Flashback: Aisi Taisi Democracy, Tape, Krishna Shroff and the Internet

This was first published on Firstpost.

What will it be this week, Indian internet? Should we succumb to delirium because porn star Mia Khalifa is tipped to be a contestant in Bigg Boss 9? Or shall we ogle at Krishna Shroff’s “topless” photos while wagging a finger at her for sexually objectifying herself? Or perhaps we can direct our attention to another pretty, not-so-young thing, Aatish Taseer, who has made tongues wag by declaring himself a better writer than Saadat Hasan Manto?

French philosopher Joseph de Maistre had said, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” With the internet, the relationship is even more direct. We fashion the internet with every little and big thing we put online — every photo, every status update, every article, every video, every post. This is what makes the Internet so versatile, so delicious and so tasteless all at the same time. It’s being moulded and remoulded every day, according to the tastes and fancies of those who make use of it.

This is liberating only as an idea. In practice, the Indian internet is an alarming creation that just isn’t quite as protean as one would hope. The bulk of Indian online content reeks of insecurity, ignorance, aggression and hormones. When it comes to pornography, we’re on top of the pile. Our piracy stripes are pretty decent too. Social media, where an argument need not be either considered or fleshed out, is our preferred swamp. We have some of the finest trolls the Internet has known. If there’s a trend or a situation that requires a kneejerk reaction, we’re all over it in a jiffy.

But where are the smarts? Where are the intelligent conversations? Who has their eye on culture, instead of gossip, ‘trending’ topics and forgettable, broken news? No one. Listicle over analysis; hashtag over perspective (even though neither of these are mutually exclusive, if you think about it).

The point isn’t that we should all aspire to an elevated intellect (though would that really be a bad thing?), but that in India, we’re so intently focused upon junk that we’re in danger of being reduced to Pavlovian responses. Pop culture has its champions (as it should) but celebrating it to the exception of everything else isn’t an encouraging symptom for the Indian internet.

Last week, Mumbai saw two extraordinary live shows, both of which were sold out despite limited publicity. One is Aisi Taisi Democracy, a show of stand-up comedy and music by Varun Grover, Sanjay Rajoura and Rahul Ram. In it, Grover and Rajoura serve up a hilarious and biting critique of modern India. They spare no one. From human resource teams to politicians and parents, everyone gets a tongue lashing. And in Grover’s case, the tongue-lashing comes in a melodious, sophisticated Hindi that delivers abuse with cadence.

While the songs in Aisi Taisi Democracy were strictly forgettable, Grover and Rajoura were incandescent. With smiles that resembled flickering halos, the stand-up comics mused upon why a man would have his name stitched on his clothes, if it’s possible for a lion to leave just one paw print, “Bharatiya sanskriti”, the magazine Grihashobha and old-fashioned juicers. The realities that Grover and Rajoura were talking about are dark and depressing, but the two comics lit up the gloom with their sense of humour. And so for two hours, everyone laughed and laughed, and laughed some more.

Did Aisi Taisi Democracy break the internet? There was nary a crack.

Over the weekend, a show called Tape was held in a bar in Mumbai. Performed by Patchworks Ensemble and presented by Gaysi Family, Tape is about “drag kings”. Women dressed up as men and presented a masculinity that was as much a performance as it was authentically felt. Drag is the act of wearing the clothes and make-up of a different gender from one’s own. It has a long tradition in Indian culture and is traditionally done by men, who adopt feminine persona (particularly in classical dance and traditional theatre). In Tape, drag was seen in a modern context and through the experiences of women and their bodies.

Tape was funny, cleverly choreographed and fabulously performed. Everyone had their moment in the spotlight. Puja Swarup was extraordinary as a wannabe-Shammi Kapoor. From expression to gestures, she seemed like a human Xerox of the yesteryear star. Ratnabali Bhattacharjee belted out a song about her “ding-a-ling” that no one knew but everyone joined in. Mukti Mohan played Harpal, a tiny Sardar with explosive energy and extraordinary dance moves.Tape was scandalous and looked spectacular, despite being enacted in the modest corner of a bar.

But Tape birthed barely a murmur in the world of the Internet.

At both Tape and Aisi Taisi Democracy, the audience was discouraged from recording the event. Tape didn’t even want photographs to be taken during the performance, ostensibly because it would be distracting for the performers. (This is plausible since there really wasn’t much of a gap between the first row of audience members and the ‘stage’.) One can’t help but feel that under this excuse lurks a fear of what will happen if trolls and others of that ilk get to know about these events. Recently, at a screening of the documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, one member of the audience said, “It’s tough to know how much to publicise this stuff. You don’t want the wrong people to find out.”

In Aisi Taisi Democracy, there were repeated jokes about the comics courting arrest with this show. At one point, Grover mischievously advised the audience to laugh with discretion — a reference no doubt to the charges lodged against members of the audience in AIB Knockout.

Yet for all the good humour, there was a sense of leaden certainty that the threat of getting arrested isn’t a joke for anyone who questions convention and the establishment. If the ‘wrong’ people come to Aisi Taisi Democracy or Tape, then these shows could be shut down and those responsible for them could be (at the very least) harassed. These are cultural works that should encourage conversation; make us think about different topics ranging from body image and feminism to democracy.

Yet, if the data is to be believed, we’d much rather yammer on about Shroff’s bare skin and Taseer’s delusions.

There’s something painfully tragic about the fact that the Internet, which could be and often is used for so much good, is also responsible for cultural debate that has about as much nuance as haggling in a fish market. Today, the Internet helped to bring to light what Khabar Lahariya‘s journalists are suffering in the hands of a phone stalker and the Uttar Pradesh police. That’s a win in terms of awareness, but it isn’t a conversation starter. If anything, it shuts too many of us up because it confirms our darkest suspicions about what it means to be a woman in patriarchal India.

Reality has a way of doing that, of making everyone go quiet. Art and culture, on the other hand, keep us loud and on our toes. They’re both close and distant enough to evoke just the right intensity of emotion to rev you up, but not paralyse you. At its best, art makes us question and dream. It angers, inspires and offers us spectacles as opposed to blinkers, provided we can discuss what we see before us. Provided there is something to see. Provided there’s a place where you can hear and be heard.

So what is it that you’d like the internet to be today? A simple placard of protest? A jenga tower of political ambitions? A weapon? A haven? It can be any of these; it could be all of these. We, the ones with the Internet, decide. So click with caution, and create with abandon.

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