“I am proud that, like Mark Twain, I have been able to use humour to lessen people’s hatred.” — African-American comedian Richard Pryor
If we are to go by TRP ratings, it would seem that the nation has not laughed as hard as it has in the last two years, since “Comedy Nights With Kapil” — India’s highest-rated non-fiction television show, hosted by Kapil Sharma, India’s “funniest man” — first aired. One of Mr. Sharma’s main strengths, hailing from a non-elite and non-English-speaking background, is apparently that he “speaks the language of the nation“. This language, which has captured the imagination of everyone, ordinary television audiences and celebrities alike, is precisely what is problematic: it is a language so regressive that it reflects and perpetuates all kinds of discriminations, from caste and class to sex and race.
Mr. Sharma’s rise in just a couple of years has been nothing but stratospheric: from a mere television face, he has become one of the two or three most admired personalities as well as top marketable commodities in India. There is hardly any celebrity in the country who has not appeared or has not wanted to appear on his show.
Underbelly Of Pop Culture
But behind the excellent comic timing and razor-sharp repartee of Mr. Sharma lies the ugly face of Indian popular culture. A show that was supposed to be a “family show”, with substantial appeal to children and the youth, thrives instead on blatant misogyny. The many female characters played by men form the base of the show. This is not done with any intention to break gender norms, but to provide laughs through mocking and exaggerated portrayals of femininity. White women, as elsewhere in Bollywood, are the “items” that are constantly used, despite having no relationship to the narrative. In one episode, former cricketer Sunil Gavaskar is ushered onto the stage by white dancers, purportedly because there were no cheerleaders during his cricketing days!
The references to gori ladkiyaan (white women) are unabashed in their objectification. Of course, even the other women (including the character of Mr. Sharma’s wife), are seen merely as a sum of their physical appearances, praised or damned on that basis. Therefore, it is not surprising that obesity and other supposed negative features of physical beauty (also of men) become the pegs to hang some of the major set pieces of the show. And it is a stark irony that every programme ends with the call: auraton ki izzat karein (respect women)!
From celebrating beauty and white complexion, it is only a logical step to show egregious racism or casteism, with references to people as Zambia ke bhikari (beggars from Zambia) and Afriki bhaloo (African bear). Sri Lankans also become the butt of jokes because they are “obviously” inferior to us. While the looks of actors Rajpal Yadav and Rajkumar Yadav (now Rajkummar Rao) are made fun of, the royal background of a Saif Ali Khan is fawned upon. South India, too, becomes one of the exotic nether regions in the show. Thus Mr. Sharma asks Hema Malini in one episode whether her husband is able to understand “South Indian” (I guess he meant Tamil).
What is interesting is that despite the show being set in a lower middle class household, the reaffirmation of class hierarchies is strong. There is constant disparaging of domestic help and lower classes: Do takke ka naukar (worthless servant) is an echoing refrain. The domestic help is asked to know his/her place. Needless to say, all this is done humorously.
There is pervasive consensus that laughter and humour are always innocent and benign — Mr. Sharma asks the audience to just keep everything aside and laugh uninhibitedly. This is unfortunately not correct as the Charlie Hebdo shootings tragically demonstrated. As author Paul Michael Johnson aptly puts it, “the racial and socio-economic privilege of the dominant majority is often coterminous with the privilege of laughing“. This is clearly demonstrated in the laughing at and not laughing with all those who are not considered equal to the dominant voice in ‘Comedy Nights’.
Of course, this does not mean that there is a deliberate attempt to laugh at those who are supposedly inferior. It is, however, how dominant consciousness works, almost unconsciously reproducing stereotypes. That is why we have even the sections of people who are objects of the laughter, such as women and working classes, reproduce these hierarchies by participating in their own denigration through humour.
Scholar John Morreall, author of ‘Taking Laughter Seriously’, has argued that for centuries, Western thinking — ancient Greek philosophers, Christianity, early modern theorists — greatly looked down upon laughter. As Plato, one of the prominent critics of laughter, noted, “when one abandons himself to violent laughter, his condition provokes a violent reaction“. According to Mr. Morreall, the reason for this negative evaluation of humour was that it involved laughing at others; that it was motivated by malice, mockery, derision and feelings of superiority. Thus, such humour was morally repugnant.
As we all know, this is not the only reason we laugh; we can also take delight in raucous humour that is not directed at mocking inferiors. There are equally great philosophical traditions that affirm this and the necessity of humour as the basis of human social existence. The problem is that humour in much of Indian mass media is about laughing at others.
This does not mean that shows like ‘Comedy Nights’ do not contain elements that are not scornful, or that they do not subvert some dominant norms. They do, especially with characters like the grandmother, a sexualised figure with an alcohol problem. But overwhelmingly, Mr. Sharma and the show, termed as a “milestone for Indian comedy on television“, are purveyors of a comedy that debases others. It is worrying to see a prominent woman Bollywood actor mocking gays and transgenders on ‘Comedy Nights’, especially when the larger popular culture is suffused with the values of dominant castes, class and gender. As the AIB roast showed, even as a few social conservatisms with regard to sex are challenged, the more dangerous forms of misogyny, racism, and casteism are affirmed popularly.
More critically, the popularity of shows like that of Mr. Sharma’s is soaring at a time when the space for satire and humour that can challenge dominant thought is decreasing, and the “ban culture” is spreading its tentacles. Whether it is Mr. Sharma or AIB, the one form of humour that has been a potent weapon in every society of the world — laughing at the political ruling class — is completely absent; politics is taboo. When the social realm acquiesces so easily to the political establishment, the forces of violent majoritarianism run amok.
Where in Indian popular culture is a figure like Richard Pryor, who used humour to speak the unspeakable, and to show America its ugly face of racism and the colossal inequities built on it? And for how much longer will we celebrate the “plebeian” humour of a Kapil Sharma and refuse to look into the mirror to see the ugliness of our own society?
Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University, Canada. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org