Will Smith-Chris Rock Row: Can India Stand Up for Comedy?
Stand up now for stand-up comedians, because humour is serious business.
In recent years, stand-up comedians have become so popular in India that the shorter form, 'stand-up', is enough to trigger chuckles and funny memories. But it is now time to invoke another, more serious way to use the English phrase to support them: stand up and be counted!
Comedy made serious headlines this week as actor Will Smith strode onto the stage to slap host Chris Rock because he had made a joke about the appearance of Smith's wife. And an hour later on the same stage, Smith won the Oscar for best acting. Given the state of cynicism (justified) about publicity-grabbing reality shows, this looked stage-managed, but it was not. The actor, in this case, was not acting.
Our Presumptive Kangaroo Courts
It takes an Academy awards function in the US to tell Indians now to stand up and be counted for their own compatriot comedians who have steadily witnessed assaults on their freedom, safety and the fundamental right to practise a profession. Attacks on them have risen in direct proportion to the popularity of comedy acts and have ranged in style and seriousness: from abuse on social media to police complaints to court cases to denial of permission to perform on the order of authorities, hit jobs have been growing.
More often than not, the comedians have been accused of hurting the sentiments of a community, religion or nation, even as they have, in turn, been abused using gender, religion or class as targets.
You get the picture: pot, kettle, black etc. I started writing a sentence saying that comedians should leave sacred cows alone for their own safety, before realising that even this literal example may lead to misinterpretation. Yes, some have been targeted not for what they said or did but because of somebody sweepingly assuming that some harm was intended. This is not even bias or prejudice. It is simply a case of presumptive kangaroo court behaviour.
Munawar Faruqui was not allowed to perform in Indore purely on the presumption that he would hurt sentiments and subjected to an arrest without evidence.
A long list of comedians can be listed in a dubious hall of unwarranted infamy: Sahil Shah, Rohan Joshi, Agrima Joshua, Adar Malik, Azeem Banatwala, Vir Das....and so on.
Comedians, not being politicians or thugs, have meekly apologised to save their creative souls or gone silent or discreet. Others have used what they know best – humour – to explain, mock or defend themselves. Perhaps the best way to deal with those who attack a satire without getting it is to try some sarcasm that they won't understand.
Is Comedy Doing the Job of Journalism?
With propaganda machines churning out fake news, false contexts, rumours, loud slogans, unverified claims or sheer noise, truth matters less in making people understand. Strangely, comedy that relies on absurdity and exaggeration seems to work better. In post-truth politics, comedy has often replaced fact as a counter to propaganda. That hits some people where it hurts, and they strike back with what they know best: authority, abuse, threat and intimidation.
Now, here is the key issue: bad taste is not illegal, but violence is, whether it is in India or the United States, the world's topmost democracies. You can question and hoot down bad taste (of the kind Chris Rock seems to have exhibited) but you cannot hit, ban or jail somebody for it.
In India, I understand that religious sentiments are best respected for reasons of pragmatism and sensitivity. But it is equally true that comedy (through satire, sarcasm, irony and humour) can send messages of political and social reform by provoking thought. Strange as it might seem, comedy has, of late, been performing the role that journalism was supposed to: that of speaking truth to power. No wonder the powers-that-be are not amused.
Will Smith's illegal slap in the land once famous for freedom of speech and now for the "Cancel Culture" of social media kangaroo courts, and Munawar Faruqui's pre-emptive arrest in the country where the judiciary presumes innocence before trial, are both extreme cases that show freedom of speech enjoys constitutional freedoms but not social liberty.
My friend, the comedian Papa CJ, put out a social media post in which he said the Smith-Rock case "sends a signal to audiences all over the world that you can assault a comedian for telling a joke you did not like and get away with it" – if there are no consequences.
Mercifully, Smith has since apologised and the American Academy that awards the Oscars is mulling what to do about the slap.
A Democracy Should Know How to Take Jokes
As for India, it is now a democracy getting messier and noisier by the day. What hides beneath all that are sentiments linked to gender, religion, caste and ideology that reveal fissures in the social fabric. We have to draw some enforcible rules of engagement so that the baby of truth is not thrown out along with the bathwater of insensitivity.
A democracy that cannot take jokes may end up as a laughing stock.
(The author is a senior journalist and commentator. He tweets as @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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