Humour is offensive, needn’t be inhuman: How Malayali meme pages walk a fine line

Through this delicate year for Kerala, Malayali meme makers continued to keep their finger on the pulse of the people.
Humour is offensive, needn’t be inhuman: How Malayali meme pages walk a fine line
Humour is offensive, needn’t be inhuman: How Malayali meme pages walk a fine line

2018 wasn’t a peaceful year for Kerala. The year saw Kerala grappling with a series of serious, often contentious issues that had the state by the throat: from the protests and violence around the controversial Supreme Court ruling allowing women of all ages to enter Sabarimala temple, to the disastrous August floods and the waves of misogyny that swamped the Women in Cinema Collective over their work and public remarks. The Sabarimala controversy proved particularly contentious, given the sheer number of different players and delicate angles the issue contained (including the particularly sensitive quartet of religion, politics, caste and feminism), and the grave violence it sparked.

And from what we’ve seen of 2019, this year is set to be as eventful as the last, given that it began with two women entering Sabarimala temple and spawned a violent, state-wide hartal as a result, and the death of Chandran Unnithan in Sabarimala-related protests, and the suicide of Venugopalan Nair at a protest venue.

Through these delicate and trying times, several Malayali meme makers and pages managed to keep their finger on the pulse of the people – while also remaining sensitive and progressive.

So how did they manage to maintain decency in these tumultuous, often violent, times, and what did they do to make sure not to add fat to an already raging fire? TNM spoke to the admins of several Malayali meme pages to find out.

With great power comes great responsibility

Because of the popularity of many of these pages and the viral nature of the posts they share, their penetration into the Malayalam virtual world is huge. Pages like International Chalu University (ICU), for example, have 999K followers, Troll Republic has over 27K followers, while Dank Memes Malayalam (DMM) 2.0 has 23K followers. Posts on such pages often go viral and reach tens of thousands of people on various social media platforms in just hours.

Some pages, like ICU and Troll Republic, have been clear in their stance ridiculing those who oppose women’s entry to Sabarimala, posting memes like this one:

A more provocative meme posted by ICU soon after the violence at Sabarimala in late October, showed the actor Innocent as the god Ayyappa, dressing up and spritzing himself with perfume to greet his new women devotees, only to be told, to his visible disappointment, that they had been violently stopped at Nilakkal base camp. 

A quick glance through a meme page’s timeline will probably give you a clear idea of the politics and beliefs of their admins. In these pages, fans and members join a group, where they are free to share all kinds of memes and jokes that they create or come across. The admins of these groups act as curators of their page, riffling through the memes posted on the groups, and approving those that are funny, and aren’t offensive, illegal or against the page’s sense of morality.

This is a responsibility that they take with a great deal of seriousness, admins say.

Most of the admins we interviewed spoke seriously about the power of humour as a social tool. An admin of Troll Republic says that their page has a clear cut ideology of feminism and support for progressive values. On the Sabarimala issue, the page only posted memes that showed their support for women’s entry, and either criticised or poked fun at those who violently opposed it.

The admin told TNM, “The government was ready to support the SC’s verdict in this case, and we supported the government in this. But if the government had not supported the SC verdict, we still would have supported women’s entry to Sabarimala, because we are not a political page, nor do we have an allegiance or link to any political group. We support Constitutional values of freedom.”


Other pages, like ICU, have also tread this line carefully, being public about their support of the ruling LDF government’s decision to stand by the SC verdict, but still being critical of that same government’s decision to state that it wouldn’t grant women “activists” police protection to enter the temple.

Roshan Thomas, one of the founders of International Chalu Union, told TNM, “Memes which mocked the silly politicisation attempts from local leaders to ministers in the state, as well as claims from namesake 'kings', were the highlight if this period. I think those memes helped people understand deliberate attempts to make the issue worse.”

”We have in the past been threatened for publishing content which apparently hurt religious sentiments. In Sabarimala, the issue was more of right to equality. We believe in equal rights irrespective of gender and sexuality and decided to openly support women's right to enter the temple,” he added.

