Tag Archives: Hasan Minhaj

Hasan Minhaj Goes to Washington

“You know the student loan crisis is bad when I’m asked to testify before Congress about it,” tweeted Hasan Minhaj, the popular host of political comedy series Patriot Act, on Netflix. Minhaj was invited by the House Financial Services Committee to share his findings, after a recent episode of Patriot Act investigated and discovered that deceptive practices employed by loan servicing companies like Navient was exacerbating the student loan crisis.

In fact, the day they shot the episode says Minhaj, a poll of about 200 people in his live studio audience showed they owed an incredible six million dollars of student debt “in that room alone,” a revelation that really hit home with members of his audience.

“Absurdly tragic”

On the episode, Minhaj illustrated how students and families are taking desperate measures to pay off crippling debt. Patriot Act aired excerpts from Paid Off, a comedic game show on truTV where contestants compete for money to pay off their student debt. Contestants earn a percentage of what they owed in loans for each correct answer and could clear their entire student loan if they guessed eight answers correctly. Paid Off host Michael Torpey called the student debt crisis an “absurdly tragic”  situation that was holding back millions of people and the nation’s economy.

Debt is Stacked Against Student Borrowers

Today 44 million Americans have outstanding student loan debt, which can take decades to pay off. Estimates show the average borrower owes more than $37,000 in debt, and more than 2 million student borrowers owe over $100,000 in loans. In the US, student borrowing is expected to hit $2 trillion by 2020.

“You paid far less for your degrees!”

“We know that debt is stacked against student borrowers, in ways that it wasn’t 10 or even 15 years ago”, noted Minhaj, who had done his homework on where the 60 members of the Financial Services Committee had gone to college and what they had paid in tuition.

He told committee members “ …you have paid far less for your degrees,” pointing out that in 1971, Chairwoman Maxine Waters would have paid the equivalent of only $1000 a year at Cal State, LA, while today, Cal State costs well over “…six grand a year, …more than a 500% jump.”

Members of the committee, who on average graduated 33 years ago, paid the equivalent of $11,690 a year, said Minhaj “even adjusting for inflation.” Over that period of time, wages have increased only by 16% while tuition costs have spiked by 110%, so that, “Today the average tuition at all of your same schools is almost $25,000.”

The American dream is slipping away from millennials

“The issue is sidelining millions of Americans,” says Minhaj (33), especially with his generation, who are putting off marriage, kids, home ownership and retirement. “Growing up, it was drilled into our heads, you gotta go to college, if you want a middle class job,” something  that “we even tell kids today.”

But people aren’t making more money and college is way more expensive creating ‘a paywall for the middle class’ that Americans don’t deserve, says Minhaj. The fact is that two-thirds of all jobs in America require a bachelor’s degree, at a minimum, a standard that was not the case, “when most members of this committee were in school.”

Though average student debt hovers around $30,000, most graduates even with bachelor’s degrees barely make a wage that covers cost of living and student loan bills.

As a result, borrowers facing crushing debt can barely afford everyday necessities like rent, groceries or car payments, while repayment struggles and poor credit ratings makes it difficult for many borrowers to buy homes or cars, start a business, or begin even new employment opportunities.

The Department of Education is one of the nation’s largest creditors

Minhaj made it clear that student borrowers are trying to take responsibility for paying their loans, despite reports to the contrary. “They are investing in education and trying to pay their loans back.” It is unfair to treat many borrowers “like deadbeats,” said Minhaj, especially when the government is to blame for placing the financial futures of debt-ridden students in the hands of unscrupulous, “predatory, for-profit loan servicing companies,” like Navient.

“The worst part,” of the student loan crisis, stated Minhaj, “is that borrowers don’t even get to choose their loan servicer – the Department of Education does that for them.”

Why the math doesn’t work at Navient

Minhaj singled out Navient as a prime example of a predatory, unregulated, loan servicing company that uses deceptive loan servicing practices – like placing borrowers in high-cost repayment options known as forbearances – to boost corporate profits.

Navient misled borrowers, “…pushing them into repayment plans that in some cases, have cost individual borrowers tens of thousands of dollars,” in compound interest, collection charges and late fees, while the lack of competition, said Minhaj, allows corrupt companies like Navient to get away with sub par service.

On September 18, new court documents released by SBPC (Student Borrower Protection Center) revealed that Navient executives plotted to cheat struggling student loan borrowers of billions in extra fees, while raking in taxpayer dollars and paying shareholders huge amounts of money. Senior executives at Navient planned to deceive borrowers by placing them in ‘forbearances,’ resulting in more than $4 billion in unnecessary interest charges passed on to borrowers, according to lawsuits filed by federal and state enforcement officials.

