We are a nation notoriously prone to tears. Especially in the dark of the cinema hall. We love a good cry, a nice therapeutic release that does as much for us as our schmaltzy song ’n’ dance routines. On the flip side, the comedy track — usually featuring an over-the-top comedian — is also a staple of the Bollywood formula. Because comedy sells; not as much as teary melodrama, but well enough.
All of this was accepted wisdom in Bollywood till a couple of years ago. Now, one large-hearted bear-hug of a movie — Lage Raho Munnabhai — is rewriting some of the rules. The film has raced to such an exciting start at the box-office, grossing Rs 100 crore in its first two weeks, that it could well overtake the year’s other blockbusters — Krrish, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna and Fanaa.
Laughter the best medicine
Whether it does so or not, comedy has certainly hit the big-time with Lage Raho... Not merely in terms of box-office collections. ‘Gandhigiri’ has, thanks to director Rajkumar Hirani’s intelligent spin on the Mahatma, become a workable principle that has redefined Gandhi for India. With daily stories of its impact on viewers, Lage Raho… has reinforced the power of the medium all over again, shown us that cinema is a tool that can bring about instant — even if short-lived — change in society. And that comedies can be as potent a weapon as movies in the grand dramatic manner such as Rang de Basanti.
Not bad going for Rajkumar Hirani, a director who wears his message lightly and believes, “A film’s primary job is to entertain. If you can add on a message, that is great. But nobody goes to a cinema hall to get a history lesson or to be preached; they go to be entertained.”
This task Lage Raho… executes magnificently. In doing so, it represents the true maturing of Hindi comedy after a decades-long relapse into juvenile antics and crude adult humour. No cultural caricatures, scatological dialogue, grimaces or general buffoonery in this movie, which, like its predecessor, Munnabhai M.B.B.S, gives us comedy with a heart.
Indeed, says Hirani, that is what makes good comedy memorable. “A mere laugh does not stay with you. Only if there is an emotional connect does it really work,” he says. Which is, of course, why films like Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Gol Maal or Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro have the capacity to touch us after all these years. Even the inspired lunacy of a Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi or Padosan has its emotional underpinnings. That is what separates the perennials from mere box-office successes like last year’s No Entry or Masti. And that is why David Dhawan’s Biwi No. 1 will last the course while his Raja Babu has already dropped off must-watch lists.
Recipe for humour
Present Hirani with the cinematic adage that it is more difficult to make people laugh than cry and he retorts, “It is difficult to evoke any emotion. It is not easy to make people cry; so often you see actors sobbing away on screen while the audience is not. It is the same with humour. Making the character burst into guffaws does not ensure laughs in the hall.” What is important, he says, is to “involve the audience, make them believe in your world, in your characters.” Once that is done, he explains, people will laugh or cry in pretty much the same way as you would guffaw at a friend’s cheesy joke or empathise with their smallest problem.
As for the Indian predilection for loud comedy, he refuses to be judgmental. “It is an individual thing,” he points out. “For example, some people can find insults humorous; there is even a book of insults.” For him, it is all about situations. “Put a gangster in a medical college or a millionaire in a slum and it can be funny. You do not need them to make faces or try desperately to make you laugh.”
He makes it sound easy but it is not, of course. David Dhawan and Priyadarshan are among the very few who have been able to sustain a spell of laughs in recent times. However, their movies are a far cry from the gentle humour and humanity of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, the master of the genre. Some see Hirani as Mukherjee’s natural heir, though he protests, “Do not even compare me to such a great figure. He has always been my favourite director; there can be nobody like him.”
Whatever he may say, Hirani offers hope with his unique brand of film-making; what one could call ‘comedy with commitment’. Even if the director insists entertainment comes first, we are going to see more movies with a message from him — his next will be a take on how the Indian education system stifles creativity. Get ready to go back to school.