“Sachin vs Lata”, It’s not a joke.

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.

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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.

In the video Tanmay face-swaps Sachin and Lata, and makes fun of their batting and the singer’s looks and even gets involved in a verbal argument in the video. In the video Tanmay’s Lata claims that Virat was the better batsman while Tanmay’s Sachin makes fun of Lata’s Mangeshkar’s age. Tanmay had posted the video with the caption: “Sachin vs Lata Civil War (I make such nonsense on my snapchat – follow me there – ID: Thetanmay) (Also I obviously love Lata and Sachin, just having some fun)”.

An irreverent comedian, of the kind that flourishes uncensored in countries where speech is free and humour abundant, made fun of two of India’s icons: Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar. His comedic device was an inversion of the obsequiousness with which Sachin and Lata are treated by their compatriots. Instead of bowing, he mooned them.

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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.

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