Comedy is serious business

V. Gangadhar wonders whether Indian films, known for their in-your-face humour, will ever attain the sophistication of Hollywood comedies.

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Indiscreet
Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Indiscreet

Govinda Tun Tun

Comedians like Govinda and Tun Tun (R) are known for slapstick humour

The fat man bends down and his trousers split at the back. Howls of laughter follow. Another fat man slips on a banana peel and falls flat on his back. More laughter. Groups of grown up men, gather inside a kitchen and throw all sorts of pies at one another. Their faces and bodies are covered with piecrust, fillings, and cream. Renewed laughter. The small man with the moustache whacks the big bully on the bottom with a broom and pretends to watch the sky, whistling all the time. He is the picture of innocence. Laughter again.

Is this our concept of comedy? Do people really laugh at such silly things? Go back in time and it is clear that comedy by Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Bustor Keaton and other Hollywood comedians was of the above kind. This era was even called the Golden Age of Comedy and Chaplin was acclaimed a genius.

The age of sophisticated and subtle comedy came much later, but to start with comedy in cinema depended on gross exaggeration. The scene in Indian movies was no different. Quite often, it was a parody of a current situation. The ancient king had to laugh and this was the job of his vidushak. A favourite among the courtiers, he had to keep the royal family in good humour and was allowed a lot of latitude.

The early Hindi films began with this notion. Films based on the epics or which portrayed the ancient rajas and ranis, had a couple of clown to make people laugh. Even serious films like Raja Harischandra had a couple of characters, who, through their exaggerated antics made people laugh.

In Indian cinema, exaggeration was the keynote in comedy. This effect was created by parodying the customs, manners, movements and conversation of a number of people. In the southern states, men walked with their dhoties tucked up. Hindi cinema found this an object of comedy and actors like Mehmood tried to arouse laughter with their dhoties tucked up at dangerously high levels and speaking Hindi with an exaggerated South Indian accent. Words like "Ayyyayo" were used often, so were references to idli, dosa and sambhar. Producers believed that such crude attempts at comedy would evoke laughter. Sometime they did, as in the famous song sequence Ek Chatur nar in film Padosan.

Dickens’s Fat Boy Joe in Pickwick Papers was a genuinely funny character and might have led to the belief that being fat was part of being funny. When fat Hardy was paired with lean Laurel, the effect was indeed comic. In many Hindi films, the fat Tuntun, who began as a playback singer was used to provide comedy. In Mehmood’s Bombay to Goa, a huge fat boy lunged at the restaurant eatables screaming, "pakora pakora". The boy’s father was the pint-size Mukhari. This was supposed to make the people laug.

Along with such crudity, came another form of vulgarity. The Hindi film producers found sex irresistible. There was nothing wrong in this, all over the world sex has been the fountainhead of millions of jokes. The Indian filmmakers, however, use sex in the most obscene manner to create laughter.

Take the case of film dialogue. The Hindi film comedian made all kinds of veiled suggestions to his girlfriend as to what he wanted from her. And she replied in the same manner. The words and the dialogue were packed with double meaning and left no doubt about the intentions of the actors. Since Indian actors seldom kissed or made love on the screen, they had to be satisfied with speaking such crude lines.

Eunuchs and gays, too, have been objects of ridicule and so-called comedy. Even producers like Manmohan Desai had to use a eunuch dance sequence to create laughter. In today’s comedy admen, artists, fashion designers and models are often portrayed as lisping and making a beeline towards members of their own sex. This is supposed to be modern comedy.

Hindi cinema never had wonderful, sophisticated comedies like Indiscreet (Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman) or Roman Holiday (Gregory Peck-Audrey Hepburn). Hindi cinema seems to regard comedy as low form of art and fit for only lower classes. That perhaps explains the crudity of what passesd off as comedy on the screen.