Indian comedy scene is inherently mean. If a comedian is not being mean to another person, he/she is being mean to themselves. I am not saying that the only way to be funny is to be rude, but it helps. And even though kindness is godliness, it is not humorous. There have been exceptions, but it doesn't have to be everybody's style. So, when a comedian has to decide his/her target, the ethical thing to do is select someone who has more power than them. This is called ‘punching up’ and it is a relatively acceptable form of satire because the victim here is too strong compared to the comedian. We all do it when we make fun of our boss behind his/her back or when our child makes faces when we are not watching. Comedy or any form of mockery helps smoothen the power dynamics between two unequal entities. And in most cases, it leads to harmless fun.
The way I see it, Manoj Prabakar was punching up when he was making fun of Mahesh Babu’s acting skills at the Acadummy Awards. He chose a rich and powerful man and wrote a joke at his expense because that is the kind of comedy he knows how to do. Whether he did it well or not is beyond the point.
Now let’s ask a few questions:
Was Manoj mean and unfair? Sure.
Was he funny? It is subjective.
Was he correct? Also subjective.
Is the person making the comments a recognized critic of films? No.
Should his opinion/judgement be taken seriously or in jest, just the way he meant it? You tell me.
Did he commit a crime? No.
Did he deserve to be abused and trolled as viciously as he was? Definitely not.
Tanmay Bhat, a comedian from AIB, made a rather insensitive video—again, subjective—of him pretending to be singer Lata Mangeshkar a few years ago. Because Tanmay isn’t big enough to affect Lata Mangeshkar’s legacy in any way, it was slowly forgotten. This is how punching up works. Ideally speaking, it is a victimless act.
Take the case in question for example. If not for the outrage of his fans, Mahesh Babu would never have seen this video, because it is way below his radar. The fans unwittingly made the star seem fragile and insecure. A big star of his stature obviously is not, but the pettiness of it all makes it seem so. Added to this is the letter from the Telugu Movie Artist Association (MAA) to the Nadigar Sangam, the Tamil actors’ association based in Chennai. Keeping aside the fact that Manoj isn’t an actor, sending a letter to your counterpart in another state asking them to reprimand someone on your behalf reflects very poorly on you and your industry. The letter also seems to suggest that Manoj’s comments can somehow create a rift between the two industries. It is not just irresponsible to subtly threaten an industry with friction for the remarks of an individual—who in no way is affiliated to them—it is unethical as well.
Coming to the outrage itself, for which Manoj has already issued two different statements of apology, some people are suggesting that he made fun of Telugu language. He just used the names of Mahesh’s films to poke fun at him, not at the language. Also, it is an hour-long video of a mock award show where Mahesh Babu is one of the celebrities who gets made fun of, so the selective outrage is never fair. And what happened with Tom Cruise’s Facebook profile is undeniably funny and silly in itself, all Manoj had to do is mention it.
There are such shows all across the world. Even Bollywood has one called Ghanta Awards. It is comedy for the sake of comedy and ideally, no one should be immune to it. The entertainment industry is a highly profitable and visible field of business, because of which the stars often make sizeable amounts of money. And there is nothing wrong in comedians—a relatively newer and smaller community—trying to use that to their advantage, even if they are not funny enough. The only important thing here is Manoj made fun of Mahesh’s acting and it is fair play to do the same to his comedy, but to insult his looks is insensitive and unproductive.
Creative arts of any form—acting, writing, painting, and so on—need the artist to be vulnerable and open with their craft. Mahesh Babu is a universally-adored actor, both by the people within the industry and outside, but he still is susceptible to criticism as is every other artist. So, this cannot be the first time Mahesh Babu has received criticism. There must have been someone who did not like him and as someone who has been in the industry for so long, Mahesh must have developed a thick skin.
So, why is the outrage so vile and vicious that Evam had to cancel Manoj's upcoming show fearing physical retaliation? A comedian loses his ability to make a living because he said something unflattering about a superstar. We all feel protective towards our favourite actor, but before getting defensive think. Do you think Manoj can cause any damage to Mahesh’s career or is it the other way around? So, who is the victim here and who is being defended and against whom?
Views expressed are author’s own