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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Open Letter to Aamir Khan on AIB Roast

You can only be offended if you choose to take offense.
Nikhil Vaish 

Dear Aamir,

We met one time for a business meeting almost two decades ago. I doubt you will remember, but there were a few things about our meeting and the impression you made on me that I never forgot.

The first thing that surprised me is that you asked your manager not to join our meeting. Every Bollywood star we had dealt with had insisted that we communicate with them through their managers. I guess seeing the surprise on our faces you explained that you liked to speak for yourself and manage your own affairs. You believed all your professional decisions were yours to make and added that, being the ultimate decision-maker, you would also be wasting our time by making us go through a manager. Both my creative head and I respected you for this professional courtesy.

The second thing that impressed me greatly was your no bullshit common sense and clear understanding of the fundamentals of marketing. We had come to talk to you about a big national ad campaign that we were developing for a multi-national company.  Other stars we had spoken with cared mostly about negotiating their fees and discussing travel arrangements, asking if family could accompany them at our expense. But you spent all of your time quizzing us about details of the script, insisting you would need final sign-off, and then proceeded to drill us about the media strategy. No actor had ever asked about any of this information, or even seemed to care. I know my creative director was glad he had brought this account man along!

Sufficed to say, while I will not divulge the details of our meeting, your logic was sound and demonstrated an innate understating of building and managing brands. It was also in complete contrast to the immaturity, emotional histrionics and self-absorption we were warned to expect from Bollywood. Yet, this is not what impressed me most about you. It was that everything you said, you did with a wry smile. Almost as if you only half-believed or were half-serious about the all fundas and logic you were sharing with us to weigh your decision. It left me feeling that while you took your art and the business of movies very seriously, you had not succumbed to the superficiality and transient nature of stardom and success – and did not take yourself too seriously. You had a healthy dose of reality, common sense and a clear, rational head on your shoulders. I left there with greater respect for you. You were never preachy, sanctimonious or condescending.

So naturally, I was shocked the other day to read about your comments on the AIB roast, even after you admitted that you had not seen the whole show, just a clip or two. I was not bothered by the fact that you were offended by it, or that you thought it puerile, juvenile and in poor taste. What troubled me greatly was that you equated it to violence. You said, "I felt it was a very violent event. Violence is not only physical; it can be verbal and emotional too. When you insult someone, you perpetuate violence…" (Source: “Aamir Khan, be a Responsible Celebrity”, NDTV). You did say that you were not advocating a witch hunt against those involved, but also went on to say that they should be punished if they broke any laws and you called them irresponsible; adding that celebrities need to be more responsible.

I will not get into the double standard, based on your own defence of Delhi Belly or more recently for PK, as many others have written about this. I want to re-iterate the point about your responsibility, as a celebrity. A blogger named Vidyut also made this point quite passionately. You are a super star and that means you have a super mega pulpit. Based purely on your celebrity, people listen to you with rose-tinted glasses when you speak about any issue, versus ANY other prominent public figure. And people tend to try and rationalise emotional issues in emotional and irrational ways. As Vidyut puts it: “When a large voice like yours tells people that people speaking must be careful, and people who get offended can ask them to stop, a thousand voices like mine get raw throats trying to talk sanity on the issue and explain why it is not okay to shut people up just because you don’t like what they say. “but even Aamir Khan agrees…” (Source: “Open letter to Aamir Khan” by Vidyut).

The Aamir I met might say with a wry smile, something that I know my father would have said, that “the AIB Roast is not my idea of intelligent humour and in my mind the jokes went beyond a sense of decency and decorum that I strive to uphold BUT this is a free country; and Karan, Tanmay, the AIB gang and their audience were all adults. If they can find an audience for this type of puerile and juvenile rubbish (and people are willing to throw away their hard earned money to watch it), then all the power to them; just don’t ever expect me to condone it or be part of it.” 

Now more than ever, India needs the Aamir I met all those years ago. We need him to come down from his perch and talk sense, so that cooler heads can once again prevail in this important and necessary debate.



