The AIB Knockout Championship from the comedy collective All India Bakchod (AIB), sought to break new ground by introducing Comedy Roasts in India. Accused of obscenity, AIB and the format have faced calls for a ban. The controversy pitches “Indian cultural values” and democratic tenets of free speech against each other. But is it simply about this or the issue straddles shades of grey too?
Comedy Roasts are shows where “peers trade insults albeit in a good natured way”. According to Wikipedia, the insults can be absolutely explicit hitting at personal habits and the public perception of the person at the receiving end, known as the “roastee”. The roastee’s friends too are subjected to a similar treatment. The host of the event is called the “roastmaster.” Anyone who is honored in such a way is said to have been “roasted.” The first roast is known to have been played out by the New York Friars Club in 1910, when it decided to counter “Toasts” (felicitations) of members. Later, Dean Martin and Comedy Central have made the format their own. The latter being a sought after privilege with Justin Beiber slated to be the roastee in 2015.
So “ROASTS” have taken 105 years to arrive in India (ask the Punjabis ), courtesy AIB which has been formed by four stand-up comedians — Tanmay Bhat, Rohan Joshi, Gursimran Khamba and Ashish Shakya. The “roastees” were film stars Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh and the “roastmaster” was Karan Johar with a panel of 8 others deputed to take on the roastees including film critic Rajeev Masand and Roadies producer Raghu Ram. The event was exclusive at Rs 4000 per seat and had 4000 attendees. Later its video was uploaded on YouTube with a due disclaimer which had age restrictions stipulated along. The event collected Rs 40 lakhs towards charity and it got more than 8 million hits on YouTube and went viral on the social network.Since Indians are a little too tight on getting offended and everything from Alia Bhatt’s dumbness to Modi’s suits are sacred cows, this is a welcome change indeed. Then what was the furore about?
Nothing had prepared the larger audience for the sheer volume of abuses, cuss words and 4 letter hindi words for everything sexual in our lives, not even our raucous National Elections. AIB went through its routine firmly believing in the right to offend and its jokes on taboo topics such as rape, gang rape, gays, race, religion, and homophobia which formed the core content of the show led to complaints and criticism. Though Karan Johar was very much at home walking like a dog and rubbing bums yet a PIL was filed in the Bombay High Court by Sharmila Ghuge who was offended by it all and accused AIB of crossing the limits of morality and decency, of vulgarity,and obscenity and of affecting the minds of the youth. Brahaman Ekta Sewa Trust was the first to lodge a complaint. Btw just try deciphering what the Santha stands for ? The four words seem …seem like disjointed ideas ! Yet, the Santha had the right to be offended and it exercised it just like AIB exercised theirs.
AIB has since removed the video ,issued an apology in general and also to the Christian community but defended its right to offend, an FIR has been lodged on the orders of the Court against the organisers, participants and some in the audience such as Bollywood actors Deepika Padukone and Sonakshi Sinha (what about the remaining 3998?).Procedural issues too are being looked into to identify lapses and as of now the script submitted has been found to be at a variance to the one spoken by the participants.
This Amul advertisement on the AIB Knockout controversy has three caricatures depicting Arjun Kapoor (standing) and Ranveer Singh and Karan Johar. The chairs and the dresses and the poses of the caricatures resemble the details on the actual show. The Amul girl is standing behind the chairs with an annoyed expression and indicates to the trio to seal their lips.
The Tag Line…Yeh Roasti Hum Nahin Todenge…is a play on the hindi son “Yeh dosti hum nahin todenge” from Sholay which translates into a friendhip bod never to be broken.This is a reference to the bromance between Arjun and Ranveer and the word “roasti” is a reference to the comedy roast hosted by them..
The Punch Line….AIB – All India Butter…gives out the identity of the comedy collective which scripted the show and also endorses the Amul brand.
