Standing up for Burma

Zarganar, the Burmese comedian, and Rambo IV.

 

What’s the worst outcome of watching Rambo IV? Sitting through 92 minutes of slightly hackneyed action film? Wrong.

At the weekend, I sat next to a man who had been questioned in court over possession of Rambo IV. Because the film chronicles Sylvester Stallone’s attempts to free Americans from a dictatorial regime in Burma, it was understandably unpopular with the dictatorial regime in Burma. And so the Burmese comedian Zarganar was imprisoned for owning it.

This was one of four stretches he spent in prison, on trumped-up offences ranging from having an email account to criticising the junta’s slow response to the deaths of 140,000 people in Cyclone Nargis. In November 2008, he was sentenced to 59 years in prison, later reduced to a mere 35.

In the flesh, Zarganar exudes a sense of calm. He arrived at the theatre on Sunday, with the rain ankle-deep outside, in sandals and a long robe. He shaves his head but lets the hair from a mole on his chin grow inches long. His English is slow and precise. His timing is impeccable. His real name is Maung Thura, and his stage name means “tweezers”: a Burmese proverb says that “zarganar pulls out fear”.

Puns and bunting

Zarganar is credited with revitalising anyeint, a traditional Burmese form of cabaret – pretty dancing girls interspersed with satire and song. But for many years he was unable to practise his craft: he has been banned from performing comedy repeatedly, the latest occasion being in 2006 for talking to the BBC.

This worried me, because I had been seconded as a last-minute guest to the topical comedy panel show No Pressure To Be Funny, at which he was making a rare appearance on stage (he spoke at the Secret Policeman’s Ball in March about Amnesty and the need for freedom of speech).

As it turned out, almost miraculously, Zarganar’s sense of humour translated to Britain. You wouldn’t expect this: the 51-year-old is known in his home country for his mastery of puns, helped by the Burmese language being tonal and monosyllabic. While Mr Bean’s pratfalls resonate around the globe, verbal humour is a tougher proposition – and yet Zarganar owned the room.

He spoke a little of his time in captivity: of how he collapsed from high blood pressure and was left outside overnight, his jailers not caring if he lived or died. He was released on 12 October 2011, along with 200 others, but many others remain in prison and a state of emergency was declared in the western state of Rakhine on 10 June following sectarian violence.

What was Zarganar’s bravest joke that night? “I think your queen is like your government – old and weak,” he told an audience that had barely finished taking down the jubilee bunting.

He wouldn’t have been allowed to do that material on BBC1 last weekend, I reflected. But then I suppose that once you’ve been given a 59-year jail sentence by a military junta, a sniffy editorial in the Telegraph doesn’t quite hold the same terror.

Zarganar, the Burmese comedian. Photo: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare

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Are celebrities deliberately messing up their award show performances?

How the "accidental" tumble came to dominate awards season.

The first thing I saw about last night’s Brit awards is that during Katy Perry’s performance of her new single “Chained to the Rhythm” a dancer – dressed as a house – fell off the stage.

This housing crisis is the most meme-able and memorable moment of the entire awards ceremony, but not because it’s anything new. The house follows in the (tumbling) footsteps of Madonna, who in 2015 fell over on the Brits’ stage after a dancer stood on her giant, flowing cape.

If it seems strange that some of the world’s biggest and best known artists are prone to hiring clumsy back-up dancers, it should. Since I’m-so-normal-in-my-$4m-Dior-dress Jennifer Lawrence fell over at the Oscars in 2013, there has been a spate of televised celebrity mishaps.

In 2014, normal-oh-so-normal J Law decided to take another Oscars tumble. In 2015, Perry’s back-up dancer at the Super Bowl, Left Shark, shot to meme fame for its clumsy and out-of-time dance moves. This New Year’s, Mariah Carey gave a self-described “mess” of a performance.

So is this just a coincidence? After all, celebrities have always had live performance mishaps, the most famous being Justin Timberlake exposing Janet Jackson’s breast during the 2004 Super Bowl. But in the late Tens, thanks to social media, mishaps have become the fastest and easiest way to get talked about. After all, when’s the last time anyone on Twitter recommended a mainstream celebrity’s performance because it was “so very touching and good”?

The proof is in the numbers. Left Shark’s dance moves helped 2015 to become the most Tweeted about Super Bowl ever, with numbers dropping dramatically in 2016 (where Coldplay had no mishap other than their continued existence). Tweets and statuses are one thing, of course, and money is another. After her 2015 performance, Perry started selling Left Shark merchandise in her official online store. Mishaps are profitable in more ways than one.

Social media has therefore revolutionised the celebrity mishap, but so too have the phones from which we post our updates. The fact more of us take our smartphones to live shows means that the public can catch mishaps that might traditionally have been brushed under the rug (or cape). It was an audience member, after all, that caught Perry’s falling house on camera.

Short of a shark/house whistle blower, however, there is no definitive proof of this new celebrity conspiracy theory. Yet when it is known that marketers deliberately outrage consumers to drum up publicity, we have to wonder what PR teams wouldn’t do? A small tumble, after all, is a small price to pay to reach new heights. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.