The Santa Banta strand of humour that lampoons the Sikh community could become a thing of the past if the Supreme Court rules in favour of a petition filed by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. The religious organisation that governs gurudwaras across the country is seeking to prohibit people from cracking jokes about Sikhs as well exploiting the community-based comedy for profit. The Supreme Court has posted a hearing for April on the SGPC’s plea that through such jokes, “A stereotype has been created and Sikhs are being discriminated in society because of a particular language and religion.”
A favourable decision on the petition will affect comedy writers, performers and WhatsApp content creators, but none as directly as the humour website SantaBanta.com and the upcoming movie Santa Banta Pvt Ltd.
“It will open up a can of worms if the Supreme Court bans jokes,” said Jiwandeep Singh Ghai, the founder of Santabanta, an entertainment website that features games, videos, entertainment stories, and a humour section that includes jokes by characters named Santa and Banta. “If it is offensive, it is not a joke and it should be banned,” Ghai added.
“Tomorrow people from the South will object to idli-sambar jokes,” argued Akashdeep Sabir, the director of the upcoming comedy Santa Banta Pvt Ltd, in which characters played by Vir Das and Boman Irani head to Fiji to solve a crime. The movie is scheduled for an April 22 release, but already, it has become the target of protests by Sikh groups. The Special Branch of the Delhi Police has submitted a report to the Police Commissioner of Delhi claiming that the capital might face demonstrations if Sabir’s film is released.
The Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee found the film’s poster objectionable, and its protests ensured that the movie did not get released on March 11 as planned.
“The Supreme Court’s judgement will have no bearing on my film,” Sabir told Scroll.in. “I have a U certificate from the Censor Board, which has not found a single objection. I don’t see why my film should be targeted.”
A more piquant situation confronts Santa Banta Pvt Ltd: the issue of copyright, which has been raised by Ghai. Who should be the rightful owner of the comic characters, who have floated around in popular culture for several years before Ghai named his website after them?
JS Ghai claimed that Sabir was painting a wrong picture of the Sikh community through his film. “He came to me for trademark and copyright to use my website’s logo, but I did not want him to base my original Punjabi characters into Sikh Sardars,” Ghai told Scroll.in. “My website has been running for 16 years and we have never faced any opposition simply because we don’t make fun of any community.”
Ghai too has been fighting a legal battle to ban the film’s release because he said that he owns the patent for the characters, which is being misused by the filmmaker. “I have not seen the film, but from the trailer it is clear that the filmmaker is targeting the Sikh community by showing the characters as two dim-witted men,” Ghai said.
Sabir refuted the allegation, urging people to watch the movie before condemning it. “My film is based on a story of two Punjabi Sardars who get angry when the motherland is in trouble,” he said. “They are the first to rise to protect the nation. Why would they be caricatures to ridicule?”
Like all Indian communities, Sikhs have been portrayed in stereotypical terms in popular culture, usually as burly and valourous characters ever ready to lay down their lives for their country. Bravery is tolerated, but not always humour. Religious groups objected to Akshay Kumar’s character in the 2008 comedy Singh is Kinng, in which he appears as a Sikh with a turban but without the ritual beard.
The pejorative association of Sikhs with dim-wittedness gave rise to the so-called Sardar joke, which is enough of an issue to merit its own Wikipedia page. The stereotype has been neatly inverted by members of the community. Writer Khushwant Singh, a Sikh, wrote acerbic jokes about his people. In Flop Show, the popular 1989 Doordarshan sitcom, writer, producer and actor Jaspal Bhatti played a resourceful Sikh man dealing with the sociocultural issues of the day. The show was praised for its gentle and inoffensive humour, which did not target a specific community but the general inefficiency of the bureaucracy. Would Bhatti have been the subject of a petition today? Here is a ready-made topic for humour that Santa-Banta will definitely find funny.