SBPC Executive Director Seth Frotman said in a statement, “The evidence unsealed today in federal court confirms that Navient’s practices that added billions of dollars of debt to struggling borrowers emanated from the top echelon of the company. This follows a decade-long pattern of Navient ripping off service members, disabled veterans, teachers, and American taxpayers. The time has come for policymakers to admit this company’s practices are predatory and corrupt—it should not be given a single additional taxpayer dollar.”

Students deserve better service, not bankruptcy

In his closing statement Minhaj reminded Congress that “students deserve better” from a government “we know is capable of stepping in during a financial crisis – so really all I’m asking today is why can’t we treat our student borrowers the way we treat our banks?”.

Students borrowers deserve some basic protections, Minhaj concluded, so that “Americans should not have to go bankrupt pursuing higher education.”

Meera Kymal is a Contributing Editor at India Currents.

Resources for student borrowers:

The Audacity of a Joke

Comedians, like clowns, have a special license to help us enter a liminal area where the boundary between reality and imagination is blurred. We can think of them as the “no man’s land” of political critique. While satire can occasionally cut too deep, with unfortunate consequences, as Salman Rushdie found after Satanic Verses earned him a fatwa from the Khomeini of Iran, the wise “fool” is to be let off for his witty upending of his social superiors. My children enjoyed the Amar Chitra Katha stories of Birbal in Akbar’s court, or Tenali Raman in the court of Krishnadevaraya. It is within this context of entertainment that dissent can be most effective, as we saw in the 2017 White House Correspondents’ dinner.

Hasan Minhaj
Hasan Minhaj

One of the differences between Muslims and Hindus, says Hasan Minhaj, bouncing around the stage in Davis, is that “we Muslims hate cartoons.”
Gasp. Did he really say that?

The Davis, California audience of Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King (2017) is shocked into silence, and then, what I fervently hope is cathartic laughter.

A joke about the infamous “clash of civilizations:” the Danish cartoons, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. A risky joke indeed. Perhaps it is too early to laugh? But the laughter is rolling in, and we have witnessed that moment when a difficult topic has been pulled out from under the carpet into the spotlight.

The narrative starts with Minhaj being jilted on prom night by his “white princess,” whose parents were as worried about log kya kahenge (what will people say?) as his own. It is a story that can cause an unexpected lump in your throat. It then moves to a critique of world events, as the personal becomes political. “I am the cure for racism,” he offers simply.

Kumail Nanjiani
Kumail Nanjiani

Kumail Nanjiani, who plays Dinesh Chugtai in Silicon Valley, also weaves between the personal and the political. In his 2017 film The Big Sick, responding to a question by his movie in-laws about how he felt about 9-11, he deadpans: “it was terrible. We lost 19 of our best guys.” (Just kidding!)

Gasp. The audience is shocked into silence, and then there is laughter.

A joke about 9/11?

Get used to it.

Desi comedians are having a moment.

But at whose expense is the joke being made? There is an implied power inequality in all humor, and it is worth exploring this question. Clearly, Minhaj is roasting religious intolerance. Bigotry and racism seem like other favorite targets.

“Be a better racist,” urges Nanjiani, looking impish. “Get your facts straight.”

To express dissent, some people go on fasts (think Gandhi). Others organize protest marches. Kondabolu, a former immigrant rights organizer, and now a stand-up comic, has made a documentary film, The Problem with Apu (2017).

We are talking here not about the Apu from Satyajit Ray’s realist trilogy, but animated cartoon character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, Kwik-E-Mart owner on The Simpsons (1989-present). Apu was created by Matt Groening and voiced by Hank Azaria. Apu has a Ph.D. in Computer Science from CalTech (Calcutta Technical Institute). His character seems loosely based on the brownface Peter Sellers character Hrundi V. Bakshi from The Party (1968).

Kondobolu claims that Apu’s trademark “thank you, come again,” delivered in a singsong accent was repeated by schoolyard bullies and ruined many a childhood. In the film, he discusses his ambivalence about Apu’s caricature with Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Aasif Mandvi, Hasan Minhaj, Utkarsh Ambudkar and Aparna Nancherla. There is some discussion with Whoopi Goldberg about whether Apu can be called a minstrel character. Despite The Simpson’s equal opportunity offensiveness, Kondobolu has called the Apu caricature stereotypical and hurtful.

