By Tanay Sukumar:
Four months back, a Hindustan Times journalist still considered me deserving enough of an interview over News That Matters Not–and my perspectives on satire in general. Despite having worked with satire for over three years, the fairly easy questions seemed cruel and uninteresting to me this time. I wondered, was it the one-year break?
I realized it wasn’t. The actual reason was hidden in the same box which explained why I once used to write news satire in the first place: passion–which had now been replaced by the lack of it. Not only did I now find writing news satire uninteresting, it was becoming increasingly irritating to read it too.
Occasionally, I entered moments of self-doubt. My recent distaste for it was met with comments like, “But satire is evergreen and an art of the highest quality,” which made me question whether my updated literary taste buds were missing something sophisticated and “elite”.Â In the intervening year since I last wrote news satire, I have keenly observed the news satire on display on old and new websites similar to the one we built, and also the new brand of satire developing and making its mark online, through The Viral Fever and AIB. Indeed, as I write this, I mean to not only clear my self-doubts, but also look at the evolution and changing face of news satire in the Indian context.
The story of my abandonment of satire is possibly rooted in the evolution of online news satire in India. When I evaluate the growth of news satire in India, it has two aspects to look at:
1. Content type
2. Kinds of writers who compose the satire
When we discuss content type, we think of text (further divided into parody news reports, transcripts of conversations, opinionated satire),video (news-reading, spoofs, commentary), and image (fake Facebook walls, cartoon and comic strips, and other wonders of Photoshop). I will come to it later.
Kinds of writers brings me to the more crucial point, which has shaped the evolution of humour writing on Indian internet space. The kind of writers is no more limited to the class of “writers”, but has expanded to include “readers” as well.
The growth of online news satire in India must not be seen in isolation; it impacted, and was equally impacted by the concurring growth in popularity of Facebook and other social media. When Faking News began its art in September 2008, there was a sharp divide between the level of the intellectual satirist and the public discourse. The general public discourse was still expressed through bland opinions, which put the talented satirists at a pedestal above the rest. News That Matters Not brought satire to the college-going community–especially the engineering student base–and thanks to the growing popularity of satire by the end of 2010, aided by American sitcoms, satire and sarcasm (regardless of quality) were becoming a fad.
What I am discussing here is the “satire culture.” For me, the culture of satirical commentary among Indian youth today is a product of:
1. Influence of news satire websites, and humorous Facebook pages and Twitter handles (continues to grow, but mainly 2009—2011)
2. Influence of American sitcoms on youngsters (mainly 2008—2012)
3. And undoubtedly, the governance and corruption in UPA-2 (mainly 2010—2011)
When these three factors met on the platform called social media, the “sharp divide” mentioned above started getting breached. Youngsters, who used to keep opinions at home, started having opinions to share and flaunt. Unconventional opinions (such as claiming atheism or criticizing Gandhi or being against capital punishment) became acceptable under the hood of Facebook honesty. The disasters of UPA-2 encouraged satire to flourish, and serious opinions started taking a satirical—sarcastic twist. One-liners from satirical websites were blatantly copied, memes created and their originality usurped–and suddenly, everyone seemed to have a sense of intellectual humour.
As satire became mainstream
Flattering as it may seem to claim, I was part of a website that was part of a bigger movement: the movement that revolutionized public discourse. News satire indeed had a role. News satire, satirical one-liners (further popularized and brought to the masses by Twitter and even short-lived ventures such as thewittyshit), and the growing meme culture meant common youngsters could poke fun without fear–publicly. By the time the discomforted governments frantically discovered Section 66A of the IT Act as their weapon, the “sarcasm epidemic” among the youth, initiated by satirical websites, had grown to make even politicians their victims. (It was totally another thing that their intellect didn’t allow them to progress beyond calling each other “cockroaches” and “Shehzada” and “dogs” in the name of satire and sarcasm.) But yes, the degraded political bashing we see today, has been shaped by the way sarcasm has come down (albeit in a misunderstood manner) to the masses.
The “satire culture” I am talking about has indeed made this art, mainstream. Politics was just the territory where this culture celebrated its childhood; movies, celebrities, sports, the media, religious gurus, and even daily personal lives were all becoming easy targets of sarcasm–from lowly to sophisticated–on social media posts. Of course not through long news reports–the participants of this culture expressed in one-liners. Given just these headlines, it has become difficult to distinguish whether Facebook status updates like “Couple breaks up because of last seen status on WhatsApp” (link), “Govt plans to provide one free Chetan Bhagat book to every family to increase literacy rates” (link), and “Mild earthquake strikes off Bahamas coastline, no Modi wave detected” (link) were posted by reputed, distinguished news satire websites, or by just another normal Facebook user.
