Stand-up comedian Karthik Kumar's show was recently released on Amazon Prime. Within a few days, social media was full of screenshots from the show which suggested that much of the comedy was sexist in nature. The comedian, however, said that the screenshots had been leaked selectively and that the jokes were actually feminist. That intrigued me enough to watch 'Blood Chutney'.
Admittedly, I'm wary of critiquing 'comedy' in general. Given that most 'comedy' is written and performed by men - whether onstage, in theatre or films, a lot of it tends to be misogynistic (among other things). It's also lapped up by people of all genders and anyone critiquing it is labelled as a person who cannot take a joke. It does not help that most people imagine feminists to be women with uncombed hair sucking on sour lemons all day.
But I suppose that a comedian who has claimed that his material is feminist would not carry the same stereotype in his head. One hopes that he may believe I'm writing this piece comfortably lounging on my beanbag after a good breakfast, a pleasant smile on my face.
The joke which has riled up most people is to do with actor Nalini. Karthik Kumar gets into that joke by speaking self-deprecatingly about his brief film career and how he retired from it. He goes on to say that other actors like 'Mike' Mohan and Ramarajan are probably still waiting to be called for a shoot. And then he says that Ramarajan must still have a cow at home and that he doesn't mean his wife Nalini. The comedian was right - the joke isn't complete at this point. The 'punch-line' of the joke is that no Indian woman can be called a cow because India is a country which respects cows.
Karthik seems to believe with all sincerity that this is a pro-woman joke. Here is why it's not: A joke works when the audience and the comedian are on the same page about its premise. If the audience Karthik Kumar was speaking to didn't know who Nalini was and what she looked like, there is no joke. The lines deliberately use body shaming to set up the joke - but does the ending compensate for this? The ending is a jibe at right wing politics; it's also far from being an original thought. It does not take on the body shaming premise of the first part of the joke, it does not deflate it or make the audience think IF they should have found that funny.
There's another about Nayanthara which has led to similar outrage. After hailing her as the real superstar, Karthik goes on to say that since she has acted with 'Little Superstar' (Silambarasan) and 'Big Superstar' (Rajinikanth), she must be able to tell the difference in their sizes - there is a pregnant pause during which the audience is in splits - and he completes the line by saying 'in stature'.
Again, what is the premise of this joke? It is the common belief that women in the film industry sleep around with their co-stars for work. What we're slowly getting around to call as 'sexual harassment at the workplace'. It's true that Karthik does not say the word 'penis' himself but that is what he wants the audience to think, that is where the humour is supposed to come from. And does the ending of that joke challenge any of these notions? It does not serve any purpose other than bullet-proofing the comedian.
Throughout the show, Karthik mentions several women but ALL of them, except Jayalalithaa (who is no longer alive), in the context of their bodies or sex. At one point, he uses the word 'chinna veedu', a highly patriarchal and derogatory word if ever there was one, to describe a woman. There is an extended joke on Sunny Leone which has the comedian concluding that she's truly 'brave' to go naked at her job - but not before he has elaborately spoken about how he and several men in the audience have masturbated to Sunny Leone clips. As an aside, the appropriation of Sunny Leone by men wanting to prove their feminism would make a good topic for a PhD dissertation.
The 'Suchi Leaks' scandal, during which nude photographs and videos allegedly belonging to celebrities were leaked from singer Suchitra's Twitter handle, also figures in the show. Suchitra is married to Karthik and the comedian makes a joke about how he was worried if the handle would leak one of their clips. His worry, he says, was what if it didn't go viral.
As anyone who'd followed the scandal would remember, there was quite a bit of confusion on what exactly happened in those days. Although insinuations were made about male and female celebrities, it was the women concerned who faced the brunt of it. Singer Chinmayi, for instance, was hounded relentlessly on social media by men asking for her "rate". This, despite no video or picture of the singer being released as part of the leaks.
The responsibility for what happened - which led to great mental trauma to the celebrities concerned - has not been taken up by anyone. No arrests have been made in the case. Is it fair to make this experience the premise of a joke? Can it be considered black humour when the comedian protects his interests and lays bare those of others?
It's not that Karthik doesn't try - at one point, he says India would become a truly independent country only when we get a sex clip and we don't forward it to anyone. At another point he talks about how the sighting of a bra is considered to be akin to nuclear leakage from Kalpakkam, even though he objectifies women throughout the show. These 'right' sounding lines here and there come across as disclaimers to the sexism written all over the jokes.
Comedy should punch above, not below. The more privileged a comedian, the more careful they have to be in writing comedy. Otherwise, comedy can slip into derision very easily. If you are an upper caste, upper class, cis-man in India, you are among the most privileged in society. It's important to be cognizant of this. It's important to ask who you are laughing at, who comes out looking bad at the end of your joke. If the answer is someone who is less privileged than you are - be it caste, class, race, gender or sexuality - then your humour is derisive and needs to be called out.
Does this mean a privileged person cannot joke about anything? To be fair, Karthik has made himself the subject of his comedy quite a few times, especially when it comes to his film career. And there's plenty more material available for a privileged person, if only they would look inward more, within themselves and the communities they come from.
A few days ago, a social media user had used Karthik's picture from the show which has the subtitle 'Any TamBrahms in the house?' (in itself, such war-cries are an upper caste privilege) and had written a satirical piece about the blatant assertions of caste identity that pass for humour in the Chennai stand-up comedy scene. Karthik had defended himself by saying he hadn't been casteist in the show.
I watched it and he does ask the question to the audience, receiving several woots of approval. He then tells them not to woot so much because that's what's got them to the state they are in now (he gestures to suggest that they're somehow suppressed) - clearly pandering to the 'Holocaust' complex that is harboured by several Brahmins in Tamil Nadu, a state which has vibrant anti-caste politics. Calling this out, for example, would have made a great subject for edgy humour.
Writing comedy - comedy which is funny, outrageous, and sensitive all at once - is not easy. It takes work but it's work that needs to be done. Because if all you want to do is make your audience laugh, you might as well get down and tickle them.
(Views expressed are author's own)