The Tanmay Bhat Controversy: Must Comedy Have Boundaries?
Stand-up comic Adnan Nalwala on why comedy cannot be absolutely reverent
Sachin Tendulkar is known to have smashed many boundaries in his career, Lata Mangeskar’s voice has crossed over several boundaries and Tanmay Bhat’s latest Snapchat video, in which he mocks the living legends, has made the world of comedy ask: does comedy have any boundaries?
I have watched his video. It amazes me that it has the ability to grab the whole nation’s attention and has been a cause of pain for more Indian hearts than the tragedy of 700 migrants that have drowned in the Mediterranean en route to Italy from North Africa after the boat capsized. The big question to be posed here to one and all is: does the spoof merit the outrage it has elicited?
As a stand-up comedian myself, I would say humour is a form of art, which, at the end of the day, is subjective and nothing if off limits. Tanmay Bhat’s parodies have sparked a comic renaissance liberating India from its overtly sensitive slumber. It teaches us that despite the rat race we are engulfed in, despite all the many problems we face, let’s learn to laugh at ourselves along the way. In the West, we are used to seeing Comedy Central regularly roasting celebrities ranging from Donald Trump to Charlie Sheen. And, yes, even president Barack Obama has been mocked and spoofed, not once but a hundred times. It’s basic freedom of expression to bring a perspective on any issue or person that people talk and discuss or idolise. The art of humour and comedy requires creativity, which thrives on freedom. Good comedians have to push boundaries, constantly redefine them in their pursuit of excellence.
Tanmay Bhat’s genre of comedy, insult comedy to be precise, is something alien to an oversensitive Indian audiences. That’s the underlying premise. Insult comedy is used extensively by the west while roasting or even at the Oscars. There have been several comedians who have impersonated both these living legends but have never got into trouble as there is an old adage that says “imitation is the biggest form of flattery”. In India, we don’t just adulate our stars, we revere them, offering them a status of no less than a demi-god. In consequence, our culture and mindsets automatically associates demi gods with people of high character and morale. The “fan” is deeply violated if you “attack” their moralistic icon. That’s the reason the guardians of Indian value system are enraged.
The other implication of this kind of humour is that Sachin Tendulkar did not just represent cricket as a sportsman, but he conjured a significant amount of patriotic emotions. He represented India. Likewise, Lata Mangeshkar is not just another singer of Indian land, she’s the nightingale! So when a comedian spoofs Sachin Tendulkar or Lata Mangeshkar, he is perceived as someone making fun of India. In effect, it’s the inability of masses to differentiate between a malicious statement and a harmless joke. Bhat is a comedian and he uses various means and modes to crack a laughter or two— straight humour, roasting and more — if you didn't really like it, you always have the option of not laughing at it. India is a massive country filled with people of varying mindsets, where it is impossible for a comedian to be appealing to everyone.
Tanmay Bhat has not transgressed, there are no boundaries in comedy. In fact, in many ways, he is an innovator and comedy curator. The pressing issue on hand is if the Indian audience is prepared to take on comedy with a pinch of salt for a revered icon? Tanmay Bhatt seems to have solved that piece of the puzzle for us. One can only hope that this episode is just the beginning of an entertainment revolution in India. Perhaps Tanmay should consider roasting some more celebrities, starting with…maybe… Anupam Kher.
Adnan Nalwala, famously known as the Oman's Jokey Boy, is an Indian comedian based in the Middle East who is an entreprenuer by the day. You can contact him on twitter handle @Adnannalwala