Name-Place-Animal-Thing: The Terse Relationship Between Satire and Democracy

This week's column examines the creative ways, other than comedic skits, with which people choose to express political dissent.

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“If we can’t ask questions, what can we do?”

When Ravish Kumar first asked the two guests on his show, “Baagon mein bahar hai? (Is there spring in the gardens?)” My brain went, “huh?” And then I realised that I was watching a news anchor interview two mime artists – Authority and Troll – so maybe it was time to roll with the absurdity.

And what else can you do when a democratic government curtails media freedom? We retreat to satire when there are no legitimate avenues of redressal available to us and/or when a situation stretches beyond the rational, leaving no option but to mock the powers that be – and ourselves for being at their mercy. 

While the artists’ performance may have come off purely comedic in most scenarios, seeing the men on the set of a national news channel, appearing on a show that discusses the serious aspects of our lives and government, lent the entire performance an inappropriate sense of gravity. Prevented from having important discussions with our policymakers, Kumar had to put on a display of good journalism by interviewing mimes as substitutes for our politicians. So really, who is doing the mocking here – the journalist trying to do his job or the government that refuses to take on the burden of being accountable to the public? And who better to represent this wilful silence – sometimes comic, sometimes sinister – than two mime artists?

It would have been easy for Kumar to interview an impersonator who dumbed down the intelligence – and danger – of a political figure. However, by using mimes who personified the abstract concept of ‘authority’ – and the omnipresent ‘troll’ that plagues Twitter, the comment thread on every article on India, our Whatsapp groups, our Facebook accounts, even our family gatherings – Kumar was able to make some much larger points about the connection between democracy and freedom of speech and accountability. It is becoming increasingly difficult to identify who bears the burden of accountability in our democratic nation. And this goes beyond the government banning NDTV India for a day, it extends to a host of other issues, the most pressing example being air pollution in Delhi.  Watching Authority and Troll dodge questions, both serious and inane, it was easy to project all sorts of different authority-related issues onto them; my imagination wasn’t limited to any one issue.

This abstraction also played in Kumar’s favour in another way – by taking on authority and its popular troll-like support through interacting with mime artists, the anchor is also protecting himself to a certain degree. If the government wanted to act against the channel or Kumar for their not-so-subtle criticism, the administration would have to first admit that it identifies with the ridiculous characters depicted by the mimes and only then could it act on the offence. And that would just reinforce Kumar’s point about the state of freedom of speech in the country.

I didn’t really laugh during this show, it just made me increasingly uncomfortable to watch Ravish seriously try to question two entirely unwilling interviewees who made a mockery of accountability. He came up with a creative way to express his conflict with the government that didn’t just draw the line at eliciting a laugh at the expense of the government but went ahead and made viewers uncomfortable about the society we live in.

In an essay titled ‘Create Dangerously’, Haitian author Edwidge Danticat draws on Albert Camus’ ideas of what it means to push back against authoritative narratives through writing and other creative pursuits. Danticat writes, “There are many possible interpretations of what it means to create dangerously, and Albert Camus, like the poet Osip Mandelstam, suggests that it is creating as a revolt against silence, creating when both the creation and the reception, the writing and the reading, are dangerous undertakings, disobedience to a directive.”

By reporting on the Pathankot attacks, NDTV India ‘created dangerously’ because following its journalistic mandate led to it disobey the government’s directives. By literally trying to interact with silence on his show, Ravish revealed the contradiction here – creating competing narratives is a high stakes game in authoritative governments because being caught means risking one’s life or means of livelihood. That ideally should not be the case in a democratic government, where the stakes are significantly lower because our rights ought to be guaranteed.  Ravish’s interview works to reveal the gravity of what is at stake when a government can tell a news channel what to (and more importantly, what not to) tell the public.

If the government is protecting national interest but the nation’s people are not allowed to voice their own demands, then who does it protect through its massive state apparatus?

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Oops, I dissented

The stricter the guidelines, the easier it becomes to subvert or transgress. What about the instances when people accidentally end up challenging an official narrative or directive? Does that really count as creating dangerously, being subversive or dissenting? Ask Karan Johar and he’ll probably give you a vehement ‘No’.

By casting Pakistani actor Fawad Khan in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Johar accidentally made his movie a political comment on the similarities and connections between Indians and Pakistanis. Here was the government, promoting a singular narrative based on the irreconcilable nationalistic differences that divide India and Pakistan and then there was this equally compelling narrative that showed people from both countries, who were so similar that they were indistinguishable from each other, successfully collaborating with each other.

Johar unwittingly supported Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s argument about the danger of a single story. In her TED talk, Adichie outlines the problems of cultivating a single narrative for any place or person, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Johar’s successful collaboration with a Pakistani artist jeopardised the singular narrative preferred by the government and despite his efforts to back-track, it is now impossible to watch the movie and not think that Khan is from Pakistan. Ironically, this fact wouldn’t have been as big a deal if the MNS hadn’t made it so.

