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Why so serious?

india Updated: Mar 23, 2009 15:43 IST
Seema Goswami
Seema Goswami
Hindustan Times
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I don’t suppose the Hindu extremists who objected to a statue of Charlie Chaplin being erected in Karnataka know this, but they are in interesting company. The last lot of people to protest so vociferously about Charlie Chaplin were Adolf Hitler’s Nazis.

The Karnataka extremists object to Chaplin because he was a Christian. The Nazis, who had nothing against Christians, objected to Chaplin because he was a Jew.

In fact, Chaplin was both. He had Christian blood and Jewish blood. But it is typical of bigots and fascists that they choose the ethnicity or religion they most despise and blank out everything else. Chaplin was not fazed by the Nazis. And I doubt very much if he would have been fazed by the Karnataka protestors. He did have one advantage when it came to the Nazis, however. His moustache.
As you’ve probably noticed, the two most famous people in the world to have sported that slightly ridiculous toothbrush moustache were Adolf Hitler and Charlie Chaplin.

Astonishingly, the Nazis failed to notice this. They put up a portrait of Chaplin in their hall of infamy, dedicated to those they opposed, only to be startled when ordinary Germans asked why a picture of the Fuehrer had been placed in this hall.

Red-faced Nazis were dispatched to remove the offending picture and a search was launched for a portrait of Chaplin without the moustache – not difficult to find because the moustache was fake and Chaplin was clean-shaven in real life.
But the embarrassment that the moustache caused the Nazis gave Chaplin an idea. He made a satirical movie, called The Great Dictator, about an idiot who ran an empire. Naturally, he played the lead. And as naturally, he looked just like Hitler when he put on a Nazi-style uniform.

After that, Hitler began to seem much less forbidding to anyone who had seen the movie.
In an ideal world, Chaplin would come down to earth and poke fun at the lunatics of Karnataka. But sadly, we live in grim times where good sense – let alone a miracle – is in short supply.

Nevertheless, the Chaplin example tells us something about the best way to fight prejudice and bigotry. All too often we are trapped into defending our own values. This is exactly what the bigots want. They require us to engage with them on equal terms even when their positions are singularly idiotic.

I mean, can you really argue with somebody about whether the Hindu lunatic fringe is wrong to oppose the Chaplin statue? Surely, that should be beyond argument.

Or, we lose ourselves in self-righteous displays of anger and outrage. Long, politically-correct speeches are delivered and harangues are directed at the bigots. And of course, the bigots love it. They now get the attention they so desperately crave.

What if we abandoned our characteristically Indian anger and self-righteousness and opted for the Charlie Chaplin approach instead?

Don’t abuse the bigots. Laugh at them. One of the failings in our attitude to political discourse is that we never recognize the role of humour. And yet, laughter is a much more effective way of dealing with prejudice than outrage.
A rare exception to our normally stony-faced approach has been the Pink Chaddi campaign also launched to counter bigotry and prejudice in Karnataka. I’ve lost count of the number of thundering editorials I have read each year on how those who protest Valentine’s Day are beyond the pale, do not obey the rule of law, etc.

Not one of these editorials has made the slightest difference. Instead, the media condemnation has only served to focus attention on the lunatics and goondas who disrupt Valentine’s Day.

But the Pink Chaddi campaign, because it came from ordinary people with a sense of humour, achieved what none of the editorials could. It showed up the bigots for the buffoons they really are. And it demonstrated that Indian women were now confident enough to make jokes about underwear. Nothing that the bigots would do could dent that confidence.

I believe we can learn from the Pink Chaddi campaigners. Let’s stop engaging with the bigots at an intellectual level. Let’s end this TV news debate-style policy of balance where one outraged feminist is pitted against a Neanderthal bigot and the two engage in a shouting match.

Let’s just make fun of these jokers. That’s all they deserve. It is not my intention to suggest that we should pour scorn on serious politicians. It’s one thing for Mani Shanker Aiyar to refer to LK Advani as Uncle Walrus, quite another for us to look at Arun Shourie’s moustache and wonder whose it resembles more: Chaplin’s or Hitler’s.

Rather, our approach should be more good-natured. Let’s send greetings to Praveen Togadia every Id and drown him in a sea of biryani. Let’s send thousands of half-pants to Raj Thackeray to remind him that he’s behaving like a brat. Let’s ask our gay friends to blow kisses at that mad BP Singhal who appears on every TV programme to declare that homosexuality is a sin. Let’s send Sushma Swaraj a truckload of rolling pins so she can finally do to her second-generation BJP rivals what she has been doing to good sense all these years: bludgeon them into submission.

When it comes to prejudice and bigotry, the only thing that works is ridicule. To do anything else is to play into the hands of these bigots.