Tamil Humour

One of the first times I heard an incest joke on television was in an episode of Friends -- about Monica and Ross. I must have been 18 then and fairly new to sitcoms. I didn't even get many of the 'normal' jokes then. So this one took me aback. I was shocked that they would make such jokes on television. Shock that was accentuated by the fact that I was watching it in my living room in India. But gradually I got to watching more sitcoms, and jokes likes that weren't uncommon. If it wasn't incest it was something else -- something that broke a taboo.

What is a joke? How/why a joke works? The psycho-cerebral mechanisms behind laughter etc., are vast topics themselves. But suffice it to say that humour is often constructed around the boundaries of absurdity and breaking the subconscious censors in our mind -- visual, semantic or otherwise. Humour becomes a socially potent force when it is transgressive and subversive. This is the point where capitalism and media consumption come together.

 Modern capitalism  -- perhaps, capitalism in general -- is predicated on creating 'new' things. New products, new markets, 'new improvements' and so forth. Something that is capable of invading existing structures and colonizing parts of it, if not all. It exploits a weakness (if you can call it that) in most humans: we get bored of the same thing over a period. (Familiarity breeds contempt -- how succinct?)

In my observation, humour in television and movies (American and British) have consistently broken boundaries than other genres. Because, jokes risk being not funny if they played by old rules -- it's an inherent necessity. While, a great percentage of sitcoms still derive humour out of reinforcing established and normative rules, series like South Park and Family Guy have thrived in subversive humour.  They may not be quite political, but their contribution to the public discourse is significant (good or bad). They enable the fluidity of the rules of engagement by slaying holy cows whenever they acquire an imposing stature. This is one of the biggest failures of the Indian visual mediums.

Let's take the Tamil case:  as Thamizhavan argued elsehwere, the Tamil obsession with morality has greatly stifled the subversive potential of humour in television and films. Being preachy has been a feature in a lot of Tamil humour for decades. It's even a benchmark  for assessing the comedic worth of something -- "sirikka veikkanum, sindhikkavum veikanum" (it should make you laugh and think too). Of course, not everyone who says this truly believes in it. It's just one of the many things that mark the hypocrisy that is all too common for the Tamil society (and the subcontinent itself, perhaps). Their refusal to be transgressive has only preserved the rigid cultural mould and with it the hypocrisy as well.

For all the self-aggrandizing opinions about Tamil humour, it's a largely underdeveloped genre in visual mediums. In over 15 years of cable television's existence in Tamil Nadu, there hasn't been one decent sitcom. It took years for something like Lollu Sabha, which barely whips the holy cows of Tamil cinema, to come to the fore. (They had to apologize even for that.) It might be decades before there's a South Park or a Family Guy. But given how far we've 'progressed' in the last five decades, even that is doubtful.

 Even the capitalistic drive to 'expand horizons' doesn't seem to apply in the Tamil case. Tamil television has gotten every bit as imitative as any except the part where it requires some creativity.  That's why hybrid talk shows and reality TV -- hybridized simply by throwing cinema into the mix -- have made a smooth migration while others haven't. Tamil society doesn't even seem to have the desire to consume something different -- better or not. The fact that these television channels exist, and have been making profit just dishing out garbage, is testament to that.

Tamil humour, unlike its western counterparts, exploits something else: the hypocrisy in Tamils' cultural norms and two tongued nature of their language. In doing so it has the unique ability to generate humour -- or what is perceived as humour -- without pushing any boundaries or being subversive.

 These are the moments I find myself in support of people like Larry Flynt. It seems that you need one kind of regressiveness to disrupt and dismantle the other -- at least as long as profit making is involved.

Ambai's Talk in Toronto

Ambai (C S Lakshmi) was here in Toronto for about a week. I met her for the first time in the Tamil Studies Conference (I'll write/talk about it later). Apart from her presentation in the conference she had a couple of other talks later. I was able to attend only one of them -- 'Tiger's Lair and Other Stories: Tamil Language, Culture and Women' -- and I had it recorded. I hope she wouldn't mind my publishing her lecture here. (Event link.)

Having read a lot of her academic work, this lecture didn't have anything particularly new but it was still interesting.


Download mp3

Indian Media

It has been quite a while since I stopped to talk about the English news channels in India. It's simply too vexing, and at times, depressing. I mostly try to avoid reading or watching the stupid things they put out. But sometimes, somethings catch your attention. This is when you wonder if they are even trying to hide their supposedly hidden agendas. Phrases like, "I'm sorry to interrupt you, but we have to take a break at this point, we'll be back soon" have betrayed where their loyalties lie -- to the sponsors and the shareholders, and simply, to profit. Soon they'll be saying, "I'm sure you have something important to say, but we need to sell it midway and make our millions, so hold your thoughts."

Anyway, today I ran into this blogpost written by an NDTV reporter. The post and the comments (which I believe were heavily 'moderated') just lend more credence to the disillusionment one has with the idea of India:
If ever there was a ripe case for a well-planned and executed military operation, here it was in Sri Lanka. President Mahinda Rajapakse and his team went about prosecuting what, by all accounts, was a legitimate war. (emphasis mine)
PS. I watch BBC for about 3 hours everyday. I have for the last 6 years. The only time pressure they have come under is with regard to their scheduled programming.

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