When comedian Tanmay Bhat posted a satirical video on SnapChat about two Indian icons, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and veteran singer Lata Mangeshkar, Bollywood had a lot of to say.
Bhat, who is one of the founders of All India Bakchod, a group of stand-up comics who courted controversy when they roasted actors Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh last year, got flak and more than a few threats – legal and physical – for his mock face-off between Tendulkar and Mangeshkar.
One of the first Bollywood actors to make his displeasure known was Riteish Deshmukh, who claimed to be “shocked” by Bhat’s jokes.
“Disrespect is not cool ... or funny,” he tweeted. Actors Anupam Kher, Celina Jaitley and Kamaal Khan also spoke out against Bhat’s clip, which included jokes about Mangeshkar’s age and Tendulkar’s talent.
A few days after the incident, Housefull 3 – starring Deshmukh as one of the leads – released in theatres across India on June 3. Within three days of its release, the film had grossed over 100 crore rupees (Dh55 million) in box-office collections worldwide.
A comedy about three men trying to woo a rich businessman with three eligible, skimpily-clad daughters, the movie is a cocktail of racism, sexism, classism and ableism. One of the "jokes" in Housefull 3 is the all-black staff in the rich man's house, and how they are plotting fake rape charges. Another involves testing the reaction of an apparently crippled man (played by Akshay Kumar) by putting ants in his trousers. Not one of Bhat's detractors took offence on behalf of women, people with disabilities or black people.
This, at a time when 54 African countries boycotted India’s Africa Day celebrations following a Congolese national’s murder in Delhi.
It's representative of the deep-rooted stain of hypocrisy in Indian society that Deshmukh has made a career out of caricaturing women. Housefull 3 isn't his first outing in deplorable cinema. His sex comedies such as Masti and Kyaa Kool Hain Hum are among the most successful franchises in Bollywood. Each year, film critics and social commentators cry themselves hoarse over how regressive such films are, but production houses continue to bankroll them due to their commercial viability. Deshmukh and ilk continue to rake in the dough while cocooned in their alternate realities, where freedom of speech and bad comedy is acceptable only so long as it punches down at the marginalised and not up at the privileged.
Moneyed veterans require the industry to close ranks and protect them, but reinforcing harmful stereotypes about groups and communities is fair game. If making offensive, distasteful jokes was a criminal offence, half of Bollywood’s hallowed 100-crore club would routinely be making the rounds of court houses.
It would be unfair to single out Housefull 3 for crimes against comedy, because unbelievably, it isn't even the worst perpetrator. This year alone, Bollywood rolled out Mastizaade and Kyaa Kool Hain Hum 3, both marketed as adult sex comedies. There was very little that was adult or comical about either – they were about men obsessed with sex. In Kyaa Kool... Tusshar Kapoor and Aftab Shivdasani play porn stars. In Mastizaade, Kapoor again and Vir Das play sex addicts. Mastizaade grossed 18.5 crore rupees (Dh10 million) and Kya Kool Hain Hum 3 netted 20 crore rupees (Dh1.1 million) on their opening weekends, despite being slammed by every critic in the country.
Six months into 2016, and Bollywood has already churned out three cringeworthy films that are far worse than Tanmay Bhat’s video. Deshmukh, are you listening?