The best kind of censorship is the one where a government does not have to lift a finger. It's handed to it on a platter. Stand-up comedian Shyam Rangeela discovered this when his segment was axed from The Great Indian Laughter Challenge aired on STAR TV Network.
Apparently, the network was nervous about the bit where he mimicked Narendra Modi down to the sonorous "mitron". STAR has not commented, but Shyam says a few days before the telecast he was told to record again, after omitting Modi. "The production team told me that the decision to not air my act was taken because the channel feared that it will offend some people and they might protest against them," Rangeela told The Wire.
There's no evidence or even allegation that anyone in the PMO strong-armed the network. But, as a BJP leader said in another India, when asked to bend, media is sometimes ready to crawl. And who wants to take the risk of unleashing the dogs of war on social media?
We have been very successful at adroitly fusing the office of the prime minister with the man named Narendra Modi. Thus it's easy to sanctimoniously claim that mocking Modi the man is the same as mocking the office of the prime minister.
We have been very successful at adroitly fusing the office of the prime minister with the man named Narendra Modi
That's exactly what happened when AIB used that Snapchat dog filter on an image of Narendra Modi. The comedy group found an FIR filed against it. Lawyer Abha Singh told India Today TV, "We need to put an end to such people who for cheap publicity are trying to put up (such images) and hurt the sentiments of the people of this country who have elected Mr Modi as a PM."
What Singh misses is there is no lèse-majesté law in force here. He is not the King of Thailand. And there is no reason why a man elected by the people cannot be made fun of by some of those same people. One could find the Snapchat filter unfunny, even in very bad taste, but then, if comedy was always tasteful, there would not be much of it.
But what each such episode, no matter what eventually happens with the FIR, does, is it makes the powers-that-be more nervous about stepping on VVIP toes. And weirdly comics like Rangeela find themselves on the frontlines of the freedom of speech debate.
At the MediaRumble conference in New Delhi, AIB's Ashish Shakya said the group understands that figuring out the red line is always a work in progress. "It's a process that's ongoing and it's not like we are gonna give up. We just have to factor it in and still entertain and still be smart and still be sharp."
One could find the Snapchat filter unfunny, even in very bad taste, but then, if comedy was always tasteful, there would not be much of it
AIB has obviously done quite well with news comedy and satire. Shakya said each time a Snapchat filter controversy blows up "people think we are always in trouble, standing outside jail which is not the case. We are free to do our work."
And they even have allies among politicians. Derek O'Brien and Shashi Tharoor tweeted dog filter Snapchat images of themselves in solidarity. But then again, O'Brien's party, Trinamool Congress, also made news when a Jadavpur University professor was arrested for forwarding a cartoon mocking Mamata Banerjee and the now-departed Mukul Roy. Satire is always funnier when it's not in your own backyard.
It's not that mocking politicians is new. This is a time-honoured tradition. Former prime ministers have found themselves caricatured as the spitting image of roosters, snakes and goats at the hands of cartoonists. But this is the age of social media. A comic jab can go viral in a way an old print cartoon did not. And a stand-up finds himself or herself suddenly seen as the last stand for freedom of expression.
Anuvab Pal, creator of the Amazon web series Going Viral, said wryly India must be the only country where "What will you get in trouble for?" is the first question at a comedy panel.
It makes comedy news. Rangeela is on the front page of my local daily newspaper today. But Pal worried that when comedy becomes so tightly associated with freedom of speech, we take the humour out of it. He said if he could help it, he'd do no politics in his act. There's plenty else he finds very funny.
"But I think Indian audiences live in the here and now. And the here and now is what is in the front page of our newspapers. So you bring up a Modi thing, you bring up GST or whatever and immediately everyone starts clapping because this is what is on everyone's consciousness. But you might have very funny things to say about Stonehenge or 19th-century Bengali literature. Biswa Kalyan Rath can spend 20 minutes talking about pomegranates. And be very funny about it."
It makes comedy news. Rangeela is on the front page of my local daily newspaper today.
That's created quite a comic Catch-22. Rangeela said when he is out performing everyone laps up his Modi routine. The bit axed from the TV show brought the house down when he performed it live in front of celebs like Akshay Kumar. But those are the same bits that give the corporations cold feet.
Shakya said AIB understands that part of this is the price you pay for fame. "We've been in the news for a while. We've grown tremendously. As a result of the growth you do become a target, a public figure." And FIRs from offended citizens, he won't say how many, are part of those growing pains. But he added, "We are bigger than a Snapchat filter, sorry. For everyone else this is a headline or a primetime debate. For us this is our life. This is what we do."
And, in the end, he said everyone will have to figure out where to draw the red line. Or, in Rangeela's case, have it drawn for them.
But for all those who worry about ruffling political feathers, AIB retweeted a word of advice from a politician.
"I think we need more satire and humour. Humour brings happiness in our lives. Humour is the best healer."
The person who said that, mitron? Narendra Modi.
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