Our National Icons Are Not Beyond Satire

Tanmay Bhat’s video making fun of Lata Mangeshkar and Sachin Tendulkar is being used by politicians with an eye on the elections.

Credit: PTI

Credit: PTI and Facebook

There is a wonderful clip on YouTube in which a young singer, Sugandha Mishra, imitates the melody queen Lata Mangeshkar. She gets the voice and the tone, but also the mannerisms perfectly. And her act – in which she sings a few songs Lata style – is full of sly touches (at one point she says, “for this much money, you get only this much singing.)”

The audience, which is full of film industry worthies, is in splits – they are not just laughing at the mimicry but also at the innuendo; they know Lata didi well. The act was first performed at an awards show and then shown on television; it has garnered over 2.5 million hits.

How come no one – the politicians, the cheap publicity seekers, the hyper media, the police and even the sundry liberal – go after young Sugandha? Or, why have the several videos of comedians making fun of Sachin Tendulkar not attracted the ire of the BJP, the MNS and the Shiv Sena? Is the police planning to ask Youtube to take down these videos like they have with the snapchat video by comedian Tanmay Bhat, who has made fun of these two “national icons”?

Likely not. There are several reasons why the others have gone unnoticed while Bhat is now the piñata of the moment, with everyone having a go at him. And the more people feign outrage, the more people will join them; television channels will discuss his effrontery, the anchor in an appropriate state of high dudgeon, the guests occupying those windows ensuring they shriek at the top of their voices (that is why they were chosen). Celebrites will give quotes that cover all angles. Trolls and twitter intellectuals will have their 140 character say (completely contrary to opinions expressed in other, similar cases). Politicians will issue statements and file FIRs with photographers in tow and the police will scurry about, to show it is “taking some action.” After a while, Bhat will be forgotten, everyone will move on to the next outrage du jour-then it’s rinse and repeat. Bhat will slink into a corner, tackling some bogus case and wondering if he should have joined a bank instead of becoming a comedian.

Back to the basic question-why is Bhat getting in the neck while others have got away with much more? Our pomposity has something to do with it, but Bhat is getting in the neck because who he is and his (inadvertently) poor sense of timing. For one, he belongs to the All India Bakchod group, which had “roasted” a few film actors and directors, using the kind of language that is common in US stand up comedy but still shocking in the Indian context. The video of that show became a hit but sufficiently upset the upholders of Indian morality enough to launch prosecute against AIB.

From then on, the AIB got a higher profile and as every self-publicist knows, publicly going after high-profile targets (especially if they appear unprotected by political godfathers) is a sure way to get 15 seconds of fame. Newspapers call you for quotes and TV channels pester you to appear on their shows; (Anchor to producer-could we get that talentless lunatic who starts shouting the moment we ask him something? Good for viewership.)

But Bhat, despite being a comedian, displayed poor timing. He did not know – how could he have – that the elections to Mumbai’s municipal corporation are coming up, that all parties are in campaign mode and each one is looking for causes that will endear themselves to their constituencies, in this case, the Marathi manoos. When Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena first raised its voice against this snapchat video, the Sena too jumped in and the BJP upped the ante with no less than the party’s city unit president – a man with an eye on the main chance – issuing a statement and meeting the police commissioner to protest. Could the commissioner say no to an MLA from the ruling party? Hardly. This is trolling on an epic scale.

Bhat has become the victim not just of our essential lack of humour and our serious irony deficiency – both true – but because it pays to attack him; some get publicity, others hope for political dividend. The defenders of the principle – that icons should not be satire proof – get outshouted. When even “liberals” use qualifying words like “in bad taste” before saying he has the right to make jokes, we know we have entered dangerous territory. (For the record, I found his act unfunny, but that is just my opinion.)

The media has come out of this episode looking the sorriest. Displaying a lack of judgement about what is news and what is not, television channels have once again demonstrated that they rely on extreme views to discuss serious matters. The reasonable voice has no chance – literally — of being heard. Any random small time politician or out of work filmmaker or social media troll raises a bogus issue and becomes fodder for a half an hour “discussion.”

The most worrisome part of this episode is that voices are now being raised that no one should make fun of respectable public figures. This time it is a singer and a cricketer; how soon before it becomes a politician? Will poking fun at the Prime Minister of the country – whoever it may be – become illegal? In this Confederacy of Dunces, anything is possible now.

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  • Thrive thrive

    The kind of material shared by bhat is crude but I admit, a certain could find it funny. I suspect those people may fall into the not -so- intellectual- college-boy -or-girl variety.(its a mentality thing, not the age factor).
    I defend the giant bhat’s right to say all of those things. After all, he os trying hard to bring all Indians down to his crass and unsophisticated sense of what is supposed to be funny. I just think that no one can force me to accept it as comedy. Or the millions who have given him firm audience feedback – No, Tanmay, they say in a chorus, we expect better…more nuance, buddy. It’s all about nuance, class and that sense of timing. You’ve done some good work, don’t screw it up like this.

    I may also go so far as to conjecture that the two parties are in it together..the varmints. ‘this is what I shall say about sachin bhai and lata tai, whatcha think, huh bhai?’, the bhat , Soto voce. ‘ Kya idea, win for aalllll’, reply the gleeful keepers of the ratnas’ honour. ‘ you make joke, we make noise, lots of social media noise for us..we will trend, bhai’!!!..all this in Soto voce, do remember.

    And so, they gone and dunnit. And so, we find ourselves tweeting and beating, fretting and a fuming, sweating and glowering..while they laugh all the way to the #top trend universe.

  • Harish

    Honestly, if you had seen the video, it is pathetic. I doubt if anyone could laugh seeing this video. This has nothing to do with our obsession with “icons” but the ridiculously poor attempt involving famous personalities in the name of comedy. The author mentioned about Sugandha Mishra imitating Lata Mangheshkar and getting away with it. The difference is that she did not use the opportunity to abuse another personality in filthy language. We have enjoyed jokes about Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi, Sachin Tendulkar, Shah Rukh Khan Amitabh Bachchan and so many others. Trying to justify this poor attempt is equally repulsive

  • Thrive thrive

    Tanmay Bhat has just taken ”standing on the shoulders of giants” to a WHOLE new low as it can go. How else could a giant, small-time, stand-up comic have made it to the pages of the New York Times?Certainly not the the merits of his …er….comedy.

    I reiterate my comment below – the butt is laughing all the way to the free publicity bank. As for comedy, Trevor Noah could perhaps teach him thing or two about fabulous humour that chips away at society, exposes its flaws, insecurities and indeed, makes one laugh at oneself..loudly, with head thrown back. The Butt, I’m afraid,doesn’t quite have the fine touch that makes comedy an art form, the touch that makes the connoiseur sit back and appreciate the adroitness of the comedian with guffaws, giggles, and even perhaps, a sneaky feeling of shame at the mirror being shown to you.

  • Thrive thrive

    Responding to the video would give it legitimacy. These two people are not strangers to controversy. They know exactly what to do in such situations -remain silent. Of course, they probably are quite angry about it, maybe even offended ..but they are right to not enter the political minefield that this is.