The things we find funny or laugh at, often tell us more about who we are, then anything else. Watching TV while sitting with the family (parents, siblings et al) is not something I get to do very often. So i decided to make the most of it, and actually pay attention for a few episodes.
North India’s most popular comedy show, ‘Comedy Nights with Kapil’, has given fiction based prime-time television a run for its money in recent times. I have always been amused at how the same audience which laps up the tears and drama of a North Indian joint family household, seems just as drawn to light-hearted comedy. And then I realised: the key tropes lie on the same axis, except that they explore a very different geography.
I shall talk here of only 2 which stood out for me. I feel both have larger implications, which we should be sensitive of. The others, like Yamraj, celebrity guests, or using the audience as the source for laughs, are tropes that are common across a lot of comedic content and not as interesting.
THE MAN IN DRAG
CNwK is a not a boy’s school skit, or Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where all the female roles are played out by men dressed as women. And yet, it is a recurring aspect of the show. Not just via one character, but multiple. It is a daily celebration of the deeply hetero-normative nature of Indian society. Of the utter rigidity that males in India have to suffer when it comes to gender roles, and the utter lack of compunction on the part of the entertainment industry in exploiting it. A sad legacy carried forward from Monty Python and others. It is why Navjot Singh Sidhu, (a turbaned man who houses every possible code of the North Indian man, complete with a successful warrior past, but a genial, wholesome family image) and the audiences of the show continue to find men in drag funny.
The humour is located in the anxiety caused by a man doing drag.
By often showing the cross dresser to be overtly physical and affectionate, Kapil’s show celebrates and endorses visible discomfort and displays of homophobia on national TV. Kapil is merely re-enacting the school courtyard, where the camp boys were mocked and ridiculed, while at the same time taking up disproportionate amounts of the attention of the macho bullys. Kapil is not alone. Many other popular shows, and films use the genuine transvestite, the eunuch and the cross-dresser to create comic situations, or just as worse to define the norm.
THE PYT WIFE
The hindi TV soaps of our era are notorious for depicting vicious, petty women who try to ruin the life of other innocent, but resolute women. They celebrate the stereo-types of how within the narrow, stifling corridors of ‘tradition’ and ‘values’ women play out predictable roles and responses to situations. Much is written and spoken about how regressive many of the themes are despite trying to show the protagonist as above it all, and different. About how, invariably, the protagonist & her allies (both male and female) are painted as pure white – representative of the patriarchal ideals of – undying love, child-like simplicity, complete and utter devotion to husband and family, and born for motherhood. And even if they don’t start there, that is seen as the final destination via a path filled with trial and tribulation. The coming of age of the married Indian woman if you will.
But I find Comedy Nights with Kapil and its tropes even more insidious.
Kapil is never, ever self-depricating, as is often true of the best stand-up comedy routines. He stands almost as the unassailable male, central to the drama that happens around him but always making fun of others. Of the naiveté of his often ‘endearing’ wife, a trope for the way an attractive woman should be: pleasant, pretty, happy to be owned and paraded and not as bright or smart as her husband. Of the situations created by the other characters. Of the social or political issues he may touch upon. Again re-enforcing the codes of male patriarchy in a way that the man sitting and watching the show will feel proud almost by association. Kapil either makes fun of how you lack the necessary ingredients to be a real man, or of women and their bemusing traits in general.
But of course, we will celebrate the show and the man, even making t-shirts which reference his amusing catch-phrases. And so the cycle continues. I am much less surprised that the Supreme Court verdict on Section 377 was what it was. I am convinced the eminent judges of the High Court do not watch enough prime-time Hindi television.