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The Great Indian Laughter Challenge

05/02/2015 11:50 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
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The Washington Post via Getty Images
MUMBAI, MAHARASHTRA - AUGUST 13: Audiences react to stand-up comedians performing an act called Aisi-Taisi Democracy at the Canvas Laugh Club at The Palladium Mall in Lower Parel, Mumbai, India on August 13, 2014. (Photo by Karen Dias/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Last month, terrorists directly targeted children at Peshawar, killing 132 of them, the lowest moment in modern human history. One of the few survivors was a 15-year-old boy, whose faulty alarm clock prevented him from going to school that day. His entire class (grade 9) was tragically killed. The boy's name, it transpires, is Dawood Ibrahim. India's most wanted terrorist is his namesake.

You can feel utter shock and pain at the attack but would it be wrong to laugh out loud at that cosmic joke? And does laughing at it mean you are belittling the horror and pain of that incomparably gruesome incident?

Perhaps, the answer to that question offers cues to dealing with the complexities that surround us.

The right wingers cannot handle the idea of censorship not being allowed as there is no fool-proof way to identify what is "useful for society" since "society" is not only their idea of it.

Many moderates are offended by the idea that free speech can mean saying literally anything. That, just as telling the entire truth can sometimes be a hostile and thoughtless act, setting out to deliberately offend people, especially from a majority position, can be a selfish and aggressive thing to do, bordering on outright bullying.

Our "libertarians" will be offended if you argue against Charlie Hebdo, at the extreme corner of free speech, as they believe that they were not merely being provocative, but upholding the highest traditions of democracy, regardless of how much unrest they caused and misunderstanding they further spread. Their faces turn redder if you try to argue that the democratic principles practised in France and India have very different traditions and trajectories (sure, France does not have IPC 295A which bans the likes of Charlie Hebdo in India, but it also does not have its diversity or history).

People within the Indian Establishment are offended by the idea that their beneficial status quo can be disturbed by inconvenient democratic principles like free speech and strict law enforcement. So, knee-jerk pre-emptive measures are taken at the first signs of anything that challenges, let alone upsets, that you-scratch-mine-I-scratch-yours balance.

How exactly does stand-up comedy find its place in all of this? Very well, it would seem, as it is still not challenging the mainstream space enough. More pertinently then, how can a full-length documentary film on that scene within the context of Indian humour in general and in an environment where whimsy and offence are hard to distinguish, be worthwhile?

A film like this would never get funding if you went looking for it in this precedence-obsessed environment. So, its producers are people who are happy about not getting their money back as long as it's a "good film" and it is seen enough. Since this has to then be a very low budget film and its filmmakers cannot make a living from it, the film is a hobby project, done sporadically between other busy spells (which is why the production house making this film is called Saturday Films, implying weekend activity).

Not much at stake, right? But even then people get offended.

People who prefer laughing at others are pissed that a film glorifying those who make fun of them is getting media coverage. Film business people are offended at films like this even considering the route of releasing in the mainstream without having gone through their hoops. Professionally-trained filmmakers are offended at the very idea of anything being a "hobby film", and at anyone taking it seriously, especially one with no trained cinematographer, sound recordist, editor or well, director. Activist documentary filmmakers are offended that such a flippant subject is getting any kind of attention. Filmmakers scarred by censorship previously are offended that a film with controversial humour will escape unscathed.

Nothing is seen from a collective point-of-view in India. Nothing is allowed its own space. Cosmic jokes, I tell you.

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