Hank Azaria as Apu, he said, was like “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” While accents in general are problematic, Kondabulu has become more woke about his comedy and issues of representation. In “Yes, we can,” a 2009 article by Shruti Swamy in India Currents, he states: “I used to talk about my family much more. I realized after a while that a lot of those jokes were ‘my family is different from your family.’ I want there to be some depth to their stories and lives. They are not just immigrants with thick accents who say goofy things. They are not caricatures.”

Peter Russell
Russell Peters

While Russell Peters built his career on jokes such as his Dad’s accented promise of punishment: “Somebody gonna get hurt a real bad,” some comics resist the easy laugh about stereotypes. Aziz Ansari dedicated a whole episode to this subject on Master of None (2015). On the one hand, such humor offers opportunities for critique within the community, much like Meet the Patels (2015), which lampooned desi dismay at non-arranged and inter-racial marriage. The art of the mischievous dig at the conservative relatives is perfected by Nanjiani, who looks quite pleased on Saturday Night Live at the scorecard so far: “Nanjianis: 0; White Women: 2.” His wife Emily is the second gori woman married to a Nanjiani, forty years after an uncle moved to Scotland and married a white woman.

But it’s clearly an in-joke, like gently roasting your beloved mamaji (uncle) at his birthday party that you helped arrange. There is affection even through the eyerolls.

On her sassy cartoons, full of Roy Lichtenstein style desi tropes of jhumka and bindi wearing women, Maria Qamar, in Trust No Aunty offers: “It’s all for brown people. I don’t care to speak to anybody else because this is a conversation between us,” she says. “Lord knows if I see a person who isn’t desi trying to say, ‘Oh, aunties, aren’t they crazy?’ I’ll be like, ‘Shut the hell up.’” The desi words remain untranslated in badtameez gems like “Your daughter’s getting a little moti in the arms, no?” (fat-shaming) and “Pitaji don’t know shit!” (um, patriarchy?)

There is plentiful millennial sass: “What does your roti shape say about you? Match your rolling skills below and find out just how disappointed your in-laws will be;” “How to dodge the chappal;” “What would society say?” There are helpful tidbits for young desi girls as well: “Recipes for the desi campus girl on a budget” and “how to stay focused in school when all of your friends are getting married” and “how to ignore bakwaas criticism.” In response to the question “when was the last time you waxed?” for instance, Qamar’s advice is “Reply with “Never!” And then run out the door, with the wind caressing your silky soft mustache strands. Facial hair is nothing to be embarrassed of. We all have it. Its natural… facial hair is a beautiful characteristic of our people and it looks adorable.”

I shared Maria Qamar’s book with my daughter Sagaree, who was delighted at all the irreverence. “In comedy, it’s ok to punch up but not down.” Pointing out the times that I have praised the sanskaari kids in our neighborhood, she challenged me. “Mom, are you identifying with the desi girl or the aunty?” My response was one that sounded Qamar-esque: “Eventually, beti, we all become aunties.”

How Rudy the Zebra had to wait for a green card
Rudy the Zebra has The Wrong Stripes. They zag instead of zig. Much like the comics who talk about existing in American immigrant third cultures (or in Qamar’s case, a fifth culture in Canada in a home of “half Gujarat and half Bihari, by way of Bangladesh but located in Pakistan”), anthromorphized Rudy feels all alone in a roomful of zebras. He sets off on an adventure, leaving his home much like an immigrant, and discovers a world full of animals with vibrant spots, dazzling points, and other mesmerizing patterns.

Arjun Rihan, a layout artist at Pixar Animation Studios, left home in Pune at sixteen to attend school in Singapore and later moved to the United States. He spent years exploring what it means to fit in and be yourself. He drew on these experiences to write and illustrate his children’s book The Wrong Stripes. Rihan shared his familiar story of waiting for legal status in America. “I got a book contract many years ago, and I was very excited about that. Sadly, at the time, I was on an H-1 visa and the rules did not allow me to accept this offer. That was really disappointing, and also ironic because you’re writing a book about being an outsider, and your own outsider status has prevented the story from being told.”

Rihan’s previous works have also touched on similar themes. His 2014 collage piece “Passport-size Portraits” was featured in the Smithsonian Indian American Heritage Project for the H-1B visa, where artists depicted “the anxiety, dignity, isolation and opportunity associated with the H-1B visa.” The exhibit consists of twenty-three photographs taken in the process of applying for various required immigration documents such as passports, visas and work authorization. They span school, college, graduate school, jobs and travel. “These photos are tiny windows into one immigrant’s journey.”

