“We were on a WhatsApp group called MASS, which stood for Munawar, Anish, Saad and Sagar. Day in and out plans were discussed here and so were fears and jokes. Since the evening of 1 January, the group has fallen silent,” Munawar’s friend, 23-year-old Anish, said in a long chat about who Munawar is. How over a span of the year 2020, they saw their friend’s career as a standup comedian flourish while he encountered one struggle after another.
From Munawar’s losing his mother, who died by suicide, to him relentlessly chasing his dream of being a stand-up comedian despite all odds, his friends, who are all stand-up comedians themselves, gave us their insight who Munawar really is beyond his on-stage persona.
“If Munawar was really trying to hurt religious sentiments, then why would he be such thick friends with a Punjabi and a Hindu? If he really hated Hindus, why would my mother consider him a son? When we never felt anything even remotely offensive for years, who are these people making these baseless claims, without knowing Munna at all. Everyone peddling this hate is ruining someone’s life, should they not pause and reflect?” 25-year-old Sagar Punjabi, whose house was the spot where the four friends spent hours together, said to this reporter.
If not for his arrest, the four of them would be busy right now planning their next show slated for 28 January. “It is Munawar’s birthday on 28 January. We were going to do a special show with his fans for his birthday,” Anish said. All three are still processing what has happened to their friend.
29-year-old Munawar was detained by Madhya Pradesh’s Indore Police from Monroe Cafe on 1 January, after his show was interrupted by BJP MLA Malini Gaur’s son Eklavya Singh Gaur. Gaur is also the local convenor of the outfit called Hindu Rakshak. Within the next two days, he and five others were arrested on charges under Section 295-A (outraging religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs), 298 (uttering words with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings), 269 (negligent act likely to cause spread of disease), 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant) and 34 (common intention) of the IPC.
All this for jokes he allegedly never uttered as he had not started his act, and for which there is no electronic evidence produced by the complainant or Indore Police yet. Eklavya Singh Gaur claims he ‘overheard Munawar rehearsing the jokes,’ a claim that his friends say makes no sense.
“First of all, no comedian rehearses their jokes. All we do is jot down the points to remember. We have already tried the material at various open mics, so it is not an act that we are performing for the first time. Now even if that is true, please tell me why a comedian will rehearse a joke in front of his audience. The laugh has everything to do with a surprise element in what the comedian says, right? This makes no sense whatsoever,” Anish said.
After two bail pleas were rejected, a third bail application was moved in the Indore bench of Madhya Pradesh High Court. It was listed for 15 January. “But because the police had not submitted the case diary, the case got adjourned for two weeks later. In the interim, we moved a application seeking early hearing. This was accepted, and now the matter is being heard on 25 January,” Faruqui’s counsel, advocate Anshuman Shrivastava, who was earlier the deputy advocate general for the state of MP, told this reporter.
‘Worked Hard, 4-5 Open Mics Every Night’
His friends, all four of whom met at open mic nights while they tried to impress the crowds with their styles in Bombay, soon became a tight knit group. However as time passed, Munawar’s audience started burgeoning at a rate much faster that of his friends. Anish said that this was mainly because Munawar was driven in a way one rarely is.
“While I would do one open mic a night, he would go to four to five every night. Please note that one does not get paid for these performances, you have to pay a token amount to perform, like Rs 200. He would diligently take the local train to go from one place to another, to try out his material and note how the audience was responding to him. He took comedy very seriously, he was that ambitious and hard-working,” Anish said.
Before taking on comedy as a full-time profession, Munawar did odd jobs. “He was twelve when he came to Mumbai from Junagadh in Guajarat. He had dropped out of school and worked at a utensils shop of one of his relatives in Dongri, a Muslim-majority area in Mumbai. They would pay him Rs 60 for a 13-hour long shift. After this he did a bunch of odd jobs, when he came across a course on graphic designing. He arranged money, worked hard, saved up and did the course. After working with this company for a few years, he gave it all up to do standup comedy in the end of 2019,” Saad explains.
While Munawar resigned from his job as a graphic designer in October 2019, he told his three friends only in January 2020. “He struggled a lot, he would not share the details of his struggle as much. But tell me this, if he really wanted to peddle hate, why would one pay Rs 200 to perform at open mics to do that?” Anish asked irritatedly.
A Friend, Boosting Confidence All Along
Not only did Munawar not let his fame get to him, but also constantly collaborated with his three lesser known comedian friends. Constantly pumping them up, Anish recalls how after he won a Marathi reality TV show on comedy called ‘Ek Tappa Out’ in 2019, Munawar would keep telling him to work hard. “After this I did not do any shows for four months, thinking that I had enough fame. Munawar saw that and would tell me to utilise the momentum I had gained and not just sit on my ass. He was always encouraging me, hyping me, and saying that I would be the best comedian of the country one day. A lot of my confidence came from him,” Anish said. All three said that Munawar was always helping people. A particular instance was about how, when Munawar started off in 2018, he would repeatedly request and message comedy producers to get a spot for free. “This particular producer, who also doubled as a comic himself, kept rejecting him three to four times. Then when Munawar got famous, the same comic now reached out to him for a spot to open his next show. Munawar agreed without a thought. If this does not speak volumes about the person he was, then I do not know what does,” Anish concluded.
