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Humour and social protest
From rolling out palanquins to renouncing onions, the Great Indian Protest is one of the longest-running unscripted comedy shows.
Three weeks ago, we allowed a vegetable to do the job of Karan Johar. The onion, owing to its multiplex ticket-type price, became a national tear-jerker, insisting, just like his movies, that it was okay for men to cry and women to hyperventilate.
Among the women driven to extremes by this kitchen crisis were the wife of Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and the leader of the TDP women's cell. Armed with placards and vegetable garlands, they marched to the nearest nationalised bank in their respective cities. Here, they urgently filled application forms seeking "a loan to buy onions" even as news channels hungrily lapped up their desperation. In fact, one TDP protestor was seen smiling self-consciously on TV, as she pretended to eat from an empty bowl, perhaps a tad embarrassed at having become part of a hilarious spectacle.
But then, in the national roaming circus called the Great Indian Protest, such embarrassment is a constant risk. In India, where almost every crisis is followed by a rally, an effigy, a donkey or the elitist candle march, most protests are inevitably hilarious despite their well-meaning nature. How else do you explain the fact that today, even after onion prices have become slightly more bearable, two households in Mumbai have renounced the bulb for an indefinite period. Why? To protest against the rise in prices of all foods, of course.
In a peculiar way, this resolve is reminiscent of a man named Hemant Gada from Thane, whom this correspondent had met four years ago. Since 2004, Gada had been growing both his hair and beard in protest against a builder who, he claimed, had not given him the house he had been promised. Thanks to his resolve, Gada, a Jain shopkeeper, soon started resembling the mystic Chandraswami. "I had to recite the Navkar mantra to be allowed entry into the Jain temple, " said Gada, who was mistaken for a Muslim. His father ultimately had to intervene to strike a truce between Gada and the builder. "We paid a sum of Rs 40, 000 to the builder, and got back the flat three years ago, " confirms his younger son. "Now he has cut his hair, " the son adds about the beard that brought little relief, except when it tickled his father's chest.
Though such Indian demonstrations of outrage may be well-intentioned, it is hard to ignore the potential material in there for, say, standup comedy. Sorabh Pant, a professional standup comic, for one, has observed that most protests are initiated "either by political parties or the unemployed. " Pant imagines them "googling things that outrage them" and then, holding placards on the road. His problem, is that instead of protesting against things that are downright terrible, "they fight for unimportant issues like names". Like the mention of the word 'Bombay' in the film My Name is Khan when the unremarkable film itself could have been a valid reason for a protest. Billu Barber (which was renamed Billu after barbers objected to the barb) is his other example.
"And why do they all have to vent their wrath on buses, which are public property?" wonders the comic, who was in Kolkata earlier this year when all roads to the airport were blocked. Mamata Banerjee and her supporters were protesting against the hike in fuel prices. "Isn't it ironic to block the roads if you're protesting against fuel prices?". Pant reached the airport at least half an hour late but thankfully, "the flight too had been delayed, " he says. Interestingly, the airline, which is otherwise punctual, he found, makes an exception for Kolkata - the city of joy also known as michhil nagari (city of rallies).
Sometimes, bullock carts and horses are needed to drive home the point. In July this year, with the Jnaneswari Express accident fresh in the minds of people, the youth wing of the Forward Bloc had taken out a rally with bullock carts and palanquins to make the point that these were "safer" modes of travel than railways. "Find it difficult to purchase a railway ticket ? Little wonder as it ensures Rs 5 lakh and a job" - read the placards, the latter part of the message a jibe on the railways which gives the amount as compensation to families of those who die in railway accidents.
Chandigarh saw comedian-actor Jaspal Bhatti dressed in formals, carrying a briefcase and mounting a horse to protest petrol price. Some protests, however unusual, do bear results. Bhatti recalls the time when a lake called Sukhna in his vicinity was drying up and the administration was paying no attention. "So our Nonsense Club decided to hold a cricket match on the island and sure enough, it woke the authorities up, " says Bhatti. Most of his acts like giving alternative names to every IPL team - 'Royal Money-Changers', 'Kolkata Night Bribers' and 'Chennai Super-Links' - are meant to be purely satire. "We try not to trivialise sensitive issues like female foeticide, " clarifies Bhatti.
The larger interest of the nation - which is an incorrigible preoccupation for some individuals - can make them resort to strange tactics. Bijapur's Ravindra D Nandeppanavar, a post-graduate student, probably wanted to convey that the rubber stamp too is a weighty issue. He recently stood outside the Deputy Commissioner's office, holding a 15-kg stone on his head for five hours for a few days. It was his way of trying to convince people that an amendment to the Constitution in order to bring in a two-party electoral system in the country was necessary.
Then, there are others like Kannada Chalavali Vatal Paksha president Vatal Nagaraj, who believe in bringing relief through things like the 'pees' mission. Two years ago, in a bid to draw attention to the dearth of public toilets, Nagaraj and his group of supporters unzipped in front of the Raj Bhavan. The cops had to step in to stop them from urinating in front of the building. "There is nothing dirty in this and it is not a laughing matter either, " he had reportedly said. Last year, he even challenged the governor, chief minister and chief justice of Karnataka High Court "to find public toilets to relieve themselves between their offices and the Lalbagh area" and tried to urinate in front of their homes. Of course, this yielded no relief for anyone except perhaps his bladder.
With inputs from Swati Sengupta in Kolkata and Faizan Ahmad in Patna.
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