Some Jokes Are Better Than Others
Tanmay Bhat sent out a Snapchat video as Sachin Tendulkar effectively telling Lata Mangeshkar to die. The internet is outraged (when isn’t it?). Where is the line?
In January 2015, Tanmay Bhat and his friends, a generation that Ferzad Palia, executive VP of Comedy Central then told me was a ‘generation born into the belief that free speech is their birthright’ decided to hire a stage and tell a few jokes. Several were offended, the most important among them being the Catholic Church and so they got an unconditional apology, which several others like Fareeda Jalal didn’t (at least not in public). In an interview with their legal counsel Karuna Nundy, a Supreme Court lawyer at the forefront of the battle to decriminalise offensive speech, she later told me ‘all free speech and hate speech is in context’.
Hate speech laws also exist to protect groups of people, but in a country as vast and diverse as India, it is inevitable that one man’s prayer – an offering of meat or alcohol at a temple – is another man’s offence. Negotiating this space is where free speech becomes problematic for India. There are no absolutes.
Today when Tanmay Bhat calls Lata Mangeshkar ‘5000 years old’ and believes she ought to die because Jon Snow, a fictional character from the Game of Thrones series, has died, and puts those words in the mouth of another icon, Sachin Tendulkar, no less, in a country where both film and cricket have religion-like followings, it offends essentially the fans of these icons, but does no real damage beyond that. In 2007, many of the same Bollywood clan who today object to the indignity Lata Mangeshkar has been subject to, laughed along at Manoj Kumar, also a veteran, when he was made the butt of jokes in Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om. Manoj Kumar, who was so pained at his portrayal that he filed a law suit against Shah Rukh Khan, was laughed out of town. So clearly some disrespect is more powerful than others.
My personal opinion at the time of the Roast was that those who were made the butt of jokes ought to be the ones objecting or suing for damages if they felt defamed and it really wasn’t anyone else’s business if they hadn’t. That holds true even today. Manoj Kumar had more of a right to object than those who lampooned him for doing so did. I found the apology to a religious institution then off putting because the apology for free speech was then reduced to who had the power to ask for it. But then I was not the one to fight their legal battle so it’s easy to preach that a group of men should take the personal onus of standing up for civil liberties on their own dime and time.
Akbar Padamsee did, in 1954, when people objected to his nudes hanging in Jehangir art gallery, arguing his case himself and quoting from Sanskrit texts like the Shilpi Shastra and providing examples of ancient Indian architecture to make his case. That is why we have legal precedent on freedom of expression laws at all, but that comes from a conviction of deep thought-out layered work, and we cannot force foresightedness, depth or that moral responsibility for social liberties on anyone, least of all a comedy collective. Youth comes with its own levity and brashness, and the ability to knock icons off their pedestals by presuming to know better is a crucial component of that, even a vital one that keeps us questioning the unquestionable and pushing social boundaries. What a young collective says is not as important as their daring to say it at all. That is a constant knocking at society’s ego to say, are you willing to be questioned?
I was however offended by one particular joke in the Roast. It was this: “We told Parineeti Chopra if she came here today she would be f******d by ten men, so she didn’t come. We told Karan Johar the same thing, which is why he came.” I still don’t think the joke merits criminalisation, but was more in poor taste, and while celebrities can speak for themselves, hit back or sue as they will, the joke essentially attacked two sets of vulnerable people still victimised socially – homosexuals and women who are victims of rape of any sort, let alone gang rape, a particularly sensitive topic post the 2012 Delhi incident. And my issue with it was that while the joke was told behind a ticketed, gated event, broadcasting it was to have that joke permissible, since it has been made so by the laughter of celebrities in crowds of people, or worse, men– homophobic or misogynistic. It institutionalised the mocking of these groups. If the Collective had to apologise for any joke they made that night, I believe it should have been that one.
But here’s the thing, neither group had the organisation or power of the Catholic Church to demand an apology, and no one took offence on their behalf, which makes one question free speech cliques in this country and the hypocrisies they play to.
