Humour, they say, is a difficult genre. You don’t feel like watching comedy all the time. Especially, if you’re going through a breakup, Game of Thrones withdrawal syndrome or simply IBS. But, not everyone thinks so.
A recent Snapchat record of a guy’s breakup went viral on Instagram and Facebook because he commemorated the loss of his girlfriend by how she couldn’t live up to girlfriend ideals; using daily objects like chargers, electric wires, diapers, spices etc. It was actually quite amusing. You can look it up here: Snapchat breakup. Seriously, it gave me life goals! All the time, mum was asking not to take things too seriously, this is what she meant. Tragedy, laugh it off. Crisis, laugh it off. Disease, laugh it off. If people around you don’t amuse you, watch comedy. Comedy is like porn. It might incite emotions only virtually, but it relieves you of stress just like natural human interaction does, and leaves you a better person!
Humour was always another way to see the world. Since the days of court jesters, Shakespeare and Dante, comedy has always been seen as a respite to the myriad troubles of man. India has enjoyed its share of humour too. As it took welcome steps into the contemporary styles of wit and humour, from the Mughal to the post-independence era, the understanding and appreciation of comedy took various flights. Art invariably benefited from it. Local village theatres engaged at least one comic character, mostly in an ostensible manner by use of costume or slapstick humour, which later echoed in Indian cinema too. The comic in old Indian movies, usually a less fortunate character, in looks and physique, charm and/or bank balance varied from being portly – Bhagwan Das, Tuntun etc., to dwarvish – Junior Mehmood, to the over-intoxicated – Johnny Walker, Keshto Mukherjee etc. They would often be the sidekicks of the leading hero or heroine, often supporting them in times of need and otherwise taking life casually. Some of them could even be pitied, and that’s where they excelled in their humour. The trend continued with Deven Varma, Utpal Dutt, Jagdeep, Asrani and Johnny Lever as well.
While overcoming an overdose of formula comedies, Indian cinema realised that comedy can become the complete genre using leading actors and actresses as a package. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s situational comedies covered more ground of course; each of them generating comedy through the interplay of confusion, mismanagement and idiosyncrasies. Bollywood still loves to experiment with the lead actor’s funny side, sometimes successfully – Akshay, Saif, Kareena, Alia, Kangana and Parineeti; sometimes not so successfully – John, Katrina, you know what I mean! But Bollywood is not where all of it ends. Comedy, today has a different status, charm and grasp of business that it had never enjoyed. Enter stand-ups! Comic artists abroad like Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, etc. had fiddled both with Hollywood and the stage. But that scene broke into India only recently. There might have been occasional gigs in remote parts of India, but there was never a sophisticated, live platform for comedy. Most lead actors ignored that chance, possibly for fear of losing their macho or lover-boy image. So here too, we started with hitherto non-famous actors like Raju Srivastav, Sunil Pal, Bharti Singh, Kapil Sharma etc., whose comedy was guffawed at by an adoring Indian audience on prime time television; sometimes, unconsciously encouraging relentless racism and sexism.
But Bollywood is not where all of it ends. Comedy, today has a different status, charm and grasp of business that it had never enjoyed. Enter stand-ups! Comic artists abroad like Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, etc. had fiddled both with Hollywood and the stage. But that scene broke into India quite recently. Barring occasional gigs in remote parts of India, there was never a sophisticated, live platform for Indian standup comedy. Most lead actors ignored that chance, possibly for fear of losing their macho or lover-boy image. So here too, we started with hitherto non-famous actors like Raju Srivastav, Sunil Pal, Bharti Singh, Kapil Sharma etc., whose comedy was guffawed at by an adoring Indian audience on prime time television; sometimes, unconsciously encouraging relentless racism and sexism.
That is when a coterie of artists, from regular Indian middle-class families, sneaked into the public platform. They were the classmates who made you laugh at the canteen when you were in college and made Fridays memorable when you were working. They were the ones who were well-read about the world but may or may not have topped the exams. They were the ones who you’d call up after a breakup, not because they’ve been through one, but because they knew how to laugh through it.
Today, comedy is a thriving business in India. Comedy clubs have started opening in most leading cities of India and the pathos-creating comedian is not the village idiot, but the engineer who opted out of a 9-5 job, the marketing guy who stopped slogging at a corporate house or the media student and apprentice who thought of experimenting out of the box.
Though the access and understanding of such comics have a limited audience, their following is viral, at least on the Internet. They are conceiving everyday stories of people and making web series out of them. They are collaborating with international media giants and making money out of web hits. They are also creating new Android and iOS apps to promote their content. The challenge, now, is not just in doing comedy; but in artfully replying to many social, political and economic issues which they raise by sending out the message without getting arrested. On occasions, though, they do get chided by the authority and even get arrested; but freedom of speech when properly used, can jump over firewalls and hit its audience.
It’s been a long and evolving journey for us as audience and them as artists. But the surprise in this process of discovery is, what everyone watching them from the edge of the seat, is waiting for. It is helping us see comedy not as a filler but a whole show. It is also helping us take ourselves lightly for once. Indian comedy, earlier, was based mostly on stereotyping the Other – women, homosexuals, fat people, dark-skinned people etc. Now, it is jibing the prudes who don’t accept or make fun of them. It conveys that, humour doesn’t just apply to the one who can be trampled upon, but also to those who wear the boots that trample.
The best deal out of this enterprise is that it is helping Indian media content veer to an educated option, where you don’t have to leave your brains in the freezer and watch a warped script turning a sari-clad Bahu into a fly, in order to laugh.
And that’s a huge relief!