There is a wonderful clip on YouTube in which a young singer, Sugandha Mishra, imitates the melody queen Lata Mangeshkar. She gets the voice, the tone and also the mannerisms perfectly. And her act – in which she sings a few songs Lata style – is full of sly touches (at one point she says, “For this much money, you get only this much singing.”)
The audience, which is full of film industry worthies, is in splits. They are not just laughing at the mimicry but also at the innuendo. The act was first performed at an awards show and then shown on television; it has garnered over 2.5 million hits.
How come no one – the politicians, the publicity seekers, the hyper media, the police and even the sundry liberals – got after Sugandha? Or, why have the videos of comedians making fun of Sachin Tendulkar not attracted the ire of the BJP, the MNS or the Shiv Sena? Are the police planning to ask YouTube to take down these videos like they have with the Snapchat video by comedian Tanmay Bhat, who has made fun of these two ‘national icons’?
Unlikely. There are several reasons why the others have gone unnoticed while Bhat is now the piñata of the moment, with everyone having a go at him. And the more people feign outrage, the more people will join them; television channels will discuss his effrontery, the anchor in an appropriate state of high dudgeon, the guests occupying those windows ensuring they shriek at the top of their voices. Celebrities will give quotes that cover all angles. Trolls and twitter intellectuals will have their 140 character say (completely contrary to opinions expressed in other, similar cases). Politicians will issue statements and file FIRs with photographers in tow and the police will scurry about, to show it is “taking some action.” After a while, Bhat will be forgotten, everyone will move on to the next outrage du jour — then it’s rinse and repeat. Bhat will slink into a corner wondering if he should have joined a bank instead of becoming a comedian.
Back to the basic question: Why is Bhat getting in the neck while others have got away with much more? Our pomposity has something to do with it, but Bhat is getting in the neck because who he is and his (inadvertently) poor sense of timing. For one, he belongs to the All India Bakchod (AIB) group, which had ‘roasted’ a few film actors and directors, using the kind of language that is common in US stand-up comedy, but is still shocking in the Indian context. The video of that show became a hit but sufficiently upset the upholders of Indian morality enough to launch prosecute against AIB.
From then, the AIB got a higher profile and as every self-publicist knows; publicly going after high-profile targets (especially if they appear unprotected by political godfathers) is a sure way to get 15 seconds of fame. Newspapers call you for quotes and TV channels pester you to appear on their shows. (Anchor to producer: Could we get that talentless lunatic who starts shouting the moment we ask him something? Good for viewership.)
But Bhat, despite being a comedian, displayed poor timing. He did not know – how could he have – that the elections to Mumbai’s municipal corporation are coming up, that all parties are in campaign mode and each one is looking for causes that will endear themselves to their constituencies, in this case, the Marathi manoos. When Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena first raised its voice against this Snapchat video, the Sena, too, jumped in and the BJP upped the ante with no less than the party’s city unit president – a man with an eye on the main chance – issuing a statement and meeting the police commissioner to protest. Could the commissioner say no to an MLA from the ruling party? Hardly. This is trolling on an epic scale.
Bhat has become the victim not just of our essential lack of humour and our serious irony deficiency – both true – but because it pays to attack him; some get publicity, others hope for political dividends. The defenders of the principle – that icons should not be satire proof – get outshouted. When even ‘liberals’ use qualifying words like ‘in bad taste’ before saying he has the right to make jokes, we know we have entered a dangerous territory.
The media has come out of this episode looking the sorriest. Displaying a lack of judgment about what is news and what is not, television channels have once again demonstrated that they rely on extreme views to discuss serious matters. The reasonable voice has no chance — literally — of being heard. Any random small-time politician or out-of-work filmmaker or social media troll raises a bogus issue and becomes fodder for a half an hour ‘discussion’.
The most worrisome part of this episode is that voices are now being raised that no one should make fun of respectable public figures. This time it is a singer and a cricketer; how soon before it becomes a politician? Will poking fun at the prime minister of the country – whoever it may be – become illegal? In this Confederacy of Dunces, anything is possible now.