“They were just jokes!” – The comedy show that has divided India

Imagine some of the most well-known in  the British entertainment industry getting together to mercilessly poke fun at a couple of willing victims, utilising race jokes, gay jokes, a multitude of sexual references, the odd terrorism jibe, and even a cancer gag.

You can’t really, for it would never happen. But that is precisely what has occurred in India. The AIB Knockout – a comedy roast show staged by All India Bakchod in December – was released on YouTube in late January, and its contents have created a swarm of furore on social media over the past fortnight. Hashtags including #AIBRoast and #AIBNationalShame emerged in the aftermath, with stark viewpoints being formed almost immediately.

Roasting, a type of insult comedy which serves solely to humiliate, originated at the New York Friars Club  in 1949. The edgy form of humour has enjoyed success, notably on the USA’s Comedy Central. Britain also briefly trialled the concept on Channel 4 in 2010, with Comedy Roast, but the show was only afforded one series.

For those without any Bollywood qualifications, here is a brief introduction of those involved in the Knockout, to help provide some context. The roasted, Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh, are two of the industry’s biggest young stars. Their girlfriends – Sonakshi Sinha and Deepika Padukone, also Bollywood stars – were present in the audience as well.  The host – or the ‘Roastmaster’ as he was coined – Karan Johar, has directed some of India’s most successful films of all-time, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham to name two, and he also presents a popular chat show, Koffee with Karan. In addition, Johar’s sexuality is often scrutinised by the media, a theme mocked regularly by both he and others throughout the show. Amongst the roasters were an array of popular stand-up comedians and other popular figures. Quite simply, this was a who’s who of contemporary Bollywood: and that’s what makes it so relevant, and divisive.

Deepika Padukone (left) was the butt of many jokes. Karan Johar's butt was subject to many more
Deepika Padukone (left) was the butt of many jokes. Karan Johar’s butt was subject to many more

They have been quite vociferous in defending their antics via Twitter, claiming they “were just jokes“, and remininding those offended they were forewarned of what the show would entail.

In an India whose new generations are looking to break the shackles of their more socially conservative elders, an event such as this was always going to arouse controversy. It is not a new battle. Take Bangalore, a vibrant cosmopolitan city, with a superb nightlife. That is until 11.30pm, when the curfew arrives and the police sends everybody home. It is quite surreal.

While the country’s modern entertainment industry has shown somewhat of a desire to align itself with its western counterparts, a wanting to maintain a respectful culture remains strong.

Highly respected actor, Aamir Khan, is one of the latest big names to voice his thoughts. Damning the roast as “verbally violent“, Khan argued those involved have a moral responsibility to consider when producing content – he also produced a special episode of his investigative talk show, Satyamev Jayate, to tackle the issue. However, the 49-year-old’s remarks have been criticised for being hypocritical, due to the nature of the humour in some of his previous productions.

Aamir Khan is one of the latest to weigh in on the AIB Knockout
Aamir Khan is one of the latest big names to weigh in on the AIB Knockout

I agree to an extent. Filthy comedy is not something I would wish forced upon me on a regular basis. But occasionally where all concerned have consented, why not? We enter dangerous territory when those who claim a moral high ground preach to us what we can and cannot consume.

After watching the show – which can still be found on the internet despite being pulled from YouTube by AIB – I came to the following conclusions. It was vulgar, extremely vulgar. No holds barred and crass, it was Sickipedia brought to life. The sort of comedy your more sensible self says you oughtn’t enjoy, but the sort the mischievous oik in you cannot help but snigger at. I saw it as entertainment that most certainly still has a niche, and long may our commitment to free expression continue. Since the show was not on primetime television and only available online, anyone offended would have had to go out of their way to find it. Not to mention a warning on what to expect was given before proceedings began. This alone makes me believe any so-called offence to be slightly phoney. All parties involved appeared to have a great evening, and no one has the right to deny them that.

Yet the saga looks unlikely to conclude on that note. A First Information Report (FIR) has now been filed by Lucknow police, something which threatens a three-year jail term for Singh, Johar and Kapoor.

Vulgarness is not always attractive, but policing the ability to be vulgar is far worse. As the gap between what India’s young and old deem to be socially acceptable, further incidents similar to the Knockout can be expected in the future. I only hope those in the UK who face their free speech being eradicated, fight their oppressors with the same ferocity India’s youth have.

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