|Pic courtesy: matie.devaintart.com|
‘Comedy is a serious business. A serious business with only one purpose – to make people laugh’ – W C Fields
On January 20, comedy became serious and as it appears from the journey since then, it couldn’t have gotten more serious than this. For the first time in recent memory has comedy been subject to such social scrutiny and legal harangue in India. AIB, other stand-up comedy artists, along with Bollywood stars, introduced the concept of ‘roasting’. Little would they have thought that in due course of time they would have to apologize for it, remove the video from YouTube, face various sections of Indian Penal Code and IT Act and not to mention become a subject of newsroom and drawing room (if not bedroom) debate. Much has already been written about this, which of other things has brought to fore the issue of ‘Freedom of Expression’, which in an acronym-loving world have been termed FoE. FoE suddenly has become the foe for a large section of people.
This controversy over AIB Roast has created 5 types of people. On one extreme are those who have been outraged over it and want the comedians behind bar for hurting their sentiments (sounds heavy already). Then there are those who find the comedy appalling, are outraged but do not believe there is merit in legal action. The middle category is those who have no opinion about it. Then there are those who have not necessarily liked it but want FoE to be sacrosanct and are with AIB. The last category is those who loved the comedy and will fight against the suit filed against AIB and others (searching for your place on the scale?). There can be a few more category that you could fit in these sections, but for a scientific brain familiar with Likert scale, I came up with the above categorization.
Comedy is the art of making people laugh without making them puke – Steve Martin
I shall not get into the merit of the comedy that the ‘roasting’ provided. I prefer non-obscene comedy and have scripted few for award winning competitions at my university. But, that is just me being me. With due respect to one of the very talented comedians in the show, who has featured in Forbes 30 under 30 list of influential people, who is breaking stereotypes, who is a wonderful person and who is a good friend, the comedy was largely tasteless for me (I very much run the risk of getting killed by her though).
But then I find a lot of politics and policies in the country tasteless, a lot of movies and songs tasteless and certainly a great amount of views of people tasteless. But that is again just me and should be the same for all individuals. If I did not like the comedy, I would not watch it so that I puke, will I?
Pukish one feels at the sections that our law has to try people. Just take a look at the sections slapped in the FIR. They are, 120-b (criminal conspiracy), sections 294, 509 (speaking vulgar, obscene and pornographic words publicly before a women audience) of the Indian Penal Code, Section 67 and 66 A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (circulation of obscene, pornographic content on the internet), Bombay Police Act 1951, the Environment Protect Act, 1986 (environment, seriously?), and Maharashtra Regional and Town Planning Act, 1966. Though our judiciary has usually lived up to the expectations of betrayed-by-politics people, judicial overreach (of a different kind in this case) has plagued it time and again.
The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think – Horace Walpole
Then there is a narrative about the social impact of such obscenity. Extremists ask what impact would such kind of comedy have on impressionable minds, what would be the limit of vulgarity, what kind of language and action will act out in the public domain, etc. A parent might worry what would a child gather watching such show, but the worry would then be misplaced. The parent would then have to worry about all the kids in the school concerning what language they bring with them, the kids at the playground, books, cartoon network (you wouldn’t want to know what narratives on relationships they play) and the internet which is easily accessible (unless you don’t allow internet use and take the kid 10 years back in comparison to his/her classmates), and everything else.
The getting outraged brigade is growing in number. It appears to me that their use of FoE is sabotaging the actual issue. The infamous tweet of censor board member and director Ashoke Pandit is a case in point. Which takes me to the issue of hypocrisy. A large section of people find the issue a non-issue because it is the government, Maharashtra government precisely, which is taking keen interest in pursuing this issue. People take government and politicians in same league of mistrust and thus question how hate speeches of a Togadia or Owaisi, irresponsible and communal remarks of a Sadhvi or Father or Maulana is less harmful than a profanity-filled-comedy. Then there is hypocrisy about the kind of popular chauvinistic, innuendo filled comedy that passes off as good comedy and direct below-the-belt comedy is made a scapegoat of.
Comedy is acting out optimism – Robin Williams
Comedy in a society has responsibility too. Mindless comedy for the already stuffy society is good but so is intelligent comedy, satire and other forms which bring before people issues in a manner that a serious LSTV debate cannot (LSTV guys is Lok Sabha TV, a superb channel if you want to know what the nation ‘doesn’t’ demand to know). Cartoonists have been under attack, authors have been under attack, media has been under attack, and these have put serious question marks on FoE.
As my teacher and Takshashila founder Nitin Pai has explained well in his blog (please read http://acorn.nationalinterest.in/2015/01/21/q-a-on-free-speech/ ), the concept of absolute FoE doesn’t exist. We have traded some rights to the nation as citizens and absolute FoE is one of them. The ‘reasonable restrictions’ that Article 19 carries under its clause 2 includes serious and relevant categories like security of state, public order, defamation, etc., but also includes decency and morality which is something that depends on an individual, changes with time and is subject to interpretations.
Should such shows which is meant for select audience, who are adults, have the right to choose a government, have the right to marry and produce children be subject to such restrictions? The counter argument for limited access is its access to all via YouTube. I think it will suffice to take a Twitter argument to answer that. ‘YouTube videos just don’t play on their own’.
La commedia e finite (Comedy is finished) – Ruggero Leoncavallo
What impact will this incident have on FoE? I would like to believe that this overreach of a lower court will be struck down by higher courts which will put to rest the legal part of the matter. That will foster furtherance of comedy, of all kinds, in the country. More comedians are sprouting and will grow in number. And that will be the true upholding of freedom of expression.
PS: No one is outraged by this piece, are they?