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Seeking funny girls? Look elsewhere

Rarely does it happen when commercial Hindi cinema throws up characters for women that are fleshed out. Comedy which can afford great potential as a genre only suffers worst of fates.

india Updated: Mar 15, 2004 20:26 IST

If commercial Hindi cinema does not have an answer to Hollywood's Goldie Hawn or Bette Midler, it is easy to see why: a Bollywood comedy with a well-defined role for its leading lady is rare occurrence.

Chupke Chupke revolved as much around its two lead actresses - Sharmila and Jaya - as it did around Dharmendra and Amitabh.

Heroines are, in any case, usually condemned to playing decorative parts in the larger design of a Mumbai blockbuster. The stakes of a big-budget Bollywood production are too high for its box office fate to be left on the frail, dainty shoulders of an actress, no matter how talented and popular she is.

In the case of comedies, the situation only gets worse. The men who control Bollywood's output do not perceive comic films as a commercially safe genre. That gives them even less reason to allow women to get a free run of the show when humour is the dominant strain in a film.

In recent years, Hindi film audiences have seen Tabu in Hera Pheri and Rimi Sen in Hungama, but they weren't films that rested on the abilities of the lead actresses. In both films, it was Paresh Rawal who stole the thunder. If he did any sharing, it was with his male co-actors - Akshay Kumar and Sunil Shetty in Hera Pheri and Akshaye Khanna and Aftab Shivdasani in Hungama.

Paradoxically, the gentle, middle-of-the-road romantic comedies of the 1970s and early 1980s were generous with actresses in the matter of doling out chunky roles. Perhaps being low-budget ventures, they could go the extra mile in accommodating heroines in the big picture. Films like Chhotisi Baat, Chupke Chupke, Chashme Buddoor and Khatta Meetha, to name just a few, achieved a far greater balance of the sexes than Hindi cinema of the mainstream variety is known to do.

Paradoxically, the gentle, middle-of-the-road romantic comedies of the 1970s and early 1980s were generous with actresses in the matter of doling out chunky roles.

Unconventional leading ladies like Vidya Sinha and Deepti Naval built their Mumbai movie careers around films of this genre, with the latter forming a successful and lasting screen pair with Farooque Shaikh. It began with the surprise success of Sai Paranjpye's

Chashme Buddoor

(1981), which had Naval playing a woman who kindles the fire of love in the heart of the reticent hero.

The contribution of women to the history of Hindi film comedy has, at best, been sporadic. In 1968, Kishore Kumar, Mehmood and Sunil Dutt teamed up to deliver the rip-roaring comedy, Padosan, but it wasn't an all-male affair. Saira Banu, as an urban beauty who sends the innocent, rustic hero into a tizzy, had a pivotal role to play in the hilarious romantic rigmarole. For the actress, of course, the hugely successful film was destined to remain a one-off, as she chose to go off in pursuit of the more saleable image of a glamour doll.

In 1975, Hrishikesh Mukherjee achieved tremendous success with Chupke Chupke, a comedy that revolved as much around its two lead actresses - Sharmila Tagore and Jaya Bhaduri - as it did around Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan. Both the actresses had sharply etched parts in the comic caper, but neither could really overshadow their male co-stars.

That feat had to wait until Hrishikesh Mukherjee made

Khubsoorat

(1981). The film allowed Rekha to broke away from the romantic mould and play the main role in a breezy comedy about a girl who goes out of her way to rescue the family of her sister's husband from an unrelentingly strict matriarch. The film proved to be a big hit. A similar experiment by Hrishikesh a few years later did not quite gel - same director, same heroine, but very different result. The film was

Jhoothi

(1986).

The failure of that film was enough to send the industry off heroine-dominated comedies for good. Interestingly, two of the finest comic turns on the distaff side have come from supporting actresses -- Bhakti Bharve in Kundan Shah's Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron and Pearl Padamsee in Basu Chatterjee's Khatta Meetha (1978).

Sanjeev Kumar and Mousumee Chatterjee in Angoor.

Neither played a central part, but their sense of comic timing was second to none, not even to the marvelous Naseeruddin Shah in

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron

and the seasoned Ashok Kumar in

Khatta Meetha

. The comic plot of Gulzar's Angoor revolved entirely around the pair of Sanjeev Kumar and Deven Verma, but at no point did the two actresses in the film - Moushumi Chatterjee and Deepti Naval - come across as mere spectators.Director-scriptwriter Gulzar managed to ensure that even Aruna Irani, who had the least important of the female roles in

Angoor

, as the wife of one of the two Deven Vermas, did not go unnoticed. Unfortunately, there aren't many screenplay writers in Mumbai who can etch out female characters with quite the felicity that GulzarGulzar brings to his job. In a comedy, their task can only get that much more difficult.

Laughter may be the best medicine but in this particular form of therapy the Mumbai film industry does not clearly believe in leaving the OT entirely in the charge of women.