It appears people still watch The Big Bang Theory. A comedy series that infantilises nerd-culture, it never worked for me, but fans appear not only to be watching old episodes (streaming in India on Netflix) but doing so very closely indeed. Last week, Twitter user Mithun Vijay Kumar sent a legal notice to Netflix India because an early episode of the American comedy includes an insulting crack about Madhuri Dixit. Thankfully nobody seems intent to take the episode down—at least not just yet—but I looked up the scene to see what had bothered Kumar, a political analyst and longtime Dixit fan.
In the episode ‘The Bad Fish Paradigm’ (season 2, episode 1), the characters Sheldon Cooper and Raj Koothrappali are watching TV. “Isn’t that woman Aishwarya Rai?” asks Cooper, the show’s know-it-all. “Yes,” replies a thrilled Koothrappali. “isn’t she an amazing actress?” “Actually,” Cooper pontificates, “I’d say she’s a poor man’s Madhuri Dixit.” Cooper is immediately incensed: “How dare you? Aishwarya Rai is a goddess! By comparison Madhuri Dixit is a leprous prostitute!” Cooper, surprised by this escalation, apologises to Koothrappali and declares that clearly the Indian character doesn’t know enough about Hindi cinema.
This is a bad joke from a frequently annoying series, meant to illustrate how Cooper, annoyingly, knows too much—however, I found it harder to ignore the fact that neither character actually knows who they are talking about: A song from Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai, featuring Ameesha Patel, is playing on the TV in front of them while they are discussing Aishwarya Rai.
Still, why did a tasteless line from a 15-year-old TV episode immediately anger Kumar—much like Cooper’s first insult infuriated Koothrappali? This instinct has to do with the way Indians place people they love on pedestals. Raise your idols high enough, and pretty much everything can be called blasphemy.
A few years ago, when I heard they were making an Indian edition of the delightful French satire Call My Agent, the first thing I wondered was what they would call the dog. In the French original, the dog—belonging to a matriarch guided by classic cinema—is appropriately named Jean Gabin, after the great actor of the 1930s and 1940s, hero to Jean Renoir and Max Ophuls. Naming a gruff, adorable dog after this unconventional giant of the movies is a delightful homage, and I imagined the Hindi version would use this opportunity to pay tribute to one of our own less-frequently heralded icons.
Yet in Call My Agent Bollywood (Netflix) the dog is named, simply and unmemorably, “Pankaj”. No last name is given, no star of classic cinema is saluted, and the in-joke is killed unceremoniously. This is a shame but as soon as I saw it, I realised that the makers never really had a choice. Had they named the pooch “Dilip Kumar” or “Nargis” or “Bappi-Da”, there would be ridiculously righteous furore.
Now, naming a pet after someone is the highest of compliments, and I consider a friend christening her intensely adorable Japanese Chin dog “Raja” one of the most flattering things of all time. Yet, in India, a dog is somehow considered low, which is why it feels like an insult when Aamir Khan had blogged, many years ago, that “Shahrukh is licking my feet and I am feeding him biscuits”, before going on to explain that his pet was named Shahrukh. I am reminded also of Salman Rushdie’s sprawling Mumbai masterpiece, The Moor’s Last Sigh, a novel that ran into some trouble in India because one of its characters named a dog “Jawaharlal”.
Back to the Madhuri Dixit kerfuffle. I refuse to condemn fictional characters expressing opinions about celebrities. They should have preferences, they should have dislikes, they should be irreverent, and some of these likes and dislikes should be ill-informed and ignorant—just like our own opinions can be. I loved, for instance, how the 2017 comedy series Brockmire featured the leading man fervently disliking the movies of Christopher Nolan. It’s a running gag that only gets better, and I can simultaneously be amused by the joke while not thinking any less of Nolan himself. All it does is make us confront the idea that Nolan—like Madhuri Dixit—is human and that someone might not like them.
That may be the issue, actually. We make the mistake of assuming that our celebrities—like our gods—are fragile enough to have their images dented by a joke, an insult, an opinion. We assume that they can’t take it on their famous chins.
Decades ago, while I was working on the entertainment desk of an online publication, a dear colleague—who now writes novels —suggested dropping all the honorifics from movie interviews. Why, he reasoned, do we need all these jis and saabs and so on, why can’t we clean it up and use last names instead? To me, this sounded like a great idea. The editor applauded the intent but then immediately put things back the way they were, saying that it might make editorial sense, but the minute we publish a Sonu Nigam interview to make it look like he’s referring to Kishore Kumar as, well, Kishore Kumar, all hell would truly break loose.
The “ji” is much easier. A tiny wordlet that holds up the nation’s reverence and hypocrisy. Maybe, like the anti-smoking disclaimers tenaciously pasted on to the corners of Indian film and television screens, we should introduce a reassuring little line ahead of scenes where irreverent things are said about famous people: No jis were harmed in the making of this scene.
Streaming tip of the week:
Canadian comedian Mae Martin has a new great special out on Netflix called SAP—where they hilariously riff on everything from childhood nicknames to transphobia.