The twinning of haasya-vyangya (loosely translated as laughter and satire, or that which causes satirical laughter) is an ancient Indian tradition. I have faint memories, as a child, of being carted off to a kavi sammelan, where a series of “poets”, all male, came on and recited passages about stuff they found funny. And hoped we would too.
A lot of it was more miss than hit. I was too young to get all context and meaning, but even so, I found the experience quite exhilarating. This laughter was sharp and subversive, and in some ways, it set us free. These were people — standing at a mike in front of a tough audience — whose sole job was to rock the boat; our job was to guffaw if that’s what it led to.
The sharpest memory I have of that night was a loosening up, amongst the adults who surrounded me. Of letting down their guard, and delivering full-throated brays. And I am convinced it did something for me, young as I was: it shifted some things around in the metrics of things I found funny. It was my first lesson in sharing uninhibited public laughter.
The metropolitan India I inhabit in 2015 is very different from the small town Bharat of my childhood. But it saddens and scares me to see how we’ve regressed: we have become a nation full of self-righteous intolerants. We are hideously judgemental. Instead of embracing all canons of laughter, we reach for the pause button. And if those dangerous comics won’t stop, we throw the law at them, forgetting that laws are meant to be interpreted in a liberal, knowledgeable manner.
Early this week, I saw Jaideep Varma’s film, I Am Offended, a compilation of interviews with a range of Indian stand-up comics, as well as cartoonists, writers and columnists who use satire to make their point. The best comics are angry people, but they channel their fury in ways that are infinitely smarter than merely yelling. A good stand-up comic is creative with her punches: she moves past the easy choices of using mimicry, puns, and yes, invective, still the easiest way to get the laughs. And builds up her act to include well-aimed barbs against societal holy cows, things we don’t dare to talk about any more.
Varma’s film, out online this week, gets these people, mostly young and on the stand-up circuit, to talk about their work and how it is received. At their best, and here I’m not talking about those who imitate Bollywood stars, and/or lace their material with references to body parts and what moves and what doesn’t (apart from movies-and-gaalis, sex is the other lazy shot that always works), these are smart people who use comedy to hold up a mirror.
A good comic makes us laugh. A great comic also makes us think.
We live in an age in which we shoot the messenger. And want to control the message. Cartoonists are bloody targets. Comedy nights which include Bollywood stars become the subject of state ire: the All India Bakchod “roast” of Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh, which has been pulled off YouTube after the expected furore, wasn’t all scintillating humour. After a point, it sank into a sludge of sex and cussing, more juvenalia than anything else.
I saw it, laughed a few times, and that was it. It was not the kind of gush that comes out when you are confronted by a truly great jape. But hey, it was there. And that’s why it’s important. Because those who wanted to watch it, could; those who wanted to participate, could.
Because, ultimately, it all comes down to one thing. Freedom. I should be able to watch James Franco and Seth Rogen make asses of themselves in their film, if I so wish: The Interview, that wasn’t allowed to be screened in the US because of death threats, is basically a series of school-boy level gags. I saw it, laughed a few times, and that was it.
Popular vyangyakaar Kaka Hathrasi and so many others of that generation could make trenchant fun of everything — politics, religion, relationships. Now, that laughter is on the verge of drying up.
That offends me.