For Sagar, Munawar was someone who would take some time to trust people around him. “He took a while to open up, but once he did, you could see that he was a very emotional person. We have had many conversations where we have discussed matters of the heart over unending calls,” Sagar chuckled and added that Munawar was like any typical Gujarati boy. “If he could save money, he would. Even if he was doing well, but he could take the local train to save a few rupees, he would do that.”
All this while Munawar’s popularity was on the rise, but his friends say that he never let them feel like that. “His videos started to cross 1 million views. That is a very big deal in the world of comedy. But he never behaved like he should not hang out with us, or hang out with better known comics. We were always his people in the industry,” Sagar said, Saad added that they all felt proud that one amongst them had done well.
“He was always brainstorming ideas for us to do shows together. We knew he had more visibility and wished that he would help us, and he did,” Saad said.
How the Controversial Video Was Uploaded Despite Red Flags
As Munawar’s popularity increased, so did the controversy regarding the video which was titled Dawood, Yamraj and Aurat. This is the video where the joke about Sita and the song ‘Mere Piya Ghar Aya oh Ram Ji’ was made.
Reflecting on the time then, his friends tell this reporter how despite Munawar’s reservations they told him he had nothing to worry about.
Munawar had had a bad feeling about that part in the video where he makes jokes about a song called ‘mora piya ghar aaya’ and the Hindu mythological figure Sita. He brought it up while smaller chunks of his video were being uploaded in April last year. He had insisted the part be dropped. “I remember that even when this video was being edited, he was telling the editor that maybe that portion could be dropped. But the editor also told him that there was nothing offensive about it and it was not about religion,” Anish recalls.
After the video was uploaded, Munawar started getting death threats within hours. This is when they discussed the issue on the MASS WhatsApp group as well. “We thought the hate would die down and it would not become as controversial. We had tried that joke in front of a live audience several times and no problems had ever risen, the response was always good. Open mic nights are where we can try out new material. Most people in the audience had cracked up, and most of them were Hindus. The joke was about the song ‘mera piya ghar aaya’, and not about religious sentiments,” Sagar said.
Anish also tried to pacify Munawar back then and said, “I texted on the group that the justice system, our legal system was not that weak. That if people saw this video logically then it will not be an issue. We told him that there is enough common sense in our justice system that if you hear the joke then you will understand, it is about the song and not about the religion.”
Before a second version could be uploaded, the video was chopped and circulated everywhere. “Munawar got off social media for two weeks. He was very scared and a complaint had been registered against him in UP in May 2020,” Saad said.
The complaint against him in UP however did not lead to anything, the police had made no attempts to arrest him.
Munawar Losing His Parents
On one of the afternoons, when the boys hung out at Sagar’s place as usual, Munawar caught them off guard. "Munawar got very sad and told us how his mother had died by suicide when he was around eleven years old. He told us how this affected him deeply then and even today,” Saad said.
Sagar said he intentionally did not ask Munawar any questions because he could see how deeply affected and sad his friend looked, “Even the fact that his mother died by suicide is something he told us years later when we sat together. We never probed further,” he said. Anish says that Munawar told him that he had gone through immense heartache and that experience had taught him how he needed to take matters into his own hands and be there for himself.
With his father and three sisters, Munawar then moved to Bombay when he was twelve. He was also close to his father’s sister and their kids who lived in Dongri.
Over fifteen years later his father, Iqbal, started falling sick a lot. “Munawar had just finished his show in Andheri and was meeting some fans when he got a message from his neighbour saying that his father had passed away. I was with him,” Saad said. Munawar’s father died in February 2020.
Saad took Munawar to the local train station, but Munawar was incapacitated after hearing the news. “He kept telling me, while we sat on the station, that his father had recently asked to take him to his sister’s home. He had also said he wanted to eat something, but could not go as he was not fit to travel himself. Munawar told me he had promised his father he would get him the food as well as take him to his sister. He just sat there, shocked,” Saad recalls.
Losing Hope, All Eyes on Indore HC
As time passed after Munawar’s arrest, his friends hoped that he would get bail one day or the other. Looking at the proportions of the controversy around their friend, Anish says that Munawar is simply paying the price for someone else’s propaganda. “A narrative was created and people followed it, without verifying it. Does not matter if it was right or wrong, people are abusing him. Most of them have probably not even seen the video,” Anish said.
Saad says he has lost hope. “I have stopped posting about him, picking calls. Now all I feel is ab kya hi kar sakte hai (what can I even do)“ Sagar again reiterates that he can’t believe this has been raised as a communal issue, “The amount he did for us despite becoming famous. This is just wrong. This is not who Munawar is. Everyone has it wrong,” he said.
The friends tell us how the family is being abused, issued death threats constantly. “Their security is our priority,” Saad explains why they have kept a safe distance from the media. Their hopes are pinned on the next hearing on 25 January.
Now regarding the complaint against Munawar in UP, his lawyer Srivastava said that UP Police was yet to get a production warrant to arrest him. “This case was registered in May 2020, and per police record says he was absconding when the reality is that the police did not make any effort to arrest him. UP moved an application for production warrant to produce him before a court in UP. However till date, they have not got any order from the concerning court. So he continues to be in judicial custody in the case against him in Indore.”
The next hearing regarding the case against him in Indore is on 25 January. “Mr Vivek Tankha, Member of Parliament, Senior Advocate at the SC and former additional Solicitor General of India, will be with us on Monday to argue for bail. We hope that Munawar will be granted bail soon. There is no case that the police has against him here,” Srivastava said.
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