“I’m a bit of a mess,” began Tanmay Bhat’s caption on Instagram. What followed were four video clips breaking his digital silence.
Let’s consider mess as a noun. Recently demoted as CEO of the comedy collective AIB, their YouTube channel furnished viewers regularly with content, be it a roguish critique of Demonetisation or a sketch exploring society’s stigma and misunderstanding of depression. The channel is dead and he is, in his words, a mess.
“For most of my adult life I worked at a company that I was trying to build,” said Bhat. His inaction to complaints against Utsav Chakraborty, brought up by female colleagues, presaged the crash of AIB in October last year. Money from sponsors stopped flowing in. Content halted. Members, charged with neglect and implicated in accusations of their own, left. The dream was over. Bhat apologised and withdrew.
“Doctors told me I was diagnosed with clinical depression and maybe I should consider doing something about it.” To question his pain is unfair; to offer him support, as many of his fans and certain fellow comedians have, is compassionate; to remind us of the people who experienced humiliating treatment while working with AIB, which prompted anxiety, depression and shattered self-worth, is brave.
Aditi Mittal, in a series of tweets, spotlighted the behaviour that she, among others, experienced when working with Bhat:
Although there have been predictable responses by Twitter accounts highlighting her incident with Kaneez Surka—involving a non-consensual kiss during an open mic—every experience must be viewed within its larger context as well as the actions taken subsequent to an incident.
Nuance is not to be discouraged, so long as individuals express themselves to inform, not to slander.
Mittal apologised and sought reconciliation on multiple occasions with Surka. Bhat failed to immediately acknowledge the entrenched misogyny that his sketches sought to undermine. Mittal’s intention was not sexual, and her act was a singular instance during a comedy show. Bhat’s alleged comment against Mittal alongside his neglect of Chakraborty’s reprehensible behaviour towards women is evidence of a pernicious culture of sexism. Further, the consequences of processing such mistreatments, without your voice being heard, accusations going unacknowledged, and the shadow of dismissal from a comedy collective at the vanguard of the genre (at the time) following you every single day, is a vital counterpoint to Bhat’s resurfacing.
Some will consider Mittal’s comments untimely and insensitive; others will commend her courage in shaping the narrative with sufficient historical and social texture. Nuance is not to be discouraged, so long as individuals express themselves to inform, not to slander. And here is where our understanding of mess, as a verb, becomes instructive.
While Bhat declares that he is a mess, his past actions have made a mess of lives that did not have the outlet to either express their struggles or even the hope that their concerns would be believed, let alone heard. As Mittal put it, forcefully:
Bhat’s videos and Mittal’s tweets must coexist, as they are, allowing us to simultaneously acknowledge, and even extend support toward, a self-described mess expressing his struggles with depression; however, we must also give space to the dissent of marginalised voices whose lives were made a mess, having borne the brunt of Bhat’s behaviour.
“A lot of you have been asking fair questions, like why won’t you move on, why don’t you rebuild,” said Bhat. While one can’t fault fans for urging Bhat to rebuild, which means more content for their consumption, one does hope that Bhat (and the rest of us) continues to introspect, asking the vital question: how does one move on in a way that both redresses past wrongs and uses one’s platform to support, not quash, the many voices in comedy, a space that you owe an immense debt to.