Continuous self examination

Given how clear the ethos of meme pages are from the kind of posts they publish, some groups have seen internal rifts and splits along the way as a result. The admins who run Troll Republic, for example, were once a part of another meme page, Troll Malayalam. A few erstwhile-admins of Troll Malayalam took objection to the kind of misogynistic posts published by that page, and the difference in opinion led to a group of four or five admins from Troll Malayalam leaving the group to form a new page. Troll Republic better expresses their feminist and progressive sensibility, the page’s admins said.

A Troll Republic admin told TNM that given the huge platform that meme pages provide, they found it both dangerous and irresponsible to post memes that don't adopt progressive values.

Getting creative to stay ‘politically correct’

In some situations, the sensitivity of the socio-political issues being discussed actually inspires meme-makers to get creative, which actually adds an additional, elegant and sometimes inadvertent layer of humour to the memes that they post. ICU’s admin told us that they sometimes make edits to memes to remove any direct references to certain people or groups. “We often try not to name people or political parties directly. We instead post memes around the issue without naming them, but it’s clear who we are talking about.”

So while the intention of meme makers in posting indirect jokes may be to immunise themselves from criticism, controversy or a lawsuit, this practice actually makes jokes much more nuanced and creative, adding a layer of sophistication and finesse to the crafting of the joke itself.

The practice of making indirect jokes for fear of reprisal is adopted by citizens in many countries with heavy restrictions on freedom of speech, like China, North Korea and Egypt, where political circumstances force jokes to be made in oblique ways, automatically making them more complex. But while such jokes may sometimes seem random or silly, there is no mistaking the power of this kind of insidious humour: in 2016, North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un was so incensed by indirect jokes that he banned sarcasm about himself or his government in the country, while in 2014, China banned double-meanings, punning, and word play in radio and television broadcast to crack down on dissent.

Disaster, death are not funny

Even pages that don’t espouse feminist or progressive values directly, make judgement calls on the kinds of posts they share in trying times. An admin of Offensiven’t Malayalam Memes said, “During the floods, we did see many memes about what was going on, and some were even funny, but we chose not to post those because it would have been too inhuman. Maybe we will share them later, when the situation is calm and is no longer a disaster.” A Troll Republic admin also mentioned that during the Kerala floods, their page didn’t post memes at all, but in fact changed gears from jokes entirely to post public service announcements and other posts that helped coordinate relief efforts.

A Dank Memes Malayalam admin mentioned that despite the page posting a variety of memes on the Sabarimala issue, they were careful not to post memes around the death of a Sabarimala Karma Samithi worker, Chandran Unnithan, in order not to stoke existing flames.

Willingness to learn from mistakes

At times when they get it wrong, admins say they are also willing to take down published posts that were in bad taste. In October, a racist ‘joke’ by Offensiven’t Malayalam Memes about the Nigerian actor Samuel Robinson, the widely-loved actor in Sudani from Nigeria, for example, was taken down after the actor took grave objection. The admins met with the movie’s producers to resolve the issue, following which they also posted a public apology.

All of the meme page admins we spoke to also mentioned that their inboxes were full of abuse from people whom their jokes and memes had offended, and that they weren’t bothered by it much any more.

DMM’s admin takes a pragmatic view, and says that the posting of the memes, and the discussions and reactions they spark, are part of an ongoing social change.

“We have such a huge social media tool, with about one or one and a half lakh followers. One of our stories gets viewed by 50,000 people within 24 hours. So we don’t give our viewers data according to what they want, we give them the truth. We are not here for entertainment, we know it is a powerful tool, and using apolitical avenues like Instagram and Facebook to educate people about crucial issues is important to us,” he said.

“Using memes is a better way to reach a young target audience. People share it, they laugh, they post comments, and which sparks political debates, and sometimes fights. This is a continuous process of social change, and we will persist,” he added.

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