Stand-up comedian Navin Noronha’s first impression of the Indian stand-up scene was that queer people were inevitably the punching bags of many jokes. “I really did not appreciate that when I was coming out to myself,” he said.
Inspired by comics whose work he watched online, Noronha found that they were referring to their personal lives as well as kinds of topics. “So, then I was like, okay let me just talk about my thing, which is that I’m in the closet and I’m trying to come out and here’s what I deal with when I come out to people,” he said. “And that’s how I got into comedy.”
Thus, Noronha set the ball rolling: “Coming out to people, random strangers every night at open mics, till I had some sense of what I wanted to do,” he told Scroll in an interview.
But being out, loud and proud, and on stage, was never easy. Owning his identity and sexuality, especially before the reading of Section 377 that criminalised “unnatural” sex in 2018, has been a journey. “...At one point, [I] treaded very cautiously as I was scared of the homophobia around me,” he said. “A lot of producers would tell me not to talk about being gay and gay sex and how a lot of people might get disgusted listening and seeing me.”
But the fact is everybody talks about sex in the club scene or comedy scene, and it is generally funny and mature, he said. “So why shouldn’t I not talk about it and take everybody on that journey?” he said.
Being Catholic and queer has had Noronha wrestling with his sense of self. There was “duality” to his life, said Noronha, talking about being deeply involved in church activities, like the choir and skits. Hence the name of his YouTube special, The Good Child.
Now, Noronha says that he would rather make fun of the politically left and right folks because they are both “blind[ed] by the same kind of hate”. “...Because that’s what a comic is, a jester eventually, showing the mirror to society,” he said.
Marriage equality for queer identities is “very imperative”, said Noronha, while criticising the government’s arguments in the Supreme Court, which has reserved its verdict on a batch of petitions.
“When the solicitor general says, ‘if we give them the rights tomorrow, what if I want to have sex with my sister?’ I’d say, ‘ask your sister, bro, why are you telling us all of this?’” said Noronha. While the comments were mocked online, Noronha said, Somewhere deep down, it makes you sad that we are still in 2023 fighting for basic rights.
What led you to be a stand-up comedian, and that too a gay stand up, putting your sexuality out there in the open?
When I first started standup, there were barely any queer voices in the scene. I used to go to watch open mics and see other performers, and queer people were generally the punching bags of their jokes. I really did not appreciate that when I was coming out to myself.
My early interaction with comics, however, was what I saw in the digital world, people like Wanda Sykes and Bill Hicks. They were addressing all kinds of topics, right, even the personal. So, then I was like, okay let me just talk about my thing, which is that I’m in the closet and I’m trying to come out and here’s what I deal with when I come out to people. And that’s how I got into comedy. Coming out to people, random strangers every night at open mics, till I had some sense of what I wanted to do.
And yes, there were times when I wanted to stop being a queer comic, so to say, and just do generic observational bits. But it was surely something that I felt had potential because slowly but steadily, people were like, oh, what is that? Tell me more. You know, there was interest in it. So yeah, I feel absolutely fine putting myself and my sexuality at the centre of what I do.
What has your journey been like as a stand-up. Have things changed for the better and has the reading down of Section 377 been a positive contributor?
The reading down of Section 377 has been critical to changing the notion and legitimacy of our existence. Prior to that, representation of the community was limited and the general consensus in society was that it’s illegal to be gay, which was actually not the case. You could be gay. But you couldn’t be caught doing gay things. So, I, as a stand-up, was trying to bust that myth whilst also admitting I’m a criminal.
But to get there, to own up to who I am, was a journey where I, at one point, treaded very cautiously as I was scared of the homophobia around me. A lot of producers would tell me not to talk about being gay and gay sex and how a lot of people might get disgusted listening and seeing me.
Of course, I lost some gigs as I grew into owning myself but post the September 2018 verdict of the Supreme Court, I told myself, “let me now own this [my sexuality] even harder.”
