In the mood for Laughter

Published: Wed, 12/17/2014 - 09:30

There has been an explosion of satirical content in the Indian pop cultural scene. Is it just click-bait or have we become mature enough to laugh at ourselves?

Lily Tekseng Delhi

 

Imagine a parallel universe where Rahul Gandhi graces the cover of Time magazine as ‘The Overachiever’, and another person by the name of Chetan Bhagat sues author Chetan Bhagat for plagiarising from Chetan Bhagat’s life in Chetan Bhagat’s Two States.

It’s easy. It does not require a huge leap of imagination. In all likelihood, you have already heard about an English language teacher from Bihar who accused Bhagat of plagiarising from his bi-lingual play for Bhagat’s latest novel, Half Girlfriend. Similarly, you may have often wondered about the magic behind the success of the Gandhi scion. This proximity of the real to absurd, the beyond-belief state of affairs is not only inspiring serious observers into tirades of criticism; there is a new breed of comedic social commentators whose creative content reflects engagement with the society in differing capacities.

At your fingertips is your laptop where this parallel world of Rabelaisian exaggerations resides and proliferates. That the exaggerations are sometimes unidentifiable from the presented facts is primarily the most interesting aspect of the new Indian comedy, so to speak. Someone suggesting that chow mein leads to rape and that Kejriwal may be sitting on another dharna as we speak is not entirely unbelievable because, well, it’s happened before! Therefore, the tone of the comedic work in the given context demands from its audience not only the ability to laugh but also the intelligence to differentiate between criticism, fiction, various comedic devices and endorsement or the
lack thereof.

There has been a steady rise in the availability and demand for comedy in the country in the last few years. It is manifested in the surge of stand-up comedy routines across various cities, websites with satirical content and various other forms of online comedy. Our appetite for laughter may be expanding, and for a country with the comedic variety ranging from Tun Tun to a dumb Tushar Kapoor,  and also the first to ban The Satanic Verses, it can only be a good thing.

“Shahi Imam demands all revenues from Shahi Paneer sales be given to him,” says a headline on satirical news website Faking News, a quip at Uttar Pradesh minister Azam Khan’s statement that the Taj Mahal be handed back to the Sunni Waqf Board. Another suggests cheekily that Prime Minister Narendra Modi resolved the Kashmir issue on the first day of taking charge of office. According to the logic of the spoof article, Modi impressed Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif with his ‘Gujarat Model’ so much that Sharif decided to focus on claiming Gujarat instead of Kashmir. The fictional Arun Jaitley of the article explained the refreshing tactic:  “Infiltrating the borders in Gujarat will be tougher for Pakistani terrorists than infiltrating Kashmir, where they take advantage of hilly terrain.”

Modelled after The Onion, an American satirical news website, or, in its own words, “America’s finest news source”, websites like Faking News provide a comedic spin to current events and socio-political issues.  The Unreal Times is another popular website with similar content, although somewhat peskier than Faking News because of the slightly forced and persistent nature of its satire. Others such as News That Matters Not, Indian Satire, and even Farzi News roughly follow the same formula with minor variations in the treatment and choice of the subject matter.

While access to the Internet is still limited to a small percentage of people, we cannot ignore the fact that there is an online culture in India that is distinct. For example, the online trends and viral material in India are peculiar to the socio-political context here. Remember the Alok Nath memes that went viral sometime towards the end of 2013? For the uninitiated, a meme is “an image, video, piece of text etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations” (from Google dictionary). Alok Nath, on the other hand, is a familiar Bollywood face who has acted in several popular films, usually playing the role of a benevolent father or uncle, and, according to Wikipedia, is “the epitome of Sanskar in India (citation needed).”

Nath, out of the limelight for years, became an overnight Internet sensation. Some of the memes said: Alok Nath goes to the restaurant and orders prasad; supports lesbian marriage because he can do two kanyadans; Alok Nath smokes agarbattis. Nath, who had unwittingly become the parodic epitome of ‘Indian culture’ (in its exclusionist sense) took it rather well and even appeared in a parody rap video
soon after.

But how did Alok Nath become an online sensation? No one can tell with certainty. The rumour has it that one Sunday night Hum Saath Saath Hain was aired on television and someone tweeted, “Our nation only learnt about heart attacks because of Alok Nath.” Bollywood narratives have often framed death or threat of death as a harbinger of closure or familial peace, heart attacks being a common trope. The rest was history.

