It’s not funny! Mocking one’s disability for another’s hilarity

24 Feb,2022

 

 

By Shruti Pushkarna

 

Shruti PushkarnaLaughter, they say, is the best medicine. Humour is also an equaliser of sorts, the jester can ridicule the prince and the pauper alike. Often what can’t be uttered directly, is passed off easily, garbed in satire. We see that a lot these days, in the form of standup comedy, where political powers or specific groups are targeted in jokes. Gaining popularity in both online and offline avatars, standup comedy is increasingly becoming a respectable career choice for many.

 

But what happens when the joke is directed at someone vulnerable or marginalised?

The other day, I came across a video clip in which an Indian comic, Abhishek Upmanyu incites laughter by mentioning physical disability. The joke is not only in bad taste, it makes no sense. I’m sure there is a larger context to his gig, but nothing justifies the sheer insensitivity.

 

 

What is funny to someone, can be extremely hurtful to another. Growing up, I used to wear thick spectacles to school. That’s when we didn’t have the luxury of ordering high index (thin) glasses to meet one’s cosmetic needs. I was mercilessly derided by peers who called me ‘chaukhi’ which loosely translates to ‘four-eyed girl’. Some kids even hid my glasses, and rejoiced seeing me bump into furniture, trying to find my way around.

 

While their laughter filled up the classroom and the corridors, it wasn’t funny for me.

 

Because of intrinsic stereotyping in literature, cinema, television, advertisements et cetera, the business of ‘othering’ is assumed to be acceptable. It comes naturally to people, young kids included.

 

It has been normalised to such an extent, that we use phrases and words without worrying about the implications. Common utterances include, ‘That joke is so lame’, ‘Why are you acting bipolar’, ‘Are you retarded’, ‘Can you dumb it down’ and so on.

 

Another comedian, Neville Shah was slammed online for ridiculing persons with disabilities. Incidentally, this artist features on a popular OTT platform. In this particular clip, Shah mocks disability and reservation for the underprivileged sections of society.

 

 

How can apathy towards a sizeable section of the population result in comic relief?

 

Bollywood also has a history of portraying disabled people as farcical, oafish or villainous. Their physical disability is accompanied with a character distinction that puts them apart from the rest of the cast. Premnath plays the powerful villain, Sir Judas in the film Karz who is speech impaired. Shah Rukh Khan plays young Rahul in the film Darr, chasing Juhi Chawla with an abnormal passion. His unhealthy obsession is attributed to mental instability. Vivek Oberoi plays the villain, Kaal in Krrish 3 who is paralysed neck down.

 

Buffoonery and disability also go hand in hand in Indian cinema. Tushar Kapoor is characterised by speech disability in the famous Golmaal series. The weird noises made by his character have made him all the more endearing to the audience. Three lead actors, Akshay Kumar, Riteish Deshmukh and Abhishek Bachchan pretend to be disabled, in the slapstick comedy Housefull 3. One character plays a wheelchair-bound cripple, another pretends to be blind, and the third dons the garb of a mute man, only to generate some silly laughs.

 

However, mocking disability is not limited to the Indian subcontinent. Several comedians across the world have indulged in thoughtless mirth at the expense of persons with disability.

 

A Canadian comedian, Mike Ward mocked a disabled singer, Jeremy Gabriel who became a celebrity as a young boy. Known as ‘Petit Jeremy’, Gabriel has Treacher Collins Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects facial bone structure. In his case it caused severe deafness. His family filed a human rights complaint, which was challenged and won by Ward on grounds of free speech.

 

In 2018, advocacy groups, individuals and parents of children with Down Syndrome vociferously condemned comedian Tom Segura’s repeated usage of ‘retarded’ in the Netflix special ‘Disgraceful’.

 

In the American sitcom ‘Big Bang Theory’, Stuart Bloom who is the owner of a comic bookstore, struggles with physical as well as mental health issues. He is made the butt of jokes, used for cheap comedy and easy one-liners.

 

In the process of entertaining a majority, comedians and writers indulge in ‘otherising’ a minority and reinforcing prejudices in the societal mindset. Should the media be perpetuating such stereotypes?

 

Shruti Pushkarna is a former journalist who now works as a programmes and media specialist for the inclusion of persons with disabilities. Shruti was part of the founding team of MxMIndia and now writes for MxMIndia every other Thursday. Her views here are personal. She can be reached via Twitter at @shrutipushkarna

 

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