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Finding funny: How India never laughs at real taboos

The unending controversy surrounding the AIB Roast has revealed, yet again, that Indians, even comics themselves, prefer to steer clear of real taboos.

india Updated: Feb 22, 2015 12:37 IST
Manjula Narayan

It's a cliche to pronounce that Indians have no sense of humour, that we are a dour bunch that only recognises slapstick of the kind that Mehmood excelled at, that we can only laugh at community stereotypes - the bumbling Sardarji, the oily Bihari, the Bengali in spectacles and the Madrasi with the atrocious accent and worse table manners - that enjoyed great popularity in the Bombay-to-Goa era when Amitabh Bachchan was a dude, but have quite vanished in this age of political correctness when Aamir Khan has outed himself as the Shamitabh of All Prickly Feelings.

About Aamir, the great surprise is that anyone's surprised he has no sense of humour. Satyameva Jayate should have made it evident that even his flatulence is earnest. It's an earnestness that the average middle class person so taken in by the need to be 'good', to be a dutiful child of his demanding parents, partner to painful spouse, doting parent to ungrateful kids who will inevitably flee abroad, buys into. Khan sounds like the voice of propriety in a world where morality is being flushed down the Indian toilet by gasp, totally unfunny AIB roast jokes.

You aren't saying the AIB bunch deserves the backlash they're getting from the armies of the self righteous, just that everyone at the event - roasters, roasted and the audience - seemed like wannabes: the stand-ups wannabe in Noo Yawk, the actors wannabe in films that don't bore you to tears, and the audience… Oh, the audience just seems stupid clapping on cue and imagining they are part of some glam in-group where everyone's sleeping joyfully with everyone else when they are actually overdosing on medication for erectile dysfunction or an unattractive compulsion to douse their hands with sanitizer before and after uh sexual congress.

Like, if you parted with your hard earned money to watch the event, you deserve to be sanctimoniously roasted on Satyameva Jayate for being a sad prig cut off from India's unwashed millions. Repent by contributing to Being Human and running over a few slumbering street people, OK?

Ah, yes, the AIB roast has had beautiful star columnists earn everyone's undying admiration by speaking up for Freedom Of Expression - that cause du jour - and aspiring comics earning brownie points by standing up for their biradiri. But it has also showed up the curious emptiness of contemporary Bollywood and the nascent Indian stand-up comic scene. Use all the four letter words you want, yell them out, they ARE funny; chuck in lots of sexual innuendo too, but spare us the buddy-buddy vibe. True comedy kicks powerful ass, the AIB roast abjectly kissed it. Really, the whole thing was too much like high school where one bunch of pimply adolescents stares longingly at the miraculously zit-free in-crowd ruled by a quick-on-repartee queen who has deigned, for this special occasion, ah glory be, to make jokes about his own sexuality because… well, he's a powerful director-producer and he can hahaha. is easy sh*t; funnyness that won't shake The Establishment; funnyness that won't even shake the casting couch. The problem with the AIB roast really is that it's not subversive enough. In fact, it wasn't subversive at all though outwardly it seemed like it was: jokes about skin colour, tick; jokes about sex, tick; jokes about Catholicism, tick; jokes about sexuality, tick. But where were the jokes about our scary mainstream preoccupations, about right wing Hinduism and Islam, or the caste system or the vast idiocy of rising fascism, fundamentalism and institutionalised sexism? Naah, too frightening to laugh at, too scary to touch. We'd rather chuck in a bunch of Hindi expletives to disguise our collective inability to guffaw at the many ready-to-charge pachyderms in the room. Seriously, Johnny Lever's compulsive eye rolling was funnier than Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor playing the emcees at a borderline risqué school-leaving function.

