Serious business of comedy

Serious business of comedy

A few years back, this tall and lanky guy used to shuttle between studios and producers’ offices to hunt for the odd role and make two ends meet. Today, producers queue up in front of his house to have him in their shows — albeit for one episode — to make people laugh and thereby raise TRPs and earnings of the show.
This handsome young guy used to anchor a film show on Zoom. While the show was not doing too badly, it was not anything great to stand out from the rest of the crowd. The anchor decided to move on and carve a niche space for himself in the serious business of comedy. Today he is one of the most expensive comedians in Bollywood. 

He used to work as a waiter in a tea stall and dream of becoming a famous actor one day. Though he managed to get a chance in one of the world tours of Aamir Khan, he was just not being able to crack the code to get into Bollywood. A reality show changed his world and overnight he became one of India’s most wanted standup comedians.

Today Raju Srivastava, Veer Das and Sunil Pal (in the order of incidents mentioned above) are all names to reckon with in the entertainment industry. Their claim to fame? An inherent ability to make people laugh — whether through reality shows, films or stage performances.

In a world where grief and grievance are increasingly taking priority over happiness and laughter, stand-up comedians are understandably becoming one of the most popular entertainers and in-demand people in the Indian entertainment industry today, thereby signalling the return of the great Indian comedy. Not only are these artistes in demand, but they are also laughing all the way to the bank.

And they are not alone. You may have failed to notice the trend, but after a gap of almost a decade or two, comedy and laughter have made a comeback in the Indian entertainment area — be it the big silver screen or the small television screen. The trend has caught up so much that all big ticket producers and actors are rushing to make a film, serial or at least a reality show that will make people laugh.

Sounds unbelievable? Sample this: In the last few years, most of the big hits have been comedies — Munnabhai MBBS, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Bheja Fry, Dhamaal, Golmaal, Quick Gun Murugan and Khosla Ka Ghosla. Even in the small screen, the most popular shows, apart from the singing talent hunt shows have been comedies like ‘Sarabhai v/s Sarabhai’, ‘Great Indian Laughter Challenge’, ‘Comedy Circus’, ‘Baa Bahoo Aur Baby’ and ‘Tarak Mehta Ka Ulta Chashma’.   

In other words, if one goes by viewer preferences and trends, these days the most sure-shot way to make a successful film, perhaps, is to make a comedy, while the best way to succeed in a television show is to produce a stand-up comedy show! Industry insiders, however, feel it is not easy as it sounds and the risks involved are far higher than any other genre.

Suresh Leheri, one of the most popular standup comedians in India today (he skyrocketed his way  to success through comedy shows like ‘Comedy Circus’ and ‘Dekh India Dekh’ where he was the winner) has a very interesting point to make while talking about the emergence of comedy as the in thing, “In the earlier days there was a separate set of comedians who would make you laugh and cry. Be it Johnny Walker, Mehmood, Mukri or Keshto Mukherjee — they were known as comedians across the film industry and that was the only thing they did. However, today the situation has changed a lot lead actors themselves want to do comedy films!”

This, in a way sums up the emerging significance of the great Indian comedy in the film and television world. In the last decade, Salman Khan would want to do a love story or an action flick, but today he wants to do a comedy film above everything else.

Actor-cum-scriptwriter-cum-director Sourabh Shukla, famous for the portrayal of Kallu Mama in Satya, has a valid explanation for this phenomenon. He says, “Comedy is eternal and is a long running theme. People love to laugh even when they are very sad. In the last few years, the kind of comedy being shown in films has changed a lot and it is a welcome change. In fact, Hindi films are slowly moving away from crude to subtle comedy. I feel this has a major role to play in the growing popularity too.”

Shukla feels, this change in status and increased subtlety of comedy films, is one of the reasons for heroes and all other senior actors agreeing to take up comic characters in films today. “Today an actor, who does a comic role, has a larger part to play in the film. His or her only role is not to make viewers laugh. This is a significant change from yesteryears,” says Shukla.

However, Shukla feels the situation is not similar in the television industry. The scripts today still have a long way to go in terms of subtlety and creativity. “In the world of Indian television, with an explosion in the number of channels, the demand far outstrips the supply. As a result, quantity has become more important than quality. The shows that we see on Indian television are slapstick comedy that will hardly make you laugh, without much of subtlety.”   

