Political satire is an art – and an art Indians have not yet perfected
“I think capital punishment works very well. Every killer you kill never kills again.
When comedian Bill Maher rants against the American establishment, his speech is carefully filtered through persistent and unyielding satire. Maher’s comedy career was built by lowering senators and presidents by several notches; his tv show Politically incorrect strikes all sacred subjects; he criticizes the left, the right, even the center. With his vicious humor, he castigates the United States for its racism, its belligerent machine and blatant consumerism. “The real evil in America,” he said, “is the glare of our marketing combined with the stupidity of our people.”
By comparison, the Indian stand-up can sometimes be a comedy of errors. Comedian Vir Das’ recent performance in Washington titled “Two Indias” caused more distress than laughter as she rushed headlong into the jerky comparison between good and bad India. With statements such as “We worship women by day and collectively violate them at night,” the monologue addressed issues of gender, politics, COVID-19 and others, successfully raising the jaws of Hindu nationalists from across the country. right as well as’ Khan’s Market Liberals. More than that, it raised the most critical question: Was the Kennedy Center show a satire, a comedy, or just political swagger?
The satire and stand-up practiced in the United States, France and Denmark certainly call on comedians to be just as ruthless in their critiques. The caricatures of the Prophet, Christ as a convict, the president as a madam – there is no subject that is out of bounds. Dirty lyrics have been added to the “Star-Spangled Banner”, the US national anthem, so that it can be played in porn clubs and underground bars. During the #MeToo movement, comedians suggested an official “harassment day”, during which executives could openly express their sexual desire to colleagues without repercussions.
Indian humor, however, is either poised or malicious – failing to fulfill its prophecy of laughter or effectively commenting on the blunders of society. With the old Sardarji jokes dead and buried, the spice of satire is still shamelessly lacking in stand-up comedy. Das’ content and delivery to a largely Indian audience at the Kennedy Center was not a comedic take on but a straightforward, straightforward attack – an effective messaging tool in a culture that rarely reads between the lines. It is to Das’ credit that he understood this flaw and turned to the incendiary material in Indian eardrums, invectives, vitriol and all.
Unfortunately, his scorching tirade confused political stance and comedic interpretation. The Washington public was clearly mesmerized because the words were spoken in a monotonous rant, without the slightest cloak of humor – a practical ploy used by politicians to amplify a simplistic message. Transgressing into the more familiar terrain of a political rally, the awkward alliance between the intended performance of humor and the actual performance of politics may have even disappointed some people. Those who paid $ 15 / seat for an evening of laughter should have been reimbursed.
Obviously, there is a place for politics in comedy. But comic logic must not be compromised by determined nationalist – or “anti-nationalist” – rhetoric. Could it be that one of the reasons some Indian comics get hit with lawsuits is that when they consistently – and sometimes tactlessly – make a political argument, the state ends up treating them in a way? as intolerant as he treats opposition dissidents, activists and politicians? Of course, resorting to more nuanced satire – shielding itself from understatement and irony while condemning current Indian views and practices – may still fail to keep politicians and the troll squad at bay, and lawyers at a safe distance.
Yet the more insular Indian society becomes, the more religion enters politics and the more restrictions on people and speech, the greater the range of subjects for comics. Indian audiences are hungry for entertainment that makes you think, laugh, react and react with discomfort. So far neither Bollywood nor stand-up comedy has been able to deliver it. Until the country can take a few lessons in self-criticism, Indian comedians should be given an official license to offend, hurt, and insult with reckless abandon – a license that can be regularly renewed by the government’s corrective humiliation department. . They should be given a stay of execution to do their jobs as efficiently as possible. After all, only they can get the moral standard back on track.
True satire has a living history, however. In the 18th century, Irish writer Jonathan Swift wrote A modest proposal, a story suggesting that the poor should sell their children to the rich for food. The story detailed the many possible recipes, including roasting, frying and boiling children’s flesh in such a way as to keep the meat succulent and tasty. The deadly serious tone of the article held the painful topic in a difficult balance and left many wondering what Swift really meant. Could he really be suggesting something so crude and grotesque? The down-to-earth tone of the essay could in fact be read as cruel support for frightening cannibalism or as a clever satire on class relations in England. Swift was neither prosecuted for hurt feelings nor arrested for indecent suggestion.
Obviously, then it is easy to take offense when the message is taken at face value. Rightly so, satire struggles to distract its audience from the obvious and suggest multiple readings. Had Swift lived in today’s thin-skinned India, a place of growing fear and retaliation, he might have been pushed back onto the Delhi Ring Road. Indian comedy still has a long way to go.
Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and sculptor.