Such comic relief!

Such comic relief!

Mass Appeal

It’s official: yesteryear’s box-office jinx — the genre of comedy — is now making most producers laugh all the way to the bank. Comedy seems to be the safest bet today as since Diwali,  Golmaal 3 has been the biggest grosser, and so far in 2011, the most successful Hindi films have been Yamla Pagla Deewana, Dil Toh Baccha Hai Ji (whose business was compromised by an A certificate) and Tanu Weds Manu. None were masterpieces, but they did make money at the box-office. There’s more. Dabangg, last year’s blockbuster, had loads of humour, and recently, after his quirky thriller Yeh Saali Zindagi met with multiplex success, Sudhir Mishra, the director, stated on record, “I have learnt that whatever the genre, there has to be humour in a film to connect with the audience.”

What a change from the past when even classics like Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, Bewaqoof and Pyar Kiye Jaa did average to good business but were no blockbusters! It is well-known that Mehmood’s Padosan was such a major flop that the comedian had to make a quickie, Sadhu Aur Shaitan, to make good the losses to his distributors, replacing his buddy and protégé R D Burman for once with the fast-rising and more saleable duo, Laxmikant-Pyarelal.

Recalls trade analyst Vinod Mirani, “Sadhu… did average business. It was a hit only in Mumbai and Bangalore. Today, this thoroughly enjoyable entertainer that was far superior to Padosan and the well-made Gemini Productions’ silver jubilee Teen Bahuraniyaan with Prithviraj Kapoor, is forgotten, while Padosan is a cult film! Yet another example is Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, released in 1985, which was a no-show, except in Mumbai.”
But things began to change with romantic comedies by Basu Chaterjee (Chhoti Si Baat, Priyatama, Khatta Meetha) and the laugh-riots by Hrishikesh Mukherjee (Chupke Chupke, Golmaal, Khubsoorat) from the ‘70s. Two Mehmood productions, Bombay To Goa and Do Phool, also did well. Yet there were flops to balance these films out, like the interesting quartet of Shaadi Ke Baad, Ek Nari Ek Brahmchari, Joroo Ka Ghulam (all with big set-ups) and Aaj Ki Taaza Khabar. However, the ‘70s was marked by India’s first adult comedy, B R Chopra’s Pati Patni Aur Woh.

In the ‘80s, if Chashme Buddoor (considered a semi-classic now) was a flop and Gulzar’s hilarious Angoor a modest success, Basu Chaterjee’s drama on three old men lusting after a young woman, Shaukeeen (the three ‘e’s were used for the trio, not due to numerological reasons) was a major hit. Nevertheless, it was in the ‘90s that David Dhawan made comedy mass-friendly with films like Aankhen (one of Hindi cinema’s biggest-ever hits till then), Raja Babu, Coolie No.1 and more. Romantic-comedy, a genre with a few early precedents like Junglee, Professor and Tere Ghar Ke Saamne, began to come into its own with films like Dulhe Raja, Pyaar To Hona Hi Tha and Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya. But the bar-raising turnaround came with Priyadarshan’s Hera Pheri, a remake of the Malayalam black comedy Ramoji Rao Speaking. “But Hera Pheri could not get an all-India acceptance back then, but is a cult classic now,” feels Yadav. “The real upswing for comedies began only with Priyadarshan’s Hungama in 2003,” he adds.

Laughing out loud

Since then, the variety of films being made in this genre has been amazing, and its ascent, mind-boggling. Naughty comedies like Masti, Garam Masala and No Entry (a whopper that wiped off Boney Kapoor’s debts from several flops), the raunchy Kya Kool Hain Hum, the dark Bheja Fry and Malamaal Weekly, the caper Awara Paagal Deewana, Dhamaal, Munna Bhai MBBS, and no-brainers like the Golmaal franchise (each successive one a bigger hit), Welcome, Singh Is Kinng, All The Best and Housefull, and rom-coms like Hum Tum, Mujhse Shaadi Karogi, Maine Pyaar Kyun Kiya, Partner et al ruled the box-office. 3 Idiots, a comedy with social overtones, is now Hindi cinema’s biggest-ever grosser, while Sandwich, a delayed Anees Bazmee film that did not even take off when released, is a hot satellite television favourite and is beamed ad infinitum. Priyadarshan even experimented with a murder mystery treated as a comedy (Bhagam Bhag) and a blend of horror and comedy in Bhool Bhulaiya. Also, India’s first sitcom-turned-film, Khichdi, made money too.
But Vinod Mirani, a trade veteran, strikes a cynical note. “Comedies today are just a series of gags, usually picked up from movies and television shows from the west. We largely lack good, original comic writers,” he says. “What else are Atithi…Tum Kab Jaoge? or Golmaal 3?” he asks. “Bheja Fry was also a scene by scene copy of a French film,” he adds.
Mehra explains, “The age group of 12 to 36 is the biggest section of the audience today and the urban market, more significant. When you spend Rs 1,000 or more on a movie at a multiplex, you want to be de-stressed, not depressed!” Mehra significantly points out another change, “A lot of comedies in the past, especially of Mehmood and I S Johar, were produced by them because these actors wanted to become heroes. That has stopped now.” He also delineates comedy from the masala entertainer.

“David Dhawan never made comedies. He made family entertainers with ingredients like family values, romance, crime and so on, similar to Manmohan Desai’s style of filmmaking. That is different from a Golmaal or All The Best, which are pure comedies.” Dhawan agrees with Mehra, and says, “I always feel that comedy alone is not enough. For instance, Munna Bhai MBBS was more than just a comedy film. It had a strong emotional core.” 

While today’s czar of comedies, Rohit Shetty as well as Priyadarshan, were unavailable for comment, Anees Bazmee’s track record (Pyaar To Hona Hi Tha, No Entry, Sandwich, Welcome, Singh Is Kinng) is impeccable. He has also scripted comedies for Dhawan (Aankhen, Raja Babu, Deewana Mastana) and other filmmakers (Dulhe Raja). He says, “For me, if the script is good, the film has to work! And if the main plot is comic, the movie is definitely a comedy film.”

But Bazmee rues the step-motherly attitude meted out to comedy films and those connected with them. “They condescendingly speak of leaving brains behind to enjoy such films,” he rues. “Such films are like a social and psychotherapeutic service to make people forget their problems for 150 minutes. And mind you, writing, directing and acting in comedies is much more difficult and needs a lot more use of brains than emotional or realistic films!”

Yadav agrees with Bazmee and says, “It’s very sad that comedy is considered low in status and its makers and actors as jokers. A good comedy is the most difficult cinema to make and yet it has never been taken seriously worldwide. Ever heard of a comedy winning an Oscar?” But, as they say, the voice of the people is the voice of God. And right now, comedy films are minting money. And how many movies in the last 12 years have the multiple-watch value of Hera Pheri, Munna Bhai MBBS, No Entry, Bheja Fry or 3 Idiots?