Two myths abide in India: that free speech is an absolute and that India is a country unaccustomed to humour. Calling Barkha Dutt names on social media is not free speech that one can look away from. A village spreading a rumour than two Muslim men are killing cows is not free speech one can afford to ignore. If the media is the bastion of free speech, it knows it comes with clauses. We do not publish the names of rape victims because even if there are laws to protect her privacy, there is also common human respect. Many, like the Times of India, have an unstated policy to not display dead bodies on its front page. We take into account public good, culture, shock value, ethics and impact on the security of another in holding back the names of sources, we evaluate national interest in security matters. The function of the desk is catch out statements that betray contempt of court, defamatory, incendiary or libellous statements, and statements without evidence to back it up. An editor’s role is to evaluate motive behind and impact of writing. A reporter may not, and indeed cannot even if he wanted to, put out a piece just because he feels like it. Fact is, the levels of checks built into the system ensure that a balance is struck between freedom of speech and public good. As one of the finest legacy editors in India always taught me: ‘what we leave out of a story is as crucial and as conscious as what is put in’.
The second myth is that India is a country without a sense of humour. English language boundary pushing is today being taken too seriously because rude awakenings or questioning is much politer in regional language forums such as comic associations, open mics or poetry nights. Many forum comics like Sanjay Rajoura, question, are strident and political, and draw laughs, but expletives rarely enter the equation. Marathi political satire, from Tendulkar to PL Deshpande, for instance is intellectual. Cho Ramaswamy has been at the peak of Tamil political satire for decades and has a cult following for his ability to speak truth to power. In Tughlaq, Cho becomes Prime Minister and declares Pharsi national language to solve the raging issue of whose language will lead us, effectively tossing the country into a state of babble. And you have roving bards like Shambhaji Bhagat, unsparing in their political take-downs, and Kovan, all of whom have repeated run-ins with the State for their songs, and who represent the most direct form of dissent and satire.
But even they speak a language of poetry, powerfully, and it is a language that is understood well by audiences as well as the State. The anatomy of the English joke, using double entendre, sarcasm and often crassness or explicitness, is very different from the calibre of joke the regional Indian is used to (indeed many unused to the nuances of the language in fact don’t get the joke at all, as with NewsX today that believed Tanmay Bhat was asking for a payment from Snapchat). So it is not true that India is not used to political satire and lampoon, rather that it is not used to the crasser form of it, the medium of it, and the intent of it and cannot gauge the impact of it.
English language comedy, satire and lampooning use different mediums than the rest of Indian comedy. The reason collectives like The Viral Fever and All India Bakchod go online is that their content would be heavily cut or censored on Indian television, and in print where Indians laws are functional. The loophole is technology is not regulated for civil liberties beyond the odd piracy block or crackdown on porn or trafficking. Much of the reaction to free speech debates on technology, including the Mumbai police seeking a ban on Tanmay Bhat’s IP address from YouTube, which didn’t even host the offending video, betrays a lack of knowledge of how social media works. Snapchat is a social media application that does not store videos or images that are posted. The Internet today is accessible to 29% Indians, a figure expected to go up to 39% or 462 million users by June 2016 (Disclaimer: Facebook-commissioned report on Internet Access reported by The Economic Times). 61% of Indians, therefore, do not get the joke and a majority of the 39% are still learning the ways of the medium. It is also clear from the ruckus that the Indian police have no clue what is what either. We neither have a comprehensive cyber criminal policy or laws, and do not even understand what constitutes a cyber crime or offence and do not understand how social media works to spread information.
Hence, the Indian Police, who operate from the point of view that they need to shut down rumours that may kindle sentiment quickly in city, town and village settings, where rumours can cost lives where hate speech is involved, attempt to use the same principle online. Even as we await clarity on ground laws, what constitutes offence, what invites criminalisation and what does not, we also need a movement towards clarity of these in the cyber space.
In the absence of these, all we have to rely on, as regional India has for decades, is simple human decency, which given the precedents, is based on convenience, power and lopsided arguments across modern mediums. Sometimes a bad joke is a comic’s worst punishment. It often means he did not know enough about his audience, and misjudged them, timing and sentiment, all vital pulses for a comedian’s repertoire. Tanmay Bhat’s crime is possibly being a bad comedian, but one can’t arrest him for it. One can however as an audience insist on a better quality of joke, and pay heed to those, scattered across regional forums in small town India, who do tell powerful truths through them.
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