While we can laugh our hearts out watching a Jimmy Kimmel show literally roasting President Trump, we can only dream of such a programme in India. Despite being one of the biggest democracies in the world, we have to resort to some sort of self-censorship especially when we are talking about ‘politics’, ‘sex’, ‘religion’ etc. While other countries use comedy as a weapon of criticism, in India, weapons are used against comedians.
Below are the recent incidents where the government used their favourite weapons like sedition and defamation to literally shut up the comedians:
First of its kind in India, the AIB Knockout was quick to be surrounded by controversy. This show was watched by the Maharashtra police, members of censor board and various religious communities through the lenses of obscenity, religious sentiments and vulgarity. Apparently, shows like these do not gel well with our culture and ‘conservative’ nature of the Indian television and film industry. They feared about what image we are sending across as a country to the rest of the world. Or what if ‘bache dekh lenge’ who are likely to be ‘spoiled’ after watching the show. (PS: they did have a disclaimer stating that this show was intended for viewers above 18 years). After the show was out, Bollywood personalities who were the part of the roast like Karan Johar, Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor were threatened by the Maharashtra Navrinman Sena (MNS) and the NCP stating they would ban the release of all their films unless they apologized.
Increased threats, police FIRs and political pressure made sure that the show was pulled down from YouTube. This incident not just limits the freedom of expression in one of the largest democracies, but also puts forward a question – that are we as a country not ready for such satirical shows? Are we not adult enough to watch such shows? Sadly, incidents like these do suppress and discourage comedy groups from using their full potential and limiting their shows to suit the ‘Indian culture’ and mindset.
Likewise, Tanmay Bhatt and Rohan Joshi, in an interview with The Times of India stated that this controversy intimidated them as they had dozens of cases against them and lived in a constant fear because any statement or unwelcome comment could land them in jail. In fact, that was the reason they chose not to do a live show for a year as they feared they’d get negative reactions. Even with the thought of having a second roast, lot of people replied saying that ‘It’s not gonna happen again!’
Imagine this situation. There is a fancy dress competition, and you are dressed as your favourite character and choose to imitate him. That very point, the police arrives and says- “hey, you have been arrested for imitating someone and hurting their sentiments”.
However absurd this sounds, this has been a reality in the mushrooming stand-up comedy profession where stand-up comedians have been arrested solely for imitating well-known personalities, religious gurus and hurting the religious feelings of their community. Loads of examples have come across which only point to the fact the low tolerance level of some communities and how easily a piece of humour can be turned into a sensational drama in the name of religion.
Recently, the popular comedian from ‘Comedy Nights with Kapil’ was arrested for dressing up and imitating Rahim Singh Gurmeet, the godman who was arrested on rape charges. His act seemed to have hurt the religious sentiments of Singh’s followers. He was arrested by the Haryana police under Section 295A (outrageous religious sentiments). Likewise, was the case with Tanmay Bhatt’s Snapchat video imitating well-known personalities like Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar. The video was welcomed with outrageous comments on Twitter, BJP and Shiv Sena filing police complaints, asking Google and Youtube to ban the video and demands being made to get him arrested.
A result of such intolerance has made comedians, producers and sponsors of TV channels wary of what will be suitable and acceptable. For example, Star Plus asked a participant of the reality show ‘The Great Indian Laughter Challenge’, to redo his act as the earlier one included imitating PM Modi and Rahul Gandhi. According to comedian Shyam Rangeela, the production house feared his act might spark protest against the channel.
Azeem Trivedi’s Cartoons Against Corruption
There is a growing trend in India where the government is trying to take control of what all we are exposed to and there is an absolute ‘no-no’ to constructive criticism. Which by the way is our right as citizens living in a democracy. Any satirical form of piece or art, which no matter how accurately presents the country’s situation, are quick to invite controversy and can land you in jail.
So remember, with freedom of speech and expression comes a bunch of problems to deal with. Only if you are ready to face those, go ahead!
The cartoonist Azeem Trivedi was slammed with a number of lawsuits based on laws like the Information technology Act 2008, Indian Penal Code 124A (Sedition) and Prevention of Insults of National Honour Act, 1971 after he drew a cartoon which mocked corruption in Indian government. Well, in this case, he was arrested and was soon out on bail as well. But, it gets extreme and unacceptable when such incidents involve beating an innocent person to their death. In Pune, a Muslim IT professional was thrashed to death by members of Hindu Rashtra Sena for posting derogatory photos of Shivaji and Bal Thackeray. While the Sena has denied their hands in the murder, this incident sparked communal tension in the city between the Hindus and Muslims.
As stated by Tanmay Bhatt, the safety of their fans and themselves was the reason they did not host a live show after the AIB Knockout. Comedians have time and again mentioned that their acts are purely for entertainment purposes and in no way intend to hurt sentiments of any culture or religion. But, that obviously does not suffice in a diverse country like India where people are just not willing to take a joke. Increasingly, comedians are scripting and self-censoring their shows keeping in mind topics which might trigger communal tension, hurt the government or might be seen as ‘anti-national’.
A popular Odia comedian, Tattwa Prakash Satpathy, was attacked and his face was inked by an outrageous group which believed he allegedly commented on Lord Jagannath, the presiding deity of Odisha. Another Telugu comedian, Venu, was attacked by a community for hurting their religious sentiments on the Telugu channel. They further filed a police complaint against him for hurting their sentiments.
There are many shows and movies which get away by making sexist and racist jokes. So, why is that when it comes to religion or country, these jokes make people super serious and turn to violence? Ideally, no comedian or citizen for that matter should be afraid or think twice before posting something satirical or critical on their own social media accounts. It is their opinion and view, which they have a right to have. In an interview with The New Indian Express, comedian, Sorabh Pant says that there are times when he gets physical threats every week, which kind off gets exhausting to deal with.
As our very own PM Modi has said, these days humour can be a risky thing. He goes about saying that the reason for the absence of humour in public life is fear. Well, that’s the case not just for him, but for everyone in the country.