The release of 2009’s first big multiplex hope, The President is Coming, is as good a time as any to ask whether we have enough humour in our lives.
In the film, which released yesterday, six young Indians (a south Bombay brat, a Gujarati investor, a slick American return, a geek, a Hindu right-winger and a divorced Bengali intellectual) compete for the chance to shake hands with George Bush. Just thinking of that motley bunch battling it out in a room makes you smile, doesn’t it? Even with the two- or three-word bald descriptors I used, you already have an idea of the characters you’re going to encounter. After all, you’ve met them often enough.
Comic start: The President... makes you laugh.
Daily life in India provides huge inspiration for comedy. And we’ve always had a vibrant Hasya Kavi Sammelan scene where social commentary is intertwined with humour.
Then why is urban India stuck in a zone where the only place you can spot a group of people go ha! ha! ha! is the laughing club in your neighbourhood park?
We don’t produce enough funny films. Ask anyone what their favourite Hindi comedy is and they will say Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. Ask them to pick another, and it will be Padosan. Pressurize them to focus on the last decade and the answer is, once again, very predictable: Munnabhai MBBS. My personal favourite Chashme Buddoor is, again, a film that was released more than 20 years ago.
We don’t have comedy clubs; you can count the number of funny stand-up comics on one hand; and we actually believe Navjot Singh Siddhu’s television show and director Priyadarshan’s movies are funny. Are we doomed to a lifetime of bad jokes?
“Indians have a wonderfully developed sense of humour but we just refuse to bloody admit it,” says stand-up comic Vir Das. Blame it on peer pressure, but we’re always looking to conform to what everyone else thinks is funny, he says.
Most comedians in India, observes Das, are impersonators or those whose repertoire consists mainly of race/community jokes. That’s probably because observational comedy, or jokes about the everyday laugh-out-loud truths we all experience, is a tough form of comedy to write.
Even more rare than observational comedy is political comedy. Kunaal Roy Kapur, director of The President is Coming and once a stand-up comic, has a simple answer: “We don’t have enough political humour because we are not politically well-informed. As a people we are obsessed with things that are a little more insignifcant.” Maybe that’s why South Africa, one of the world’s most politically literate nations, has a generation of comedians who grew up in the apartheid years and now provide a unique brand of social and political insight.
Kapur believes that post 26 November, if citizens actually start taking an interest in the political system, humour that targets a politically aware audience is bound to follow. The funniest (and one of the most appalling) television images of recent times, according to Kapur, was director Ram Gopal Varma tracking then Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh as he assessed the damage after the terror attacks. “I found it funny that the film industry had a part to play in the CM’s sacking,” he says.
Das says political humour is difficult to write too. In the two-and-a-half years that he helped create the television show News on the Loose, he had to read and research so much, he almost felt like an analyst.
Maybe things will change in the new year. Both Das and Kapur are the stars of another comedy, Delhi Belly, also due to release this year. Clearly, some people are doing their best to make sure we laugh.
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