Who’d have thought there’d come a point when Bollywood audiences would laugh along to storylines like these? Yet, Ghanchakkar, Delhi Belly and English Vinglish, and Bollywood’s new crop of funny films have proved that filmmakers and viewers now take comedy seriously.
Our comic film history is shrouded in the silly. The 1930s and ’40s gave us Ghory and Dixit (India’s Laurel and Hardy), we had Mehmood and Johnny Walker in the ’50s and ’60s. Comedy went mainstream with heroes like Kishore Kumar, a legacy carried into the ’70s by Amitabh Bachchan’s killer comic timing in Amar Akbar Anthony and Chupke Chupke. Bachchan’s own sarcastic one-liners as Buddhadeb Gupta in the 2007 rom-com Cheeni Kum best defines how the genre has evolved.
Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh also evolved with this genre, from Rafoo Chakkar (1975) to Do Dooni Chaar (2010)
Who’s laughing Now?
How do you know comedy has changed today? Simple: the comic relief is no longer the relief, it’s blended seamlessly into the plot. We’ve weaned ourselves off the need for a separate actor to ham between the scenes (we’re looking at you, Kader Khan!). Realistic, situational humour is the name of the game for filmmakers like Dibakar Banerjee (Khosla Ka Ghosla!) and Gauri Shinde (English Vinglish), to Habib Faisal (Do Dooni Chaar) and Maneesh Sharma (Band Baaja Baaraat). “I like humour that is natural, not forced,” says Raj Nidimoru, who (along with his writing-directing partner Krishna DK) is contributing handsomely to the comic-scape with genre-busting films like 99, Shor in the City and Go Goa Gone. “Even if it’s a slasher comedy, it should be realistic. You have to buy it.” He strongly believes that Indian audiences’ tastes are changing and they are now more receptive to subtle, layered humour.
Laughing from memory
Ask any film fan to name their favourite comedy and they’ll likely mention the NFDC-produced 1983 satire Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. No film has managed to garner such an enormous following, perhaps because dark comedy is so hard to pull off. Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli [Live], described by UK’s The Guardian as a ‘satirical gem with a juicy vulgar streak’, was critically acclaimed. But Vishal Bharawaj’s esoteric Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola, populated by pink talking buffaloes amongst other oddities, largely missed the mark. In contrast, light quirky comedies go down much easier at the box office. Drama specialist Raj Kumar Gupta (he made Aamir and No One Killed Jessica) pulled off Ghanchakkar with a deadpan, amnesiac Emraan Hashmi in floral pyjamas, and Vidya Balan, as an over-the-top Punjabi housewife who turns into a murder suspect mid-film. The often absurd thriller culminated in a wildly-layered climax, a novelty in Bollywood.
Gupta says he could have given audiences what they expected, eliciting an “Arre, mujhe to pata tha ye hone wala hai” or he could have done something new. He chose the latter. It paid off when he saw people clapping during the blood-splattered climax, at once gory, befuddling and hilarious.
The three friends in Delhi Belly (2011) resort, quite literally, to toilet humour to elicit laughs, but still keep the humour cool. Much like the trio of Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), who mined community cliches but kept it classy
And starring... a comedian!
The past few years have thrown up an exceptional bunch of actors who are as fabulous at drama as they are at comedy. Pitobash Tripathy (Shor in the City), Deepak Dobriyal (Tanu Weds Manu, Omkaara) and Richa Chadda (Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Fukrey) have had us notice them precisely because they did more than deliver their punchlines and leave. Even as boy du jour Ranbir Kapoor moves from naughty simpleton in Barfi! to exaggerated tapori in the upcoming Besharam, powerhouse performers like Irrfan Khan and Manoj Bajpayee are bringing a light-hearted, quirky touch to films like Paan Singh Tomar and Gangs of Wasseypur.
Then there’s the funnyman who does almost nothing else, like the very busy stand-up comedian and actor Vir Das. “The space in Bollywood for a leading comic man – like Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller – is wide open,” he says. “Studios are willing to put money on us.” He should know. Das is currently in the middle of several films, ranging from the ridiculous to path-breaking. There’s Saax Ki Dukaan (a “super sex hero film’), the rom-com Amit Sahani Ki List, Santa & Banta (a big fat Punjabi funny film, as the name suggests) and Golu Pappu, a children’s film in which “Kunal Roy Kapoor and I are trying to redeem ourselves after Delhi Belly”. And unlike his predecessors, none of these roles is an excuse to ham. “Just because Boman and I are doing this Punjabi laugh-out-loud comedy, Santa & Banta, it doesn’t mean we will not layer our performances, never mind if anyone gets it or not.”
