Munawar Faruqui
Comedian Munawar Faruqui was detained following a complaint by members of a right-wing vigilante group in India Image Credit: ANI

The curtains were closed, the stage was not even set. Yet an unsuspecting protagonist was plucked straight out of an Orwellian play and sent to jail for an act that did not unfold. Stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui has now been in jail for twenty -five days for ‘what he could have said.’

His bail plea was dismissed within minutes even though the local police admit there is no video evidence of Faruqui insulting any sentiments.

In the theatre of the absurd, perceived hurt and doctored hate have now taken centre stage. What there seems to be a record of though is that a mob attacked Faruqui and four others, and it roams free. When humour is silenced, the joke is on us.

Trying to grow a funny bone

The makers of the web series Tandav though are still trying to grow a funny bone. They did say something, albeit in a fictional show but probably wish they hadn’t. The cast and crew have apologised for hurting those same sentiments that Faruqi is accused of.

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But when you are baying for blood- an organisation says it will pay rupees 1 crore to slit the tongue of the so- called offenders- an apology doesn’t fit in the calculations.

Instead, an FIR has been filed against the makers and actor Saif Ali Khan who plays the lead in Tandav for an ‘objectionable’ scene — a blink and you will miss it moment that seems a poor rip-off of the cult film ‘Jaane Bhi do Yaaro.’ The 1983 movie was a dark comedy that didn’t shirk from using mythology to highlight issues like corruption — the devil is in the construct. Today, it may never have hit the movie halls.

Shackling creativity and denying debate, the script is tight. Sometimes it distracts, at other times it unleashes fear. The irony is that while reality jars us, we continue to shoot the messenger.

Watch at your own discretion

So, we are more affronted with a portrayal of the place Mirzapur in a series by the same name than about crime and police apathy around it. “It has tarnished the image of the town” (in Uttar Pradesh) says the petitioner, even as OTT censorship- platforms where you can choose to not watch at your discretion — gains momentum.

The Supreme Court has issued a notice to the makers of Mirzapur. Meanwhile, there are almost 4 lakh cases pending in the Indian courts.

Arnab Goswami, the TV anchor who has tarnished much more than that- he has allegedly paid a handsome sum to rig the TRP of his channel and gloated over them when the country was mourning the death of forty soldiers, if the WhatsApp leaks are anything to go by, remains free and uncensored.

Creativity- not the type seen in Arnab’s studio- more often than not reflects reality. We write what we see, we lampoon who we are.

Freedom of expression may not be black and white but when some are more equal than others, a new generation that does not relate with the past- whether it is the freedom struggle or the contributions of the likes of Jawahar Lal Nehru- has identity on sale. For some it is the power of a stick, for others it is spewing venom on Twitter.

Game of smokes and mirrors

In this game of smokes and mirrors where accountability then is subjective and identities a house of cards, how does history fit in? Is it the one that questioned choices, even the lack of them? Is it the one that finds a similarity today with the Divide and Rule policy of the British era?

Or will history become a trend where narratives and names of cities and now even fruits change faster than fake news? The exotic Dragon fruit too has an identity crisis, it has now been named Kamalam. Humour may be out but farce is definitely in.

Dominance and insecurity, the link is not always tenuous. For an ancient civilisation like ours though, the fragility of egos that shout for a majoritarian uniformity is as out of place as rain on a desert stretch. We were never made to be put in boxes, we still aren’t and that remains our strength.

Unfortunately, it pays to exploit a sense of inferiority as the real power play where those who inflict and those who are the saviour are the same. Japanese writer Haruki Murakami wrote in the Norwegian Wood, “if you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”

Lately games have been banned in India, E-cigarettes are now illegal, a regular cigarette remains legal. The mountain is rising, the slope though is slippery and, in a world, where news spreads first on social media, sometimes there isn’t much that separates censorship from trolling.

A Mumbai based script writer has been receiving threats online simply because the viewers didn’t like a twist in the drama. Some of those threatening the writer are students. When children go rogue, we know our ecosystem is more than flawed.

In times like these, laughter would be the best medicine. These days, we don’t even have that.

P.S. Bollywood is probably feeling vindicated. Often questioned and flagged for not standing up on issues of national importance, the industry will have the last laugh when everything is either banned or censored and all we will be left to watch is Coolie no 1.