We will, we will mock you
(Published on June 17, 2017 in Buiness Standard)
I’ve wondered for years why we don’t, in India, have a thriving equivalent of the American late night comedy shows, like The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (a worthy replacement for the magnificent Jon Stewart), The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Real Time with Bill Maher, or Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. These people tear into the powers that be with a savagery that takes your breath away, but only because you’re laughing so hard. They serve takedown, send up, and unvarnished insult, on a bed of truth, garnished with profanity. They are whip-smart, merciless, and hilarious. And they do it all on mainstream television, protected by the First Amendment. Before the American news media stopped pandering to Trump, got its act together and renewed its commitment to the job, it was the comedy shows that held fast to the single most important function of journalism: to speak truth to power. They always have.
And they do it with a wit as entertaining as it is flaying. A good satirist will skip around poking you with a stick, then pull down your pants, slip a knife between your ribs, and skip away, leaving you filled with admiration and the desire to buy him or her a beer. How do American politicians respond? They appear on the shows. There’s no better way to earn public respect than to take an ego-walloping on the chin.
India is bursting at the seams with comedy gold. It’s so pervasive that, often, a straight-up news report is ridicule enough and needs no further comment. But there’s plenty of material waiting to be mined by a good satirical show. The Internet, bless its soul, performs the same function at individual peril. Newslaundry.com does scathing critique with the kind of damning before-and-after audiovisual clips that work so well to demonstrate contradictions and lies, and goes after not just politicians but media itself.
But it would never find a slot on television. Mainstream media companies stay far, far away from anything but the gentlest poke in the ribs. Cyrus Broacha, who hosts The Week That Wasn’t, is the first to list all the things he can’t talk about. Acts like Aisi Taisi Democracy and All India Bakchod, as well as individual comedians, provide scathing takes, but they don’t enjoy the brand reach of television, and are perpetually in the crosshairs of offended sentiment.
I’m dying to see some aggressive, no-holds-barred comedy shows on Indian television, instead of the multiple tragedies unfolding every night in the name of news debates. I’d much rather watch Mr Modi submit to a chat with Varun Grover or Aditi Mittal. But our politicians’ egos are too fragile. They respond to mockery—and sometimes to regular news reports—by unleashing court cases, sackings, censorship, and financial penalties upon their tormentors. The enemy, today, is truth—truth that hurts electoral prospects, truth that debunks propaganda, and truth that adjusts projected image to reflect reality. And among truths, there is no greater enemy than irreverent truth.
Democracies deliberately place the seat of power in the white-hot light of public scrutiny, subject to relentless public opinion, feedback, and resistance. The idea is transparency, accountability, and responsiveness, not opacity, insulation, and stonewalling. Not all forms of power submit to critical review; autocracy and totalitarianism famously disapprove of it. But in a democracy, the powerful are raised up high not to be worshipped, but to be better examined and judged publicly. Yet, India treats power like a throne, not as an administration of peers, by peers, for peers.
People will never, and must never, stop sticking pins in overinflated egos. Everyone does it privately, many people do it publicly. Secure politicians appreciate satire, and the clever ones might even give it back in good humour. Average politicians ignore it. Only those baring their fangs and looking over their shoulders are provoked by mockery, and the more they are, the stupider, more insecure, and less legitimate they look. By the same token, media houses have to develop an irreverent backbone and be willing to sign up the funny talent. And the courts have to back freedom of expression and stop admitting frivolous cases.
The Indian internet and stand-up spaces will continue to serve the nation in their own ways. My dream is that one day India will have not just excellent mainstream television comedy shows, but also institutions modeled on the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, at which the press roasts the administration, and the Administration roasts the press right back.
But then I remember that we live in a country where television censors words like ‘bra’ and ‘beef’ (shame on you, Indian television, you slavish arm of the nanny state). So for now, the wealth of untapped comedy all around us is either an opportunity tragically wasted, or one that is going to be a very long while coming.