It’s time to develop a new code of conduct to determine what is acceptable comedy.
In the absence of any clear guidelines, I’m left clutching at straws trying to understand what the good people of my country will or will not accept. What we need is a new statute law of morality that comes with its own Ramji Lal guide explaining to us civilians — word by word, with illustrated examples — the rights and wrongs of humour. We need instructions, we need order, we need the righteous guardians of decency to direct us toward the light.
So here, I propose the establishment of a new set of rules to define who’s fair game for some juvenile mockery or ridicule, and to what degree. Assemble a committee of rich old gentlemen, and let them decide. As of right now, it’s all a little blurred. Like how we can make fun of Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal, based on empirical evidence. And we absolutely cannot make fun of the Prime Minister, again based on what this writer has noticed. But what about Arun Jaitley? Is he off limits? Cows are a big no, but what about buffalos? And what, then, of water buffalos? Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar are most definitely a no-no, as a comedian has recently discovered, but how about Javagal Srinath and Kumar Sanu? Is it OK to make fun of Prakash Padukone but not Deepika Padukone (or the other way around)? Vegetarians: No. Vegans: Yes. Lotus: No. Lilies: Yes…?
Further, some guys were recently arrested in a “joint operation” between the Mumbai and the Bhopal police for some posts about the goddess Kali on Facebook. A joint operation across states for Facebook posts, all while violence, racism, communal hate, misogyny, and casteism, often emanating from the very top of the chain, are dismissed with recklessness and a patronising “there, there”.
It just gets so confusing. This grey area is where moral outrage and FIRs take place. You know, how in Fahrenheit 451, the members of that fictional dystopian society know that all books have to be burnt, and if you’re caught reading, you’re well and truly buggered. It’s the not knowing that’s becoming so problematic in India these days.
For the sake of clarity and consistency, can we just make all famous people and all cattle and all religion off limits? We’re a diverse nation, and a very bored one, so we must ensure that the huddled masses yearning to breathe free don’t get offended on behalf of the rich and famous who can’t defend themselves despite a fleet of bodyguards and unimaginable influence. That way, we’ll mostly be left with just the oppressed, no-one-cares sections of society that can be rightfully ridiculed: you know, like poor people and women and stuff, but only as long as they’re under the age of 80.
We’ll of course need a different committee to deal with threats of legal action or violence (!) and police probes (!) on videos uploaded on Snapchat (!) that follow attempts at humour, and the million other terrible things that happen in the country each day, but get brushed under the carpet.
Sachin vs Lata Civil War (Photo Credit: facebook.com/tanmaycomedy)
Over the past few years, we, as a nation, have moved toward a grumpy, humourless state of existence where every joke — good or bad — is treated with suspicion, followed by anger, fury, inrage, outrage, and, ultimately, FIRs/vigilante violence/staged apologies. It is what it is.
I’ve somewhat made my peace with the fact that we’re all shockingly thin-skinned (even if I’m not thrilled about it). But it’s getting out of hand now, as we can all see with the level of hate — and potential ramifications — directed the way of Tanmay Bhat, for indulging in a silly spot of comedy (which may or may not be awful — but let’s not impose our perception of comedy on to one billion people; also, I burst into guilty giggles at the “dentures” bit).
There’s another problem, specifically, with the Tanmay Bhat situation: I still don’t fully understand the reason behind all the angst against him. I can’t tell if it’s because the jokes were directed at our national icons or because they were insulting (or both). Are we allowed to call Bhat fat and stupid, but not allowed to call Mangeshkar old? I understand that insult-based comedy can be difficult to stomach for enough people, but calling for arrests and bans over it seems like an excessive reaction. It won’t happen, I’m sure, but what if Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar make a statement that it’s all in good fun and they’re not insulted?
Comedy, especially the childish, juvenile variety we’ve been brought up on thanks to Bollywood, can often get rude and abusive. It gets even murkier with satire; if the audience misses the tone, it can just seem defamatory and offensive. Jonathan Swift’s great satirical essay, A Modest Proposal, where he suggests cooking babies for food, was written in 1729, but I don’t think something of that sort can get published in India even today, in 2016. So there’s a very real debate that can be had about how much is too much, and how much those limits can be stretched. But instead, we’re caught up in a culture of censorship and shouting, to the point where punching down has become the new punching up.
So this uniform code hosting the tenets of inoffensive, chaste, morally upstanding comedy becomes a pressing matter. A more pressing matter than the elevation of women and “lower” castes to the status of ordinary citizens, more than the needs of the hungry and the homeless, even more than my desire for an iced choco-latte right now.
But who’re we kidding; it’ll never work. The people making this rulebook will go slightly mental in a matter of minutes. Imagine having to be accountable for what an entire nation should be laughing at; the committee will crumble under the pressure and the subjectivity of it all.
So the more I think about it, the more I realise that there’s a far simpler solution: just ban jokes altogether. That way, everyone will be happy. And by “everyone”, I of course mean literally no one.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Akhil Sood
Illustration by Eshna Goenka