Is comedy a crime?

Columnist  | Patralekha Chatterjee

Opinion, Columnists

Attacks on the comedian have given it a longer than natural lease of life.

Nationalist Congress Party women activists protest against comedian and founder of All India Bakchod (AIB) Tanmay Bhat for posting a video on Facebook titled Sachin vs Lata Civil War, at NCP Bhavan, in Mumbai. (Photo: PTI)

Most people think of Siberia as one of the coldest, most inhospitable places on earth. It also has accomplished groups of “laughtivists”, activists whose trademark is hilarity, famous political activist Srdja Popovic tells us in his seriously funny book Blueprint for Revolution.

These laughtivists were not born so; they were made. And Vladimir Putin’s Russia has a lot to do with it. In 2012, ahead of the presidential election in Russia, the Siberian city of Barnaul was suddenly in the news. Local authorities had said “no” to rallies. But they had not counted on people gathering in the centre of town with their children’s toys — plastic elephants, toy tigers and Lego men carrying banners against Mr Putin’s 12-year rule. Snapshots were taken of the “nanoprotests” to highlight the restrictions faced by many groups.

The toy protest was eventually also banned but not before most of Russia and the rest of the world had learnt about it, and laughed heartily. It does not come as a surprise to know that authoritarian regimes all over the world are wary of comedy, especially of its subversive power. But what about free societies? Comedy thrives on breaking taboos. How tolerant should we be? Can comedy be ever deemed a crime? What if it is truly low-grade and tasteless?

You would not think such questions would dominate the national discourse in India at a time when huge swathes of the country are ravaged by drought, when a jobs drought threatens to knock the shine out of the “fastest growing economy” tag.

That was before last week’s knockout blow by l’affaire Tanmay Bhat. Comedian Bhat’s Snapchat video mocking two of India’s greatest icons, Lata Mangeshkar and Sachin Tendulkar, is now a big story in the traditional and social media.

There was a time when one could get away by staring blankly if one was asked “How do you do Face Swap on Snapchat? Only millenials were supposed to know such stuff. No longer.

Today, there is no getting away from Faceswap or Snapchat. Bhat has ensured that. The over-the-top reactions of some of his critics who want to hang him, whip him, jail him and probably toss him to the lions have kept the story alive.

And we find ourselves in this strange situation where a Snapchat video created at 3 am by a bored Bhat is national news. The expletive-laced video, called “Sachin vs Lata Civil War” seeks to enact an imaginary conversation between Tendulkar and Mangeshkar using the face-swap feature, resulting in the two Indian icons vigorously jousting with each other. In the video, the face-swapped Mangeshkar is at the receiving end of lines like “Have you seen your face? It looks like someone has kept you in water for, like, eight days.” And “Jon Snow (Game of Thrones) also died, so you should also die.” Tendulkar comes in for some corrosive ribbing about whether Virat Kohli is better than the Master Blaster.  And suchlike.

This is clearly about hitting at holy cows. Much of the humour in the video is crude and tasteless. The real comedy, however, is the disproportionate reaction to the video with Mumbai cops seeking legal opinion on how to crack down on comedian Bhat. The cops vs comedian story popped up in the wake of a complaint from the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). The MNS is not the only party who is breathing fire and brimstone. Sanjay Raut of the Shiv Sena has said people like Mr Bhat “should be whipped in public”. And do not single out the saffron groups. The Nationalist Congress Party of Sharad Pawar is equally upset. So are many who profess their secularism. The Mumbai police has asked Facebook and YouTube to remove the video. Can a  FIR be filed against comedian Bhat? Legal opinion is being sought.

How does the system which is so slow to respond on so many vital issues act so quickly in the case of a spoof? Bhat later said he was just fooling around and that he obviously loved Mangeshkar and Tendulkar but there is no let-up by the angry brigade. Mumbai’s political analysts darkly hint at the shadow of  next year’s municipal elections in the city.

This is not, of course, the first time that comedy is being bracketed with crime in this country. Earlier this year, Kiku Sharda, another comedian, was jailed for two weeks after he appeared to mimic Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan, the motorcycle-riding flamboyant guru who leads the Dera Sacha Sauda sect. Sharda was taken into custody for offending the “sentiments” of the Baba.

Last year, a group of Muslim youths vandalised the office of a leading Marathi daily because they were angry about a “derogatory” cartoon and an article. Kanpur-based cartoonist Aseem Trivedi shot into fame after he was charged with sedition. Fortunately the Bombay HC offered relief subsequently by noting that Trivedi’s cartoons did not incite violence and that they only expressed anger with the state machinery.

The jury is out on whether this is Indian stand-up comedy’s darkest hour or its most glorious moment. That depends on how you look at it. Bhat is being roasted but he has also become a household word, as has Snapchat. And in recent days, numerous stand-up comedians have been holding forth on television. Bhat is a member of the comedians’ group All India Bakchod (AIB). It would not be incorrect to say that AIB is laughing its way to victory. It has put up another spoof, “Unoffended”, which claims to be a special news report on a horrifying terror group with the motto of never taking undue offense to things.

India has a rich heritage of humour but are holy cows still too holy to be hit? Twitter, that repository of contemporary wit and wisdom, put it crisply. Hyderabad-based Shashank tweeted: “It is simple — you don’t like a joke, turn a blind eye to it. Like you do to poverty, patriarchy, child labour, racism and sexism.”

That, actually, is the point. Comedy, especially of the parody and satire kinds, provide an unforgiving mirror to society. As a result, they are potent political weapons, used for centuries, though many anglophiles like to trace the origin to 1726, when Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels.

If nothing else, that book shows how comedy endures all attempts to stifle it, especially if it is good. Not many people think Tanmay Bhat’s piece was any good. In that case, it will die a natural death. Attacks on the comedian have only given it a longer than natural lease of life.