The problem with classic news satire in 2014
In the face of satire becoming mainstream, it is becoming difficult to generate content that consistently stays ahead of the masses. Of course, the three headlines mentioned above are of the better kind, but to maintain that higher-than-average level in every headline one writes is becoming challenging, because the gap between the abilities of the readers and the writers is closing. In the current Indian context, satire websites are failing to move beyond politics because of the way politics shapes our discourse, and the way our politicians are–and when they poke fun at politics, they usually resort to repetitive templates such as “Inspired by xyz, abc tries mno” (e.g. “Inspired by Kejriwal, Modi wears muffler even in summer”), and “xyz sues abc for mno” (e.g. “Mango farmer sues Kejriwal for use of the word aam aadmi”).
Move beyond headlines, come to the actual reports under those headings. Despite the wit and humour in satirical news headline, reading the long form report does not usually yield anything unpredictable. Heavy dependence on political satire means news satire reports are depending too much on pet characters like Kapil Sibal, Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi, Sanjay Jha, Ravi Shastri, Rajinikanth, and so on. The ability of readers to complete reading full reports online is declining anyway in general, and the level of humour required to truly amuse and impress a reader has elevated.
This is the problem with news report format today. Not that the format is at mistake, but because politics is such a prominent fodder for us. And, this is where depending on solely news reports wasn’t feasible: each website attempted its own way, such as The UnReal Times (image format), News That Matters Not (the NTMN Times format), Faking News (the “Sunday Magazine” and “Friday Faking Release”), and The Viral Fever (the video format). For an art to remain appealing, it is crucial that there is a wide gap in the capability of the producer and the consumer. For now, it is difficult for the common internet user to prepare a video featuring satire, like TVF. Satire by The Vigil Idiot still feels wonderful because of that factor. But, don’t you agree, that to produce an attractive one-liner ridiculing Yuvraj Singh is easier and more mainstream than it ever was.
I admit my theory may not entirely be valid; the articles being published every day on news satire websites are indeed still getting thousands of Facebook shares and comments, and Facebook pages that post “Vijay Mallya sells Yuvraj Singh to another IPL team on OLX” are still getting lakhs of likes. Definitely, it is still rewarding, even if it is predictable and clichÃ©d. It will remain an appealing business for sure; satire is never truly uninteresting.
But, if news satire has to survive, the satire culture can’t be ignored: for it is that very culture the writer needs to stay ahead of, to be ahead of the masses. And, to stay ahead of the satire culture, dependence on the political scenery must either be avoided, or it must be innovated and revolutionized. One look at the home page of The Onion shows its satire on people instead of politicians; examples: “Couple Keeps It Interesting By Bickering In Different Positions, Rooms”, “Increasing Number Of Men Pressured To Accept Realistic Standards Of Female Beauty”. Excellent parallels from Indian exhibition of satire include: “Employee posts his pic after voting, gets called to office to work for remaining day”, “Man successfully catches Virar-Andheri fast local, gets job offer” (both Faking News). While articles that satirize common people constitute the bulk of The Onion homepage, the same cannot be said in the Indian context, which depend heavily on politicians. Our news satire is still built inside the Parliament and inside political campaigns–which is absolutely good for the content of satire, because political satire is a defining component of satire; but it should be so only till it is possible to build on those ideas without bringing in the clichÃ©s.
My commentary above didn’t touch much upon exactly why I quit, but it did explain a lot about why I might be disinterested in the format at this stage. I understand I had the power and the platform to innovate and redefine the satire trends based on my ideas. But it was difficult indeed to run away from political clichÃ©s. It’s great to see the people at all the news satire websites, including the one I no longer write or edit actively for, who still enjoy what they do, and are producing high quality satire, and innovating as well. Satire per se is a brilliant tool to showcase anomalies in society, and to inspire change, as we at NTMN believed. My disgust does not lie with satire. My disgust does not lie with news satire. My disgust lies with what news report format in satire has today become in the face of our political scenario: inevitable, but uninteresting. There still are excellent innovative posts in politics on all websites and Facebook pages; there still are reports without the mention of politics: but the situation forces them to be few and far between.
When I joined the Teach For IndiaÂ Fellowship, I knew my time was up. I never had a natural sense of poking fun anyway, and my manufactured quota of churning satire consistently was well past its expiry date. I am not one to run away from responsibility, but when passions clashed, I chose to move out of one. I decided that satire was no more being an effective way to showcase my creativity due to the reasons described, and I chose to put an end, till I had better ideas, or till I refreshed myself.
Disclaimer: I talked of general trends in this article, and did not really intend to name or comment on particular websites. So it is important that it not be seen as inappropriate critical commentary by a person who once led a competing website–for my comments do not spare News That Matters Not either or glorify it.