An Inquiry into the Fragility of the Bhartiya Ego
A few days ago, Mamta and I excitedly drive down to Mumbai to be a part of the Trevor Noah show.
Trevor Noah is a part of the triumvirate or the troika that has brought many a smile to me over the past 8 years or so, including uplifting me from a mild depression during the pandemic and offering interesting insights into the US socio-polity. The other two artistes of this troika are the irrepressible and gifted John Oliver and the immensely workman-like but extremely funny Stephen Colbert. Each of the three bring their own slant and take on satire and stand-up comedy, and together they are far ahead of others.
The Show that Night
I think it takes serious courage for Trevor and his team to come down to India (and this was his first visit) and then engage with both comedy and satire with thousands of people sitting in an indoor sports arena. The latter (satire) was far muted but the strains that one heard were melodic and fun.
The themes that Trevor covered included with flair:
a) Claustrophobic Intensity that gets associated with densely populated and chaotic scenes in Delhi, Mumbai, Agra and Bangalore. There digs at how Trevor had to immediately recalibrate his demands for space — for both the body and the mind that the audience appreciated.
b) People laughed at how Trevor experienced the traffic on the roads — and his take on traffic on Indian roads were quite creative — the jokes seemed a little too familiar for those of us who work with the foreigner but went off well.
c) Digs at the Delhiite mindset — the need for their inflated self-importance and centrality, were greatly appreciated by the Mumbai crowd. Some jokes on what Bangalore stood for were equally applauded. We are talking about regional identities here.
d) Intriguingly the experience of coming down to Mumbai during Ganeshotsav and Ganpati visarjan were equally applauded. Trevor handled this with sensitivity and the impact was there to see.
The themes that Trevor brought in with real creativity but had mixed responses:
a) Over the decades of having watched this South African denizen work with the theme of colonization — Trevor’s satire on the colonized India left people with mixed responses. While his digs at the British and European colonizers were extremely hard-hitting, I am not sure Indians and especially Mumbaikars are willing to explore the colonized identity. Given the political stances of the meta-narrative of ‘Bharat’ — the British colonizer is not as much hated as the Mughal dynasty.
b) I have also watched Trevor bring in his political and philosophical stances on the modern capitalistic society in the past — he has clear left of the center leanings. He tried to offer the same to the Mumbai audience (the wealth epicenter of India) with digs on Ambani, Amazon etc. — but it clearly had the audience in some ambivalence. The aspirational world (as captured by the UPA universe in Ashok Malhotra’s) is founded in the Mumbai elite — the only thing that made people laugh was triggered by some envy of the super-rich. Mind you — his jokes on Ambani and their mansions were immensely funny for me.
c) But the theme that made many people uncomfortable was his satire on G20 summit, the high visibility of key political figures, and more so on India / Bharat re-building itself … his satire on the treadmill of ‘re-building’ was actually quite funny. In the end, he stated that he had been advised by all and sundry not to make jokes on Narendre Modi and how he would not do this. Some of us chuckled but most people seem to have agreed with this stance.
In the end, we emerged out of the show partly satisfied with the show, and also ruing that it did not live up to its potential — here are some thoughts:
a) The average Indian seems to be quite reluctant to laugh at ‘self’, and can be accused of Taking Self Too Seriously (TSTS) — I have always maintained that self-deprecation (which is also seen as very British) is not a muscle that we exercise much these days. We have greater sense of fun by laughing at others.
The only community last century that seemed to be okay with self-deprecation was the Sikh community — there was an ease with which one dealt with Surd jokes and then got into creating more such jokes. Even today many of the stand-up comics are Sikhs from the north who are able to bring in some self-deprecation and yet make people laugh.
b) Political satire is extremely risky these days. This was somewhat true during times of equally powerful (and autocratic) leaders such as Indira Gandhi etc. But today political satire at the powerful elite is a clear No and a life damaging move. There are not many public forums such as a ‘kavi sammelan’ that I grew up with in 1980s, where a poet could engage with political satire under the shield of ‘vyangya’.
c) Institutions of faith in India — including religious administrative bodies, cannot be brought under the ambit of satire… faith has only to be revered with and role-holders within as guardians of faith are to be deeply venerated.
d) Satire within organizations is too embedded with career damaging possibilities. The middle management seems a lot more fragile when it comes to satirical and comical digs at their management styles.
Overall, the average Indian ego seems to be extremely fragile’ and does not tolerate satire… any jokes on our culture, our heritage, our political idols, and our religious gurus is a taboo. I personally feel that we seem to be taking ourselves too seriously in Amrit Kaal — and making satire a taboo, weakens the spirit of enquiry and democracy.
What says you?