Nestled in the comfort of a hotel room in Seattle – I tell my mother over the phone that I will be reviewing Hasan Minhaj: Patriot Act’s ‘Indian Election’ episode. In a somewhat concerned tone, she says “you better be careful in your review, in case the episode is too anti-Modi, okay?”
This is both damning and hilarious, especially in the context of the ‘cold-open’ of Patriot Act episode; where Hasan gets warned by Indian uncles and aunties against doing an election episode. “You’ll be called a Pakistani agent,” they say.
I have had the opportunity to review Patriot Act Season One before and as usual there are tons of things that work for it. The jokes flow from the beginning to the end; from his “oreo cookie on one side and Muslim on the other” jab at Islamophobia, to his “Indians mixing revenge and finance as usual” bit on Modi’s post-Pulwama rhetoric. Hasan lands those punchlines, mixed with an Indian context, like a DJ would drop Bollywood hits at a US nightclub mostly haunted by desis.
Hasan knows what he will be up against, and therefore embraces his inevitable “Pakistani agent” trolling as part of the act too. As the episode progresses, he spares no-one in order to balance the narrative. He uses his interview with Shashi Tharoor, the Indian liberal poster-child from Congress, to lead into a damning segment on the state of democracy, politicians across the board and the news media – both in India and the world.
There is a particularly brilliant moment in the episode where Hasan delivers his monologue on the lack of virtuosity that faces us in politics, against the backdrop of moving drone shots of famous Indian vistas, filtered in red. The combination of the words and images is captivating – a testament to what makes Patriot Act usually so good. In that moment, the episode delivers a poignant and foreboding feeling of what democracy could look like in a few years, if not course-corrected.
But that doesn’t mean the episode doesn’t have its weaknesses. This whole “Indian Elections” thing has been done before – packaged and delivered by John Oliver way back in 2014, before the ‘Modi wave’ was about to hit us. John Oliver had the similar beats to the episode. But I guess he did have three strong things going for him – it was still 2014, the world was possibly a better place, and the fact that he was British. John’s analysis in 2014 was sharper, more streamlined and honestly, funnier.
Where Patriot Act’s Election episode falters is that it does not offer anything significantly new to the audiences – whether they are Indian, US or NRIs. We’ve seen all of this before; and the tragedy is, we’ve seen it live on our news channels. The episode feels familiar and after re-running the John Oliver episode before writing this review – the jokes in Patriot Act seem a bit watered down. Hasan tries to bring a balanced approach to the proceedings and perhaps it is that balance that sinks the ship.
Was it those uncles and aunties perhaps that made him rationalize? Or did his team of writers lose the plot after being exposed to hours of watching the travesty that is the Indian television news media? We’ll never know.