Free speech advocates maintained that there wasn’t anything objectionable and that AIB had the right to offend and the objections were to do more with the perception of what’s appropriate or not and as such who has the right to decide upon this in a democracy. They labelled all naysayers as “pseudo moralists” and puritans who were objecting to cuss words and abuses as if they had never used them before.
The naysayers were generally amongst the political class and this time they were muted after a serious backlash over “ghar wapsi” and the Kiss of Love campaign . However the Maharashtra Nav Nirman Sena (MNS) issued threats to the roastees of preventing their film from releasing if they did not apologise for their part in the event. Actor Aamir Khan objected to the content and called it verbal violence only to be subjected to some himself and was lampooned for his hypocritical attitude over his defence of his expletive ridden production “Delhi Belly” and its lyrics such as Bhag Bhag Bose Dk, Bose Dk and Hole ***,Hole ***, Hole *** , famous college anthems in their own right.
Talking of hypocrites Deepika Padukone and all the “free speech” advocates too are the same as during the the cleavage row they fervently preached about female dignity, and promptly forgot it while guffawing raucously on the vulgar and hurtful jokes directed at women during the AIB show.
AIB apologized in the face of rising criticism and denied their supporters their very own Charlie Hebdo moment by not being the sacrificial lambs. They stated that it was all meant to make people laugh and not to hurt though they retained the right to offend and expected others to not get offended as it was all in good humour. The group also positioned itself as free speech crusaders and were standing up for thousands who felt gagged as creators or activists.
Touching indeed.But what exactly were they standing for?
As a concept the Roast was a hit and credit goes to all involved. It really broke through the glass ceiling and yes it takes guts to do this in a country where a man playing Lord Shiva indulging in a cigarette can offend people. Then to pull it of saying that the last good thing Ranveer was in was Deepika Padukone, in front of them and not on a WhatsApp or a FB joke train is definitely new ground in terms of comedy in India, where the ultimate benchmark is something as slapstick, sexist and laborious as Comedy Nights with Kapil!
But the good part ended there.
It’s true that abuses and cuss words are commonly used, but not in living rooms and nor at work or school by not even the “roastees”, or AIB collective or their 8 million (and counting) supporters even in jest. That’s because these are established indecent form of expression across cultures not because the levels of vulgarity and obscenity may vary for us all but because swearing and cursing are associated with perpetuating an insensitive and aggressive attitude towards the groups or habits the cuss words are directed at. And this is not my hypothesis but of reputed institutes all over the world. All abuses are mostly directed at women and no vacuous arguments in favour of free speech can justify their mainstreaming in any country or society. Many below 18 were exposed to the open use of expletives and this is objectionable, not because of culture vultures or “desi Voltaires”, but because of the propriety of the whole issue. Similarly advocating use of filthy 4 letter expletives for women or anyone else cannot ever be clubbed with a free speech debate.
AIB does not only have the right to offend but also bears a responsibility. The videos did not have the disclaimers till the Maharashtra Government objected. Age restrictions were in place but could their subsequent circulation on Facebook or WhatsApp be controlled? If not then AIB’s defence stands exposed that they put adequate safeguards in place. This certainly makes AIB responsible for the message it sends across to these young minds.To skirt this, is like seeking power to influence without accountability.When Yo Yo Honey Singh glorifies “sabki bajate raho”, “chaar botal vodka kaam mera roxz ka” and ladkiyon ka buffet” these do get picked up by starry eyed youngsters eager to establish themselves and the weak amongst them will adopt the very ways being glorified.The impact of introducing expletives in the average comedy act would also be on the same lines.
Right to offend cannot be wielded without understanding those likely to get offended. An intended message will always be lost if an equal opportunity offender demonstrates “cultural blindness” leading to the “heckler’s veto” will gaining ground. Just drawing from the gags on the show, for those who are surprised at people being offended let me clarify for you that contrary to the projection in the gags all blacks do not have Ebola, only blacks do not have Ebola, calling someone black is not a laughing matter, all priests are not gay, rape and gang rape are unimaginably painful experiences and for the families of those beheaded by the IS… its not a joke.
