Vir Das, Munawar Faruqui, Kunal Kamra… the list of comics in trouble for pointing out the emperor’s wardrobe malfunction is growing longer. At this rate, it won’t be long before one of them is booked for sedition or for anti-national activities. For God’s sake, these are gagsters, not gangsters. When will we learn to laugh at ourselves, appreciate satire, chuckle at self-deprecatory humour?
The hypocrisy and cant in our society and polity cry out for a spoof. Self-styled gurus, pompous babus, sanctimonious judges, cardboard generals and last but not the least, our preachy politicians are rich content for comedy and satire but slapstick humour is what sells. We love a Keshto Mukherji, a Johnny Lever, a Kapil Sharma. We are a funny country without a sense of humour.
No nod for shows
So it is that cops in city after city are denying permission for shows of stand-up comedians such as Faruqui and Kamra. So it is that Das has FIRs registered against him across the country for a six-minute monologue on the contradictions in India. Not to mention the accompanying death threats. As Faruqui and Kamra have realised, an FIR is the First Instrument of Revenge.
While the former was arrested before his show could start and spent two months in jail for a joke he did not crack, the latter was hauled up for contempt of court over a tweet to nudge a judge. The Bengaluru police, the latest spoilsports, called both comics ‘controversial characters’ and justified their action by saying that they feared violence by right-wing groups at their shows. Now, if this is not comic, what is? The term laugh riot has been given a totally new twist. Punchline, anyone?
Repartees of yore
It is a sad decline from the time humour and repartee were part of the political debate and the Parliament witnessed witty exchanges. Once, socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia, a trenchant critic of Nehru, said he wasn’t an aristocrat as portrayed. “I can prove that the Prime Minister’s grandfather was a ‘chaprasi’ in the Mughal court,’’ he once said. Nehru just smiled, “I am glad that the honourable member has at last accepted what I have been trying to tell him for so many years: That I am a man of the people!”
The then finance minister T T Krishnamachari once called Feroze Gandhi, the PM’s son-in-law, ‘Nehru’s lapdog’. Feroze Gandhi replied that since the honorable minister considered himself a ‘pillar’ of the nation, he would do to him what a dog usually does to a pillar.
In the general elections after the Emergency was lifted, the Congress mocked the coalition of opposition parties with the couplet, “Har shaakh pe ullu baitha hai, anzaam-e-gulistan kya hoga”. Pat came the reply, “Barbaad-e-gulistan karne ko jab ek he ullu kaafi hai”. Now, the grand old party finds itself being marginalised even in the opposition. However, it gets the jibe right once in a while. When PM Modi lashed out against Greta Thunberg and the greens supporting the farmers’ agitation and warned the nation against the FDI that was Foreign Destructive Ideology, the Congress hit back by saying that the only FDI under Modi is, Fear, Deception and Intimidation.
Ticklish fact, lately
Just like Vir Das in ‘Two Indias’, Rajya Sabha member Subramanian Swamy who’s cosying up to Mamata Banerjee, had to just state facts to raise a laugh through his tweet: “It is hilarious if not tragic for Rajya Sabha Secretariat to inform me today that my question whether the Chinese have crossed the LAC in Ladakh, cannot be allowed, ‘because of national interest’!!!”
Talking of Mamata, she’s a female Modi when it comes to criticism and has had people, including a professor and a BJP youth wing leader, arrested for lampooning her. The two should learn from this apocryphal anecdote: During WWII, a man was arrested for calling Winston Churchill a fool. The next day the opposition roasted the government: ‘Are we living in a police state? PM can’t be called a fool?’ Churchill replied: ‘The man was not arrested for calling the PM a fool but for outing a state secret at a time of war!’
The Shiv Sena was so riled at a parody on potholes by radio jockey Malishka Mendonsa in 2017 that they wanted the municipal commissioner to file a Rs 500cr defamation suit against her channel. This was subversive humour in the tradition of the late Jaspal Bhatti of Ulta Pulta fame.
Come to think of it, Bal Thackeray, the man who founded the Shiv Sena, was averse to criticism although he started life as a cartoonist. Cartoonists themselves are an endangered species these days. In 2012, Aseem Trivedi was arrested for sedition for a series of cartoons on corruption, including one depicting the Parliament building as a commode. This was certainly a low for the Congress, whose leader Nehru had famously told cartoonist Keshav Shankar Pillai at the inauguration of his Shankar’s Weekly in 1948, “Don’t spare me.”
Crouching or rugged truths
One remembers a cartoon by R K Laxman, Bal Thackeray’s one-time colleague at The Free Press Journal, after the Maharashtra poll result in 1999. In the first frame, Sharad Pawar is crouching behind a chair in fear of the Sena’s leaping tiger, in the second, he is smug with a tiger rug underfoot. Another telling one by Abu Abraham showed Rajiv Gandhi astride a horse, asking a villager, ‘Hey Bhaiyya, how far is it to the grassroots?’
Political cartoons are now being reduced to the size of postage stamps, forcing its practitioners to take to social media. One which comes to mind is Satish Acharya’s caricature after the West Bengal polls: Rabindranath Tagore handing a shaving blade to Modi. However, the baton where anti-establishment stuff is concerned has passed on to stand-up comedians. Who can forget Kamra’s ‘Hamare jawaan Siachen mein lud rahen hain’ on hatriotism passing off as patriotism or Varun Grover’s ‘Aisi Taisi Democracy’ or Shyam Rangeela’s mimicry of Modi. They take the mickey out of the PM. And for the truth they say, they are the new enemies of the state.
We are being told what to think, what to wear, whom to marry, what to eat, what to see, what to read and now even the jokes to laugh at. Isn’t this what’s happening in Afghanistan? The loudest protests over this come from those who have been merrily branding others as sickular, libtards, anti-nationals, presstitutes, andolan jeevis, urban Naxals…
As they say, when the church and the state begin to interfere with the way we interpret humour, we really need to worry.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai and writes on civil society, law-enforcement, environment and urban development. He tweets @anilsingh703.