It was a hot sunny afternoon in 2017 when Manjeet Sarkar, then living in a small town in Odisha, had to make a decision.
“I had an important exam that day. But also there was a once in a blue moon open mic happening in Bhubaneswar, 200 km away. I borrowed a motorcycle from my friend and said ‘chuck it’ to the exam. I took the bike and drove all the way. And I never looked back,” he begins.
Proudly calling himself one of India’s only few Dalit comedians, Manjeet Sarkar, who is now Bengaluru-based, is embarking on a pan-India tour called Untouchable.
As it is also Dalit History Month, the first show kicked off at the Bangalore International Centre on Ambedkar Jayanti.
In this candid interview with South First, Manjeet Sarkar tells us about his long journey here, his comedy idols, and dealing with harassment. Excerpts from the interview:
Q. Where did you grow up?
A. I am from a really small village on the border of Odisha and Chhattisgarh, called Bhaskar, in the Jamrunda district. My ancestors were Bangladeshi refugees. My grandmother came from Bangladesh during the Liberation War in 1971. She lost my grandfather and stayed in many camps; she had lost all her relatives and family members too. When she finally came to Chhattisgarh, she was alone. I was born in 1997.
I studied in government schools in Jamrunda. I wanted to drop out of school, and help my parents in farming. But my parents have really strong values. The community we belong to is called Matua, and we have a belief that even if you are begging, your kids should be educated. Our founding father had the belief that the only way the Dalit community can be bettered is through accessible education.
Q. How did you get introduced to the world of comedy?
A. I studied pharmacy. I couldn’t make friends in college and I was always the odd one out. So I never talked to anyone and didn’t go to college much. But the beautiful thing that happened was I was introduced to the Internet. I love history, I think I always wanted to trace my own identity.
It was pretty evident that I did not belong there because nobody spoke my mother tongue and no one fit into my culture. When I was watching a documentary about Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr, the algorithm showed me a video by Dave Chappelle talking about Martin Luther King Jr. I was mind blown. I didn’t know what it was. Was it comedy? Was it a speech? The storytelling was so beautiful and so humorous.
That’s when I realised that my story is different. Eighty percent of India lives like me, but the people who consume stand-up comedy don’t know what I’m talking about. I have a unique story to tell. Some of my idols are Dave Challepe and Richard Pryor. My comedy is very much influenced black comedians.
Q. So, what was your first stand-up comedy experience like?
A. Horrible! (chuckles). I did the open mic in Bhubaneswar. It was horrible. They gave me five minutes, and I couldn’t perform for more than three minutes. But when I went on stage, I felt something. I was always the shy kid and I never spoke. But then I felt empowered. I felt like I could do something.
I watch a lot of English-language stand-up comedy. My English was pretty bad. I used to have another tab open on the side on Google Chrome, and I would pause what I was watching and Google the terms I didn’t know. I wanted to work on my English because I want to go global and perform internationally. I was working as a copywriter in an agency, Mad About Digital. But I realised this “job” thing is not for me. I’ll become a starving artist again but no job for me. Now I’m based in Bengaluru for the last five years and I’ve been doing comedy here.
Q. Tell me more about the show Untouchable.
A. The show Untouchable is about me. It has a double meaning. Of course, it is about my caste, but also because I think my comedy is “untouchable”. The first hour will talk about who I am, what I am and what kind of experiences I have had, the place I come from and the problems I face. The show has jokes on feminism, life in Naxalite areas, mental health, identity, and rich people.
Because I have seen both of these worlds. The show goes for one-and-a-half hours. The last 20 minutes I interact with the audience and do a Q and A session. Many people are curious about me.
My real life personality is very different from my stage persona. I’m a little more aggressive and loud, that’s the character I play on stage. I feel that’s my alter ego. It makes my storytelling more interesting.
Q. Do you ever feel scared to talk about such subjects openly?
A. Yes I do. I’m not doing any shows in Lucknow and Bihar, because of the same reason. Because I’m scared. I believe I’m the only Dalit comedian who is vocal about being Dalit. I expected bigger cities to not have casteism, which was stupid of me.
There was an incident which happened, where one lady got angry and said “I’ll call my husband and he’ll beat you up”. I felt really bad. I told my mother and she was very sad too. She said we work hard and sent you to a big city thinking this will not happen there, but it’s the same thing there as it is here. I get trolled a lot on Twitter too and it does take a toll on my mental health. But I focus on my career.
I did a lot of interviews and news articles. And I stopped getting paid gigs and private gigs after that. Before I was getting these shows, but the moment I said it in interviews, I burnt my financial bridges. But that happens…
Q. Tell us more about your upcoming pan-India tour.
A. I’m the first Dalit comedian to do this. I start with Bengaluru and I end with Bengaluru. The first show was on Ambedkar Jayanti (14 April), what a day to begin the tour! I have that love for this city because this city made me, and I have an emotional connection.
Q. So, what’s next in the pipeline?
A. After my India tour, I’m making a documentary about Untouchable. I’m also making Youtube videos, and I’m writing a book about my Matua community. I’m giving a talk at the The University of Virginia soon too. Eventually, I want to tour the US and research more on Dalit artists.