A legend walked into a bar…

Posted on June 1, 2016


Tanmay Bhat has every right to mock Lata Mangeshkar and Sachin Tendulkar. But a little sensitivity wouldn’t hurt.

Is comedian Tanmay Bhat’s video-spoof depicting a trash-talking Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar cause for offence? Before addressing this question, we may have to ask another one: Is it funny? The video shows Bhat playing Tendulkar and Mangeshkar. “Tendulkar” is upset about Vinod Kambli’s statement that Virat Kohli is ten times better than him, and he’s asking the public if they feel the same. “Mangeshkar” endorses Kambli’s opinion. A peeved “Tendulkar” tells her, “You are 5000 years old, so please stay the f*** out of this.” Unfazed, she sings her hit songs – only, the lyrics are modified into insults. He retorts that her face looks like it’s been kept in water for eight days. She gives him the middle finger.

I did not find any of this amusing, and it’s not because I revere Tendulkar and Mangeshkar. I don’t think anyone is above parody, and people who’ve achieved so much in life – love; fame; adulation; money; the honorific of a living legend, burnished by a Bharat Ratna – should certainly be able to brush aside the odd barb. At an awards show last year, the comedian Sugandha Mishra brought the house down mimicking Mangeshkar, whose speaking voice, as she’s grown older, has begun to remind one of a three-year-old who swallowed a squeaky toy. The audience was full of industry insiders – actors, singers – and everyone laughed. On camera. Mishra got some flak later, but the incident did not blow up into a controversy. In other words, Anupam Kher, self-appointed custodian of all things Indian, did not issue this tweet with smoke spewing out of his ears: “I am 9 times winner of #BestComicActor. Have a great sense of humor. But This’s NOT humor. #Disgusting&Disrespectful.”

For once, I am going to play devil’s advocate and try to see things from Kher’s viewpoint. I don’t think the video is #Disgusting&Disrespectful, but it seems to have no real point beyond provoking outrage. (And Bhat is too clever not to have anticipated these reactions. He got what he wanted: a video that went viral in a way it might not have had he spoofed, say, Ravi Shastri and Anuradha Paudwal.) Bhat is not wrong to have made the video. He’s not wrong to have acted on an impulse to make roast beef from a couple of sacred cows. His sin, if one wants to call it that, is that he did not live up to his job description. He’s a comedian. He’s supposed to make us laugh. Even given the extraordinarily subjective nature of comedy, I cannot imagine too many people being tickled by this display of second-rate mimicry and third-rate writing. Among the many hysterical tweets denouncing the video was this gem: “Show me humor in Tanmay Bhatt’s video on Sachin and Lata Di, I’ll show you a mechanical engineer with girlfriend.”

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I feel odd not being unconditionally on Bhat’s side because I am a card-carrying believer in the freedom of speech, even if – or especially now that – the Supreme Court has said that the “right to free speech cannot mean that a citizen can defame the other.” It sounds like a directive from North Korea. Aaron Sorkin’s great line from The American President comes to mind: “You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest.”

But at what point does humour tip over into insensitivity? We are too vast, too diverse a people to be truly united by humour – unless it is just banana-peel comedy – and even the same people may react differently to different kinds of “defamation.” Tamilians react with exasperation when Shah Rukh Khan, playing Shekhar Subramaniam, tops his noodles with curd. The same Tamilians note, with a sense of pride, how Rajinikanth memes break the Internet. Because this isn’t a mockery of the man. It’s a gentle ribbing of his screen persona. Bhat’s video, on the other hand, gets personal in painfully unfunny ways. Mocking what a celebrity does is par for the course. Make fun of Mangeshkar, by all means. Make fun of her high-pitched voice. Make fun of her career that remained in the pink of health long after her vocal cords went on life support. But mocking what one is doesn’t feel fair. Mangeshkar cannot help the way she looks. She cannot help being 86 years old. Telling her – as Bhat did in the video – that “Jon Snow died, so should you” is just someone saying, “I’m so cool, I can make Game of Thrones references.”

I admit that the apoplexy over this silly video is like training a howitzer on a housefly. I admit that our country, today, is too thin-skinned. It’s also troubling to note that liberals, who should know better, are getting to be as touchy as conservatives, picking on every small thing (“Indus Valley gave us the word ‘industry’”) instead of laughing it off. But it’s important to recall Charlie Hebdo. There are rights and there is decorum – and even Bhat knows this. Following the controversy surrounding All India Bakchod’s (the comedy collective Bhat co-founded) roast of popular Bollywood stars and directors, the outfit made this statement: “We hope it’s clear by now that we never write with the aim of hurting people.” In other words, even these nihilists are aware of the concept of “hurt.” But who defines “hurt”? Are we saying that ad hominem attacks, in the guise of humour, are okay? So a Nirbhaya joke – would that come under free speech? A girl who’s been violated by an iron rod walks into a bar…

Bhat’s video is another reminder that there are two distinct Indias today. One is the Westernised India that wants India to be like the US or the UK (in their heads, they may already be living in that India), and thinks Saturday Night Live-style skits – the kind peddled by Tanmay Bhat and his cohorts, where anything can be said about anyone – are cool. The other is the Indian India, where Lata Mangeshkar is Mata Saraswati incarnate. It would help if both Indias were just a little more understanding of each other. This isn’t a plea for Bhat to apologise to Anupam Kher, or for Anupam Kher to retract his statements on Bhat. They are too irrelevant in the larger scheme of things, in a country that has far bigger issues to get outraged about. But this fracas is also a timely reminder that in a country as diverse as ours, it wouldn’t hurt to be a little – just a little bit – sensitive.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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Posted in: Humour, Op-ed, Society