Quick take on VK Singh’s #presstitute comment

(and social media­’s overwhelming support for it.) 

The obnoxiousness of a particular news anchor should not have been seen as the media’s blanket disapproval of the army. The media have played an important role in letting the world know the good work defence forces have done at a pittance compared to the pay, perks and comforts that the average patriotic engineer/MBA feels entitled to.

For example, while the army and allied forces were conducting search and relief operation in flood-ravaged Jammu & Kashmir, the media were present there and actively beaming images back to the drawing rooms where a belligerent debate over the prostitute-ness of the media now rages.

***

The anchor whose tendency to rage incoherently and often without a shred of research to back his tirade triggered the comparison between the media and sex workers (?) is the person whose judge jury and executioner avatar had once propelled him to unprecedented popularity and his show to record-shattering viewership. India had opened its hearts to him precisely because of his penchant for harassing those guests who said what he had not wanted to hear. With a new dispensation and a new set of people at the helm his targets have changed, and with that his status as the blue-eyed heckler.

***

VK Singh’s choice of abuse did not surprise me. Sexist language enjoys widespread social acceptability. Also we are increasingly and unforgivingly angry and hateful toward the face of the media that seems pro-Congress and anti-Hindu, and also activists who talk too much, and are convinced that we must all actively encourage gandi baat if those who are doing it are also agents of faster GDP growth and progress.

Therefore, “presstitute” is a very useful word because it expresses all kinds of angers all at once. It expresses anger against the media (nothing can be more demeaning than being compared to a woman who sells her body for a living), sex workers (nothing is quite as disgusting as a woman selling her body for a living), and people who find sexist language wrong (because mere criticism is not enough and must be laced with vicious invectives such as comparisons with a woman who sells her body for a living).

I do not find parallels between media personnel and sex workers offensive since they often lead an impressively hopeful and dignified life despite being victims of one of the worst forms of human exploitation. If #presstitute provides modern India cathartic release from decades of pent-up anger and frustration, then I welcome the use of even more hateful expressions.

But I will be disappointed if, after all the online savagery, we still fail to get our anger out of our system and attain the same kind of rational, anger-free objectivity that so many of us preach via forwarded sermons on social media.

***

People who are fuming against the media must realise that the media is a heterogeneous entity and comprises optimistic women and men who respect the mandate of the nation and are counting on Modi to pull India further out of poverty, elevating its status globally, energising its youth and re-igniting its moribund industries (It is also full of those who voted for him and his men in 100 percent of federal and state elections held in the past one year.)

But they need to remember, surely they must remember, that no amount of social media jeering is going to frighten mainstream media into silence. It is a risk to speak on behalf of an industry that suffers from a terrifying degree of lack of quality control and has ArGo for its most recognisable face, but I will go out on a limb to say that apart from those who belong to pockets of encrusted special interests, the media will continue to report and analyse the good, the bad and the ugly. They will not stay quiet when things must be spoken. It is a thankless job, kind of like being in the army, but they will not stop speaking on behalf of people just because people hate them so much.

They are very thick-skinned that way.

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A final thought on AIB Roast

I arrived on the “Roast the AIB Roast” scene a little later than others, so obviously I am going to write about it for slightly longer than others. Here’s a list of questions that a lot of people put to me as well as to others who said there was something wrong with AIB’s show and, more importantly, the way AIB responded to criticism.

Nobody asked you to watch the show. Why did you watch it?

I look at Karan Johar’s disclaimer as AIB’s first and final line of defence. Ignoring it taught me a valuable lesson: never take any warning lightly, even if it comes from a seemingly harmless man, even one with a history of producing films so impossibly sweet you can still feel some of it lodged between your teeth.

(It was like clicking “I agree” on the internet – I may be about to promise them my soul, but damn that won’t stop me.)

So yes, I didn’t take the disclaimer seriously; I wouldn’t have gone beyond it otherwise. But apart from the disclaimer, AIB did all it could to draw in as many people to watch all the instalments of the show.

