Using the recent FM episode on pranks which drew a lot of flak from the netizens on social media for its obvious and unashamed ableism and misogyny as a context, Tabish Rafiq Mir explains the nature of pranks, their constitution, and how they act as a means of extraction of capital.
‘Let's do the prank, be very frank’ - this here is the punchline for the prank segment of the FM show which recently drew a lot of flak for executing a prank which was vehemently called out for ableism and misogyny. The plot of this particular episode roughly divulges into a woman (the RJ’s co-host having mysteriously acquired the number of a complete stranger) calling a delivery official and telling him not to ring the doorbell when he comes to drop it off because she is hoping to keep it as ‘a surprise’ for her husband. Sometime during this call, the husband, played by the RJ, enters the scene and is aggressively agitated when he finds out the specifics of the scene. From the beginning of the call, it is evident that the delivery official has a speech disability for which ‘the husband’ mocks and taunts him. The rest of the episode continues on similar lines of ‘humour’ and casual aggressive sexism.
Pranks and surprise videos have been of interest to me for quite some time now. Ever since surprise videos made it to the big hits of social media consumption, my gut and it’s discomfort with the acts made me wonder what it was that I couldn’t put my finger on. Something that intrigues me is the close resemblance between pranks and surprises - televised surprises, to be precise; wherein the entire plot is set for the surprised to be grateful and overwhelmed by the magnanimity of the surprise where the attention is immediately drawn to the one surprising the other - hence making this act of ‘selfless love’ an act of self-indulgence. For a prank to work, there has to be an element of surprise. This element of surprise is meant to gratify the prankster, and since the prank-ee is usually put in an uncomfortable position, or even traumatized, he has visibly nothing to gain from the prank. The outcomes of pranks are usually screams, jumps, alarms, embarrassing falls. Such an outcome serves as the gratification. For an element of surprise to work, a person has to be caught unawares, for which, there has to be assumption of consent.
Unlike run of the mill surprise videos, which also function on a similar assumption of consent, pranks are particularly abhorred by me strictly because of the disproportionality of the gratification. It is up to the reader to decide whether breach of consent is acceptable to them if it means that a pleasant surprise could be around the corner.
Pranks, on the other hand, by their very nature, are assumptive and predatory. The said predation extracts a form of capital from a person without them having knowledge of the extraction of the material or the nature of the material extracted. This extracted material or capital can be monetary, political, social, or even emotional - as is the case with televised surprise videos.
To address the politics of pranks, one must dissect the surface and assess the layers of (required) consent involved in such acts of pranking. In the particular case of the infamous prank by the host of a certain mirchi radio channel; the layers of consent were approximately such:
- the consent to acquire the number of the delivery official with his knowledge
- the consent of the pranked to be involved in the act of pranking,
- the consent for the prank to be recorded visually for public ‘consumption’
- and, the validity/quality of consent and both parties’ understanding of it.
Note that the entire act falls apart when the first of these consent-conditions is met and also when not met. To elucidate further on the said ‘quality’ of consent in the fourth condition, here is an explanation:
Photographs/media don’t mean what they did just a few decades ago. The politics of photography have changed. The new age digitalization and commodification of life as a sum-product of ‘content’ as a consumerist entity is quite possibly alien to the people who did not grow up in the age of social media or, simply, people who did not get a chance to live their lives on social media. People who are unaware of the extents of such a capitalist culture cannot fathom its ability to turn emotion into performance. There is a new currency in the market, which is too strange to the touch. Social media uses it to barter and deal. What I mean by the ‘quality’ of consent is that if a person is told that they are going to be televised for the prank, there has to be awareness imparted about the politics of the media in the present day for the consent to be valid. Taking consent from someone on something they might not entirely understand the politics of, is akin to getting a signature on a blank A4 paper.
For such an assumption of consent, one has to wonder: what does it take for a person to assume the position of assuming consent? A person who is willing to ‘use’ the other for self-interest and self-indulgence? A privilege of a higher-up against the lower-rung? The strong and the weak? There are some pranks, which exist, debatably, in a harmless capacity, but no prank can ever exist without assumption of consent. And as such, no prank can exist without entitlement.
