Sometimes the reaction is the real joke. The police force in India’s financial capital have sought legal opinion to check if they have grounds to file an FIR against a comedian for a video he recently posted on the messaging application, Snapchat. The Mumbai police were following up on a complaint from the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, a political party with a remarkably low threshold for taking offence. And the MNS was not the only party outraged by the post by Tanmay Bhat, a comedian fairly well-known for his “roast videos”, or takedowns of celebrities. Sanjay Raut of the Shiv Sena, for instance, decided to make it clear that people like Mr. Bhat “should be whipped in public”. Using the “face swap” feature on Snapchat, Mr. Bhat had spoofed Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar, with jibes about his cricketing ability and her long singing career. It was certainly not polite. It could be argued that locker-room chatter goes with the roast territory, and that it is in the nature of the beast to push the boundary of how much political incorrectness can be deemed passable. The point here is not to applaud his sense of humour — or to condemn it. It is to spotlight the speed with which the system mobilises to shut any expression of mockery targeted at the well-known.
That the effect is to stifle freedom of expression, to force the next person to look over her shoulder before mocking the next public figure, is obvious and intended. To be mocked is the most trying way of being critiqued. One can ignore evenly stated takedowns — not spoofs that make folks laugh. To deal with mockery in a democratic society, one needs to be committed to a public culture of engagement, of openness to questioning. India’s public figures are clearly not. Politicians and celebrities (mainly film and cricket stars) have failed India not just by using the strongest arm of the law to curb expressions of humour aimed at them, thereby forcing self-censorship on what we may laugh about. They have failed it by not enabling sensitisation on what should pass as good humour and what may not. When jokiness is curbed so menacingly — and for all the brave front they may put up, cartoonists and comedians are lonely people against the might of the state — the only response is to rally to defend freedom of expression. In an environment where possibly personal jokes are seen to warrant scrutiny and police action, no space can be available for shared humour, for comedy to evolve sufficiently so that the larger community internalises what is truly, even rockingly, funny and what’s not so progressive.