I'm sure it's just me, and Comedy Nights with Kapil is a good show but though I've often tried to watch it, I've found it hard to get into. Most people will say it doesn't matter what I think — fair enough. Then they'll say only the TRPs matter and Kapil Sharma is a very significant media figure. Call me old-fashioned, but that's precisely why it's worth us thinking about Kapil Sharma's show. Especially since he doesn't always seem to.
A video grab from Comedy Nights with Kapil
On November 26, the guest being Saina Nehwal, the show's cross dressing character Palak, did a turn as Serena Williams. The problem was not that Sania Nehwal, a badminton player, was supposed to watch a sketch about a tennis player. I mean kifark painda ji, ladies must be encouraged, as Kapil sanctimoniously said at the end.
The problem was that Palak was in Blackface — skin blackened, lips hugely exaggerated, like a minstrelsy throwback.
Do Kapil Sharma and his team, and the team at the television channel, not know that blackface is an intensely racist theatrical tradition, where white actors blackened their faces and painted on thick lips, to play stereotypical African-American figures? And that these figures were always depicted as sly or stupid, servile or cunning, always inferior, playing into the worst race prejudices which existed against a history of inhuman cruelty? Do they also not realise it's doubly offensive when at this precise moment, the news from their aspirational other, the USA, has seen of anger around a racist violence and grand jury verdict in the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri?
If they do not know, they must be very well-off indeed, because only the well-off can afford the luxury of this blindness and ignorance.
It is this increasing willful blindness that has slowly erased all the complex traditions of irony, drollness, satire and even broad humour from our media screens, where comic talents such IS Johar and Om Prakash could once reign alongside flatter comics. And it is this blindness that does not seem to see how offensive it is that fat people are always shown only as stupid, graceless and a-sexual. That women are always sexy and ditzy or simple and domestic. That South Indian characters continue to have thick accents that are supposed to represent a thick mind. That, in their works, Christians are still lazy drunks and Muslims are extremists who need to mend their ways — as a short film by Brij Bhushan Sharma playing in PVR cinemas before the main feature suggests.
You can only really produce such images continually by being blind to the realities of caste violence and rape (then say caste is dead) and blithely proud of your ignorance, congratulating yourself on your success, but never using your new-found resources to question your assumptions. After some time, these highly skewed images become a reference point for reality in a cycle of ignorance and violence.
I'm not suggesting an arid landscape of stiff political correctness. Stereotypes often arise from reality. But we can be humorous about them either with the irony and affection, which comes from intimacy and knowledge. Or we can mock difference to confirm and propogate prejudice.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper.