Tell me," he started. "Are you with Gandhi or with the television channels?" Pertie was referring to the brouhaha stirred up by IBN7 and Sahara when they broadcast two short video clips satirising Mahatma Gandhi. Made by Gautam Prasad, an American NRI from Bangalore, the telecast provoked the wrath of the Information and Broadcasting Minister. Accusing them of "denigrating the Mahatma" and "assaulting the dignity of the Father of the Nation", Priyaranjan Dasmunsi demanded "a profound apology … during prime time".
"First tell me, have you seen the clips? Or are you going by what the papers have reported?"
"Of course I've seen them," Pertie shot back. "That's why I'm asking."
"In that case what's there to complain about? There's no doubt they're irreverent but they are intended as satire. Surely you aren't claiming Gandhi can't be satirised? That you can't make fun of him?"
"Yes, that is my point," Pertie responded. "He wasn't just anyone. He was the Father of the Nation. Making fun of him is tantamount to ridiculing India."
"No it isn't. In a democracy you have the right to make good-natured fun of everyone. Spitting Image in Britian frequently mocks the Queen. Jay Leno in America is merciless about Bush. The problem is Indians are horribly prickly when it comes to their gods and icons. I suspect we don't have a sense of humour. We can't laugh at ourselves."
"That's rubbish. Of course, we can laugh. But what's so good-natured about these clips?" Pertie sounded impatient. "One has Gandhi making sexually suggestive gestures whilst stripping to a loincloth. The other has him shooting an AK47 in a restaurant before eating steak in the company of skimpily-clad women." It was clear Pertie had seen the clips but equally certain he'd entirely missed their point.
"Given Gandhi's experiments with brahmacharya — which many considered an unhealthy obsession with sex — and given he frequently wore nothing more than a loincloth, I think it's a very appropriate way of satirising him."
"And the AK47 and the steak?" I could see Pertie wasn't convinced. "Isn't that an offensive way of depicting the Apostle of Peace, who was a life-long vegetarian?"
"On the contrary. If you want to satirise a man known for non-violence surely this is the way to do it? And this time the commentary is particularly apt. After Noakhali, Mountbatten called Gandhi a one-man boundary force. This clip calls the AK47-wielding Gandhi a one-man wrecking force. Finally, Gandhi was not a life-long vegetarian. He ate meat in his Kutch days."
I'm not sure if Pertie harrumphed but certainly the sound he made conveyed a mixture of disbelief and disgust. "But none of this is funny. In fact it's juvenile. Only a child would laugh at it."
"May be," I replied, a little professorially, "but even bad satire has a right to be seen. Furthermore, good or bad are matters of taste. What you find juvenile might be extremely witty and clever to someone else."
"Well I bet the majority of India doesn't agree with you." Pertie sounded smug. "The question isn't whether satire is permissible. Of course it is. The question is of what sort. These clips are despicable."
"Hang on. People used to make fun of Gandhi during his lifetime. Sarojini Naidu called him Mickey Mouse. She not only compared him to a comic character but to a rat! And I suspect he rather liked it. If he'd seen Gautam Prasad's clips he'd have had a jolly good laugh."
"You're telling me the channels are right and the Minister is wrong?" Pertie sounded irritable. I realised he was close to terminating the conversation.
"Precisely." But I decided to soften my answer. "However, I disagree with the reason the channels have given for broadcasting the clips. They say they did it to show how offensive they were and to encourage the government to take action against Gautam Prasad. Frankly, that's balderdash. First of all, who are the channels to determine whether the clips are offensive or not? That's judgemental and editorialising. Secondly, if they really believe the clips are offensive why attract further attention by telecasting them?"
"So where does this leave things?"
"As far as I'm concerned the Minister is dead wrong. The channels aren't but, ironically, lack the courage to stand up for what they've done. Their defence is a self-defeating cop-out."