AIB Roast wasn’t a private party that the public gate-crashed and then trashed. When AIB shared the video with the public (and they share a video because it brings them money – always remember they are in it for the money) they really, really, really wanted the public, and not just those who bought tickets to the show, to watch it.

People watched AIB Roast not only because AIB advertised it heavily (I clicked it after at least three days of its ads and “shares” plastered all over my social media walls), but also because they had done some interesting work (which had their own problematic bits but more about that some other day) in the past, so the show held promise.

Also they roped in Arjun Kapoor and Ranvir Singh, two mainstream Bollywood men who are popular beyond AIB’ s niche audience, which made ignoring the show practically impossible.

“Nobody asked you to watch” is not and can never be a valid defence for any film/book/ show in public domain, particularly one which is virtually begging and screaming to be read or watched.

Almost everything in the show is part of normal, everyday speech these days. From ma-bhen ki gaali to making fun of a person’s dark skin to gay jokes – we are all increasingly comfortable with all of it. Also, it’s just comedy. Why must you take comedy so seriously?

Not everyone uses cuss words or indulges in sexist or racist jokes. Even if they do, it shouldn’t necessarily become an absolute standard to follow and approve of.

In fact while there is a sort of general agreement on regulating media content for children, an adult who expresses misgivings about foul language or abrasive humour has to face ridicule, hatred or unsolicited suggestions to return to the dreary world of Hindi television shows.

A general assumption about grown-ups is that they must abide by a single, immutable code of grown-up behavior. This code includes the ability to not once flinch at foul language when we come across it in normal conversations and also in popular media.

This licence goes completely unchallenged when it comes to the sacred art of comedy even if so much of it is rooted in and perpetuates historically bigoted views about what is essentially normal and what is abnormal, what deserves to be mocked and what doesn’t, and what’s attractive and what far less so.

Failing to adhere to that code of conduct draws derision. Overly sensitive, prude, boring, “butthurt” and Feminazis are some of the terms swiftly bandied about at the hint of a discordant voice.

It looks like a few laughs is too big a price to pay for even beginning to realize, for example, that laughing at “dark enough to be screened for Ebola” destroys whatever good we do by signing up for Nandita Das’s “dark is beautiful” campaign.

Humour has a deeper, more lasting impact than most other kinds of speech or writing. Ideas and ideologies spread faster through crisp, bite-sized jokes, pictures, tweets and FB updates than through detailed discussions. In fact, I have half a mind to dump this article and generate a “Batman slaps Robin” meme instead to drive across an insult if not a point. But I also think it isn’t such a bad idea to take a genre so powerful a little more seriously. Not ban the video/block the channel/burn the cinema hall down kind of seriously, but carefully enough to see through the average comedians’ “we are mere clowns, neutral observers, with malice toward one and all” kind of harmless looking persona.

AIB’s humour is informed by its members’ worldview, which isn’t perfect even if they have mastered the art of delivering their message effectively. Tanmay and company have many things to say and some of them are funny and evolved. Others, however, are regressive and shocking simply because they couldn’t think long and hard enough to draw upon, say, racial quirks in a funny yet inclusive way. A line exists between edgy and vile humor – it is often blurred but is still there – and recognising it is simply a matter of common sense and not really a body blow to free speech as feared by so many.

If you don’t like it, why do you have to talk about it? Why can’t you just shut up?

Because it is really difficult to shut up about things. Just look at my Facebook newsfeed, for example. People who found criticism of AIB Roast unnecessary are also responsible for an endless stream of complaints and opinion on everything. By everything I mean everything, including people who send others Candy Crush requests, people who complain about those sending them Candy Crush requests, traffic jams, bad music on FM while stuck in traffic jams, clingy friends and indifferent friends, hot summers and cold winters, ridiculously happy people and people who drag you down by their endless whining, meddlesome Delhi and rude Bombay, and so on.

