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Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Importance of irreverence: Decoding India's sense of humour

As the debate heats up on whether or not Tanmay Bhat's jokes were in bad taste, I have a different question. What is India's sense of humour? India as a country has to have a sense of humour, right? You can't be a vibrant democracy and not have a good sense of humour about things.


Do we know the art of laughing at ourselves? Well, I think it existed a few years back but it is slowly disappearing. Something is gnawing away at our spirit bit by bit. The crumbs are falling and forming groups like AIB and TVF. But the cookie is crumbling and it is bad.

We have jokes on communities and persons. On YouTube comments sections, there are passive aggressive comments on each other's religions. Sometimes they are downright aggressive. Nothing happens to these people, right? Nobody drags them to court or beats them up. Because we know it can easily be done. And also the joke is meant to offend. So, we politely take offence and bear it.

What happens when a certain Tanmay Bhat makes a joke that is quite dark and not very coherent? Well, he doesn't mean to offend. Why would someone make a mean joke which isn't funny when he clearly doesn't hate the celebrity?

This confuses the simple-minded Indian. A purposeless snapstory? Humour that is intended for no one and created out of a whim. Humour that isn't humourous? Plus we don't get to imagine that we can drag him out and beat him up?

This is new to India. Almost a cultural shock. I am not saying it is an import from the West. But this downright irreverence is slightly unsuitable to the minds fed on hero-worship and fear of God. We have had great satirists. People who could just bring kingdoms down with the might of their pen, people who wrote about the system, the society and gave it a zany twist so that it went down our throats without forming lumps.

But, this guy is not there with a higher purpose, is he? And for that matter, the current crop of comedians are not serving a higher purpose. Well, some of them are doing satire but most of them are doing weird stuff.

We aren't used to this. We are used to comedy shows that have a moral message at the end. We laugh only when the person who is the butt of the joke also joins us out of politeness. We like to eat at family restaurants, watching family shows.

There are two things wrong with that- first is that we can have no good stories if we let the gods always win. The variety is lost. No matter how bad Tanmay's jokes are, if we deny him the freedom to say them, we as a society are specifically forbidding a certain genre of jokes. And comedy isn't compartmentalized. So, we are restricting the realms of dark comedy, insult comedy. We are drawing a line for the comedian instead of letting him discover it through our reactions (and I don't mean the violent ones).

Second thing is that by taking personal offence for someone else, we promote hero worship. The exact thing insult comedy hopes to stop. We as a nation are very emotional and it is great. We call our dad's friends as Chachas and every elderly gentleman is dadaji while ladies are chachi, dadi etc. It is a good thing to have around us but then, it is also the cause of so many children taking engineering without having no interest in the subject. As a close knit society, we sometimes suffocate the upcoming generation by expectations, unnecessary expectations. I know the concepts I am throwing around might sound far fetched but, I hope I am making some sense.

So, when we understand this concept that everyone is human and a select few people with a good sense of humour (may or may not involve Tanmay, that's not the debate) take it upon themselves to crack jokes on the high and mighty, they do so advertently or inadvertently to bring a societal change. These jokes take us toward a more individualistic society. As a result we can produce more Sachins and Latas.

I know the classical argument the majority has been giving- 'Had she been your grandmother, would you have spared Tanmay?' Well, if my grandmother was a Rajya Sabha nominee and a world renowned singer, I would have been scared in her presence. If she would have asked me to take up singing, I would have complied. It doesn't make her a bad or dominating grandmother. It is just how respect works sometimes. So in that hypothetical scenario, no I wouldn't have liked the joke but I would have understood the concept of the absurd insults. I wouldn't have ran after Tanmay with a stick.

I am sure some of you may disagree with my thoughts and that is okay.

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