When I asked Ashok Chakradhar, a respected poet and comic, how India’s sense of humor has changed over the years, he answered with a joke about physical intimacy in relationships. “In the 1980’s, women told men, love me but don’t touch me,” said Mr. Chakradhar, a professor of Hindi at Jamia Millia Islamia, a university in New Delhi. “In the 1990’s, they said touch me but don’t kiss me. In 1995, they said kiss me, but nothing more. In 2000, it was do whatever you want but don’t tell anybody. In 2010, they say do something otherwise I will tell everybody you don’t know how to do anything.”
Just as the display of affection has shifted from puritanical restraint to explicit display, humor is becoming freer and more adventurous in India. Young writers, directors and media producers are starting to experiment with satire, dark humor, sexually explicit jokes and other expressions that earlier faced stiff resistance. “Our culture is changing,” Mr. Chakradhar said. “Globalization is bringing down the walls. We are building a new society.”
The move toward more openness is, of course, slow and halting. Cultural battles involving books, TV shows and films are still common, including the recent attempts to ban “Aarakshan,” the movie about reservations for lower-caste students at universities, or complaints about “Delhi Belly,” the profanity-laced movie from Aamir Khan’s production house. But given the hostility free expression has long faced in India, writers, directors and producers say that there has been notable progress.