Watching the AIB Knockout YouTube video that has created a furore on social media is like being a fly on the wall at a teenage party where the kids are trying booze for the first time and everyone’s cussing loudly and self-consciously to appear cool. This tone has been in the making for a while now, with Bollywood film award nights adopting Hollywood-style presenter(s), whose only two qualifications appear to be that they crack bad insider jokes incessantly and that the majority of jokes be about homosexuality. The last time I thought calling someone gay was the height of sophisticated humour was when I was in high school, when you did it to ensure that everyone knew you knew about sex and that, breathless pause, you knew about same-sex encounters. Clearly, as far as Bollywood goes, high school is where it’s still at. But when everything that’s gone before is of the fat man-slipping-on-banana-peel-while-speaking-in-broad-Madrasi-accent category, one begins to see anything as an improvement.
Let’s face it. Humour is not exactly our strong point. On television, show after excruciating show has comedians hamming it to a degree that ought to be banned purely on mental health grounds. Subtlety is not what we do either. Not only is every joke spelt out in agonising detail, the camera keeps panning to close-ups of judges like Navjot Singh Sidhu or Archana Puran Singh guffawing at them as if their lives were at stake, or their pay cheques.
The AIB Knockout video uses broadly the same format. Karan Johar, Bollywood’s go-to mascot for all things gay, does a sort of extended version of his annoying Koffee with Karan show. The two actors, Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor, do an extended version of their episode on Karan’s show. Everyone calls everyone else gay. Everyone laughs uproariously. In fact, Ranveer and Arjun react to the jokes like monkeys on Prozac, jumping up and down with mirth, crawling around in apparent paroxysms of laughter, jumping into each other’s arms, tearing off their clothes, and thrusting their butts at the audience. The only thing I waited for them to do and they didn’t was to pick lice off each other’s heads.
As for the dark-skinned Ashish Shakya, I can’t believe that a stage with five-odd professional comics and painstakingly scripted lines for the rest of the cast could not find a single point to roast him about except his being black. Guess he must be perfect. Black, fat, gay, losing virginity, having a girlfriend, outing a girlfriend — and there you have all the funny boxes ticked. Then, of course, there’s the cussing. Each speaker recites four-letter words in English and Hindi in a sort of defiant litany like rebellious adolescents trying to shock their mothers. Any wonder the prigs are up in arms? Last heard, the video has been taken off YouTube following protests of obscenity from various agencies, including the new Censor Board chairman.
Basically the show is neither outrageous nor scandalous. It is just silly. It is Bollywood coming of age. It is India growing up and acknowledging in public that sex and homosexuality and four-letter words for body parts and bodily acts exist. It is India and Indian cinema saying they are moving away from holier-than-thou mothers, devoted sons and washed-out wives to slightly edgier storylines, in life and on screen. In fact, there is one rather funny meta reference to more innocent times when Ranveer kisses Karan on the lips and the camera pans to a bee buzzing on a flower.
To be fair, there are other genuinely snarky lines too, as when the deadpan Gursimran Khamba stops mid-joke to explain who Smriti Irani is to Alia Bhatt in the front row. Or when film critic Rajeev Masand retorts to a dig by saying Karan Johar wouldn’t have to pay for good reviews if he used the money for good scriptwriters instead. Oh yes, there’s hope in sight indeed, if we are going to learn to use irony and understatement without necessarily losing Indian context or milieu. But before that, we have to wade heavily through these raucous, overdone, dense-as-molasses funnies. Whether we like it or not, these juvenile displays are a necessary staging post for our comedy before it discovers an authentic and mature voice of its own. Watch it or switch it off in disgust but, for heaven’s sake, let’s not talk about banning it.