Agrees Atish Kapadia, partner of Hats Off Production which gave us timeless sitcoms like ‘Sarabhai versus Sarbhai’ and ‘Khichdi’, “I may sound cynical, but none of the shows being telecast today are good comedies. People are only interested in sex comedies and jokes with double meaning. I am not saying that is bad, but there is a way to deal with it also. See Woody Allen to know how a sex comedy should be handled. It has to be classy and cannot be crude.” Kapadia feels that is where most Indian comedy shows goof up. In their lust for winning audiences from all strata of the society they cross the line more often than not.

But Indian television did have its heydays with sitcoms like ‘Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi’, ‘Dekh Bhai Dekh’ and the more recent ‘Sarabhai versus Sarabhai’ ruling the TRP charts. In fact, reruns of the first two (originally made in the 80s and 90s) would undoubtedly become more popular than the other shows being broadcast currently. Their DVDs sell more than any new film or serial, even today.

Pankaj Saraswat, the man behind the success of ‘The Great Indian Laughter Challenge’ explains this phenomenon. “You have to understand the difference between a sitcom and a comedy show. Today most of the shows that you see on television are comedy shows, not sitcoms. In the 80s and 90s, the taste of viewers was completely different which is why sitcoms were successful.”   

He has a point, because in this age of  instant success and coffee, we are only interested in the minute-long joke cracked in a comedy show, but will never have the time to sit through a 30-minute sitcom!   

But, as most actors point out — comedy is serious business and it is not easy to make a comedy film or show. Chances of failure are high and a comedy serial can be a far more risky venture than anything else. Says television actor Ali Asgar, famous for his role of Kamal in the popular ‘Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki’, “It is very easy to make a saas bahu soap, but equally difficult to make a sitcom. Though all producers and directors would like to have a comic relief in their serials or films, making an out and out comedy venture is very difficult and any producer will think many times before investing in it.”   

The other factor that plays a role in successful comedies being limited in number is the niche audience such shows have. And most successful shows are not made for any niche audience — they are generic in nature. Explains Kumar Bhatia,  scriptwriter of the popular reality show ‘Great Indian Comedy Show’, “Usually serials are made keeping in mind the lowest strata of the society. For family dramas, this may not matter, but for comedies it is extremely important. It has a niche audience and that is why you do not see too many good sitcoms on Indian television today.”  
“The comedy shows are largely about sex and vulgar jokes. Even a little girl like Saloni who went on to win ‘Chhote Ustaad’, was made to crack adult jokes in a show. Do you think this is a done thing? I do not think so!” says an agitated Kapadia. “Making such a talented young girl resort to such jokes in my opinion is unpardonable.” But with TRPs soaring, neither the broadcasters nor the producers seem to care about such sensitivities.  

So what does the great Indian comedy show look like today? Is it the tried and tested sardar or the Madrasi joke? Or have we moved on to something better and more subtle? The industry seems to have similar opinions on this matter that things have changed.

“I think times have changed. Today the viewer is not at all interested in such regional jokes. There was a time when people loved such jokes. But I think we have moved on and reached a different level,” says Gaurav Ghera, better known for his portrayal of Nandu in ‘Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin’.   

“I don’t think there is anything like regional comedies. It can be a flavour at most. Not a story for sure. I don’t believe in the concept of making fun of a particular community or region. Even I have been accused of making shows based on Gujarati families. I do it because I know the community well, not because I want to make fun of a particular community!” says Kapadia in agreement with Ghera.   

“Whatever be the reason, I am happy that comedy has come to the foreground after so many years. It had always been in the background and only after the success of some shows has it come to the foreground and people have started experimenting with it,” adds Ghera.   

So what is it that the viewers are going to see in the years to come? Ghera feels the current trend of humour-based reality shows is going to stay for some time. One can’t help but agree with the talented actor who played a key role in the film Dus Vidanyian. As Saraswat says, “It is difficult if not impossible to create a sitcom that will cater to all types of people. With comedy shows, you have the advantage of enjoying the joke for that moment. Who cares abut the long lasting effect today?” Not the average Indian television viewer at least.

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