Comedy without malice

Indian taboos are still too plainly visible for satire to be effective. It may take several generations before they become a talking point between diverse groups. Till then, the chasm between those who laugh and those who get laughed at only widens

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:32 pm IST

Published - February 21, 2015 12:31 am IST

P resident Nominated: Members of both Houses of Parliament today nominated a stately Eucalyptus tree as the 17th President of India. “Because the President occupies a largely ceremonial position,” said the Lok Sabha Speaker, “it was important to nominate something that looked good and said very little.” Soon after the pleasantly surprised Eucalyptus moved into Rashtrapati Bhavan with a mali and a bag of manure, it left on a state visit to Romania.

People gather together. “I am going to tell a joke,” says someone. “Once there was an American, an Australian and a sardar …” As the joke progresses, the attention focusses on a single line; faces lean in with expectation; finally, the entire group releases a laugh, and everyone goes back to the business of life.

In the land of Sardarji jokes, comedy is a conditioned response working on a set rule.

Such regulation even extends into professional humour. Indian stand-up comedy may have come of age, but its content is still an unfortunate mix of ethnic jokes (Sir, yes, you in the front row, you said you were from Kerala, oh, that’s why I couldn’t see you), and sexual innuendo (I see your hand is on the lady’s thigh; obviously that’s not your wife). The nature of such standup is not so much to reflect on difficult issues, but to bite into familiar fruit, and spit into the audience. Loud, brash and filled with all the harsher strains of shock value, comedy is just raucous theatre. It builds on the theme of offence — using people’s affluence, their ethnicity or sexuality, their background, the make of their car.

Comedy and content The recent AIB uploaded videos on YouTube did the trick of getting national attention, not so much for the subjects of its comedic roast, but the foul-mouthed racist rant on caste, genitalia and sexual orientation. Despite serious humour in its content, the delivery came under attack from extremist groups. As charges of obscenity and bad taste were levelled by the far right’s moral policing, Anand Gandhi, a Mumbai filmmaker sprang to the show’s defence. “I hope our humour gets sharper, our dissent more rigorous, and our satire more offensive.” Unlikely. In the front line battle between the small Indian urban elite with a copycat mimicry of American television tastes and the more conservative — and increasingly vocal — middle class, the clash of liberal and traditional values is the newer, more visible divide within the culture itself.

With millions writhing on the floor in uncontrollable laughter, comics liberally spray the audience with an undercurrent of Indian foibles — people’s differences, the shrill hot-headed awareness of identity, religious practices, all come loaded with messages of hate. The growing divide in society reflects in the numerous splinter groups: good Muslims and bad Muslims, good Hindus and violent ones, Buddhist pacifists and Buddhist extremists, Hindu activists and pious ascetics, Muslims with their own political parties and agendas. Today, the slightest provocation will rile the most peace-loving of people to charge into public forums. Nationalism, religion and caste, have always been around as convenient ploys for displays of prejudice; they are now joined with gender, class, race and sexuality.

Reality and the stereotype The important thing is to take offence; even the smallest of indiscretions can leap off the media pages and become a matter of national shame. Tennis star Maria Sharapova’s ignorance of Sachin Tendulkar had cricket fans fuming, asking Indians to boycott her matches; a picture of Sania Mirza, tired and stretching after a match showed her feet balanced near a flag. Her Muslim identity was quickly brought into play against her regard for Indian nationhood; people questioned her allegiance to the flag. And, as she found out the hard way, that Muslims of prominence had to wear their nationalism on the sleeve.

The bite of satire is cloaked in serious intent only in self-confident societies comfortable with each other’s differences.

Dealing with taboos In any case, people in India are different in far too many ways, to ever be viewed as a cohesive, homogeneous mass. To be saddled by poverty, to be illiterate, to live in a village or a city slum, to be a Muslim or a Christian, or a tribal, to be a woman, unmarried, to be dark, was the ultimate humiliation in 19th century India. Comedy centres light up with these issues only because little has changed. Several lifetimes and good karmas would be needed to rise to India’s 21st century ideal: Hindu, Brahmin, Male, Urban dweller, Young, Fair, and Moneyed.

Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘Fair and Handsome’ ad only reinforces the stereotype. Even the search for a fair skinned wife in the Indian kitchen has not wavered since the dark ages. A wheatish complexioned girl must shell out several fridges, colour TVs and washing machines to compensate for her dreadful facial deformity. One tending towards ‘whole wheat’ is already set for a frugal life of neglect and loneliness — a teacher in a village school, a warden in an orphanage, an ayah for a diplomat’s family. Life is cruel, India only makes it crueller. Skin whitening ads, khap panchayats, newspaper matrimonial classifieds, all fall within a group that only reinforces the traditional stereotype, ideas that can only be countered with comedians taking them to task. Perhaps Indian taboos are harder and come loaded with years of guilt and recrimination. The position of women in society, the preference for white skin, class and caste — more than any other place, a repressed society needs comedy to mirror issues that affect us all. The impulse to cause psychic disturbance through comedy is the more difficult refrain of satire. Certainly, comedy isn’t the relevant medium for serious debate on serious issues, but its ability to bring the subject into the open, and relieve tension is a crucial beginning.

Of course, parody becomes all the more irreverent in situations of affluence. In the oil rich states of the United Arab Emirates, the extremes of expenditure have always bordered on the ridiculous. Everything is available for a price. Already having conquered the tallest structure, the biggest underground market, the most expensive property, satire there now lives in hyper reality: A Taj Mahal, double the size of the original, serving as hotel and casino, a 40 storied high-rise where motorised apartments can swivel around and change views. With highway speeds of a miserly 100 kilometres per hour, the Department of Roads proposed a separate no speed limit lane for platinum card customers; business centres in the better Dubai hotels advertised Geisha girls on a menu card stating price and timing. When a culture lives on the extreme of perpetual availability, it took some doing to explain to some prospective customers that, like the highway speed limit, the Geisha girl menu was only a joke.

Society creates taboos out of uncomfortable historical association. The many years of black oppression and slavery appear in contemporary American life in an inability to confront history, and the collective discomfort felt when the derogatory reference to African Americans cannot be openly repeated, but comes out as a self-conscious abbreviation, the N-word. As oppressors, whites however can be called Honkeys without any guilt. No one uses the phrase, the H-word.

Free speech With a daily dose of rapes, burnt churches, hacked housewives, unimaginable brutality against tribals, female foeticides, road rage, social protests, do such incidents have a place in standup in India?

Obviously there is no place for the rigorous and abusive openness of free expressions of France and Denmark — where under the satirical pen, nothing is sacrosanct. In India however there is a difference between provocative and confrontationist, between mildly chiding and downright abusive. Even though the lines are unclear, but luckily for us, there are enough fringe groups, rabble-rousers and thugs, who under the guise of activism, will drown out any attempts at free speech with their own free speech. As long as you defend your right to be heard with your life, I will defend my right to be abusive till your death. In an open democratic secular free speaking society, God-forbid if somebody is in fact openly democratic, secular and free speaking.

So as stand-up comedy screams and hisses about race and homophobia and rape, the old drawing rooms and courtyards remain embroiled in selecting fair skinned sons in-law, coyly draped bahus who will happily lurk in domestic backgrounds, without ever sounding the horn of feminism or asking for equal pay for equal work; people will remain abusive towards North Easterners, calling them foreigners in their own country. The bite of satire is cloaked in serious intent only in self-confident societies comfortable with each other’s differences. Indian taboos are still too plainly visible and lurking too close to the skin for satire to be effective. It may take several generations before skin colour, race, caste and gender issues become a talking point between diverse groups. Till then, the chasm between those who laugh and those who get laughed at, only widens.

(Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and sculptor.)

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