When AIB and the “everything free” brigade came out all guns blazing they finally stood for championing gross language ad obscene and explicit comedy.I am a supporter of free speech and expression for the right of an artist to create what he wants. But what was being created by AIB? They were just promoting a comedy form to make themselves popular (no social or larger responsibility here) and created an expletive ridden Bollywood focused cuss word infested show. Was the obscenity directed at driving home a lesson about the way Punjab or Haryana Police behave or was it just to cater to the larger audience aimed at achieving instant popularity?
Though I am okay with the audience and participants consenting to the obscenity but not all who watched it were comfortable. Yes, they would have switched off the video but then you cant say don’t be offended and then defend it for the sake of defending.Understanding has to be mutual.If it is not then both parties need to find common ground .Banning the show or insisting on producing more crass shows is an extremist position which is unsuitable for a considered discourse in a complex world. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre there was widespread support for free speech but then eventually issues of sensitivities and the debate on the larger situation of the muslims in France also gained steam. In the case of AIB too there’s a need to acknowledge the problem and neither the moral police nor the defenders of free speech should protest simply because that’s what they can do.This should instead open a debate on the acceptable norms of decency including movies and reality shows , regarding controlling the content being uploaded in YouTube in India and also regarding the hounding of comedians by the government by using legal provisions.
If it was an Aseem Trivedi like incident where a cartoonist is charged with sedition or if Mamata Didi is jailing professors over cartoons then I would say that’s about freedom of speech and expression. But here you cant defend AIB for its language content and insensitive gags. When jokes and satire are directed at groups which are at the receiving of society or not on the same page intellectually and socially as the humorist then the gags on them shall be lost in translation and the intended message is almost always lost. And in this case there wasn’t any message at all. If humour is not contextual then it’s just a hollow medium being exploited for promotional or professional purposes. And AIB did just that.
The “free brigade” and AIB in reality do not stand for free speech and expression rather for using expletives and obscenity in shows without wanting to accept the responsibility that goes along. AIB has a right to produce what it wants, and banning is not an option. But then AIB has to ensure appropriateness of the content as well for all the reasons discussed earlier. If AIB continues to defend for the sake of offending it will in the long run damage the cause of free speech and not benefit it.
I too support freedom of speech and expression but for a cause and not for the sake of it and if I agree with AIB and its supporters then we are both wrong!
POST SCRIPT I
13th March 15; The controversy generated by the Censor Board banning 28 cuss words has got a new lease of life with Board Members Chandrashekhar Dwivedi and Ashoke Pandit registering their protest by way of correspondence and through the social media.They have attacked the Censor Board Chief Pahlaj Nihalani for following and autocratic and arbitrary style of functioning.They have spoken against the list of cuss words as they feel it will restrict artistic expression in films and have sought the formalisation of the same after due deliberations within the Board as well as the civil society.
Two prominent movies have been affected by the new directives.Anushka Sharma starrer and her home production “NH 10” was recently passed with an ‘adult’ certification and 9 cuts (30 were originally proposed).The release of the movie was delayed as earlier it failed to obtain requisite certification. Varun Dhawan’s ‘Badlapur’ was luckier and was passed intact but with three cuss words removed.The film industry is up in arms and termed the new guidelines as “suffocating” and fear that too many rules can be used to victimise producers and directors .
Nihalani has stressed that movies that have too much swearing ,bloodshed and objectification of women shall run the risk of not being granted a certificate for public viewing. He has come under attack for proximity to the BJP and for furthering the Party’s cultural agenda.
This Amul ad/ topical on the Censor Board shows a caricatures depicting Pahlaj Nihalani running with a net to nab errant movie makers and with a scissor to “chop off” the objectionable dialogues and scenes.
