HYDERABAD: This year’s Oscars is not being spoken about for Jane Campion becoming the third woman filmmaker to win an Oscar nor is it being remembered for an unlikely film, CODA, featuring a predominantly deaf cast, turning out to be the first streaming film to win the top award.
Instead, all the memes, all the commentary and criticism is about what’s being dubbed as slap-gate, the incident concerning Will Smith reacting violently to stand-up comedian Chris Rock’s joke attempt on Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett-Smith. The unconditional apology from Will Smith notwithstanding, social media is rife with opinions on how far a joke can go, on whether Smith’s crude response is worthy of any sympathy.
For those living under a rock, pun unintended, comedian Chris Rock joked, “Jada, I love you. GI Jane 2, can’t wait to see you,” in an obvious dig at Jada’s shaved head that Will Smith didn’t take well to, given Jada’s struggles with the medical condition, alopecia.
“I keep getting messages about how comedians shouldn’t cross the line. The line is constantly being negotiated. To me, the only line one shouldn’t cross is the personal boundary. So, if a person on the road abuses my father, do I have society’s permission to kill that man?” asks actor-standup comic Karthik Kumar.
The actor also questions why only comics are subjected to this debate time and again. “This debate doesn’t seem to occur about filmmakers, artists, musicians, or even politicians. I don’t know if that makes us privileged or idiotic. You see, many of us got introduced to Will Smith through the sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Did we all enjoy the irreverent comedy of the show? If everyone who is upset with the show resorts to slapping, Smith wouldn’t have been able to get the Oscar. The worst part of the whole incident is its hypocrisy of Will. He is an artist himself after all. Can he vouch that he hasn’t cracked such a joke ever?”
On the other hand, Jagan Krishnan believes that sympathy should be extended to both parties. “It is something that happened at the Oscars and I look at this as an isolated incident. Personally, I think one has to extend the same empathy to Smith as well. You will never know what kind of mental space Smith was in to do what he did. I don’t think it would set a bad precedent and I don’t believe this will inspire others to act in the same way towards comics. I think it is a one-off incident.”
Popular stand-up comic Aravind (SA) agreed that all jokes have a line. However, he points out the arbitrary nature of that boundary. “There’s no joke that’s made without a line. Some feel Chris crossed a line with a joke. So, that is where they draw their line. That line is subjective. This only means every joke is up for debate. If the slap hadn’t happened, the joke would have been called out and we could have even debated who is on whose side. If you are offended by a joke, no one is forcing you to laugh at it. I think the only point of debate should be whether or not the glorification of Will’s act in the name of defending his family is valid.”
Sharing his thoughts on the act, Hriday Ranjan says, “In the case of Chris Rock, it was a harmless joke. He compared Jada Pinkett-Smith to Demi Moore, who is a tough army officer in GI Jane. It is ridiculous, especially considering that Smith himself has cracked jokes of this nature, even on people with alopecia back in the day. Moreover, it wasn’t even that offensive in nature."
"Smith represents the same kind of people, who, in India, demand restrictions on stand-up comedy; it’s the same kind of people who condone such acts. Smith isn’t a random person who walked into a show and slapped the comic for angering him; he’s at the Oscars and has been a part of the entertainment industry for over three decades. He also knows that the Oscars are hosted by a comic who roasts people sitting in the front row."
Speaking about the idea of imposing restrictions on the topics addressed by comics, Hriday adds, “In a larger context, I don’t think there should be a cap on what subjects should be discussed and what shouldn’t be. At the end of the day, even if it’s the most offensive, silly, bad joke... it’s just a joke. It doesn’t hurt anyone physically. People telling these jokes are aiming only for laughs; it’s not The Kashmir Files, where the intent is clearly something else.”
Comedian Syed Bashaar says Chris’ joke has been one of the mellowest he’s heard from the Oscars’ stage. “It’s only because Will Smith slapped him that the joke became a big deal. There have been worse roasts and jokes even on cancer,” he says.
Syed points out that the issue has only led to Jada becoming the butt of worse jokes through memes on the Internet. He adds that the real issue lies in people’s hypersensitivity: “A comedian must be allowed to make a harmless joke. People are sadly growing sensitive to the silliest of things in life. Not to forget that Jada had come out in the past and not only embraced her condition, but celebrated it. One can’t be both strong and a snowflake about the same thing.”
Actor and comedian Mayakrishnan stands against violence of any type. “Chris’ joke was insensitive, arrogant, and irresponsible. There are alternatives that are more constructive than violence though. I am glad Will Smith apologised to Chris and I hope Chris does too. Having said that, I like how the violence was called out by the people unanimously.”
(With inputs from Ram Venkat Srikar)