By Kanika Katyal:
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“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world was awake India shut her eyes to life and freedom. A moment came, not rare in history, when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, lost utterance.” Pandit Nehru just shuddered in his grave.
I am referring to the infamous FIR against a team of artists – comedians, and also citizens of India. The very fact that #AIBNationalShame and #WeStandByAIBKnockout have been top trends on Twitter in India speaks volumes about how the threat to freedom of speech and expression is one of our most crucial battles.
Before stating my opinion on the debate, let’s get our basics right. First things first, the genre of insult comedy is self-explanatory – it’s humour derived from insulting another person. The genre has been quite popular internationally for decades now, started as early as 1949 by The Friars Club. So, when the All India Bakchod organized the AIB Knockout in January featuring Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh with Karan Johar as the roastmaster, the first question which came to my mind was – “are we there yet?”.
I thought we were. We were finally “saying in public what we say in parties”, as Rohan Joshi said on the show. They were not talking about something ‘alien’ or out-of-the-box. But the breakthrough can be seen in their attempt to initiate a dialogue in public on issues that we have conveniently confined to our private comfort zones. Their sword was humour, the kind we indulge in with our friends. Stand up comedy is a form of resistance. Even when some of the jokes were directed towards homosexuals, in a way they were a step towards addressing the issue of homophobia. That was their way of entering into conversation. So I see it as bringing a self-actualization principle, and of us as rising to a new conscience.
The argument is not about acquiring a feigned sense of modernity by aping something from the “western culture”. It was “different” from the usual run-off-the-mill comedy, and refreshing. Judging it within the framework of a traditional comedy is completely missing the point.
I think the medium and the demographic placement of the artists also needs to be looked at, the AIB is a YouTube channel, entitled to their opinion. There is a certain kind of creative freedom and freedom of expression that the internet not only entails but also necessitates. One cannot ignore the operative mechanism which grants one form of entertainment a primetime slot on television, while ‘the other’ resort to more permissive and liberal platforms such as the web. Usually, not essentially, it is true that thoughts which do not cohere with the dominant ideology harbour themselves on the internet. Away from state-censorship and corporate pressure, the internet becomes the platform for the audience to enjoy those pockets of entertainment.
According to a global public opinion poll conducted by the BBC World Service in 2010, majority of the users, including the Indian users, strongly agreed that the Internet had brought them more freedom, they saw it as a fundamental right, and it gave them the space to express their opinion. So, it is not as if people are repressed and that’s why they avail entertainment on the internet. That is not the principle at work here. On the contrary, it is the social filtering and moral policing, which is the most regressive and redundant form of control as manifested through the FIR.
If one looks at the entertainment presented to us in prime time TV, the hypocrisy of the system is exposed. How about our very own home-grown desi Russel Peters, our most celebrated and loved show Comedy Nights With Kapil. Isn’t the humour on the show misogynistic, sexist, racist, homophobic and insensitive to gender ? But we laugh out loud!
The dispute is really the fact that the state cannot be selective about such actions. Threat to freedom of expression is the most disgraceful thing to be happening in the world’s largest democracy. The threat to creative freedom is perhaps the worst fear of an artist.
The humour on the AIB Knockout was sharp. Could it have been done in a “less offensive” manner? Maybe. Maybe not. I’m not advocating “their brand of humour”, but intent and context are two crucial aspects to be kept in mind when one discourses upon what is it that constitutes the funny. Say they were bad, scorn them. But by maintaining silence on the charges against them, you are siding with the oppressor and making them powerful.
Remember that the operative principle here is : “I do not find your joke funny, but I will defend to death your right to crack it.”