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Jestination Unknown: Vir Das, Shruti Seth, Ashwin Mushran, Suresh Menon on Whether We're living in a Culture of Offence?

It’s very easy to say, ‘Now we can no longer say anything without offending somebody,’ but that’s because the joke’s never been on you, says Shruti Seth, who is gearing up for Amazon Prime’s first-of-its-kind comedy travelogue series Jestination Unknown.

Shrishti Negi | News18.com@shrishti_03

Updated:October 18, 2019, 8:00 AM IST
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Jestination Unknown: Vir Das, Shruti Seth, Ashwin Mushran, Suresh Menon on Whether We're living in a Culture of Offence?
Image courtesy: Instagram

In a 2014 essay in Playboy titled The Apology Epidemic, veteran American comedian Gilbert Gottfried pointed out that Charlie Chaplin would have to apologise for doing his most memorable on-screen character of The Little Tramp in today’s age because it would have offended a lot of people.

He wrote, “Imagine if the most brilliant comedians in history were working today. They’d never stop apologising. Charlie Chaplin would have to apologise to all the homeless people he belittled with his Little Tramp character.”

Perhaps it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say what has been dubbed as cultural awakening, has some comedians at the forefront of a frightening battle between— “What I can say and what I can't?”

One wrong joke or tweet, and all hell would break loose.

So, how does one navigate in a world where people can be offended without much provocation?

We sat with the cast members of Amazon Prime’s first-of-its-kind comedy travelogue series Jestination Unknown— Vir Das, Shruti Seth, Ashwin Mushran and Suresh Menon— and asked them about whether or not they succumb to the pressure of not offending anybody.

Das, who has been setting the bar for stand-up and streaming comedy in the country for well over a decade, defended his right to cause offence.

He said, “Comedy is supposed to provoke a reaction and that can be laughter or not laughter. I can’t control what a joke does. I just write a joke. And, offence, is never given, it’s taken. I can’t control on what you have taken.”

Seth said in the age of social media, people are more prone to get exposed to material that is brought to them out of context which often makes things difficult for some comedians. She, however, insisted comics should not target a particular section of audience either.

“We all come from privileged backgrounds and one doesn’t know how a marginalised lot feels because they have always been the moot point of a joke. We know it’s funny as long as the joke isn’t on you. But when you’re making fun of a marginalised community that is already having to work on the back foot; all you’re doing is you’re making that journey for them even more difficult because they’re constantly riddled with people making fun of them or of the fact that they don’t have the same privilege as us. What needs to be done is that comedians need to start upping their game," Seth said.

“It’s very easy to say, ‘Now we can no longer say anything without offending somebody,’ but that’s because the joke’s never been on you. So, you don’t know how that particular section of society has been feeling for all these years since they have been the object of every damn joke. It’s very important for all of us to think back, saying, ‘Okay, I do think that humour should have access to every part of life. Everything should be made fun of which is how you make it equal. So then nobody ends up feeling they are the marginalised lot. It’s easy to point at the fat girl in the room and make her the butt of all jokes; make fun of the pretty girl; make fun of the thin girl; make fun of everybody so then it’s all on an equal footing. And, then bring your damn A-game,” she continued.

Mushran exuberated confidence in his stand when he said comedy is all about intent. He recounted how immediately after the 2012 Nirbhaya gang rape case, Delhi rape jokes ground to a halt.

"Before the Nirbhaya tragedy, Delhi rape jokes used to be common. But all those jokes stopped overnight. I remember I had an argument with someone during a sketch show at the time; somebody had a joke about Delhi boys and rape and I said, ‘Guys, we can’t do this.’ They were much younger than me and they said, ‘Why can’t we do it, we have to do it.’ So I said, ‘This isn’t the time we can do this.’

But when People say, 'You cannot do a rape joke at all,' I disagree with it in a sense that if you do, it’s got to be so good that it forces people to get to its underlying message.”

Mushran believes dark jokes help people rationalise their thoughts about a subject through the prism of humour, and understand that while a joke on the particular subject may be funny, the subject itself never is.

“I believe in dark jokes because they always leave you thinking about what the underlying message was. So, even if you address something as horrific as rape then there’s got to be a message out there. And, it takes art to do that. If you get the context right then there might be some people you’d end up upsetting but if you still have faith in that context I don’t think there’ll be much problem there. I don’t believe in offence for the sake of offence. I can’t stop you from being offended because I can’t keep everybody happy. But I’m not going to go out there to make you offended for the heck of it. I’m going to make sure that my stuff is smart,” Mushran added.

When asked about the online outrage that comedians often face for their material, Seth said, “A lot of things have now become not okay and you don’t know whose toes you are going to be stepping on. But the point is you must stepping on people’s toes because people have to learn how to take everything in their stride because else you will be apologising to everybody.”

To this, Menon added, “It’s a clear sign of very great wifi having in the country. Because people are busy trolling someone or the other all day. I feel if you abuse, you don’t have the right to be on any kind of platform. Social media platforms are supposed to be for debates, not abusing people."

Jestination Unknown is now streaming on Amazon Prime.​

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