Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  The tragedy of humour

The single biggest offence comedy can commit, even more than offending society, is being unfunny. That, alas, is the fabulous irony behind AIB comedian Tanmay Bhat’s much fumed-about Snapchat video on extraordinary Indians Lata Mangeshkar and Sachin Tendulkar. And that—the inflection point when comedy becomes tragedy— was the least discussed aspect in the fuming debates that crackled on Indian television on Monday evening. “It’s completely alright to find a joke offensive and not funny. That’s OKAY," yelled some stand-up comedians on assorted television channels as they defended Bhat’s right to curse who he wants to as long as his haters didn’t want to send him to jail or lynch him.

While the social anger the Bhat video incited appears unwarranted, it is also time we put the Tendulkar and Mangeshkar joke on the post-mortem table to see what killed the joy.

So, if literally unfunny humour was one fatal stab that spoiled Bhat’s outing, the other was his hint towards “Lata didi’s" death given her “five thousand year old" vintage. Much as the incident was critiqued and brutalised by politicians, fans of Mangeshkar and Tendulkar, opinion-makers on the loose, and a large number of celebrities, nobody really dwelt on this nuance: the disturbing ring that the very mention of death provokes in us Indians. We are uncomfortable with morbidity; we don’t discuss or talk about death, leave alone wish for it or joke about it. We can perhaps take a Virat versus Sachin joke (and perhaps not); even tolerate intolerance against ageism but a publicly expressed comment on the death of India’s beloved nightingale—now that’s cultural and philosophic blasphemy. Or abuse, as some called it. Scientists may argue about death as an inevitable part of the beautiful design of life that must end in decay.

Death talk invites a dozen superstitions to swoop in like vultures on our social conscience programmed towards karmic goodness and gratitude. Worse, when such a denied territory is assigned to someone as revered as Lata Mangeshkar, it becomes complicated.

Since comedy must make sense to the ecosystem in which it originates, it is prudent to ask why Bhat chose Lata Mangeshkar for a satire on cricket rivalry and ageism (the two aren’t even the best laughter-evoking combo) and even more than that, why did he make the script morbid? Did he really want to hang dry two Bharat Ratna recipients in one go, rake in the desirability of the death of one whose actual death will mean a never to be filled vacuum in Indian music and expect people to laugh about it? What inspires and drives such comic scripts is the bigger question here, not whether Tanmay Bhat should be penalised or not. Is it the poverty of comic imagination or is it imagination running haywire in a society that gives very little credo to original thought especially that which challenges our conservative ideals and eventually leads to strangely mixed-up outbursts?

In effect, Bhat’s supposedly comic script had three, not two characters, that can’t be easily tossed around with impunity in India—Tendulkar, Mangeshkar and death. Why? In an “Idiocracy" like ours (the term is borrowed from Time magazine writer Joel Stein’s recent article on America), this should be called killing three birds with one stone.

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