Saturday, August 19, 2006


From disaster to laughter
Amita Malik

Amita MalikIT looks as if the media are doomed to disaster for eternity. Hardly has one got over one horror, when another one descends on us. It was natural for the horrific plot — to blow up 10 airliners in flight — to dominate our pages, screens and air waves but for it to enter directly into our lives from faraway London and the Atlantic crossing was not normal.

Because close upon the shattering news from London, our airports also got the red alert. Our screens were dominated by severe checks at airports with reporting time of three hours for international flights. Parents had to taste milk for babies in front of security before taking it into the plane and transparent plastic bags were used for hand luggage, carrying only essentials like passports and tickets.

At the time of writing, train passengers were also being frisked at railway stations and this columnist has been advised by sundry well-wishers not to venture out, except in a medical emergency. Yes, life is now dogged by panic, vastly different from the euphoria of August 15, 1947, when I was in the Capital to share the joy and excitement.

But since life must go on, to use an old cliche, I decided to go to the other extreme and see and hear something of our laughter shows. One channel now claims to have only funny programmes and all luck to Sab TV. Then there is the great laughter show, which I have watched off and on. And here I must confess that there seems to be something seriously wrong about my sense of humour.

The two judges of this show are acknowledged to be the kings of laughter. Navjot Singh Sidhu and Shekhar Suman only have to appear on screen and people start laughing even before they have started speaking. And unfortunately, for my sense of humour, that also seems to be the cue when they act as judges. The contestant has not even opened his mouth, or just uttered one syllable, when Sidhu and Suman double up with laughter.

Having served as judge on many juries, including international film festivals, school and college debating contests and even the Union Public Service Commission, one was told that not even by a flicker must one show any reaction to a candidate or a performance. Yet Sidhu and Suman laugh through even the most feeble and unfunny of performances and leave me foxed.

Perhaps this generous laughter for every performer makes their reactions as mysterious as not laughing at all. But I still fail to get it. So let me at least define what, for me as a habitual TV watcher, constitutes media humour.

For down to earth real earthy humour, in Hindi (and I daresay in Punjabi) I give the highest rating to Jaspal Bhatti. From socialite women with pet dogs to Doordarshan’s bureaucrats, he spares no one and keeps us perpetually amused. But he must act solo or with his equally witty wife. Once he gets into a regular show with other performers and another producer, he is lost.

Who can forget his opening a school for training Bhagat Singhs for acting when three films on Bhagat Singh were released one after the other? For even more subtle humour, I still find near the top Office, Office, which is now in its second phase and on another channel. Once again, it is its earthiness, with nostalgic memories of the late Priya Tendulkar’s similar take-off on frauds in real life, from gas merchants to so-called holy men. The expose of petty bureaucrats in Office Office is of direct interest to us.

But the most important thing is the performer. In the case of Office, Office, it is Pankaj Kapur, one of our understated but most brilliant actors, who makes the programme. Without him, it would simply not be the same. Nor would we accept a substitute for Jaspal Bhatti, because he and his type of humour go together.

Perhaps what I have found out, and this applies to myself as well as many others, is that it is the social satire which Jaspalji and Pankaj Kapur put across which makes their programmes worthwhile and makes us take them seriously. The laughter shows are more for the sake of laughter and for pure entertainment. So let both the forms of humour co-exist and it is for the viewer to make a choice.