Home / Opinion / Columns /  The war on fun and what it has cost us

India is at war with fun. Our list of sacred cows, which includes the actual cow, is getting longer. It is perilous to post a video of your filmy dance on Instagram if a temple is in its frame, or any religious element for that matter. All religions have an equal right to be offended. Stand-up comedians are running out of things to say. Humour is a risk. Laughter is the reward, and the punishment for failure used to be the silence of the audience, but now it is possible jail time. Online streaming channels are scared of almost everything that matters to entertainment. Filmmakers have surrendered to the “atmosphere". You cannot wear the national flag, only string it to a pole. And if at all beef finds mention on a hotel menu, it is usually hidden in asterisks as though it is a password. If you want to experience state efficiency, get offended by something related to either divinity or nudity. Even people who are offended complain that their freedom of expression has been suffocated. New India really is a type of air.

Deceived by the myth of cosmic justice, you may think there will be severe consequences for India. All this suffocation, you want to say, will result in some great crisis. But what crisis? Financial losses? An exodus of the rich? I think stifling fun and freedom will not cost India much. It will get away.

People talk a lot about freedom, but they choose many other things over it. That is why they flock to Singapore, or at least until it shut its doors to keep out covid. The city-state is among the most sought-after places in the world to reside in, and it is alluring even to citizens of liberal nations. There is no freedom of expression there, but there is order, and material prospects, which appear to matter more to most people, at least for a while.

The way some people lament “the current climate" in India, you would think it was a paradise of free speech before the ascent of Hindu nationalism. But Independent India was never truly a free place. It was just that offence was disorganized, like everything else. So, if you were an artist or editor, you could get away because of pure inertia, or just luck. Now offence is better organized. A system is in place for just about anyone to complain and law enforcers to take it seriously. This works so well because very few Indians believe in absolute free speech.

Once Mohandas Gandhi sent a note to the famous cartoonist Shankar. “Your cartoons… do not speak accurately and cannot joke without offending, you will not rise high in your profession… Above all you should never be vulgar. Your ridicule should never bite." This was the prophet of freedom speaking.

It was a wrong advice to give a cartoonist, but it encodes an under-appreciated reason why Gandhi was so popular—he was a lot like the typical Indian. Even today, most reasonable Indians believe that you can say stuff, but not if it hurts others. This is probably also the view of most of the world. Free speech, however, emerges from a very different way of thinking, as expressed by the actor and writer Stephen Fry: “It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’… It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so [bleep] what?"

This attitude creates a kind of fun that is of very high quality. The intent of irreverence is not irreverence, but not to waste energy trying not to be irreverent. This freedom creates not only entertainment, but also literature and science. It is a blissful state of objectivity, a tremendous neural bridge that connects the creator and the receiver. But the option to offend matters to very few people: artists, philosophers, journalists and the kind of people who are none of these but claim to be all—activists.

Even among artists, philosophers and journalists, very few want the option to offend because they wish to be harmless, or they are just plain frightened of trouble. So, even among creative folks and their audience, there is no big demand for offensive fun. In this world there is perhaps greater demand for cryptos than freedom of expression. That is another reason why India will get away by stifling fun.

Artistic freedom is extremely important to people like me who earn a living from it. So we tend to overstate its moral force. Maybe many of us, self-obsessed as we are, even believe what is important to us is important to others. And artists and journalists, who have a vested interest in free expression, have a disproportionate influence on generating lament. But most people are indifferent or even opposed to complete artistic freedom.

To an extent I do like this suffocation, it’s because I find it challenging. Look at a nation with greater artistic freedom, say the UK. What are its writers doing with their freedom? Their comedians can say anything they want about their Queen or anyone. Their humour has no risks. It is low-stakes, facile and hence unfunny. On the other hand, even a high-school level poem by an Indian comedian about “two Indias" can go viral.

Freedom of expression is not the only form of fun there is. In fact, most people are more entertained by material fun, like wining and dining and amusement parks. In this, too, India is against fun. Restaurants and bars thrive not because of India, but despite it. They are harassed by many wings of the government, which in turn offers them nothing more than chaos. But in the end, the forces of capitalism help the leisure industry survive India. Still, what has been achieved is unremarkable even by third-world standards. Indian cities are dreary places. India pays a price for that. If you are going to be a sensitive bore, you need to offer something else.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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