Humour and its Discontents

By Counter Point

“Optimism is the opium of the people. A healthy atmosphere reeks of stupidity. Long live Trotsky!”

Ludvik Jahn, the protagonist of Milan Kundera’s The Joke finds himself divested of his position in the Students’ Union and relegated to the mines because of his jocular remark to his beloved. Little did Ludvik know that in love, as in the communist state, there is no space for humour. Prague, in the novel, is a state whose identity has yet not stabilized under a communist regime, much like two lovers in new relationship trying to find their footing. Doesn’t everyone know that you have to wait for a specified period of time before you can mock a love affair, especially when it’s your own?


The Hebdo Dilemma


The Charlie Hebdo shootout of 2015 restarted the debate on humour and its place in society. How far can a joke go? Does it have a right to offend? What is ‘acceptable’ humour? Should humour be institutionalized at all? However, one thing no one seems to disagree on is the fact that humour can create a domino effect. Outside of the debate on whether Charlie Hebdo is egalitarian in choosing its subject of mockery (is anyone ever?) it presents a key point in the kind of reaction humour instigates.


Political Satire in India


India has rich history of satirical cartoonists with R K Laxman as its giant. “The sheer number of languages, 22 officially, produces a unique and vibrant visual expression of political humor in the world’s largest democracy” says Ritu Khanduri in her book Caricaturing Culture in India. Why then are we witnessing a growing intolerance towards state directed humour?

ftg-cartoonist-bala-arrested_2.transfer.jpgG Bala, recently arrested in Tamil Nadu, was charged with mocking the Chief Minister E Palaniswami. The cartoonist, out on bail, has declared he will not stop sketching. This begs the question whether public figures who are accountable for their actions must be fair game for cartoonists who believe they are not doing their jobs sincerely? Humour can be constructively viewed as critiques that can help usher in beneficial change. The cartoon which aims to instigate debate around corruption in the government has been treated as an act of defamation.



Alternatively, AIB’s snapchat filter controversy found an FIR retort. In a world where snapchat filters are valourised, why is it offensive for these to applied to NaMo? Obama, Trump, Trudeau all have sailed the snapchat boat without aggressive retaliation. As EP Unny stated in an editorial on November 6, 2017 in the Indian Express, “More than free speech what hurts in these parts is the free picture.”

The most absurd case perhaps is Tharoor’s chillar comment that satirized demonetization in India.

It’s incredible how a jibe directed against the government became an insult to the woman in question whose new found fame was being lauded. The gap between intent and interpretation is wide, but not wide enough to decontextualize what has been written.


Transformative power of humour

Humour, satire and mockery create a rupture. They have the potential to jostle systems. They create a space for play, for difference, for reevaluation. What’s worse is their ability to reach out to a mass audience. The threat of a joke is very real, just kidding. It is not surprising then that systems with authoritarian inclinations, especially nascent ones, are highly intolerant of such ‘terrible activities.’ Perhaps, armed with such an arsenal, it is not difficult enough to imagine that Humans of Hindutva might actually bring down an authoritarian government.


Disclaimer: The writer holds personal views which the blog does not endorse, neither are the cartoons being used examples of ‘acceptable’ humours. These pictures are freely available all over the internet and are not the property of the blog.

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