Comics get tripped up in their search for India's funny bone

India comedians yank ribald video amid controversy, raising question: What passes for humor in this democracy?

A popular comedy troupe’s decision to pull clips of a raunchy performance off the Internet has revived an old question in India.

Can the world’s biggest democracy take a joke?

It started when the comedians of All India Bakchod uploaded to YouTube a roast of Bollywood stars performed in Mumbai in December. The broad, expletive-laced cracks about race, caste, religion, genitalia, sexual orientation and lewd acts — all at the expense of India’s rich and beautiful — would garner no worse than an R rating in the U.S. But this wasn’t the U.S.

By the time it was over, conservative and religious groups had filed obscenity complaints, authorities announced an investigation, and the Mumbai-based comedy collective had taken down the videos in a bid to quash the furor. Better to be “pragmatic,” the group said in a statement Wednesday.

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For the Record

Feb. 4, 7:12 p.m.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the group issued its statement on Tuesday. The statement was released Wednesday.

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“In our own juvenile, idiotic way, we wanted to push the envelope of comedy in this country,” the group said. “But then the envelope pushed back.”

It was the latest cultural skirmish to flare in India, a fast-rising nation with a tiny urban elite that devours the latest American shows via satellite TV — or, perhaps more often, bootleg Internet streams — and a vast underclass with far more conservative tastes.

Indian censorship laws sometimes force controversial books off the shelves, and right-wing protests routinely accompany films deemed offensive to the Hindu majority. Last week, censors bleeped the word “Bombay” out of a song because the city’s Anglicized, colonial-era name has officially been changed to Mumbai, a moniker derived from the native Marathi language.

India’s small but growing band of stand-up comics has long grappled with the challenge of being funny without flouting the law or offending too many sensibilities.

All India Bakchod — whose literal translation is unprintable in a family newspaper but loosely equates to “jackass” — has become a sensation thanks mainly to YouTube, where its four young male comics can be more irreverent than Indian film and TV censors allow.

The two-hour “Knockout” program, performed before 4,000 fans at a Mumbai auditorium, was billed as India’s first American-style celebrity roast. Off-color even by their standards, the Bakchod guys and leading Bollywood stars outed hush-hush celebrity couples, skewered a prominent producer, Karan Johar, over his rumored homosexuality (as Johar joined in the ribbing and his mother watched from the audience), and generally sent up a film industry that is seen as taking itself too seriously.

“I’d like to thank the entire panel for coming out today, and Karan for not,” cast member Ashish Shakya said at the start. (Homosexual behavior is illegal under Indian law.)

Johar gave as good as he got, declaring that one of the roastees who had dropped out of high school wouldn’t even qualify as a bus driver, which was unfortunate, because bus drivers “sell far more tickets.”

“It was something unprecedented for India,” Mumbai-based film critic Uday Bhatia said. “There aren’t any roasts here, at least on the level this was conducted, with very famous people in the room, the kind of humor directed at them and the spirit they took it with.”

The December performance garnered no immediate complaints. However, the video clips were a sensation, viewed more than 8 million times, and jumped onto the radar of conservative groups.

The president of a Hindu organization called Brahman Ekta Seva Sanstha lodged a complaint with police, saying the content “was extremely abusive and it is not only ruining the clean image of the Indian culture and women, but is also misleading today’s youth,” according to reports.

A Christian youth group also reportedly filed a grievance, saying the program offended religious sensibilities. A member of India’s censor board, Ashoke Pandit, tweeted that Johar could have made sex jokes to his mother at home instead of doing it in public, calling the roast a “porn show.”

Prominent media personalities leaped to the comedians’ defense online. Anand Gandhi, a filmmaker, wrote, “I hope our humor gets sharper, our dissent more rigorous, our satire more offensive, and till we arrive there, we stand by AIB Knockout!”

It wasn’t long ago that Indian cinema shied away from on-screen kisses, but in recent years films have dropped much of that prudishness. Johar’s hit TV talk show playfully probes actors’ off-screen love lives. Yet the language is slyly vague, told with a wink and a smile — not in the off-color broadsides favored by the comics.

In its statement, All India Bakchod said, “This Knockout shouldn’t matter. In a secure culture it wouldn’t matter.”

The group had the last word Wednesday, underlining that even though the roast was no longer on YouTube, in the Internet era, a good joke never dies. Nothing is truly erased.

“It’s a good thing nobody’s downloaded the file and put it on a torrent website or anything,” the group said.

Special correspondent Parth M.N. contributed to this report.

Follow @SBengali on Twitter for news out of India

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