Comedy? Jaane bhi do yaaron...

Of late, it’s difficult to find a multiplex showing a comedy, but for the pyromaniacal Golmaals, Kool trouser-droppers and execrable Mastis. Consequently, what can we say about comedy, as it was meant to be? RIP?

Attempt to hawk a script in mainstream — read high-profiteering — cinema, and the first question you’re most likely to be asked, “How light is it? Is it a comedy? No dark, edgy stuff please… unless it has good sex.”

Good or bad sex, it’s pointless, perhaps, to bemoan such market fiats. After all, why should a film financier invest lakhs and crores of rupees in your vanity exercise? Moreover, to be fair, the post-new-millennium corporate filmmaking conglomerates, may not always insist on the ha-ha or peekaboo content. Bring an A-lister star on board and they’ll be wining and dining you at the new, sushi bar in showtown.
Intended rib-ticklers, though, are green-lit quite instantaneously, never mind if they are top-lined by actors on the skids or by those, whom, the trade describes as possessing no “face value.” Indeed, the badshah of bawdy comedies, David Dhawan, on the eve of the release of his Chashme Baddoor, confessed, “I don’t have Salman Khan or Akshay Kumar to guarantee an initial crowd. So I’m nervous.” The apprehensions were misplaced. As it happened, the risible take on Sai Paranjpye’s classic — retreaded without her consent — brought home the bread, butter and pudding.
So do the cheesy-coms, a genre ripped from Hollywood’s Porky’s and American Pie franchises. Brazenly, Ekta Kapoor revelled in quoting the outraged reviews of Kyaa Kool Hain Hum in the publicity campaign for its sequel. This week, the lewdly onomatopoeic Grand Masti, revives a trio of lusty males indulging in jokes of the most sexist, if not the offensive, kind. Immune to criticism, the avowedly “tits-and-arse” capers are actually responsible for the deterioration of audience taste, taking pride in the notion that anything goes as long as there’s “paisa-vasool” entertainment. If the censors have passed it, what’s your problem buddy? Let laugh and laugh all the way to the fixed deposit account.
Comedy can also mean slapstick and gags of the slip-on-the-banana peel variety combined with brain-smashing action. Indeed, by chugging down that route Chennai Express has smashed box-office records. But did anyone care to comment on the way it milked jokes out of the needless incorporation of the character of a dwarf? Presumably, physical deformities can be mocked by heroes reputed for six-abs.
Come to think of it, comedy has never been king in Bollywood, except in sporadic phases. Back in the 1950s-’60s, Johnny Walker and Mehmood reigned and rocked, their distinctive styles on occasion snatching scenes away from right under the noses of the humourless heroes. Johnny Walker graduated to leading man status with Qartoon M A, a jibe at the state of Indian education, and Mehmood made whopee with Bhoot Bungla, Sadhu aur Shaitan and Kunwara Baap. I.S. Johar, who would drip sarcasm against Bollywood clichés, initiated wacky road movies of the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby kind, in the company of Mehmood, setting off mirthquakes in Goa and Hong Kong.
As for Rajendranath (addicted to female lingerie), the deadpan Agha, the undervalued Dhumal, the perpetually inebriated Keshto Mukherjee, and comediennes Tun Tun and Shubha Khote, they would be frequently allocated the privilege of “comedy tracks” unrelated to the plot. Compared to the toilet humour in vogue today, in hindsight even Johnny Lever’s trans-sexual masquerades were endurable.
Inchoately, leading men took over the function of the resident comedian, kicking off with Amitabh Bachchan’s antics particularly under the stewardship of Manmohan Desai (Amar Akbar Anthony, Naseeb) and Prakash Mehra (Namak Halaal). Not an entirely lamentable thing that, since the stuffed shirt heroes began to let their hair down. In addition, throughout the 1970s and into the ’80s, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee confected charming comedies on the middle-class men confronted with problems beyond their understanding, be it linguistics, living conditions or the primeval technique of how to woo the girl and live happily ever after.
Over time, Sridhar’s Pyar Kiye Jaa, Mukherjee’s Chupke Chupke and Golmaal (twisted out of shape by Rohit Shetty), Chatterjee’s Chhoti si Baat, Gulzar’s Angoor, Paranjpye’s Chashme Baddoor, Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Rajkumar Santoshi’s Andaz Apna Apna and Priyadarshan’s Hera Pheri have come to be canonised as Hindi cinema’s imperishable comedies. During the black-and-white era, in Half Ticket and Chalti ka Naam Gaadi, Kishore Kumar went totally zany, and incredibly bizarre in colour with Badhti ka Naam Daadhi, centring around rival scissor-wielding men competing for the title of the “Longest beard in the world”. Hilarious!
A small but solid stock of comedies does light up our archives. However, of late, it’s difficult to find a multiplex showing a comedy, but for the pyromaniacal Golmaals, Kool trouser-droppers and execrable Mastis. Consequently, what can we say about comedy, as it was meant to be? RIP?
And bonafide comics — or those who still seek to make a cushy living out of their instinct for the funny business — have found outlets in either stand-up comedy acts (excessively obsessed with adultery jokes) or on television revues lampooning a spectrum of subjects ranging from Bollywood and cricket celebrities to politicians and godmen caught with their lungis down, complete with canned laughter from an invisible studio audience.
According to the legendary critic James Agee, the four main grades of laugh are the titter, the yowl, the belly laugh and the boffo: “The titter is just a titter. The yowl is a runaway titter. Anyone who has had the pleasure knows all about a belly laugh. The boffo is the laugh that kills,” Agee maintained, adding. “An ideally good gag, perfectly constructed and played, would bring the victim up this ladder by cruelly controlled degrees to the top rung, and would then proceed by a wobble, shake, wave, and brandish the ladder until he groaned for mercy. Then, after the shortest time possible out for recuperation, he would feel the first wicked tickling of the comedian’s whip once more and start up a new ladder.”
Now when did you experience a belly laugh last time? Dumb question that. After all, who’s concerned about such niceties? Titters are sufficient value for money.

The writer is a journalist, film critic and film director

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