US Comedian and Late Night Show Host Jimmy Kimmel has a segment on his show called ‘This Week in Unnecessary Censorship’. The humorous segment is full of exaggerated bleep sounds and false innuendos, inserted into regular network and news programming. I believe the same segment would be excellent in India - as a documentary series.
Censorship and offence is in a quick race to derail the popularity of Bollywood and Cricket as this country’s passion. The religious protests over PK, the departure of Perumal Murugan from writing after protests in his town, the arrest of Shireen Dalvi for the publishing of a Charlie Hebdo cartoon in her Urdu Daily and the censorship of the word Bombay from a song have happened in a space of less than two months. Then came the YouTube broadcast of All India Bakchod Roast of Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh to bring a new low to our freedom of speech debate.
All India Bakchod, which began as a podcast by Tanmay Bhat and Gursimran Khamba, quickly grew into a sketch channel with Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya joining the group. The content created ranged from sketches to musical comedy to parodies, and the group gained mainstream success when they released ‘Alia Bhatt: Genius of the Year’ video with Bollywood celebrities like Karan Johar and Arjun Kapoor in it. Though the group gained popularity for their ‘clean’ videos, much of their content right from ‘Congress V/s BJP’ to ‘Times Of Boobs’ to ‘Honest Diwali’ and a few others didn’t shy away from using crass humour; so, contrary to popular belief, this ‘Roast’ was only a trailing carriage in a long train of content that might have been considered just as easily ‘offensive.’ But first, a little context for those who aren’t in the know.
A Roast is defined as an event in which one particular guest is joked about and made fun of by his/her peers usually in front of an audience. The widely popular insult comedy genre was performed first in India at the 2014 Weirdass Pyjama Festival with Vinay Pathak and Ranvir Shorey as the guest of honours. However, the All India Bakchod Knockout-Roast of Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor was seen as a watershed moment for Indian Comedy.
As Comedian Karan Talwar puts it, insult comedy isn’t a natural trait for India. “Bollywood merging with the comedy scene is a big boost. This was comedy hitting mainstream,” he further added. A fair claim considering the ticketed event in December drew in a 4,000-people strong audience, thereby demarcating it as one of the largest English Comedy shows in India ever.
An edited version of the video was uploaded by the group on their YouTube channel while, as expected, the generous feedback and massive viral success was followed by scathing criticism and protests. What followed was the formulaic moral policing of these ‘anti-sanskriti’ comedians.
The Brahman Ekta Seva Sanstha approached the Sakinaka Police station with a complaint against the content of the show, which they deemed as offensive to ‘Indian culture’. The police received the application but no complaint was filed. This was followed by an announcement that the Maharashtra Government would be investigating whether the organisers had the necessary permissions to conduct the show. The announcement drew polarising views with some criticizing the show for its crude humour, as well as the celebrities who were part of the show, with an infamous tweet by a censor board member about Karan Johar and his mother.
Then, the Christian Youth Forum submitted an application to the Tardeo Police Station to file a complaint against Karan Johar, Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh as well as the participants and organisers of the show, as they deemed the show to be offensive and hurtful to religious sentiments while The Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE), the film and television industry’s trade body, has threatened the actors and director with disciplinary action unless they tendered an unconditional apology, making it a hatrick more befitting of Anil Kumble than a mostly online-catering comedy show. They are alleging that the film industry members who participated in the ‘vulgar’ event are creating a wrong perception of the film industry. Further still, an FIR was registered by the Pune Police against the comedians and actors including Sonakshi Sinha and Deepika Padukone who weren’t even a part of the show and a PIL was filed by Dr. Sharmila Ghuge in the Bombay High Court to take action against the show, which she cautioned was demeaning to women and the basic values cherished in the Indian society. Apparently, it’s a case of dominoes now and everyone wants a slice of the intolerant pie.
The aftermath has been equally predictable. As is the case with most issues in India, politics has to inadvertently interfere. There were protests by political parties such as the MNS who threatened to boycott the director and actors’ movies unless they issued an unconditional apology, and a show at Cheval by Aditi Mittal, who was one of the panellists for the Roast, was cancelled due to a protest by political parties. In response to all these protests, AIB has pulled down their YouTube video and in a statement revealed that they were co-operating with the authorities.
It is now pretty clear that the show is being used as an excuse to score political points or achieve notoriety. Brij Bhakta, part of SNG Comedy, has called the backlash ‘ridiculous and hypocritical’. He questions where this outrage was when the movie Grand Masti, full of sexual innuendos and gay-bashing was released. “This is just an example of a narrow minded culture revelling in its own mediocrity, and will blow over on Valentine’s Day when they have a new toy to be outraged by,” adds Brij.
The preliminary investigations have found that there exists a discrepancy in the script submitted for clearance from the Maharashtra Stage Performance Scrutiny Board and the actual performance. This means that both the group and show organisers could face legitimate legal action too, some of which I’ve attempted to elaborate on below.
The largest democracy in the world also has some of the largest hurdles to free speech. All stage shows in Maharashtra require 14 permissions with the permission from MSPSB being a mandatory one. Article 19 (a) of the Indian Constitution gives the government the right to create laws which can put ‘reasonable restrictions’ on freedom of speech. Section 66A of the IT Act gives a broad, unclear definition of what can be deemed offensive on the internet and threatens the accused with three years’ imprisonment. It is the same law which was used to arrest two girls in Mumbai for writing a Facebook status about the death of Shiv Sena Leader Balasaheb Thackerary. “Our freedom of speech law is a joke. Let’s be honest, if we had to live by the law, this is all feels like The Third Reich,” expressed Neville Shah in frustration. While he is not a fan of the Roast genre of comedy, he believes, as a comedian, that AIB should be appreciated for pushing the bar of what’s acceptable instead of being punished for it.
While the protests which already exist are upsetting, what is more troubling is the backlash yet to come. There is already a sense of unease about possible tedious approvals for live events. Indian creators such as TVF are also nervous that this incident might restrict creative freedom on YouTube, one of the few places where they could innovate and create freely.
I am a fan of All India Bakchod, but the Roast failed to impress me. The Roasts of James Franco, William Shatner, Charlie Sheen and scores of other celebrities are funnier, written with more intelligent crass humour and I’m okay with admitting that I was more satisfied watching it at home on YouTube rather than paying the ticketed price to watch it live. So then why does it upset me that they are facing police complaints and protests? Because it should upset anyone who values freedom. [Read the comedy group’s official response to debacle here.]
As Brij Bhakta remarked, “To say that an event like this is vulgar and against Indian values is mind bogglingly narrow-minded. The point of humanity is to learn from other cultures and advance.”
You have all the right to protest this change and refuse to be a part of the advancement. You just don’t have the right to curtail others from doing so.
Words: Devang Pathak