebook, which is what we did for over an year. We got plenty of followers, above ten thousand in the first year. So, since we were essentially a comedy page we thought we should have an event – a stand up comedy event. We got in touch with many comedians and invited them. We posted the event on our Facebook page. Following the first event we did five or six more. Some public events and some exclusive ones.
We have over seventy five thousand followers now across all social media platforms. The first event was a super hit as the auditorium was house full. It had a capacity of two hundred but three hundred people attended. A hundred were waiting outside the auditorium to get a seat inside. That is when we got a boost that this thing has a market in Kashmir and then we started having other events in local cafes.
How do the three of you connect with each other?
Since the very beginning all three of us were introverts at school. Three of us were the only friends of each other. Shoaib and me [Faheem] were friends since kindergarten. Aahmed joined in eighth standard. When we spoke to him, our minds synced. We were of the same wavelength.
At school, we used to parody the cool students, figure out what would go on in their minds while they did their cool stuff, while talking to a teacher, how do I cover up my insecurities, how do I cover that I am fat, things like that. We would keep our jokes to ourselves. We would make jokes about our teachers and bullies etc. That’s how it started, by adding sarcasm to everything.
Then, we were also into comics and stand up acts from Pakistan and America, while others were into roadies, WWE and all the cool stuff. We were watching Bill Burr, Kapil Sharma, Sunil Pal, Ehsaan Qureshi, Raju Srivastav, Lal Badshah, Safed Khan etc.
What are the things you have to filter your content through here?
Here we have to filter our content through political jokes, religious jokes, separatist jokes, that takes away everything that one can talk about in Kashmiri context. We also have to filter out sexual jokes. We have very limited content to work with. We always feel opposed.
What is funny about Kashmir, and how open are Kashmiris to humor?
The most basic themes that every Kashmiri connects to are the everyday social issues, the government working very slowly, the government not doing their stuff, traffic, and current issues in the city. This occupies most of our content. We’ve been brought up in a very volatile place so since childhood we are made very sensitive to certain issues. Eventually, we realized that there are things that do not require us to be sensitive, like we do not need to have sympathy towards pro-freedom leaders, our parents do. This way the youth connects to us a lot more than the older generation. The new generation is getting open to humor. The older comedians were only into mimicry for a long time. For three or four years now contemporary comedy is forming roots in Kashmir.
Why do you think humor is necessary in Kashmir?
During the 2016 uprising the internet was banned and there was no way to communicate with our friends or anyone apart from our family members who were at home. We felt really alone. That is when depression arises, when there is no one to share with or no one to talk to, and every Kashmiri has gone through this. They know how it feels. We want to get rid of this, and we find humor is the only way to do it.
We find humor the most convenient way to express ourselves. In this city you don’t know what is happening next, anything can happen, you have to mourn for the deaths. In such a situation, humor is the best way to gather yourself and come out of the situation.
How is your experience different from that of comedians in India?
The comedians in other cities in India can take a stand against politicians or for politicians, in the former case at least people will stand with them, they have support from the community. Here we don’t have a community to stand with us and we cannot speak against politicians for the fear of police complaints. If we take a stand for a politician, people will act against us. We are not in a safe place. We are far behind from what the other cities are doing in terms of comedy. We are still trying to improve the standards of comedy here.
At least the comedians in India have fans. They have a platform but we don’t, that’s the basic issue. We had an event planned last year and it got postponed thrice because of security issues. It is the toughest obstacle we face.
Can you tell me a little bit about the FIRs (police complaints)?
During the 2016 uprising, ours was a very new page and we had immense popularity. When the internet was curbed in Srinagar, many social activists approached us and requested to use our page since we had following from Kashmir and outside Kashmir. They wanted to communicate to outside world about what is happening in Kashmir through our page. And we carelessly let them do that. When we let those people take hold of our page, within two or three months, our Facebook page, with 30,000 followers, was deleted. Later, I [Aahmed] got a call from CID [Criminal Investigations Department] office saying there is an FIR against your page regarding antisocial activities. We had to go through a lot of questioning and they wrote down all our details. After two or three hours it was settled at the Police Station. A similar thing happened for the second time with another department also.
Recently this year we had made a post about a government department, eventually we realized that they do not have the sense of humor that we do. They did not take offense but they took it to another level. They called me [Aahmed] into their office as they had already registered an FIR against us at a police station. So, they filed a defamation suit. The SHO [Station House Officer] called me and after a few hours of questioning, I was taken to the SP [Superintendent of Police]. It took me a whole day and they eventually asked me to write an apology letter to settle the case.
What are the spaces that let you grow here?
Right now we can only perform in city cafes. They invite us as we have no other dedicated places.
How original are the emerging comedians?
In the last event, we only had six comedians. Out of the six, three were us. There were two other guys who had copy pasted the entire material from existing jokes. But since the audience there had no idea we had to let them continue.
We try to help and guide people to come up with new content before any event.
What are some of the responses you have got on Facebook?
The most common comment we get is, get well soon JT. You know, implying we have dead humor… Other than that there are comments saying ‘you are so dead, not as funny as before.’
Since our start till police complaints all three of us were anonymous. Eventually, we came into spotlight. Now everyone knows about us. They know our addresses, our phone numbers. Someone even forwarded his [pointing to Faheem] ration card number. We have to be very careful that is why we don’t experiment anymore like we used to; we limited our content.
Where do you see comedy going in Kashmir?
What we lack is a platform to take comedy forward. We ourselves do not have a platform. We have to create a platform. Kashmir has an immense potential in comedy because everybody is a comedian here, if you observe. They just need a platform to show their talent and they need guidance. We do not have either of those two.
People outside know how to appreciate and motivate a comedian. They know how stand-up comedy works. Here, we are yet to go through the work in progress phase, the whole building process.
One day we want to host a big stand-up comedy event and invite people from India and have Kashmiri comedians as well. We want to have comedians that are worth paying for. Meanwhile, we’ll have small events so that at these open mics comedians can test out their material.
What are some rewards you’ve received so far for your work?
Apart from the three FIRs so far, we get a lot of appreciation for our work, not just from the youth, even elders recognize us, influential people like the IAS Officer Shah Faesal. He has appreciated our humor. Politicians and bureaucrats, all appreciate us at some level. Within our friends and family circle, even the parents recognize us, and it is quite motivating for us. This is the third year of our work as Jajeer Talkies and for the first time we got interviewed by three different news papers including a national paper.
Featured illustration by Sanjana Reddy