Keeping it cool
That beloved genre – the slapstick comedy – is also getting a makeover, thanks to game changers like Akshat Verma, who wrote Delhi Belly, and is currently directing his first film, a dark comic thriller set in Mumbai. With Delhi Belly, Verma did what no David Dhawan or Anees Bazmi film could do – make vulgar, profane toilet humour rolling cool. The trick to successful physical comedy, says Verma, is to know how much to dial it up. “Physical comedy, done with a certain seriousness, works to great effect. There’s a deadpan humour to it; when the performer is not in on the joke himself. That lack of awareness is really funny, instead of someone telling a joke and having to go ‘wink-wink’ to sink it in”
Varma also believes that the one-comic-fits-all theory no longer applies to Indian audiences, and assuming that average moviegoer is an “idiot savant” is a bit unfair. “We have a great sense of humour across the board. You can’t survive in India if you don’t have a sense of humour.” He does, however, admit that urban audiences are more receptive to experimentation within genres because we have better access to what’s making waves internationally and in niche circles. Verma’s personal pick of great comedy ranges from Billy Wilder, Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers and Woody Allen to legendary shows like Fawlty Towers and “now cerebral, now stupidly physical” Monty Python. He is equally in awe of the work of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Sai Paranjpye.
Nidimoru is a huge fan of the twisted humour of Fargo and Pulp Fiction, which he describes as “amazingly brutal but so funny”. At the same time, he cites Ram Gopal Varma’s earlier films as good examples of comedy at unexpected places – in an action flick like Shiva or a thriller like the Sridevi-Venkatesh quirky film Kshanam Kshanam. This year, Nidimoru and DK introduced Bollywood to an unusual beast, a zombie comedy. “We took a risk with Go Goa Gone even when people kept asking us if the audience was ready,” he recalls. “But we had to see a theatre erupt when the zombies attack, to know we had the reaction we were gunning for” he grins. The pair is currently working on Happy Ending, a twisted romcom – another difficult genre to pull off – starring Saif Ali Khan and Ileana D’Cruz. One thing’s for certain, it will have a happy ending like no other.
Where are our funny girls?
As far back as the ’50s, tragedy queen Meena Kumari did a few light-hearted turns in and as Miss Mary with Gemini Ganeshan, and in Azad with Dilip Kumar. Over the decades, heroines from Madhubala and Hema Malini to Madhuri Dixit have been successful with comedy. Rekha and Juhi Chawla were consummate comediennes. But the Hawa Hawaai of them all remains Sridevi, who took Mr India and Chaalbaaz chortling all the way to the bank. It seems like Vidya Balan or Deepika Padukone may inherit the Mirthful Empress crown. But that we have to choose from just two is certainly not funny.
David Dhawan’s Chashme Baddoor (2013), a remake of Sai Paranjpye’s Chashme Buddoor (1981), follows the same plot but completely goes haywire in its execution. An exception to the rule?
My, how we’ve changed!
Then: Govinda, the undisputed comic superstar of the ’90s, getting wolf-whistles for his pelvic thrusts and double entendre.
Now: Saif Ali Khan (who incidentally debuted in the ’90s with forgettable roles and floppy hair) redefining 40-plus leading star cool as a trigger-happy Russian – “I keel ded peepul” – mafioso. Even Shah Rukh Khan takes cool digs at his age and hamming romantic style in Chennai Express.
Then: Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee’s sweet bhadralok sensibilities gave us delightful comedies like Chupke Chupke, Golmaal, Chhoti Si Baat and Khatta Meetha. Sai Paranjpye found humour in everyday India with witty hits like Katha and Chashme Baddoor
Now: Renaissance Bengali babu Dibakar Banerjee gently evokes the struggles and small triumphs of ordinary people like us in Khosla Ka Ghosla, then turns up the kitsch with hits like Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! We’re also looking at what Gauri Shinde has to offer us next, after heart-warmingly funny moments in English Vinglish.
Then: The Johnnys (Walker in the ’50s and Lever in the ’80s) gave leading men competition in terms of screen presence. Of the most respected character artists, Utpal Dutt could evoke laughter with a mere widening of his beady, expressive eyes and a well placed ‘Achcha?’
Now: Could anybody tolerate Sanjay Dutt in the Munnabhai series without Arshad Warsi’s comic genius as a foil? After seeing Boman Irani ham away his prodigious talent in Housefull 2 and the like, we’re waiting to see a filmmaker tap into his hidden pool of deadpan humour again.
Then: Amol Palekar as the adorable middle-class man of the masses, fumbling while wooing his love and faking a twin brother with gentle mirth and pots of giggles.
Now: Emraan Hashmi as the perennially sour aam janta fellow, copulating minus a condom, sticking knives into his nether regions and bumbling through his miseries while we cackle at his expense.
From HT Brunch, September 22
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