All of us talk about stuff we don’t like. It’s human nature. I actually enjoy all of it. It takes all sorts to make a world, and my Facebook newsfeed as well as all other discussions happening online and offline are just a reflection of that. There’s got to be some kind of give and take here. And if it’s too much to ask for, then there is always the “unfollow” button to be considered.

I am still going to insist. Why could not you ignore it?

As a matter of fact I did. Twice.

The first time was when I watched the show and decided, not unlike most others, that it was funny in parts but not extraordinarily so.

The second time was when I casually scrolled down to the comments section. This was when I (half) sat up and (barely) noticed about 200 AIB fanboys attacking a woman and saying pretty nasty stuff about her, mostly along the lines of how she is “an ugly s****h I****n darkie” who “deserved to get raped in her ugly dark c***”. Her fault? She said she enjoyed the show but didn’t like “dark people” jokes.

There is a line of argument which says that it is normal for cult followers to use violent language against those who do not whole-heartedly endorse the specific area of culture they worship so ardently. Most of us avoid corners where we aren’t welcome, but your heart does go out to those who learn the hard way the importance of lying prostrate before a cult leader and pledging eternal allegiance to him.

Anyway, I finally decided to write something only after AIB released their letter which proved that quite like the actors/studios they criticized they were a smug, hypocritical and understandably scared little bunch of young men.

Smug because they went on and on about the support they got from a mob-like fans who got far more hurt than those who criticized the show.

Hypocritical because AIB had no word of advice for their angry, mob-like supporters. As a group of people who make a living off telling others to take the proverbial chill pill, AIB’s silence reeked of double standards.

And cowardly because for all their bravado they were also quick to pull off the video without even being asked to.

They could not do all of that and hope to get away with it with not even a polite blog or two about it all.

Why should I listen to Amir Khan? He was associated with DK Bose.

Once upon a time, Amir Khan backed a song called “DK Bose.” And that makes some of us think he has double standards because now he has a problem with AIB.

If Amir found AIB Roast offensive then he should have ideally apologised for DK Bose as well. But here’s a little something to jog your memory. Even before “DK Bose” Amir did movies such as “Dil” which set feminism back by a thousand years. He has said sorry for all of that and now he does Satyamev Jayate.

While we are at it, Shahrukh Khan played a stalker of women, an eve-teaser, a stalker and killer of women and, once again, a stalker and killer of women in Darr, DDLJ, Baazigar and Anjaam, respectively. He is now talking about setting a good example for his kids.

Amitabh Bachchan’s “Jumma Chumma” became the anthem for a generation of road Romeos. The man now wants the nation to save their girl children.

If we dig up dirt on every Bollywood star every time he says a remotely good thing but still annoys us because we choose to be weird like that, then we are perhaps letting our myopic, small-minded whataboutery overwhelm our better judgement.

Like it or not, Hindi film actors have great influence over your kids and your neighbours’. So we could consider stop being such all-knowing dirt-diggers and shaming them on the rare occasion when they are not being completely insensitive and are saying the right thing after all.

There are more important matters in the world that people should worry about.

Predictably enough, there were those who suddenly decided to discuss GDPs, violence against women and low allocation toward education in a strange, unrelated sort of defence of AIB.

Well, the mind is capable of entertaining more than one thought at a time. It can reflect on real-life crime and online crime, violent actions and violent words and bankruptcy of states and bankruptcy of ideas.

I gladly gave those who were outraging over what they felt was needless criticism of AIB (as opposed to valid criticism of child labour) the benefit of doubt that they must be quietly doing their bit for the society in the form of donations, volunteering and backing social awareness campaigns.

But I also wish that the same faith could have been shown by them towards those who expect better from popular media. It’s unfortunate that matters of poverty or underprivileged children erupt most forcefully in public discourse as a way to drown out uncomfortable noises against a trend or cult or industry that one is personally fond of or has a stake in.