Thursday, February 5, 2015

In Defense of Being Offensive and the AIB Roast

“A nation's culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.”
Mahatma Gandhi 

I watched the AIB roast of Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh in its entirety and finished literally minutes before it was pulled down from YouTube. I will admit that I laughed out loud, rolled my eyes and even cringed sometimes at the level of crudeness but more importantly I also swelled with pride. Yes, I felt proud to call myself an Indian; even thought I found some parts offensive and in poor taste. Not because AIB broke new ground with this roast (which is a copy of the US format) with crass, sexual, politically incorrect and offensive humour, but because we broke new ground against our own double standards. We lifted the veneer of hypocrisy and the superficial veil of so called Hindu culture that we pretend to defend. I for one have never been prouder of Karan Johar or Bollywood for doing something that was unselfish and helped lift the lid on issues that have long been buried inside every Indian home. Thank you all for your courage.

It is shameful that, due to the personal and physical threats that the participants have received, they have felt compelled to remove the video from YouTube.  Here is the official statement about why they felt the need to pull the video down from the internet. Even though this was an event organised by a group of adults who agreed to insult each other and it was viewed by a group of adults who willingly paid to watch it. Also, if it offends some people’s delicate sensibilities, then they can choose not to watch it. They have that choice, and a right to feel offended and even to be offensive themselves. Much like Ashoke Pandit, a censor board member was offensive with his tweet about Karan Johar; I personally think he is an idiot, but will defend his right to be one – this is democracy and what we need to protect.

I firmly believe that comedy should have no boundaries or restrictions, because it is meant to entertain, lighten our worldly burdens and be nothing more than a laughing matter. The only caveat is that the comedian dishing it out does so equally, and does not target a single race or stereotype. Also, I strongly suspect that there are not too many bitter, malicious, mean-spirited bigots who decide to pursue a career in comedy. Consider the fact that during this roast, all the participants made fun of themselves and each other, occasionally making significant others or family members also part of their jokes. Karan Johar's spending so many years in the closet was made fun off with equal vigor and crassness as Ranveer's being a slut or Tanmay Bhat’s obesity. Tanmay was not offended. Deepika Padukone, who is dating Ranveer Singh, was not offended. Even Karan Johar’s mother, who was sitting in the front row, did not take offence – so why are you? Ever think that maybe you feel offended because these things hit close to home? That we live in a society filled with double standards, one that is clearly sexually repressed and one where most men ascribe to dating the fun, wild women but yet want to marry only a virginal, modest bahu? Who in India has not heard worse language being used on the streets or in parliament?

Let’s spend a minute discussing the other elephant in the room – male, female and cultural stereotypes. Frankly, I cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with me when I say that ALL stereotypes are rooted in some reality and none pure figments of our imagination. So this issue, to my mind, is not so much that someone is making fun at my expense using a stereotype about being gay, male, Sindhi, or north Indian, but whether or not the intent behind it is malicious, or coming from a light-hearted place. Think about it. There is a fundamental difference here, and a hugely important distinction that every person needs to make. It is imperative we all make this distinction in our ever-shrinking global village, if we are to ever make progress and thrive. This is not about all of us hugging and getting along, but about the need to have a thicker skin in a heterogeneous world and being able to judge the context. Sticks and stones, people...

The easiest way to explain the difference in the context is to imagine Dave Chappelle (a very famous American comic) putting on Ku Klux Klan robes and making off-colour black jokes versus an actual Klansman telling the same jokes or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad making fun of Jews. There is a fundamental difference; one clearly comes from a place of genuine hatred, bigotry and anger, while the other is in jest, and therefore should be encouraged and protected since it is not intended to malign or incite hatred. If you cannot laugh at yourself, then you are the one who is not comfortable in your own skin. Most times feeling offended has nothing to do with culture or religion, only your own insecurity.

One final thought. If you are among those offended by comedians and movie stars making fun of themselves (while raising money for charity), and also feel you have been anointed guardians of some mystical, pure and holy Indian culture that you claim to defend - then why are you not outraged by the fact that marital rape is legal in India; that in 2015 we are still willing to treat fellow human beings as untouchable, and that Indian men routinely grope and touch women on every street, bus, and airplane in India?

Let’s start by fixing our own hypocrisy, in our homes and in our lives, before becoming judge and jury for our society.