While president, Ronald Reagan once joked, “Politics is the second oldest profession”. And then added, “I didn’t realise how much it is like the first”. Reagan, who began his career as a Hollywood actor, was a master at self-deprecating humour. Years earlier, Nixon had not been so gracious. During his re-election campaign, bathroom graffiti — the Instagram of the time — had noted, “If you voted for Richard Nixon you can’t s*it here, because your a**hole is in the White House”. The joke was circulated publically, but did not sit well with Nixon, even though he was well aware of its place in a country that encouraged free expression.
Would issuing the slightest hurt to self-image even occur to Indian politicians, so blindly concerned about public perception? When anything and everything on politics, society or religion can spark the draconian edge of Indian intolerance, is it a surprise that a comedian should be arrested for a show where he didn’t even appear, or when climate change activists can be picked up for sharing an innocuous document? This is hardly new in a country where some years earlier, Goddess Durga depictions were removed from an art show; or when goons suddenly appeared on stage at a literary festival calling for the arrest of an author. Even before it went on sale, Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism had to be taken off the shelves and was back in the warehouse.
More recent government orders are directed at entertainment programs: should Muslim-Hindu love scenes in Netflix’s Suitable Boy be deleted? Should other un-Indian acts like violence, homosexuality and caste hostility be allowed on screen? Indian methods of censorship are themselves highly developed forms of satire.
The art world in India has such a shameful history of repression, that Indian artists have for some time begun to self-censor themselves by resorting to tame and acceptable themes. Charged so often with hurting religious or private sentiments Indian art, comedy and film now cautiously remain in neutral territory.
But elsewhere in our region, risky subjects abound. Art in Pakistan has created a valuable underground that practises a mean satirical view of the country’s sadistic and repressive political life. Beautiful enamel work displaying beheaded bodies at an oasis, a woman in traditional dress patterned with Kalashnikovs, carpets embroidered in a closeup of jail cells — in paintings, miniatures, graphic novels and short cinema, daily violence appears in lurid technicolour, a gut wrenching portrait of lived reality. On Pakistani television, Banana News Network spoofs and mimics corrupt politicians. Iranian films similarly issue powerful rebuttals to prevailing political conditions, openly criticising authoritarianism. Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei too, continues to rile the government with his subversive art. Without mincing words or images his documentary on Hong Kong is an unapologetic portrayal of people’s rage.
Is Indian creative work mediocre and second-rate because it is stymied by fear of reprisal? Unlike Pakistan, Iran and other similarly repressive cultures like ours, a great deal of Indian art now relies on shock value for originality, rather than expressing sustained unique voices. Despite the fact that traditional Indian culture has had a long history of political outspokenness in street plays, mime, and painting, its modern counterpart in stand-up comedy, installation art and sculpture has become either docile and uncommunicative, or singularly outrageous. Sure, the All India Bakchod roast, or Goddess Kali as Marilyn Monroe have a shrill offensive edge, but offer no meaningful counterpoint to government views. The lack of effective insightful work is more disturbing than the tendency to clampdown.
Free and expressive art must have cultural value to be worth saving from the censors. Art’s most pervasive and deep influence can only be felt once there is some unity in the desperation, when — like the Pakistani and Chinese work — the artist feels a public obligation and finds difficult common subjects to tackle. It will take a longer period of continual repression by the government for a more coherent and cohesive Indian underground to emerge.
“If you are a member of Congress, or if you are an idiot… My apologies, I seem to be repeating myself”. Instead of being jailed for sedition, Mark Twain’s quip was hailed by one and all as a delight of free expression. It encouraged many on American television later to hold that as a yardstick for political satire. Every year, the White House and its residing president hosts a televised dinner for the media in which a well-known comedian takes liberal swipes at the president seated nearby. During Trump’s presidency, Indian American Hasan Minhaj ridiculed the fortunately absent president with, “the only way to keep America functioning is to ensure that Trump spends more time on the golf course”. It will still be some years till similar cracks can be made inside our Parliament.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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