There are few things every Malayali is proud of – the unmatched beauty of their home state, the capacity to consume copious amounts of liquor, and their wicked sense of humour.
Any Malayali worth his or her salt would have heard of Munshi on Asianet, a daily show poking fun at the prevalent political and social practices. The cast consists of a few men who represent different and, often, opposing political views. They discuss current affairs with razor-sharp wit and exaggerated comical acting.They take sides, attack politicians by name and generally reflect the frustrations of the common man. Finally, the wisest of them all, Munshi, who does not participate in the conversation, sums up the whole situation in a proverb or a pithy quote.
TV shows, magazines and cartoonists regularly take jibes at actors, politicians, VIPs, the judiciary – basically anyone in the public eye. And the great thing is that, more often than not, these digs don’t “offend” the people being made fun of.
This tolerance to ridicule is not a new phenomenon in Kerala. The roots of satire run very deep in the culture of Kerala. Ancient art forms such as Chakyar Koothu were a form of ancient stand up comedy. The narratives were essentially taken from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata but very often the performer would take up socio-political issues and make fun of the state of things in Kerala.
It is said that the chakyar (performer) was the only one who could make fun of the king himself and get away with it. Another offshoot of Chakyar Koothu is Ottam Thullal which was introduced in the 18th century by a poet named Kunchan Nambiar.
The tradition of satire in art continued and Chakyar Koothu and Ottam Thullal were replaced by mimicry artists and mimicry troupes, such as Kalabhavan,which gained popularity in the '80s and the '90s. They performed wherever there was a Malayali audience – which essentially means the entire world. Their performances were recorded and released as video cassettes, audio cassettes, CDs and they sold like hot cakes!
“Dupes” of famous politicians and actors were a huge draw and continue to be so. No subject was taboo or off limits, everything was fair game in mimicry.
Mainstream cinema has also been very influential in the evolution of the Malayali psyche. I cannot think of any other film industry which has churned out more political satire than the Malayalam industry. The '80s and '90s were a golden period for this kind of cinema. A classic example for this would be Sandesham, Sathyan Anthikad’s classic featuring Sreenivasan, Jayaram and Thilakan in lead roles which dealt with two brothers from a close-knit family who believed in two opposing political ideologies. The hilarious film manages to make one laugh and at the same time throw light on the shallow working principles of the two major political parties of Kerala.
Priyadarshan’s Velanakulade Naadu starring Mohanlal and Shobana in the lead is another prime example of a satirical film which looks into the inner workings of a local municipality, the large scale corruption and unethical use of power without discounting on the humor.
Unfortunately, the number of political and social satires have come down drastically in mainstream cinema, although there have been a few gems like Pranchiyettan and the Saint, Velimoonga and the more recent Aabhaasam. This definitely isn’t because of a dearth of topics. Scams, murders and corruption continue unabated. But, we now live in a time where everybody gets easily offended. People boycott films if they don’t like the content or even the title of the film. Writers, artists, thinkers, stand up comedians, cartoonists; no one is spared. Everyone thinks a million times before posting something on social media because they are worried as to whom it might offend and the consequences are scary. It could range from charges of sedition, vicious trolling on social media or prolonged court cases.
In today’s digital world the mantle of satire has been taken up by social media pages or “troll pages” like ICU ( International Chalu Union) and Troll Malayalam who relentlessly make fun of celebrities and politicians. Their witty one liners are often scathing and make one think about the current state of affairs and question them. These pages have an immense fan following, are mostly impartial and do not believe or cater to any particular political ideology.
In 2013, popular Tamil newspaper Dinamalar featured a cartoon by Karna, depicting Karunanidhi as a cap seller, and some legislators of his DMK party as monkeys. Three members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) of the party took offence at this and bought criminal defamation charges against Karna. The case went to trial and only recently did the Madras High Court rule in favour of the cartoonist.
Justice Swaminathan who passed the ruling stated that “art of the cartoonist is often not reasoned or even-handed, but slashing and one-sided.” The hope is that this ruling will safeguard satirists and cartoonists from being attacked on defamation charges.
It is a dangerous time to be funny in India and someone needs to take up the responsibility of taking an unflinching stand against detractors of satire and comedy. The quintessential Malayali has been one who is endlessly concerned about politics, society, commerce, bureaucracy and almost everything under the sun. Satire has been their weapon of choice to talk politics, question authority or just win arguments.
I think it is high time that everyone in the country starts embracing satire the way a Malayali does. After all, like Molly Ivins said, "Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful."