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Laughter is no easy business

Making comedy is a challenge — both for the maker and the actor. Yet why don't our `serious' cinema creators, with their sensitivity and knowledge, try their hand at it, asks ZIYA US SALAM.

This is `serious' cinema, folks... humour and happiness have no room here — Shyam Benegal's "Kalyug".

"PEOPLE CALL comedy as entertainment these days. Who wants to go to a cinema hall to have a reality check? Films are make-believe, a world of fantasy. Churning out comedies may not be easy at times but the bottom-line is that the first-day, first-show should be house full." These words from David Dhawan, the man who has often been at the receiving end of the vitriol of so prim and proper critics, hold more water than the likes of Govind Nihalani, Shyam Benegal, Kalpana Lajmi, Ketan Mehta and others are willing to concede.

David Dhawan may have been criticised in the past for bringing comedy to pedestrian levels — remember the street humour and suggestive songs in "Aankhen", "Raja Babu" and even "Bade Miyan Chhote Miyan"?

But in a world where the box office jingle makes or mars the fortunes of many, his words deserve careful consideration. After all, the man has given a hit every year for 14 years and in a 32-film career — including the latest "Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin" — has notched up more hits than misses.

The so-called art film mandarins could not care less. They are `serious' filmmakers who believe that cinema has to be dark and despondent, grim and gloomy. That comedy is serious business has obviously escaped their attention. Interestingly, all the stars worth their name concede that comedy is the most difficult task in an actor's life — "I have never done comedy before. So I am grateful to David Dhawan for giving me an opportunity," says Sanjay Dutt who has done just that in films like "Haseena Maan Jayegi" and "Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin".

"One does not come across good comic roles often," complains Amisha Patel, now trying her hand at humour in "Yeh Hai Jalwa". "Govinda's timing is excellent. I wish I could do as well," concedes Sushmita Sen, who failed to meet with popular approval in "Kyunki Main Jhuth Nahin Bolta". Even the otherwise so-serious, so-sober Tabu tried her hand at comedy in Padmalaya's lacklustre "Aamdani Atthani Kharcha Rupaiya" late last year.

It matters little. At least to senior pros of parallel cinema who probably believe that a happy, humorous film cannot be a serious film. At least their works say so. Hence when we have the likes of Shyam Benegal making a film we end up with "Hari-Bhari", a nondescript venture seeking to encourage family planning among Muslims. Its first-day, first-show performance in an upmarket hall of Delhi last year would not have delighted Benegal. Or Dhawan for in the hall there were more film critics than average viewers.

Similarly, when Nihalani wielded the baton recently, he came up with "Deham", a possibly arresting film based on Manjula Padmanabhan's work "The Harvest". The futuristic film dealt with the touching subject of organ sale and how the third world may just be reduced to a supplier of human organs to the first world a few decades later. Yet the film was dark, gloomy with little visual or situational relief. In an attempt to stay honest to the script and focus on the subject, the director unwittingly drew his audience to the precipice of despair.

A little earlier the two directors had attempted to cater for a wider audience. While Benegal had come up with "Zubeidaa" which was a showcase of Karisma Kapoor's beauty, Nihalani had attempted to widen his appeal with "Thakshak", a film that just about recovered its money over a three-year period. Both the films, needless to state, failed to evoke even a smile, forget a good, full-throated laughter. Yes, laughter is indeed an alien medicine for the proponents of serious cinema, often called parallel or art cinema.

"Zubeidaa" ... showcasing the beauty of Karisma Kapoor in an attempt to woo a wider audience.

While Benegal and Nihalani have throughout their career come up with films like "Ankur", "Sooraj Ka Saatvan Ghoda", "Drishti" and "Drohkaal", others in the parallel cinema have not fared much better.

For instance, Kalpana Lajmi whose "Daman" — a disorienting saga of marital violence — won the National Award last year — has in the past given us films like "Ek Pal" — a Shabana Azmi-Naseeruddin Shah-Farooque Sheikh starrer about a woman who sleeps with another man - and "Rudaali" - a Rajasthan mourners' tale. Simply out, like her male colleagues, happy faces and the sunny side of life do not seem to appeal to her. Or to Saeed Mirza, Mrinal Sen or Ketan Mehta for that matter. While Mirza courted fame with topical films like "Naseem" and "Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro", Mehta too steered clear of humour in films like "Holi" — memorable for Aamir Khan's initial foray into Bollywood — "Mirch Masala" and "Maya Memsaab".

Others who dabbled in serious cinema always ventured with the notions that you cannot make comedy and still be a serious film-maker! For evidence just watch Ashok Ahuja's `Aadharshila", Sudhir Misra's "Dharaavi" or even Gautam Ghosh's "Paar". "I have always catered for a niche audience. The intensity of my earlier days of "Ardh Satya" and "Aakrosh" remains but the politics, the economy has changed. Not having a commercial release of a film like "Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa" is not a happy feeling but I believe my films are not loss-making ventures even though finances at times may be a problem. However, only three of my sixteen films have failed to break even. As for the commercial cinema, well, the success rate there is not above 10 per cent."

He may have a point there and one is not implying that all or even a majority of the so-called commercial films are a hit with the masses. Or that even the comedy they provide is laudable. But the fact remains that whereas the much-riled directors of commercial cinema have made attempts in the past, however lopsided, to evoke a laugh or two, our parallel cinema veterans with greater sensitivity, better eye for detail and a profound knowledge of the medium, do not even attempt to come up with a comedy.

No, not a full-fledged one, they do not even attempt to inject situational humour. Life for them appears to be a serious business where there is no scope for jokes, jibes or jives.

About the only time we have had a comedy coming from the elite brigade is when Kundan Shah gave us that rib-tickler called "Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron". That, as the old faithful will agree, was many summers ago when the multiplexes were not even conceived and many of the ruling czars and czarinas of commercial cinema were in their diapers. Around the same time, we had "Katha" and "Chashme Budoor".

Since then there has been a drought. No jokes, no humour. Only drab, even testing reality checks. They come differently packaged, originate from different directors, regularly corner glory at sundry award functions, are seen at film festivals but ask the common man on the street if he has heard of "Mammo", "Naseem" or "Drishti" and the answer would be no. Not because he lacks intelligence — if that had been the case any film churned out by Bollywood would have been a hit — or is unable to appreciate comedy but simply because the `serious' filmmakers have never given him an opportunity to smile, to laugh, to sing, to dance. No good cheer, just a grimace, a sigh.

Yet there are filmmakers who think that humour can be laced with a serious subject. They may not be residing in Mumbai, Kolkata or Chennai but still feel that Indians are game for a joke or two. Gurinder Chadha, who had earlier given us "Bhaji On The Beach", has now come up with "Bend It like Beckham", a tale of a young girl of Indian origin who wants a career on the professional soccer circuit while her traditional parents would have her happily married off, to make dal and sambhar for her husband! The film is touted to be the biggest comedy since "Bridget Jones' Diary" and opened well abroad. As has been the case with Mira Nair's "Monsoon Wedding" whose Vijay Raaz with his plausible enactment of a tentwallah has carved out quite a following for himself. His scenes, just to recall, sent even the stiff-upper lip audience to frequent trips down laugh lane.

But these are rare instances. In between all we get from our serious filmmakers are films which are supposed to take away our right to dream, our right to hope. Even our right to smile. Gone are the days of "Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi" or "Angoor". It is the age of "Coolie Number One" or "Aamdani Atthani... " Take that or lump that.

Meanwhile, Govind Nihalani promises: "I love comedy. When I get a good script, I will do one." We shall wait.

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