This is a guest post by ROHIT REVI
Tanmay Bhat, popular Stand Up Comic, recently released a video on the popular social networking platform SnapChat, imitating Sachin Tendulkar, the popular cricketer, and Lata Mangeshkar, the popular Musician. He called it ‘Sachin vs Lata Civil War’, where the two figures argue over who the better cricketer is, Tendulkar or Kohli. It was almost immediately picked by right-winged political groups, such as the BJP and the MNS, and over the course of the day, the few seconds long video became about ‘Tanmay vs Indian Culture’, ‘Comedians vs The Nation’ and so on. Mumbai Police consulted legal experts, in the meanwhile asking YouTube and Facebook to take the video down. The mainstream media, held hour long debates in relation to the video, and those who tuned in heard about ‘drawing lines’ and ‘crossing boundaries’, amidst drowning shrieks on, again, what ‘our’ culture is and what it is not. As customary, MNS Leader Ameya Kopkar, issued a quick threat to assault him, if he ever appeared in public. Sunil Pal, the comedian, called the young brand of comedians of which Tanmay is a part, a group “filled with lesbians and gays”. An effigy was burnt.
This article is not about whether the video was funny or not. It is about a certain brand of offensive humour and the need for it.
Drawing Lines and Crossing Boundaries
What are these lines? Time and time again, we hear and speak about these lines that should not be crossed, but no one knows where exactly they are and what happens when you cross them. Do you get to cross back, once you cross a line? Or do you have to stay on the other side, for the rest of your life? Once you get physically assaulted for crossing a line, do you start over?
Two weeks ago, Thiruva Ethirva, a political satire that runs on the malayalam news channel Manorama, picked up Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reference to the infant mortality rate among Scheduled Tribes in Kerala as “worse than Somalia” (the reference that started off the #PoMoneModi trend), but in trying to create humour, they played a video clip that showed poverty, destitution and starvation in Africa, over and over in loop, and in the background played a song that describes Kerala, in an attempt to indicate how the socioeconomic conditions of Kerala are better than those of Somalia. It was supposed to be funny because the people in Somalia were hungry, starving and homeless, while people in Kerala weren’t. Punching down on Somalian poverty and humorizing malnutrition and starvation there, through this visual caricature, was definitely classist, the undertones were racist, offensive to some, crossing boundaries for many, but public conversations did not regard this to any effect. No one issued threats, no one burnt effigies and police complaints were not filed. Similarly, humour within movies of our popular culture(s), thrives on crossing lines. Movies that sell sexist, classist, homophobic, racist, casteist jokes get effortlessly certified for public consumption all the time, although they cross lines. We have, even recently, witnessed movies being sold, almost solely on the basis of them deriving humour out of homosexuals, women and the poor by trivializing their existence, by celebrating social injustices, basically by punching down. It should also interest us, here, that Pahlaj Nihalani, the head of the Central Board of Film Certification of India, one of the first to react, called for the arrest of Bhat under MCOCA (Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act), for partaking in an organized crime. Clearly, only certain, selected lines should not be crossed. And observedly, it is when the sociocultural and economic elites are joked about, that offense becomes worthy of discussion and line-crossing becomes a problem. It is simple – those at the top simply do not enjoy comedians who punch up, and they convince people that it is against their interests, and against their culture, to have them do so. ‘Vulgarity’ is only an excuse for censorship.
If we so much as trace the etymology of the word ‘vulgar’, we are hinted as to what is offensive about vulgarity and who gets offended. Etymonline.com, traces vulgar (adj.) back to the latin word vulgaris, dated in the 14th century, “of pertaining to the common people, common, vulgar, low, mean”. It is noted that the meaning “coarse, low, ill-bred” is first recorded in 1640s, and in reference to people “belonging to the ordinary class” in 1530. The behaviour of the common classes, the poor and the marginalized groups, was refered to as vulgar, a word that is now used almost interchangeably with ‘obscene’ and ‘profane’. ‘Vulgar’ languages are offensive, because the ‘refined’ languages of the powerful exist in opposition to it. So it is found necessary to protect and conserve what we are taught to call ‘our culture’ and ‘our language’, refined and pristine to us, which is actually an accumulated collection of beliefs and practices that have systematically excluded the poor and the marginalized. To be obscene in reference to the elite is to question their ownership of culture. It feels okay for us to have obscene depictions of women, homosexuals, transgenders in our movies, or when we derive humour from sexualized and caricaturized depictions of their bodies, because we find it normal and comfortable to have obscenity associated with the marginalized. But when the Gods, the celebrities, the rich, the heterosexual men are presented through obscene words, conjectures or images, the empire strikes back. We are okay with offending and being obscene with certain people and certain groups, but not with certain others. Tanmay Bhat’s video was not about the human beings we refer to as Tendulkar or Mangeshkar. Nobody is unaware that it was only a comedian’s imaginative mimicry of these figures, saying made-up things in a made-up world. Tanmay Bhat was offensive, precisely because in his video he presents these figures as obscene and profane, saying things we don’t expect them to, and in doing so refusing to devote himself to the sacrosanct, larger-than-life pristine image of stardom that we decorate them with, and also simultaneously creating humour through the incongruity that comes when you place the ‘obscene’ upon the ‘pure’. He invades an elite cultural space, the space of the establishment, with a set of cultural elements that ‘threaten’ and ‘offend’ the very constitution of that establishment. He may or may not have intended to, but it is safe to say, he was punching up.
Humour, as Henri Bergson, the French philosopher points out, is a social corrective. We can correct problematic social mindsets and established norms, by joking about it. We can perpetuate social injustice by joking about it too, as we currently do. Lenny Bruce, the legendary stand up comic, for example, died fighting for his right to free speech and the absolute need for humour that offends the establishment. People get offended when what they regard as sacred is transgressed. In our pursuit of justice and equality, some things regarded as sacred ought to be transgressed. Comedians have a choice.