Rihan’s 2009 student film Topi, about a young boy’s experience during the turbulent days of the Partition of India is based on true events. Yes, it can be referred to as a cartoon film, but it can make you cry.

Funny Memories
I tried to remember the funny Bollywood comics of my childhood. In Sholay (1975) alone, we had laughed at jailer Asrani (Govardhan Asrani), spy Keshto Mukherjee, as well as merchant Jagdeep (Syed Ishtiaq Ahmed Jafri). Before that, there was the moti TunTun (Uma Devi Khatra), for some casual fat-shaming. Pairing TunTun with sharaabi Johnny Walker (teetotalling Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi) got some additional laughs. I remembered Mehmood, (Mehmood Ali), and also a Charlie Chaplinesque Raj Kapoor in Mera Naam Joker (1970), and the waterfalls of tears that sprang out of Kapoor’s clownish eyes came to mind.

A memory surfaced. I met a film-maker at a friend’s house some years ago, and he had handed me a copy of his film, Loins of Punjab Presents (2007). In the film, a New Jersey town catches Bollywood fever when five Indian-Americans and one Jewish Indophile compete in an amateur Indian Idol-style singing contest. Loins of Punjab Presents satirizes non-resident Indians and Bollywood fans as they vie for the title of “Desi Idol.” Ajay Naidu had been in the film, and so had Anuvab Pal. A few years later, I learned that the film-maker, the late Manish Acharya, had died in a tragic accident.

A rewatching of the film Loins of Punjab Presents lit up my brain with dopamine and filled my eyes with tears. Watching Manish Acharya in the film, I marveled at yet another comic who had managed to make me laugh, think and cry.

Geetika Pathania Jain is Culture and Media Critic at India Currents.

Who would have thought, with everything going on in the country, that a Muslim would be standing on this stage—for the ninth year in a row, baby.

We had eight years of Barack. What’s another year? I would like to thank Jeff Mason and the White House Correspondents’ Association for having me. I would say it is an honor to be here, but that would be alternative fact. It is not. Uh, no one wanted to do this. So, of course, it lands in the hands of an immigrant.

That’s how it always goes down. No one wanted this gig. No one.
—Hasan Minhaj, White House Correspondents’ Dinner

This event is about celebrating the First Amendment and free speech. Free speech is the foundation of an open and liberal democracy, from college campuses to the White House.

Only in America can a first-generation, Indian American Muslim kid get on the stage and make fun of the president. The orange man behind the Muslim ban. And it’s a sign to the rest of the world. It’s this amazing tradition that shows the entire world that even the president is not beyond the reach of the First Amendment.
—Hasan Minhaj, White House Correspondents’ Dinner

Keeping up with politics is easy now. But the president didn’t show up. Because Donald Trump doesn’t care about free speech. The man who tweets that everything that enters his head refuses to acknowledge the amendment that allows him to do it. Think about it. It’s almost—what is it? It’s 11? It’s 11 p.m. right now. In four hours, Donald Trump will be tweeting about how bad Nicki Minaj bombed at this dinner.

And he’ll be doing that completely sober. And that’s his right. And I’m proud that all of us are here tonight to defend that right, even if the man in the White House never would.
—Hasan Minhaj, White House Correspondents’ Dinner

On why he doesn’t do accents in his comedy anymore
It’s hard having an accent in this country and you are judged based on it. I can imagine that it must be hard for my folks to work twice as hard to communicate and also the idea that when maybe my father says something and he walks away, the idea that people are laughing because what he said is funny to them because of how he sounds crushed me when I thought about it. And the idea that I was contributing to that was hard.

I’ve been saying this onstage, but, my father should be judged based on the content of his words and not the accent that comes with it, because he does a lot of ridiculous things that have nothing to do with his accent.
—Hari Kondabulu. NPR Interview

You classify aunties into various types—there’s the CEO Aunty, the Bollywood Aunty, and the Aunty in Training. What’s your favorite kind of aunty?

The Soft Aunty. That’s what my mom is. She used to be a Bollywood Aunty. She was always having dramatic reactions to things, and she’d quote dialogue from movies to express her feelings. We kids would be like, “Uh, we saw those movies too—we know where you’re getting that from.” But now she’s more laid back. She’s learning to accept things more. And I love her home cooked meals. I love my mom.
—Maria Qamar. NPR Interview