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NEWS: “Make Chai Not War” Travels to India

By Elise Hennigan on February 15, 2012


NEWS: “Make Chai Not War” Travels to India

“I always joke that we agree on everything except for the final destination of our souls,” Rajiv Satyal said of Azhar Usman, the other lead in his comedy act, Make Chai Not War.

“We have become extremely good friends, like brothers,” said Satyal

When I met with Satyal in his Studio City apartment, he had just returned from a seven city tour of India with Usman—with whom he wrote Make Chai Not War in 2007. A third Indian-American comedian, Hari Kondabolu (the older brother of Ashok Kondabolu of Das Racist) joined them on their international tour.

The inner-faith group of comedians (Satyal and Kondabolu are Hindu and Usman is Muslim) received funding for their trip from the U.S. State Department. The government agency charged them with the mission of “promoting religious harmony abroad,” a grandiose task. The comedians found success by connecting with people rather than lecturing at them.

They described it as, “heavy on the laughs and light on the pedagogy.”

“We were advised to make sure that we are not perceived to be foreigners who are coming to a different country and telling them how to live,” Satyal explained. “But we were still given this monumental task as our mission.”

The State Department often funds international public diplomacy trips as part of their global cultural exchange program. This year, the program has a budget of $637 million.

While noble in aim, the jury is out on whether America has the authority to preach about religious tolerance anywhere.

The masterminds behind Make Chai Not War get this. In fact, pointing out hypocrisy is kind of their thing. According to Usman, “funny comedy is nothing more than cleverly exposed hypocrisy.”

The comedians took the mission of their trip down to earth and decided to instead focus on purely connecting with their audience rather than practicing comedy “with a moral.”

“We tried not to heavy hand that too much. This isn’t church, this isn’t mosque, this isn’t temple,” Satyal explained.

When I chatted with Usman, he echoed many of the same sentiments that Satyal had expressed.

He explained that the promotion of religious harmony was a consequence of their personal goals for the trip, not the other way around.

“We wanted to make people laugh, promote love, and to share what’s in our hearts.”

For Usman, his art is about connecting with people. Allowing yourself to be truly seen and expressing yourself honestly brings you closer to “God,” “Allah,” “truth,” “whatever you want to call it,” he said.

Over the phone, Usman flowed through ideas about Sufism—the mystical dimension of Islam, serendipity, the dualism of hypocrisy and sincerity and being a self-aware narcissist.

He sums up his views on the body and soul by a simple analogy of a bird in a cage. We are the bird inside the cage. The cage is our physical body, societal constructs, and the outward symbols of religion. Everything, he said, that could be stripped away.

Laughter, a “true” expression—according to Usman, brings people closer.

“I think the subliminal message there is, if people are laughing together and they are laughing at the same thing that means that they have something in common. That’s really the idea.”

Although there was skepticism—Satyal described the anti-American sentiment as “palpable”—the comedians say that they felt a sincere connection with their audiences abroad.

He came back to his bird in a cage analogy. Success in comedy—and in life, he ventured—is all about having your bird talk directly to the bird of another. F

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