Ideas that go viral reflect the collective consciousness of a certain demography. In this case, it became a language to address deeply entrenched ideas of morality and cultural expectations. Reader-friendly listicle-based websites similar to BuzzFeed such as ScoopWhoop and Storypick containing both curated and original content are excellent vehicles for facilitating virality with their attractive brevity and bite-sized current affairs stories.

***

“I want you to hurt me!” she cried.

“Are you sure?”

“Yess. Do it!”

“Okay. I married you for the dowry.”

#50ShadesOfKhap

 

This is a tweet from the parody Twitter account @Khap Panchayat, that uses hyperbolic situations to poke fun at some of the ridiculous dictates of the Khaps. Another says, “Yo momma so old, she got married at a legal age. #khapinsults”. Yet another one says, “Why is the Duchess of Cambridge pregnant again? Didn’t they have a boy the first time around?” It may border on classist smirking but who can be sacrosanct?

Events in India get noticed in the international humour circuit as well. The wildly popular Twitter handle, @Tweet of God, run by writer and Emmy award-winning producer David Javerbaum, said this about Smriti Irani’s Yale gaffe: Congratulations to Smriti Irani on graduating from Yale in the exact same amount of time it took Me to create the
world. God.

Then there are the in-betweeners. A meme or a Subhramaniam Swany parody page on Facebook has to exist online but a comedy group that calls itself the All India Bakchod treads both worlds. AIB has a popular YouTube channel with over 45 million views and also performs for live audiences. One of their popular videos is Indian Super Mario, an ode to the popular 8-bit video game that an entire generation of Indians grew up playing. The video captures the essence of what it means to live in India, the pitfalls, the injustices and some of the everyday banalities of Indian life. In the video, like in the original game, the player starts playing as one of the brothers, Anil or Mukesh, which is an obvious nod to the uber-rich Ambani brothers. The player gains strength from #Sanskaar, instead of mushroom, pisses on the walls, gets run over by an SUV from which Salman Khan emerges, even manages a ‘Rajnikant mode’ after which he becomes Contra. Finally, he manages to meet the princess but unfortunately can’t have her because her father cannot allow her to marry into a different caste (#Kundlifail).

Their other sketch, Rape: It’s my Fault, is as disturbing as it is relevant. “No women no rape” claims the video and espouses the bhaiyya tactic, i.e., address your rapist as bhaiyya in order to
prevent rape.

East India Comedy, a similar comedy group, has a video titled Sex Education in India. Viewed over two million times on YouTube, it fleshes out the state of the conversation around sex entertainingly but it sounds all too familiar. How does sex happen? The teacher explains that first kundalis meet, after which the parents meet. Only then does the wedding take place which leads to sambhog or sexual intercourse, wherein “the boy inserts his Indian culture into the female values”.

This surge of seemingly fluffy online pop culture is a reflection of a generation that wants to fashion itself a certain way. It draws inspiration from various notions of traditional India with humour – which in turn reflects a departure in the way this new generation wants to be identified. Identity-based listicles like “Twenty things every ’90s kid knows”, or even “Ten things living alone teaches you” fashion a sense of solidarity that locates the readers in a context drastically different from the bindings of caste, religion or region.

***

Bars and cafes across various cities in India have increasingly more numbers of stand-up comedy routines. Noam Chomsky once suggested that the Indian middle class apathy is directly proportional to the widespread poverty. It’s true that the language for most of the stand-up acts is English, the cost of tickets relatively high and the venues accessible only to certain people. Nonetheless, there is ground for optimism. An entire generation of Indians is laughing, and it is not always a case of only making the converts laugh with satisfaction and glee.

Stand-up comedian and feminist Kamla Bhasin knows that humour is a very powerful tool to disseminate urgent ideas. After working for decades in the sphere of gender, she suggests that the feminist struggle is a long and arduous one and a sense of humour is essential. Vasu Primlani, an environmentalist and comedian, often talks about sexuality and the whole spectrum that it comes in. She also fearlessly identifies herself as queer.

But why laugh? Comedy is an excellent vehicle because it tricks you into laughing humbly at your own folly. It has a way of making you think: it never entered my mind. If you can laugh about something, chances are that you are more open to having a dialogue about it. Or we must laugh simply because laughing your way into jail is better than crying your way into it.

Octavio Paz once remarked that literature is the feeling of deprivation. The literariness of comedy, the instruments it uses to convey feelings of discontent with the state of affairs also reflects a deprivation – a world that we desire but which cannot coexist with the world that we live in.

There has been an explosion of satirical content in the Indian pop cultural scene. Is it just click-bait or have we become mature enough to laugh at ourselves?
Lily Tekseng Delhi

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This story is from print issue of HardNews