It may have been a week of slow news in India, but at the other end of the world, in the United States, the Vegas shooting incident on October 1 has been at the centre of news and debates. Normally, news from the US does not hold much interest for me, but over the last decade, as such incidents continue to happen, I have struggled to comprehend how the world’s most developed country can actually put its own citizens at risk because of (the absence of) gun laws which any sane human being will question.
I’m no expert on this topic, but the incident this week was particularly disturbing, purely from a humane perspective. The Indian media glossed over it, and perhaps rightly so, as it has limited relevance for us. We may have other issues related to public safety plaguing us, but this is an area where we are a million times safer.
The part of the coverage that caught my attention was not on the various news channels beaming out of the States. It was the 10-minute monologue from Jimmy Kimmel, with which he opened his Monday episode a day after the shooting, that I found deeply moving. If you haven’t watched it already, you can watch it here.
If you have watched Kimmel’s show, you would know that he’s all humour and wit. While he has a sharp political take on the goings-on, it’s always served in a light packaging, without being didactic, or even emotional.
The Vegas monologue thus came as a pleasant surprise for me. And immediately, it left me wondering if our comics, including those online, would be able to even come close. I don’t mean ‘come close’ here as a matter of matching wits, but as a matter of having the political awareness to truly influence the public opinion on issues of national importance.
There are two reasons why our comics probably can only gape in awe at Kimmel’s moving speech, and never hope to match its towering standard. The first reason is to do with the freedom of the press. Political humour is par for the course in the States. Kimmel himself has spent a good 30% or so of his opening stand-ups over the last year mocking President Trump. That would come to about five hours of content where one comedian is talking about one politician. Add to that several other such TV shows, news channels and the various online shows, and you have hundreds of hours of content out in the US media over the last year, taking digs at the top politicians of the country.
Trump can be very nasty with the media, but the lines are clearly drawn. The media can talk their mind, and that’s going to be cool. India, of course, cannot fathom such freedom of speech. Even a line or two can lead to consequences ranging from social media blocking to troll attacks to potential life threats. And while this feeling may have escalated in the recent past, it has always been there over the years.
In such an atmosphere, how will a comedian even build political viewpoints? Wouldn’t they rather stay away from politics and stay safe? Hence, comedy in India has acquired a default positioning of being apolitical. Which is such a pity, because comedy can probably be more effective in shaping up the political consciousness of the country, than any other art sub-genre.
The second reason is to do with the Indian entertainment industry itself. A monologue of the level of Kimmel’s requires a deep sense of knowledge and command over the subject matter. We don’t have comedians or artists who would invest in that depth. Here, everyone seems to be overworked. If one show does well, you want to sign up a few more, take up film projects, and do whatever else it takes to spread yourself out across domains. It’s a mindset of leveraging the popularity to the fullest at the peak of one’s career. Kimmel’s depth comes up with a sense of commitment to one show, to that one thing he can do, better than most others. Even if that means letting go of other high-paying work.
So, we may have to make do with sterile and apolitical comedy for a few more years, at least. Our comedians may be funny, but they will not play a role in shaping up the nation’s political views. And that’s an opportunity lost.
This post first appeared on MXMIndia on my weekly column.