The Tag Line …Gaali Gaali Mein Shor Hai… is a play on a popular phrase in hindi and literally translates into- every cuss word (gaali) being objectionable.
The Punch Line …Swear By It… is a subtle play on the issue of the list of 28 swear words as also endorses the trusted quality of Amul Butter.
One wonders if there was ever to be a biopic on Virat Kohli then with the present Censor Board directives it would most likely have to be a silent movie or one with a continuous beep tone !
POST SCRIPT II
Jerry Seinfield the celebrated American stand up comedian and creator of the most famous sitcom ever – Seinfield – was to perform live in Mumbai .His events were as part of a series of events being organised by the event management company Only Much Louder (OML),as part of the Stage42 festival.It aims at showcasing some of India’s and the world’s most celebrated artists and experiences in comedy, music, theatre and food. The events were to take place between February and March in 7 major cities in India.
Seinfield, the Emmy and Golden Globe winning comedian, was to perform on 14th – 15th March 2015 at the The Sardar Vallabhai Patel Stadium and the National Sports Club Of India (NSCI) in South Mumbai.This was to be his first ever performance in Asia.Lekin ho na saka….and he came face to face with Mumbai Police !The organisers were told to cancel the show as Mumbai Police did not grant the necessary clearances since they were’nt satisfied about the parking arrangements for the show (???) !
Ya, you heard it right ! Parking space !!!
Like all good things, the conspiracy theories too came free with the cancellation. After all whats life without a bit of spice? The grapevine went agog with the news that the event was cancelled because the venue, NSCI had been recently involved in two major controversies.Once when in a charity show hosted by BJP leader Shania NC the Police manhandled the club members wanting to make an entry.This had caused major embarassment for Maharashtra CM, Devendra Fadnavis.And the other was the hosting of the show “AIB Roast”.To add more spice, OML were the organisers for the “Roast” as well.Hence it was assumed that owing to these reasons Seinfield was “stood up” !
However, as OML was to announce the cancellation, in true filmy Police andaaz, the Khaaki topi waalas made a last minute entry and granted the necessary clearances, albeit barely 48 hours before the show was to take place.OML tried to salvage the shows but they got cancelled anyway as it was a classic case of “too little too late “!.
Facing brickbats for robbing the Mumbaikars of some serious “laughter” , Mumbai Police put the onus of cancellation on OML , that when the permissions were granted then why did they cancel the show? The official answer from OML was that Seinfield had already changed his travel plans once and changing now meant that he had lost a vital day and now with barely 48 hours to go for the show would be jet lagged enough to not park his a** let alone perform on stage !!! So you see, it was actually a “parking” problem ! But there was this conspiracy theory too (not again) that the ticket sales had been too low due to their high tag (6k/12k) and thus the organisers were forced to take this step of cancelling the show.
This Amul ad/ topical on Jerry Seinfield shows a caricature, depicting the comedian, with a shocked and aghast look as he arrives with his baggage and mike to perform , only to be told that the show is cancelled! The Amul Girl is standing alongside the “no parking” board depicting the “official” reason for the cancellation.
The Tag Line ……Stand -up fans stood up?… is a quirky statement as well as a question about the fact and reasons behind the cancellation of the show .
The Punch Line ...Sein of good taste.. is as much about the Amul butter , with a play on the word “sign”, as much as it is on the name of the protagonist of the topical, Jerry Seinfield .
So, it seems the AIB Roast continued to score unintended “hits” on its victim counter !!!
My heart , though , goes out to the organisers OML when I imagine their plight as they had the onerous task of “belling the cat ” – to inform Seinfield that his show wasn’t going to happen because of , of all the reasons, lack of parking space !!!
Had someone told me that its cancelled because of the effect of sunlight on the menopause of the butterfly, i would have still beleived it. But – parking space ??? Who would believe that ?
As for Seinfield, he surely got a “taste of India” !!!
