“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it,” the great comedian and actor Robin Williams had once said.
Stand-up comedian Tanmay Bhat, of All India Bakchod fame, probably hasn’t seen enough of Williams. He should have. On Sunday, he lost it, and got royally roasted for it.
Bhat posted a rather tasteless and utterly nonsensical video on Snapchat, spoofing two of India’s best known personalities — former cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and singer Lata Mangeshkar. What followed was an absolute bloodbath on Twitter and Facebook. From Bollywood bigwigs to politicians to the media, everyone ganged up against him, with just a handful coming out in his support.
He should have seen it coming, not in the least because he had done something utterly ludicrous. But then again, comedians are expected to do funny things or die trying. What Bhatt either did not realise or forgot was that India is a country that loves its holy cows. And Tendulkar and Mangeshkar are the holiest of the holy.
The controversy around Bhatt’s sense of humour is like a storm in a teacup, which shall pass. What it does show, however, is how popular Indian humour and satire has, over time, veered from the subtle to the slapstick.
Before the mainstreaming of television in India, if you wanted a dose of some humour, you had to go to ahasya kavi sammelan or a mushaira – essentially poetic symposiums, where the biggest names in the world of poetry performed. Every language and region had its own version.
All that changed, with the coming of first Doordarshan and later of private television channels, both Hindi and regional languages. With these new platforms, humour and satire grew wings. The 1980s and the 1990s were mostly about sitcoms, and the turn of the century saw the emergence of stand-up comedians like Shekhar Suman (remember Movers And Shakers?) and later competitive shows like The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. The last decade has seen the emergence of stand-up comedians performing to live audiences in upmarket venues across big cities.
We have come a long way from the days of Kaka Hathrasi to the times of Kapil Sharma and Cyrus Broacha. And in that transition, sobriety has given way to flippancy. This is not to say that the satirists of yore were any less irreverent. If anything, satire is borne of irreverence. But they were almost never crass, vulgar or below the belt; unlike today, when comedians routinely objectify and mock women, the old or the infirm for the sake of a few laughs.
What seems to pass in the name of humour, actually perpetuates class and gender biases in society, when, instead, it is meant to do exactly the opposite.
In this pithy, but well articulated paper, Nancy Goldman, an academic at the New York University, illustrates how humour is a social corrective, which not only helps us think more flexibly, but also sharpens our political sensibilities and responses to social injustice. Humour, she says, engages audiences in thinking, feeling and speaking about the ways that we live in, all of which can bring about change.
The question is whether comic capers like Bhat’s now-infamous video achieve that effect. Or do they become catalysts for tired conversations and predictable, Pavlovian reactions?
We live in hypercharged times, when even the smallest non-issue can spark an outrage; often more manufactured by the media than real. Today, the outrage industry needs to find something everyday, to, well, outrage over. As this documentary (incidentally featuring Bhat, along with other stand-up artists), pointed out, we tend to get offended quite easily, especially if symbols and icons we hold dear are lampooned.
And this, brings us back to our holy cows. In a recent interview, actor Irrfan Khan said how it “pained him” when a film actor or a cricketer becomes a youth icon. “I don’t have anything against them. They are great entertainers; they are useful to the society…But they are not heroes,” Khan said. “Heroes are people who sacrifice their own concerns and do something bigger, who change people’s lives. We film stars and cricketers shouldn’t be aspirational in such a big way for the healthy growth of the society. It’s a sign of consumerism at its extreme.”
Khan is right, but not entirely. Idols are neither a new social phenomenon nor are they necessarily bad for society.
Throughout history, every civilization, region, religion, race, ethinicity and country has had its idols. Idolatory is inherent in human nature – we look up to those who are variously gifted, better skilled, richer, better looking or generally more successful than the rest of us. In fact, these figures are the nuclei around which societies have forever thrived. After all, it is from among them that we choose our leaders – religious and political, who, in turn, are tasked with governing us. It doesn’t end there – from scientists to sportsmen and from actors to businessmen, they are all over the place.
Such figures, therefore are useful, for they lend a degree of order to society and give us lesser mortals, a goal. Having said that, they are only first among equals and therefore, should not be above being lampooned.
Barring honorable exceptions, however, Indian politicians are indeed corrupt, as are our businessmen. Rarely do our sportsmen win us Olympic medals and cricket is one of the few sports in which India performs consistently well. We do have world-class scientists, but a large number work and are nurtured elsewhere. Even the best of our actors are not globally recognised entities.
Simply put, India is woefully short on national heroes and so, the few that we have, achieve cult status. Their fans and followers are so emotionally invested in them that when you make them an object of your humour, you face an unwarranted backlash, which threatens to turn into a law and order issue, giving the state a license to step in. This threatens freedom of expression, which obviously does not augur well for a democracy.
But pity the society that must choose between its heroes and its right to free speech — over something as inconsequential as a a few juvenile jokes enacted on a Snapchat video.
This article was republished from Newslaundry.com.