VICTIM TURNS VILLAIN

Bollywood’s failure to stand by Tanmay Bhat proves it does not deserve the free speech it seeks

Quartz india
Quartz india

Bollywood, for all its gloss and glamour, has often had to give in to the whims and fancies of a dictatorial Indian movie regulator.

Be it random muting of dialogues or prudish removal of kissing scenes—even those involving 007—the scissor-happy Indian censor board’s tomfoolery with movies is legendary. Forget politically fraught or sexually explicit content, even revenge dramas such as “Sholay” have borne the brunt.

So, when a bunch of Bollywood veterans came out virulently against a stand-up comedian’s parody of two Indian icons—legendary playback singer Lata Mangeshkar and former cricketing prodigy Sachin Tendulkar—the industry did itself no favours.

Their reaction is not only hypocritical, it also deeply undercuts Bollywood’s own attempts to assert its freedom of expression.

Tanmay Bhat’s Snapchat video mocking the two Mumbai-based Bharat Ratna awardees is not very funny. Referring to Mangeshkar’s death in such a manner merely because she’s aged is plain disrespectful.

But is disrespect illegal?

The way to deal with bad jokes is to ignore them. Calling for apology and censorship is worse than Tanmay Bhat’s poor joke.

Hypocrisy

Bollywood actors Celina Jaitley, Ritiesh Deshmukh, and Anupam Kher sparked the Twitter outrage against Bhat. Apalled, disgusted, disrespectful, they said. Their world was shattered.

Singer Sonu Nigam said speaking about any woman in this manner is a sin. Director Milaap Zaveri, maker of a soft-porn film called “Mastizaade,” said he had earlier stood by comedy collective All India Bakchod (AIB) but won’t do this time. Bhat is an AIB founder member.

Homilies from the Bollywood fraternity on such matters can be rich, though, especially when many of them have been associated with crude, sexist, and homophobic films.

Deshmukh himself played important roles in movies such as “Kya Kool Hain Hum” and “Grand Masti”, laden with sexual innuendoes and entendre, and which were accused of debasing women. “In Grand Masti, horrendous jokes revolving around sex and women made the rounds. Not only were they cringe-worthy but also negative. But, the film ended up making money and giving rise to increase in number of films,” Vishal Manve wrote in the DNA newspaper in April 2014.

Interestingly, Pahalaj Nihalani, the current censor board chief and maker of some B-grade potboilers, has even called for the arrest of Bhat.

Even Kamaal R Khan, Twitter’s resident Bollywood clown who says the most disrespectful of things about actors, has joined the “Down with Tanmay Bhat” bandwagon. “Shame on you!” tweets Satish Kaushik. Documentary filmmaker and censor board member Ashok Pandit called it cultural terrorism.

Meanwhile, Bhat has tweeted about how the trolling and abuse he faced had included death threats. But to his critics and some of Bollywood’s flagbearers, somehow, that’s not appalling, shocking, disgusting, or disrespectful.

There have been industry voices supportive of Bhat, too. For instance, outspoken film-maker Mahesh Bhat simply quoted Goerge Carlin to make his point.

Mahesh Bhat’s voice, though, is merely a candle in a thunderstorm.

Censorship

The Mumbai police have, meanwhile, asked Facebook and YouTube to take down Bhat’s video and provide the IP addresses used to upload them. Perhaps they don’t yet know what Snapchat is.

Does Bollywood really want a country where we can’t be disrespectful of our most loved icons? Is that the new reasonable restriction on free speech? Already, the list of things Bollywood can’t touch without attracting the ire of either the censor board or some right-wing sections of the society includes gods, the Gandhi family, homosexuality, widows, long kissing, girls dancing with hoses, barbers… and it goes on.

Perhaps all that Bollywood can do is fawn before the prime minister of the day, fly kites, and take selfies with him, so that all sins are forgiven.

We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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