At an event for the police force in Kolkata recently, actor Shah Rukh Khan enthusiastically twirled a lady officer around and swept her off the ground in an impromptu dance move. Predictably, SRK’s charming little jig where they both look like they’ve committed the ultimate crime of having fun, hasn’t gone down well with people who make a living out of criticising (of whom India seems to have plenty). A former police commissioner feels the lady officer in question has belittled the sanctity of the uniform. Another made some sarcastic references to Chulbul Pandey, a Salman Khan character and a police officer of dubious merit. The Indian constitution also apparently, doesn’t permit dancing in uniform.
How can a little harmless dancing ever be wrong? It’s been around as long as humanity: even chimps and primates enjoy a laugh and a shake.
With all due respect to the framers of our Constitution they must have been a really dour, humourless bunch, determined to eliminate any possibility of a laugh in our lives. Indians, anyway, are notorious for their earnestness and are always looking to inflict their tiresome righteousness on anyone they can. Maybe it’s a hangover of generations of deprivation or an inferiority complex, that as a nation we only see life as toil and struggle and anything out of the scripted story as plain wrong. This is when humour is actually an important prerequisite to survival in India, almost everything here is darkly hilarious. And it really helps put life’s imperfections into perspective. Consider, in which other country could this be a routine headline: “Ashok Khemka transferred for 44th time in 22-year career for preventing Vadra’s sweetheart deal.” In fact, at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for people applying for jobs in India, aside from their formidable qualifications, candidates are required to have “a sense of humour”.
The code of conduct regarding appropriate behaviour in India is extremely puzzling and full of contradictions. At one level, we have ghastly comedy films like Hungama and suchlike, which do well and earn tens of crores. The funny is provided by cringeworthy tomfoolery and banal innuendo. In Race, a perfect showcase for everything that’s wrong with Indian comedy, the detective had a never ending stream of breathless, and shockingly crude repartee with his associate, a bosomy, lady cop. There was definitely a case for police officers objecting to their portrayal as misogynist creeps there but the film went on to become the hit of the year. Utterly silly, pedestrian jokes on sardarjis still elicit laughs but it’s taken 20 years for the most subversive Indian film, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, to be acknowledged as a cult classic. Slowly though, with social media and messenger apps, you can sense a change, that in India people are getting braver about cracking jokes and are much more comfortable jeering at people in positions of power. It’s the first time in these elections that senior politicians’ IQ has been questioned and many idiotic sound bytes have been twisted into something funny. The ability to laugh at oneself and others separates us from other forms of life on Earth, clearly an evolutionary necessity. Even Gandhiji wrote in 1928, “If I had no sense of humour, I would have long ago committed suicide.”