If there is no space for multiple narratives in our lives, how do we make sense of the seemingly contradictory experiences we have?

What if we all confessed to the thoughts and actions that don’t fit the officially desired narrative. Like one of The Wire’s founding editors, Siddharth Varadarajan did in his piece, ‘J’Accuse…? No. I Confess.’ His long list of positive interactions with people from “that country” put forward the idea that we’ve all ‘accidentally dissented’ simply by going about our lives because it’s impossible to have only one consistent narrative for the entirety of our existence.

One of his more entertaining ones was, “I confess that as an undergraduate in London in 1983, I dined at the house of a Pakistani friend, where I met Benazir Bhutto, who was then in exile. I confess that I got drunk and asked her what her name was. She was not pleased.”

What if we all followed the premise for his piece – “Following the information minister’s advice of what is expected of people like me, and in keeping with the nationalist sentiments of our times, I am choosing to make a full confession about my relations with people from ‘that country’.”

‘I Confess’ was in response to our information minister’s statement that art may not have boundaries but countries do, however by drawing those boundaries he just made it that much easier for all of us to be transgressive, wilfully or otherwise. For instance, if Varadarajan confessed to having met and befriended people from Pakistan while he was in London, then how many of us need to own up to watching Pakistani soaps or listening to musicians from there?  And to take it further, must we erase all the cultural, linguistic, gastronomical influences from Pakistan the way Johar redesigned his movie’s promotional materials to exclude Khan?

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When fiction is uncannily real

It would be unfair to exclude Donald Trump from any discussion about the impact of mockery.  For the last year and a half, the man has been incessantly mocked not just by the likes of Saturday Night Live and late night shows such as Stephen Colbert’s but also by world leaders and now US President Barack Obama. And it has made no difference to Trump’s popularity. In fact, SNL has grown self-aware enough to incorporate this inexplicable phenomenon. In one of the more recent sketches, Alec Baldwin as Trump and Kate McKinnon as Clinton appear to be on a news show when Trump kisses Putin on the lips, however, the news anchor just responds by emphasising the importance of Clinton’s email server. It’s funny, cutting and observant yet it doesn’t quite generate the panic that simply listening to Trump does. The ridiculousness of comedy somehow manages to underplay the real implications of those statements. But there are limits to this and in Trump’s case, they have been fairly apparent.

However, earlier this year, Adichie wrote a short story, The Arrangements for the New York Times Book Review as part of its maiden experiment with commissioning ‘election fiction’. The story, said to be based on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, was written from Melania Trump’s perspective and sketched an amusing – but not hilarious or even comedic – portrait of the Trump family. In Adichie’s imagination, Melania was a quintessential trophy wife – affectionate towards her man-child husband despite being aware of his faults, uneasy with her husband’s children, especially Ivanka (the apple of this fictional Donald’s eye) and supremely aware of her appearance. Fictional Ivanka, who appeared to be an indulgent daughter to Donald also secretly donated to the Clinton campaign. And Donald himself was an incredibly vulnerable and insecure man in constant need of validation from everyone around him. Adichie repeatedly describes his need to feel pleased by seeing people pleased by him, at one point while talking to Melania, Donald is  “humming with a need for her gratitude”.

Adichie narrates Melania’s thoughts about her husband, “They did not understand that what he found unbearable was to be ignored, and for this, she was grateful because being in the news brought Donald the closest he could be to contentment. He would never be a truly content person, she knew this, because of that primal restlessness that thrummed in him, the compulsion to prove something to himself that he feared he never would.”

Compare this to a real news report from the New York Times a couple of days ago, which said, “In the final days of the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump’s candidacy is a jarring split screen: the choreographed show of calm and confidence orchestrated by his staff, and the neediness and vulnerability of a once-boastful candidate now uncertain of victory.” And there is virtually no difference between the fact and fiction – creating a greater impact than the mockery ever did.

The news report also mentions Ivanka’s reluctance to promote a video ad she starred in for her father’s campaign in case it hurts her business interests. This reluctance to support her father makes it conceivable to imagine the real Ivanka donating to Clinton.

And then there’s Melania. Although Adichie was criticised by many for portraying Donald’s wife as a simplistic caricature, Melania’s subsequent appearance on the campaign trail which included being caught for plagiarising Michelle Obama’s speech and more recently, commenting on cyberbullying without recognising the irony of being married to a prolific Twitter bully have sadly only added weight to Adichie’s story.

What makes this story so potent now is how uncomfortably close it gets to the truth. What was not a really transgressive story earlier may well become one if Trump is elected president. And notably, the story’s weight doesn’t come from open or vicious ridicule but astute observations.

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