Decoding India’s Love-Hate Relationship with Hasan Minhaj


Decoding India’s Love-Hate Relationship with Hasan Minhaj

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Over the last weekend, the “Howdy Modi” event in Houston invited NRIs from across the American state to meet and greet Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Organised by the Texas India Forum, the event was set up and advertised as a celebration of the contributions of the Indian-American community, especially in the arts. For the 50,000 attendees, the spectacle must have been a most fitting tribute to their homeland. And all they had to do to participate was pretend to listen to US President Donald Trump for about 20 minutes.

While the headlines were dominated by the subtle hints dropped about terror in Pakistan, and the budding bromance between the hand-holding heads of state, one particular NRI probably felt a little left out. That man is Hasan Minhaj, the comedian popular for his Netflix show Patriot Act, which many back home would argue is not patriotic at all. In an interview on Late Night With Seth Meyers, Hasan Minhaj revealed that he was not allowed to enter the venue, even though he attempted several times to register his staff. The reasons he was given for the rejection ranged from not having enough space (in a football stadium) to “because of comments he’s made in the past”. While there was no official clarification on what these comments could have been, but as Minhaj jokes himself, it probably had more to do with his monologue on Kashmir than the one on cricket. More proof that you don’t necessarily have to attend an arts college in India, or even live in India to be labelled anti-national.

Ironically, as Minhaj was seated outside the venue on a plastic chair, his face was flashed on the jumbotron indoors (along with Aziz Ansari), under a category that celebrated Indian-Americans who had excelled in their respective fields. Like he told Seth Meyers, it was a typically Indian situation — your family will praise you, sure, but never to your face. 

Hasan’s monologue on Kashmir wasn’t too well received by a large majority of online warriors.

But Minhaj too channelled in his inner Indian. Like that relative who is not invited to a wedding but shows up anyway, Minhaj was hanging outside the venue, hoping that he’ll get someone’s attention. And that he did. He put up a photograph of him standing outside the NRG stadium where Modi was due to arrive, with his arms spread wide, and a caption that apparently praised both leaders. This, in turn, drew flak from his own fans, who were incensed that he would even attempt to attend “Howdy Modi”. They greeted him with appeals to join the protests outside instead, and the usual calls that he be cancelled. A few of the more creative ones even went on to photoshop messages between his hand including #IStandWithKashmir, and Adios Modi. For these fans, it seemed almost impossible that the man who gave us an honest breakdown of the communication blackout in Kashmir was apparently praising the Indian prime minister. 

After news broke that he was turned away from the venue, the comedian earned back some of the fans, who had clearly missed the snark in his initial photo caption. But we’re guessing that is something he is accustomed to. This isn’t the first time he’s been a target of Indians back home. Hasan Minhaj’s monologue on Kashmir wasn’t too well received by a large majority of online warriors. In fact, it enraged Indians to the point that some demanded that we #BoycottNetflix and Minhaj was labelled a hack, “fake news” and other terms that are usually reserved for Indian journalists. There was also some backlash for his cricket episode, in which he takes on the corruption in the BCCI, with several Indians wondering why an American was bothering to talk about an Indian body. Those who aren’t sure about their opinions just find him plain unfunny. 

Which is why it’s no surprise that Minhaj was turned away from the venue, even though he’s technically the perfect candidate for a “Howdy Modi”-like event. He drops casual Hindi words in his monologues, he applies Parachute tel to his hair, and even makes it a point to make fun of Americans who come up with aberrations like dog yoga and beer yoga. His shows are attended almost exclusively by desis, and a recent video of him with Tanveer Wasim Safdar from Queer Eye went viral because Indian-Americans finally understood what representation looks like. So if promoting Indians abroad is the mission, it’s fair to say he’s doing a pretty good job. 

Now while it’s obvious that comedians — especially comedians with political talk shows — are bound to have controversial opinions, very few people manage to balance to two worlds this well. Barely a month goes by without Hasan Minhaj either having sparked some controversy, or having done something wholesome. Which one it’ll be is a gamble, not very different from the reception of the next Tiger Shroff movie. Our reactions to the comedian can only be perfectly summed up with the infamous Indian nod — we both approve and disapprove at any given time.

Still, at some point, someone’s going to need to conclusively answer the question, “Do we love or hate Hasan Minhaj?”