In a recent interaction with journalists of the Indian Express Union Minister for Communication and Information Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad said those in public life should learn to enjoy “humour, cartoon(s) and fun. It is part of public life."
Not too many, including many worthies from his own government, are likely to agree with Prasad.
In general, public figures in India, across politics, sports, Bollywood, and religion (the four things that drive India and Indians), are averse to being made fun of -- it’s as if this will reduce their standing.
Here’s a sampling: In 2014, Jaya Bachchan, a member of Parliament asked the Information and Broadcasting Ministry what he intended to do with radio jockeys mimicking representatives.
Earlier this year, comic Kiku Sharda was arrested for imitating the inimitable Gurmeet Ram Rahim, the chief of the influential Dera Sacha Sauda cult.
And more recently, politicians, actors, and the world at large (or so it seemed) took umbrage at comedian Tanmay Bhat’s effort to poke fun at former cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and playback singer Lata Mangeshkar, even as the two icons chose to look the other way.
That makes like difficult for comics of all hues. After all, an established form of comedy the world over is to make fun of somebody or something that many people hold dear.
“The problem is that in India, even if the subject of the joke doesn’t react, others do. We don’t see our public figures as individuals but rather as demi-gods. We build temples for our film-stars, and religion as well know is a super touchy subject," says Delhi based Ginnie Mahajan, morning show radio jockey, Radio City.
That doesn’t stop Mahajan or her ilk from going ahead and doing what they are supposed to.
Indeed, comics in India have realised that anything they do is bound to affect someone. “It is important to be aware, in this hyper-connected age that there will be a certain section which will react adversely (to almost anything)," says Biswapati Sarkar of The Viral Fever and the man behind some of the most funny political videos seen ahead of the 2014 parliamentary elections.
Politicians should be used to being the butt of jokes. There is a long tradition of political humour in India which has produced some of the world’s best political cartoonists. Ideally, a representative says, politicians should take their work, not themselves seriously.
“We should lower our egos and not take ourselves so seriously. Many times publications in Odisha publish cartoon of me and I have a good laugh at them as there is no reason to get infuriated," says Tathagata Satpathy, member of the Lok Sabha from Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Odisha. “However, many of many politician friends are intolerant. I think the pressure of constantly planning for tomorrow makes them miss today," he adds.
Politicians in the US, where comics have the benefit of the almost bullet-proof protection the first amendment offers, are, in general, more tolerant, if not appreciative of efforts to pull their leg. Sure, this could change if Donald Trump becomes President. In 2015 US President Barack Obama partnered with new media company Buzzfeed and created a video aimed at selling Obamacare to millennials. So far so good except for that the opening shots of the video had the President fooling around with a selfie stick, making faces and clicking, what else, selfies. Obama is a regular on late night comedy shows in the US that routinely tackle serious issues, albeit with the requisite dash of irreverent humour.
That is unlikely to happen in India where the ham-handedness of the government of the day (irrespective of which government) has forced comics to watch what they say and do.
“The problem is that there is a lot of self-censorship now," says cartoonist Aseem Trivedi. “Bal Thackeray was a cartoonist. His cartoons raised questions. Look at what RK Laxman did. But we don’t see that kind of work anymore." That may not be entirely true. Several mainstream publications, including Mint, feature cartoons, poking fun at the high and might, and, making, as the best cartoons do, a point. The Hindustan Times features a humour column by Mint’s consulting editor Manas Chakravarty. In 2012 Trivedi was arrested on sedition charges for his cartoons, one of which depicted “the gang rape of Mother India" by elected officials. Trivedi was a part of the anti-corruption protests led by Anna Hazare and his arrest was largely seen as politically motivated.
But isn’t it a sad commentary when comedians and cartoonists, who use humour to raise uncomfortable truths have to be “responsible" or censor themselves? “Of course it is but the fact is that we are not a very funny race. We don’t like people cracking jokes at our expense, so when it comes to people we consider ‘important’ all hell breaks loose," says Mahajan. Her advice? Start at home. Laugh at yourself. “Then, perhaps, we can talk."