I remember releasing a video exactly a year after the Section 377 order, called “India after 377”, which did very well back then. It opened up a lot of opportunities for me as well. Now you see in the mainstream also, there’s a lot of queer voices. It’s a good time.
A lot of the content you offer is sexual, what is considered adult. Perhaps, it makes many cringe in their seats. Have you faced any critique on the same and how do you respond to such comments?
I don’t think sexual content makes people cringe. Cringe would apply to something that is tough to watch in a way that you can’t look away. Whereas my acts are fun to watch I would say. I simplify it for people. I’ll say that. I don’t just talk about gay sex; I break it down for everybody to be in on a joke.
The fact is everybody talks about sex in the club scene or comedy scene, and it is generally funny and mature. Everybody is allowed to talk and do talk about 69 to BDSM to incest, and there are jokes about everything, right? So why shouldn’t I not talk about it and take everybody on that journey.
It’s amazing and liberating. In fact, I feel very happy. And again, I don’t think people will cringe in their seats, but if they’re squirming in their seats, they’ll buck up. They’ll mature eventually. But isn’t that the hilarious part about this whole thing: that we are in this country, a billion of us, still wondering about sex, that it is a taboo topic!
How do you make your art sustainable? You’ve been touring through Pride Month. What about months before and after?
Yeah, I’ll tour for a little while, then I’ll take a break. I also write and consult. Comedy can’t be and isn’t sustainable. Yes, Pride month is fun. But then, corporations forget us post June, so it’s very rare to have more corporate sponsored or hosted shows, which the other comics enjoy, which makes no sense because I am queer 24x7, 365 days a year. As I said, I keep doing something or the other, podcasts too, else it can be rough.
We eat sushi during good months, but in the bad months we eat vada pav. That’s the artist deal. That’s like the deal with the devil you make (sort of). I like my life really. I wouldn’t take nine to five ever. I’ll just give up if that were the case.
In terms of politics, be it Left or Right, body politics, the politics of love or artistic expression, how do you see all of these aspects intersect with your art form, religious and sexual identities?
I think from the very moment I uttered to myself that I’m queer as a Catholic boy who was very much entrenched in the church activities, it became like a duality, which I had to subvert or overtime come to terms with, because it’s very political, like the very ideology that your faith hates you. The people around you will judge you immediately if you are queer and visibly queer, and if you talk about it, you are disliked even more.
So, I built a lot of my life on a likability scale. You know, like how I involved myself in church activities, in the choir, I was doing skits, I was doing events, I was doing everything. If you see my special “The Good Child”, you’ll get a hint into my early [days] where there was always that duality. I, as it were, figured out why I did this only to realise, over time, that the Left and Right are both blind by the same kind of hate.
So, I sometimes stay in the centre or lean to the Left, but I never fall to that side, and that allows me to make fun of both sides, because that’s what a comic is, a jester eventually, showing the mirror to society.
As a gay man, someone who has a partner, how do you view recent debates and discussions on marriage equality as against anti-discrimination?
I think it’s very imperative right now in our time in history to have same-sex equality in terms of marriage. My partner and I, however, don’t subscribe to the idea or the notion of monogamy. I don’t think a lot of queer people do either. But we want nomination rights, partner benefits, which everybody enjoys and takes for granted, right? For example, if I’m dying tomorrow, my partner can’t visit me in the hospital because he is not a blood relative. What do I do then?
The arguments in the Supreme Court from those who are opposed to our rights are juvenile and so bereft of any sensibility or sensitivity to the queer community. When the solicitor general says, ‘if we give them the rights tomorrow, what if I want to have sex with my sister?’ I’d say, ‘ask your sister, bro, why are you telling us all of this?’ So, the arguments are very stupid, but we take it in stride. We make fun of it.
I had a field day on Twitter when I saw all of this, but somewhere deep down, it makes you sad that we are still in 2023 fighting for basic shit, basic rights.
Sharif Rangnekar is the author of Straight to Normal and Queersapien. He is also the director of the Rainbow Literature Festival.
This article is part of the Queer & Inclusive series.