Filmmaker Jaideep Varma has in the past directed two non-fiction films on the band Indian Ocean and filmmaker Sudhir Mishra. Now he’s trained his lens on the sensitive landscape that is Indian comedy. Varma talks about his recently released documentary I Am Offended, what inspired him to make a film about comedy and censorship, and his take on the All India Bakch*d (AIB) controversy
How did the idea to make this film first come to you?
The idea to make this documentary came to me in 2012. I actually met Andy Zaltzman, the London-based stand-up comedian, during the 2011 cricket world cup. A year later, when he was doing some shows in Mumbai, he wanted me to shoot some of those gigs.
That’s when I met the AIB group, who were co-performers. And what they were doing with their comedy was truly different and pushing the limits. I decided eventually, to make a film on it.
You weren’t an avid enthusiast of stand-up comedy before that?
No, I had relatively little exposure to it. I had seen some Russell Peters online, which I did not like. Varun Grover was the only friend I had who was a stand-up artist before I met Andy. During the course of making the film, I met a lot of comedians, and of course, AIB, who I think excel in pushing the boundaries of comedy.
You released the film on YouTube... you didn’t want a theatrical release or do you feel the Internet is simply more democratic?
Of course, it’s more democratic. But my film also has a censor certificate with an adult rating, no cuts. We got it in November last year. So I could’ve chosen to release it on the big screen as well.
However, I had no desire to go down on my knees when it came to approaching multiplexes for a release. I had been dealing with someone from PVR before the censor process began but he had left by the time the censor certificate came through. I had no appetite for being treated like a credit card salesman, hence the easiest thing was releasing it online as the producers were more interested in getting an audience for the film than their money back.
How did you manage to get a certificate considering the then CEO Rakesh Kumar wasn’t known to be the most liberal…
The CEO/chairman does not actually sit in the screenings. You have to see the kind of people who do – that is the real scandal. Many of them are seriously incompetent people who don’t understand any nuances at all.
They did not get what this film was all about, choosing to just give it an adult rating because it’s got a lot of profane language which is the only thing they could understand, I guess. The undercurrents of the film perhaps escaped them. Thankfully.
Do you feel that if the AIB Roast had been YouTube-based only instead of a live one, the reaction would’ve been less violent?
No, not really. I think it’s not the medium that is the problem in this case. It’s the content and the language which would’ve offended people anyway, online or otherwise. The media is also a culprit. What is the need to give space or importance to people like Ashoke Pandit? If the media doesn’t show interest, where will his rants get footage? Needless publicity by such steroid-laden media also contributed in this case!
So should there be a no-go line for humour as well then?
I guess you need a self-regulatory instinct for things which can work or not. You can’t dictate what can and cannot be said. But if you’re a comedian, you also have to understand the implications of your act. More importantly, provocation need not be the only way to get your point across. I personally think AIB can do a lot better than this. But again, my problem is purely of aesthetics here, not moral ones.
You hardly have an opposing viewpoint in your film... it’s like a group of people from the comedy industry complaining. Didn’t you want to include the other side?
What would you have done with that voice? You already know what they have to say about how their sentiments keep getting hurt at everything. When I started the film, I wanted to focus only on these comedians and the work they were doing – which was very important and radical according to me.
The opening sequence shows a comedian talking about how in India we can only laugh at others... do you feel we, as Indians, can still not laugh at ourselves?
I think we do have the ability to laugh at ourselves. But only in private. I bet many people, alone in their room at night, watch AIB videos and laugh! But in public, it’s a different affair. There is a pressure to conform to certain things and that stops us from laughing at ourselves.
* I Am Offended was released on Being Indian, the YouTube channel of digital media company Culture Machine this month
From HT Brunch, February 15
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Varma’s film has all the familiar funny men from Johnny Lever to Vir Das talking about what ails Indian comedy