Tanmay Bhat’s done it again. One of the most prominent faces from AIB has once again being engulfed in a controversy for his “jokes”. Last year, we had the AIB Roast, which was littered with expletives, was insulting, demeaning, rude and vile, and made a lot of people, angry. Most angry being the Archdiocese of Mumbai, with whom AIB met, after which they tendered an unconditional apology to the entire Christian community. The other groups offended are probably still fighting it out in courts.
What happened last year was simply this: The “Roast” which is supposed to be an offensive form of comedy, was brought from a mature society like USA to India, where people were grossly unprepared for it. While the people who willingly took part in it had probably given their consent, the people whose names were dragged into it without being a part of it had issues. Right from religious people to Bollywood celebs.
Come 2016 something similar has happened. But first a little background. So Snapchat (the scene of the crime) is another social media platform, which is known for images and videos. The key differentiator on Snapchat though is unlike Twitter or Youtube or Facebook, the images/videos shared there have a maximum life of 24 hours, after which they are auto-deleted. Photos get auto-deleted in a mere 10 seconds. Further, there is no commonly viewable Timeline per se, where one can troll the other. No comments section. No way to amplify your content beyond your reach. Naturally users can feel “untrollable”, hence freer to express views.
Owing to this, Snapchat has become popular for sending risque photos or making seemingly crass and inane comments. Understandably, the users get the feeling that the content there can be a little less civil since it will disappear within 24 hours. Users of the platform admit that there is indeed a lot of content which could be considered offensive. Of course, this is a by-choice platform, you need to opt-in to receive any such content.
Coming back to Tanmay Bhat, he has been doing an on-going series on Snapchat, which spoof’s Sachin Tendulkar and in this latest episode, Lata Mangeshkar also made an appearance. Things headed south when Tanmay uploaded this latest video from Snapchat onto Facebook. But Indian audiences have seen far too many people spoofing Sachin Tendulkar and even a few doing Lata Mangeskar acts, so what’s the problem?
The “jokes” in this video, were at the level of the AIB Roast. Insulting, crass, derogatory, but some may find them funny. And apparently, a lot of the content, for aforesaid reasons, is at similar “offensive” levels in snapchat. Conceptually, this was AIB Roast happening all over again. A piece of comedy, which is brought to an audience which is just not used to it. It is almost like that offensive joke you told your friends, at a private meeting, which you would dare not tell the public. EXCEPT Snapchat is not your group of friends, it is the public at large. The content of the video can be offensive to a wide ranging group: Sachin’s fans, Lata’s fans, Maharashtrians, “respect your elders” brigade, Feminists, “Dont-abuse” brigade and maybe even to a normal Indian.
The reaction to this video was different from the reaction to the AIB Roast though. The first people to take offense were not religious nuts or average twitter “trolls”. This time Bollywood stars led the way, stars across age groups and political and social spectrum. Riteish Deshmukh, Celina Jaitley, Anupam Kher, Kamaal R Khan (yes even him) were some of the celebs who spoke out.
After this came the usual social media outrage. Tanmay Bhat began getting hate from many corners. Some dug up his old (now deleted) tweets where had made some very offensive “jokes”. Some people did not go as far back but just went to his recent snapchat video itself where he was all pro-feminism, and how he had now mocked Lata Mangeshkar just because she looks old. Some floated conspiracy theories that this is a campaign to get people to use Snapchat, because a lot of Tanmay’s tweets were in fact asking people to come to Snapchat to see his “clarification”. People were offended and they vented their feelings. And as is the case with social media, some of it was over-amplified. It doesn’t help when you’re a person who in the past has said very offensive stuff. To add this, if you’re a known sympathiser of AAP, the outrage will also get a political colour.
Next came the real world outrage, and from where things began going down-hill. Someone from MNS lodged an FIR and threatened to beat up Tanmay. Cops began tracing IP addresses and taking action to take down the video. NCP held a protest against him. Pahlaj Nihalani suggested he be locked up. Basically people began over-reacting to what can at worst be called, bad, offensive “comedy”.
And then there were some who turned a new leaf (short-lived perhaps). Barkha Dutt, who usually stands up to every sort of abuse or offensive message on social media (especially against women), seemed to be supportive of Tanmay and his “jokes” on Lata Mangeshkar. One would have expected the feminist in Barkha to rise up and slam offensive messages about a celeb emanating from social media, but this time she seems to have played a different tune.
If Barkha and the others in favour of Tanmay’s freedom of expression are so adamant on this basic right then this should also extend to the likes of Kamlesh Tiwari, who till date is languishing in jails, but not one so called “liberal” is speaking up for him.
All in all, it’s a theatre of the absurd. And all for what? a stupid video.
This brings us back to the debate on free speech we had last year. Even when some morons had dragged AIB to court for the Roast, we were against the morons, but were happy that the court case may finally settle the laws on free speech in India. USA, which is one of the most free-speech friendly nations in the world, too has struggled with such issues. Today, an outfit like AIB won’t get jailed in the USA, because their courts have debated such issues for ages and now the legal system, as well as the society, has a fair idea about what constitutes obscenity and what not. The “Seven Dirty Words” is one of the prime examples of this.
In India, we still have to evolve, the people and so also the laws. Some distasteful words cannot and will not affect legends such as Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar. This does not mean there should be no outrage. If the offender has the Freedom to Express his “jokes” the viewers too have the Freedom of Expression to express their displeasure. And ideally it should stop there. But as the legal system stands, we can still approach the courts for such issues and that’s where this issue too is headed.
AIB of course have set an unfortunate precedent of apologising to a section of the public, so one wonders whether at some point anyone will emerge who manages to get enough leverage to force another apology.
Disclaimer: I am not a Sachin fan nor a Lata fan (nor a hater). I did find some bits offensive and I did laugh at some bits of Tanmay’s video.