Adulterous husbands, two-timing wives, familial bickering and idiosyncratic individuals are the irresistible ingredients for a group of directors who like to dish out 'mature' or 'hot' comedies to theatregoers. And the audience, it appears, is lapping it all up.
Director and playwright Aamir Raza Husain, one of the best known exponents of the genre in Delhi, says intelligent writing, satire and repartee can never go out of vogue, even in times of YouTube laughter channels and stand-up comedy. "I don't think you need vulgarity to induce humour. I like to keep my humour sophisticated. What's essential to create laughter for sure, are clever lines and an ability to act," says the director of such adult-themed laugh riots as The Urge, No Sex Please, We Are British, When Did You Last See Your Trousers? and A Bit On The Side.
For the theatre-going audience of 2014, particularly those who've become accustomed to the brand of humour popular on British and American television, a punch line every few minutes is a prerequisite. Therefore, if spontaneous applause is an indicator, theatre lovers cracked up every few minutes on the saucy lines delivered by the cast of Ashvin Gidwani's Scent of a Man, staged recently at Mumbai's Sophia Bhabha Auditorium. The play, a story of two couples, an advertising executive and his neurotic marriage counsellor wife and a Tupperware saleswoman and her professor husband, is one of the most successful productions in Mumbai's theatre circles.
Method in madness
The script for Scent of a Man has been infused with a lot of wry humour that relationships between couples generally invite, says writer Ivan Rodrigues. Sample this: when Bhavna Pani, the saleswoman, asks the marriage counsellor why she wasn't doing her pottery classes any longer, she replies: "Things were getting on top of me," pointedly looking at Deven Khote, who plays the toddy-loving sociology-spewing Bengali professor with whom she's shared a history and a few romps in the backseat. In another enjoyable repartee, Khote, the eccentric Communist professor, ostensibly worried about the economy and the plight of the small farmer, is at the receiving end of the jargon he unleashes on the world. Ash Chandler, playing a yuppie business executive, asks him to "Flush the toddy down and cut out the middleman!"
Gidwani, credited with making the hot comedy genre commercially viable, says he formulated the plot for the play nine years ago while travelling in America. "We all know that we through go situations that are adulterous in nature, the forbidden fruit. But in India, we didn't have an in-your-face script that brought the subject out rather than camouflaged it. At the time I was travelling in America, the influence of the Internet and American television, particularly in the way people conduct their interpersonal relationships, was just coming to India. For the first time, a generation of people in the 2000s got exposed to dysfunctional relationships and neurotic lives. Nine years later, the acceptability for such subjects has become greater," adds the director, who once worked as a production assistant to Ronnie Screwvala and Hosi Vasunia in the late Eighties.
A scene from Renu Sanjiv Chopra's play
It's the situation, stupid!
Many a hot comedy hinges upon the circumstances the protagonists get entangled in. So, in that sense, adult comedies are nothing else but grown-up sitcoms, says Delhi-based theatre director Renu Chopra of Dramatech. Chopra, the brain behind a recent successful adaptation of Ray Cooney's Run for Your Wife, and one of the few women directors in the adult space, says the laughter often lies in the frequency of the gags. "In Run for Your Wife, for instance, a man is trying to do a balancing act between two wives. Once he meets with an accident, he blurts out the address of the other wife to the police. This leads to a comedy of errors. To adapt it to a Delhi audience, we decided to keep his families at Kalkaji and Malviya Nagar, well-known resettlement colonies that would have a resonance with the viewers," says Chopra.
A tale of two cities
Even as Hosi Vasunia and Adi Marzban, two iconic Mumbai directors, helped popularise the genre in Maximum City - Delhi, too, has had a thriving tradition of adult comedies, recalls Aamir Raza Husain. "If one were to chart a graph of adult comedies in the Capital, the late '60s and the decade that followed saw the advent of risqué Punjabi plays such as Soti Garam Voti Naram and Chadhi Jawani Buddhe Nu, which played at the Sapru House auditorium. It also hosted Hindi-Urdu situational comedies such as Adrak Ke Panje which travelled all over the world," says Husain.
Husain's group Stage-Door, formed in 1974 by Marcus Murch, began with doing literary comedies such as those penned by Oliver Goldsmith, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. "At the end of the 1970s, we evolved into American comedies by writers like Neil Simon. It was only in the 1980s that we got into mature comedies and sitcoms such as No Sex Please, We Are British. But there never was any nudity or any crudity in our plays," says Hussain. "Our entire ethos in Delhi is a little more conservative than Mumbai. So, we never cross a line. We used innuendo and wordplay. Wordplay can either be of the Dada Kondke variety or the Angoor, Sanjeev Kumar kind. Even a 12-year-old can watch our productions with his parents and neither would feel embarrassed," claims Husain.
Dhar says the best thing going for sex comedies in India is the evolution of audience tastes. A lot of subjects which would have been taboo earlier are now becoming acceptable. "Unlike the1980s, people are actually willing to talk about their sex lives. I actually know of fathers giving performance tips to sons. Thank God, Indians are finally beginning to laugh at themselves!"
"A punch line every two minutes. If you give them a break, the audience interest will wane over an 80-minute play."
"Interpersonal relationships. If you do a script involving a battle of the sexes, particularly one where the woman is taking her better half apart, most people can relate to it. It never fails!"
"What you need to create humour is clever lines and an ability to act. Plus wordplay, not of the Dada Kondke kind, but the Sanjeev Kumar kind."
"The time-tested trope is comic timing, you can't really do without it."
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From HT Brunch, July 13
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