The workings of a prank
In the pranks, one either sees an unsuspecting, non-consenting person who is made a target or a victim of the prank for the sake of social capital, personal gratification, or, one sees a person from whom the 'consent' is said to be taken before the prank is executed. This is where it turns into an interesting oxymoron. Even if/though the consent is given, the video is televised in a way to exhibit surprise, unsolicited filming and strangeness; hence encouraging violation of consent in order to execute a perfect/real prank. The goodness of a televised prank is measured by how real it seems. When most of the pranks are shot, usually with shaking hidden zoom cameras, sounds of the wind, traffic, a call from a stranger, etc., it tends to imitate the atmosphere created by sting operations and documentaries making it seem all the more candid and structural, hence apparently justified as another symptom of the society allowing breach of boundaries by state and structure. And since these generate capital, more people imitate it.
In other words, it is a televization, humorization, and glorification of violation of consent. It is a catch-22 in the understanding of law and consent, raising the chicken-egg question of legality: is this individual consent - the one decided between the prank-er and the prank-ee paramount and worth upholding, if it creates and imitates an atmosphere that fosters the violation of consent, hence sabotaging consent itself?
The chicken-egg deliberation
Do we accept military occupation if a larger occupying population consents to it? If the consent is taken before a prank is shot (only) to make it seem real, do real pranks exist? Or does this laboratory-made prank assume the new age prank-ness? Can these makeshift pranks be used as a substitute for the real deal? And if real pranks don’t exist, what/how do we prank? And, what do we televise? Can we retain the televised pranks and get rid of the real ones? Does that remove entitlement or does that remove pranks? And if we do, are we encouraging freedom of expression or are we encouraging entitlement? Can eggs run after chickens running after eggs?
A symbolism of entitlement is the gaze. The gaze, in simple terms, is how an individual sees a person, a thing, an idea, a people. In modern parlance, within a range of empathy, apathy, patronization, it depicts how an individual perceives the world around him/her. The classist gaze, the sexist gaze, the occupier gaze - the reflections of which are seen in cultural and political appropriation. In addition to the violation of consent, there is the matter of the class gaze. The gaze that traverses a hierarchical ladder, which usually goes from top to bottom, with the privileged classes of the society looking for the expendables to feast on, serving no purpose other than fanning the self-indulgence of the privileged "educated" sections of the society.
Another thing not spoken nearly enough about was that this entire act from the word go was a humourization of the passive and active domestic violence faced by women in their homes.
Maalyun and Misogyny
As mentioned already, even if such things happen with the consent of both parties, the televization of such acts encourages and fosters an environment of assumption and entitlement, in which abusive institutions like misogyny thrive. In this apparently humourous episode, one can see an image of a man snatching a phone from his wife, which is possible because of the muscular patriarchal structures put in place by man, both at domestic and state levels. The entitlement in not just calling the person, a stranger, but also in being able to/willing to acquire a number shared between certain parties, which would have been an impossibility and a gross violation of the privacy of the individual if the pranker weren’t a social media idol and the prank-ee : rich and ‘upper class’. The humourous ‘laments’ of the husband of having to pay for everything in the house without addressing the fact that the double edged sword of misogyny that cuts the man as well, is made by man himself. A man ‘having’ to pay for everything is usually a self-imposed role - a by-product of man’s unwillingness or discomfort with a working wife - an individual. Man demands all authority. Fiscal, muscular, structural, and forces women into irrelevance and then complains about spending. Isn’t there violence in such speech; such gaslighting?
At some point, the RJ asks the delivery boy to leave the gift at his wife’s family home - maalyun - and that he would break his legs if he came to their home instead.
Imagine a home, made of brick and wood. That is one’s mental space - a home, a house, a tangible entity. To take the liberty of entering someone’s mental space without knocking; trespassing it, violating it by causing them duress coupled with ableism, sexism and misogyny - Should we not talk about this? Forcing an employee to listen to your harassment knowing that it is a part of his job and he cannot cancel or cut the call without good reason and how companies want them to bend-over to customers. Should we not talk about this?
To ask to leave the gift at the girl’s maalyun mirrors infantilization of the wife who is kept on the edge of the threat of ‘sending her back’ home and hence be socially and familial-y persecuted, oscillating between two houses owned and inherited by men, oscillating between strange spaces and never finding a home. Should such ‘content’ be allowed or encouraged as paraphernalia of a prank when these are tangible realities of women today and everyday? And since this reality is so contemporarily pervasive, doesn’t this brand of humour normalize the abuse, make the victims uncomfortable and the abusers empowered?
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wande Magazine.