Dear AIB and fellow comedians,
There was a time, perhaps five years ago, when twenty people would turn up for your shows and you'd be called 'stand-by comedians' because no one understood what on-stage comedy was. And now you, along with other well-known comedians, pull in hundreds to thousands of people during one single show. Your interviews get featured in magazines and newspapers. You are seen almost daily on TV or on stage. Comedy is in demand, it is everywhere and it is growing in influence.
As a comedian you want people to laugh AND think. By showing society a new way of being and putting a positive spin on it you want to reinvent what we know and reconstruct our world. You've made comedy fuse with our culture. You've taken a fledgling art form in India and helped to give it exponential growth.
That makes you the front-runners of stand-up comedy in India.
Sadly, every art form has a tipping point. Comedy has reached that point. The furore that followed AIB's roast highlights this. Like any artist, you end up saying things that some people cannot bear to hear or tolerate. You invite the irk of self-styled moralists' who perceive comedy as a risky business: it can over-stimulate people; it can be anti-social.
This has always been the dilemma with art and the censor. Art is not manageable. It takes you into the unknown. Art is transformative. It forces people to think. Art is disruptive. It demands a new way of looking at things. Censors like to keep things mundane and predictable. Art mortifies them.
This is also not new. Through the ages the progress of art has been marred by blood. Artists and thinkers have been shot, stabbed, incarcerated, hung, lynched, poisoned and stoned for presenting new ways of thinking by self-styled moralists who think that imagination is dangerous and combustible; it can bring forth new and dissident ideas.
Moralists draw lines across everything from religion to gender to philosophy to literature to science. They seek differences and annihilate those who differ. Thinkers in India have been particularly singled out for many reasons in many ways: MF Husain for painting, Salman Rushdie for writing and Dr Narendra Dabholkar for fighting superstition. It is not surprising. We are a nation attempting to leap forward while remaining deeply entrenched in tradition. A divide is inevitable.
The larger problem is that, unlike say China, the definition of what is right and what is wrong in India is not explicitly stated. Its interpretation is left wide open. Therein lies the moral dilemma. A surgeon and terrorist both kill, one without intention and the other with, so who decides which one to label a murderer?
You know that being a funnyman is not always a barrel of laughs. You know that the AIB FIR is just the beginning. As comedy rises further in popularity, for every thousand people who laugh, one scrooge will decide to take offence. More FIRs will be lodged, more threats will arise, more Aamir Khan letters will be rebutted by Twinkle Khanna letters (who would've thought). Those who are looking to be offended will find offence in anything.
What then frightens me? That sometimes the censor takes it too far. And how far is too far? Well, Socrates was poisoned for apparently 'corrupting the youth'. The Charlie Hebdo staff was killed for drawing cartoons. And our country's latest victim Govind Pansare was shot for fighting against toll tax. Imagine, road toll. Will this be your fate one day? It is possible. Today your censors are coming with FIRs; tomorrow they can come with guns.
But does this mean you will stop? Highly unlikely.
I've met most of you. And I know that you are a highly courageous bunch. After all, it takes guts to go up on stage day after day. It takes strength to be heckled and still keep going on. It takes gumption to live a life without imitation. Your passion is stronger than your fear. With such a constitution you will not back down. You will not be pushed into a corner or be wished away. You will continue to be irreverent, as you should. You will continue to make people laugh, as you should. You will continue to be cheered, and heckled, and imprisoned, and hated, and loved, but you will not stop.
You are original men and women who are making and remaking our nation. Your voice will not be lost. The show will go on.