Humour is a Taboo
A country gets the comedians it deserves
Nikhil Thiyyar Delhi
In 2009, when Slumdog Millionaire was released, the intelligentsia of the country was outraged by the ‘poverty porn’ in the film. The movie had a scene where little Jamaal emerges from a pile of shit, his body caked with excreta, and seeming exultant for some reason. Protesters were soon up in arms and a movie theatre in Patna was ransacked for showing the film. The wounded pride of the collective was promptly assuaged when the film won eight Oscars. All it took was a bunch of golden statues awarded by a bunch of white men.
When Russell Peters allegedly insulted Aishwarya Rai by calling her a bad actress, a storm of sorts erupted. It died down when those outraged saw reruns of Dhai Akshar Prem Ke on television. Perhaps the greatest indictment of the lack of freedom of expression in our country is the fact that MF Husain chose Qatari citizenship over remaining in India. He found a monarchy to be safer than a democracy like ours.
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The latest serial offender who seems to have hurt the sentiments of people is Tanmay Bhat. He released a mildly offensive and extremely funny Snapchat video for his followers to consume. The video used a faceswap feature to impersonate Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar. Hours after the video was posted social media was full of asp-tongued tusked demons who were upset at the way their icons had been mocked.
In what has become a routine as interesting as using toilet paper, the carnival of the offended follows a familiar pattern: a bunch of jobless youths go to a public place, TV cameras surround them, the youths burn badly made effigies and then somebody files an FIR under an arcane provision of Indian law. The Indian State then quickly summons efficiency levels otherwise unheard of and arrives at the doorstep of the perpetrator who has caused such widespread emotional damage to the ‘collective conscience’ of the ‘largest democracy’.
What explains the Indian capacity for outrage? Is it merely thin skin? No, its epicentre lies in the fact that we have too many holy cows. There are 330 million gods and goddesses, 45 Bharat Ratnas and only one Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan. Mocking any one of them can be a threat to the very foundation of our democracy. If all the things that hurt the sentiments of a group of Indians were to be excised from the internet, we would be left only with videos of Anup Jalota singing bhajans.
For a country riddled with hierarchies, humour which is acceptable to all can be next to impossible. If a Dalit were to make fun of a Brahmin, that would be condemned by and large. If a Brahmin were to make fun of a Dalit, it would invoke the ire of Mayawati and the ghost of Kanshi Ram. This is in direct contrast to the western experience where no subject is taboo enough to be left untouched. Take the case of Anthony Jeselnik. Known as the ‘prince of dark humour’ he has touched upon every taboo imaginable.
Here’s Jeselnik talking about the differently abled: “People say it’s easy to make fun of retarded people, but it’s not. You really have to explain it to them.” A dark ‘joke’ like this would have the self-righteous brigade up in arms in no time. When comedians can’t push boundaries, all you get is stale slapstick humour of the Anupam Kher variety.
A few years ago, psychologist Daniela S Hugelshofer published a study which established that humour acts as a buffer against depression and hopelessness. If we take this to be true then the aversion of Indians to humour must imply that everything is hunky -dory with our country.
Where is the need for humour when everything is upbeat and cheerful to begin with? Maybe all our country deserves is the sort of anodyne humour found in Khushwant Singh’s joke books. No wonder they are eternal bestsellers.