Freedom to offend, double-edged sword

After the Tanmay Bhat roast, are we any wiser how to handle such issues in a civilised, reasonable manner?

Comedian Tanmay Bhat’s online spoof of Lata Mangeshkar and Sachin Tendulkar sent political parties and netizens into a tizzy recently. While the hyperactive guardians of Indian culture and sensitivities were outraged at this ‘insult’ to two of India’s greatest personalities, the motley crowd of liberals defended the creative right to offend.

Indeed, the battlelines were drawn along predictably entrenched positions. The politicians wanted FIRs filed against Bhat and some parties threatened to ban him from performing in Maharashtra and thrash him. The liberals meanwhile asked people to stop over-reacting and simply avoid seeing the content if it offends them.

A few months earlier, we had a similar controversy involving comedian Kiku Sharda’s act mimicking Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim which led to an FIR. A familiar battle had erupted involving the same arguments. The matter was sorted out by Kiku Sharda rendering an apology and the Baba asking his followers to forgive the comedian.

However, as a society, are we any wiser about how to handle such issues in a civilised and reasonable manner? What exactly constitutes offence? What does the right to offend mean? And if there is a right to offend, does it also not extend to those aggrieved or provoked?

Let’s start with the content of the video roast, which was conceived as a tongue-in-cheek face-off between Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar. By all accounts, its tawdry and ordinary stuff, hardly capable of evoking much mirth. A roast caters to an audience which finds cruel derision of individuals, especially achievers, entertaining. However, frequently, roasts take the easy route of crudity rather than intelligent mockery. But crudity does not always beget humour and that’s exactly what’s happened here. The video is more pathetic than comic.

Coming to the personalities involved, both Tendulkar and Mangeshkar are legends, having endeared themselves to generations of Indians. Now mocking such icons might well be fair game because, after all, they are public figures. Taking digs at their achievements is one thing. One may even take the liberty to dispute their greatness or mercilessly belittle their success.

However, how exactly does making derogatory comments about their appearances or other personal aspects further the cause of artistic licence or indeed strengthen the case for the freedom to offend? If anything, it only weakens the argument because of the utter pointlessness with which it has been used – for cheap, bawdy titters. There is no higher purpose or public interest behind this offensiveness that can be vigorously defended or espoused, like say a vulgar cartoon that lampoons some politician.

While art can hardly be expected to be politically correct, would any creative person be able to justify calling women ‘whores’ or black people ‘niggers’ without a context in his work, just under the guise of the unbridled right to offend? Then why should Tanmay Bhat have the leeway to publicly ‘roast’ any individual in such poor taste for a few laughs, leave alone Tendulkar or Mangeshkar?

Sex education

If this were pornography for instance, would it be okay to morph images of well-known personalities and use them to titillate audiences, asserting the creative privilege to cause offence. At least pornography can make a far-fetched claim to the higher purpose of sex education. What possible purpose can Tanmay Bhat’s spoof claim to serve? Stress-busting through super-imbecilic humour?

Now let’s turn to the reactions. Who was targeted? Two national icons. Who ought to be the first to be offended? Both or either one of them. Apparently, Tendulkar’s wife posted a dignified protest against his portrayal on the roast. No public reaction has been forthcoming from Lata Mangeshkar, as far as reports suggest. So why all this proxy outrage by netizens, political parties and the media?

If anybody should be filing FIRs, it should be these two Bha-rat Ratnas, if they feel so strongly about it. What locus standi does anyone else have in the ma-tter? It is one thing to disapprove of, strongly criticise or condemn purported slights to one’s natio-nal icons, but to create a disproportionate furore, threaten police cases or summary violence are signs of not just an intolerant but also an infantile society.

Moreover, not only does it legitimise lumpenism and aggression as the standard response to everything that we disagree with or get offended by, but also lets political parties and assorted interests (including the media, unfortunately) hijack our cultural and social sensibilities. We no longer remain individuals but start transmogrifying into a mob that’s forever baying for someone’s blood. That’s hardly the prescription for evolving into a civilised and tranquil modern society that we aspire to be.

Finally, here’s a thought for those who swear by the freedom to offend. Shouldn’t we be careful about the right battles to pick if our convictions are to carry credibility? For instance, if the same unrestricted freedom to offend is extended to political parties, then can’t they claim they have the liberty to threaten violence, file cases and troll people on social media as extreme forms of offensiveness? Clearly therefore, the freedom to offend is a double-edged sword, that needs to be wielded intelligently, not fatuously for trivial ends.
(The writer is a Pune-based author and film-maker)

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