Shobhaa De | Kissa thappad ka… Once more, with lot of feeling!

The slap has touched countless chords, even in people who have nothing to do with the movie business

Where there’s a Will, there’s a way… that’s exactly what Will Smith, the winner of the Best Actor award at the 94th Oscar awards’ ceremony, established unambiguously as he delivered a tight thappad to a cheeky presenter and grabbed global headlines. Ever since #Slapgate, a global debate on the rightness and wrongness of Will’s action has polarised society. Let me say it upfront: I am in Will Smith’s corner… it’s a tiny corner and shrinking. But you know what — that’s okay. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Like Smith said during a tearful acceptance speech: “Love will make you do crazy things…” The infamous slap incident has cost Will a great deal already (hope he’s not stripped of his precious Oscar). Nobody is talking about his stupendous performance in King Richard. Everyone’s fixated on his “bad behaviour”. Agreed, Smith behaved “badly” by walking up on stage and slapping Chris Rock for making fun of his wife who suffers from an auto-immune medical condition (alopecia), better understood as “balding”. All this nasty business in the name of “roasting” and comedy. Roasting as a genre is cruel and crude — there’s nothing humorous about making fun of a person’s disability or physical condition. It’s time to say “enough” when a presenter crosses the line… which Chris Rock most certainly did. The hard-to-condone part is this: Will Smith went back to his table after the slap and hurling abuses at Rock. That was pretty dumb of Smith. And Rock has aced the popularity polls, especially after he brazened it out later and declared it “the greatest night in the history of the Oscars”. His ratings have gone up considerably since the incident, while Smith has lost out on his moment of glory forever.

There are too many complex and twisted political and social issues at stake in this matter. Let me throw in a few hypothetical scenarios for you to judge. This was supposed to be the first Hollywood ceremony celebrating “inclusivity”. That attempt backfired badly with comments like: “Remember when Lefties and anti-Whites were spewing #OscarsSoWhite? Well, here’s your effing black Oscar ceremony that you wanted so bad…” Racism raised its ugly head instantly, making me wonder: look at what happened when a black guy slapped another black guy, and all hell broke loose. What if Will Smith had slapped a white presenter? Would riots have followed? What would have followed had Will Smith’s wife been white? Or if two white guys indulged in a slap fest, and one of the wives was black? The fallout would have been radically different, for sure.

Let’s transpose the scene to India, which is as racist and nasty as any other country, if not far worse. Throw in caste issues, and prejudices get further compounded. Visualise a similar incident happening at one of the high-profile Bollywood awards ceremonies. Imagine the consequences if a Hindu actor slapped a Muslim presenter. A Muslim actor slapped another Muslim. A Hindu slapped a Hindu. The Hindu’s wife is Muslim. The Muslim’s wife is Hindu. Come on… I can reel off many names that fit into these moulds in our film industry. So, it is no longer about a slap. It is the unspoken repercussions of the slap… all the dark subtexts which Smith’s thappad have brought to the surface… the many unspoken truths that define showbiz, and society at large.

The slap has touched countless chords, even in people who have nothing to do with the movie business. All sorts of conversations have begun, with groups taking sides and lauding/condemning Smith.

The very public act has been converted into a personal test. I am asking myself what I would have done had someone publicly attacked one of my children, husband or a family member for a physical “handicap” (I use “handicap” for want of a better word to describe Jada’s alopecia). I may not have stopped with one tight thappad in that moment of rage and hurt. People are accusing Smith of hyper-masculinity and reminding him he’s a public figure and role model. But hey… more than any of these other roles, remember he’s a human being and husband. And you expect him to laugh when a presenter mocks his wife seated next to him! Come on! Would you sit tight and smile through such a vicious, personal attack? How would you respond? Be honest.

Cynics are calling it a perfectly staged PR stunt, paid for by a pharma company that’s about to announce a breakthrough treatment for alopecia, which affects millions of people globally. Avid watchers of signs and signals are talking about a conspiracy theory in which Rock, Smith and Pinkett are complicit. Smith doesn’t need to stoop to this low level to make a few extra bucks. He’s already worth $350 million.

Rock is no broke comedian himself, with a net worth of a cool $97 million, who is paid a salary of $10 million for movies. That leaves Jada, who is a celebrity in her own right, worth $60 million and the mother of Will’s two children. Why would these three sell their honour to a pharma firm by disgracing themselves, in what would surely have been Smith’s hour of shining glory? Sorry… not buying.

Violence must be condemned. Like they’re chorusing, there’s no justification when someone lifts a hand to strike another. In an ideal world, we should all behave like Mahatma Gandhi and turn the other cheek. Which makes Chris Rock a true-blue Gandhian for not retaliating or showing his outrage as the slap went live and was beamed to over a billion viewers. That’s a pretty cool response under extreme provocation. Both men were out of line. But had the slap not happened, it would have been one more night at the Oscars, with everyone on their best behaviour.

The slap made this edition memorable indeed. Will Smith did receive a standing ovation from his colleagues when his name was announced as the Best Actor 2022 — and this was after the slap. What does that say? The after-thoughts and critical comments came later. But human nature being what it is… viewers will soon forget Lady Gaga’s act of graciousness when she helped her co-presenter — a frail, confused, wheelchair-bound Liza Minneli — and won countless hearts for her kindness. Would Chris Rock have dared to make fun of Liza Minnelli’s failing health and got away with it? I think not! I rest my case.

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