On Sunday night, Indian prime-time news hit a new milestone, or should I say, a new low. A Snapchat story, created by stand-up comedian Tanmay Bhat, became national news and received considerable airtime on a number of news channels.
This is as though the comedian’s name trending for more than 24 hours over the weekend, fueling an ongoing cycle of outrage, wasn’t enough of an overreaction to a silly mimicry video uploaded last Thursday that purportedly insulted two national icons: retired cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar and playback singer Lata Mangeshkar.
The video, which appeared on Bhat’s Facebook page and has now cropped up on YouTube, shows him using the app’s built-in ‘Face Swap’ feature, which allows users to add filters or superimpose someone else’s face on to theirs. This can either be hilarious, as many users demonstrate regularly, or, occasionally, creepy (see: this face swap video featuring actors Akshay Kumar and Jacqueline Fernandez).
Titled ‘Sachin vs Lata Civil War’, the two-minute clip shows Bhat using the feature to superimpose the faces of the two Bharat Ratna awardees upon his and enacting a hypothetical debate between the two over Virat Kohli’s batting skills, mimicking their voices.
Every Snapchat user knows that this sort of thing is par for the course — a silly video that exists strictly for the lulz, meant to make you chuckle for a brief moment in the course of your tiring workday. That’s kiinnnddaaaa the reason one would follow a comedian on Snapchat, I presume.
On Monday, it emerged that this video has ruffled the feathers of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, a political party with absolutely nooo history of indulging in publicity stunts and making provocative statements, nope, no sir *cough*. Displaying admirable restraint and commendable maturity, one of their leaders, Ameya Khopekar, has suggested that Bhat be beaten up publicly and arrested. Then, just for good measure, he added that the MNS will ensure “his shows don’t happen” and that he not be able to “come out on the road”.
This isn’t the only extreme reaction the All India Bakchod co-founder has been subject to. Many tweets have viciously attacked Bhat’s brand of humour and mocked his physical appearance. Meanwhile, many Bollywood personalities, such as Anupam Kher and Riteish Deshmukh, have condemned the video.
At the time of writing this, the Shiv Sena, never to be outdone, had also lent their voices to the chorus of outrage, the MNS had succeeded in filing an FIR against the 28-year-old comedian, and an attempt had been made to scrub the video from various websites. Somehow, in a country with an abundance of grave problems that require relentless debating and discussion, we managed to make a silly Snapchat video the focus of our attention.
I'll be honest: I saw the video on Friday, a day after it had been uploaded, and didn’t really find it funny. My issues with the jokes that have outraged many — ‘Sachin’ uses profanity, makes jokes about Mangeshkar’s age (“you are 5000 years old”), and advises her to “die”, just like Jon Snow (a character from Game Of Thrones, whose on-screen death concluded the show’s fifth season) — don’t have much to do with taste, or lack thereof.
Is it offensive, though? Of course it is — and that’s the point. Good comedy is often about saying things no one else will, which, by definition, is likely to offend a number of people. As is true of all art forms, humour is often about striking a balance between cold, hard truth and varying doses of imagination or exaggeration.
In this case, I am not perturbed by Bhat’s usage of ‘phuck’ for Tendulkar and Mangeshkar. It’s clear that the humour is meant to come from the fact that it sounds odd to hear profanity from the mouths of personalities as revered as them. Rather, I just found the jokes themselves unfunny for being far too obvious. I watched the whole thing with a quarter of a grin, waiting for an on-target punch-line that never quite arrived. To me, it isn’t offensive as much as it’s just lazy, spur-of-the-moment stuff, full of easy jokes that he mustn’t have given a second thought to.
Of course, the fleeting nature of social media, particularly Snapchat, is such that a two-minute video of this kind doesn’t need to be profound or important — it just needs to be screamingly funny. Many people I know have found it to be so.
When it comes to humour, one also has to see where the objectionable material is coming from: is it from actual, agenda-driven hatred or is it deliberately, exaggeratedly offensive, designed to make you laugh because of how irreverent it is?
From others, common complaints seem to be along the following lines: ‘Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar are two national icons, whose contributions towards their fields are immeasurable. How dare you make fun of them? How dare you show them using profanity, or being petty? How dare you make jokes about Lata-ji’s age and about her death?”
Here, it must be noted that neither Tendulkar nor Mangeshkar themselves have taken umbrage at the video, and it’s other people who are outraging on their behalf. This is just another example of our tendency to deify celebrities — especially if they’re connected to Bollywood or cricket, which continue to dominate many aspects of Indian life — and assume that they, despite their many achievements, will crumble to dust simply because a comedian used some ‘bad words’ while imitating them. As it is, we have a nebulous relationship with the very idea of profanity — it is common in everyday life amongst many people, but scrubbed clean from our movies (even those rated ‘A’, according to our current censorship regime), our TV shows, and our print publications. As for mature conversations around the concepts of ageing and death? Forget it.
A file photo of comedian Chris Rock, hosting the 88th Academy Awards
Stand-up comedy around the world works largely the same way. Often, it is supposed to challenge existing perceptions and, occasionally, shock you into laughing at something. In the West, renowned comedians such as Louis CK, Chris Rock, and Bill Burr have built entire careers out of making jokes about Things That Should Not Be Touched: not people, but actual issues such as molestation, homophobia etc.
Sometimes, these have led to similar controversies as we’re seeing now, with the same reaction: “This is tasteless. This is not funny.” A 2014 New Yorker article argues: “Controversy has always been the lifeblood of comedy. As people such as Chris Rock and Louis C.K. have argued, in order to be funny, to be meaningful, to transcend the hacky and the inane, comedians have to say things that other people are afraid to say, and, by making us laugh, force us to admit some things about ourselves that we would be unwilling to cop to in the cold light of day.”
In this case, Bhat failed to make all of us laugh, clearly. But is the reaction even remotely proportionate to a mere video that, like millions and millions of other videos on the Internet, can easily be brushed aside and forgotten in a matter of minutes?
A flippant way of looking at this would be to say that he brought this all upon himself. Just a few weeks ago, a video he shared (again, on Snapchat) went viral and made headlines everywhere. However, that scenario was completely different: in that, he spoke about how the word 'feminism' is misunderstood. That rant, which was more direct, was widely praised and shared (even though some felt he was ironically guilty of mocking women with the tone he'd used). Meanwhile, he has also generally been outspoken with his views on politics, gender issues, and censorship on Twitter.
But it isn’t — and shouldn’t be — a stand-up comedian’s concern that people cannot separate two different aspects of their personality from each other. People can be simultaneously silly and profound, at different times. They can identify as feminist and still say things that appear sexist, if taken out of context. When it comes to humour, one also has to see where the objectionable material is coming from: is it from actual, agenda-driven hatred or is it deliberately and exaggeratedly offensive, designed to make you laugh because of how irreverent it is?
In many ways, this incident is a natural by-product of the complicated, dangerously toxic relationship that exists between content consumption, social media, and news outlets today. The Internet gives everyone a voice, but only the loudest manage to navigate the cacophony and get heard. This does not, however, mean that another point of view does not exist.
My hope is that Bhat doesn’t have to go through the same ordeal he and the rest of AIB endured after the now infamous ‘roast’ of actors Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor, which caused a national furore early last year. To me, this is just a joke that didn’t quite work, something that’s bound to happen from time to time. In a 2014 interview, Rock, talking about how social media had affected comedy, had said: “… If you think you don’t have the room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, goofier stand-up.” How about we don't go out of our way to make this come true?