POST SCRIPT III
25th March 15; The Supreme Court of India (SC) while considering a PIL on the provisions of the IT Act, struck down as unconstitutional the most controversial amongst them all, Section 66A. The Section provided for the arrest of a person, for up to 3 years, for posting allegedly objectionable content on the internet. The Sec had gained notoriety after its provisions were invoked seemingly arbitrarily and was perceived to be against the freedom of expression on the internet.
The PIL was filed by a young law student, Shreya Singhal , in 2012 ,when two young girls, Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Srinivasan, of Palghar in Thane District were arrested for posting and liking a comment against the forced lockdown of Mumbai in the wake of the death of Bal Thackeray and the other liked it. The girls had done nothing to disturb public order and the comment and the “like: could never be in the realm of “objectionable” but for the availability of Sec 66A as a tool in the hands of the political outfit.
Numerous transgressions and misuse of the act forced the SC in 2013 to declare that arrests under the Section would be made only after obtaining permission from senior officials such as the IG or the DCP. However, these advisories ‘did not deter the likes of Azam Khan from getting a class XII student arrested under Sec 66A for posting “objectionable” material on Facebook.
Finally, the SC struck down Sec 66A, terming it “draconian” and “unconstitutional”.
The Bench of Justices J. Chelameswar and Rohinton F. Nariman said that Section 66A “arbitrarily, excessively and disproportionately invades the right of free speech and upsets the balance between such right and the reasonable restrictions that may be imposed on such right.” The Judges established the paramount nature of the liberty of thought and expression in the Indian Constitution and held that this involved three principles – discussion, advocacy and incitement. Further clarifying that mere discussion and advocacy of an idea did not constitute an act against public order and cannot invite penal action, howsoever unpopular the idea may be.
The Bench also ruled that the definition of offences under the provisions of Sec 66A was “open-ended and undefined” as well as “vague” and also said that “what may be offensive to one may not be offensive to another”. Further pointing out that a penal law is void on the grounds of vagueness if it failed to clearly define the criminal offence as that would then lead to “discriminatory enforcement of the law.”
The Government of India attempted to defend the provisions of Sec 66A by offering reassurances that it would ensure reasonable enforcement of the law. But the Judges rejected the contention saying that “If Section 66A is otherwise invalid, it cannot be saved” and that such reassurances would not be binding on successor governments. What is important here is that how the government of the day fights tooth and nail to curb the rights of the very people it is supposed to protect against any such infringement!!!!
This Amul ad / topical on Sec 66A shows the Amul Girl as an activist who is carrying a “Thumbs Up” sign with the insignias of Facebook and Twitter dangling along.It denotes the victory for the freedom of expression on the internet with our protagonist marching ahead with a clenched fist, symbolizing a sense of achievement.
The Tag Line ….Free ‘dum’ of speech restored…. Is a play on the hindi word ‘dum’ which means power and while stating the obvious also says that in a democracy true power lies with the people and that is derived through the ability to express freely.
The Punch Line … com.’n get it… is an optic play with “com.” representing the internet and telling the reader about the domain in which the freedom of expression was in question. And it also invites the consumer to come and get more of the Amul butter.
The same Bench turned down a plea to strike down sections 69A and 79 of the IT Act which deal with the procedures for blocking websites and the exemption from liability of intermediaries.This shows that many questions remain unanswered about the regulating mechanism for the internet.Though freedom of speech is sacrosanct but there is no denying that the potential for using the internet against the national interests exists.
The alluding to what does or does not constitutes as “objectionable” will also have a bearing on the case against AIB. So should the internet conform to self-censorship or is there a need to regulate it and what about the famed “right to offend”? Picture abhi baaki hai mere dost….
And I am personally very relieved with Sec 66A not being in existence as otherwise by now I would have been behind bars for having referred to Azam Khan in my Post.After all he may have found it “objectionable” !
So,now you know just how thin the ice was while Sec 66A existed!!!!