#MeToo: Are you ready for the repatriation of Kanan Gill?
An upcoming session headlined by improv pioneer Kaneez Surka throws up some uncomfortable questions with no easy answers
First it was MJ Akbar, accused by multiple women of grave sexual assault and by one of rape, who surfaced with an op-ed piece in a leading national daily. This week, it could be a disgraced comedian or two, as improv queen Kaneez Surka gears up for a show at Bandra's Cuckoo Club with a collective of 13 names. Is the #MeToo wave, which saw several women speak up against their sexual harassers, receding way quicker than it hit Indian shores?
"Somewhat broken" is how a comedian and producer describes Mumbai's comedy scene in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which after Tanushree Dutta's revelations, gained momentum when several women called out comedian Utsav Chakraborty exactly two months ago for his sexual misconduct. The allegations also brought AIB co-founder Tanmay Bhatt under fire for not severing all ties with Chakraborty despite receiving specific details of the latter's misconduct. And soon, the collective issued a statement that Bhatt was stepping away from his role. In another development, a few women alleged that comedian Kanan Gill had made them uncomfortable at an event, for which Gill issued an apology, which the accuser accepted and stated that she did not intend to take the matter further.
An outcome of these incidents has been a lull in the stand-up scene of the city, with fewer shows and even fewer established names in the circuit going up on stage. This might begin to change with the upcoming show of the Improv Dream Team, where a minimum of five improvisers from a team of 13 perform scenes and skits on the spot, based on audience suggestions. The show is an initiative by Kaneez Surka, which she has been hosting for four months, before the allegations surfaced. The team comprises Abish Mathew, Sumukhi Suresh, Jahnvi Dave, Rahul Subramanian, Biswa Kalyan Rath, Aadar Malik, Neville Shah, Kenny Sebastian, Karan Talwar, Rohan Joshi, Naveen Richard, Bhatt and Gill. But the format is such that the audience discovers the line-up for the night only at the show.
"My goal with this show is to build an improv community in India, and not to bring together [this specific team of people] necessarily. So, to get started, I messaged everybody who has done improv before. And with a web show now dedicated to improv, I wanted to make use of the traction and felt it made sense for me to put together a team of 13 to 14 people," says Surka, who, incidentally, had called out comedian Aditi Mittal for kissing her without consent.
While Bhatt isn't performing this Thursday, the show's potential line-up leads to questions that may not have an easy answer. What, for instance, is the road ahead for an artiste whose name has been put out there in the social media universe, but where the accuser has received closure with an apology? Should former colleagues stop collaborating altogether? Should venues host comedians not guilty in the court of law?
While Sharin Bhatti, co-owner of The Cuckoo Club, which is hosting the show, clarifies, "The show is more art- than artiste-driven," Surka says, "I have absolutely no issue working with Kanan and will continue to work with him in the future. I believe the matters have been resolved, and so we must move forward from here." She adds that though Bhatt is unlikely to perform in the near future, he wasn't directly involved in what transpired and she hopes he will return to performing.
A city-based comedian-producer views things differently. "While I don't know who is performing at this improv show and have nothing to do with it, I will never be on that team, for sure," she says, adding, "It's easy to not work with people you don't like. There are so many comedians; I don't always have to be working with the same people." Efforts to get Gill's comments came to nought until the time of going to press.
Punit Pania, founder of Chalta Hai Comedy, says that though he isn't sure about this particular show, "comebacks will be attempted, sooner rather than later". "Unless a formal complaint is registered, no lasting penalty can be exacted. The question of whether offenders should be allowed to earn a living once they have been identified is a difficult one. It will come down to us getting used to the reality that art and virtue need not be connected," he says, and helps put things in perspective when he adds, "Indians have been so forgiving of celebrities and politicians that expecting a moral awakening in them would be childish. Survivors should find solace in the fact that they made a dent in the offender's credibility against all odds and gave others the courage to do so."
On December 6, 9 pm
At The Cuckoo Club, Bandra West.
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