The aftermath of the roast, which prompted some killjoy to approach court for AIB's unforgivable lapse of cracking feelthy jokes that outraged the modesty of the pristine women in the audience and are offensive to a culchaar that condones only the minor infractions of sex selective abortions, gang rape and non-erotic wife beating, has quickly transformed the episode from sorry farce to painful comedy, one that hurts so much, you can't ROFL, LOL, titter, cachinnate, chortle - yeah, you're so bored even the thesaurus turns you on now - any more.

Indeed, Bharat has a gift for making you cry through glycerine-induced tears of laughter. Like, this writer is still trying to figure out an appropriate reaction to the Modi suit and the diamond merchant who threw `4.31 crores at it presumably to fashion the gold thread into bars that will eventually be discovered in an airline toilet. The simultaneous trolling by the Dalit unit of the Punjab Congress that auctioned a poor man's suit for 60k is pure genius though, and no, it's not the guilt inextricably linked to your wretched liberal Hindu forward caste status that made you guffaw.

The truth is we are a nation that prefers to laugh only at safe subjects (this includes demented wives, rural politicians and that prince bereft of his kingdom, Rahul Gandhi), at steering clear of the real taboo topics - religion, caste, sex and our own pathetic need to belong, to be part of the beautiful crowd. For this is a nation crippled by status anxiety. Everyone wants to be beautiful, rich, and upper caste at least, if they can't make the brahmin grade. And if they aren't any of those things, hey, they want to sleep with someone who is. OK, one out of three will do.

But would you find many cosmopolitan urbanites who've traded the respectable family jyotish for wild adventures on OK Cupid, laughing about it? Nopes, that could draw the attention of the NPLUs (Not People Like Us) and maybe their inability to understand your register could get you killed, push you to run like Shireen Dalvi, editor of the Mumbai edition of Awadhnama (who, alas, will never be famous in India's little English-speaking-but-Bollywood-watching subset and so will have no glamorous champions of free expression rooting for her), or dragged to court like the AIBwallahs. It's tragic because they could have to languish in a jail without English toilets. Ah Macaulay, what hast thou done? Thou hast robbed the yoof of the understanding that, in this country, you may be rewarded for rioting with a chief ministership, even higher posts (but we won't venture there on account of this writer's EMIs) but you cannot get away with being a laugh riot, even one that only cusses compulsively about truly transgressive stuff like Raghu Ram's looks.

Hey, let's accept that the excoriating humour of a George Carlin is not for us. Because we are a heterogeneous society that believes wholeheartedly in self improvement through selective breeding - behold the enduring success of the arranged marriage and its modern counterpart, the set-up - and, as an extension, worships conformity. Look, you gotta have the whitest teeth, the best accent in all the three languages that you speak, and the shiniest hair… or at least be able to put up a selfie with someone who has all those things.

Yes, Indian comedy goes to die on the censor board of sameness, on the tombstone inscribed "double meaning any kind of words" that's number 15 on the list of things that now absolutely cannot be featured in an Indian film. Besides, lately everyday life in this nation is so hideously funny, that the force of your laughter made you pop out quintuplets because, well, that's your bounden duty as a good Hindu woman. It would never do for you to be the bad girl who makes misshapen rotis in that genius meme.

But all is not lost. If we must look for Indian humour, comedy that's properly disrespectful, that doesn't give a toss about being devoid of cool, get on twitter, yo. At left, right and centre, funny folks - @RushdieExplainsIndia, @coolfunnytshirt, @GabbbarSingh, @Roflindian, to name a few - are skewering the pompous as they bravely hide behind fake display pictures. Then there are the Faking News and Unreal Times blogs, the Vigil Idiot strips and even Dr Mahinder Watsa's advice column - each instalment a comic masterpiece - that provides an insight into Indian sexual neuroses ("I wore a condom on my finger; will my girlfriend catch a cold?").

Most of these funny people are men, which brings you to the puzzling question of whether a penis is mandatory for success in comedy. But that's the subject of an entirely different story. One that you might generously consider allowing Aamir Khan - by now desperate to appear cool again - to co-write.